The situation of Muslim women is a dire one. Throughout the Islamic world, and increasingly among Muslim communities in the West, women are subjected to countless forms of physical and mental abuse. These include compulsory veiling and forced confinement, marital rape and domestic violence, denial of inheritance and child custody, polygamy and child marriages, female genital mutilation and sexual slavery, punitive mutilations and public floggings, and much else besides. Such is the plight of women in Islam, which came into the world dripping with cruelty and misogyny from every pore.
Let’s take a look at some data. According to a recent United Nations Gender Equality report, 99.3 percent of women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment. A second UN report finds that 92 percent of Egyptian women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced FGM. This report also found that 14 percent of Arab girls marry under the age of 18, and that rapists are often shown leniency or even acquitted if they marry their victims. There is also the issue of honour killings, wherein women are killed for “dishonouring” their family – for example, by dressing loosely or not agreeing to an arranged marriage.
But again, the abuse of Muslim women extends beyond the Islamic world. In a 2007 study of Muslims seeking mental health counselling in Northern Virginia, 41 percent reported experiencing domestic violence. Victims were 71 percent adult females, and 16 percent children. Further, 60 percent of all clients experienced verbal or psychological abuse in their lifetime; 50 percent experienced physical abuse; 14 percent experienced sexual abuse; and 3 percent reported having a relative killed. Indeed, witness the case of 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez, strangled to death by her father for refusing to wear the hijab.
To understood the abuse of women in Muslim communities, we must look to Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Muhammad was a product of 7th century Arabia – a deeply patriarchal society, in which women were regarded as the property of their fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, or guardians. Thus, it is precisely these attitudes which we find expressed in the Qur’an and the hadith literature. When Muslims beat their wives or lock them up, they are merely following the example of their prophet; they are not ‘fundamentalists’, but faithful adherents of Islam. In the sobering words of Ex-Muslim feminist Taslima Nasrin:
I don’t find any difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. I believe religion is the root, and from the root fundamentalism grows as a poisonous stem. If we remove fundamentalism and keep religion, then one day or another fundamentalism will grow again. I need to say that because some liberals always defend Islam and blame fundamentalists for creating problems. But Islam itself oppresses women. Islam itself doesn’t permit democracy and it violates human rights.
In this article, we will provide a sample study of the misogyny of Muhammad. In doing so, we will refute the absurd narrative of Muhammad being “the first feminist”, which propagandists for Islam are shameless enough to employ. This is more vital than ever, as the West turns a blind eye to the abuse of women in Muslim societies. Indeed, while women in Iran burn the hijab in defiance of clerical fascism, their Western counterparts rage against mansize Kleenexes and other non-issues. In an interview with the IHR Law Review, Ex-Muslim activist Yasmine Mohammed calls out this deafening silence:
Those that do not speak up [against the abuse of women in Islam] may be concerned with other issues and that is their prerogative. But I have met many feminists who have accepted the idea that if you are white you cannot speak on these issues. What is important to understand is that just like in any society there is a right and a left. In the Islamic world, those on the left argue for all the things you would expect in any other country – not cutting girls’ genitals, not forcing women to veil themselves, not forcing guardians on women. The conservatives are those who seek to preserve the status quo as defined by religious doctrines – rules for marriage, rules for women covering in public. It is very easy to see that spectrum. I, and all the women I am fighting with, are all very much on the left side of this spectrum.
But, inexplicably, the people on the right are being supported by western liberals like Oprah and Ellen. I am sure neither of them identifies as conservative or religiously conservative. It is really perplexing that they would support something that is religious conservatism. They would not stand up and support the oppressive practices of Hasidic Jews, the Westboro Baptist Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses or the gender segregation in Amish communities. They would not celebrate the practices in any of these situations because they understand the context and these examples are familiar to them. But when it comes to Islam they do not understand the context. So long as they view the hijab as merely a cultural symbol rather than a way of oppressing women around the world they will not speak up.
