The Race of Women by Samia Rahman

As an array of condoms burst out of her handbag, a skimpily dressed Samantha flails about on her knees scrambling to retrieve her ribbed, strawberry-flavoured and extra-sensitive assortment of paraphernalia. The farcical turn of events betrays an air of menace as a baying crowd of robed and bearded men gather, lauding over her. Berating her immoral and obscene conduct the men are wild-eyed and intimidating. But our formidable heroine is not to be cowed. A personification of sexually liberated and emancipated Western feminism, she gathers together her belongings, gyrates suggestively and screams at the misogynists: ‘Yes, I have sex’.

Perhaps you have not recognised the scene. It is from the appalling but commercially successful Sex and the City 2 (SATC2). I admit it: I have seen it. SATC2 was ostentatious in its cultural clichés and blundering social observations. An unashamed Orientalist fantasy, it was contemptuous in its portrayal of Muslim men as misogynist while depicting Islamic society - through the oh-so-representative prism of Abu Dhabi - as repressed and oppressive. Defenders of the film point out that the plot also comments on challenges women in US society face, but this is bland when compared with the Muslim stereotypes bludgeoned on the screen. Even more disturbing is that the film came out in 2010, so its portrayal of Muslims cannot be excused as a caricature consigned to the history books. As SATC’s main character, Carrie, would no doubt muse at this point, ‘I got to thinking about gender relations and Islam: a whole lot of misogyny or just misunderstood?’

This was far from the first time I had cringed at assumptions about gender roles in Islam. Since developing a youngster’s innocent and awe-struck awareness of what it means to be a Muslim, I have been quick to counter accusations that Islam is a misogynist religion. My childhood and upbringing were so removed from the stories of oppression and inequality that many people have come to associate with Islam, and that are played out so brazenly in SATC2. It just did not occur to me that the two could be linked. In fact it was some time before I began to suspect that this may have been because my experience of being a Muslim female was not particularly run-of-the-mill. 

I was born in Bradford to parents from Karachi. The influence of south Asian culture on their method of child-rearing proved different when I compared it with my peers. For many other second-generation Pakistanis I knew, being a Muslim girl meant wearing traditional dress and being well-versed in cooking and domestic chores. At primary school I was the only Muslim pupil who went on any school trips and invited friends over to play regardless of their religion, ethnic background or gender. My parents have always been religious but did not equate faith with rigid gender roles or denying their daughter the right to enjoy the same freedoms they would grant a son. On the contrary they were anxious that we studied hard and developed enquiring and creative minds. Housework and toiling in the kitchen can come later – life was also about having rich and diverse experiences, a concept they felt was not at all opposed to being a Muslim.

My parents moved our family out of Bradford when I was still at primary school. They felt that it had become a place where being a Muslim was too narrowly defined. Dad worked as a teacher, and was all too aware of the double lives some Pakistani-origin Muslim adolescents would lead as they choked under repressive cultural mores, grappling with their sense of identity and belonging in the midst of conformity and otherness. Moving to suburban Surrey brought with it its own set of challenges but my sense of self thrived. I appreciated what it meant to be ‘other’ without expectations from fellow ‘others’ of how we ‘others’ must represent ourselves.

There was never any question that I could not live away from home to attend university. This seemed to be an issue for other Muslim girls I knew. My parents encouraged me to see my leaving home to study as a great adventure, albeit one that should remain within Islamic parameters. I absolutely couldn’t wait! They stretched themselves financially and emotionally to support my siblings and me through higher education and they trusted us to work out life as a student for ourselves, having laid the foundations. And that is what I did. I prayed, kept my fasts during Ramadan diligently, dressed modestly but in harmony with a teenager’s desire to be cool, and never lost sight of my ‘Muslimness’. My wonderful friends, who I cherish to this day for their respectful curiosity and enthusiasm to be educated on all things Muslim, were so accepting and unflustered. I remember to this day the two trifles my university friends Esther and Laura made when we piled over to their house for dinner. One sherry trifle for all and a non-alcoholic trifle for me. I went backpacking around South Asia with a school friend at a time when the tick-box ‘Gap Yah’ excursion for middle-class youth was far from compulsory. And, of course, I was free to choose who I married. And I married someone I liked.

