Myth #9 - Women are Respected and Equal in Islam

Myth #9

Women are Respected and Equal in Islam

“The man that lays his hand on a woman,
Save in the way of kindness, is a wretch,
Whom ‘twere gross flattery to name a coward.”
- John Tobin, The Honeymoon


When Americans and other Westerners think of Islam and the Middle East, perhaps one of the first images that comes to mind is that of Muslim women, swaddled in thick robes, their faces covered. Islam is generally associated with disrespect for the rights, and even the personhood, of women. Women in the Western world, and also in many non-Western countries such as India, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere, have seen their lot in life improved and their rights as human beings recognized. This sort of liberalization is not usually associated with the Muslim world, however. Is this a fair perception? Is there any basis for saying that Islam degrades women, that this disrespect is not just an aberration, but is ingrained within the Islamic religion? The answer to these questions, as ought to be seen by any clear-minded observer, is yes.

Muslim Women in the West - The Whitewash

Muslim women in the United States and other Western nations often will allow themselves to be used to whitewash Islam's image as it is presented to the public at-large. Typically, these women living here in the West operate under the banner of "reaffirming" the rights that women have "traditionally" enjoyed in Islam. Much is made of the (technically true) fact that women in Islam are granted the rights to own property and receive inheritance, primarily. Indeed, in the light of the way in which women were treated in pre-Islamic Arabia, the granting of the rights to own property and to inherit from a dead relative is a step forward, considering women were denied even these in the pre-Islamic tribal system.

However, it should be noted that the Muslim women who seek to promote Islam as a tolerant and progressive force for women’s rights often draw less than honest conclusions from the simple quranic affirmation of property rights. Typically, they attempt to draw their readers or listeners into jumping from this technically correct statement about women's rights in Islam to a false association of Islam with Western-style assertions of the personhood and legal rights of women. On a number of occasions, I have seen or heard Muslim women say that they are Muslim, and that they have the same rights and respect as a man, that Islam respects them and allows them the same freedom as men enjoy. Of course, what we need to remember is that these women are saying this while they are in the United States, or some other Western nation. Of course their rights are respected and they are not oppressed! They are living in a society where the sort of behavior which many Muslim men display towards women in Muslim countries is not generally tolerated. In the West, both law and popular opinion greatly discourage activities such as wife-beating and marriage to underage girls. Society would frown upon a man who made his wife wear a veil and stay inside the house unless he was with her. It would be neither understood nor accepted that women should have an inferior legal and moral status to men, as is held by a plain reading of the Qur'an and the ahadith. In the West, Islam has no choice but to respect the rights and dignity of women, lest it raise the ire of the general populace. However, one wonders what these Muslim women would say or think if they tried to take the same attitude in, say, Pakistan or Iran or Egypt. Clearly, the apologies for Islam made by Muslim women on the basis of some supposedly "enlightened" view of women's rights is nothing more than a cloak that is woven so as to try and cover the ugly truth about Islam's attitudes toward women.

This has not, of course, impeded the proliferation of websites, pamphlets, and other venues purporting to show that women are equal with men in Islam, and that Islam elevates the fairer sex. Designed to appeal to the Western mind which operates under the paradigm of equal rights for all, these venues seek to redefine terms commonly used by Western thinkers, and often resort to blatant misrepresentations so as to present a grossly one-sided and decontextualized view of Islam's attitudes toward women (an application of the taqiyya principle discussed in the previous chapter). "Islam supports women's rights", it is said, but the "rights" that are supported are the basic ideas presented in the body of Islamic scripture and jurisprudence, such as freedom to divorce, freedom for a virgin or widow to choose her spouse, and the freedom to own property. There are, of course, other loopholes in the body of Islamic law that allow for the practical deprivation of these granted privileges, often amounting simply to a contradicting passage in the Qur'an or in a hadith.

Further, many Muslim apologists will themselves use out-of-context statements from the Qur'an or the ahadith to justify their claims - something which they often accuse their opponents of doing, even when the detractors are doing nothing more than repeating longstanding Islamic legal tradition. An example is the hadith (the collection of which is usually attributed to al-Bukhari, but sometimes to the 10th century Christian philosopher Yahya Ibn 'Adi) which says "The search for knowledge is a duty of every Muslim, male and female." This is quoted to "prove" that women have every right in Islam to get any sort of education, just like a man. Of course, the context of this passage and this concept is that the knowledge is religious, that every Muslim has the obligation to learn Allah's law, not some secular or technical education. Indeed, this is clearly seen from the traditions,

"Narrated Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-'As:

"The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) said: Knowledge has three categories; anything else is extra; a precise verse, or an established sunnah (practice), or a firm obligatory duty."1

In other words, "knowledge" as defined in the Islamic context is knowledge of the Qur'an, the sunnat, or other religious obligations - anything else is "extra", and presumably not comparatively important. That even this sort of knowledge is not necessary for women is shown elsewhere,

"Narrated Tariq ibn Shihab:

"The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) said: The Friday prayer in congregation is a necessary duty for every Muslim, with four exceptions; a slave, a woman, a boy, and a sick person."2

As such, it is not really necessary for women to attend the gathering at mosque, where Friday prayers accompanied by a sermon (presumably for learning about and from the Qur'an) will be performed. As we will see below, orthodox Islam considers women to be deficient in religion and less able to contribute to the religious life of the ummah.