Women as sex objects
In Sahih al-Bukhari, we are told that the Prophet would have sex with all of his wives in a single night, totalling nine or eleven. Indeed, Muhammad was regarded by his companions as having the sex drive of thirty men. Narrated by Qatada:
Anas ibn Malik said, “The Prophet (ﷺ) used to visit all his wives in a round, during the day and night and they were eleven in number.” I asked Anas, “Had the Prophet (ﷺ) the strength for it?” Anas replied, “We used to say that the Prophet (ﷺ) was given the strength of thirty (men).” And Sa’id said on the authority of Qatada that Anas had told him about nine wives only (not eleven).
In Surat al-Naba, god-fearing Muslims are promised vineyards, flowing wine, and voluptuous women of the same age. Indeed, according to Tafsir ibn Kathir, the breasts of these maidens will be “fully rounded and not sagging, because they will be virgins, equal in age.” The verses read as follows:
For the God-fearing there is sure achievement; gardens and grapes; and buxom maidens of matching age; and goblets filled up to the brim.
In Sunan ibn Majah, we are told that those admitted to Paradise will be rewarded with seventy-two wives and a permanent erection. Thus we can understand the appeal of martyrdom and suicide attacks to sexually frustrated Muslim youths, too ugly to get a woman in this world. Narrated by Abu Umamah:
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “There is no one whom Allah will admit to Paradise but Allah will marry him to seventy-two wives, two from houris and seventy from his inheritance from the people of Hell, all of whom will have desirable front passages and he will have a male member that never becomes flaccid (i.e. soft and limp).”
In Surat al-Baqarah, wives are described as a tilth for their husbands to cultivate. A husband can demand sex from his wife at any time, whether she wants it or not. Thus, marital rape is permitted in Islam. The verse reads as follows:
Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will; but do some good act for your souls beforehand; and fear Allah. And know that ye are to meet Him (in the Hereafter), and give (these) good tidings to those who believe.
In Sahih al-Bukhari, we are told that if a husband calls his wife to bed but she refuses to oblige, then she will be cursed by the angels until morning. This is an explicit form of coercion, sanctioned by Muhammad. Narrated by Abu Hurayra:
Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “If a husband calls his wife to his bed (i.e. to have sexual relations) and she refuses and causes him to sleep in anger, the angels will curse her till morning.”
In Surat al-Talaq, it is stated that girls who have not yet started menstruating can remarry after waiting for a period of three months. Thus, in Islam, it is permitted for men to marry girls who are too young to menstruate and to have sex with them. The verse reads as follows:
And for such of your women as despair of menstruation, if ye doubt, their period (of waiting) shall be three months, along with those who have it not. And for those with child, their period shall be till they bring forth their burden. And whosoever keepeth his duty to Allah, He maketh his course easy for him.
In Sunan Abu Dawud, we are told that Muhammad married Ayesha, the daughter of Abu Bakr, when she was seven years old, and had sex with her when she reached the age of nine. Small wonder, then, that child marriages remain so prevalent in the Muslim world today. Narrated by Sulaiman:
Ayesha said, “The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) married me when I was seven years old. He had intercourse with me when I was nine years old.”
In Surat al-Nisa, Allah instructs Muhammad on how to treat his captives and slave-girls, referred to as “those whom your right hands possess”. Thus we understand that sexual slavery is permitted in Islam. The verse reads as follows:
Also (forbidden are) women already married, except those (captives and slaves) whom your right hands possess. Thus has Allah ordained for you. All others are lawful, provided you seek (them in marriage) with Mahr from your property, desiring chastity, not committing illegal sexual intercourse.
An early example of Muhammad’s slave-girls would be Safiyya bint Huyayy, whom the Prophet took as his prize after killing her father, her brother, and her husband, Kinana ibn al-Rabi, during the Battle of Khaybar. To quote Ibn Ishaq from his Sirat Rasulallah and Abdul Aziz from Sahih al-Bukhari, respectively:
Kinana ibn al-Rabi, who had the custody of the treasure of Banu Nadir, was brought to the apostle who asked him about it. He denied that he knew where it was. A Jew came to the apostle and said that he had seen Kinana going round a certain ruin every morning early. When the apostle said to Kinana, “Do you know that if we find you have it I shall kill you?” He said “Yes”. The apostle gave orders that the ruin was to be excavated and some of the treasure was found. When he asked him about the rest he refused to produce it, so the apostle gave orders to Al-Zubayr al-Awwam, “Torture him until you extract what he has.” So he kindled a fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was nearly dead. Then the apostle delivered him to Muhammad bin Maslama and he struck off his head, in revenge for his brother Mahmud.
