Thursday, March 28, 2013

Women and Islam

This post began with a link on Facebook to, to the petition called Horror in Paradise,  about a 15-year-old girl in the Maldives who was reportedly raped repeatedly by her father, who also murdered the baby she bore.  She has now been sentenced to 100 lashes, for having "sex outside marriage."  I don't sign every petition that comes by, because signing petitions invariably leads to more spam and more requests for funds.  I decided I would sign this one.

But the petition didn't have the entire story. An article in the International Business Times explains that the girl was not sentenced to 100 lashes because her father raped her; her father is still awaiting trial on charges of rape and infanticide.  She was sentenced because of another act of consensual premarital sex which she is said to have admitted to.  Also, the sentence won't be imposed until she turns 18, unless she chooses otherwise.  Finally, the Maldives President's office is already arguing with the court about the sentence.  So we can all back off on the horror, except insofar as 100 lashes, in the 21st century, is an absurd punishment for anything.  And bear in mind that sex with a 15-year-old is a crime in every western country I can think of - but the girl is almost never prosecuted.

I began wondering what Sharia law actually does say about rape, and relations between men and women.  Is it really true that Sharia law requires 4 male witnesses to prove rape?  Is a woman's testimony really only worth half a man's in Sharia courts? What about marital rape? I don't claim to understand all of Islamic law based on a few web articles, but I was curious to see what a quick survey would find.

I found 3 web sites with articles on rape and Islam which I thought would give a broad perspective:
ReligionofPeace is clearly anti-Muslim, but their links to Qur'an citations were very useful.  The most detailed explanations of how Muslims think about the law were on MuslimAccess.  The article about rape and incest begins with an extended discussion of Islam's emphasis on the value of all human life, and the various ways this is addressed.  Islam prohibits harm, prohibits cruelty, and states that "a woman has to be respected and protected under all circumstances."  Islam prohibits rape (of course!).  The site lists numerous examples of women complaining of rape to the Prophet, and to judges in the time after the Prophet, whose rapists were punished and the women were not. 

ReligionofPeace says flatly, "Under Islamic law, rape can only be proven if the rapist confesses or if there are four male witnesses."  If you actually look at the citations to the Qur'an they give, though, the 4 male witnesses are required to prove adultery:
Qur'an (24:4) - "And those who accuse free women then do not bring four witnesses (to adultery), flog them..."  
Qur'an (24:13) - "Why did they not bring four witnesses of it? But as they have not brought witnesses they are liars before Allah."
ReligionofPeace admits this but insists "it is a part of the theological underpinning of the Sharia rule."  MuslimAccess is very clear that rape and adultery are different crimes under Sharia.  The crime of rape (hiraba) is considered on a par with highway robbery and assault: 
In ‘Fiqh-us-Sunnah’, hiraba is described as: ‘a single person or group of people causing public disruption, killing, forcibly taking property or money, attacking or raping women (hatk al ‘arad), killing cattle, or disrupting agriculture.’
BismikaAllahuma also lists numerous historical examples of rape victims who were not punished, although their rapists were.  The only case listed on BismikaAllahuma where a raped woman was punished was one where "the girl [was stoned to death] because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city."  She was therefore presumed to have consented - and the penalty for adultery was death.

I'm inclined to conclude that in Islamic law, a rape victim should be treated as a victim and not punished, and that the requirement for 4 male witnesses applies to proving consensual adultery, not rape.  There's still a deep chasm between this and modern Western law, where adultery is considered the business of the parties involved.

So, what about marital rape?  The Qur'an contains the following suggestive quote, which two different sites used as examples of two different opinions:
Sûrah al Baqarah 2.223
'Your wives are your tilth; go then unto your tilth as you may desire, but first provide something for your souls*, and remain conscious of God, and know that your are destined to meet Him...'
The ReligionofPeace site assumes this means there is no such concept as rape in marriage in Islam.

