The Christian Science Monitor this week introduces us to an American Latina, Jasmine Pinet, who “has found greater respect as a woman by converting to Islam.” Ms. Pinet praises Muslim men for their respect for women: “They’re not gonna say, ‘Hey mami, how are you?’ Usually they say, ‘Hello, sister.’ And they don’t look at you like a sex object.” The Monitor reports that there are 40,000 Latin American Muslims in the United States today, and that “many of the Latina converts say that their belief that women are treated better in Islam was a significant factor in converting.”
For readers who might find this surprising — given the burqa, polygamy, the prohibition of women drivers in Saudi Arabia, and other elements of the Islamic record on women that are well known in the West — the Monitor quotes Leila Ahmed, professor of women’s studies and religion at Harvard: “It astounds me, the extent to which people think Afghanistan and the Taliban represent women and Islam.” Ahmed says that “we’re in the early stages of a major rethinking of Islam that will open Islam for women. [Muslim scholars] are rereading the core texts of Islam — from the Koran to legal texts — in every possible way.”
But did the Taliban really originate the features of Islam that discriminate against women? Will a “rereading” of the Qur’an and other core texts of Islam really help “open Islam for women”? These are some of the texts that will have to be “reread”:
1. The Qur’an likens a woman to a field (tilth), to be used by a man as he wills: “Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) so go to your tilth as ye will” (2:223);
2. It declares that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man: “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” (2:282);
3. It allows men to marry up to four wives, and have sex with slave girls also: “If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice” (4:3);
4. It rules that a son’s inheritance should be twice the size of that of a daughter: “Allah (thus) directs you as regards your children’s (inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females” (4:11);
5. It tells husbands to beat their disobedient wives: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them” (4:34).
It will take some creative rereading to blunt the force of these and other Qur’anic passages that mandate second-class status for women and consign all too many women in the Islamic world to the status of mere possessions of their husbands. That last verse has particularly troubling implications. The Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences has determined that over nine out of ten Pakistani wives have been struck, beaten, or abused sexually — for offenses on the order of cooking an unsatisfactory meal. Others were punished for failing to give birth to a male child.
It’s unlikely that the Latina women interviewed by the Monitor are unaware of such elements of Islam. The Monitor tells us that before her conversion, Pinet “began studying the Koran with a group of Muslim women.” Why, then, didn’t the Monitor ask her and the others what they thought of the above verses of the Qur’an? The longer such verses go unquestioned, the longer they will continue to be instruments of oppression for women. The Monitor could have done Muslim women a service by bringing these matters to light, thereby initiating a dialogue about women’s rights in Islam — with the potential to affect salutary change for women who suffer under the constraints of Qur’anic literalism.
But instead, not unexpectedly, the Monitor chose the easy — and PC — way out.