Muslims: Misogyny – the Fate of Women in Islam
I think that by now most of us will be familiar with the image of a Muslim woman dressed from head to toe in black, shapeless garments. Only the eyes are seen. That familiarity however, is a relatively new thing.
I don’t actually remember the first time I saw a woman so dressed, but I distinctly remember the feeling I had then. It’s the same feeling I have today. I felt strangely uncomfortable at the sight. I knew nothing of Islam at the time, being sublimely ignorant, just like the vast majority of the British population. So as I look back at my feelings about the “woman in black” I discover a vague sense of pity (for her) as well as something I can only describe as mild anger. Why anger you might ask? Well at the time I guess my feeling came from something instinctual. I couldn’t express in words why I felt this, just that I did.
It’s only in more recent and more educated times that I see very clearly now why I was feeling the discomfort. I find that it’s to do with my instant recognition of the oppression of free spirit and the stifling of the freedom to choose.
Being born in the late 1950’s I’ve grown up through a changing cultural landscape, from quite a male dominated society to one of much more equality among the sexes. If I were to try and categorise myself (something I don’t much care to do) I suppose I would see myself as something of an enlightened person when it comes to sexual discrimination, and I’ve always felt that the lot of women in Western society was somewhat weighted against them. I have to say though, that in recent decades the pendulum has swung radically in their direction, perhaps more than I feel is good for the health of our society.
That said, I would never class myself as a feminist, simply because I have no wish (as a male) to stand up for the rights of women. They are perfectly capable of doing that for themselves. So it may seem a little hypocritical of me to be writing an article which to all intents and purposes seems to be standing up for the rights of women. I acknowledge the potential hypocritical dilemma, so I will clarify that now.
As a human being with a conscience (which comes with a moral compass) I see myself as having a fairly well rounded recognition of good and bad behaviour, which has its finer points, but generally I follow a typically Judeo/Christian view of life as per the 10 Commandments and in general the requirements of the fundamentals of the British Judicial System.
So, on that basis, when I see women in my own country who are treated as subservient, second class and as owned property, then I take issue with it. Of course if it were just a few unrelated cases across the population, then I could accept that there are a few people in society who have somewhat strange notions about how to treat women and I would not be to any large degree concerned.
What I see in today’s society is the exponential growth of Islam in recent years. With that growth came the trappings of that religion, just one of which is the issue of women in Islam and how they are viewed and treated by their own men and the Islamic society in general.
In a country (Britain) that has a set of laws and a certain accepted code of behaviour, it is an alien thing for me (and I’ll warrant, many other British people) to experience the treatment of women in such a misogynistic way within the Islamic communities. Yet it continues unabated.
Our nation has an inclusive attitude towards newcomers to our land. We do not interfere with the workings of the individual household, nor the private lives of individuals, their beliefs or religious activities. Some would say that this attitude borders on the realms of utter disinterest rather than the respecting of individual rights.
Whatever your take on that, the fact is that for many decades foreigners from predominantly Muslim countries have been coming to our country and living their lives as if they were still in their own country. They have imported their cultural way of life and stuck to it rigidly and no-one has interfered with that.
Others might say that our authorities have worked on a basis of trust. As British people we operate in a fashion that out of respect for others. We try not to impose our beliefs on others. We don’t advocate overt pressure on anyone to conform, but rather just “expect” that people will integrate into our society over a period of years.
With regard to the vast majority of imported British Muslims, that just has not happened, even to the levels of 2nd and 3rd generations. Some would say that our authorities are naive rather than disinterested.
As an aside, please be assured that this is not a racial issue. Indians, who are predominantly Hindu, have very successfully made the transition into British society, despite their old culture having quite a misogynistic attitude (still apparent in India today). They retain something of their cultural heritage, sometimes the women will wear traditional Indian clothes, but by and large, Indians in Britain are thoroughly British after a generation or so.
The same can be said of any individual race that migrates to Britain. My own particular family comes from immigrant European stock from the mid 19th century. Our family no longer retains our ethnic culture and has not done so for almost a century.