The MuslimAccess site says, "The Qur'an is very clear that the basis of a marital relationship is love and affection between the spouses, not power or control. Rape is unacceptable in such a relationship." To the quote above it adds a footnote, "* Note in Muhammad Asad's translation: 'a spiritual relationship between man and woman is postulated as the indispensable basis of sexual relations.'"  It also gives several examples of Islamic scholarship suggesting a much more equal relationship between men and women than some modern critics suggest, or than we see today in some of the more conservative Muslim countries. 

As for the value of a woman's testimony in court, here is the exact text relating to women's testimony in court, from 002.282 (Yu Sufali), in the context of  "transactions involving future obligations in a fixed period of time":
If they [sic] party liable is mentally deficient, or weak, or unable Himself to dictate, Let his guardian dictate faithfully, and get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her.
There is no suggestion that the man might need to be reminded if he errs.

So, how explain the way women are treated under Sharia law in some Muslim countries, given that the examples of Islamic law turned up by my search seem more, well, reasonable than I expected?  I believe the explanations are as much cultural as religious.  The cultures in which women seem to especially badly treated are strongly patriarchal, and regard women as property, not citizens:  Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia.  I didn't know enough about the Maldives to include them in that list until now; and after reading the IBT article, I'm not sure I should include them. The Qur'an statement that "your wives are your tilth" seems to support this attitude.

So we have a religion which forbids rape (and murder, and all the other things everybody forbids), and which says it regards women as very important and to be protected and cherished; and the modern advocates forbid women from going out in public without a male family member as escort, refuse to let them go out at all, refuse them education, cause them to wear full-coverage veils, murder them for sometimes incomprehensible failures of "honor" - you've seen the news stories. In fact, from some other stories I've read about the Prophet Mohammed, he sounds like a more rational man than some of his modern followers.

I think the problem with Islam is the same as the problem with Christianity - it isn't necessarily the religion itself.  It's the people who practice it, and the way they've convinced themselves that only their interpretation of the faith is correct, and everyone who disagrees with them is a hopeless heretic.  It's also, frankly, the Pareto principle, also called the 80/20 rule:   80% of the trouble in the world is caused by 20% of the people.  The squeaky wheels get the news reports, and the people who make the news can be pretty scary.  Consider what your opinion of Christians would be if the only Christian you ever heard or read about was Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, or that guy in Florida (I refuse to look up his name) who amused himself by burning Qurans.  I try to remind myself that for every frothing jihadi in the news, there are at least 4 other Muslims going quietly about their lives, being nice to their wives and daughters, and trying to pay the rent.


  1. Brava! Thank you for your wonderful research.

  2. Yes, well, none of that excuses the horrific way women are treated around the world.

    As a practicing isolationist, I'm conflicted about the plight of women in Muslim countries. Women who "voluntarily convert" to Islam are one thing; to be brought up from childhood in a culture of sexual suppression is quite another. As a member of a nominally free society, I feel a strong sense of sympathy for these millions of oppressed girls and women, but I don't want to go to war to free them.

    The world was once a vast place composed of geographically isolated precincts. Foreign cultures were eccentric and radically different. I think there was a kind of respect for that difference. Today, we think we have a right to be displeased about every other culture or nation which doesn't follow our version of truth and goodness. Are we not being somewhat vain and condescending?

  3. I don't want to go to war to free those women (and I'm not an isolationist) because I've seen no evidence that "going to war" does anything but make their situation worse. The classic example here is Iraq, as under Saddam educated secular women were no worse off than anyone else, but following our brilliant military escapade, they are now back to chadors and hiding. The only thing that will change the way patriarchal tribal societies treat women is to expose their societies to other ideas - in other words, education. And that will take a looong time. I might add there's a fair amount of patriarchal, tribal repression of women in certain parts of the U.S., too, so we don't really have a soap box to stand on.

    As I hope I made clear, I wasn't trying to justify or condemn anything; I was trying to see what the Qur'an actually said on some subjects.