Analysis 2016/7: Women in Muslim Society

November 21, 2016

Gyorselemzés 2016/14: A nők a muszlim társadalomban - publicisztika

Analysis 2016/7: Women in Muslim Society

Women in Muslim Society

Situational assessment by Abdessamad Belhaj and Bianka Speidl

Coffee houses exclusively for men may pique the interest of a foreigner strolling the streets of West-European city quarters inhabited by Muslim immigrants. Stern looks warn off a woman newcomer, sending the message that she’s not welcome. If she happens to sit down, however, an employee soon recommends another coffee house, or simply forgets to serve her. Women are barely seen in Muslim outskirts, and never alone. The public square is for the men. These quarters are dangerous for non-Muslim women without a chaperone: apart from verbal aggression, they can become prey to harassment and abuse.

In the July heat, a Muslim man in France stabbed a woman, who was walking with her three children, only because he did not consider her properly dressed. Recently, there was a similar case in Turkey. On September 10th, 2016, Ali Khamanei, the most prominent religious authority of Shias in Iran, issued a fatwa, forbidding cycling for Iranian women. He reasoned that this was necessary, because a cycling woman attracted attention from the men, thus demolishing the public moral, and cycling was dangerous, because an accident could damage the hymen. It is well-known that women cannot drive a car in Saudi Arabia. During the last few weeks, hundreds of women were harassed on the streets of Cairo at one of the largest religious festivals. Harassment, constraint and subjection are inevitable ingredients of the lives of Muslim women in the Islamic world and in the European Muslim communities alike.

Girls learn from childhood that they should dress by Islamic precepts. This can be a head scarf and a dress that covers hands and feet, a trench coat type of top, called hijab even during the summer, and niqab, or its Afghan version: burqa, which covers the face. In some regions, women should wear this outfit even at home, and they can remove it only for washing and sleeping. In certain countries – in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, for example –, there is a moral police to see that the Sharia precepts are kept, with special emphasis on pre-marital relationships. These guardians of moral order can follow, stop and arrest couples if they cannot prove that they are married. When exposed, stern punishment awaits the girls: they should break off the relationship, cannot go out, and must accept their first suitor.

The constraints rob women of their freedom of movement. They can only visit certain places approved by the family – for example, shops, malls, schools and hospitals –, and in case someone deviates, that starts a rumour and can damage her reputation. Time spent outside the home is also limited. During the day, when their male relatives are away, they can only leave the house when necessary. They can leave for longer in the afternoon only, but cannot stay out after 6pm, except for extraordinary cases. Islamic precepts require a travelling woman to be accompanied by a male relative – her father, her brother or her son. On weekdays, she is expected to be seen with her husband, or at least with an older woman. Although she may go out alone for a short time, but this is to be avoided for her own safety.

This merciless paternalist system makes it very hard for women to get a job. As 2016 data from the International Labour Organisation show, 36.7 percent of women work in the Arabic countries of the Middle East, and 18.8 percent in North Africa, while this ratio is 56 percent in the sub-Saharan countries. In other words, countries of North Africa and the Middle East are even worse off than the poorest regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Vulnerability to men has been a symptom for generations, and it is still characteristic today. Another form of exploiting women from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is the plight of domestic workers, or maids, treated as slaves, especially in the Gulf states. Coercing women of poor heritage to prostitution is also common, as seen among Syrian refugees, where it is not rare to sell a daughter to support the large family with no other income. The country of Malaysia is the largest source of the world’s women trafficking, while about eight thousand prostitute work in Rabat, Morocco, most of whom were victims of child abuse, or were forced by the financial situation of their families. Marriage arrangements for a limited amount of time, as customary in Iran, also make women vulnerable.

It is a social requirement for women to stay virgin until marriage, which usually takes place before they turn 20. Nevertheless, if this comes in their 30’s only, virginity is still required, as it is the guarantee of the family’s reputation and religious zeal. This constraint forces women to find loopholes, and choose other forms of sexuality not hurting their virginity, lie, or have a repair operation before marriage. This type of medical procedure is a great source of income for the doctors.

If a woman is raped, the crime can be eliminated if the perpetrator marries the victim. Until just recently, the law of several Arabic countries offered two choices for the perpetrator: imprisonment, or marriage with the victim. This is still the rule in Jordan, and although it removes the shame of the woman’s family, the price is paid by the victim, who is thus confined to a life of misery. Even though the choice to marry in these cases is removed from the law in most Arabian countries, the families of victims will most likely continue to choose this solution anyway, due to social pressure, to avoid a humiliating scandal.