Free to chase my dreams and take charge of my own destiny, I could never reconcile Islam and misogyny. But Muslim misogyny kept rearing its ugly head as I grew older. I became more conscious of what had always been there but what my romanticised view of the world refused to compute. I received a jolt one evening in Bradford. I met a group of young women for coffee and conversation on a Friday night in a trendy shisha cafe in Bradford, one that is popular with Muslim bright young things. A cursory glance around the café revealed that fuchsia and turquoise were very much in vogue. Confident voices emanated from faces in meticulous make-up as groups of young women laughed together, tossing back dedicatedly straightened hair. These were stylish young women, some wearing hijab, which would always be co-ordinated to match their outfits and handbags. Others not. They were the Sex and the City girls of Bradford, with perhaps no actual sex, enjoying a night out after a week spent working or studying. What’s more, this vibrant scene was not confined to women. There were many young Muslim men enjoying the, I’m guessing, halal and, from what I could gather, mostly respectful company of the opposite sex. They were empowered and assured young Muslim women and men. At ease, casual and utterly remarkable in their unremarkableness. 

Asma was smoking shisha and drinking red bull. She’d had a “right mare” getting away from work that evening and regaled me with stories of her job as a social worker. “Nooooo” would be her friend Fatima’s frequent interjection at appropriate moments during the tales of hilarity. Northern accents with that subtle Pakistani inflection unique to the area boomed. They were open and warm and fun. I liked them. I steered the conversation to try to build a picture of their lives. ‘Aw, I just wanna meet someone’ Fatima revealed, ‘I really want to get married, I really want that.’ Fair enough, that’s a pretty unexceptional aspiration among twenty-somethings (I later found out they were both 26). It turned out that Asma had divorced three years earlier and Fatima’s divorce was being finalised although she had been separated for at least two years. They had both been married to cousins in Pakistan at the age of 17 and their marriages had broken down. They told me how they tried really hard to make it work, gave their marriages their best shot but for different reasons (domestic violence in Asma’s case) they couldn’t work out their differences. What struck me as they related their personal tragedies was that their priority was the effect their marital status had on others:  ‘It broke my mum’s heart when I got divorced and I want to get married again so badly to make her happy’. This was accompanied by a misunderstanding of their Islamic duties and obligations, ‘I would proper wind him up and he was from Pakistan and he didn’t get what I was like because I’m from here. But he took it that far. My mum said to do everything you can to please your husband and you’ll get rewarded for it. I’ll remember that next time.’

Both Asma and Fatima seemed feisty and self-assured, not a million miles removed from the SATC girls, sharing the same preoccupations. Yet their lives had been determined for them. They both matter-of-factly stated they had had no say in how or when they married or to whom, and were resigned to this state of affairs as if it was completely acceptable. I mentioned that Islam demands the consent of a bride and they explained that they had to respect their parent’s wishes and there was too much at stake for their family and they couldn’t let them down: ‘thing is, we have to respect our parents because that’s our religion”. Fatima’s mother in particular seemed very complicit in her daughter’s misfortune, unable to separate her child’s interests from her own. Yet Fatima did not hold anyone responsible for her personal history and was so fatalistic it made me despair. I was even more depressed to find that despite experiencing the tumult of divorce she was placing the requirements of her family above all other considerations in her quest to marry again. ‘Well, my mum really wants me to be married, it’s affecting her so much to see me divorced. I’ve said I can’t marry someone from back home like before but she really stressed. She’s only alright with it if he’s from the exact same village and we know the family and like them.’ I couldn’t understand why two intelligent and articulate women would let their lives be managed so completely and when I expressed my amazement I was reassured that ‘our parents know what’s good for us. They know us and they are just trying to keep us on the right track.’

Asma was also at pains to tell me that it was highly unusual for her to be out on a Friday night. ‘I’m never out, me. I go to work and I’ll come straight home and that’s it. I’m not giving anyone any reason to say anything about me. I keep myself pure and I’m not getting any kind of reputation because it doesn’t just come back on me. I’ve got three younger sisters and it’s bad enough that I’m getting divorced but I don’t go anywhere or meet anyone so no one can say that I don’t keep myself pure’. I was taken aback by her use of the term pure. Why would she live under seeming house arrest out of fear of aspersions on her character? Her response was that girls had to be more careful than boys. That’s just the way it was. She was from nearby Keighley so had chanced an evening out in Bradford as it was less likely she would bump into anyone she knew. She and Fatima had a well thought out cover story if they were unlucky enough to be spotted.

The notion that the respectability of entire families is tied to the inferred actions of its female members is hardly restricted to Muslim communities. Yet both Asma and Fatima seemed convinced that this was all part of adhering to their faith. Are patriarchal attitudes really given justification in Islam? They seemed to believe so. I began to have my own doubts.