This example, as well as the whole attempt by Muslim apologists to sugar-coat Islam's treatment of women, are further illustrations of the taqiyya, the lying for the advancement of Islam which was mentioned above. It is a grave misunderstanding of the facts to believe that "women's rights" in an Islamic context would mean anything similar to how Westerners understand the term, which would generally include the rights to a secular education, to hold any job, to hold and use property apart from her husband's direction, the right to custody of children, etc. On the contrary, these would be explicitly denied to a woman in any Islamic system which institutes the traditional Islamic shari'a rooted in the Qur'an and the ahadith.

Often, Christians will be confronted by Muslim polemicists who preach that Islam upholds the rights of women, and who will simultaneous charge that the Bible degrades women. Muslims often point to the position of women in the Bible, which does not allow for women pastors or allow women to exercise positional authority over men within the family or the church. Of course, the polemicists conveniently ignore passages such as Galatians 3:28 that affirm the spiritual equality of women with men before God. Muslims generally fail to comprehend the Biblical teaching on spiritual equality combined with positional subordination (which causes them likewise to misapprehend the doctrine of the deity of Christ, as well). Men and women are spiritually equal, both can receive the same salvation and the same eternal life through the Lord Jesus Christ. However, in the earthly realm, God has also established men as the temporal spiritual authority in the family and the churches. This does not, however, mean that men are spiritually superior to women, anymore than a general in the Army is more of a citizen of the United States than a colonel - both are equal citizens, yet one is placed in a higher rank of authority within a specific context and situation. Nor does this teaching mean that women are to enjoy fewer legal or social rights - in other words, the Bible does not place women in a position of absolute or ontological inferiority. Indeed, the Bible teaches this concept in I Corinthians 11:3, where the relationship between men and women is shown in parallel with the relationship between God (i.e. the Father) and Christ. Christ and the Father are the same in essence, yet Christ, as the second person of the Trinity and the One who voluntarily humbled Himself to take on humanity, was made positionally subordinate to the Father. In the same manner, men and women are of the same essence and spiritual value, but women are positionally subordinate to men within their specific roles in the family and church contexts (a subordination that will end in the eternal state, by the way). While this teaching will (obviously) still be unpalatable to radical feminists and others on the political and theological Left, it is hardly similar to the Islamic attitudes and teachings about the status of women.

For the Muslim to engage in this attack is hypocritical, given the quite obvious inequality which is institutionalized in the Islamic religion. Yet, the attack is often made in an attempt to divert the attention of potential Western converts away from Islam's own misogyny and towards a manufactured quibble with the Bible. Indeed, we should note again that the positional subordination in the Bible that was discussed above applies only to the realms of the family unit and the local church. It does not carry over into the workplace, the classroom, or any other secular realm. It also does not, as the Bible elsewhere makes clear, justify the sort of physical and emotional abuse which can be seen as an outflowing of Islamic shari'a law.

Indeed, it is also common for Muslim apologists to play the gender card by presenting lists of women from the Bible who are depicted as unsavory, licentious, and of generally bad character (women such as Jezebel, Herodias' daughter, etc.). The aim in all this is to be able to point to these and say, "See? The Bible is anti-woman!" In addition to simply being a ridiculous argument, it is also easily refutable. One can simply provide a list of women (much longer, as it turns out) in the Bible who are presented in a positive light (Ruth, the widow of Zarephath, Abigail, Mary, etc.), and perhaps also a list of men who are depicted in a bad light (Nabal, Saul, Ahab, Judas, etc.). If the Bible is as chauvinistic a document as these apologists claim, then why would so many men be depicted in a poor light, and so many women be held up as positive examples? Of course, the real point that should be understood is that the Bible merely depicts both men and women as they are: sinners, some who are saved and live by faith, and some who remain lost and rebellious to their dying day.

A Woman's Legal Status in Islam

In light of Islam's own revered writings, the Qur'an and the ahadith, we see a far different picture painted of a woman's status in Islam than that which is presented to the West. In orthodox Islamic nations in which the shari'a law has been established, the treatment of women generally ranges from heartbreaking to downright abominable. Even in nations where shari'a has not been formally established, the theological fundamentalism of the Islam which is almost universally held, as discussed previously, results in social and de facto political forces that militate against the exercise of anything even approximating Western-style rights by women. Often these are codified into the legal structure of the nation, even though no formal shari‘a has been established.

In Islam as found in the Qur'an, the woman is inferior to the man in matters of law and justice. For instance, it is stipulated that a woman is to receive only half the inheritance that her brothers receive when their parents pass away,

"Allah (thus) directs you as regards your Children's (Inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females: if only daughters, two or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance; if only one, her share is a half...." (Surah 4:11)

In this way, a woman is deprived of an equal share of inheritance solely because she is female, and if women are the only inheritors, they do not even receive the full inheritance! This sort of uneven distribution is elsewhere supported in the Qur'an,

"They ask thee for a legal decision. Say: Allah directs (thus) about those who leave no descendants or ascendants as heirs. If it is a man that dies, leaving a sister but no child, she shall have half the inheritance: If (such a deceased was) a woman, who left no child, Her brother takes her inheritance: If there are two sisters, they shall have two-thirds of the inheritance (between them): if there are brothers and sisters, (they share), the male having twice the share of the female. Thus doth Allah make clear to you (His law), lest ye err. And Allah hath knowledge of all things." (Surah 4:176)

This apportionment system which gives women half the amount that a man receives is also supported by the purported statements of Mohammed in the ahadith 3. Hence, even though the quranic right of a woman to her inheritance is affirmed, it still establishes a systematically unequal legal position for her.

