issue 158 - April 1986
Photo: Henning Christoph
Sons and daughters of Islam
The Prophet Muhammad married a widow. He was not worried that
she wasn't a virgin. But in many Muslim countries today women are
veiled, vilified and only valued for their virginity. Yet the Qu'ran
commands men to treat women nobly: 'for they are our mothers,
daughters, aunts'. Enver Carim, himself a Muslim, believes that
men who ignore this command are betraying the Islamic religion.
WHEN Farida Lagari borrowed $120,000 from a bank to start her own business, she did not ask her husband's permission first. She was exercising her fundamental right as a Muslim woman to run a business in her own name. Her husband, also a Muslim, helped her draw up the cash-flow chart required by the bank, showing the probable revenue position for the first three years. He considered it an honour to have such a dynamic wife. She made things happen.
The bank manager was impressed. After inspecting the premises Farida Lagari had chosen to transform into a nursing home for elderly people, he put up the full $120,000.
'The Qu'ran says that, as a Muslim woman, I am an independent personality. I can sign any contract, in my own name, whether I'm married or not, as long as I've reached the age of majority. Neither European, nor American, nor Russian women have such rights in any of their law books. The Prophet Muhammad himself spoke for me when he said: "Women are the twin-halves of men, equal in value and equal in God's esteem." The Prophet's own wife, Khadija, was a successful businesswoman before he married her.'
Farida has four children - two boys and two girls - and she and her husband intend to educate their daughters no less fully than their sons. 'Islam is their best guarantee of freedom and equality,' she says. 'It's only backsliders and disbelievers who'll try to hold them back.'
By 'backsliders' she means men who claim to be Muslims but who prove they are much more interested in dominating women than in allowing their personalities to develop. Backsliding is, in fact, an apt description of the mentality of the vast majority of men in the so-called Muslim world. In strictly religious terms each instance of cruelty to women, each suppression of their dignity as human beings, is a disavowal of Islam by people who are slipping back into the Jahiliya era - the age of ignorance that preceded the advent of Muhammad.
Indeed, the origins of most 'Muslim' attitudes to women stem from those Jahiliya years. Females were indistinct from men's other possessions: they were mere chattels, like camels, tents or water-bags. So worthless were Arab women considered in those days that female children used to be buried alive and men used their numberless wives and concubines as servants whom they sometimes traded for goods along the caravan routes of Old Arabia.
It is against this background that the teachings of the Qu'ran and the Prophet Muhammad are so revolutionary: 'God commands us to treat women nobly, for they are our mothers, daughters and aunts.'
Yet 14 centuries later the barbarism is still ingrained. Women still apologise for giving birth to baby girls, and fathers still feel slighted by female infants, as if their manhood is thereby called into question. And 'Muslim' men and women have, on many occasions, sympathised with me, expected me to be sad, because all my children are girls.
Clearly 'Muslims' are not interested in nobility. They are, instead, obsessed with their power over women's bodies. Whether it's in Bangladesh, Baluchistan or Bahrain, the focus on female sexuality within the family borders on the pathological. Virginity is so highly valued that woman's status is reduced to the condition of her vagina, regardless of her intellectual abilities, her skills or her general knowledge. In some places a girl's virginity is such a mark of honour that her mother-in-law hangs out the bedsheet the morning after the wedding night for all the world to see the bloodstains - proof that her hymen was intact when she took her marriage vows.
Her husband, on the other hand, is likely to have been a real 'man of the world' before his wedding night. If he is Turkish, he might have been working as a gastarbeiter in West Germany; if Algerian, as a migrant worker in France; if Pakistani, in Birmingham, London or Bradford in the UK. He would have been having sex with whatever women happened to be available. And if they were European women, so much the better. He could then boast about his conquests to his compatriots in the ghetto at the same time as running them down afterwards for being loose and immoral, without a proper family upbringing - until the next time, that is.
So sexual honour in 'Muslim' families is determined solely by their control of a girl's activities. The boys can have a good time. And - if they're from well-to-do families, in the Gulf states, say, or from merchant families in Malaysia, for example - a good time is exactly what they have. They buy cars, have apartments of their own, throw parties while 'studying' abroad, keeping in touch with their parents only when it's time to have more money wired into their bank accounts.
Their sisters, meanwhile, are being kept under lock and key, all their movements plotted beforehand and all their relationships closely vetted and screened for hidden males. They can't go shopping on their own because they might see a man they find attractive. They can't spend their leisure hours in the company of men without close chaperoning, in case they get the idea that they have minds of their own and start expressing embarrassing opinions in public. In Saudi Arabia, that ostensibly Muslim country birthplace of the Jahiliya culture, they are forbidden by law even to drive a motor car.
Yet 'Ia ikraa fi'd deen' is one of the most important principles of the Qu'ran: 'Let there be no compulsion in religion.' If you have to force a person to believe, it's a waste of time: their hearts won't be in it. They will simply learn the words parrot-fashion, but their lives will not be inspired by the ayats (verses) of the Qu'ran or the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad. Unsuffused by that ecstasy of music and meaning which is the Qu'ran in Arabic, they are left with a barren set of laws. This is taken to its most ridiculous extreme in Saudi Arabia. Here there are official religious police: cops combing the streets in their coloured head-gear, checking that people aren't holding hands in public, that there are no women loose on their own, that the open-air stonings of adulteresses are well attended.
In countries like this, a brave Muslim woman who decides to act out the Prophet Muhammad's teaching is regarded by her family as bringing shame upon them. She is regarded as putting her virginity at risk by wanting a higher education: the men in class may ogle her, may desire her; may, being the brutes they are, want to waylay her: it would all be her fault. The lapse back into the Jahiliya mentality is so complete that even these words of the Prophet are seen as a formula for evil: 'The acquisition of knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim man and every Muslim woman. Rather like Sigmund Freud, 'Muslim' men reduce everything to sex in a way that belittles women, compresses their identity to the faceless area between their legs, and denies them any semblance of spirituality.
The Prophet Muhammad's first wife was a widow: she had slept with another man before. It didn't bother him that she wasn't a virgin. What mattered to him was the quality of her character. He said many times that the best men in society were those who treated their women best. But in today's 'Muslim' societies, the concepts of honour, shame and virginity, far from enhancing the human identity of women, are the means whereby the lascivious pleasures of men are perpetuated. Men go on enjoying 'loose women' and virgins alike, while women's physical, social and intellectual independence are thwarted at every turn - in the name of a God the men have long ago replaced by dogma
Enver Carim is a psychologist and author of several books, the latest of which is AIDS: the deadly epidemic, published by Victor Gollancz this year.