Islam has oppressed women more comprehensively than any other force of history. Although Christianity was once the greater oppressor, where women were forbidden to preach and learn, and were subject to their husbands' rule, the restrictions under Islam are much worse and enforced more strictly. There are many barbaric practices associated with Islam that negatively affect women, such as female segregation, female genital mutilation (FGM: which removes the clitoris in order to prevent women wanting to cheat), male ownership and domination of women, restrictions on work and education of women, honour killings and forced marriages. Some of those, such as FGM, are nothing to do with Islam and occur in only some Islamic countries, and predate Islam. Although in its day Islam granted some rights to women that they did not otherwise have, the unfortunate side-effect is that women's rights have been frozen at a partial state in Islamic countries. Almost half of all women in Muslim lands are illiterate. No matter to what extent misogynistic and patriarchal brutality have been cultural rather than Islamic, in Muslim lands women's rights have remained severely restricted because the religion does not promote women's rights apart from a few specifics. Many practices which subjugate women are derived from the Qur'an so that in "most Muslim countries privilege a system that [...] gives priority to the husband in divorce proceedings"1. Even in places like New York City, far removed from Arabic culture, Mosques refuse to let a woman speak an address.
Much of the negative doctrine about women comes from the Qur'an and the canonical hadiths which record Muhammad's sayings. Suras 24:30-31 and 33:59, and hadiths 4092 and 4092 of Abu-Dawud, instruct that women must dress modestly, completely covered, with only hands and face showing. Sura 4:34 states clearly that men have authority over women, and can beat disobedient women. Recorded hadiths confirm that men can beat their women, and that the women who complain about it are reprehensible (Abu-Dawud 2141,2142); rates of wifebeating are very high in Muslim countries, according to Pakistan's own medical institute the rate there is 90%. The hadiths have Muhammad preach that women are inferior intellectually and religiously (Sahih al-Bukhari 6:301, Sahih Muslim 1:142). Sahih al-Bukhari 59:709 states that a nation ruled by a woman will not be successful. Muhammad's most beloved wife Aisha says that men have such rights over women, that if women understood, they would happily wipe the dust from their husband's feet with their faces. Women's testimony is worth less than a man's, and women inherit less. The Qur'an is addressed to males and the text assumes that males are reading it, males are enforcing the rules, and women are subordinate (i.e. Sura 4:15-6). Wives are given permission to do things by their men; never the other way round. Hadiths 3367 and 3368 in Sahih Muslim record that God is only happy with a woman if her husband is happy with her, and, if he calls her to bed for sex, she should comply. The language in the Qur'an is objectifying and talks of women in terms of ownership. Qur'an 2:225 says that "women are fields: go, then, into your fields whence you please". The influence of the Qur'an and the Hadiths, and the entire religion of Islam and all of the countries where it is dominant, have in total formed a system of thorough male dominance and the systematic abuse of womankind. It is rooted in the core of the religion. Like the Christians, Muslims must learn to ignore and overlook the misogynistic verses in their holy text. Until they do that, Islam will remain an enemy of women.
Defenders of Islam say that many of the oppressive attitudes prevalent in the Muslim world are due to culture. Some practices such as Female Genital Mutilation are indeed from that source. Other apologists note - correctly in many areas - the Qur'an was progressive in its day, and gave women rights that they otherwise would not have. However, times have moved on, and whilst the rest of the world has rejected male dominance as something belonging to more barbaric times, Islam has unfortunately found itself in the position where the only rights admitted in the Qur'an for women were partial. The embrace of the Qur'an in heavily Muslim nations has led to no improvement in the position of women in those cultures. In fact as the rest of the world has shed oppressive kinds of patriarchy, the Muslim world has, in some countries, even gone backwards.
Women often toe the line. Muhammad married Aisha when she was six (although he had the manners to wait three years before having sex with her), and by all accounts she was fully subjugated to him:
“Aisha, the most beloved of Muhammad's many wives, admonished women in no uncertain terms: "O womenfolk, if you knew the rights that your husbands have over you, every one of you would wipe the dust from her husband's feet with her face."”
Aisha in al-Hashimi (1998)2
Robert Spencer hardly needs to write that in all Muslim countries, women have severely restricted rights and are deeply subjugated to man3. In Wahabi and Salafi forms of Sunni Islam, women are subjected to men in a particularly rigid manner, exemplified by the legal system of Saudi Arabia which forbids women to drive amongst many other things.