Later, such doubts increased during a trip to India. There was much discussion at the time of the increasing availability of mobile phones and the debauching influence they were having on girls. Most of the outraged moral crusaders were Muslim and it was apparent that this was a drive very much led by conservative elements within the Muslim community. One particular television news item depicted an outraged matron-esque woman with her dupatta (scarf) wrapped vigorously around her head, calling upon parents to prohibit the use of mobile phones among their daughters lest they use them to make illicit phone calls to boys and become embroiled in haram (sinful) activities. The emphasis again was on restricting the movement and choices of women in order to protect them from committing sin. I discussed this with a lovely young relative who surprised me by saying she fully supported the campaign. Her reasoning was that if girls these days ‘were given small freedoms they would push it too far and get out of hand’. In essence she was explaining that if you give a bit of leeway to Muslim girls they would take advantage. This view that there is a need to ‘police’ female morality I found to be widely held not just by men but also by women. It seemed women themselves were often the enforcers of patriarchal norms. Such examples can feasibly be argued away as cultural corruptions of the teachings of Islam. But that does not explain why huge swathes of the Muslim world are so deeply immersed in misogyny.

Just a casual glance towards the Muslim world is enough to see how badly women are treated. In Saudi Arabia, they have to wear a black (the worst possible colour for that climate) abaya, often stick to the four walls of the home, always have a male ‘guardian’ when they have to go out, and are seldom allowed to be seen in public. Driving is a crime punishable by flogging. In Pakistan, rape victims are often accused of adultery and punished barbarically. In Afghanistan, the Taliban regularly ransack girls’ schools. A women suffering serious illness cannot see a male doctor; and there aren’t all that many female doctors as they are not allowed to educate themselves. In India, women can be divorced at almost any excuse simply with the husband uttering ‘I divorce thee’ three times; or he can send a text message if he can’t be bothered to utter the words. In the Sudan, women are frequently flogged under Islamic law. In many Muslim societies, women are deemed inferior to men. Their testimony in court is worth half that of a man. Husbands who beat their wives, and there are plenty in our societies, are cheered. The list of horrendous abuse and denial of basic rights to Muslim women seems endless.

In the widely available literature that one finds in most pious households, women are depicted as a separate, inferior race, infantile and in need of proper management. Consider a classic: Perfecting Women by Maulana Asharf Ali Thanawi, a book still given as a present to new brides. The Maulana makes it totally clear that women have to be socially subordinate to men – this is the demand of Islamic law. The moral decline and degeneracy of Muslim civilisation is largely due to female misbehaviour. Indeed, it was the concern about ‘ruination of the religion’ caused by women, which had gone ‘beyond the women and their children and in many respects even had its effects on their husbands’, that he was forced to write a guide for good behaviour for the weaker sex. Women are prone to excesses – even at a wedding reception they can commit 103 different sins, such as celebrating the wedding by dancing. The Maulana urges strict seclusion of women and insists that they have to be controlled and managed. Perfecting Women is not so much a guide to etiquette, more an insight into the paranoid world of conservative male scholars.

Another equally distinguished and widely read Maulana, Abul Ala Maududi goes even further. In his Purdah and Status of Women in Islam, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan offers a ‘scientific justification’ of the inferiority of women. Apparently, we suffer from a ‘biological tragedy’ which makes us ever ready to be ‘sexually licentious’, we are forever corrupting men, and leading society towards hell. The hijab is the lonely but solid institution standing between us and a moral abyss. ‘In the matter of the continuation of the race’, writes Maududi, ‘man has been entrusted with no other task except that of sowing the seeds. Afterwards he is utterly free to do whatever he likes in any walk of life. As against this, the whole burden (of procreation) has been put upon the woman, for the performance of which she is prepared from the time when she was a mere foetus in the womb of her mother’. It is worth noting that the great Maulana uses a mechanical metaphor for his analysis: God is a ‘Master Engineer’, the universe is ‘a Factory’, where machines do what they have to do. The female machine is designed to menstruate, get pregnant and suckle and rear children. That is its sole function. It is not fit to do anything else; it can do nothing else. That is a law of nature: ‘this is the division of work which Nature itself has made between the sexes of mankind. Biology, physiology, psychology and all the branches of social sciences indicate this division. A good civilisation is one which accepts this dispensation of Nature as it is. Once it is done, you may give woman her proper place, give her honour in the society, respect her justifiable cultural and social rights, but burden her only with domestic duties, while allot all outdoor responsibilities and the command of the family to man’. It did not occur to Maududi, of whom it could be argued that most of his arguments came from the sinister cannons of eugenics, that it was precisely this ‘division’ that leads Muslim civilisation hurtling down the plug hole.

