When Western women convert to Islam, they often go “whole hog,” so to speak, by opting to cover themselves with long-sleeved, ankle length dresses and hijabs or other similar head-coverings. Many cite their newfound belief that Islam actually raises their sense of dignity and self-worth, because now (unlike when they lived in the sexually exploitative West) they are not treated as sexual objects but as equals, because their bodies are hidden from view, thereby preventing men from lusting after them.
Was Muhammad the first Arabian feminist? Does Islam deserve pride of place as the greatest religious champion of women’s rights? Let’s take a look.
There is no question that Muhammad put an end to the long-standing practice of female infanticide among his Arab followers, for whom an added female mouth to feed with no hope that the added life would in the future provide labor or income for the family loomed as a heavy burden. It was so much easier to take the newborn girl out into the desert and leave her to die quickly in the harsh elements. Muhammad’s prohibition was truly a lifesaver.
Muslim tradition also states that women are superior to men in one particular regard — as mothers they bring life into the world, and so they are worthy of exceptional honor. According to the Hadith accounts,
A man came to the Prophet and said: O Messenger of Allah! Who from amongst mankind warrants the best companionship from me? He replied: “Your mother.” The man asked: Then who? So he replied: “Your mother.” The man then asked: Then who? So the Prophet replied again: “Your mother.” The man then asked: Then who? So he replied: “Then your father.” (Bukhari, 8.73.2; see also Muslim, 2548b)
Also attributed to Muhammad is the famous saying in the Muslim world, “Paradise lies at the feet of your mother.”
Unfortunately, little else of a flattering nature is found in early Islamic sources about women and girls. They seem to exist basically for the pleasure of men.
The Qur’an declares that females are always to be under the charge of men — prior to marriage they remain under the oversight of their fathers or brothers, or other male relatives. After marriage, they are to obey their husbands in all things permitted by Islam.
“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded….” (Qur’an 4:34)
Obedient women have certain rights: they should expect to be fed, clothed and housed. But men always have priorities over them:
“Women have such honorable rights as obligations, but their men have a degree above them…” (2:228).
The woman exists in large measure simply for the sexual pleasure of her husband:
“Your wives are as a tilth [a plowed field] unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will” (2:223).
“The Messenger of Allah said: ‘If a man calls his wife to his bed and she refuses, and he spends the night angry with her, the angels will curse her until morning.’” (Bukhari, 4794).
A Muslim man can satisfy himself with up to four wives (any and all of which he can divorce with a simple declaration three times in a row — “Talaq, talaq, talaq” — in order to marry up to four more). He may marry not just Muslim women, but also those from other monotheistic faiths). A Muslim woman, on the other hand, may only marry a Muslim man, and can have no more than one husband. It is almost impossible for her to initiate a divorce, unless her husband gives her his permission, or becomes an apostate.
In addition to this, a Muslim man is able to own an unlimited number of female slaves (if he can win them through jihad or buy them on the Islamic slave market) — in the Qur’an they are known as “those whom his right hand possesses.” Muhammad and the Qur’an give men the right to force sex on these women at their leisure.
If the man fears “rebellion” from his wife, he is to take the following escalating steps, until she submits:
According to the example of Muhammad (and with permission from the Qur’an), Muslim men of any age are allowed to marry and deflower little girls as young as nine. Muhammad did this with his third wife, Aisha (she was nine and the prophet was 53), and the Qur’an gives directives concerning the divorce of wives who have not yet experienced their first period (65:4)!
The Ayatollah Khomeini, who knew the inner workings of Islam better than most Muslims, counseled adult men and fathers thusly:
“A man can have sexual pleasure from a child as young as a baby. However, he should not penetrate vaginally, but sodomizing the child is acceptable. If a man does penetrate and damage the child then, he should be responsible for her subsistence all her life. This girl will not count as one of his four permanent wives and the man will not be eligible to marry the girl’s sister… It is better for a girl to marry at such a time when she would begin menstruation at her husband’s house, rather than her father’s home. Any father marrying his daughter so young will have a permanent place in heaven” (from his book Tahrir al Wasilah).
As if this were not despicable enough, women and girls are further demeaned within orthodox Islam. Muslim law declares that a woman’s testimony carries only half the weight of a man’s testimony. Likewise, a woman can only receive half as much inheritance as her brother.
The most authoritative traditions (hadiths reported by Bukhari) concerning Muhammad’s valuation of women are rather chilling as words coming from a “prophet”:
Narrated by Abu Said Al-Khudri : Once Allah’s Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer)…. Then he passed by the women and said, “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Apostle ?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.” (Bukhari, 1.6.301)
Aisha said, “The things which annul prayer were mentioned before me (and those were): a dog, a donkey and a woman. I said, ‘You have compared us (women) to donkeys and dogs. By Allah!’ I saw the Prophet praying while I used to lie in (my) bed between him and the Qibla. Whenever I was in need of something, I disliked to sit and trouble the Prophet. So, I would slip away by the side of his feet.” (Bukhari, 1.9.493)
This latter tradition concerns the legitimacy of prayers to Allah if dogs, donkeys or women cross in front of the praying Muslim man (or men) within a certain distance without an appropriate barrier between them. Muhammad’s young wife, Aisha, clearly understood the import of this divine denigration to women.
Ironically, though Islam is undeniably a “man’s religion” in its homage to male supremacy, it unwittingly admits to the irresistible power that women have over men in the arena of sexual magnetism. Women are dangerous enticements to illicit sexual activity, and men are like helpless victims when caught in the snares of the opposite sex. It is for this reason that women are hidden from view in the Islamic world. They are secreted behind walls at home, behind veils and abayas and burqas in public. They must always be accompanied by a mahram (a male chaperone whose blood ties to the woman forbid the legal possibility that he could marry her) when around others outside the home, ostensibly to protect her but also to prevent her from working her tempting charms on vulnerable men. Women are to guard their private parts according to Sura 24:31 (men are also to guard theirs according to the prior verse). Because they, as sexual beings, are so dangerous to the male gender, Islam permits the attempt to tame their raging sexuality. Islam recommends (or even commands, according to the Shari’a manual Umdat as-Salik, e4.3) the circumcision of both men and women. For women, it is the bazr (clitoris) which is to be removed; hence, the widespread practice in some Muslim countries of clitoridectomies performed on young girls. By this barbaric process of female genital mutilation (FGM), the Muslim community assumes it has excised not only a young woman’s future sexual enjoyment but also her capacity to become a sexual temptress, thereby protecting Muslim men from their own inabilities to control themselves.
So, all women within Muslim societies must be hidden away in the family quarters of their homes, or covered up in form-hiding clothes when out in public, and watched like hawks so they don’t trip up Muslim men. And of course, when such men do transgress and rape or sexually assault women, most naturally it is the woman’s fault, for she was the provocatrix who must have shown a bare neck or shoulder or forearm or calf muscle and so set her assailants hormones raging beyond his ability to control. He is the true victim, and she is the responsible party. Sadly, in such cases the family of the violated woman often blames her as well, and is so outraged that she has brought such shame/dishonor on the family name that to recover its social stature it engages in an “honor killing,” taking her life as a way to expunge the shame from their midst.
All of this, from Islamic scripture to Shari’a law to Muslim cultural practice is part and parcel of the religion of Islam. So the next time you hear the absurd claim that Muhammad was the greatest champion of women’s rights or the risible assertion that “true Islam” is the feminist’s best friend, please don’t remain silent. You might just prevent a starry-eyed, naive, potential convert from making perhaps the biggest mistake of her life, one which cannot be undone without much pain and the looming threat of execution.