Such states of affair are frequently brought about by the superstitions found in world religions regarding men and women. The Abrahamic religions (Christianity and Islam in particular) share inherited doctrines found in the Hebrew Scriptures that are highly negative of women. But while Christianity and Judaism have moved on, Islamic culture still embraces the concept of the subjection of womankind to mankind. This comes from many verses in the Qur'an, one of the most infamous is 4:34:
“Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because god has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart, and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme.”
The following Hadith is worth reading in full for although it starts out vague and there may have been a chance that Muhammad was only talking to the women he was addressing; he goes out to deliver several blows to the worth of womankind for either religion or education, and, this hadith is recorded more than once in the most respected collections of sayings of Muhammad:
“[Muhammad passed some women and said:] "O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women)." They asked, "Why is it so, O Allah's Apostle?" He replied, "You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?" He said, "Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?" They replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her religion."”
Sahih al-Bukhari 6:301 and Sahih Muslim 1:1425
The Tablighi form of Islam is a vaguely reformatory movement within Islam that aims to make people's practices match those of Muhammad more closely. Seemingly lacking sarcasm, the scholar of Islam, Jocelyn Cesari, mentions that the Tabligh movement grants women more freedom:
“Women can, it should be said, enjoy a certain emancipation within Islam, notably in the Tabligh movement. In Tabligh, a woman may leave her house to go on a mission, so long as she travels with a group of women and is chaperoned by a male relative.”
Given that women are human beings with rights of their own, it is a horrendous mis-judgement to say that the description above can be described as "emancipation" in any way. Yet, in the world of Islam, women's rights are so sternly ignored that small lapses in male dominance become noteworthy.
“Such people as ruled by a lady will never be successful.”
Muhammad, founder of Islam
Quoted in the Hadiths, Sahih al-Bukhari 59:7097
This Hadith is counted amongst one of the most trusted collections of sayings and deeds of the Prophet of Islam. It is the only saying that directly addresses the issue of female political leadership.
“On March 18, 2005, a Muslim woman named Amina Wadud led an Islamic prayer service in New York City. Because she is a woman, three mosques refused to host the service, so it was set for an art gallery, but the gallery withdrew the invitation after receiving a bomb threat. Finally, it was held in an Episcopal church. A Muslim protestor outside the event fumed, "These people do not represent Islam. If this was an Islamic state, this woman would be hanged, she would be killed, she would be diced into pieces." Undoubtedly true [...].”
The protestor, called Nussrah, was one of 15 who gathered outside, voicing various complaints. The excuse that cultural practices subdue women in Islamic countries does not stand true in New York, USA: the mosques and protestors were motivated by Islam. In a response from Egypt, "The sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque, one of the world's top Islamic institutions, said Islam did not allow for women to preach to men" because men might look at the woman's body while she spoke10.
Women in Muslim lands suffer from a lack of access to education. The result is mass illiteracy amongst women in the Arab world; the average is 50%11; and in some countries it is much, much worse. In Muslim countries such as Sudan, female education rates are getting worse11. Some social factors cause problems. The segregation of boys and girls often makes it harder to organize females into classes. In Jordan, for example, the young age that women are married means that they often drop out of secondary education11. Factors such as segregation and early marriage that cause women to remain uneducated are cultural in their basis, and nothing to do with Islam: however Islamic doctrine is certainly inclined towards making things worse. Women have duties in the home and must give priority to child-rearing and housework rather than getting an education or finding work. Some of the justification for the non-education of women comes from the Qur'an and from the Hadiths. Sahih al-Bukhari 6:301 and Sahih Muslim 1:1425 contain a (duplicated) damning inditement of the capability of women to learn, saying that women are "deficient" in intelligence and/or common-sense.
“When we asked parents why they did not allow their girls to school, they would say "because it's wrong, it's irreligious, it's improper - they should stay at home to prepare for their real life, their married life".”
“Islamic hardliners in Pakistan were so opposed to the education of women that, in one tumultuous five-day period in February 2004, they burned down eight girls' schools.”
"Hijab" is the name of the head, hair, neck and/or face covering worn by Muslim women, but also by the general Qur'anic requirements for conservative dress: Sura Al-Nur ("Light") 24:30-31 tells believers to dress modesty and has specific requirements that women cover their chests and do not show adornments, jewellery, etc, to anyone but certain relatives and certain trusted housepeople such as slaves. They are even told not to stamp their feet so that other people can hear their trinkets (a similar thing is to be found in Isaiah 3:16-18). Women must also ''lengthen her garment" (Qur'an 33:59).
