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Misogyny in the Muslim World: Bound by Culture or Religion?

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Iranian Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was forced into prostitution by her husband to finance his opium addiction, and now she faces stoning to death for adultery.

In Sudan, police flog women sentenced under sharia law.

Such misogyny is defended and promoted by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Taliban and other radical groups in the name of Islam.

However, many Muslims say culture, not religion, is the real issue. This is not simply a theoretical concern but relevant to the urgent search for reform within Islam.

In many Muslim societies, Islamic law deems women inferior to men. A woman's testimony in court is worth half that of a man, and her independence is restricted by seclusion in the home, laws of guardianship by male kin, polygamy and unilateral divorce.

Women are compelled to marry Muslim men and can be beaten by their husbands if they misbehave. Many secular women reformers insist these restrictions, derived from holy texts, are inimically hostile to women's rights. To effect change, they say, Islam must be transformed rather than reformed and civil law should evolve from the people, not religion. Some such activists have been labeled heretics and agents of the West, incurring death threats from violent Islamists.

However, Muslim women reformers say culture is the problem, and like Zainah Anwar, intrepid Malaysian activist of Sisters in Islam, they add that, "the law might be divine but the interpretation is human."

These women contend authentic Islam is egalitarian and early Islam ended female infanticide and brought women freedoms such as property rights.

They claim these early gains were thwarted by a male-dominated interpretation of the holy texts without sufficient input by women. The resultant culture supported male control over females, especially in marriage. It was designed to protect tribal peace, property and power. Capital punishment for adultery and other illicit sex was intended to deter rival males from other tribes.

To control transfer of property, females were bartered, betrothed and married young. Married women kept their own assets to prevent family property being passed on to successive wives in polygamous marriages.

Women were blamed for fitna, or social strife, assigned responsibility for the "peace of Islam" and the "honor" of male kin, and punished severely for transgressions.

Mothers were taught to prioritize boys and encourage girls to identify with the mores of male domination by accepting the role of subjugated, second-class citizens, characterized by infantilization and idealization. Men defended themselves against charges of misogyny by lauding subservient females. In this patriarchal culture, male power often masqueraded as religious principle.

Was misogyny part of pre-Islamic culture or introduced with Islam? Proponents of the religion have claimed early Islam overturned a patriarchal society, but there is evidence the latter was matriarchal, with polyandry and goddess worship.

Discriminatory cultural practice also became closely identified with religion. "Honor killing", for example, has been justified by religion and culture.

Article 340 of the Jordanian criminal code exempts a man from punishment if he suspects adultery, and Jordan's Lower House has rejected petitions for its repeal because amendments "violated religious traditions and would destroy families and values". Many religious authorities assert stoning is an outdated punishment, but others say it is sanctioned in holy texts and prophetic tradition.

Female circumcision was banned in Egypt, but Islamic fundamentalists claim such laws are "tantamount to promoting vice". Similarly, covering the face is not mandatory in Islam, but some clerics say it is a sin to expose a woman's face in public.

When it comes to reform of discriminatory laws, the distinction between culture and religion is particularly relevant. Islamic doctrine is often considered immutable and tends to be fervently defended, even with violence and intimidation. However, cultural traditions may be more amenable to modification, especially if advocated by reformers with religious credentials.

Some reformers are women scholars who use ijtihad, or critical interpretation, to erase the cultural legacy of chauvinism by unmasking the equality they consider inherent in the Quran. Until the eighth to 12th centuries, ijtihad had been permissible, but such exegesis was abolished in response to emerging dissident groups during expansion of the Islamic empire.

In addition to ijtihad, activists such as those in the Iranian women's movement have demanded changes to discriminatory sharia laws while professing devotion to Islam.

They have used grassroots strategies such as peaceful street protests and the One Million Signatures Campaign, seeking change to male-dominated culture in the long-term.

Altering culture might seem questionable but Iranian woman Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi says it can be changed through law. She notes that prior to the Iranian revolution, polygamy was legally restricted and became culturally unacceptable. When legalized after the revolution, polygamy became more acceptable.

According to most Muslim women reformers, the antidote to misogyny is not abandonment of Islam but sharia reforms followed by changes in culture.

In non-Muslim countries, laws may affect culture too. Consequently, elements of Islamic sharia, if incorporated into secular civil law, could become unwanted parts of Western culture.

Originally published in 'The Australian'.

Around the Web

Women in Islam - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Women of Islam - TIME

Welcome to womeninislam.org

In Search of Peace: Resources for and about Muslim Women and Islam