Anas said: “We conquered Khaybar, took the captives, and the booty was collected. Dihya came and said, ‘O Allah’s Prophet! Give me a slave girl from the captives.’ The Prophet said, ‘Go and take any slave girl.’ He took Safiyya bint Huyayy. A man came to the Prophet (ﷺ) and said, ‘O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! You gave Safiyya bint Huyayy to Dihya and she is the chief mistress of the tribes of Qurayza and An-Nadir and she befits none but you.’ So the Prophet (ﷺ) said, ‘Bring him along with her.’ So Dihya came with her and when the Prophet (ﷺ) saw her, he said to Dihya, ‘Take any slave girl other than her from the captives.’ The Prophet (ﷺ) then manumitted her and married her.”
Violence against women
In Surat al-Nisa, men are instructed to beat their wives if they disobey them. Actually, it’s much worse than that: a wife doesn’t actually have to disobey her husband, he merely has to fear her disobedience. The verse reads as follows:
Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.
In Sunan Abu Dawud, Muhammad states that men do not have to justify beating their wives. This discourages women from reporting domestic abuse, knowing that their complaints will not be taken seriously. Thus, abused wives have little recourse but to conceal their wounds with make-up; indeed, there are even television programmes instructing women on how to do so. Narrated by Umar ibn al-Khattab:
The Prophet (ﷺ) said: “A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.”
In Surat al-Ahzab, Muhammad’s wives are commanded to stay at home and to dress modestly. This is why so many Muslim women are denied an education, and end up confined to the kitchen and the bedroom. The verse reads as follows:
Stay at home, and do not flaunt your finery as they used to in the pagan past; keep up the prayer, give the prescribed alms, and obey God and His Messenger. God wishes to keep uncleanness away from you, people of the House, and to purify you thoroughly.
In Islam, virginity is held up as a supreme virtue. Thus, in order for a Muslim man to keep his honour, his daughters must remain chaste. To guarantee this, it is common – especially in North Africa – for a Muslim woman to have her clitoris removed and labia stitched shut, to be broken only by her husband upon marriage.
In the West, this barbaric practice is rightly known as female genital mutilation. Muslim apologists are at pains to insist that Islam does not support FGM. However, there are numerous narrations which show that it was standard practice among Muhammad’s women – including Ayesha herself. To quote from Sunan ibn Majah:
It was narrated that Ayesha, the wife of the Prophet, said: “When the two circumcised parts meet, then bath is obligatory. The Messenger of Allah and I did that, and we bathed.”
In Surat al-Mai’dah, it is ordained that both male and female thieves should have their hands cut off. Thus, Islam calls for people to be severely and permanently handicapped for a minor transgression. The verse reads as follows:
As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is Mighty, Wise.
In Surat al-Nur, it is ordained that men and women who engage in sex outside of marriage (“fornication”) should be flogged with one hundred lashes. This includes victims of rape; see the notorious case of “the girl from Qatif”, a Saudi girl who, having been raped fourteen times by a gang of seven, was sentenced to two hundred lashes and jailed for six months. The verse reads as follows:
The fornicating woman and the fornicating man, flog each one of them with one hundred stripes. And no pity for them should withhold you from (complying with) Allah’s religion, if you really believe in Allah and the Last Day. And a group of believers must witness their punishment.
In Sahih Muslim, Abdullah ibn Abbas narrates a speech by Umar ibn al-Khattab, in which the caliph confirms that the Qur’an used to contain a verse ordering men and women who commit adultery to be stoned to death. Umar’s words are as follows:
Verily Allah sent Muhammad (ﷺ) with truth and He sent down the Book upon him, and the verse of stoning was included in what was sent down to him. We recited it, retained it in our memory and understood it. Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) awarded the punishment of stoning to death (to the married adulterer and adulteress) and, after him, we also awarded the punishment of stoning. I am afraid that with the lapse of time, the people (may forget it) and may say: “We do not find the punishment of stoning in the Book of Allah”, and thus go astray by abandoning this duty prescribed by Allah. Stoning is a duty laid down in Allah’s Book for married men and women who commit adultery when proof is established, or if there is pregnancy, or a confession.
