The sexualisation of piety

A friend shared this video couple of days ago and I’ve been contemplating since then if I should share it here. I’m sharing because being already out there and the words spoken and recorded, this requires counter-narrative.

I had read all of this before in hadith and seerah and tafsir. I’m aware that this narrative exists in texts, but when I was reading it, at a subconscious level, I thought that nobody really believed it like I didn’t believe it. Hearing it, and listening to it being taught had a completely different impact on me.

It is quite clear that the ‘imam’ fully believes what he’s teaching. The link he creates between different ahadith and tafseer excerpts as well as the Quranic verses is well thought out – men shall outnumber women in heaven (from the hadith that women will outnumber men in hell) because women display their awra (from the hadith banning perfume and Quran banning display of ‘adornments). He goes on to explain the physical attributes of the hoors (from Tirmizi, volume 2, pg 35-40; Bukhari vol.4, book 55, number 544; Quran: 55:72-74; 78:33; 56:37-40; Al-Bukhari volume 4, book 52, number 53; Al-Bukhari vol.4, book 54, number 476). Men’s sexual capacity in heaven is also expounded (from Ibn Majah, volume 5, number 4337) and how they will be busy “breaking hymens” (from Ibn Katheer, 3/564). Again and again the imam tells his congregation that there’s no sin in talking about sex and about the breasts and hymens of these heavenly females because it is right here in Quran and hadith; it is all for Muslim men. While human females must hide themselves, there is no sin in fantasizing about the hoor. There is great emphasis on female virginity – so much that the imam tells the men that each time they have sex with the hoor and return from another one, the first would be a virgin again! At the same time, there is no requirement from men to be virgins as if the concept of male virginity does not even exist (or at least occur to the imam).

This seriously affects how women are treated in the physical world. It is linked to misogyny and is a great reason we need Muslim feminism so that this type of thought and narrative can be challenged. This is being taught to young men in mosques, inside places of worship we hold scared, where actually women are delegated the back spaces. Young men are taught that while they are flawless, human females are tainted, sinful and literally hellbound. In case some women do make it into heaven, there is no description of what they should await. The focus of heaven’s bounty – the food and wine, and sexual pleasure, is the Muslim heterosexual man. Obviously then, the flawless men should teach and control the sinful women.

A friend suggested that one way we can counter this narrative is to encourage our husbands, brothers and sons to report if something like this is taught in mosques. While this can be done in Western mosques, I wonder if someone can actually do much if this is taught in a Muslim-majority country where dissent is met with death. Please, please offer suggestions on how this kind of teaching can be stopped. We all know this isn’t a single instance; we’ll seen and read this before.

Who speaks for abusive Muslim men?

My great grandmother used to mix uncooked rice and pulses together and give it to her children to separate as a form of activity for long and humid summer afternoons.  I see that many young Muslims in the 21st Century have set themselves a similar task – separating local culture from religion.

I try not to express my opinion on this blog because it is not a blog about me, but about what I observe and note; and one thing I have noticed is that while Muslim men are always speaking for Muslim women, no one speaks for the men. Muslim women talk about their men but it’s an altogether different matter.

I was introduced to blogging in early 2006 by a convert to Islam (a Salafi and niqabi) who was sent from her country to live in her Arab husband’s country to raise her four children. Behind her back her husband married – twice – while she was changing nappies and dealing with nosy in-laws. For two years after she found out what her husband was up to, her life’s drama unfolded in front of the eyes of her supporters and readers. She was very religious, intelligent, determined and hardworking. All she wanted was her Islamic right to be treated fairly. To receive that right she tried whatever she could in between providing her husband his rights, bringing him clean towels and giving him another child. She often wrote how she wept on her prayer mat at Fajr begging Allah to have mercy on her. The husband returned to her country to his other wife to whom he was married only religiously and not legally.