The more I read about ‘Women in Islam’, in books that one can buy from any good ‘Islamic bookshop’, the more I began to feel that misogyny was indeed integral to Islam. Sure, they all said that men and women are equal in the sight of God, but when it came to the crunch women were always dangerous, not to be trusted, not very intelligent, and under no circumstance to be allowed away from the watchful eye of a male guardian. As an example of how women have been objectified in Islamic religious literature, consider this gem from the celebrated 11th Century religious thinker al-Ghazali, revered by one and all as one of the great scholars of Islam. In his Counsel for Kings, al-Ghazali devotes a whole chapter to ‘Women and their Good and Bad Points’. ‘The race of women consists of ten species’, Al-Ghazali tells us, ‘and the characters of each (of these) corresponds and is related to the distinctive quality of one of the animals. One (species) resembles the pig, another the ape, another the dog, another the snake, another the mule, another the scorpion, another the mouse, another the pigeon, another the fox, and another the sheep.

Which one am I? I ask myself. ‘The woman who resembles the pig in character knows full well how to eat, break (crockery), and cram her stomach... She is heedless of her husband’s rights... She always wears filthy clothes, and an unpleasant smell issues from her’. I quickly discount this species, along with the ape who is overly concerned with how she looks and ‘her secret (self) is not the same as her (outward) appearance.’ Probably not the dog either, ‘who whenever her husband speaks, jumps at his face and shouts at him and snarls at him,’ but probably my husband could answer this one. I wouldn’t categorise myself as the scorpion either, who ‘does her utmost to cause enmity and hatred’ or the mouse who ‘is a thief’ or even the pigeon who ‘flits about all day... and does not speak affectionately (to her husband)’.

The fox seems to have some sort of compulsion to eat everything in the house when her husband is out and start a quarrel with him upon his return saying ‘You left me (alone in the house) sick’. So that only leaves one option – the sheep, ‘in which everything is useful. The good woman is the same. She is useful to her husband and to (his) family and the neighbours’. Al-Ghazali could have added: and very good for slaughtering.

Elsewhere in Counsel for Kings he urges Muslim men to jealously separate their womenfolk from unrelated men, to the extent that if a woman is forced to speak to a man she must imitate the voice of an old woman!  She must also never lock gazes with a strange man even if he is blind!

At this juncture, I have to admit, Islam and I were on two different wavelengths. I mean if al-Ghazali thinks the best we can be is a sheep, and Maududi and others engineer us behind lock and key, what could one expect from the average ulama – the so-called religious scholars, the kind who populate the tedious ‘Islam Channel’ or issue fatwas on numerous on-line forums?  What is this perverse obsession with a woman’s monthly cycle? Why is modesty and honour written on our bodies? And are Muslim men all latent rapists, unable to control their desires? And who appointed the bearded ones as a fashion police: forcing and abusing women to ‘dress properly’, imposing the hijab as some sort of sacred relic whether we wanted to wear one or not? I have seen very un-sexy women in skimpy outfits walking through the streets of London. In the same field of vision my gaze meets hijabified females in skinny jeans and tight tops who are far sexier and much more likely to arouse the attentions of the hypothetical marauding Muslim male. 

Most of this misogyny is justified on the basis of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. The sections on ‘Social System of Islam’ in Maududi’s book begin with the Quotation of verse 51:49 - ‘All things We made in pairs’ – and provide one of the most misogynist interpretations of this verse you will ever read. Al-Ghazali begins his chapter on women with the words: ‘The Apostle, God bless him, stated that the best and most blessed of women are those who are most prolific in child-bearing, fairest in countenance, and least costly in dowry’. Could the Prophet of Islam, noted for promoting women’s rights, have said such a thing – thus reducing women to mere commodities?

Frankly, I do not except such misogynistic sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. They are manufactured products of dubious male minds. And I refuse to accept the conventional interpretation of the Qur’an that has remained unchanged, for centuries, with layers upon layers built on the interpretation of a long line of male scholars. This Islam is without doubt steeped in misogyny. But it is not the Islam of my parents who brought me up as an independent, trustworthy and critical person. Beyond the rigid and narrow conservative notions of such groups as Wahhabis, Salafis and various traditionalists, there are other Islams – more open and open to new understandings.