In the civilised world, where men are expected to practice self-restraint, it is perfectly acceptable for women to wear bikinis, swimsuits, high-rise jeans, low-cut tops, and other forms of revealing clothing. However, in Sahih Muslim, Muhammad threatens such women with hell-fire. Narrated by Abu Hurayra:
Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said: “Two are the types of the denizens of Hell whom I did not see: people having flogs like the tails of the ox with them and they would be beating people, and the women who would be dressed but appear to be naked, who would be inclined (to evil) and make their husbands incline towards it. Their heads would be like the humps of the bukht camel inclined to one side. They will not enter Paradise and they would not smell its odour whereas its odour would be smelt from such and such distance.”
Sticking with threats of hell-fire against women, in Sahih al-Bukhari, we are told that when Muhammad was shown the fires of hell, he saw that the majority of those burning therein were not murderers or rapists, but rather women who were ungrateful to their husbands. Narrated by Ibn Abbas:
The Prophet (ﷺ) said: “I was shown the Hell-fire and that the majority of its dwellers were women who were ungrateful.” It was asked, “Do they disbelieve in Allah?” (or are they ungrateful to Allah?). He replied, “They are ungrateful to their husbands and are ungrateful for the favours and the good (charitable deeds) done to them. If you have always been good (benevolent) to one of them and then she sees something in you (not of her liking), she will say, ‘I have never received any good from you’.”
Degradation of women
In Surat al-Ahzab, women are ordered to cover up when going outdoors, so that men will know they are “decent” and won’t molest them. The implication here is that women who don’t wear the veil are indecent and invite men to sexually assault them. This is textbook victim-blaming, a staple of rape culture. It is the Islamic equivalent of “she was asking for it”. The verse reads as follows:
O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) over their bodies (when outdoors). That is most convenient that they could be known as such (i.e. decent and chaste) and not molested.
In Surat al-Nisa, it is ordained that if a husband fears that one wife will not be sufficient to take care of children, including those orphaned by war, then he can marry up to three more wives. Thus, in the Muslim world, it is common for women to suffer the indignity of having to share one husband. The verse reads as follows:
If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.
In Sahih al-Bukhari, Muhammad is quoted as saying that any nation that has a woman for its leader is doomed to failure. So it is that in August 2021, when the Taliban were asked by a Western journalist about female appointees to the new government in Afghanistan, they broke down in laughter. Narrated by Abu Bakr:
During the battle of Al-Jamal, Allah benefited me with a word (I heard from the Prophet). When the Prophet heard the news that the people of the Persia had made the daughter of Khosrau their Queen, he said, “Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.”
In Surat al-Baqarah, it is stated that men are “a degree above” women. However, in Sunan ibn Majah, we are told that Muhammad thought so poorly of women that, if he had been given the authority from Allah, he would have ordered wives to bow before their husbands. Narrated by Ayesha:
The messenger of Allah said: “If I were to command anyone to prostrate before anyone else, I would have commanded women to prostrate before their husbands. If a man were to command his wife to move (something) from a red mountain to a black mountain, and from a black mountain to a red mountain, her duty is to obey to him.”
In Surat al-Baqarah, it is stated that when two parties agree upon a debt, two male witnesses must be present. However, if two men aren’t available, then one man and two women will suffice. Thus, in Islam, the testimony of two women is worth that of one man. Indeed, shari’ah courts are inherently prejudiced against women, not least with regards to domestic abuse. The verse reads as follows:
O ye who believe! When ye contract a debt for a fixed term, record it in writing… And call to witness, from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not (at hand) then a man and two women, of such as ye approve as witnesses, so that if the one erreth (through forgetfulness) the other will remember. And the witnesses must not refuse when they are summoned.
Muslim apologists commonly boast that Islam gave women rights of inheritance. However, when we look into the matter, we find that they have little to be proud of. In Surat al-Nisa, Allah commands that male heirs should receive twice that of their female counterparts. The verse reads as follows:
Allah commands you regarding your children: the share of the male will be twice that of the female. If you leave only two females, their share is two-thirds of the estate. But if there is only one female, her share will be one-half.