Likewise, a woman is reckoned by Islamic jurisprudence to be worth half a man in a court of law. Specifically, a woman's testimony only counts for half that of a man's, thus two women are needed to counter the claims of a man.

"The Prophet said, 'Isn't the witness of a woman equal to half of that for a man?' The women said, 'Yes.' He said, 'This is because of the deficiency of a woman's mind.' " 4

Not only is a woman's word not as good as that of a man's, but neither is her mind! Because of this acceptance of the notion that women are not as intelligent as men, women are accorded an inferior standing in Islamic justice. Logically, this would bear out to the disadvantage of women in pressing their rights and defending themselves or seeking redress for wrongs done to them. If a woman were raped and the deed was done secretly, she would have absolutely no redress against her assailant, unless he confessed out of guilt or fear, because his word would count for twice as much as hers and overrule her.

Women and men are also treated differently for breaking the same laws. An example of this comes from the quranic commands against homosexuality. The punishment for women is,

"If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, Take the evidence of four (Reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some (other) way." (Surah 4:15)

For men, on the other hand,

"If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, leave them alone; for Allah is Oft-returning, Most Merciful." (Surah 4:16)

While women are confined in house arrest until death, with no evidence of forgiveness being available from the text, men are set free with no punishment if they disavow their sin. The passage 4:15 provides a possible caveat in its statement “...or Allah ordain for them some other way.“ If Allah rescinds the punishment, they may go free. Of course, the will of Allah is generally understood to be interpreted and dispensed to the Muslim community via its mullahs and imams, so the women are still essentially at the mercy of the interpretive temperament of these men. This sort of one-sided, unfair treatment of women is acknowledged by scholars who are intimately familiar with Islam,

"The statement that 'men are the guardians of women' in verse 38 of Sura 4 postulates inequality of men and women in civil rights. The words are followed by two brief explanations of men's superiority over women 5.....In Islamic law, male heirs get more than female heirs, and men's evidence is more reliable than women's; to be exact, a man's inheritance share is twice a woman's share, and his evidence carries twice the weight of hers in court...The right to divorce belongs to the husband but not to wives." 6

In most Middle Eastern Muslim countries that make a pretence at some sort of representative government, women are often still denied the right to vote. Rights to property and asset ownership by women, technically existing as we have seen, are in practice non-existent as women in many Muslim countries are not free to even leave the house without their husbands' permission, much less transact business and manage property of their own accord. Because of the debilitating strictures placed upon a woman’s freedom of movement and communication with others (especially men) outside of her kinship unit, she is usually not even able to exercise these quranic rights, and must consign her property and rights to her husband for him to exercise on her behalf.

The extension of rights to women is not necessarily the direct or sole cause of Islamist dissatisfaction, but is instead viewed to be a symptom of the greater evil of Western liberal democracy, which the Islamists strenuously oppose. The few Muslim countries where women have been allowed to participate in the political process have almost invariably had problems with Islamic hard-liners who attempt to destabilize and overthrow their governments. An example is Pakistan, which at one time had a female Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto (who was assassinated on 27 December 2007 after a return from exile and an attempted reentry into politics). However, radical Islamist agitation severely damaged the stability of the fragile democratic government, and it was toppled in a military coup in 1999 headed by General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan is now openly one of the main hotbeds of radical Islamic jihadi activity, with its thousands of madrassas, or Islamic schools, churning out tens of thousands of hard-line students.

When Islamic parties or revolutionary groups that seek to establish orthodox Islam as the deen of a nation manage to come to power, the rights of women are completely curtailed. There is perhaps no better example of this than Afghanistan. Before the Soviet invasion of this nation, Afghanistan was a relatively open and tolerant society, one in which women had a good deal of participation, could receive the same education as men, and could even enter into medicine or other professional fields. All this changed with the Soviet invasion, and the subsequent American support for Afghan opposition groups such as the Mujahadeen. These opposition groups, more often than not, were militantly orthodox in their approach to Islam. While the United States supported many of these groups because of their shared enemy, the Soviet Union, once this threat had ended, it was left primarily to these many militantly Islamic groups to pick up the pieces (now with the money and arms previously supplied by the United States). This they did over the next decade, with the process of Islamization eventually culminating in the Taliban regime, complete with its religious police who would savagely beat women in the streets for terrible offenses such as laughing in public. Even with the timely demise of the Taliban regime at the hands of American forces, the rights of women in Afghanistan, briefly restored, are fast on their way to becoming non-existent again, as the various other militantly Islamic (but less anti-American) factions jockey for position under the government established by the new constitution of that land, one which has an explicit foundation on the Islamic shari’a.

