ANALYSIS Non-Muslim women: the unpalatable truth

by - 29th May 2013

Dr Taj Hargey: 'Outright condemnation'The recent conviction of seven Muslim men in Oxford who ran a sex-trafficking ring since 2006 has been widely reported with questions about the ethnic identity of both perpetrators and victims. The girls are all ‘white and English’ with no further affiliation noted while the perpetrators are from Pakistan, Egypt and North Africa with one common denominator: they are all from Muslim backgrounds.

The questions therefore revolve around the origins of the unspeakable wickedness inflicted on these girls. This case is also not unique in the UK, but follows on convictions for similar so-called sex gangs in Rochdale and Derby with several others awaiting trial.

Most mainstream reports warn against stereotyping. Commentators swung wildly between the Guardian’s focus on the failures of society, to David Starkey’s blaming ‘their cultural norms’ in 2012.

There was some slightly odd blame-shifting too, for instance Bina Shah in the Independent claiming that ‘Victorian misogyny’ lies at the heart of all cultures that emphasise female purity.

Some notable Muslim authors - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Daily Mail and Mohamed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation in the Oxford Mail - warned that the underlying issues of race, ethnicity and religion needed to be examined if any real change was to be made to attitudes. Shafiq thought that ‘some gate-keepers are slamming the door on truth’ in trying to find excuses for these behaviours.

A number of initiatives are now being taken within the Muslim community to address Muslim attitudes to sexuality and women, but they have yet to make clear how they will explore whether, and how, Islam has shaped some of these behaviours. The proposed programmes seem to be more about concerns for integration and combating right-wing views. Julie Siddiqi who established the Islamic Society of Britain and is a white convert to Islam, gives her reason to Emily Dugan in the Independent for Muslim action against these crimes as being to disallow a vacuum wherein the voices of the BNP and EDL have the upper hand.

Taj Hargey’s response on Radio 4, reported by Hayley Dixon in the Daily Mail, was the only outright condemnation of attitudes to women in the Muslim community acknowledging a ‘misguided orthodoxy’ that sees women as second-class citizens. He also admitted on the BBC World Service’s World Update programme and elsewhere that these attitudes might come from ideas about slave ownership in the Qur`an.  A distorted view of women taught in madrassas created ‘a drip-drip effect’ of all women as objects.


Non-Muslim women: ‘failures of society’?

The orthodoxy Hargey talks about is an idea that women are a symbol of the community at the same time as being the ‘other’. While the Qur`an describes gender relations often in equal terms, for example in surah 33:35 and 48:6, this equality is eclipsed by verses where women are singled out. The issue of veiling, or hijab, for instance becomes an ideal through which women as a group become hidden, silenced and subjugated to men. Surah 24:31 says women ‘should draw their khumur over their bosoms and not display their beauty’, but in Muslim history it becomes a command to cover the body completely so that the female figure and individuality of a woman is often unrecognisable.[1]

These ideas are picked out by classical Islamic commentators to form Shari’ah law. The Islamic feminist scholar, Asma Barlas, says that conservative Islamic readings turn the intent of the Qur`an upside down from women and men who were created from a single soul in surah 4:1 to a dangerous and depraved female nature that ‘can be kept in check only by “disappearing” women from view.’[2]

Even if some Muslim women do not cover with the hijab, these ideas influence both men and women to set up a system of male dominance, where non-Muslim men may become part of the ‘master-class’ by converting, but women’s differentness and inferiority can never change.[3]

There also seems to be a psychology of the veil that lingers in modern practices of veiling, from the see-through veil of a western bride to the blue burqa of an Afghan woman, which connects the unveiled woman with immodesty and sexual availability. In Pakistan in particular, Hudood Ordinances were introduced by General Zia in his Islamization of the state by including rulings and punishments from the Qur`an and Sunnah. These laws had a particular effect on women in that a woman who was raped could also be accused of zina (fornication). The laws were repealed only in 2006 after much criticism and public scrutiny and replaced by The Protection of Women Bill of 2006.

Fair game

However, lately we have become particularly aware how ideas about modesty can have consequences for non-Muslim women. The covering of a woman is prescribed for believing women, i.e. Muslim women (see surah 33:59-60), so that they are set apart for respect and honour. Leyla Ahmed, in Women and Gender in Islam notes that this instruction echoes ancient Assyrian laws about veiling that considered women in public to be prostitutes unless they veiled to show ‘which women were under male protection and which were fair game.’[4]

The Qur`an also warns Muslims not to associate with non-Muslims, for instance surah 3:28 says: ‘Let believers not take unbelievers as friends’ and in surah 5:60: ‘Do not seek friendship … with infidels (kufar).’ While Jews, Christians and some other faiths are given a different status as ‘People of the Book’, their privileges are limited by surah 5:54 saying: ‘take not Jews and Christians for friends and protectors.’