When it comes to divorce rights, Islam is even harsher against women. In Sunan Abu Dawud, we are told that if a divorced woman remarries, she loses custody of her children. Narrated by Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-’As:
A woman said: “Messenger of Allah, my womb is a vessel to this son of mine, my breasts, a water-skin for him, and my lap a guard for him, yet his father has divorced me, and wants to take him away from me.” The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “You have more right to him as long as you do not marry.”
In Sahih al-Bukhari, we are told that Muhammad once chastised a group of women for their “deficiency in intelligence and religion”. To substantiate these criticisms, Muhammad invokes the ‘fact’ that the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man, and that because women experience menstruation, they are unable to pray or fast at any given time. Narrated by Abu Sa’id al-Khudri:
Once Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) went out to the musalla (to offer the prayer) of ‘Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.”
As if it wasn’t bad enough that Ayesha was raped by Muhammad as a child, in Sahih Muslim, we are told that she used to scrape the semen off of his clothes. Narrated by Al-Aawad and Hammam:
Ayesha said, “I used to scrape off the semen from the garment of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ).”
The Caged Virgin
In this article, we have outlined the abuse of women in Muslim societies and the basis of this abuse in Islamic scripture. To reinforce these points, we will now co-opt the writings of the Somalian Ex-Muslim and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What follows here is an excerpt from chapter three of The Caged Virgin, a bold call to arms for the emancipation of women from religious oppression, and an essential read for anyone with an interest in Islam and the rights of women. While Western politicians wax romantic about the hijab, Ayaan inspires us to tear it off and to expose the rape culture which underpins it.
Excerpt from ‘The Virgin’s Cage’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
The problems – aggression, economic and scientific stagnation, repression, epidemics, and social unrest – that confront most of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims spread over five continents cannot be explained by simply one or two factors. A complex combination of factors, sometimes regional, has evolved over time, one of which is the sexual morality of Islam, originally a tribal morality that has been elevated within Islam to the status of a dogma. This explanation appears too rarely in the existing literature. This pre-modern morality was sanctified in the Qur’an and then further developed in the traditions of the Prophet. For many Muslims this morality expresses itself through an obsession with virginity. This obsession with mastery over the sexuality of women is not limited to Islam, but is also evident in other religions (e.g., among Christians, Jews, and Hindus). Yet it has not hindered these other religious cultures’ modern development as much as it has the Muslims’. The value attached to a woman’s virginity is so great that it eclipses the human catastrophes and social costs that result from it.
Muslim girls are often told that “a girl with a ruptured hymen is like a used object.” And an object that is once used becomes permanently worthless. A girl who has lost her “seal of being unused” won’t find a marriage partner and is doomed to spend the rest of her days in her parents’ home. Moreover, if defloration occurs outside wedlock, she has dishonoured her family to the tenth degree of kinship. Other families will gossip about them. They will say that the family is known for its loose women who throw themselves away to “the first man who comes along.” So the girl is punished by her family. Punishments range from name-calling to expulsion or confinement and may even extend to a shotgun wedding either to the man who is responsible for the defloration or to some “generous man” willing to cover the family’s shame. These so-called generous men are often poor, feeble-minded, old, impotent, or all of these. In the worst-case scenario, the girl will be murdered, often by her own family. The United Nations reports that five thousand girls are murdered annually for this reason in Islamic countries, including Jordan, so often cited as a “liberal” regime.
To avoid this cruel fate, Muslim families do everything possible to ensure that their daughters’ hymens remain intact before marriage. The methods vary according to the country and specific circumstances in which people live and the means available to them. But everywhere the measures are aimed at girls, the possessors of the hymen, and not at the men who could break it.
Not long ago the spokesman for the Turkish Ministry of Justice, Professor Dogan Soyasian, stated that all men want to marry virgins, and that men who deny this are hypocrites. A raped woman is still advised to marry the man who raped her, the argument being that time heals all wounds. In time the woman will be able to love her rapist, and they may become very happy together. But if the woman has been raped by several men, a marriage like that will have a lower chance of success because her husband will see her as a dishonourable woman.
