Islam and Misogyny

Post by Jim Newman


Max Fisher of The Atlantic wrote a rebuttal to Mona Eltahawy’s piece “Why do They Hate Us?” He follows several tactics for proving that misogyny not unique or excessive in Islam: misogyny is a cultural and not a religious practice with Islam not standing out; all cultures are misogynistic; sacred texts, in particular the Koran, are figurative and not literal. He asserts that Western imperialism continues with its insistence that Islam is misogynistic.

Rape is rape, abuse is abuse, killing is killing. Here and now it must stop and we can worry about the why’s when the beatings stop. This is a long first draft and I apologize in advance but this insane idea that Islam is a religion of peace and has a love of women needs to be dealt with immediately. I don’t give a shit about theory and history here, the abuse must be stopped now. I spit on any sacred text that says it is OK to abuse women whether contextualized or not.

“Picture a woman in the Middle East, and probably the first thing that comes into your mind will be the hijab. You might not even envision a face, just the black shroud of the burqa or the niqab. Women’s rights in the mostly Arab countries of the region are among the worst in the world, but it’s more than that. As Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy writes in a provocative cover story for Foreign Policy, misogyny has become so endemic to Arab societies that it’s not just a war on women, it’s a destructive force tearing apart Arab economies and societies. But why? How did misogyny become so deeply ingrained in the Arab world?

“As Maya Mikdashi once wrote, “Gender is not the study of what is evident, it is an analysis of how what is evident came to be.” That’s a much tougher task than cataloging the awful and often socially accepted abuses of women in the Arab world. But they both matter, and Eltahawy’s lengthy article on the former might reveal more of the latter than she meant.

The history of misogyny in Islam may inform us of how the crimes came to be but it is far more important to assess misogyny in the here and now and deal with that. In America, and elsewhere, the Irish are known as tough, pugnacious, and abusive group. When they immigrated to New York some made good cops, politicians, and so on but yhey also were prevalent in brawling and excessive drinking. It is interesting and may be helpful to know that their history of living in an overcrowded and difficult to farm country with abusive and controlling church leaders followed by a potato famine that led to a diaspora but that really doesn’t matter when a woman is in court saying her husband beat the shit out of her.

Crimes exonerated by passion or context have to have been in the immediate. I saw my wife screwing my best friend so I shot him, her, or both—as an aside why is it usually him but that’s another post. A court would laugh at the excuse of rape because of your grandfather much less your grandfather of medieval times treated you badly or taught rape was OK. Family abuse does tend to run in lines which means that punishment and rehabilitation are different in that it requires more care not exoneration.

Hell, I don’t care if they find a rape gene in men (created by the success of men who raped over time in cultures condoning rape), it doesn’t excuse violence once we govern against it. If those men belong to Islamic religions then all that tells me is Islam attracts men who have a preference for raping. Mind you we are only using rape as an example. The reality is beating, acid in the face, and constant denigration—horrid kinds of violence we don’t hear about in other religions anywhere, anymore. We have for centuries talked about inherited violence in people and not used it as an excuse in law. In any case we are not talking about psychopaths or sociopaths who are still locked up but in different institutions.

“There are two general ways to think about the problem of misogyny in the Arab world. The first is to think of it as an Arab problem, an issue of what Arab societies and people are doing wrong. “We have no freedoms because they hate us,” Eltahawy writes, the first of many times she uses “they” in a sweeping indictment of the cultures spanning from Morocco to the Arabian Peninsula. “Yes: They hate us. It must be said.”

“But is it really that simple? If that misogyny is so innately Arab, why is there such wide variance between Arab societies? Why did Egypt’s hateful “they” elect only 2 percent women to its post-revolutionary legislature, while Tunisia’s hateful “they” elected 27 percent, far short of half but still significantly more than America’s 17 percent? Why are so many misogynist Arab practices as or more common in the non-Arab societies of sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia? After all, nearly every society in history has struggled with sexism, and maybe still is. Just in the U.S., for example, women could not vote until 1920; even today, their access to basic reproductive health care is backsliding. We don’t think about this as an issue of American men, white men, or Christian men innately and irreducibly hating women. Why, then, should we be so ready to believe it about Arab Muslims?