For conservative Muslims living in Europe, the most important religious authority is Ibn Taymiyyah of the 14th century. This religious scholar, regarded as the main ideologist of the Salafist trend – his ideas are often quoted by imams of European mosques – had rather radical views on women. When asked about the marital obligations of a wife, he said: „The wife cannot disagree with her husband, and has to be at his disposal at all times. If she insistently refuses, the husband is entitled to beat her – in such a way that it will not break a bone or leave marks on her body, or can punish her by withdrawing her provision money, and not devoting time to her.” This mentality was not scarce in the 14th century, but the Salafists, making up a substantial community in Europe, still consider this behaviour the norm. Ibn Taymiyya’ devoted and prestigious follower, a Salafist preacher in Egypt, Abu Ishaq al-Huwayni recently said the following: „A few battles against the unbelievers would solve all the problems of Egypt, and the Egyptians would return with lots of money and women.”

What does the Islam say about the dignity of women? Islam ethics hold that a woman’s dignity lies in her modesty and obedience. She is to be quiet and restrained, avoid kind words and a soft voice with men, and disguise her body. She is to reserve her looks and charm for the appointed man. She renders complete obedience to her parents before marriage, and to her husband thereafter. If she does not comply, the above-mentioned punishments can be due, or even divorce, for which the husband’s verbal declaration of intent is enough. On his own free will, a man can marry three other women, and she is to share with them in all things. Additional discriminations include that at the death of a father, the daughter’s inheritance is only half of the son’s, and in case of a divorce, the father has the right to raise the children after the nursing period, usually with no visitation rights for the mother.

Paedophilia is another sensitive matter, and it is a serious problem and a widespread notion in the Islamic world. Although Islamic law forbids it – especially with regards to boys –, there is a loophole. In case of a marriage contract regarding the child – and this can be entered before a girl would even turn nine –, sexual approach is permissible for the adult man. Intercourse is forbidden before puberty, but the girl could be married off afterwards, and there are communities, where even before. In certain societies with lifestyles without much urbanization – in Yemen, Somalia or Afghanistan, for example – a consummated marriage is acceptable for a 12-15-year-old. In urbanized communities, the age limit set by the law is usually 16, but could be brought down to 15 in exceptional cases. There are five Muslim countries at the forefront of the number of child marriages: Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Niger. In Yemen, half of the women are married off by the age of 18, but there are several examples of marriages contracted at the age of 8, as the media also reports about death cases upon consummation. Child marriage is not as common among Muslims living in Europe, but as German authorities report, there are thousands of such cases among those arriving with the latest flow of refugees.

We also hear about honour killings, even in European Muslim communities. If a young Muslim woman starts a relationship with a man without the approval of her family, they can execute her. Over five thousand women have become victims of honour killings in the Muslim countries, and some were conducted in the European Muslim communities. She might only be seen to talk to someone, and be sentenced to death, based on a floating rumour. In Jordan, 80 percent of women who became victims of honour killings were found to be innocent of their accusations.

There was a temporary change in the position of women between 1950 and 1970, when the original urban elite replaced the colonizers upon achieving independence, and thought that the future lied in the propagation of western-type modernization and a secularized lifestyle. But the military defeat of the 1967 war, and the failure of development policies led to Islamic fundamentalism gaining grounds. This ideology said that lack of success was caused by a neglect of Islamic values. Thus, the doors of liberalism soon closed, and the swing of modernization was replaced with shame and guilt. As typical to Muslim societies, women were the main victims of this change. Increasingly poor masses began to swamp the cities, bringing old traditional bigotry. Hijab became the trend again from the 1970’s, bringing the success of rural bigotry over the urban Islam of modernization.

Visitors of Muslim countries or people with Muslim acquaintances can bring the counterargument that they know independent and enlightened Muslim women who do not wear a scarf. Of course, there are such examples, as certain social groups are rather open and liberal. Especially in the families of the upper middle class men with high education, women – rather secluded from the common people – live in relative freedom, primarily because the education of daughters is an important element of social prestige. There are some brave enough to willingly break away from their families, and become free-minded intellectuals in spite of of social pressure or prejudice. Here, we should mention Toujan al-Faisal of Jordan, Taslima Nasrin of Bangladesh, Shirin Ebadi of Iran, and Fatema Mernissi of Morocco. But the number of such exceptions is on the decline. Pluralism is present, but islamization is gaining ground from liberalization. This tendency leaves the sole options of seclusion or escape for women in Muslim societies or in the European Muslim communities.

