Edited for brevity and focus.
A topic that I wish more Muslim feminists would address in the Blogosphere is that of concubines in Islam. I know that most will flail their arms in the air and moan “it doesn’t happen anymore so get on with other important issues”, but Muslim women must understand that it “does still happen” and it is a very important issue that must be addressed immediately.
Most active Muslim feminist bloggers write from outside the Arab world and if they have never lived in the Arab world they will not know the intricate realities of the Islam that is practiced by men and women here. Our sad disregard for their plight has caused the abuse and assault to escalate rapidly.
While I disagree with slavery in general, my particular concern has always been with concubinage. Slavery and concubinage continued openly in the Arab and Muslim lands until as late as the 1960s. And it still exists in Chad, Mali, Niger, Sudan, Ethiopia and Mauritania (where approximately 90,000 black Mauritanians are enslaved by Arab/Berber owners). In 1997, El Hassan Ould Benyamin, a masjid imam in Tayarat openly condemned efforts to abolish slavery:
“This ‘abolition’ [of slavery] is illegal because it is contrary to the teachings of the fundamental text of Islamic law, the Quran … [and] amounts to the expropriation from Muslims of their goods; goods that were acquired legally.”
In all these countries, sex with slaves is a given and is tolerated by other Muslims as well as wives of men who keep concubines. Sexual slavery is an “epidemic” in Darfur. You can read here how as late as 2003 there have been Islamic leaders calling for slavery to be reinstated. Shaikh Saad Al-Buraik openly urged Palestinians to practice concubinage by saying that, ‘(Jewish) women are yours to take, legitimately. God made them yours. Why don’t you enslave their women?’
I don’t wish to go into the theological underpinnings of sex with slaves; I want to draw attention to some groundbreaking work that has been done particularly by Segal (2001) to explain how slavery and concubinage became synonymous with ‘black people’ which has resulted in slavery still existing in Africa.
Segal explains that Arabs preferred Africans for slavery because according to some of the most renowned scholars African people were created for slavery[i]. Thus by the Middle Ages, the Arabic word abd was exclusively used for a black slave, while mamluk referred to a white slave.
Segal mentions that thousands of Berber women were publicly sold at Cairo in 1077 for revolting. That is where the demand for Black concubines gained sudden popularity. Al Idrisi spoke of the beauty of Nubian concubines in these terms:
Their women are of surpassing beauty. They are circumcised and fragrant-smelling… their lips are thin, their mouths small and their hair flowing. Of all the black women, they are the best for the pleasures of the bed … It is on account of these qualities of theirs that the rulers of Egypt were so desirous of them and outbid to purchase them, afterwards fathering children from them.
Similarly, Segal notes that Burckhardt found that Hijazi men especially from Mecca always preferred Ethiopian women as concubines:
The concubines are always Abyssinian slaves. No wealthy Meccan prefers domestic peace to the gratification of his passions; they all keep mistresses in common with their lawful wives … Arabians are more expensive, and less disposed to yield to the will of the husband … Upon their arrival (foreigners also) buy a female companion, with the design of selling her at their departure.
What can be derived from the two passages quoted above are the following few important points:
- African women were preferred as concubines for their physical qualities
- Hijazi men preferred their passions over domestic peace
- African concubines were not “expensive”
- They easily yielded to the will of their owners because they were in bondage
These are the also the main points why domestic servants from Ethiopia, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Philippines are sexually assaulted today by Muslims living in Muslim countries. These women are attractive but powerless in a foreign country, they are poor and dependent on their host families and in most cases are in no situation to deny the sexual advances of their sponsors. If they stand up for their rights and do collect the courage to complain against the sexual assault, they run the risk of being punished for fornication under Sharia law.
However, men find nothing wrong in approaching these women because they believe they have ownership of these women since they sponsor them. More importantly, they have never been taught that a woman’s consent is necessary for sex to take place since in their culture the right to consent lies only with a free woman who is a legal wife.
Wafa has a horrific story to share on her blog today. There is the case of a man willing to swap his old and beaten car with a healthy Indian or Sri Lanka housemaid! There are also photos of brutally abused maids by their female owners! (Something to ponder on is the possibility that perhaps the female abusers of these maids are jilted wives who are jealous of these younger and more attractive foreign women – after all, their husbands are known to prefer their passions over domestic peace!). This happens in countries where slavery is still silently practiced for which Butt bravely accuses Muslims in carrying out gender apartheid. Exactly a year ago CNN published this graphic tale of an Indonesian maid treated as a sex slave for more than a year. The Women’s Rights website carries more stories. Across the border in Sudan, slavery is still firmly in place. (Also this, and this).
It is obvious in today’s moral structure to treat sex with non-consenting women as immoral, indecent and plainly – rape. Today even if slavery exists, sex with a slave is considered rape. A woman is now seen as an adult human being; an equal to the male human. A woman, even if socially inferior, deserves full right over her own sexuality and hence her consent is necessary.
Perhaps many Muslim feminists are scared to talk about concubinage in Islam because it would seem that their loyalties don’t lie with Islam (there is Kecia Ali’s book but that’s almost it). There is invariably the need for justification with words similar to “to talk only about the Middle East is an obvious attempt to demonize Muslims and Islam. Yes, the situation of female maids in the Middle East is often atrocious; but so is the situation of female maids in Asia, and for that matter, of Filipino workers enslaved in U.S country clubs.”
However, Muslim feminists, I feel, must talk about these problems because first, misery can’t and shouldn’t be compared; second, if we don’t talk about the atrocities committed by Muslims, then we offer the chance to others to discuss it on their terms; third, no matter how far removed we are from the original Islamic idea of slavery and concubinage, the fact is that today it is a Muslim problem if it happens in a Muslim country and so it is our problem; and finally any woman who is abused by a Muslim becomes the problem of a Muslim feminist.
My questions to you are:
- Why do you think many Muslim feminists ignore to discuss the suffering of women sold into slavery?
- What concrete steps do you think Muslim feminists must take to end this suffering?
- How do you feel about all this as a Muslim and a feminist?
Concubinage. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_and_slavery#Concubinage
Segal, R. (2001). Islam’s Black Slaves. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Sikainga, Ahmad A. (1996). Slaves Into Workers: Emancipation and Labor in Colonial Sudan. University of Texas Press.
Thousands of Nigerian women ‘found in Mali slave camps’, BBC report. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-11438341
[i] Based on Ibn Sina’s work on relationship between climate and human temperament Said Al-Andalusi, a judge at Toledo said that Africans were best suited to slavery because, “living under the long presence of the sun at the zenith causes their temperaments to become hot and their humors fiery, their color black and their hair woolly. They lack self-control and steadiness of mind and are overcome by flickleness, foolishness and ignorance.”
Ibn Khaldun wrote that, “the Negro natioans are,a s a rule, submissive to slavery because they have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.”