Even during my school days, I could detect that the Qur’an was there solely to be venerated.

As a child I remember the Qur’an would be carefully wrapped in a delicate red silk scarf that smelled of incense and was placed at the top of a wardrobe to emphasise its elevated status. We could only touch it if we were in a state of cleansed purity (wudu), it could never be dropped or placed in the way of harm. It was sacred and I was taught to love this book and everything it symbolised. I was also a little fearful of it. I was terrified of not handling it correctly, or, heaven forbid, letting it fall to the floor in a clumsy moment of absent-mindedness. Worse still I lived in perpetual anxiety of mis-pronouncing or making a mistake as I recited it. I particularly dreaded such an error, not just because I was told what a grave sin it was to recite the Qur’an incorrectly, but because I was warned the person listening to you recite will be punished even more severely if they do not identify your mistake and correct you. As more often than not it would be mum or dad listening to me read I was petrified of condemning them to languish in hellfire. And then as I entered puberty I would learn that I must never, ever, ever touch the Qur’an while menstruating. This led to a number of particularly excruciating situations. I can still recall my abject horror when my Religious Education teacher asked me whether I would be able to bring in a copy of the Qur’an for a lesson she was preparing on Islam the next day. I was beside myself trying to think of a way I could transport the Qur’an to school and back without actually touching it. And what if my teacher was also on her period! The potential to sin was just too vast. In the end I explained to her my dilemma to which she was extremely sensitive and said she would plan the lesson for the following week. That same year during a trip to Karachi I was confidently told by an aunty that a menstruating woman should not sit next to a man. There was no explanation as to why. As it turns out, I was soon to realise that if you happened to commit the faux pas of sitting next to a male in Pakistan, whether he was a close relative or a stranger, he would immediately jump up and seat himself elsewhere anyway. Such was the taboo of attempting to seat yourself next to a male full stop, it made the capacity for awkwardness during the monthly menses a moot point!

For a text to be venerated, the assumption has prevailed that its content cannot possibly be questioned by mere mortals, for to do so would be to challenge the word of God. The Qur’an is considered by Muslims to ostensibly offer a guide to living. It is assumed to articulate conduct in intense detail, whether it concerns financial dealings or etiquette in the bathroom. Every aspect of a person’s life is covered and for the vast majority of Muslims the Qur’an, along with the recordings of the life and sayings of the prophet, the hadith, provide a literal and absolute definitive interpretation, which apparently is all that is needed. The book is timeless, the message universal. To argue to the contrary is to veer towards apostasy.

After reading literature at university, it became apparent to me that the passive, literalist absorption of a text is an impoverished approach to reading. Yet this is what the traditional scholars offer as their interpretation of the Qur’an. The valuable contribution of traditional scholars is not in any doubt, but their commentaries have often epitomised the phenomenon of prevailing culture being interpreted through the medium of religion. It is also important that these scholars were men, suggesting the practice of the religion was inevitably framed in the interests of men. I think that is a fair assumption to make. The fact that Islamic classical scholars are exclusively male would explain why the prism of interpretation has been couched in patriarchy. The inevitable consequence of this has been the creation of an Islamic exegesis that is devoid of female input and therefore is heavily weighted in favour of patriarchal concerns. Male scholars had very little access to the lives of women during the classical period and so could not possibly justly illustrate their place in Islam. Women became subjected to commentary in translations and interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith with no way of representing themselves with an authentic voice. The classical scholars in turn influenced contemporary traditional commentaries by people like Maududi and Sayyid Qutb. We are thus caught in a cycle of misogyny that seems to perpetuate itself endlessly.

Reverence for traditional scholars has become an instrument for suppressing criticism. Who would dare criticise Al-Ghazali today? Or other venerated luminaries such as ibn Kathir, al-Razi or al-Tabari?  Criticism is made even more difficult when the dominant thinking forbids any attempt to offer a personal perspective on the Qur’an. The seventh century jurist Sa’id ibn Jubayr quotes a hadith attributed to the Prophet’s cousin Ibn Abbas who recalls him staying, ‘Whoever speaks concerning the Qur’an according to his own opinion, let him expect his seat in the fire.’ So there you have it: keep your mouth shut – particularly if you are a woman!