A Woman's Social Status in Islam

Part and parcel with the political inferiority of women in Islamic society is the subjugation of women in the social realm. Women are in many cases considered to be the property of men, and this dates back to the conditions found in pre-Islamic Arabia. As Dashti notes,

"In pre-Islamic Arabic society, the women did not have the status of independent persons, but were considered to be possessions of the men. All sorts of inhumane treatment of the women were permissible and customary." 7

This bears out explicitly in the Qur'an,

"Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property for the support of women. So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great." (Surah 4:34, Pickthal translation)

According to the Qur'an, men are literally to rule over women, both because of a supposed natural superiority and because men spend their resources supporting women. This passage really makes a woman into property which belongs to a man, and which exists for his use, since he has to pay upkeep.

The Muslim practice of polygamy virtually turns women into a commodity to be bought and sold. Many Westerners have the impression that the "four-wives rule" follows basically the same rule and respect for marriage that the West used to have, only quadrupled. This is not the case, however. In Islam, while the woman cannot divorce her husband without being considered an unbeliever and destined for hell, a man can divorce his wife on any pretext (or none at all),

"And if ye wish to exchange one wife for another and ye have given unto one of them a sum of money (however great), take nothing from it. Would ye take it by the way of calumny and open wrong?" (Surah 4:20, Pickthal translation)

What this is saying is that it's alright for a Muslim man to dismiss one of his wives and replace her with another as long as he takes nothing from the dowry which he originally gave to obtain her as his wife. Essentially, this turns his former wife into nothing more than a glorified prostitute, and quite obviously can lead to the abuse of the system. This is shown in the life of Hassan, a grandson of Mohammed. Hassan, over the course of his life, had over seventy wives, yet never exceeded the four-wife limit at any one time. He would marry a woman during the day, enjoy her company for one or a few nights, and then divorce her so that he could marry another, all within the bounds of Islamic law 8.

Women were also considered by Mohammed to be deficient in religion. He is recorded as saying,

"I have not seen any one more deficient in intelligence and religion than you women." 9

According to the reputed founder of Islam, slightly over half the population is deficient in intelligence and unable to be as religiously active or useful as the other! This is borne out in that the Islamic traditions taught that Mohammed also forbade women from giving themselves to optional, extra fasting without the express permission of their husbands10, which might hinder them from being as useful to their husbands, sexually or otherwise, as they could be. Mohammed also taught that a majority of women would go to hell 11, and that the majority of people in hell were women, as he claimed to have seen in a vision 12. The early Muslim attitudes expressed through the biographical details attributed to Mohammed clearly show a very disrespectful, chauvinistic attitude toward women which has, to varying degrees, filtered down into modern Islam as seen and widely practiced in many Muslim nations.

In orthodox Islam, women are completely in the power of their husbands. Men are free to beat their wives (as per Surah 4:34), provided they do not strike her on her face13! Far from being the vile activity it is viewed as in the West, wife-beating is a perfectly acceptable practice, according to the teachings of Islam's traditional writings,

"Narrated Umar ibn al-Khattab: The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) said: A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife." 14

This was reiterated in other traditions as well, with Mohammed commanding, "No man shall be questioned for beating his wife." 15 Further, Umar ibn al-Khattab (the second caliph and a Companion of Mohammed) is related in one tradition to have told a man who came to him for judgment to beat his wife when she attempted to render the man's slave girl sexually "off-limits",

"Yahya related to me from Malik that Abdullah ibn Dinar said, "A man came to Abdullah ibn Umar when I was with him at the place where judgments were given and asked him about the suckling of an older person. Abdullah ibn Umar replied, 'A man came to Umar ibn al-Khattab and said, 'I have a slave-girl and I used to have intercourse with her. My wife went to her and suckled her. When I went to the girl, my wife told me to watch out, because she had suckled her!' Umar told him to beat his wife and to go to his slave-girl because kinship by suckling was only by the suckling of the young.'"16

Even today, the question in the mind of many Islamic scholars is not whether wife-beating is acceptable, but rather how it should best be done. One example of this can be seen in MEMRI's translation and transcript of a Saudi religious scholar named Al-'Arifi explaining to some Muslim young people what is the proper way to beat one's wife17. Even while trying to sound like the beating should be gentle and not inflict pain, he yet has to caution his audience that the beating should not be made to the face or the hand or some other place where it could cause damage. Apparently, talking things over reasonably with your wife has not occurred to this scholar.

Sometimes, Muslim apologists will make the argument that the "beating" in Surah 4:34 merely means something along the lines of "tapping her on the wrist", supposedly to shame her. However, the word "scourge" found in that ayah is translated from an Arabic root drb meaning “to hit, strike, or beat”. This word can also be used to describe the whipping of a camel to get it to move, or a bullet striking its target, as in the phrase, "draboo b-r-rasaas w-gitloo", which means, "they shot him with bullets and killed him." Clearly, the meaning of "beat" is more than just a non-violent means of shaming a wife who is being unruly.

In many Muslim nations, women are subjected to the laws of purdah, or seclusion, which refers not only to the practice of facial veiling and body coverings, but also to the seclusion of women from all public life, as much as is possible in a given situation. The prayers of a woman who has reached puberty are not accepted if she is not veiled18. A woman is not allowed, by Islamic law, to undertake a journey longer than three days unless accompanied by a male relative19, and the traditions report that certain of the companions of Mohammed even beat their wives for asking money of men20. A woman's property is not really her own to use or enjoy in the public sphere, and the traditions even record one instance in which a woman was beaten and injured by her husband, and Mohammed's judgment in resolving the issue was for the husband to take away from her some pieces of property he had given her as a dowry, and to leave her 21. It is even recorded that Mohammed stated that if it were proper for any person to be decreed to prostrate themselves in reverence to any other than Allah, that it would be a wife to her husband 22. In many Muslim countries, women cannot leave the house without written permission from their husbands, and cannot drive automobiles.

