It is a sad and painful fact that on International Women’s Day in the year 2000 we still have to talk about the religious oppression of women. Nonetheless, the reality is that millions of women are suffering and being oppressed under religious laws and Islamic governments in many different parts of the world. The past twenty years have been some of the darkest in women’s lives. With the anti-secularist backlash, the rise of political Islam, and efforts over the past two decades to impose religion on the people, thousands have been executed – decapitated or stoned to death – and medieval laws to suppress women have been revived.
Islam is the ideology in power in Iran, Afghanistan and the Sudan. In other countries such as Algeria, Palestine and even Egypt we are faced with powerful Islamic movements in opposition. In all of these, society has suffered serious setbacks in civil rights in general, and women’s rights in particular.
Yet many voices seek to justify Islam: western academics, the mainstream western media, so-called moderate Muslims and some Eastern intellectuals all try to counter people’s reasonable loathing for Islam and for Islamic movements. They tell us that what we are seeing is not the real Islam; they divide Islam into good and bad, moderate and fundamentalist.
But I shall show that what is happening to women under Islamic rule is in accordance with Islamic orthodoxy, an orthodoxy which systematically oppresses and dehumanises women. I will also touch on other religions, but my main focus will be on Islam.
According to Islam: Women belong to men
In all of the world’s major religions, women are deemed to be inferior to men. Women are men’s belongings and women can have no authority over men. According to the Bible:
“Men are superior to women, Jesus is superior to men and God is above all. Women should worship all of them”. (Corinthians 14: 34, 35).
According to the Koran:
“Men have authority over women, for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient … and those you fear may be rebellious, admonish them to their couches, and beat them”. (The Koran, Women, verse 38)
According to the Old Testament and in Judaism, men in their daily prayer thank God for not creating them women. The Old Testament states: “Women are for taking care of our children and protecting us from sin”.
That a woman counts as only half a man in legal and financial matters is specified with great precision in the Koran:
“And call into witness two men; or if two be not men, then one man and two women” (Koran, The Cow. Verse 282) and “ God charges you concerning your children: to the male the like of the portion of two female” (Koran, Women, verse 11)
Islam and the sexual oppression of Women:
According to the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, evil exists in women’s souls. Therefore they are dangerous and men should control them.
In Christianity the sexual drive is considered as evil. Women earn the grace of God by remaining celibate. St. Thomas Aquinas, who had a profound effect on Catholic thought, held that sex was always evil. Martin Luther also despised sex even though he abolished the requirement for celibacy in his reformed church. For women, lifelong virginity is the most desirable state so that they might devote themselves totally to God. In Islam women earn God’s grace by obeying their husbands. The message is clear: men dominate, women obey.
From a religious perspective, women are there merely for the sexual enjoyment of men and for purposes of reproduction. In Islam female sexuality is acknowledged, but limits and confines women to their sexual and reproductive roles. Islam considers women as a potential danger by distracting men from their duties and corrupting the community. It therefore oppresses women’s sexuality, and does so much more effectively than any other ideological system, whilst men are given the right to marry up to four wives and the right to temporary marriage as many times as they wish. Free male–female sexual relations are considered a sin in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Numerous Koranic verses define in details which sexual relations are permitted under Islam, and the punishment for any transgression (called zena) outside these limits. Zena is punishable by flogging, imprisonment and stoning to death.
The ‘danger’ in women
In Islam, women are considered dangerous both sexually and in other ways. Therefore women should not to be allowed to have any authority in society other than in their roles as wives and mothers; they become mere extensions of men. Islam’s prophet says: “There is no salvation for a man or a nation who allows women to rule over them”. So women’s freedom must be restricted. Control is made possible by the idea of hijab: the veil, which exists in Christianity and Judaism as well as Islam. The veil, or curtain, delimits the physical boundary of women’s existence in society in order to protect men and the community from the possible moral or social danger or destruction they may cause. The reasoning is as follows: “if the physical appearance of a woman can awaken feelings in a man, even though she is not aware of it, this will probably lead him to want her, which may lead to adultery”
For an ardent Muslim man, an unveiled woman is no different from a naked woman. According to Islam the appearance of unveiled women in public is an attack on the very pillars of Islamic morality. The need for women to veil themselves from strangers is explicit in the Koran (Sura 24, verse 31). Hijab symbolises women’s inferior position in Islam and their sexual segregation.
Islamic families, not only in Islamic countries but in the heart of Europe too, cover the heads of their little girls and adolescents. These little girls have not come of age, have no religion, tradition or prejudices. These girls have not joined any religious sect. It is an offence to prevent them from enjoying their social and civil rights by covering their heads with veils.
Honour killing and Islam
The strong need to control women can be traced to a phenomenon older than Islam, the honour ethic. Male relatives have the duty to protect a female’s chastity. Islamic teaching on the need to control women and to save a woman’s virginity overlaps with the honour ethic, strengthening and structuring it. The failure of women to remain chaste – even in the case of rape – is a social catastrophe of the highest order and brings shame on the whole family. The notion of honour includes alleged or suspected sexual transgression, the desire of women to choose a marriage partner of their own, or to seek divorce. The honor ethic can license a man to kill a female relative for reasons of dress or for a lifestyle he does not like. To repair the dishonour, women can be sentenced to death by their male relatives in family courts, as is currently happening in Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan and other countries as well as some European countries.
In the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia, family law and the penal code is strongly affected by Islam. Despite modernization and reform, family law and the penal code have remained largely untouched. Polygamy, men’s unconditional right to divorce their wives, the law regarding sex outside of marriage, men’s decision making over their wives’ employment and travel, and a woman’s lack of right to custody of her children are among them. With the rise of Islamic movements over the past two decades, either in opposition or in government, these laws have been reinforced while even more misogynist rules such as ghisas (law of retribution), compulsory hijab and so on, have been introduced and implemented. According to Islamic law, the legal age for a girl to wed is nine – an obvious case of sexual abuse and rape. In the last twenty years Islamic countries have witnessed an unprecedented increase in misogyny and barbarism – the blessings of Islam?
Fortunately, in Iran, there has been a strong and growing resistance to Islam and the Islamic regime from its very beginning. Since the mid 1980s, progressive movements have also arisen in Egypt, Pakistan, the Sudan and Jordan, against polygamy, honour killing, divorce law, and the sharia as the basis of family law.
In my view, any struggle against oppression and for women’s emancipation will have to tackle the issue of Islam in power and the separation of religion from the state. This is a prerequisite for women’s liberation from religious oppression. Only a strong modernist, secularist and egalitarian social movement will be able to rid the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia of Islamic control.