This disapproval of interpreting the Qur’an beyond the confines of traditional exegesis meant that the voices of women were pushed to the margins. As a result, traditional and patriarchal interpretations gained prominence, because society was, frankly, patriarchal. Other voices did exist, but were drowned out or ignored. The distorting effect of this omission is illustrated by a collection of sayings of the Prophet’s wife Aisha. These were published by the 14th Century scholar Imam Zarkashi and at times contradict some of the statements of the companions and many other so-called sayings of the Prophet branded by the traditionalists.  Zarkashi also quotes a hadith that implies every Muslim should take personal responsibility for his or her understanding of Islam: ‘The Qur’an is malleable, capable of many types of interpretation. Interpret it, therefore, according to the best possible type.’

There are numerous examples of how misogynist interpretation has become part of Islamic theology. For example, in the Qur’an Adam’s wife has no name, she is not held responsible for the transgression that leads to the couple being tempted by Satan to sample fruit from the forbidden tree. Both Adam and Eve share the blame and there is no charge that original sin lies solely at the feet of the woman. Yet in the exegesis of traditional scholars Adam’s wife becomes Hawa (Eve) and thus to some extent the story revealed in Genesis is appropriated. The classical collections of hadith by the 9th century Persian scholars Imam Bukhari and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, regarded as two of the most authentic and respected, make constant reference to Eve and depict her as the guilty party in the act of disobedience. They go even further and equate Eve’s alleged lead role in the act as symbolic of the capacity of women for weakness and betrayal. Despite having no sanction in the Qur’an this episode has become accepted in traditional scholarship and is used to support a patriarchal and misogynist strand among followers of Islam. Perhaps the makers of SATC2 had consulted these weighty volumes when they came up with Samantha’s Eve-like violation of the rules – rules that exist to save her from herself apparently. These manipulations add weight to the ‘different but equal’ mantra that often merely means that women must conform to society’s expectations as, just like the mobile-phone wielding girls in India, they are likely to abuse or are unable to handle any opportunities and freedoms made available to them.

Another example relates to the Qur’anic verses about witnesses. The classical scholars have engineered a patriarchal reading of this verse to infer that a woman is worth half a man in terms of their reliability for testimony – thus further perpetuating the stereotype of the intellectually impaired, emotionally fragile and unreliable female. What nonsense! I cannot believe this is what God intended. The message here is obviously contextual. During the era of the revelation women were not involved in judicial, political and public affairs. They were subjugated and considered inferior. Islam set out to instil equality in society and the Prophet was an exemplar of this. He viewed women as equal in all senses to men. In light of his example and the spirit in which the Qur’an was revealed it seems obvious that the discussion of female testimony in the Qur’an is a technical solution to redress social norms, not a universal comment on a woman’s reliability as a witness. In fact Islam set about encouraging women to step forward and give legal testimony. By calling on two women to bear witness, Islam was pushing for women in society to be engaged in greater numbers, to represent themselves and support each other. When considered in relation to the Prophet’s overall attitude towards women, this interpretation seems to be the only sensible and fitting one.

Reading Muslim literature on women, one can be forgiven for assuming that Islamic history has produced no female scholars and there are no accounts of women by women. However there are significant examples of female scholars and students of Islam at the time of the Prophet. A tradition of female scholars was also very much present in early Islam and so-called ‘alternate’ perspectives presented by women were part of the original body of work from which fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, was derived. A comparative reading of hadith alongside the prevailing attitudes held in society lay bare the lie that the Prophet was in any way misogynistic. Women attended consultations held by the Prophet in mosques and argued and debated with him. The level of openness to women and the seeking out of female intellectual input was unprecedented for the time. Sadly, this was never matched in subsequent centuries. We only have to look at the negation of facilities for women in mosques to illustrate how far contemporary Muslims have deviated from the example of the Prophet. The mosque was intended as much more than a place of worship. The Prophet worked to create a space accessible to both men and women that would disseminate advice and guidance. Philosophical and theological discussions, education, and the settling of disagreements were to be made available to all within the four walls of the mosque. The idea that they should become male-only domains with no provision for women is in contradiction with the Prophet’s aims. It seems that with the Prophet no longer alive to assert a pro-woman position, the prevailing cultural attitudes of the day meant that scholarship by women – works that are only latterly being rediscovered – became side-lined.