When it concerns their sexuality, men in Islamic culture are seen as irresponsible, unpredictable, scary beasts who immediately lose all self-control upon seeing a woman. This reminds me of an experience I had when I was still quite young. My grandmother had a billy goat. We were playing in front of the house, and in the evening, just before it got dark, all the goats in the neighbourhood returned home in a long procession. It was a charming sight. But as soon as Grandma’s billy goat saw the other goats, he galloped over to them and mounted the first goat he could get hold of. We children thought this was very cruel. When we asked Grandma what her goat was doing, she answered that it was none of her business: if the neighbours didn’t want their goats to be mounted, they should lead them home along another path. Islam represents its own men as though they were like that billy goat; when Muslim men see an uncovered woman, they immediately leap on her. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; a Muslim man has no reason to learn to control himself. He doesn’t need to and he isn’t taught to. Sexual morality is aimed exclusively at women, who are always blamed for any lapse.
From a very young age, girls are surrounded by an atmosphere of mistrust. They learn early that they are untrustworthy beings who constitute a danger for the clan. Something in them drives men crazy. To illustrate this attitude, let me tell you of an exchange I had with Ahmed, a father I met at an Islamic school last year who told me that in the past he had been a non-practising Muslim. He drank, committed adultery, and paid virtually no attention to the pillars of Islam. A few years ago he had been converted, as he himself put it. He read the Qur’an and decided to raise his daughter in the Islamic way. I asked him why his daughter, a child of seven, had to wear the hijab, the headscarf. “I know Islam,” I said to him. “The hijab isn’t needed until a girl reaches puberty.” “Yes,” he said, “but she has to learn to wear it, so that later it will seem natural.” He explained to me the rules of Islam concerning the hijab and said, “Here in the Netherlands women wear very little in the summer. That leads to accidents.” Ahmed had himself witnessed such an accident, he told me. Last summer he saw one truck collide with another. “The truck driver who caused the accident wasn’t watching watching the road but was looking at the bare legs of a beautiful woman who was walking by.”
For this reason girls have to cover themselves, make themselves invisible. And for this reason they feel constantly guilty and ashamed, because it is almost impossible to live a normal life and be invisible to men. Girls constantly think they’re doing something wrong. Not only is their external freedom to choose where to go or where not to go inhibited, but so is their inner freedom. My aunt once put a piece of mutton out in the sun. It attracted columns of ants and swarms of flies. Auntie said, “Men are just like these ants and flies: when they see a woman they can’t restrain their lust.” I saw the fat melt in the sun as the ants and flies feasted on it. It left a dirty trace behind.
Girls’ virginity is protected in various ways, one of which is house arrest, which can start at puberty. To secure their virginity, millions of Muslim women are sentenced to domestic work indoors and hours of endless boredom. Should it become absolutely necessary for a girl to go outside, she is allowed only if she keeps her head covered and dresses in a cloak that hides everything. This is to signal to men that she is sexually unavailable… A second way of preserving virginity is to keep men and women who are not close family members in separate quarters indoors. This too amounts to house arrest. In Saudi Arabia, a bastion of Islam where the two holy houses of Allah (Mecca and Medina) are located, this division has been taken to extremes – other relatively oil-rich sheikhdoms, as well as Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen, follow close behind.
By far the most extreme method of safeguarding virginity is female circumcision. The process involves the cutting away of the girl’s clitoris, the outer and inner labia, as well as the scraping of the walls of her vagina with a sharp object – a fragment of glass, a razor blade, or a potato knife, and then the binding together of her legs, so that the walls of the vagina can grow together. This happens in more than thirty countries, including Egypt, Somalia, and Sudan. Although it is not prescribed in the Qur’an, for those Muslims who cannot do without the labour that girls perform outside the walls of their home, this originally tribal custom has practically become a religious duty, and is defended as such. Proponents point to the fact that the circumcision of women existed in the period before and during Muhammad’s time, and that the Prophet Muhammad did not explicitly prohibit it. The so-called infibulation (literally “stitching up”) offers a guarantee over women and is implemented under the watchful eyes of mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and other female guardians.