The issue then, has nothing to do with race. It’s not even a religious issue, as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists or any other religion don’t bring with them “baggage” which interferes with, contradicts or conflicts with British society. Why might that be? Simply put, these religions have peace and harmony as their central themes. So as a Judeo/Christian nation we accept them simply on the grounds that they “do no harm” and although their religions are fundamentally different, there is a distinct point of contact, which is essentially benign and benevolent.
The only exception is Islam.
Please forgive the slight detour, but the latter comments needed to be aired in the discussion, if only to make the point that only in Islam are women systematically and consistently abused and debased on many levels, whether they be subtle or overt. It also needs to be said that this is not a national cultural issue, but one which follows Islam, no matter the country of origin of the believer.
Saudi Arabia: An Islamic State
As we know, Britain is not an Islamic state (yet) so for the average reader it might not be apparent nor obvious what life is like within such a state. That lack of knowledge severely hampers the appreciation of what life is actually like for a woman under the full weight of Sharia law (the laws which govern and set out the Islamic State and are given in the Qur’an and Hadiths).
So let me try and shed a little light from my own experiences. I have lived in the home of a very rich Saudia family in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I worked with the family in as much as it is possible for a foreigner to do so under the Arabic cultural constraints and Sharia law. I also worked extensively in a Saudi High School for boys where the pupils were Muslims of course, but came from the richest and most influential families in the country. Many of the boys had been schooled in the USA, the UK and European countries. This doesn’t add qualification to understanding the plight of women, I know. But what it does do is to add weight to understanding the male attitude to Islam and also Muslim men’s attitude towards women.
But further than all that my partner has lived and worked in Riyadh as a female foreign worker for over 10 years. Her working experience has been almost exclusively with women and the royalty of the country.
So between us we have accumulated a considerable experience of living and working in Saudi Arabia.
Using that knowledge I would like to try and give some insight into the life of women under Sharia law. I will say straight off that I fully realise that I am speaking as a man and also a foreigner to that country and culture. As such I recognise that I will possess some bias. I mitigate that with having an enhanced ability with empathy which I believe leans towards evening the balance. My objective is to be just that, objective.
The Muslim Woman under Sharia
I will try to distil the most salient points in as succinct a fashion as possible. If you want to see a more detailed breakdown of the life of women in Saudi, then please check out the Wikipedia reference .
- Saudi Women’s Freedom to Travel – simply they don’t have any, at least not unless accompanied by a man. So whether it’s going to the shops or taking a flight out of the country, men must either accompany them or give their permission (usually to leave the country). The latter used to be done via obtaining an official paper that must be authorised by the husband. Recently that changed and is now done electronically and via SMS text. Everyone needs a national identity card (iqama). Women need the permission of their guardian (mahram) to obtain their ID card. Women require the iqama to be shown in certain establishments as proof that they have permission from their mahram to be out of the house. Driving is not allowed by women.
- Women’s Clothing – Saudi women are expected to wear a cloak which covers the body (neck & shoulders to the floor). This is called an Abayah. They will also wear Hijab, or similar garment, which is a large scarf which covers the whole hair and head. This should also be used to cover the face or a further garment should be used to ensure the face is covered, except for the eyes. The colour MUST be black, with no exceptions.
- Women’s Clothing – Foreigners (non-Muslim) – pretty much the same as above, but they are not expected to cover the head or hair, but it’s probably best to do so, so as not to attract attention.
- Segregation – Women have their own entrances to restaurants as well as the mosques. Any social event will be segregated. For example a wedding happens on 3 separate occasions: the document signing; the male wedding feast; the female wedding feast. All on different days! All women are separated from anyone that is not their immediate family and may not be in company of other men without a chaperone. Even then, it is frowned upon.
- Work – only a very small percentage of Saudi women work. Their families believe strongly that women should stay at home. Generally there is a high turnover of staff where women are employed, due to family pressures to end their jobs. More wealthy families have greater options and women are now starting to enter professional employment. But this is still very limited.
- Sharia Enforcement – the religious police (Mutaween) have the power to stop anyone to check their authority, their dress (for women) and their behaviour, all of which must comply with the religious laws. Husbands and wives when out together are wise to carry their marriage authorisation documents. If they are stopped without them, they are likely to be arrested.
The six points listed above just give a snapshot of the life of a Saudi woman.