Prolific and influential women scholars included Umm Darda, wife of the well known companion of the Prophet, Abu Darda. She is one female luminary who is mentioned in al-Bukhari as possessing a vigorous intellect and producing great scholarly work. Ibn Kathir writes of her superior knowledge in matters of Islamic law and jurisprudence. Karimah Al-Marwaziyyah was one of the later female scholars, and widely regarded as the singular authority on the interpretation of al-Bukhari during her lifetime. Despite her example she was, unfortunately, to herald the dwindling of female influence in the exegesis of the Qur’an as the list of women scholars diminished after her. The most abundant period of female scholarship was undoubtedly during and immediately after the Prophet’s lifetime – proof of his rejection of misogyny and nurturing of female education, a tradition exemplified by his wives, all culminating in a blow for any Muslim who denies women an education on the basis of religious teachings. For example, Umrah bint Abdu Rahman was an eminent figure and an authority on the Prophet’s wife Aisha’s hadith, under whose aegis she had studied since childhood.

Early Islam’s female scholars and the voices of the Prophet’s wives, particularly Khadijah and Aisha, serve to reset the gender dynamic in the interpretation of Islam which had been so heavily weighted in favour of men. It has been argued, for example, that Aisha’s narrative can be read as an illustration of the burdensome nature of polygamy. A growing body of opinion now points to a wealth of evidence indicating that polygamy is not in fact permissible in Islam. We may determine this by examining the historical context in which the Qur’an was revealed. Men in seventh century Arabia thought nothing of taking tens, possibly even hundreds of wives whether as a result of war, peace treaties, trade agreements or the acquisition of slaves. Women were treated very dismissively and with little or no rights. The Prophet, directed by God, sought to alter this state of affairs. He did this by permitting the taking of more than one wife, up to a maximum of four, only if certain conditions were met. The conditions relate to the treatment of each wife – which must be equal in every respect down to the tiniest detail. Financially and emotionally, a man must treat each wife with unfaltering precision – he must love each woman absolutely equally and must spend the exact amount on each woman financially and materially. These conditions are insurmountable. However much anyone may seek to attest to the contrary I simply cannot believe that it is possible for any man to love more than one woman equally. This impervious pre-requisite renders the feat outside the spirit of Islam.

The Prophet Muhammad, the most exemplary of men and an example for all Muslims, did not find managing a polygamous family to be without its challenges. In her narrations it becomes apparent that Aisha struggled considerably with feelings of jealousy towards Khadijah. Hers was the jealousy of the new wife of a widower who cannot compete with the hallowed and irreproachable memory of a mourned first love. She repeatedly asked the Prophet whether he had reserved his greatest love for Khadijah. This is a further sign that polygamy is not encouraged in Islam, as even the Prophet was not always able to meet the conditions set down by God for polygamous marriage. Certainly, Aisha provides evidence that despite an individual’s best intentions, taking more than one wife is not necessarily conducive to a harmonious and fulfilling family life. I am sure many husbands, including my own, would concede that in fact one wife is quite enough!

The prophet remained monogamously committed to his first wife Khadijah for almost a quarter of a century. She was 15 years older than him and already a widow, which made their marriage unconventional for that era. He was slow to partake in the pervasive practice of polygamy and only took further wives after Khadijah’s death. These were marriages designed to strengthen alliances and establish peace. His devotion to Khadijah was unquestionable, yet Aisha is considered by many commentators to have been his favourite wife. There is a great deal of controversy surrounding Aisha’s age upon marriage – which has been estimated between nine and 15 years old. Through 21st century eyes it is shocking to think that the Prophet Muhammad, by now 50, could be betrothed to a child. However, during the Prophet’s time marriage at such a young age was unremarkable, and Aisha had already been engaged to someone else. It is important to consider the social mores and culture of the society into which the Prophet was born before passing judgement on his actions or even before blindly imitating them.

This argument is similarly applicable to the much-maligned ruling on adultery. The Qur’an is unequivocal in its assertion that sexual relations should be conducted within the boundaries of marriage. And what of those who express their sexuality outside marriage? The punishment detailed in the shariah, or Islamic law, is horribly barbaric. Could the Qur’an really sanction the stoning to death of women and men who commit adultery? Modern-day examples from Iran and Afghanistan would suggest that usually it is only the woman who is punished; and in Pakistan, it seems even if a woman is raped she is still considered guilty. Here we see the hypocritical corruption of the text. The Qur’an considers adultery (zina) heinous at a time when fornication and sexual proclivity was unbridled. It seeks to deter such chaotic behaviour, particularly because 7th century Arabian society was tribal, with great importance placed on bloodlines. Children and women were dependent on men so regulating sexual activity would increase the likelihood that a man would take responsibility for them.