The distrust of women reaches its apex during the wedding night test: is the Muslim bride a virgin or not? Due to the gender apartheid that banishes women from public life, a Muslim man has no natural way to get to know a woman with whom he might fall in love. His family is therefore entrusted with the choice, as only they would know where to find a genuine virgin. Although the recently wedded pair often don’t even know each other, they nevertheless must have intercourse on their wedding night. Even if the girl doesn’t want to, and her body closes up in fear or disgust, she must. And even if her husband doesn’t want to, either, he must demonstrate that he’s a man and that he can perform. The wedding guests will wait outside until a bloodstained sheet has been displayed. This compulsory coupling is in fact a socially sanctioned rape as well as a blatant denial of the worth of the individual.
A marriage is never simple, but a Muslim marriage begins at the very outset with a sign of mistrust, followed by an act of force. It is in this atmosphere of mistrust and force that the next generation of children is born and brought up.
Many young Muslim women living in Western countries have devised ways to enjoy sex before marriage, while still taking into account their families’ obsession with virginity. For example, they will insert foreign objects into their genitals to accomplish opportune bleeding on the night in question. They also can have their virginity “restored” if they were circumcised and had sex before marriage, a procedure that until recently was entirely reimbursed by the Dutch health insurance system. Upon a marriage proposal, a Somalian woman in Europe can have her vaginal stitches renewed by a Sudanese gynaecologist in Italy; a Sudanese can go to a Somalian physician in Italy; their addresses are well known.
After marriage, the mistrust of women only intensifies – now that the bride has been deflowered, her husband’s husband’s fears take on even greater proportions – he has just punctured his unique means of checking whether his wife has been to bed with another man. The only way of preventing her from cheating on him is to deny her access to the outside world as much as possible. She must have his permission, or his company, for every step she takes outside the door. Supposedly, he has obtained this authority from Allah and from centuries-old traditions. The eleventh-century imam Al-Ghazali, a scholar widely known among the orthodox, wrote: “The well brought up woman…doesn’t leave the house, except with his definite approval, and then dressed in unattractive old clothes.” And: “She always puts her husband’s rights ahead of her own and that of her family. She is neat and clean and is always prepared to let him enjoy her sexually.”
A good woman obeys her husband and obliges him… In accordance with the great and honoured Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab (whose status, for the Sunnis, almost equals that of the Prophet Muhammad), a woman is given three hundred lashes when four faithful Muslims testify that she has lied. Fortunately, this punishment is stretched out over three days so that the wounds are kept within bounds.
But Muslim women are only human, and from time to time they make up stories. Muslim men are not allowed to make love to a menstruating woman – the Qur’an says so – and this claim thereby offers excellent protection. A Muslim woman who has no desire to make love, and may become pregnant for the umpteenth time, may tell her husband that she is menstruating, a well-known excuse among Muslim women, comparable to the Western woman’s “headache.” Or, without her husband’s knowledge, she may use contraceptives, if they are available. Some married women have abortions without telling their husbands. All this means that lies are constantly being told about the most intimate matters. It is a survival strategy, but it also becomes a way of living, and when a man discovers that his wife is lying, his suspicions that she is evil are confirmed.
Children experience their mother’s lies on a daily basis. For example, if she admitted that she went out alone, her mother-in-law and her husband would be angry, so she lies. Such deceits and denials become commonplace. Admission would lead to loss of face and possibly violence. In many families, children get no allowance. A boy who steals from the household petty cash and is questioned about it does not admit the deed, for if he does he will certainly be humiliated and verbally abused. If he denies it, his honour is unblemished, and as long as he denies it, his father too can deny it to the outside world. Children learn from their mothers that it pays to lie. If they don’t want to be punished they’ve got to come up with stories.
This “virgins’ cage” has consequences for women, but also for men and children. The virgins’ cage is, in fact, a double cage. Women and girls are locked up in the inner cage, but surrounding this is a larger cage in which the entire Islamic culture has been imprisoned. Caging women in order to guard their virginity leads not only to frustration and violence for the individuals directly involved, but also to socio-economic backwardness for the entire community. These caged women actually exert a harmful influence on children, especially young boys. Since most women in the Islamic world are excluded from education, and are purposely kept ignorant, when these same women bear and raise children, they can pass on only their limited knowledge, and so perpetrate a vicious cycle of ignorance from generation to generation.
