Recently, Pakistan Today ran a satirical story about the very real Council on Islamic Ideology.

Said council is a group of bearded nut-jobs who for some reason hold a certain amount of respect in some Pakistani circles, and who lobby for more Islamic influence in government. The story told how the council had ruled that women were “un-Islamic.” It took a while for readers internationally to realize it was a spoof (yours truly included), probably because such hair-brained rulings have been a staple of many extreme Islamic –and religious–bodies of late, so it did not seem particularly absurd.

The status of women in Islam is enormously complex, and endlessly debated. But why does it need to be so complicated? Well, look around. As of today, at least two major news stories are still unfolding which  involve self-proclaimed Muslims perpetrating atrocities on women, who are utterly de-humanized: The Boko Haram abduction of girls in Nigeria, and the sickening selling of Yazidi girls and women into sexual slavery by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which came to light recently.

In both cases Islamic militants have decided (and decisions have apparently been ratified by an “Imam” or religious leader), that it is legitimate to “use” non-Muslim women as sex slaves, and by some reports even for Jihadist fighters to have sex with underage girls.

When self-described Muslims do stuff like this, and when they do it overtly as “Muslims,” it becomes increasingly hard to defend Islam’s record on women. Many people might, at this point, throw up their hands and say, “enough! Muslims are doing this, therefore the Muslim view of women is unsupportable.” And if that’s as far as you are willing to go, don’t read any further.

But the other 99.9 % of utterly peaceable and inoffensive Muslims worldwide, from India to Chicago, via Scotland, Malaysia and Australia, will still be waving their arms at Boko Haram and ISIS and saying “stop calling yourself Muslims.”

Islam, being essentially a vast body of textual work, cultural practices and interpretations, is able, like any other religion, to simultaneously admit to multiple ideas about and behavior towards women. These atrocities, therefore, are not simply attributable solely to “Islam.”

The heart of this controversy involves a few key concepts. One is the aforementioned multifaceted nature of Islam. A cultural construct, like “Christendom,” or “Judaism,” Islam has lot of people “within” it, and plenty of diversity. It is also part of history, amenable to change, interpretation and perversion. Christianity, likewise, has perpetuated child-burnings, wife beatings, de-humanization of others, as well as the turning of other cheeks, feeding of the poor, and the encouragement of peaceful cultural interaction. Which type of Christian are you? (assuming you are in fact Christian, which I’m not).

Another key concept is the affect of colonialism/imperialism and patriarchy on Arab-Islamic culture. Nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial powers, many scholars argue, imposed their own patriarchal systems on the indigenous populations they controlled. Traditional cultural systems (although these were not static or ahistorical themselves) were disrupted, and certain features were emphasized, empowered  (patriarchy) or disempowered & marginalized (women). In many cases there were precedents within many of these colonized cultures which allowed this process to happen–things about Arab-Islamic culture to which the colonialists could appeal to quash women.

And colonialism turned into post-colonialism; early Islamic fundamentalism (in the nineteen fifties and sixties) looked on women’s emancipation as a western idea, since it came as part and parcel of western, secular ideology. As such, some anti-colonial movements drew on less female-friendly elements within Arab and Islamic culture, seeing them as part of the war against the West, throwing out the female baby with the colonialist bathwater. As fundamentalism developed in places like Egypt in direct relation to the growing anti-western, anti-Israeli sentiment, women who had been bathing in bikinis on Alexandrian beaches, found themselves increasingly obliged to go in fully dressed or stop playing in the waves altogether. When I was a student there in the late nineteen eighties there was barely a single bikini-clad Egyptian woman on the beach, in stark contrast to the nineteen sixties.

But simultaneously, women in the Arab world began to find their voices in the post-colonial period. Before the Fundamentalist backlash of the eighties–spearheaded largely by the Muslim Brotherhood–Arab women were taking more positions in the public sphere, publishing books and articles, arguing for full civil rights in their respective countries. All of which continues apace today.

Another major idea to throw into the women-and-Islam mix is that when Islam spread beyond the Arabian peninsular, in the seventh and eight centuries, it absorbed many of the cultural traits of those places it conquered–Byzantine, Persian, Indian, etc. The regions through which Islam spread contained age-old customs and traditions–such as clitoridectomy–almost all of them were patriarchal. Patriarchy has been a central human inheritance since the birth of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Many of the evils perpetrated upon women globally can be laid at the feet of patriarchy, or what historian Barbara Ehrenreich has called the “Great Male Takeover Bid.”

(This will be the subject of a future post here–not within the Middle East Primer, tho’).

Few  would promote the Arab/Islamic world as the place to look if you wanted to see women achieving their full potential. The Middle East, the Arab world, and the world’s Muslim countries together have a poor rating as far as women’s emancipation is concerned. There is no doubt that there is something in these cultural/geographic regions which is usually inimical to women. Many women from these regions would say so themselves. But when westerners say it these days we risk  the accusation of neo-imperialism. We are just using another excuse to criticize the non-Western world and call it barbaric.

This is unfortunate.

But there is no  getting around the facts: A 2011 World Economic Forum report listed four Arab states in the bottom 10 when it came to national gender gaps. Ten Arab states showed up in the bottom 25. But as bride burning and gang rape in India illustrate, and genital mutilation and epidemics of rape in sub-saharan Africa also show, Arab/Islamic countries are far from the only places where women are still brutalized.

Many scholars, in discussing women in Islam, focus on the Koran and Hadith–textual bases of Islamic theology–for a baseline in answering how women should be treated in Islam. But even this is contentious. One major argument is that women were treated worse in the pre-Islamic era (at least in the Arabian peninsular), and therefore that Islam elevated the status of women. This is difficult to prove as records from the pre-Islamic era are almost non-existant.

Whether or not Islam promotes violence against women or protects them, or even enhances their position in society is therefore difficult to ascertain. The argument for enhancement of position focusses on certain Koranic prescriptions, such as the ability of a man to marry up to four wives. This, some scholars contend, actually curbed the excessive polygamy of pre-Islamic times. The Koran is quite clear, however, that four is the maximum, and even that is only permitted if it is possible to treat all four equally–a prescription which is of course, impossible to police.

This prescription came at a time in Muslim history when the early Islamic community –under Muhammad–was embattled, and living in exile in Medina. War against Mecca had killed many of Muslim men, and many women were therefore left without the male protection deemed necessary in that culture. It was in this context that Muhammad’s revelations about marriage came about.

Similarly, there is some argument that divorce, inheritance and property rights actually improved the status of women over their pre-Islamic counterparts, as the new community looked to protect is members, male and female. The overwhelmingly patriarchal nature of Arabian society naturally limited what was actually possible, and still placed women squarely under the authority of their male relatives.

In sum, the status of women in Islam is a complex socio-cultural and historical problem. There is no escaping the fact that women in Islamic countries face many enormous challenges. As they do in many non-Islamic countries. But there may well be elements of Arab-Islamic culture which leave them particularly vulnerable to abuse and disempowerment, but “Islam” is not the only category we must use to understand this, patriarchy, colonial history and religious and cultural syncretism also directly affecting women’s roles.

Want more?

This interesting Frontline piece deals with contemporary issues of women and Islam:

A syrian documentary about a female Muslim preacher challenging the male clerical establishment, from 2012

An article on Muslim Feminists from the nation:


About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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