These teachings come from later surahs compiled in Madinah, from where according to Islamic history, the Muslims returned to conquer and subjugate the pagan Meccans (Makkans) in 630CE.

Mohammed’s treaties also broke allegiances between Christian or Jewish tribes to bring them under the rule of the Madinan state, the first true caliphate. The righteous Madinan state replaces the paganism of the Time of Ignorance, or jahiliyya, and women again become the symbols of this social change. The Qur`an commands the wives of Mohammed ‘not to flaunt their adornments like the jahiliyya’ in surah 33:33.

Women from the conquered tribes automatically became slaves just like in other parts of the ancient Near East. They are described as ‘those whom your right hand possesses’ and the Qur’an permits conquering men sexual access to these women in 33:50: ‘O prophet, we have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid dowers and those whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war, whom Allah has assigned to thee.’

Some have argued that the Qur`an actually provides a form of protection for slaves compared with pre-Islamic (jahili) society.[5]  When the Qur`an allows Muslim men to marry their slaves it urges them to consider their virtue and the moral character of the slave rather than lustful ideas (surah 4:25). The Islamic feminist author Asma Barlas argues that modern-day Muslim men who assault women because of indecent dress live by a jahili, or pre-Islamic pagan mindset that has persisted through the Islamization of the veil.[6]

Binary vision

Conservative interpretation of the Qur`an combines with attempts to revive the caliphate in radical Islamist thinking. The binary Islam-righteous/jahiliyya-unrighteous division of the world is not only an idea in an ancient scripture, but a potent scheme in the political thought of modern Muslim thinkers such as al-Maududi and Sayyid Qutb, founders of Islamism.

The Islam/jahiliyya dividing line is a clear and simple way to distinguish between believers (muslimun wa-muslimat) and unbelievers (kafirun wa-kafirat) and provides easy lesson-material in mosques and Madrassas.  It is this which, in Taj Hargey’s words, forms the drip-drip teaching of women as chattel and possessions, and that, to some minds, may licence depraved exploitation of kafir women.

The ‘misguided orthodoxy’ does not, however, always seep insidiously into young Muslim men’s minds behind the closed doors of madrassa classrooms. Occasionally it bursts through the cracks when public leaders have made off-the-cuff remarks that show uncensored, some would even say real, Muslim attitudes towards non-Muslim women.

Sheikh al-Hilali: 'Unveiled women are like uncovered meat' A sermon reported on the BBC by the mufti of Australia, Sheikh Taj Din al-Hilali, declared in October 2006 that ‘women who do not veil are like uncovered meat that attracts predators.'  These remarks echo the mufti of Copenhagen who claimed – as reported in the Copenhagen Post in 2004 - that ‘women who do not wear headscarves are asking for rape.’

However, the comments by these two men are surpassed in 2011 by a Kuwaiti woman activist, Salwa al-Mutairi, who suggested sex slavery as a solution to the infidelity of Muslim men. She argued that women from Chechnya that are prisoners of war might have a better life as sex slaves of Kuwaiti men than dying of starvation in Chechnya.

These extreme and arrogant remarks by singular Muslim leaders are widely denounced, and reports always stress that these are minority views, which as a percentage of the Muslim population, they certainly are.

But in the internet age, it is highly unlikely that such remarks will remain within their intended tight circle. And these comments feed a growing perception that the exploitation of non-Muslim girls by Muslim men displays a deeper-lying agenda of hatred and disregard of non-Muslim life in too many small pockets of Islam.

Georgina JardimGeorgina Jardim lectured in Arabic, Hebrew and Near Eastern Cultures at the University of Johannesburg.  She is currently undertaking doctoral research into a female character in the Qur’an.

[1] See exposition by Barabara Freyer Stowasser, Women in the Qur`an, Traditions, and Interpretation (OUP: 1994), p. 93

[2] Asma Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur`an (University of Texas Press: 2002), p. 56

[3] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (Yale University Press: 1992), p. 7

[4] Yale University Press: 1992, p. 15

[5] ‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur`an (University of Texas Press: 2002), p. 56

[6] Barlas, p. 57