Even first-generation Muslim mothers in the West have no more than elementary education. Many are illiterate and know nothing of the society in which they have to find their way. With any luck, those who immigrated as children will become educated at a later age, but as long as the traditional sexual morality remains their parents’ guiding principle for raising them, their socio-economic progress will be difficult, if not impossible.
For many Muslims, the sexual morality of Islam has even more-far-reaching consequences. Unable to express openly the hatred they feel toward their husbands, some women direct it against their children. Of course, this does not apply to all women, for many of whom children are a consolation. But the relationship between parents and children almost never resembles what is usual in an individualistic society like the Netherlands.
Of course, violence against women often occurs within Western families, too, but Westerners emphatically repudiate violence, while most Muslim families regard violence against women as something that women themselves provoke because they don’t follow the rules. The family and the social environment do not disapprove of it. They reason that if your husband hits you, it must be because you had it coming to you. Western neighbours, family members, and friends don’t believe that the mistreatment of women is an acceptable educational device.
The Qur’an assigns great importance to values such as trust, truthfulness, and learning. Yet in just the few examples I have recounted above we can see how things actually stand in daily Islamic life – it is a dismal state of affairs. Mistrust is everywhere, and lies rule…
Psychological conditioning is very powerful, and it takes great energy and force of mind and will to break out of it. Many Muslim girls are brought up according to the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad, to live subserviently and submissively. It is very difficult for them to liberate themselves from this cage when they are older. Every Muslim is expected to submit to the will of Allah, but the girls and women have to submit most of all. This upbringing can have so great an influence that women never succeed in escaping from the cage. Because they have internalized their subordination, they no longer experience it as an oppression by an external force but as a strong internal shield. Women who have mastered the survival strategies derive a certain pride from living this way. They are like prisoners suffering from Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages fall in love with the hostage takers and establish a deep, intimate contact with them. But it is an unhealthy intimacy, comparable to slaves who are subordinate not only in body, but also psychologically, and who preferred the certainty of their existence in slavery to a freedom that they perceive as treacherous.
When I visited with the women of the Turkish movement Milli Görüs, I found them assertive and clamorous, almost to the point of being aggressive. They angrily defended their own oppression: “I want to wear a hijab, I want to obey my husband.” I have also met Moroccan women who said: “I want to wear the hijab, because Allah the Exalted has commanded it.” “Well,” I respond, “if you want to do everything that Allah the Exalted has said, then you’ll stay in your cage.”
Meanwhile, many are waiting for an enlightenment to take place in Islam. But that enlightenment won’t come by itself. That is why the way in which Muslims think about Islam has to change. Muslims need to think differently about how they deal with their faith, about life, about giving meaning to life, and about their own sexual morality. The few Muslims who have gained their individuality can hold up a mirror to the community from which they have emerged to make them face their still-undeveloped individuality, to make them see the “I” that is constantly being oppressed and curbed by dogma, prescriptions, and the stifling culture of gossip that rules in most Islamic communities. Emancipation doesn’t mean the liberation of the community of the faithful or its safeguarding from the power of evil outside forces, such as colonialism, capitalism, the Jews, and the Americans. It means the liberation of the individual from that same community of the faithful. And to liberate himself or herself as an individual, he or she must first come to think differently about sexuality…
Muslim men and women must carefully, thoughtfully re-evaluate their current sexual morality and their adherence to Islamic moral guidance. They must also determine how the prescribed morality is actually practised; what are its real-life consequences and results. For instance, how many people succeed in living up to the standard that everyone must enter into marriage virginal and pure, the way Allah wants it, according to the Qur’an? How do men and women actually relate to one another in the real world, in day-to-day life? To what extent are family violence and violence against women unintended consequences of the striving after an unattainable ideal that is meant to secure an agreeable place in the afterlife? Is overpopulation and the rise of sexually transmitted diseases, especially AIDS, in Islamic countries a direct consequence of the existing sexual morality? What about the rise in the number of abortions among Muslims in the West?
Instead of devoting their energy and money to the development of an even larger atomic bomb – as Pakistan and Iran are doing – the Islamic world would be better employed in critically examining its own sexual morality and the suffocating effects of its own cultures and societies, and devising proposals for change.