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Oh, then I guess Muslim women really do have equal rights

April 19, 2008 

Yesterday I posted about a panel discussion during which the female Muslim panelists said that the mistreatment of women in the Islamic world stems "largely from the culture that existed prior to Islam's spread throughout the world and the nuances of varied interpretations of the theology," and compared Islam's record on women's rights favorably to that of Christianity. They said that "ignorance causes people to misinterpret some of the external practices of Muslims that Westerners often cite as oppressive...such as the wearing of head scarves by women."

To that I responded with a series of quotations from the Qur'an that are harsh toward women -- intending to show that the mistreatment of women in the Islamic world today stems neither from pre-Islamic cultural practices nor from Christianity, and to highlight the denial and obfuscation that, as we have seen here many times, all too many Islamic spokesmen indulge in instead of engaging in the harder task of acknowledging that there are elements of Islam that are causing harm to women (and others) today, and working to find ways to limit that harm.

There is a great deal more that could be said on this topic -- see this pdf of a monograph on the treatment of women in the Islamic world that I wrote last year with Phyllis Chesler. In it, we show again and again how Islamic clerics quote the verses of the Qur'an that I quoted yesterday and others in order to justify the oppression of women.

But the European blogger Michael van der Galien of PoliGazette, with whom I had an exchange about "pure Islam" here and whose views of moderate Muslims I discussed here, thinks that I was being unfair -- and even worse, dishonest. Since his comment is illustrative of a common tendency, I thought it worthwhile to note it here:

Perhaps Robert should also - for a change - point out that the treatment of women in early Islam meant a considerable improvement for them at that point in time, that Mohammed was, in that regard and many others, quite progressive and forward thinking, and that the custom of women wearing headscarves / veils is something Muslims adopted from Christians living in the Middle East, some 4 or 5 generations after the creation of this third large monotheistic religion. It would also be worth pointing out that a man inherits twice as much as a women in early Islam, and still in some countries, because men were the ones who worked, who had to take care of their families. As such, he arrangement makes complete sense. O, and it would also be honest to point out that at that time, women did not inherit anything in the Christian world.

So in other words, van der Galien is saying that I would have been "honest" if I had done what Deiri had done -- compare Islam's record on women's rights favorably to that of Christianity -- rather than criticize her for doing so. It seems rather odd to charge one side of a disagreement with dishonesty simply for disagreeing, but if the facts in question are axiomatic, I suppose that's fair enough (although I am not granting that they are).

But remember: the article about which I was originally commenting was entitled, "Islam teaches respect for women." If it really is true that Muhammad improved the conditions of women and that the hijab is an import from Christianity, would that in itself mean that Islam teaches respect for women? Of course not. If true, those might be interesting historical sidelights, but their truth would do nothing either to explain or alleviate the mistreatment of women in the Islamic world today, or the justification of that mistreatment by Islamic clerics by means of references to the Qur'an and invoke Muhammad.

Yet Michael van der Galien is by no means alone in thinking that these arcane historical assertions somehow excuse the plight of women in Islamic societies -- and that's why I'm writing this. As for the truth of the assertions themselves, the idea that Muhammad improved the lot of women in his day seems to have escaped the notice of the women themselves. Even Aisha, Muhammad's beloved child bride, once complained to him: "I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women" (Bukhari 7.72.715).

And what about the hijab coming from Christianity? This is a favorite trope of the notorious Karen Armstrong, who has never shown any intense regard for the truth. Even if true, it does nothing to explain why women in Muslim countries are threatened for not wearing the hijab, while this doesn't seem to happen in countries with majority Christian populations. More importantly, it ignores the strong foundations that the covering of women has in Islamic tradition. Aisha referred to the time when the veil was "made obligatory (for all the Muslims ladies) to observe the veil." (Bukhari 6.60.318). Some argue that this actually referred only to Muhammad's wives, but there is also material like this:

Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu'minin [Mother of the Believers]: Asma, daughter of AbuBakr, entered upon the Apostle of Allah [Muhammad] (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 32.4092).

But no, it all comes from Christianity, and if you don't say that, you're dishonest.


This episode is yet again indicative of an all too common pattern: Islamic spokesmen deny and obfuscate Islamic reality, and non-Muslims, full of wishful thinking and a desire to appear open-minded and not "Islamophobic," willingly abet their distortions.

The only result of this sort of thing will be that Muslim women will continue to suffer an oppression institutionalized by Islamic texts and teachings, and no one is speaking out in their defense at all.

Posted by Robert at April 19, 2008 7:01 AM
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