"Honor" Killing and Other Atrocities

Another disturbing aspect of traditional Muslim treatment of women is the phenomenon known as "honor killing." This behavior, about which there is absolutely nothing "honorable", involves the murder of women by their male relatives for some perceived slight against the honor of the family unit. Primarily these slights are sexual in nature, ranging from something as serious as fornication to something as relatively innocuous as flirting (or being perceived as flirting) with a man outside the family. A wife requesting a divorce is cited as another common motivation for honor killings, and they often occur simply because a girl refused to marry a partner chosen by pre-arrangement. There have even been instances where Muslim women have been killed because they had been raped, a crime which Islamic law often considers to be the fault of the woman, not the rapist. Two very horrific examples that were cited by the United Nations Population Fund in 2000 involved an 18-year old woman in Bangladesh who was flogged to death for "immoral" behavior, and an Egyptian case in which a father actually paraded his daughter's severed head through the streets while shouting, "I have avenged my honor."23

This despicable practice has spread to the West, brought along by the Muslim immigrants who have been settling primarily in Western Europe. Great Britain has seen a rise in this crime. For instance, on 12 October 2002, a 48-year old Kurdish man named Abdalla Yones, an exile from Iraq, savagely murdered his 16-year old daughter Heshu after receiving an anonymous letter telling him that she had been sleeping with her boyfriend24. She had brought shame upon the family, at least according to an anonymous note, and for this he repeatedly stabbed her back and chest, finally burying the blade of his knife into her throat so savagely that the metal tip snapped off after hitting bone. The BBC at the time also reported that the girl had left a note to her father detailing her intention of running away with her boyfriend, and the reason given was his previous propensity for punching and kicking her. Indeed, police reports noted that she had been beaten for months before her murder took place.

The same article also details other honor killings in Britain. In March 2002, a Muslim woman was kidnapped, strangled with parcel tape, and set on fire after filing for divorce from her husband. A Muslim man stabbed his daughter to death, over 20 strokes, because he caught her at home with a boyfriend in February 2002. In September 2002, a Muslim man went to the home of his estranged wife and hacked her and their two small children to death with a machete. In 2006, 20-year old Banaz Mahmod, whose Iraqi Kurdish family fled to Britain in 1998, was strangled to death with a bootlace by her father and her uncle after a two-hour ordeal of torture and sexual abuse, and her body was stuffed into a suitcase25. Her crime? Ending an abusive arranged marriage, becoming too Westernized, and falling in love with a man who did not come from her village back home. Also in 2006, Rahan Arshad beat his wife and three children to death with a bat, because she was having an affair26. In another horrifying case, 25-year old Samaira Nazir, a promising young businesswoman, was murdered by her male family members for becoming engaged to a man of whom they did not approve27. Unfortunately, this sort of butchery is becoming more common in the West among the resident Muslim immigrant populations, and continues to this day even in many Western countries. One article about "honor" killings appearing in the German daily Deutsche Welle mentioned the murder of Heshu Yones, as well as that of 26-year old Fatime Sahindal, a Turkish woman who was murdered by her father in Sweden in 2002 because he wanted her to marry a man from Turkey, rather than her Swedish boyfriend28. This type of crime has even made its appearance in the United States. On 6 July 2008, A Pakistani immigrant living near Atlanta, Georgia killed his daughter who wanted out of an arranged marriage which she did not want to enter into in the first place29. Outside the Muslim world, honor killings have been reported in Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Sweden, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Even in cases where the young woman is clearly the victim of a sex crime such as rape, she is still considered to be the source of the family's "dishonor", and must still pay the penalty. One such case was 14-year old Nuran Halitogullari of Istanbul, Turkey, who was strangled to death by her father after she had been kidnapped and raped30. Then there is the case of a 15-year old Syrian girl named Zahra Ezzo, who was kidnapped and raped by strangers, only to be killed later by her brother31.

The purported offenses that can lead to an "honor" killing do not even have to rise to the seriousness of a perceived sexual indiscretion - any slight to the authority of a male family member may cause one. Such was the case with a 16-year old Pakistani girl named Aqsa Parvez in Mississauga, Ontario. She was strangled to death by her father, all because she refused to wear the hijab32. Her father murdered her because she didn't want to wear a particular article of clothing. The stories given above, unfortunately, are only the very tip of the iceberg of murders committed in the name of "honor" by traditional Muslim families. Time and space in this chapter do not permit me to tell the stories of every victim of these crimes.