The Islam ethics is presented as a protection against the allurement of the decadent West in both moderate and conservative discourse. Obscuring the feminine body is regarded a tool of protection. Islamization reached Muslim women living in Europe in the 1980’s. They were usually the second generation of immigrants arriving in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Among first generation immigrants, women from the country wore a scarf, but they remained unseen for society for the most part, since they did not attend school or took jobs. The second generation reached the age of puberty in the second half of the 1980’s. Controversy about schoolgirls wearing a scarf broke out in France in 1989. European societies were concerned about the islamization taking place in the Middle East and in North Africa, because they expected that freedom and education would prompt women’s emancipation in Muslim communities. But the long-awaited change did not come. The scarf became not only became even more popular – about half of women living in the West wear it –, but also became the symbol and the standard of freedom rights. They said that as European citizens, they had the right to wear a scarf. The attire covering the whole body, formerly worn in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, reached the European cities in the 1990’s.

Hijab forms a border between the Muslim woman and society. The one wearing it claims the right of appearance in public space, the same as women dressed in western style. There is a clear controversy in this behaviour: a woman wearing a scarf refuses the society she lives in, but at the same time claims equal membership in it. On the other hand, the attire covering the body makes the woman’s complex identity extremely simple, and she becomes a complying, objectified religious symbol. Refusing society and hiding the feminine subject behind the mask of a so-called Muslim identity is a general phenomenon. With its aid, they can escape the complexity of modern existence, and explain the world and themselves with a simplified narrative, instead of facing reality. This paradox was set forth in the reasoning of a Muslim youth in an argument about burkini: „How can you, with a clear conscience, live on social assistance provided by a non-Muslim country, which money is transferred through banks built on principles in opposition with Islamic laws, and conceal your body to be ridiculed for it?!”

Still, this dichotomy reinforces Islamic moral affluence. Wearing an attire in line with Islamic precepts is a moral asset the community uses for seclusion, and the wearer becomes a member of honour in this community, while the community thrives on sharing the benefits of a faithless and despised western economic system. The system is based on maintained inequality, where the Muslim man stands at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the Muslim woman, with non-Muslims placed at the very bottom. By putting an immoral, prostitute stigma on the non-Muslim woman, the Muslim woman gets rid of her rival, and maintains her sense of moral superiority. This is a return to the beginnings of Islam, when the scarf was first worn by the believers to discern themselves from nonbelievers. In the wake of each conquest, free Muslim women have worn an attire covering the body, which distinguished them from non-Arabic, non-Muslim slaves. This way, burkini does not stigmatize Muslim women, it stigmatizes non-Muslim women. The ambivalence of the Islam ethic of virtue is this: the woman accepts a deprivation of her femininity by her attire, to prove her moral superiority, while being allowed to appear in public places and enjoy bathing. Another consequence of this reasoning is the over-sexualizing of non-covered women, who are deemed as naked and easy to get. The young Muslim man respects the woman in burkini, while yearning for the women in bikini.

So, are veiled Muslim women dangerous for Europe? Wearing a scarf is part of the battle, the Islam discourse calls this the Battle of Hijab. Hijab is the front line, where Islam and the West encounter. In Muslim societies, this battle is won by the Islamists. Wearing a scarf comes with consequences in the smallest details of everyday life for women, not only in their private life, but in their profession, and in the general standards of behaviour. Hijab is a sign of rejecting the western societies and norms, along with the validity of patriarchal society, gender equality and secularism, and a sign of commitment to Islam ethics based on guilt, and the victory of rural common law over urban modernization. It justifies seclusion and separation, which is the theoretical foundation of forming ghettos. A recent opinion poll in France shows that 60% of Muslim men born in France consider the scarf as an obligatory attire for women. Women wearing hijab today are the victims, symbols and weapons of islamization against Europe. According to Islamists, each woman appearing in hijab in a public place wins a battle in the war against the West, by proving that the Islam is able to rule and change the European societies.