Most convert women to Islam that I know are extremely strong women – they go against their families to convert, sometimes hiding that they have become Muslim and sometimes rebelling against them completely. There is a young woman I read who hasn’t told her parents she has become Muslim so they would keep supporting her education. Another woman has bluntly told her non-Muslim mother that she can’t even kiss her baby’s feet with her non-Muslim mouth. There are all sorts of stories. But they have a common thread – a woman’s determination.

Why do Muslim men forget that if a woman is so determined to convert to Islam that she won’t use the same strength and determination to get out of an abusive situation – and perhaps even the fold of Islam? The woman I wrote about above eventually went back to her country with the help of her friends and readers taking all her children with her. She is living a hard life but it is a life that she has chosen, not a life that was thrown at her. She is no longer the Muslim her readers knew in 2006. I know at least five more women like her – one in a worse situation where her husband sexually abused his own children. One young woman’s Muslim fiancé was sleeping with another woman behind her back. A reader of this blog, a born Muslim woman, left Islam after her husband remarried and began “slapping her around.” Another young woman was emotionally forced to wear hijab by her fiancé but he eventually married a woman who doesn’t cover. There are numerous more cases. Eventually most abused women come to the conclusion that if no one is listening to their prayers, then perhaps there is no one there.

Who is speaking for the Muslim men these women were married/engaged to who ruined their lives and religious beliefs?  In none of the cases I know has the man been punished for neglecting his Islamic duties. I was raised by a very strict father, but he was religious and God-fearing and more than that he was God-loving and it was his love for Allah that made him a sincere husband and a responsible father.

Instead of only praying for these abused women that they be guided back to Islam, I think we should raise our voices to oppose men who don’t fulfill their duties thereby pushing these women away from Islam. I have often been told that “Islam gives women all the rights; they don’t need Islamic Feminism.” Sorry sirs, but they do need Islamic Feminism because they have been denied their rights by their patriarchal cultures and selfish men again and again!

For born Muslims, Islam is a mix of culture, traditions, ahadith, sunnah, seera and Quran. Many won’t even be able to differentiate between Muslim tradition and hadith, for instance. Thus, I think to separate Arabic culture from Islam is like trying to separate apple juice from water. Islam grew out of the Arabic culture and so certain aspects may seem shocking to us but they are very much part of the Islamic religion. My only concern is that in our bid to explain away those aspects of religion (which is a very tedious process) we are left with little time and stamina to stand up against the real problems. Women banned from driving or being forced to wear hijab or the French ban on niqaab or Aisha’s age at marriage are important issues but they are not more important than discussing and solving the problems caused by men not taking responsibility for their actions (Quran 4:34).

You can’t discipline your wife if you have failed as a maintainer and protector (Quran 4:34). Period! You can’t abuse your wives and call them khanzeera (female pig) even if you dislike them (Quran 4:19). How can a man take his children away from the mother and teach them to hate her when the Prophet is believed to have taught that a mother was more important than a father? I can’t understand how men lie and cheat leaving their wives hanging in the air (Quran 4:129).  Aren’t men also responsible for love and mercy between a couple (Quran, 30:21)?

Men have been given more opportunities to keep multiple partners through marriage or concubinage, which helps in keeping them mindful of their chastity (Quran, 24:30), but on the other hand keeping multiple partners also leads to dissatisfaction amongst the women. Who takes responsibility for the results of that dissatisfaction? What system is in place in Islamic jurisprudence when that happens apart from khul?

Some may argue that I have offered isolated examples. They are not isolated cases and even if there was only one such case I would argue that when we use a single example as a benchmark (Quran 33:21) then even if one Muslim man doesn’t follow that “beautiful pattern of conduct” he should be brought to task. My heart bleeds for these brave but bone-tired women. I know that men from any religion or culture can be and are abusive. But Muslims have little excuse – we believe that we have been guided (Quran 3:3) and that we were given a perfect example to follow (Quran 33:21) while others have not been so lucky. Thus every time any Muslim, man or woman, errs it becomes every other Muslim’s duty to raise their voice against such people (Quran 3:110). Such errant Muslims do not err because they are Muslim, but err despite being Muslim – despite knowing right from wrong. They are mindful of their rights but not duties. It thus becomes a religious duty to point out their mistakes and bring them to task (Quran 9:71).