“Many Muslims, for instance, are convinced that God takes an active interest in women's clothing. While it may seem harmless enough, the amount of suffering that this incredible idea has caused is astonishing. The rioting in Nigeria over 2002 Miss World Pageant claimed over two hundred lives; innocent men and women were butchered with machetes or burned alive simply to keep that troubled place free of women in bikinis. Earlier in the year, the religious police in Mecca prevented paramedics and firefighters from rescuing scores of teenage girls trapped in a burning building. Why? Because the girls were not wearing the traditional head covering that Koranic law requires. Fourteen girls died in the fire; fifty were injured. Should Muslims really be free to believe that the Creator of the universe is concerned about hemlines?”
"The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason" by Sam Harris (2006)13
Despite these extremities - and many, many others committed in the name of Islam, the Qur'an is not as demanding as you would expect when it comes to dress, except for the requirements of modesty. Muslim-influenced cultures have tended to take dress codes to the extreme because of the general misogyny of the Qur'an. The translation of Qur'an 24:30-31 on www.submission.org/suras/sura24.html contains the note that "Tyrannical Arab traditions have given a false impression that a woman must be covered from head to toe; such is not a Qur'anic or Islamic dress", and many nice-meaning Western commentators have said similar things - Karen Armstrong says that "the Koran says nothing about women having to be veiled [...]. Veiling came in during the third and fourth generation after Mohammed, and it has been suggested that Islam acquired the practice from its contact with Christian Byzantium which had always treated its women this way"14. But the Qur'an is not the only authorititive source of God's will in Islam, and Muhammad, the founder, gave more specific commands to cover everything except the hands and face, as recorded in one the books of the Hadiths that is considered canonical by Sunni Muslims:
“Asma, daughter of AbuBakr, entered upon the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) wearing thin clothes. The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) turned his attention from her. He said: O Asma', when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this, and he pointed to her face and hands.”
Sunan Abu-Dawud, book 32 no. 409215
Saying 4094 tells a confirmatory story of a woman struggling with a garment to cover her head (but it wouldn't cover her feet), or her feet (but then it didn't reach her head). Muhammad saw her and told her not to worry, as the only other people present were her father and slave; and according to Qur'an 24:30-31, rules are relaxed in front of those. What he certainly didn't say was that she could have her feet or head uncovered (or anything inbetween).
Islam is a religion that takes marriage seriously, as a concept sanctioned by god and enshrined in holy law16. Muhammad said that God hates divorce17. In Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran, it is illegal to have sex outside of marriage18. But this rigidity all too frequently descends into barbarism and a denial of human rights, including wifebeating, endorsed in Qur'an 4:34 and several Hadiths. Take the 2007 case of Lina Loy, in Malaysia. She converted to Christianity and wanted to marry her Christian fiancé. It is illegal there for Muslim women to marry Christians and despite her case reaching the highest courts, she was refused permission to legally convert to Christianity in order to marry. This was a routine denial of the human rights of belief, of family life, and of privacy. She now lives in hiding after receiving death threats (as has the lawyer who defended her)19. Throughout Muslim countries, marriage is an institution where women are utterly dominated by men and women are legally inferior in the Qur'an16. Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslims (but men can)16. The practice of forced marriages (i.e. ba'l17) is nowhere more popular than it is in Muslim countries. Worse, child marriage is given sanction in Qur'an 65:1-4 which also allows pre-menstrual girls to be divorced after having sex with them. Countries such as the UK have legislation specifically to deal with such abuses.
The fundamental problem is twofold: (1) The Qur'an's rules on marriage are not suitable for the modern world where women are no longer the property of men, and (2) a number of traditional cultures, who are now Islamic, have practices that are offensive to current values of fairness, equality and decency.
Thankfully, most Islamic communities live with a much more modern outlook. Proto-liberal Islamic scholars such as Tariq Ramadan point out that it is compatible with strict Islam to accept national laws on marriage even where they contradict how marriage would be ran in a purely Shariac-compliant framework20.
