Exit Strategies

Islam, Women, and Us


A correspondent recently complained about the tendency of generic conservatives to adopt "Islam oppresses women" as a major reason for opposing Muslim assertiveness and expansion. Doesn't that approach (he asked) play into a feminist analysis of society, and end by supporting feminist solutions generally? And as a factual matter, can it really be true that Muslim society is fundamentally a system whereby men oppress women? Doesn't it have other more basic problems, and wouldn't there be more give and take on that particular point?

I'm sympathetic with such concerns. The "Muslims oppress women" theme tends to merge opposition to violent jihad and the spread of Islam in the West into a general crusade for global liberation understood in a left/liberal sense. It easily turns into "religion oppresses women" and "tradition oppresses women" unless there's a focus on the specific nature of Islam, which there never is.

More basically, though, the Muslim treatment of women is their problem. Why should we get involved in their problems, when we've got our own and can't do much about theirs anyway? I'd prefer "Muslims engage in terrorism" and "Muslims are anti-Western" as themes, where "Western" refers to something more specific and complex than universal principles of freedom, equality, and scientific rationalism. I suppose "we don't want to be Muslim" should be part of the mix, and the position of women is part of that, but it's not as if relations between the sexes are in great shape in the West, so it's odd to put it first and foremost.

We do need to know what we're dealing with, so we should discuss the merits. On that point I'd say women are unquestionably at a disadvantage in Islam. Men can have several wives, and they can divorce at will. So the bond between man and woman is weaker and less balanced, and there is less mutual trust and more use of force than in traditional Western society.

Principles like that have some effect on day-to-day life, and a big effect on the likelihood of the kind of extreme situation that makes the news. So there are a lot more honor killings and stonings for adultery in Muslim societies, just as there are more babies who get their skulls punctured and brains sucked out in liberal societies.

General principles don't determine everything though, and in any event there are also general Islamic principles requiring fair treatment and whatnot. On the whole, people are people, life is mostly particular events, domestic ill-feeling is no fun, and women know how to get their way even if men are supposedly in charge. So I don't think the "generalized system of sexist abuse" theory holds water. How could such a system be maintained in household after household century after century over whole continents? Why would so many people go to such an effort?

I know something about life among at least some Muslims, since I spent a couple of years before all the unpleasantness began as a Peace Corps math teacher at a government boarding school in a small village in Afghanistan.

(The school where I taught, in Helmand Province, has since become Forward Operations Base Delhi. You can see a row of classrooms I taught in at around 1:40 in this video.)

There weren't many polygamous marriages where I was, and a lot of them had to do with special situations (your brother dies so you've got a second wife all of a sudden). And there were few or no divorces. There really can't be: at the crudest level, bride price might be 5 years salary for a schoolteacher, and the woman's family isn't going to be pleased if you toss her aside, so basically you make a go of what you've got.

It was hard for a single foreign man to observe family relations directly, but you could pick up this and that. Girls went around freely in public until they were 12 or so, and fathers seemed no less attached to them than to boys. There was one teacher--a very intelligent man who had studied in America and spoke excellent English--who notoriously beat his wife, and people looked down on that. There was another who was reputedly a great lover, and the women would giggle and tell stories behind the scenes.

Mostly the bits and pieces I heard about sounded like normal domestic life--A's wife had worry B about the children, C's wife wanted some sort of fancy cloth so he picked it up for her, etc. The most respected of the teachers, who everyone called "Father," had a much younger wife people called "Mother" who went around without a veil and did what she wanted. She was a very spirited woman, and nobody messed with her.

So far as I could tell, a lot of the differences had to do with the nature of the society rather than Islam as such. The two are connected, but it's complicated. Maybe it's something of a chicken-and-egg problem--Islam catches on in societies to which it's adapted. Or maybe the nature of the pre-Islamic society makes a big difference in how Islam turns out. Others will have to say.

The women didn't have much public presence where I was, but that didn't mean what people here would expect. There's less public life in Muslim countries. The classic Middle Eastern city was a bazaar and some palaces, mosques, and barracks in the public sphere, and also walled quarters where people lived among their own and ran their own affairs.

The family was generally a unit of production as well as consumption, so the idea of "career" was mostly irrelevant. That's still largely true, by the way. Career depends on large formal organizations, and such things don't work well in the radically divided societies you find in the Middle East and Central Asia. People are mostly farmers, artisans, or shopkeepers, and the ideal is having enough to live on so you can sit at home drinking tea.

I remember a guy in Kashmir (another Muslim region) asking me--very tentatively, he didn't want to seem like a fool who takes everything he hears seriously--whether it was true that in the West people didn't think it was enough to have money to live on and hang with their friends but also wanted to work as a positive good thing.

So the basic idea has always been that everything's behind walls, with extended families living together in compounds, and outsiders only admitted to the relatively small public areas. Behind the scenes, which is where everything took place, the women were much freer and certainly part of what was going on. There was also lots of to and fro through back doors into other compounds. The images of imprisonment you get in the West aren't at all accurate.

I suppose another influence leading to the absence of women from public life was the possibility of abduction. It's expensive to get a wife, so why not steal one? That can be a real possibility in a radically divided society without much public order in which everything takes place in walled quarters and compounds and there's more emphasis on arbitrary fortune than free choice anyway. That's not the sort of thing that's a big current issue, but I think it had a role in how the system developed and the possibility still has an influence somewhere in the background.

A problem with the whole picture is that the way of life doesn't transplant to all settings. It doesn't work at all in a bureaucratic and industrial society in which people live in small apartments in large buildings and make their livings as operatives and functionaries in big organizations. So traditional Muslims in the West have problems and modernization runs into problems in Muslim countries. I have no doubt that one result is increased conflict and violence.

Whether the Muslims will be able to pick and choose among aspects of modernity and come up with something that works for them I don't know. If they want to convert to Catholicism I'd be glad to send them a catechism or even explain why it's a good idea, but if they want to do their Islamic thing I can't help them.

Converting them to liberalism--by force or any other way--doesn't seem to be the answer. We in the West have our own problems, and we're in no position to straighten other people out. Let the Muslims have a go at it where they run things and let's leave each other alone. Each should mind his own business, barring extraordinary circumstances, and maintain boundaries for the sake of peace.