No Sisterhood in Islam

by Mary Jackson (March 2009) 

“As a Muslim you really do feel part of a global community regardless of where you’re from, the colour of your skin. The Islamic sisterhood makes Western feminism pale in significance.” Yvonne Ridley


I have heard it said by dreamy apologists for Islam that the religion is woman-friendly in one important respect: because men and women cannot mix freely, women are thrown in on each other’s company, producing a kind of “sisterhood” that Western feminists can only dream of. Do women in the Islamic world find comfort in each other’s society, or even unite against male oppression?


I cannot speak for all Muslim women, obviously. I am sure that there are some strong female friendships and that many mothers love their daughters as much as free women do. However, Islam itself militates against this female bonding. Societies suffused, as Hugh Fitzgerald calls it, with Islam place so little value on girls that a woman’s only purpose is to produce sons. How can she then love a daughter-in-law who takes her son away from her? How can any older woman be friends with a younger woman, who might become her husband’s second wife. If her husband rapes another woman, would not his wife blame the woman, rather than the husband, on whom her fortune depends?


Oppression does not always bring people closer together. Women in strict Islamic societies must compete against sisters, mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, co-wives, potential co-wives and even concubines for the approval of men, which can be withdrawn as whimsically as it is given. Rivalry between women is even found in the West, so how much more common must such rivalry be where men’s approval is a matter of life and death? Trust and friendship among Muslim women must be a luxury, and if it happens it is in spite of Islam.


In her book Woman’s Inhumanity to Women Phyllis Chesler has commented on the cold indifference with which women in the Muslim world view the barbaric punishments inflicted on those women who transgress the strict and arbitrary “moral” code of Islam. Worse, Muslim women, even in the West, may collude in such punishments. A notorious recent example is Tissie, the mother of Amina and Sarah Said, who dragged the girls back to their father to be shot for being too “Western”. (Atlas Shrugs has more on this case.) The collusion may be indirect: Chesler quotes a study from 1994 by anthropologists Ilsa M. Glazer and Wahiba Abu Ras on the relationship between women’s gossip and honour killings in the Arab world, concluding that: “Women’s gossip creates the climate in which the [honour killing] of a young woman is inevitable.”


Recently I saw again, on YouTube, the film Not Without My Daughter. Based on a book of the same title by Betty Mahmoody and William Hoffer, this tells the true story of Betty, a young Michigan housewife tricked into accompanying her Iranian husband for a “short visit” to Iran. Trapped without a passport in a country where women have no rights, she refuses to leave without her young daughter, custody of whom under Islam goes automatically to the father and who would be brought up Muslim. Eventually Betty and her daughter escape, but such a happy ending is the exception rather than the rule, and the film should be required viewing – and the book required reading – for all women seduced by those liquid brown eyes. Flawed, but gripping, the film was made in 1991, ten years before, in an inversion of justice, the atrocity of September 11 made it harder to criticise Islam. While the men clearly hold all the cards, and Betty’s Iranian husband is, in accordance with his rights in Islam, a despotic brute, it is an understatement to say that the women are no friends to Betty. Their robotic indifference to her plight is prefigured by this scene, in which the plane first lands in Tehran. Observe, from 4:45 minutes in, the inhuman sound, which you may take at first to be an engine, but which turns out to be ululating, a grotesque trilling emitted by a black flock of women, descending like crows. Fast forward to this scene, at Betty’s daughter’s school. First watch, from 4.10 onwards the cowed fellow American wife, who has betrayed Betty because of her mechanical obedience to her husband, which obedience Islam puts before any compassion or independent thought. Then notice the sinister, smiling women in the school, even more trapped under an Islam they have known all their life. They promise to help Betty by allowing her to bring her daughter in late – enabling her to plot their escape – but betray her again and stand by indifferently when she receives a savage beating from her husband. In their Islamic eyes, this is deserved, for she has “insulted” him. The betrayal is natural too, for deception is allowed in order to spread or enforce Islam. Violence and deception are acceptable; her rights are non-existent; Islam must not be questioned. The husband referred to these women in an earlier scene as “devout”. He is right.


How can the women stand by and watch a husband beat his wife so cruelly? Do they feel no compassion for her and hatred for the man who could do such a thing? Are they not filled with rage at a system that gives him – and their own husbands – the right to behave this way? Their impassiveness may stem not from cruelty so much as from a belief that they will be safe if they accept their lot. With less excuse, even some intelligent Western women such as Heather Mac Donald believe that good girls don’t get raped. This idea is undermined above all by Muslim rape victims, who unlike their “slutty” Western sisters, rarely get drunk or flirt, but it gives comfort to those who like to cling to a semblance of control over their lives – and how else can Muslim women do this?


Samira Ahmed Jassim, the grotesquely named “Mother of the Believers” may be an extreme example of what Islam can do to womanhood. Encouraging rape victims to cleanse their “shame” by becoming suicide bombers – and even arranging for women to be raped to help the process along – appears exceptionally evil. Yet is it not the logical conclusion of Islamic doctrine?


A society that distorts relations between men and women will pervert relations between women too. A society suffused with Islam puts these perverted relations beyond question. Is it surprising, then, that there is no sisterhood in Islam?


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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome. 



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