The impetus for this behavior is not an aberration from the treatment of women in Muslim populations, but instead is firmly grounded in the societal, and even legal, sanction of many Muslim nations. Honor killing is common across the Muslim world, more common than many would like to admit. Indeed, the United Nations Population Fund estimates that around 5,000 women are murdered each year through honor killings, mostly in Muslim countries. The reason for this crime is the deeply grounded sense of communal honor and shame in Arab/Muslim culture. If one acts shamefully, then the shame is not just borne by the individual, but by the whole family group, often concomitant with social shunning by other members of the community. This then combines with the Islamic tendency to downgrade the personhood of women, and gives a heartbreaking cocktail of worldly religious fanaticism and the scapegoating of women. This bears out in the case, more typical than we would like to believe, of Rofayda Qaoud, a 17-year old Palestinian girl who was raped by her two brothers. She was taken into custody by the Palestinian police, and then returned to her family after she had given birth. Her mother demanded that she commit suicide. The girl refused, and her mother came into her room one night and wrapped a plastic bag around her head, slit her wrists with a razor, and then beat her on the head with a wooden stick, killing her33. The mother specifically stated that upholding the family honor was the reason she murdered her daughter. Yotam Feldner describes several cases occurring in Egypt and the Palestinian authority, in which "honor" was the motivating factor of the murder of a young woman, while noting that each crime will receive a much more lenient punishment due to legal mitigation34. This differs quite clearly from a case of "honor" killing in Israel, where the women of the family Abu-Ghanem in Ramle, after enduring the eighth murder of a female family member by their male relatives within a six and a half year time period, cooperated fully with police35. The murderer, Kamal Rashad Abu-Ghanem, a brother of the eighth victim, walked into his sister Hamda's room and shot her in the head nine times. Rashad eventually received a 16-year prison sentence from an Israeli court for his crime36, a stiffer penalty than he would in any of the surrounding Muslim countries (but one which still seems insanely lenient).

Honor killing is abetted by the fact that the need to maintain honor is a mitigating circumstance under the legal systems of many Muslim countries. The Palestinian mother who murdered her daughter could have received a maximum sentence of five years in prison, specifically because the honor factor was introduced and accepted as mitigating, even though the penalty for premeditated murder under Palestinian law otherwise is capital punishment. Many countries legally accept "honor" as a mitigating factor, including Jordan, Morocco, and Syria. In a speech on this subject, Azam Kamguian listed the specific articles found in the legal codes of various Muslim countries that sanction honor killings by lowering or abolishing the punishment for murder if the murder was committed to maintain “honor”: Article 562 in Lebanon (fortunately abolished in February 1999), Article 340 in Jordan, Article 548 in Syria, Article 153 in Kuwait, Article 237 in Egypt, Article 309 in Iraq37, Article 334 in the United Arab Emirate, Article 70 in Bahrain, Article 179 in Iran before 1979, Articles 418-424 in Morocco, and Article 252 in Oman38. She also notes that Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Pakistan and Qatar also apply a strict, traditional interpretation of shari’a in which honor killing is tacitly acknowledged. A report issued early in 2006 by the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) listed, among several other human rights violations committed in Pakistan, the “honor” killings of over 1000 women in that country in 2005, a number which continues to follow a steady upward trend39. A bill was introduced in the Jordanian parliament in 1999 which would that have increased penalties against those who commit honor killings. The bill was soundly defeated on the principle that it contradicted Islamic teaching and traditions, and would contribute to "social delinquency"40. The placing of the burden of guilt for familial shame stemming from the misbehavior of others, even that of male members of the family, onto women is an injustice which stems from Islamic misogyny codified by centuries of tradition and orthodox interpretation of the Qur’an and the ahadith.

Sometimes, when an "honor" crime is committed, the family will force the girl to kill herself, in a so-called "honor suicide". The impetus for the act is often the same, though the family may believe that it exonerates itself from legal culpability for the deed, since "she committed suicide". These types of suicides are also growing in number, even in more secular Muslims countries such as Turkey41.

A related injustice against women which stems from several of the factors under discussion in this chapter - the burden of guilt that is automatically borne by the woman, the belief of a woman’s supposed culpability in all matters sexual (as will be seen below), the perceived incompetence of a woman to testify equally to a man in a court of law - is the all too common placing of blame upon the female victim of crimes such as rape and abuse. One recent example that received some international attention occurred in Iran42. In this situation, a teenaged girl who defended herself and her younger niece from three would-be rapists using a knife was sentenced to death by hanging because she had stabbed two of the attackers. So, for the crime of defending herself and her chastity, as well as that of another younger girl, which Muslims profess to be so concerned about, she was sentenced to death. Along these same lines, a Saudi court recently sentenced a female rape victim to 200 lashes and six months in jail43. Unfortunately, these are only a few of the long list of injustices directed against women who are the victims of assaults, sexual or otherwise, in conservative Islamic countries. Above, it was postulated that the chauvinistic rules of Islamic courts, in which a woman’s word only carries half the weight of a man’s, could result in a woman being denied justice if she were raped or assaulted and it was her word against her attacker’s. In many Muslim lands, it is not uncommon for exactly this sort of scenario to transpire. The onus is placed upon the women who were the victims of crimes, and they are treated as if they were the instigators.

Marriages in Islamic countries, as well as those contracted by immigrants to the West, are often arranged. These marriages often involve the giving of young girls to men from the "old country" who are sometimes much older than they, so as to ensure that the girl is still a virgin when the marriage takes place. If a girl refuses to marry someone who is more than likely a complete stranger and twice her age, this may be considered a "justification" for honor killing as well. Some countries in the West have made moves to limit or criminalize forced marriages, such as Germany, which is set to make the practice illegal44.

Women as Objects of Carnality

A study of the sayings of Mohammed as found in the Qur'an and the ahadith shows that the putative founder of Islam did not view women as persons deserving respect, but rather as objects to be used to gratify the lusts of men. This attitude is perhaps most clearly illustrated when Mohammed said, "A woman is like a private part. When she goes out the devil casts a glance at her 45." In his view, women were little more than the portions of anatomy required to gratify his desires. The "holy" writings of Islam are full of passages demanding that women submit to and fulfill the carnal desires of their husbands at any time, and a premium is placed upon women who "serve" this capacity especially well. The ahadith state that if a man desires sexual intercourse with his woman, that she must respond immediately, even if she is engaged in baking bread at the communal oven 46. If a woman is riding a camel, and her husband demands intercourse, she must submit, and this is even said to be her duty before Allah, that of fulfilling her husband's desire 47. If a woman refuses to come to bed with her husband, Islam teaches that she is cursed by the very angels of Allah 48. A woman is also shamed and coerced into sexual submission to her husband's wishes by the threat of competition from the 72 houri (virgins) that Islam teaches a man will receive for his enjoyment in Paradise,

"A woman does not annoy her husband but his spouse from amongst the maidens with wide eyes intensely white and deeply black will say: 'Do not annoy him, may Allah ruin you. He is with you as a passing guest. Very soon, he will part with you and come to us.'" 49.

Islam teaches a similarly low view of the blessed institution of marriage, reducing if from the God-ordained status of lifelong, total partnership to a mere vehicle by which a man's carnal desires can be "legally" fulfilled. In the Qur'an, a woman is likened to a field which a man must work and cultivate so that it bears him much fruit. "Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) so go to your tilth as ye will...." (Surah 2:223)50. This attitude is reiterated in the ahadith, "Narrated 'Uqba: The Prophet said: 'The stipulations most entitled to be abided by are those with which you are given the right to enjoy the (women's) private parts (i.e. the stipulations of the marriage contract).'" 51 Here we see that marriage is just considered to be a way to make sexual intercourse legal, i.e. not fornication. Satisfaction of a man's desires, sexual and otherwise, is even made a means of entry for a woman in heaven! "Any woman who dies at a time when her husband is pleased with her will enter the Garden." 52

To further humiliate, subjugate, and disgrace womanhood, the practice of female genital mutilation (sometimes called by the misnomer "female circumcision") is carried out in many Muslim nations, particularly those in Africa. This painful process removes from a woman the ability to receive any physical enjoyment from the conjugal act, and makes intercourse a painful duty. As a result, it makes it difficult or impossible for a woman to cleave to her husband through desire for him, as was given in her nature to Eve and her daughters. This makes a woman less likely to form the psychologically intimate bond to her husband that would normally make her more difficult for him to send away when he divorces her. Hence it seems in reality to be just another means of removing obstacles to the fulfillment of the lusts of lecherous men.

Far from respecting the rights and personhood of women, Islam as it is properly understood from the Qur'an and other sacred Islamic texts degrades them. As taught from these texts, women are little more than joy units for men's pleasure, not accorded the rights or legal protections that men enjoy, and destined by shari'a and purdah to lives of virtual imprisonment and subjugation. Indeed, the attitudes towards women that are clearly derived from the Qur‘an and ahadith amount to little more than the objectification of women in a way that is similar to how pornography degrades and reduces the personhood of women. Muslims routinely defend the outward manifestations of their religion towards women - the burqah, purdah, and so forth - on the basis that these means of isolating and segregating women "exalts" them by keeping them from being objects of lust for men. However, the truth as understood from the Muslim writings themselves is that what is being "protected" is the sole access of a man to the woman or women he has under his control. His women are to keep "chaste" so that he does not have to worry about competition from other men who might otherwise come in and use his property. The chastity enjoined to women seems to have little to do with a desire for personal holiness or morality, but rather with the protection of a man's sole rights to a woman.

Does all of this mean that every Muslim man beats his wife, "loves" her only for the pleasure she can bring him, and wants to force his wife to remain secluded from the world at large? No, of course not. Nor does it mean that Muslim women everywhere suffer from the horrid conditions that traditional Islamic states impose upon them. Many Muslim women, particularly in the West but even in some of the more secular Muslim nations such as Turkey and Indonesia, do enjoy varying degrees of personal liberty and political freedom. The point is, however, that strictly orthodox Islam holds to the teachings illustrated above, and this makes the resurgence of militant, orthodox Islam in both the Middle East and Western nations a danger to the rights of and respect for women.


End Notes

(1) - Sunan Abu Dawud, Bk. 18, No. 2879
(2) - Sunan Abu Dawud, Bk. 3, No. 1062
(3) - Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 4, Bk. 51, No. 10
(4) - Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 3, Bk. 48, No. 826
(5) - A. Dashti, 23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed, p. 113.
(6) - Ibid., p. 114.
(7) - Ibid., p. 113.
(8) - A. Shaikh, Islam: Sex and Violence, Chapter 2, found online at http://www.news.faithfreedom.org/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1090
(9) - Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 1, Bk. 6, No. 301; Vol. 2, Bk. 24, No. 541
(10) - Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 7, Bk. 62, No. 120
(11) - Sahih Muslim, Bk. 1, No. 142
(12) - Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 1, Bk. 2, No. 28; Vol. 1, Bk. 6, No. 301; Vol. 2, Bk. 18, No. 161; Vol. 7, Bk. 62, No. 124; Sahih Muslim, Bk. 36, No. 6596
(13) - Sunan Abu Dawud, Bk. 11, No. 2137
(14) - Sunan Abu Dawud, Bk. 11, No. 2142
(15) - Sunan Ibn-i-Majah, Vol. 3, Bk. 9, No. 1986; see also Sahih Muslim, Bk. 11, No. 2142
(16) - Muwatta of Malik, Bk. 30, Sect. 2, No. 13
(17) - "Saudi Cleric Muhammad Al-'Arifi Explains Wife Beating in Islam to Young Muslims in a Ramadhan Show", Middle East Media Research Institute, 9 September 2007
(18) - Sunan Abu Dawud, Bk. 2, No. 641
(19) - Sahih Muslim, Bk. 7, Nos. 3098; see also Sahih Muslim, Bk. 7, no. 3099 and Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 2, Bk. 21, No. 288, which say that a woman should not undertake more than a two day journey without husband or close relative. The term Dhu Mahram refers to a male relative who is closely enough related to a woman for sexual relations to be forbidden anywise.
(20) - Sahih Muslim, Bk. 9, No. 3506
(21) - Sunan Abu Dawud, Bk. 12, No. 2220
(22) - Sunan Ibn-i-Majah, Vol. 3, Bk. 9, No. 1852; this hadith also relates that if a man were to command his wife to carry stones from a red mountain to a black mountain or vice versa, an utterly pointless endeavor, that she must obey him.
(23) - The United Nations State of the World Population Report for 2000, Chapter 3
(24) - A. Asthana and U. Mistry, "For families that fear dishonour, there is only one remedy....murder", The Observer, 5 October 2003
(25) - "'Honour killing' pair sentenced to life", The Age (Australia), 21 July 2007
(26) - N. Bunyan, "Father killed wife and children over affair", The Telegraph (UK), 14 March 2007
(27) - S. Bird, "Sister is stabbed to death for loving the wrong man", The Times (UK), 17 June 2006
(28) - "Europe Grapples with 'Honor Killings'", Deutsche Welle, 23 June 2004
(29) - "Dad charged with murdering reluctant bride", CNN, 8 July 2008
(30) - "Man garrottes daughter, 14, to restore honour after rape", Irish Examiner, 30 April 2004
(31) - "'Honour' killing of teen spurs outcry in Syria", Gulf News, 19 February 2007
(32) - B. Hertz, "Teen girl in critical condition after alleged dispute over hijab", The National Post, 11 December 2007; with follow up story, R. Roberts, "Girl has died, Peel police confirm", The National Post, 11 December 2007
(33) - S.S. Nelson, "Mother kills raped daughter to restore ’honor’", Bulletin of the Committee to Defend Women's Rights in the Middle East, No. 20, January 2004, originally filed with Knight-Ridder Newspapers, 17 Nov. 2003
(34) - Y. Feldner, "'Honor' Murders – Why the Perps Get off Easy", Middle East Quarterly, December 2000
(35) - D. Hardaker interviewing Israeli police officials, "Women break silence on honour killings", The 7.30 Report of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 18 April 2007
(36) - "Brother sentenced to 16 years in sister's 'honor killing'", Jerusalem Post, 5 March 2008
(37) - This speech was given prior to the American invasion in March 2003
(38) - A. Kamguian, “The Lethal Combination of Tribalism, Islam, and Cultural Relativism”, from a speech made at a conference on honor killing and violence against women, 17-19 January, 2003 in Stockholm, Sweden
(39) - P. Goodenough, "Pakistani Women Victims of Islamic Ordinances", Cybercast News Service, 21 March 2006
(40) - "Jordan MPs Reject Bid to Overturn Honour-Killing Leniency", Agence France Presse, 22 November 1999
(41) - Y. Lavie, "Women Forced Into 'Honour Suicides'", Sky News, 13 November 2007
(42) - "Iran to hang teenage girl attacked by rapists", Iran Focus, 7 January 2006
(43) - "Saudi punishes gang rape victim with 200 lashes", Agence Free Press, 15 November 2007
(44) - K. Grieshaber, "Germany Cracks Down on Forced Marriages", San Francisco Chronicle, 29 October 2007
(45) - Al Hadis: Mishkat ul-Masabih, Bk. 2, Ch. 27, No. 123
(46) - An-Nawawi, Riyad as-Salihin, Ch. 35, No. 284
(47) - Sunan Ibn-i-Majah, Vol. 3, Bk. 9, No. 1853
(48) - Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 4, Bk. 54, No. 460; also Sahih Muslim, Bk. 8, No. 3368
(49) - Sunan Ibn-i-Majah, Vol. 3, Bk. 9, No. 2014
(50) - Literally, this is refering to position during intercourse, and is meant to allow a man to come to his wife whichever way he chooses, without any supposed ill effects on any children who are conceived, per the commentary provided in Sahih Muslim, Bk. 8, No. 3364
(51) - Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 7, Bk. 62, No.81; also Sunan Ibn-i-Majah, Vol. 3, Bk. 9, No. 1954
(52) - An-Nawawi, Riyad as-Salihin, Ch. 35, No. 286

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