Yet its method of dissuasion does not translate into actual punishment. This is because a successful conviction for adultery carries impossible conditions. In a similar vein to the appearance of sanctioning polygamy, punishment for adultery becomes a hypothetical charge. Four witnesses of sound mind must bear witness to the act of sexual intercourse for a charge of adultery to be upheld, or a confession from both parties be obtained. The punishment was simply never meant to be realised. In the case of rape, much misogynist hysteria has clouded Islamic jurisprudence. I would argue that the Qur’an makes clear a woman forced into sex is not to be charged with zina. The two acts are utterly incomparable and absolutely distinct. To tease out an Islamic ruling on rape, it is imperative to consider the overall message of the Qur’an, the pro-woman outlook of the Prophet, and the consistent efforts to protect women and celebrate sex within marriage. It seems obvious in light of such considerations that rape is not condoned in the Qur’an. To argue otherwise, and to punish a victim of rape as if she was a willing participant, is abhorrent. So why does Islam not position itself more clearly on this issue? I would argue that at the time of the Prophet accusations of rape were difficult to prove or disprove. Gang rape, and rape in public, were not uncommon. Conviction as a result of reliable testimony from four witnesses was therefore conceivable in such cases and rightly so. But we no longer live in pre-Islamic Arabia. Scientific advancement has completely revolutionised rape prosecution cases and it is important to remember that the Qur’an was responding to the specific societal condition of its time.

This is the crux of my argument. To liberate much that goes under the rubric of ‘Islam’, we need to read the Qur’an and the life of Prophet Muhammad in the context of time. Throughout history, both the basic sources of Islam have been read through the lens of cultural practices of a seventh century society. Yet even a casual examination and consideration of the historical context of the original sources reveals that they are free from misogyny. The Qur’an cannot be read superficially and was never intended to be approached in such a way. Yet those who interpret the Qur’an in this manner do so to uphold their own agendas of patriarchal control and the oppression of women.

It is hugely seductive to regard the very first believers as the original and authentic Muslims, untainted by cultural baggage. In a world where many Muslims feel disaffected and demonised by the dominant global narrative, it is tempting to find a way to reject contemporary culture and everything it stands for, and to seek solace, direction and validation in a way of life removed from all that is around us. Looking to a romanticised ‘perfect’ past is by no means exclusive to Muslims. British politicians have long since banged this drum whether by shouting empty slogans such as ‘Back to Basics’ or by evoking a rose-tinted, post-war era where community spirit resounded and no one was yet bemoaning on the Daily Mail website that ‘it’s PC gawn mad’. However, this yearning to mirror life as it was lived in the Prophet’s time seems undermined by a point rarely acknowledged: the Prophet and his companions, indeed the entirety of the early Muslim community, lived in a society in which customs and culture were already in existence. They did not live in a vacuum and it is hardly feasible that even as Islam was revealed and practised they were able to insulate themselves from the pre-Islamic culture into which they were born.

Islam was revealed in an era vastly different from the one in which we live today. We can only discover its meaning and relevance for contemporary times by lifting it out of its seventh century cultural context. I don’t live, and don’t want to live, in the seventh century. The traditional commentators and their contemporary counterparts do not speak to me or for me.

Valuable as their work undoubtedly is, it must be read with an acknowledgement of the cultural attitudes and societal predispositions which they brought to the text. My own reading does not convince me that Islam is misogynistic. But then that’s just my reading, compounded by my subjective experience of Islam. No less or more valid than yours, or even, dare I say, Samantha’s.

I hear a new Sex and the City film is in the pipeline. It may be an idea to inform the Muslim males in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere that their work is cut out to ensure there’s no further misunderstanding should the SATC girls choose to come their way. The question is how to pull Islam out of the mire of misogynist practice and interpretation and revive its pro-woman ethos. Not all Muslim males are misogynists; but there are some that definitely need help. After all, when you’ve starred in the worst film to come out in 2010, you know you’ve got a long road ahead. Don’t tell me it’s ‘Orientalist stereotypes’. Islam does sex too.


CM02: The Idea of Islam (Hurst, London, 2012)

The English translation of S Abul Ala Maududi’s Purdah and Status of Women in Islam, originally in Urdu, was first published by Islamic Publications (Lahore, 1972) but has gone through numerous editions since then. There is some dispute whether al-Ghazali was the author of Ghazali’s Book of Counsel for Kings (translated by F R C Bagley, New York: OUP, 1971), but the general consensus is that he was. Maulana Asharf Ali Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar (Jewels of Paradise) written in Urdu in the early 1900s, has been translated by Barbara Daly Metcalf as Perfecting Women: Maulana Asharf Ali Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar (Delhi: OUP, 1972). For everyday misogyny see Islam Channel.