Let’s look at the sexist report in question. The Global Gender Gap Report of 2010 lists 100 countries.

“It essentially gauges the treatment of women using various data points including educational attainment, health, and political empowerment.

The worst 7 are:

7. Benin

6. Saudi Arabia

5. Côte d’Ivoire

4. Mali

3. Pakistan

2. Chad

1. Yemen

The best 7 are:

7. Denmark

6. Ireland

5. New Zealand

4. Sweden

3. Finland

2. Norway

1. Iceland

What makes Arabia unique is that it has a modern wahhabi or salafism. Wahhab’s own father and brother disputed Wahhab’s claims. While not as extreme as jihad salifi’s Arabia is a rich modernized country that cannot use poverty, economic instability, modernization, or political marginalization as an excuse for perpetrating egregious misogynistic practices. These are not angry young men unable to earn a living or being struck hard by life and then going home and kicking the cat, so to speak. These are not goat herders blasted into the 20th century unwillingly.

“A number of Arab Muslim feminists have criticized the article as reinforcing reductive, Western perceptions of Arabs as particularly and innately barbaric. Nahed Eltantawy accused the piece of representing Arab women “as the Oriental Other, weak, helpless and submissive, oppressed by Islam and the Muslim male, this ugly, barbaric monster.” Samia Errazzouki fumed at “the monolithic representation of women in the region.” Roqayah Chamseddine wrote, “Not only has Eltahawy demonized the men of the Middle East and confined them into one role, that of eternal tormentors, as her Western audience claps and cheers, she has not provided a way forward for these men.” Dima Khatib sighed, “Arab society is not as barbaric as you present it in the article.” She lamented the article as enhancing “a stereotype full of overwhelming generalizations [that] contributes to the widening cultural rift between our society and other societies, and the increase of racism towards us.”

When the women themselves go to the world asking for help in permission to drive in public, be seen in public without a male relative, not be able to wear the clothing of their choice, not having a voice in their politics, not having control of their careers, not having control of their bodies, and lamenting their status as subclass citizens then these Arab feminists are not better than the American apologist feminists claiming that women deserve their plight and could change it if only they appealed to men in they way men see fit. It’s bullshit from oppressed women who wish to succeed within the tradition rather.

“Dozens, maybe hundreds, of reports and papers compare women’s rights and treatment across countries, and they all rank Arab states low on the list. But maybe not as close to the bottom as you’d think. A 2011 World Economic Forum report on national gender gaps put four Arab states in the bottom 10; the bottom 25 includes 10 Arab states, more than half of them. But sub-Saharan African countries tend to rank even more poorly. And so do South Asian societies — where a population of nearly five times as many women as live in the Middle East endure some of the most horrific abuses in the world today. Also in 2011, Newsweek synthesized several reports and statistics on women’s rights and quality of life. Their final ranking included only one Arab country in the bottom 10 (Yemen) and one more in the bottom 25 (Saudi Arabia, although we might also count Sudan). That’s not to downplay the harm and severity of the problem in Arab societies, but a reminder that “misogyny” and “Arab” are not as synonymous as we sometimes treat them to be.

Most of the countries are Islamic. It cannot be denied that Islamic religion or Islamic culture are misogynistic. Ida Lichter writes that it is Islamic culture and not its religion that is at issue. There is no question of the misogyny but rather how to fix it. As a culture she thinks it is  ore approachable than as a religion. Islam is too rigid. Few will accept an edited Koran or will change religions.

“When it comes to reform of discriminatory laws, the distinction between culture and religion is particularly relevant. Islamic doctrine is often considered immutable and tends to be fervently defended, even with violence and intimidation. However, cultural traditions may be more amenable to modification, especially if advocated by reformers with religious credentials.

“Some reformers are women scholars who use ijtihad, or critical interpretation, to erase the cultural legacy of chauvinism by unmasking the equality they consider inherent in the Quran. Until the eighth to 12th centuries, ijtihad had been permissible, but such exegesis was abolished in response to emerging dissident groups during expansion of the Islamic empire.

“In addition to ijtihad, activists such as those in the Iranian women’s movement have demanded changes to discriminatory sharia laws while professing devotion to Islam.

“They have used grassroots strategies such as peaceful street protests and the One Million Signatures Campaign, seeking change to male-dominated culture in the long-term.

It then becomes an issue of means. This is the reformation period of Islam. The bible has been edited and revised a number of times and continues to change. A recent version puts the quotes in dialog format like a play. Religious leadership plays a huge part in what is accepted. The bible could use more editing. However, some prefer to leave it as is and consider it as figurative.

That is ridiculous. If the Koran says to beat women then I don’t care whether it can be considered a metaphor because others will invariably see it as literal and use it as support. It’s not like it’s saying “come onto her like a lion” it’s saying she must be stoned. Shall we call that a beating, an admonishment, a castigation, a verbal slighting? As long as the words are there, they count. Unless a mandatory interpretation is added the words count for what they are. These sacred texts are not presented as mythologies but as direct writings with very little room for interpretation.

As a governing document they would be held to the same standard as say the Magna Carta or the American constitution where lawyers spend tremendous amounts of time trying to get it right rather than politicizing and psychologizing it. Imagine where we would be if we saw the Bill of Rights as figurative.

They contextualize these texts as for example.

“These women contend authentic Islam is egalitarian and early Islam ended female infanticide and brought women freedoms such as property rights.

“They claim these early gains were thwarted by a male-dominated interpretation of the holy texts without sufficient input by women. The resultant culture supported male control over females, especially in marriage. It was designed to protect tribal peace, property and power. Capital punishment for adultery and other illicit sex was intended to deter rival males from other tribes.

“To control transfer of property, females were bartered, betrothed and married young. Married women kept their own assets to prevent family property being passed on to successive wives in polygamous marriages.

But this is ridiculous. Mormons claim they were polygamous not because of the text but because there was a shortage of men during their early pioneer history but if you read the diaries of these men and women it is clear that misogyny was more than paternal/fertility care. It is also clear than it did not stop when there was not a need for ensuring the pregnancy of all of the women. Islam is worse in this regard. Mohammed had 11 wives in 14 years and one of them was 6.

“The other way to think about misogyny in the Arab world is as a problem of misogyny. As the above rankings show, culturally engrained sexism is not particular to Arab societies. In other words, it’s a problem that Arab societies have, but it’s not a distinctly Arab problem. The actual, root causes are disputed, complicated, and often controversial. But you can’t cure a symptom without at least acknowledging the disease, and that disease is not race, religion, or ethnicity.

The root causes are not controversial. School girls should not have acid thrown on their faces because they go to school or wear different clothes. That is not complicated. And no, court cases should not look at the social symptoms, they determine guilt and then punishment. Occasionally we screw up as in OJ Simpson and Rodney King but for the most part courts are not politicized, socialized, or psychologized. Justice at its best is fair, equal, and concerns the individual. If it is a crime of passion, genetics, then there are different results.

Right now American jails are filled with absurd numbers of black people and drug users. That is a problem. If a European mocked me and said you Americans are penal abusers (no pun intended) I would have to agree but I wouldn’t say accept it because paranoid Americans voted for officials that don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. And I would say we Americans deserve the moniker and need to reform the penal system.

It’s like the absurd notion to hate the sin but love the sinner. No, we are what we do. If a church attracts more pedophiles than other churches we can rightly question what is it about that church that causes it to be such and not deny the churches complicity. If someone rapes regularly then that person is a problem not some abstraction. Whether it is a continuum or not isn’t relevant, we don’t accept rape. If I plumb houses for 30 years I am a plumber. If I do a number of things then I am that. If my work is not who I am then I state that when people ask me—no, I am really a philosopher but I have to do construction and farming to make a living, blah, blah, blah. It’s tedious because we don’t like labels but if you want to hire a plumber you go look up plumbers.

“Some of the most important architects of institutionalized Arab misogyny weren’t actually Arab. They were Turkish — or, as they called themselves at the time, Ottoman — British, and French. These foreigners ruled Arabs for centuries, twisting the cultures to accommodate their dominance. One of their favorite tricks was to buy the submission of men by offering them absolute power over women. The foreign overlords ruled the public sphere, local men ruled the private sphere, and women got nothing; academic Deniz Kandiyoti called this the “patriarchal bargain.” Colonial powers employed it in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and in South Asia, promoting misogynist ideas and misogynist men who might have otherwise stayed on the margins, slowly but surely ingraining these ideas into the societies.

Great, there is a little history here. Now, do you think that matters when your daughter is splashed with acid because the perpetrator says the Koran says she is vile and wicked.

“Of course, those first seeds of misogyny had to come from somewhere. The evolutionary explanations are controversial. Some say that it’s simply because men are bigger and could fight their way to dominance; some that men seek to control women, and particularly female sexuality, out of a subconscious fear being of cuckolded and raising another man’s child; others that the rise of the nation-state promoted the role of warfare in society, which meant the physically stronger gender took on more power. You don’t hear these, or any of the other evolutionary theories, cited much. What you do hear cited is religion.

That’s because Islam promotes the misogyny. I don’t see any Buddhists, Hindi, or even Christians performing these heinous acts. Are there any Jainists out there killing? Hell, the worst you can say about Buddhism is that it is androcentric—it’s not that they hate men they just don’t want material desire which includes lust, sex, and yes, even children. That could be considered misogynistic and we could show how Buddhist writings went from less misogynistic to more misogynistic and then to Western Buddhism that doesn’t even get why there aren’t male Buddhist monks and assumes there can be, but why? Buddhists aren’t suicide bombing people nor are they beating their wives.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes (good grief, who would guess I’d defend Christianity).

We hear so often about Muslims as victims of abuse in the West and combatants in the Arab Spring’s fight against tyranny. But, in fact, a wholly different kind of war is underway—an unrecognized battle costing thousands of lives. Christians are being killed in the Islamic world because of their religion. It is a rising genocide that ought to provoke global alarm.

The portrayal of Muslims as victims or heroes is at best partially accurate. In recent years the violent oppression of Christian minorities has become the norm in Muslim-majority nations stretching from West Africa and the Middle East to South Asia and Oceania. In some countries it is governments and their agents that have burned churches and imprisoned parishioners. In others, rebel groups and vigilantes have taken matters into their own hands, murdering Christians and driving them from regions where their roots go back centuries.

Read the rest of her article and it is easy to understand that war and hate can be just about a religion just as it can be just abut a color or a class.

“Like Christianity, Islam is an expansive and living religion. It has moved with the currents of history, and its billion-plus practitioners bring a wide spectrum of interpretations and beliefs. The colonial rulers who conquered Muslim societies were skilled at pulling out the slightest justification for their “patriarchal bargain.” They promoted the religious leaders who were willing to take this bargain and suppressed those who objected. This is a big part of how misogynistic practices became especially common in the Muslim world (another reason is that, when the West later promoted secular rulers, anti-colonialists adopted extreme religious interpretations as a way to oppose them). “They enshrined their gentleman’s agreement in the realm of the sacred by elevating their religious family laws to state laws,” anthropologist Suad Joseph wrote in her 2000 book, Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East. “Women and children were the inevitable chips with which the political and religious leaders bargained.” Some misogynist practices predated colonialism. But many of those, for example female genital mutilation, also predated Islam.

Arabs have endured centuries of brutal, authoritarian rule, and this could also play a role. A Western female journalist who spent years in the region, where she endured some of the region’s infamous street harassment, told me that she sensed her harassers may have been acting in part out of misery, anger, and their own emasculation. Enduring the daily torments and humiliations of life under the Egyptian or Syrian or Algerian secret police, she suggested, might make an Arab man more likely to reassert his lost manhood by taking it out on women.

Right, that’s why the Jews after the diaspora, pogroms, and holocausts became inveterate abusers, suicide bombers, and are to this day still killing Nazis. That’s why Native Americans are destroying us with terrorism. Armenians are returning in droves to destroy their oppressors. African-Americans are taking over the sports industry to oppress us. This is just bullshit excusing. His lost manhood? I haven’t heard such bullshit since American males claimed they were feminized by aggressive women and that didn’t even involve abuse.

“The intersection of race and gender is tough to discuss candidly. If we want to understand why an Egyptian man beats his wife, it’s right and good to condemn him for doing it, but it’s not enough. We also have to discuss the bigger forces that are guiding him, even if that makes us uncomfortable because it feels like we’re excusing him. For decades, that conversation has gotten tripped up by issues of race and post-colonial relations that are always present but often too sensitive to address directly.

Yeah, colonialism was vicious. Yeah, there are bigger issues like the environmental disaster called Modern Earth but sacred texts are driving people’s actions. People kill for the sacred and people kill for an ideology. Arabia is a prime example of a rich country that still abuses. Aaaah, the rich still have their problems. It just doesn’t matter, rape is rape, and it needs to be dealt with in the here and now as well as on all other levels including stupid sacred texts that condone it.

“Spend some time in the Middle East or North Africa talking about gender and you might hear the expression, “My Arab brother before my Western sister,” a warning to be quiet about injustice so as not to give the West any more excuses to condescend and dictate. The fact that feminism is broadly (and wrongly) considered a Western idea has made it tougher for proponents. After centuries of Western colonialism, bombings, invasions, and occupation, Arab men can dismiss the calls for gender equality as just another form of imposition, insisting that Arab culture does it differently. The louder our calls for gender equality get, the easier they are to wave away.

Solidarity doesn’t matter shit. I might kill for my brother but if he viciously rapes his wife fuck him. Emphasizing tribalism in a global world is not helpful. If my brother beats a child he gets reported to the police as I am legally obligated to do. Yes, I am sad. Yes, I understand his pressures or his psychosis but it is not OK just because he is my brother.

“Eltahawy’s personal background, unfortunately, might play a role in how some of her critics are responding. She lives mostly in the West, writes mostly for Western publications, and speaks American-accented English, all of which complicates her position and risks making her ideas seem as Westernized as she is. That’s neither fair nor a reflection of the merit of her ideas, but it might inform the backlash, and it might tell us something about why the conversation she’s trying to start has been stalled for so long.

The Arab Muslim women who criticized Eltahawy have been outspoken proponents of Arab feminism for years. So their backlash isn’t about “Arab brother before Western sister,” but it does show the extreme sensitivity about anything that could portray Arab misogyny as somehow particular to Arab society or Islam. It’s not Eltahawy’s job to tiptoe around Arab cultural anxieties about Western-imposed values, but the fact that her piece seems to have raised those anxieties more than it has awakened Arab male self-awareness is an important reminder that the exploitation of Arab women is about more than just gender. As some of Eltahawy’s defenders have put it to me, the patriarchal societies of the Arab world need to be jolted into awareness of the harm they’re doing themselves. They’re right, but this article doesn’t seem to have done it.

The article is a plea to cut through the excuse and stop the abuse to women. Once the abuse is topped in the here and now then we can ascertain why and talk about the bigger issues. If you hear a woman screaming rape in the streets you don’t stop and converse about whether she deserves it or he is abused too. You immediately stop the rape and let the courts decide. That is the only just and fair way. Anything else is complicit to the act of rape.

Jim Newman, bright and well and


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