Words such as “fairness,” “justice,” “respect,” “self-respect,” “dignity,” “honor,” “compassion,” “freedom,” “natural”— and of course, “equity” and “equitable”—were radically redefined, in talks on Islam, books, pamphlets, sermons, and in teaching circles. Especially as these words relate to girls and women.
So, we were taught (and we read, and often heard) that “Islam honors women,” that Islam calls human beings to deal with others in “fairness” and “compassion,” and to uphold “justice.” That Islam protects women’s “dignity” gives women “self-respect” and teaches men to “respect” women. That Islamic law treats women “equitably.” That Islam is “the natural way.”
And who in their right mind would be opposed to things such as compassion, fairness, justice, self-respect and dignity? Who wouldn’t want to be honored and respected? Who wouldn’t be in favor of treating people equitably? Who doesn’t tend to equate “natural” (at least as in “natural foods”) with “more wholesome” or “better”?
We soon encountered practices and ideas that bothered us, or embarrassed us, or even deeply troubled us. We sort of half-wondered, “But how is this right?” when we learned about the requirement that women not only obey their husbands, and grant them sexual access when they desire it, but that women cannot work or even leave the house without their husband’s permission. Or as we prayed upstairs in the mosque’s cramped, airless balcony, barely able to see the imam or concentrate on the prayer thanks to the fussing babies and gossiping women, as well as the heat (which made us all the more uncomfortable due to the clothes we were wearing). Or when we heard or read that women can’t be leaders of men, and that women are deficient in reason and religion, and other suchlike things.
We asked questions. We read. We listened. And what we were told (or read) were things such as:
“Women are blessed to have been given such an easy way to enter Paradise! All that they have to do is to be good wives by obeying their husbands, as well as to pray and fast and give zakat and do Hajj (if they have wealth). Unlike Western women, Muslim women have been freed of the responsibility of going out and earning their own living. While Muslim men are burdened with so many responsibilities such as providing for their families, praying in the mosque, going to Friday Prayer, being leaders, fighting in the path of God, women are free to concentrate on what they naturally want to do, on what God created them to do best—to care for their husbands and children, and make a home.”
According to what we were taught (or we read):
Women’s Qur’an recitation shouldn’t be heard by men, in order to protect women’s dignity. A self-respecting woman wouldn’t want men to hear her reciting anyway. (Why? Because if a man feels desire for a woman, this somehow tarnishes her. Even if she doesn’t intend to attract his attention. Even if she isn’t aware that she has attracted her attention. Even if she isn’t thinking about him at all. Even if no man actually feels desire for her, but someone somewhere thinks that maybe some man did.)
Ditto for women praying in the mosque behind barriers, behind curtains, in the basement or on a balcony. It’s to protect your dignity, Sister. We honor women.
Having to provide sexual access to your husband whenever he desires it is just and fair. (Why? Because he works to provide for you, so you owe it to him. Because men have sexual needs, but adultery is strictly forbidden, so how is it fair if you withhold sex from him?)
Mothers are honored. There are well-known hadiths that are typically quoted to demonstrate this: “Paradise is under the feet of mothers,” for instance. However, we were also taught that birth control is at best a controversial, suspect practice, and that in any case, women can’t use it without their husband’s consent. Combine that with the requirement to provide sexual access to your husband (and a ban on abortion except to save the mother’s life), and you have compulsory motherhood. If you are fertile, you are essentially at the mercy of your fertility until you reach menopause. Your physical, emotional and mental health, your financial situation, your future, whatever hopes and dreams you have… are held hostage to your womb. And this is natural. Just. Equitable. And dignified. Because God created you this way.
Redefine enough key words, and you can seriously limit people’s abilities to think critically about the ideas that you are selling them. Especially if they are already in a socially and economically dependent and vulnerable situation, so that rocking the boat is not what they are most inclined to do.
What, you think that having to give your husband sex whenever he wants it is degrading? That it’s a violation of your personhood? You think that bearing child after child (and/or having miscarriage after miscarriage) is too much like being a brood mare to possibly be dignified? And that the way that it takes a toll on your health and makes you worry about what awaits you if your husband dies or leaves you is degrading?
You suggest that being admonished like a naughty child and told to fear God, and being left to sleep alone, and finally, being struck by a toothbrush is infantilizing and degrading?
You think that saying that women can’t lead men, or that women are less rational than men is demeaning? That it’s insulting?
You say that you think that the space allotted to women in the mosque is inferior?
No, Sister. You’ve got it all wrong. All of these things are most definitely fair, just, compassionate, equitable, dignified, in accordance with what is natural…. If you think these things are degrading, undignified, insulting, unfair… then this is because of the Shaytan’s whisperings.
What you need, Sister, is to realize that all these rules have been given to us for our benefit. These rules are wise, just, and enable women and men to actualize their divinely-given potential.
* * * * * *
Translation: If something is supposedly laid down by the Qur’an, or in the hadith, or in Islamic law, then it is by definition just, fair, compassionate, equitable, dignified, honorable, and in accordance with the natural way. Whether it happens to feel that way to you or not. Whether its impact on your life, and the lives of your children, relatives or friends works out well or not. Whether or not it meets contemporary human rights standards, or contravenes the laws of the country you live in. Whether or not it promotes or abets abuse.
I am not interested in debating what the Qur’an or the hadith or any other source says, doesn’t say, or should say about any of these issues. My interest here is the emotional manipulation that is going on in this sort of discourse. The manipulation that is involved in essentially emptying words of their generally recognized meanings. This is fundamentally dishonest. But it is also quite an effective way of controlling people, and enabling them not to see how their actions are hurting themselves and others.
And no, Muslims certainly don’t have a monopoly on this sort of thing. There’s an awesome post here by Darcy on how some Christian patriarchy groups do likewise (thanks to Libby Anne for the link), which certainly brought back some vivid and troubling memories.
Darcy sums up the whole process very well:
“It’s not insulting to be treated as inferior in God’s eyes and the eyes of His people, while they proclaim hypnotically “you’re not inferior….just different!” And this statement is used to keep you from doing whatever they deem you’re too feminine, too “different” from them to do.
As if changing the definitions of words and actions, and saying these over and over again, changes the words and actions themselves and causes us to believe that up is down and right is wrong. That disrespect is actually honor and being put down is actually being lifted up. That being limited and bound is actually being freed and valued.
It’s not inferior if it’s “God’s way”. It’s not insulting if it’s “Biblical”. It’s not demeaning if you just “have the right attitude”. It’s not insulting, inferior, or demeaning if you put on a smile and pretend it’s beautiful, fulfilling, and satisfying. And then call everyone who isn’t very good at pretending, a “feminist”, “selfish”, “worldly” and “an enemy of God” and “hater of God’s design”.”
Yes. Oh, yes.
And P.S.: The long-term impact of this sort of manipulation can be quite psychologically destabilizing. As well as very alienating from one’s faith. Once words have been so radically redefined, what do they mean, anyway? What does a statement such as “God is just” or “God is compassionate” mean? Does it mean that God sides with my abuser against me? Does it mean that as long as something has the name of God on it, abuse can’t possibly be happening, regardless of who is being hurt??