Observing as an outsider, it seems that women are hidden away and only come out to shop! The only time I ever saw women in Riyadh was in one shop or another. They would always step out of the shop and straight into a waiting car and disappear.
All this may give the impression of a devout and religious people. This is not necessarily the case. A well known activity seen by women is the not so ritual discarding of abayah and hijab just after leaving their Saudi Airlines plane going to the rest of the world. One reason you will see they carry large shoulder bags!
The Non Muslim Woman Under Sharia
Now let’s look at the life of women in Saudi who are NOT Muslim. There are some horror stories about foreign workers in the houses of the rich Saudia. The stories are true. There is rampant physical, sexual and psychological abuse throughout the country.
I guess it depends to some extent, what you deem as abuse. My employer in Riyadh has a number of staff working in the house. Several drivers (male of course) and house servants (2 male and 4 or 5 female) plus male and female kitchen staff. All were foreign (from Yemen, Philippines, Eritraya, Sudan) and they were all expected to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with a holiday once a year of maybe a month or so.
During my time in the house, two female Filipino servants disappeared. When I inquired as to their whereabouts, the family said they had left because of family issues at home. In reality, they ran away, never to be seen or heard of again. This was one of the better families.
Female foreign workers are treated like cattle. The single women are locked up in their apartments and forbidden access to their passports. Only until recently, their ID cards were taken too, until the government there stepped in to outlaw the practice.
Any foreign worker who is married and their husband is also there are treated more like Saudi married couples and are allowed to live in their own accommodation together.
Employers regularly overwork their staff. The attitude of Saudia towards foreign workers (especially female) is that they are essentially stupid. There is an unspoken “pecking order”. The law there requires a certain percentage of a workforce to be Saudia and so the Saudia look down on the foreign workers,and within the ranks of foreign workers, the Muslim workers from say Tunisia will look down on the Christian Filipina and treat them like dogs, with verbal and physical abuse. To them, Filipina are idiots and they rarely miss an opportunity to make their feelings known.
Filipino and Thai women are virtual prisoners and the money they are paid is a pittance compared to their Muslim counterparts. Should they step out of line, even for the most minor misdemeanour, employers will stop salaries for months at a time as punishment. There are also of course, much more imaginative punishments meted out, depending on the character of the employer.
When the women are allowed to go out to the shops they are under guard by male staff. They are all made aware of the Mutaween religious police, and constantly look around and suspect any Saudi man they see to be Mutaween. This is a life of constant stress and fear.
The punishment for the foreign worker is certain imprisonment and after an extended time, deportation. Many female foreign workers in Riyadh deliberately run away from their employers because of harsh and abusive treatment, the punishment and deportation process being more agreeable than continued “employment”.
The above should give some idea of what life is like for women under Sharia law. What I will say, is that Saudi Arabia is not the de-facto example of Islamic life. It is simply one example. Life there differs considerably because of Saudi cultural background and also the fact that there is a huge amount of money in the country. We must remember also, that the money in the country is only very recent (the last 60 years or so).
Life in Iran is different again. It’s different again in Gaza and Lebanon. Tunisia is reported to be so called “Moderate Muslim”. Syria and Iraq have co-existed with Christians for many centuries, yet still have strong Islamic influence and treat women in similar ways to other Islamic countries. You need only look at Muslim communities in various African countries and indeed countries in Asia such as Indonesia.
The experience I have having met Muslims from a variety of Middle East countries, is that Islam is Islam, wherever you go. The only differences are the lengths that the individual governments go in order to enforce Sharia law, and whether it is Sunni, Shi’ite or Wahabbi sects of Islam that are followed.
So while reading this, I hope that it is becoming clear that no matter where Islam is, the regulations for women are exactly the same, because they come from the Qur’an. That includes Britain.
Islam and Women in Britain
So far I have tried to give a broad view of the life of women under Islamic law based on my own experiences. Personally I am appalled at what I have seen. Part of me is incensed because in the vast majority of cases, it seems that women do nothing whatever to change their plight. Having had that thought, then what immediately follows is the recognition that in fact they are totally powerless to effect change.
So one would think then, that in a country like Britain, which saw its own women’s movement in the early 20th century blossom into votes for women and later into sex discrimination laws, Islamic women would have more freedom to make use of the laws we have in this country to free themselves of the mysogynistic practices of Islam. Well they haven’t, and I had to wonder why that is?