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The Qur'an assumes male dominance, and normally talks of women in terms of their ownership by men; it is assumed that males are reading the Qur'an, and that it is they who are enforcing its rules. In the Hadiths, Muhammad is recorded as saying, from God, that "when a man calls his wife to his bed, and she does not respond, the One Who is in heaven is displeased with her until her husband is pleased with her" (3367). A similar hadith (3368) records that when her husband calls her to join him in bed and she doesn't, the angels 'curse her until morning'. Hadiths 3367 and 3368 were recorded in the canonical collection Sahih Muslim, Book 8 (Kitab Al-Nikah, The Book of Marriage)21. So, from the Qur'an:
“They ask you about menstruation. Say: 'It is an indisposition. Keep aloof from women during their menstrual periods and do not approach them until they are clean again; when they are clean, have intercourse with them whence God enjoined you. God loves those that turn to Him in penitence and strive to keep themselves clean.'
Women are your fields: go, then, into your fields whence you please. Do good works and fear God.”
As can be easily seen, the Qur'an is written completely from a male perspective. It is also written to males, and men are presumed to be the ones enforcing the rules. Women are 'them', wives are 'taken', rights are given to women. There is no sense that the Qur'an is addressing both genders. It addresses males, and talks about women. There are times when it says "Women!" and gives instructions to women; but this is nothing like the rest of the text, which is a bloke-on-bloke discussion. Qur'an 4:15 says "if any of your women commit a lewd act", which is a male-on-male discussion. Nowhere is the role reversed. Men are never talked about in the possessive. Women are objectified and treated as possessions. 4:16 continues with "If two men among you commit a lewd act": Note the lack of talk of "your" men. Men are not possessions: women are. The Qur'an is fundamentally a book of male dominance, written in male language, for males. This is why in Islamic countries, women's rights are so poor. The Shafi'i school of Islamic law, the official school of thought for most Sunni authorities, made it legal that "the husband is only obliged to support his wife when she gives herself to him or offers to, meaning she allows him full enjoyment of her person and does not refuse him sex at any time of the night or day"22. Even where apologists point out that the legalistic letter of the Qur'an is not an outright domination of men over women, in spirit it certainly is so, especially when supported by the recorded sayings (hadiths) of Muhammad.
There are various rules on inheritance laid out in the Qur'an; ranging from the specific to the cryptic. Al-Nisa 4:7-12 contains some of those laws; and although there is often equality between the sexes, often there is not. Jocelyn Cesari, who often plays down the troublesome aspects of Islam, highlights the most obvious of the inequalities while simultaneously saying that Muslims in the West are 'flexible' because they can't abide by all their laws:
“Law governing inheritance offer another example of the flexibility involved in translating old practices into new contexts. Once again, the Islamic precepts (which specify that for every part of an inheritance given to a daughter, two parts must be given to each son) cannot always be strictly adhered to, especially in legal systems influenced by Roman law (Roman law ensures that each descendant be provided for equally).”
Some say that the difference comes because the man is under obligation to provide for his family. But in an equal world such as how the West has come to be, equality between the sexes means that either one is likely to be the wage-earner, responsible for the home. The Qur'an, in assuming male dominance, makes equality impossible. If there were fewer restrictions on females, then there needn't be special laws giving male heirs more than female ones.
“Perhaps the most barbaric and least publicized of [Islamic customs that conflict with the West] is female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice well-nigh universal in some Islamic cultures. [...] It usually involves total or partial removal of the prepuce and/or clitoris. The labia minora and majora may also be excised, and the vagina stitched up to the size of a pinhead. [...] In Europe it's frequently performed when the child is very young, because parents know they're doing something that's frowned on and, as they say, 'a baby can't tell lies.' The mutilation [...] often results in lifelong physical pain, chronic infections, and extreme discomfort during urination and sex. Parents give many reasons for the perpetuation of this brutal custom. At the top of the list is the conviction that women's sexual feelings are sinful and their sexual organs unclean, and that mutilation therefore provides protection from sin.”
All international and medical groups have condemned this horrible procedure, and there are many efforts to end it amongst the enlightened. It is not part of Islamic doctrine, either in the Qur'an or in the Hadiths. Egyptian Islamic authorities - some of the most respected in the world - in 2007 condemned and prohibited the practice, and it was in the same year made illegal in Egypt, a country where the mutilation was very common.25
"Most European countries have laws in place that allow parents to be charged even if the operation is performed outside the country of residence". Although some Muslims go out of their way to evade the law and have this awful procedure done to their children by Muslims in Muslim countries, but in the countries where it is done it is a cultural practice that is also embraced by others in the country including Christians. It has been a social custom in North Africa "for millennia", and, "there are many Muslim countries in which the mutilation is essentially unknown, including Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia"25. Although it is not a specifically Muslim procedure, this barbaric practice would have been prevented much quicker if Islamic doctrine enforced or encouraged (women's) general human rights.
Secular society, in a democracy, seeks to protect minorities and the disempowered from oppression. Women's shelters are one such service; abused women can find shelter and plan new lives, with the help of Social Services. There is a long tradition of these shelters in the UK; those who complain loudly about them are the very barbarians that they exist to shelter women from.
“Many men in immigrant communities view such shelters with contempt. In 1999, a British Muslim named Faisal Bodi thundered in the Guardian that the shelters "tear apart our families. Once a girl has walked in through their door, they do their best to stop her ever returning home. That is at odds with the Islamic impulse to maintain the integrity of the family." [...] Citing universal Muslim belief in "the shariah, the body of laws defining our faith" [...] Bodi argued that British authorities must recognize the Muslim community "as an organic whole" and thus accord it a larger role in resolving conflicts over forced marriage.
Bodi's point was clear: when a Muslim girl or woman flees the tyranny of father or husband, the government should hand her to her family for "punishment" or "punish" her themselves. In short, British law should effectively be subordinate to Muslim law, with its insistence on the female obligation to obey and the male right to brutalize.”
In the context of debt and contracts, the Qur'an states that a woman's testimony is worth half of a man's: "Call in two male witnesses from among you, but if two men cannot be found, then one man and two women whom you judge fit to act as witnesses; so that if either of them make an error, the other will remind her" (Qur'an 2:282).
Alongside FGM, some other cultural practices also foster in Muslim communities:
“Other issues affecting the lives of a number of Muslim women particularly in some European countries, e.g. Belgium, France, Germany, Austria and the UK are forced marriages and honour murders. Such unacceptable practices have been publicly condemned and the 2006 Austrian Presidency of the European Council took the initiative to develop the 'Network Against Harmful Tradition' proposing legal measures as well as protection of victims and awareness campaigns.”
Sura 65:1-7 (this sura is just 12 verses long) tells men they cannot divorce and leave a woman if she might be pregnant, and they must (at least) help provide for her while she is suckling the baby. Good stuff.
Islam does not have to be a religion that oppresses women. Some elements of such oppression come from traditional culture and not the religion; but many do in fact come from the Qur'an itself. But Christianity also had such misogynistic commands at its heart, and large numbers of Christians simply overlook them, or use other statements to come to the fore instead. In the Qur'an there are some statements that declare the equality of the sexes; before detailing their inferiority to men, sura An-Nisa 4:1 declares that men and women are made 'from the same soul' (nafs wahidah).
Despite the inequality, Islam was from its inception good for women's rights in the Arab culture in which it arose. It granted some certain rights that were otherwise unobtainable. In fact, I think it should be argued that Muslims should see the spirit of the Qur'an, or Islam, as being one where women's rights are advanced. If this is the case, then the initial rights given to women over a thousand years ago are today advanced if they are given full equality.
Most religious traditions have subjugated womankind28,29,30,31. The religious restrictions and taboos on womankind have ranged from the openly oppressive and inhumane, to subtle limitations. Women have been barred from leadership, prevented from religious learning and even from secular education, forbidden to hold power, denied fair inheritance and land ownership, denigrated, physically dominated, and sometimes even forbidden to speak32. All in accordance with holy texts, religious laws and guidelines. The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam have been the worse; but also Hinduism and Buddhism have played roles in the long-term subjugation of women. In Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "The Woman's Bible" (1898)33 she bemoans that "all the religions on the face of the earth degrade her, and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible"34. The much more neutral scholar of comparative religion, Moojan Momen, normally writes positively on nearly all aspects of religion, but when it comes to women, even he is forced into a multiple-page criticism of the historical role of religion31. Although some of this stems from ancient cultural sources before it happened to be codified in world religions35, organized religion has clung on to patriarchalism long after secular society has liberalized. Feminist groups have frequently been anti-religion simply because it is religion that has presented itself as the most consistent oppressor of womankind. The problems from traditional religions are not just historical: even today, religious organisations and powerful international religious lobbies hold back gender equality across the world36.
There is good news. The most readily accepted cure for both intolerance, religion and superstition is widely shown to be education. The position of women improves as education improves and as traditional religions lose their grip on society. Modern society has come to either ignore their traditional texts (as most Christians do) or to abandon religion (as many Westerners have done). Also many new religious movements and alternative religions such as Paganism, Wicca, the New Age and even Satanism practice full gender equality. As long as traditional religions continue to decline and secular society and new religions both grow, the situation of women continues to improve.
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