In the aftermath of September 11, when the world became irremediably aware of the treatment of Afghan women under the Taliban, journalists, scholars and feminists have been asking whether the burka, the forced illiteracy, and the beating of women in the street have anything to do with Islam. The resounding response has always been no; even Laura Bush says she considers it an insult to Islam to think otherwise. But the Taliban‘s obvious brutality made that answer easy; now, with Lieutenant Colonel Martha McSally likening the gender segregation and dress codes of Saudi Arabia to racial apartheid, determining what Islam, at its essence, has to say about women — and whether the U.S. military should tolerate its demands — has become a thornier theological, not to mention political, problem.
“The Koran,” writes religious scholar Karen Armstrong in Islam: A Short History, “makes men and women partners before God, with identical duties and responsibilities.” There is nothing in the book that requires the veiling of all women, she contends; what’s more, “the emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet‘s heart.” Then why is it that virtually every country that adopts Islam as its official religion and the shari’a as its law subjugates women — often to an extreme degree? “The Koran says it very clearly: Beat women,” says Parvin Darabi, an Iranian-American activist and author of Rage Against the Veil, which she wrote after her 54-year-old sister self-immolated in a Tehran square to protest the treatment of women in Islamist Iran. “It says, ‘If your wife does not obey you, first give her notice, then separate your bed from her, then beat her.’ What is ambiguous about that?”
Nothing — Chapter 4, Verse 34 does indeed say exactly that. Then again, at least one feminist scholar of Judaism, Naomi Graetz, contends that Maimonides said the same thing in the Mishneh Torah. And Exodus 21:7, notes an Internet satirist who responded with an open letter to Dr. Laura Schlessinger‘s Leviticus-based proscription of homosexual Jews, gives fathers the right to sell their daughters into slavery (“In this day and age, what would be a fair price for her?” asked the writer). Neither is the New Testament perfect when it comes to women: The influential apostle Paul, whose letters make up 11 books of the modern, agreed-upon version of the Christian Bible, advises Timothy that women should be forbidden to teach. And McSally, who claims that covering herself with the traditional Saudi Arabian abaya conflicts with her own religious practice, might be surprised to learn that Paul also advised women to cover their heads with a veil.
Most Jews and Christians have long accepted that the practice of religion and its historical origins bear only a passing resemblance to each other: There’s very little in Jerry Falwell‘s rantings, for instance, that sounds like Jesus Christ. But many Muslims manage to avoid the text, too: When I ask a Sufi woman, a whirling dervish whose sect traditionally accords more power to women than Sunnah or Shi’a traditions, about a specific passage in the Koran that values the testimony of two women as equal to that of one man, she is outraged and insulted. “Where did you come up with that?” she scolds. “I‘ve never heard of such a thing. You’d better check your facts.” When I tell her where in the book the passage could be found, she angrily and abruptly ends the conversation.
“One of the problems we have looking at Islam is that we look at it in the context of the 21st century,” says Ameena Jandali, a Pakistani-American who works with the Islamic Networks to correct the myths surrounding her faith. “But Mohammed was responding to specific political conditions in seventh-century Arabia, in which women were considered worthless. For instance, it was very common practice in Arabia to bury baby girls at birth for fear of the shame they would bring. Addressing that issue, Prophet Mohammed said, ‘If you have a baby girl, don’t favor your son over her, and you will enter into a paradise with proximity to me.”
Jandali, who considers herself not so much a feminist — a word she considers “loaded with Western, capitalist values” — as a “woman‘s rightist,” contends that Mohammed recognized a difference between men and women, and in legal matters, he may simply have understood the effects of estrogen on the mind. “Every time I have a child I lose part of my memory,” she tells me. “And I also think that men and women have selective memories. My husband can remember exactly what everyone owes him, and women remember birthdays. If you look at it not as punishing women, but as relieving them of a burden, it isn’t really misogynist.”
Even without such generous contextualizing, Islam has some tenets that put Judaism‘s regard for women to shame: Mohammed told the creation myth without holding Eve solely to blame for eating that apple, never pronounced menstruating women untouchable, and granted women property and inheritance rights far beyond those of 19th-century England. There’s also a “women‘s rightist” way of looking at polygamy. According to Mary Ali of the Chicago-based Institute of Islamic Information and Education, polygamy afforded women some protection otherwise denied to them in the barbaric culture of seventh-century Arabia, where a disproportionate number of potential husbands were killed in battle. “The present Western society, which permits free sex between consenting adults,” she writes, “has given rise to an abundance of irresponsible sexual relationships, an abundance of ’fatherless‘ children . . . all becoming a burden on the country’s welfare system.” Jandali reminds me furthermore that Islam didn‘t invent polygamy: “Polygamy was common in many cultures,” she told me. “What Mohammed did was limit it. He said, ’Marry three or four of the women, but if you cannot be just, then only one,‘ and then he later said, ’You will not be able to be just no matter how you try.‘ His first wife, Khadijeh, was 15 years older than he was, and it was only after she died that he married other women. All but one were widows and divorcees. Polygamy was a charitable act.”
As for the questionable custom of covering one’s head, Jandali points out that in most portraits of the Virgin Mary, she wears a head covering not unlike the hijab Jandali herself wears while out and about in the Bay Area, where she lives — and where, until September 11, she considered it a privilege. “When you are no longer a prisoner of fashion in the way people perceive you — whether it‘s your weight or body shape or all of those physical elements that we know the world judges us by — you define yourself by other things. It’s very liberating.”
But for Parvin Darabi‘s sister Homa, who lost her job at a Tehran hospital for refusing to cover her head, the hijab was anything but liberating. Darabi speaks with the pleading, upward inflection of a woman who’s spoken too long without being heard; before September 11, she drew only small crowds of converts to her lectures. Now, she says, people are lining up outside the door to hear what she has to say. And whether her interpretation of the Koran is accurate or not, she has one point that‘s beyond dispute: Religious doctrines make for lousy civil code. “Jews and Christians usually live in countries in which the church and state are separate,” she says. In other words, Southern Baptists require women to submit to their husbands, but can’t put them to death if they don‘t. And while Orthodox Jewish women sit separately from their husbands in the synagogue, they don’t have to stand in the backroom at the local Starbucks, as do women in Riyadh.
A few years ago, when Darabi complained that the U.S. media were more preoccupied with a young woman who had sex with the president than with the thousands of women being abused by the Taliban, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee wrote to ask whether she was calling for war in Afghanistan. Darabi won‘t say either way, but at the moment she has another solution: ban Islamic countries from the upcoming Olympics. “They won’t allow women to participate, and then they say they have Olympics for women. Where? In their basements where no one can see? If this does not stop, my sister died for nothing.
”We watch Iran beat women, and we watch Saudi Arabia put women in jail for driving cars, and we won‘t come out and criticize Islam,“ she says. ”I say it’s time to criticize Islam. And it‘s time to say that had we done something about women in Afghanistan sooner, we would not have had the disaster that we did.“
Parvin Darabi will speak at the Center for Inquiry–West, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., on Sunday, January 20, at 11 a.m.