Why should we bury our head in the sand for the fear that it will make Muslim men look bad when the Quran itself instructs us to enjoin good and forbid evil?!

Dangers of claiming that Muslim women are not oppressed

The place is New York. The date is November 10, 2008. Thousands of women, and men, have come to attend the Glamour Women of the Year awards. There are tall women and slim women. There are powerful women and women in Gucci gowns. Amongst the 10 recipients are powerful names like Hillary Clinton, Nicole Kidman and Condoleezza Rice.

And then there is one recipient who wears plain clothes and doesn’t speak English. She is the 10-year old Yemeni, Nojoud Ali. At 10 years of age she has already been beaten and raped by her husband, and divorced.

Nojoud was eight years old when she was married off by her father to a man in his 30s. Now Nojoud’s father claims that the man “was a criminal, a criminal. He did hateful things to her. He didn’t keep his promise to me that he wouldn’t go near her until she was 20”.

Nujood got her divorce, but based on the principles of Islamic Sharia law, her husband was compensated, not prosecuted. Nujood was ordered to pay him more than $200. The human rights lawyer who represented her donated the money. (Source)

We all know Nojoud. A determined little spirit who went against her people’s century old custom of child marriages to older men and boldly told a judge that she wanted divorce from a man who beat her and raped her. In her own words the man “insulted [her]”.

Watching the news item on CNN two years ago the only word that stuck out to me and yelled louder than any word can possibly yell was “ He insulted me”.

I don’t believe in comparing Muslim women with non-Muslim women. I don’t want to talk about rights Islam has or has not given women. Women are abused and oppressed in every society, in every country. And that does not exclude the Muslim world. The problem is that only the voice of the Muslim women who are not oppressed is heard.

A woman lawyer and a humanist judge took notice and helped Nojoud get divorce from her husband but according to her cultural laws she had to pay a literal price to get divorce. Yet we still like to claim that Muslim societies are not oppressing women. Is it not oppression that a man with two wives and 16 children sells his daughter to a man three times her age because he can’t afford so many children? Is it not oppression that the man the child is married to rapes her and beats her? Is it not oppression that the child herself recognizes that she was insulted? Is it not oppression that the woman who gave birth to this battered but self-respecting child does not speak even once on CNN’s report? Is it not oppression that we see this mother only as a slit in a black shroud in one scene?

How can you be “married off” when Islam as the most modern religion gives women the complete right to accept or refuse a proposal? Yet, young girls are “married off” everyday, sometimes when they are not even old enough to know what is happening.

They are oppressed even in the fast-developing Arab countries because while their men can marry anyone they like from any country they like, these women can only marry men from their country. And if they defy the traditions, customs, and state laws and go on to marry a man from another country, they are stripped of all legal rights and of their nationality. They cannot inherit or own any land, business or property in their country. Is it not oppression?

There are many Nojouds who are bearing the heavy weight of their much older husbands. There are Nojouds who are beaten and raped. Despite being given the right by religion, there are Muslim women who are not allowed to marry whom they like. They are not allowed to wear what they want, work or study. There are Muslim women who are insulted everyday. And most don’t even know it because we refuse to acknowledge their oppression.

The danger is when we refuse to accept that Muslim women are oppressed because we fear that we will belittle Islam, although such oppression has nothing to do with Islamic doctrines. Thus, we only help to perpetuate oppression. We empower abusive men and women by claiming that all is perfectly fine in the lives of Muslim women. There would have been no need for Muslim Feminism if Muslim women were enjoying full rights given by Islam and were not subjugated by their society. This is where the job of the Muslim feminist starts. A Muslim feminist does not belittle Islam, s/he only tries to show what Islam promised and society denied.