I want to quote now from an article written by Nahla Mahmoud, a Sudanese immigrant to the UK who works for womens rights:
Sharia discriminates against women (and Muslim women specifically): compared to feminist victories elsewhere, women are still not considered equal in most Islamic settings. A woman’s testimony is worthy half a man’s in Islam. She gets half the inheritance of her male siblings; a woman’s marriage contract is between her male guardian and her husband. A man can have four wives and divorce his wife by simple repudiation using the word “Talig”, whereas a woman must give specific reasons, some of which are extremely difficult to prove. Child custody reverts to the father at a pre-set age, even if the father is abusive. Women who remarry lose custody of their children.
These are real issues of inequality and discrimination that Muslim women face every day. I have personally experienced some because according to the Sharia constitution in Sudan, I am only eligible for half of my brothers’ share of our inheritance and I need at least two women to one man to testify in court cases. Other brutal examples end in punishment by stoning crimes such as Iranian Sakineh Ashtiani who was accused of having a relationship outside of an ‘Islamic contract marriage’, or the public flogging of Sudanese Lubna Husseinfor her un-Islamic dress.
Another issue is marital rape, honour killings and domestic violence: in Pakistan, there are 300 cases of acid burnt women with no charges pressed against their husbands. Here in the UK, a study reported by the One Law for All campaign shows that 4 out of 10 women in Sharia court cases were party to civil injunctions against their husbands. The One Law for All campaign as well as other groups like Secularism Is a Women’s Issue are among the frontline defenders campaigning against Sharia courts, fighting for women’s rights and demanding gender equality.” 
Women face in Britain exactly the same Sharia law and imported cultural behaviour as any other country in the world. As I stated earlier, Muslims in Britain stay isolated, remaining tied together in communities and don’t integrate with British society.
Sharia courts are appearing all over the country, meting out judgements independently of UK law, within those closed Islamic communities . The net result is that Muslim in Britain are every bit as much trapped as if they were back home in Pakistan.
Imagine then, being a second generation Muslim woman in Britain. You’ve lived here your whole life, but had to contend with the dichotomy of the lifetime of Islamic life in your whole local Islamic community. Islam is second nature to you. Compare that to seeing non-Muslim British women, free to work, wear whatever they want, have equal rights, make decisions in their own lives and so on. Only to then hear most people in your Islamic community express their utter disgust and hatred for these “whores” who flaunt themselves and desecrate the laws of “Allah”.
As such a Muslim woman, you sometimes might have private thoughts about how unfair life is to be a Muslim and have a desire to be like the other women in Britain. But the ideas quickly disappear, because you know full well what will happen. Your family will totally disown you. There is a good chance that if you leave Islam, you will be attacked, beaten or disfigured.
If you think this is just a flight of fancy, I am here to tell you it is most definitely NOT! As part of some work I did here in Britain just a few years ago, I was involved in a case of a Pakistani man who decided he and his girlfriend would get married. Being Muslim, they realised that they should get the permission of the two families prior to any marriage.
Living in Britain as they did, being young and obviously more in tune with British society than their Islamic community, they proceeded to marry in secret. However the man’s family found out very quickly and set about several attempted kidnappings of the woman. They were unsuccessful on the first attempt because the woman screamed and fought back. It was an attempted abduction on the streets of Manchester, into a car.
She reported the incident to the Police, went into hiding as best she could but was found and a second attempt to kidnap her was made. After that second failed attempt, she was then given round the clock police protection.
Does this sound normal to you? Is this the sort of thing that happens in normal British society? No of course it isn’t. But this is what Muslim women must endure here in this country. The pressure to conform is produced by fear and intimidation. After all, the punishments in Islamic law are 1400 years old! The punishment for apostasy (leaving Islam) is death.
In finishing this article, I want to say that I have deliberately shied away from the more common “shock factor” topics associated with Islam and women. You should be appalled and shocked enough (as am I) at the fate of women under Islamic law, just based on my own personal experiences, which I have outlined here.
And if you are not, then I have to wonder why?
Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia:
Sharia Law in Britain: