What the Koran really says about women.
March 8, 2016 11:35 AM   Subscribe

 
Fascinating. What a unique aspect of Islam! It would certainly be strange if we lived in a world where every major organized religion had a history of taking advantage of and then suppressing women's voices dating back hundreds if not thousands of years.
posted by selfnoise at 11:45 AM on March 8, 2016 [27 favorites]


It would certainly be strange if we lived in a world where every major organized religion had a history of taking advantage of and then suppressing women's voices dating back hundreds if not thousands of years.

Indeed.
posted by suelac at 11:46 AM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Aristotle, a man who held that the subjugation of women was both “natural” and a “social necessity,” influenced key Muslim thinkers who shaped medieval fiqh, the theory of Islamic law

I didn't think they could do it, but yes: it's another reason to hate Aristotle.
posted by selfnoise at 11:47 AM on March 8, 2016 [22 favorites]


More like Kakistotle, amirite?
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:50 AM on March 8, 2016 [12 favorites]


I mean on the one hand you have to respect Aristotle for looking straight at the world and identifying practice rather than ideals as fundamental. but on the other hand, christ, what an asshole.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:52 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


(I haven't read Aristotle deeply at all and I'm hoping the smart/well-read people will correct me on my overgeneralization)
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:52 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


It would certainly be strange if we lived in a world where every major organized religion had a history of taking advantage of and then suppressing women's voices dating back hundreds if not thousands of years.

It's almost as though those who claim to be religious conservatives all actually have an overriding interest in misrepresenting their own faiths for mundane social and political advantage. Funny how that works.
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:54 AM on March 8, 2016 [31 favorites]




(Aristotle was a really smart guy but also the world's greatest ever practitioner of Male Answer Syndrome)
posted by selfnoise at 11:57 AM on March 8, 2016 [32 favorites]


I don't know a lot about Islam and have precisely as much respect for it as for any other religion, but the fact that any human being would abuse their wife, daughter, sister, etc, and then say "this book told me to" is beyond contempt and idiocy.
posted by signal at 11:58 AM on March 8, 2016 [9 favorites]


ArisNOTle.
posted by maxsparber at 12:01 PM on March 8, 2016 [8 favorites]


This is a well-written article and certainly worth a read, and I get what the goal is with it, but it's ultimately pointless and almost unbelievably naive. For example:
I was surprised to discover that the Koran can refract in dazzling ways. The San Francisco civil rights lawyer may discover freedoms in the same chapter in which a twelfth-century Cairo cleric saw strictures.

The Marxist and the Wall Street banker, the despot and the democrat, the terrorist and the pluralist—each can point to a passage in support of his cause.
No religious text "really" says anything about anything.

It says what any given group of followers want it to say. This woman from the West surely knows that the same Christian Bible is pointed to by the Quakers and the Crusaders, by the most hardline Quiverfull Evangelicals and egalitarian movements like the Catholic Workers. Slavers and abolitionists alike based their arguments on it, sometimes pointing to the very same passages.

So why would the Koran be any different? No one is "misrepresenting" or ignoring what the text "really" says. The Korean, like the Bible, says what's convenient for those looking to it for support, whether they're the most brutal Taliban or ISIS clerics or the most progressive imams around.

This approach of looking to the text for The Real Truth is both pointless and fruitless, since everyone thinks their interpretation is already that. I was lucky enough to take an excellent class on Islamic jurisprudence in law school, and learned a lot about modern attempts to formulate more progressive Islamic judicial and religious frameworks. That's what's going to change people in the end, offering an alternate framework for people, not telling them that they just don't get their holy book.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:01 PM on March 8, 2016 [62 favorites]


No religious text "really" says anything about anything.

Well, there goes four years of a religious studies degree.
posted by maxsparber at 12:03 PM on March 8, 2016 [30 favorites]


Seems to me that progressive reformation, whether it be religious, political, economic, or whatever, is one of the most difficult things to accomplish in this world. It's because it requires sacrifice, isn't it? Yeah. I'm going with sacrifice. Sacrifice is hard.
posted by valkane at 12:03 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


Well, there goes four years of a religious studies degree.

I would certainly hope that degree covered the history and practice of hermeneutics, or else you really might consider throwing it away.

On the other hand, if your studies have lead you to discover the One True Form of Christianity/Islam/Whatever, you should be out contacting all relevant sects and leaders to tell them the good news.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:05 PM on March 8, 2016 [8 favorites]


“People just use it for whatever point they want to make,” he shrugged. “They come to it with their own ideas and look for verses that confirm what they want to hear.”

I have long felt this was true about pretty much every religious text. And most non-religious ones, as well. We are not generally seeking enlightenment. We are seeking confirmation.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:12 PM on March 8, 2016 [16 favorites]


It says what any given group of followers want it to say.

The fact that an innumerable amount of people can interpret it however they want, does not mean that all interpretations are equally as valid.
posted by Dalby at 12:15 PM on March 8, 2016 [11 favorites]


Confirmation? I think that's just the Catholics and Anglicans, live frogs.

(I'll see myself out.)
posted by ODiV at 12:15 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


I don't know a lot about Islam and have precisely as much respect for it as for any other religion, but the fact that any human being would abuse their wife, daughter, sister, etc, and then say "this book told me to" is beyond contempt and idiocy.

It's kind of the other way around. They're abusive, and look toward the Koran for defense against the charge that they're abusive.

Kind of like an alcoholic trying to guard against the charge that they drink too much, by pointing toward medical literature that a glass of wine a day is healthy.
posted by explosion at 12:15 PM on March 8, 2016 [15 favorites]


This approach of looking to the text for The Real Truth is both pointless and fruitless

Even if the point of the article is obvious to you, though, I think you might be underestimating the value of pointing out that even a specifically conservative interpretation of the Koran does not have to be opposed to women's rights... especially given what you tend to hear in Western public discourse about Islam.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:16 PM on March 8, 2016 [7 favorites]


On the other hand, if your studies have lead you to discover the One True Form of Christianity/Islam/Whatever, you should be out contacting all relevant sects and leaders to tell them the good news.

There is a difference between believing there is one true form of a religion and studying the historical circumstances that led religious texts to be written. The people who wrote the texts actually did mean something when they wrote them, and it is possible to try and understand what they meant and the context in which is what written. In fact, it's important to do so, because the fact is, every interpretation of a religious text is not equal -- at least, not equal in the eyes of scholarship.
posted by maxsparber at 12:16 PM on March 8, 2016 [11 favorites]


Across the world, Muslim progressives in places as disparate as Jakarta and Virginia have read 4:34 anew, chiselling off the man-made prejudices that have hardened into Truth over centuries.

This is too glib, too handwavy, given the subject. 4:34 is the equivalent of Matthew 27:25. It is deeply problematic with profound and longlasting effects.
posted by Emma May Smith at 12:17 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Religion isn't what's written in books. It's what people do and believe. It doesn't really matter what the Koran says. It matters what people believe it says, and how they structure their lives based upon that belief. And the thing is, once people have set beliefs about what their religion is, they will use all kinds of back-breaking logic to explain why the text (if and once they encounter it) doesn't really say what it seems to say, but rather justifies what they're already doing.

It's always struck me as strange that anyone could point at a book they don't know or understand well and say "In there is everything I believe, including quite a few things I don't know or perhaps have never heard of." I always thought if you're going to believe things you should probably know what they are.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:24 PM on March 8, 2016 [9 favorites]


The fact that an innumerable amount of people can interpret it however they want, does not mean that all interpretations are equally as valid.

I'm obviously not a religious person myself, so for me the practical results are what counts.

To butcher Mao, the validity of your interpretation grows out of the barrel of a gun.

It's therefore pointless to argue about the validity of any interpretation of the text. It's better to analyze why and under what circumstances a particular interpretation arises, and why it comes to dominate or not.

For example, the conservative interpretations of Islam that are dominant now in many parts of the Middle East/North Africa grew out of anti-colonialist and Islamic Modernist movements and philosophies in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and were kicked into high gear by mid-20th century Western meddling.

Are they the right interpretations? Are they valid? Maybe or maybe not, but they're the ones in force right now. Looking at why that is may help us figure out a way to change that. You're not going to argue the Saudi regime out of Wahhabism no matter how brilliant your textual analysis of the Koran is.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:25 PM on March 8, 2016 [15 favorites]


I assume that the holy texts for most religions say one thing but over the years male interpreters find other strictures to impose upon the text. My generalization I believe holds true for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, though I am not familiar enough with Eastern religions to say this.
This imposition or interpretation of text usually involves the subjugation of women to minor, secondary, passive roles.
posted by Postroad at 12:28 PM on March 8, 2016


You're not going to argue the Saudi regime out of Wahhabism no matter how brilliant your textual analysis of the Koran is.

You'd be surprised how much change a different textural analysis can bring about.
posted by maxsparber at 12:31 PM on March 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


You're not going to argue the Saudi regime out of Wahhabism no matter how brilliant your textual analysis of the Koran is.

I'm also not going to argue a number of right-wing crazies out of the belief that Obama is a Muslim born outside of the United States. They're still wrong.

My point doesn't have anything to do with realpolitik or whatever. It's an academic point, a point concerned simply with truth. Which is that some interpretations of Islam or Christianity are worse, less coherent, less accurate, insert whatever qualified methodical-comparative basis you're concerned with here, etc. than others.
posted by Dalby at 12:36 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


One popular translation, by the early-twentieth-century English translator Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, reads:

"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."

Debates on how to translate the verse rage. New translations suggest less sexist meanings than earlier ones.

One casts men as women’s “protectors and maintainers,” another says that “men are to take care of women, because God has given them greater strength.”


Great, thanks, lovely, yeah, fuck off.
posted by Segundus at 12:40 PM on March 8, 2016 [12 favorites]


The Koran, in itself, is far more respectful of women than the Bible. Believe me, I was very surprised to find it so.
posted by Strange_Robinson at 12:40 PM on March 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


You'd be surprised how much change a different textural analysis can bring about.

Absent local rulers looking for an excuse to reject or renegotiate the power of their masters (say, the Holy Roman Empire), yes, I would be.

I assume that the holy texts for most religions say one thing but over the years male interpreters find other strictures to impose upon the text. My generalization I believe holds true for Jews, Christians, and Muslims,

I'm not sure why you think so.

Early Christianity was anything but united in agreement that their holy texts "sa[id] one thing". It took centuries for unified, orthodox views to emerge, and even then you just had several interpretative spheres of influence (Catholic, Easter Orthodox, later Protestant, etc.) instead of one Truth.

Early Islam was divided too, most famously about who should succeed Mohammed as leader of the Muslim community and how they should be selected. If there's really one truth that male interpreters just got wrong, either the Sunnis or the Shias are going to be very upset.

The Torah was written over centuries by many different authors under different social and political conditions. There never was "one thing" said because it's a collection of many things said by many people.

The idea that these religions were born from a unified truth is a narrative pushed by later organizations like the Catholic Church that want to support their claim to being the true, eternal stewards of that faith.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:42 PM on March 8, 2016 [7 favorites]


The debate over whether there is a one "true" interpretation of a religious text does not seem that controversial to me, and the conversation doesn't seem to really be engaging with the article at hand.
posted by Think_Long at 12:44 PM on March 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


Aisha's marriage is quite a bitter pill - the scholar in the article eventually revises his opinion on child marriage, but is the implication then that Muhammad was wrong to have married Aisha, and God wrong to have granted him a vision that she should be taken? That seems presumptuous.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 12:44 PM on March 8, 2016


According to Wikipedia (yeah, I know), there is some debate on Aisha's age when she was married and may have been in her late teens.
posted by eye of newt at 12:50 PM on March 8, 2016


He had gone back to the sources, and had found an eighth-century judge and jurist, Ibn Shubruma, with a sound fatwa against the practice of child marriage. Ibn Shubruma argued that the issue hinged on autonomy. When girls reach puberty, they can choose whom to marry. By being married in childhood, this choice was taken away from them.

Prophet Muhammad is considered a perfect man whose life is studied and copied by Muslims to the point that hadiths and Sunnah form much of what Islam is. He also married Aisha when she was 6 and consummated the marriage when she was 9. She was still mostly playing with dolls at that time. I'm curious how Ibn Shubruma managed to issue a fatwa denouncing the Sunnah of the Prophet himself.
posted by shala at 12:52 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


> The debate over whether there is a one "true" interpretation of a religious text does not seem that controversial to me, and the conversation doesn't seem to really be engaging with the article at hand.

Indeed. It almost seems as if people with an axe to grind about religion in general and/or Islam in particular are using the post as an excuse to grind that axe.

For anyone who's actually interested, there's lots of fascinating material out there about the too-little-studied topic of women in Islam, for instance Monia Hejaiej's Behind Closed Doors: Women's Oral Narratives in Tunis. But if you prefer to talk about how awful Wahhabism is (hey, there's a subject that never gets discussed!), I can't stop you.
posted by languagehat at 12:56 PM on March 8, 2016 [14 favorites]


Encouraging moderate interpretations of religious texts is certainly important, but all too often it crosses over into whitewashing centuries of misogyny, discrimination, and barbaric practices. Genuine religious reform should recognize and atone for these crimes, especially since they continue to occur so widely and frequently today, instead of resorting to no-true-Scotsmanship.
posted by Behemoth at 12:58 PM on March 8, 2016 [6 favorites]


No religious text "really" says anything about anything.

Lucky for us religious folks, by your theory your text here also fails to say anything about anything!
posted by Jahaza at 1:02 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


Aristotle, a man who held that the subjugation of women was both “natural” and a “social necessity,”

it's interesting that Athens, arguably, had the worst views towards women of the Greek states. women were expected to wear cloaks and veils in public and be accompanied by male family members etc. ie. Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. I've always suspected that these practices in Islam were borrowed from Athens, in particular, the birthplace of civilization!
posted by ennui.bz at 1:06 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


Allah created sexual desire in ten parts ; then he gave nine parts to women and one part to men.
posted by hortense at 1:09 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


As someone with a four year Religious Studies degree, I have to say that it gives you some tools to wade through things like this thread, as well as various expressions of religion like the Quran, Buddhist sutras, the bible etc. It also helps you to understand the Windows vs Mac debate too. Religion is more than books and people's interpretations of those books and their subsequent actions based on those interpretations. It's a powerful frame of mind that can permeate a much broader range of human experience than what happens on a Sunday morning. It shapes and colors a lot of what people experience. The most pernicious aspect is that it gives certainty, truth, and the horrible habit of then pointing at other people and proclaiming their lack of truth. Religion could provide some tools for dealing with life, good tools, but unfortunately it is usually just people yelling about how they're right, the others are wrong, and then devolve into shooting each other.
posted by njohnson23 at 1:18 PM on March 8, 2016 [12 favorites]


But if you prefer to talk about how awful Wahhabism is (hey, there's a subject that never gets discussed!), I can't stop you.

Point taken. I will offer my own suggestion for reading that seems to fit well with this article: Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective by Amina Wadud, and will second hortense's suggestion of Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:21 PM on March 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


Early Christianity was anything but united in agreement that their holy texts "sa[id] one thing". It took centuries for unified, orthodox views to emerge, and even then you just had several interpretative spheres of influence (Catholic, Easter Orthodox, later Protestant, etc.) instead of one Truth.

Early Christianity didn't have a "holy text," a fact recognized by the Christian denominations representing a majority of the world's Christian populations. So to say that they were not in agreement about what their holy texts said is completely anachronistic (except that they did have a holy text, the Septuagint and they did have different interpretations about that).

Furthermore, they're completely aware that it took centuries for unified orthodox views to emerge. It's recorded in Acts, for example. And Byzantine rite Christians, for example, have annual feasts celebrating the emergence of these views over time.

The idea that these religions were born from a unified truth is a narrative pushed by later organizations like the Catholic Church that want to support their claim to being the true, eternal stewards of that faith.

The unified truth at the root of Catholic or Orthodox belief is not propositional but personal. The account of that truth developed over time. The idea that these religions were born from a unified account of truth is a itself a very late development which has never been enshrined in official teaching of the Catholic or Orthodox Churches.
posted by Jahaza at 1:30 PM on March 8, 2016 [11 favorites]


I read it all and was hoping for a rebuttal to the permissions on sex slavery, or that women were allowed to have multiple husbands as much as men were able to have many wives. I am really grateful for this work and I hope it does reach hearts and minds and make an impact.

I hope further discussion of the texts Muhammad is said to have written (I have not read the Koran by have read multiple sources say this which it would be cool if incorrect) that sexual slavery is permissible.

It's hard to uplift women (or anyone) from oppression that is written into foundational texts of a religion and fills the popular consensus, challenging this is heroic life changing work that could potentially impact vast amounts of human beings.

That's right Jahaza! I will say I read the Sophia of Jesus Christ and the Gospel of Mary (isn't that what it was called?) and was like, what I this? Why did they kick this stuff out? Who decided it was too "farfetched" to think god could have a wife or that a woman could have an account of Jesus others didn't? I don't know what if any of it is true and being skeptical of who wrote what when is fine, but seriously. Suppression of women sucks and has been so very widespread. I remember reading in one of those plays Athena pronounces something like "Male supremacy is my favorite thing!" and my jaw drops and I'm like WTF, if women wrote this plays and were not afraid of male repercussion if they spoke their minds would this shit have ever have been written? Like WAAAT? Ugh.

Also Christin de Pisan (who I'm sure many already know well) was writing about suppression of women's voices all the way back in 15th century, how much you want to bet there have been so many women who knew this was wrong and tried to work against it throughout human history, who we know very little about since they were so often refused education or writing privileges. It's a bit scary how near universal suppression of women is-- you have to wonder if there IS a spiritual realm-- what the... I mean what happened up there? If there isn't, it's a frightening thing that males desire to suppress women is so universal. If you not fighting against it, it's likely you're serving such harmful assumptions without even realizing it (which is often the nature of privilege for all of us without realizing it, not just being male).
posted by xarnop at 1:42 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


The idea that these religions were born from a unified account of truth is a itself a very late development which has never been enshrined in official teaching of the Catholic or Orthodox Churches.

This attitude also, rather ironically, seems more common among Protestant sects. It's American Baptists who gave us the idea that the King James Version, specifically, is a divinely inspired translation with just as much authority as the various Greek, Latin, and Aramaic texts it was sourced from. (Which, since most people who believe this can't read Greek, Latin, or Aramaic, effectively places the translation above the source texts.)
posted by tobascodagama at 1:44 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


I have zero interest in engaging with yet another discussion about the pluses and minuses of organized religion, but the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod has done some interesting work on how people, specifically non-Muslims, view women in Islam: Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.
posted by teponaztli at 1:44 PM on March 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


This approach of looking to the text for The Real Truth is both pointless and fruitless, since everyone thinks their interpretation is already that.

Yes, but you can consider texts as part of their cultural context and get a little closer to the original intent as well as complicate harmful and stereotypical views. I'm going to share this article with a (receptive) family member who will probably change her views a little bit. This kind of work matters. It's easy to wave it away as "truth seeking" but showing the complexities and nuances of a text can make it easier for people to see the Other as more human, and hopefully treat them a little more justly as a result.
posted by mmmbacon at 4:47 PM on March 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


can i have a citation on the sexual slavery? i can't map it to anything I've learned in my religious education.

re: Aisha's age, I thought the statement that she consummated the marriage while still a child have been dismissed as an orientalist trope? fwiw i grew up with the following facts: 1. she was betrothed at a young age (tho later I learned the dispute over when that is exactly); 2. she stayed with her parents until she reached puberty and then the marriage was consummated. ymmv abt the implications of all this, adjusted for the norms of the time.

the weird thing for me encountering talk abt his wives from the outside perspective is the continued focus on aisha and her youth and what that could imply and very little if at all commentary over the fact that not only most of his other wives were much older and/or widows and/or political matches but that his first and most beloved wife (aisha came in second, years later), khadijah, was a businesswoman who married him* when he was in his 20s and she was in her 40s, as mentioned in the article.

(*i chose my verbing deliberately)
posted by cendawanita at 5:52 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Moving on to homosexuals and infidels....

"his other wives"


another stop the tape moment, btw. Limiting the supply of women in a population makes testosterone heavy males more apt to go out and force the issue. Not a healthy thing.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:01 AM on March 9, 2016


The Korean, like the Bible, says what's convenient for those looking to it for support

I've heard that Koreans can be very religious, but I didn't know they could be their own religion!

I know, I know, I just really couldn't help it
posted by numaner at 6:26 AM on March 9, 2016


"No religious text "really" says anything about anything. It says what any given group of followers want it to say."

This reminds me of Cynthia Heimel saying that the one thing Playboy wouldn't let her write about was the time she was combing through the Bible looking for proof that Jesus was a drug-taking communist.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:32 AM on March 9, 2016


> can i have a citation on the sexual slavery? i can't map it to anything I've learned in my religious education.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_views_on_slavery#Sexual_intercourse

re: Aisha's age

Islam has a concept of hadiths. Hadiths can be "strong" and "weak". Bukhari is generally a source of strong hadiths. His and other strong hadiths are pretty clear -- marriage was consummated at age of 9, when Aisha was still playing with dolls. There were some later attempts to whitewash this by concocting tenuous logical constructs do derive that Aisha was a teenager at consummation, but the mainstream opinion is pretty solid on this.

adjusted for the norms of the time

That's the kicker. In Islam, Muhammad is an example of a perfect human not bound by any time constraints, someone for all Muslims to copy, right down to the smallest details of how he washed his hands. Saudi Arabia and ISIS are not just making up the shit that they commit, it's straight from the Sunnah (the life) of the Prophet.

khadijah, was a businesswoman who married him*

Yep, that's right, she married him, not much the other way around. She was the wealthiest and most powerful merchant of the most powerful tribe of Mecca. Muslims love to bring Khadija up as an example of a strong independent Muslim woman. The inconvenience is in that she was all that before Islam came about, before she became Muslim. There weren't any women like Khadija in Mecca since then.

For additional discussion of these things without the quite normal white liberal "am I being a racist here" self-doubt, you can browse r/exmuslim
posted by shala at 6:54 AM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


No religious text "really" says anything about anything.

So, a bit like the constitution then?

After reading all that stuff about Sovereign Citizens and those Bundys and so on, and various religious texts over the years, I've decided I must have a long-standing error of belief: I've never understood that texts like the Bible or the Koran were somehow expressions of natural law. What am I missing? I mean, just because people believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, that doesn't mean that writing something down and pointing at it makes it true, does it? Yes, we live with those texts and use them as shared references; maybe we love them. Is there a point at which they become - for lack of a better word - real? Not to deny the centrality or the value those texts have to people's lives, but they're still human constructs, right?

I like the Mahayana Buddhist idea that there are some real historical texts that wouldn't have made sense to the people who lived in Buddha's time, so they were hidden away with dragons under the sea, and then discovered centuries later when people had the capacity to understand them. And anyway what difference does it make, because the Buddha's teaching is happening now in any case? (I offer this as an example alternative to thinking that texts are expressions of reality beyond the page.)
posted by sneebler at 6:58 AM on March 9, 2016


shala, I really appreciate your comment. Human rights abuses are not something that needs to be "culturally understood" any more than child abuse needs to be "understood" as anything other than a pathology where one or more people are harmed for the benefit of others.

It doesn't matter if it's normal in a family, community, or religion, if it is not consensual or seriously harming some members it's worthy of concern and questioning. American/European/white policies toward women that are normalized and accepted are worthy of scrutiny as well even some of the norms accepted by those claiming to be liberal or progressive or feminist can have internalized sexism/ablism or accepted harms toward women within them because that stuff runs deep.

It's very hard to lift each other up without inadvertently stomping on each other- it takes work but I think we can do it if we try and face the hard issues and listen to each others voices and perspectives.

Sexual and other slavery, rape, child abuse- these things violate consent and therefore are problematic no matter how culturally accepted by the ones doing the harms. I DO think we can be understanding that everyone has cultural and personal blindness to the harms they cause or even that re done to them that they were taught was normal. We don't have to be cruel about that, it's very very human. We can however side with the harmed over the harming one, despite that we can understand that sometimes-- that person doing the harm we need to face will be ourselves.
posted by xarnop at 8:33 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Cool article. Aristotle gets the Gas Face. Interesting to trace the line from a culturally bound ethic of "modesty" to eventual suppression and subjugation of women. I used to don the kufi, make salaat, and chill hardcore with some academic Naqshbandis and Shiites back in the day. And I know this is obvious, but still- whether you're a Muslim or not, there's the Qu'ran itself, and then there's how you read it, what meaning you make out of it. It takes a certain kind of psychology to read it - or any text - like an unquestionable, prescriptive monolith. This psychology, so driven by the desire for group inclusion/identity (and therefore a particular species of power), seems to be the basic difference between so-called fundamentalists and "the rest" (which may include devout reformers, esoterics, heretics, etc.). There are so many ways to read and interact with a text, and as time passes it would seem to become an ethical imperative to bring more critical thought and discourse to these epic, rusty, dusty textual juggernauts of religious thought. And also at a certain point the fundamentalists do very clearly begin to be the least out of touch, the least involved with the text, simply clinging to these old tired beliefs. Anyway, I'll never forget the day an older, respected Sunni professor explained the Fatihah to me in terms of "cosmic surfing" while we drank iced tea on his back porch. He said "this word here - Yawmud Deen - means Judgment Day, which is...you know, every moment we're awake...like right now. It's when you glimpse your life and ask yourself if you like what's happening with it." I was all, "Dag, Sidi! You just dropped some science on Bob Regular!" He was a sufi, but he was quiet/modest about it. This was Athens, Georgia, in the mid-nineties. You could walk into the Globe on any given evening and run into Coleman Barks or John Seawright. Vic Chesnutt at the 40 Watt. It was a golden time, my meta-peeps...like right now.
posted by Bob Regular at 11:30 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


"It says what any given group of followers want it to say. This woman from the West surely knows that the same Christian Bible is pointed to by the Quakers and the Crusaders, by the most hardline Quiverfull Evangelicals and egalitarian movements like the Catholic Workers. Slavers and abolitionists alike based their arguments on it, sometimes pointing to the very same passages."

One of my most memorable teachers in high school was Kent Overby, a barking crew-cut cross-country coach who happened to teach Middle East Civ (along with a handful of other civ classes).

Way back, he'd done Peace Corps teaching English in Saudi Arabia, and ended up spending quite a few years in the region, doing the Haj and living in a handful of North African countries after Saudi Arabia. One of the biggest things he harped on was that religious empires spread by incorporating local practice. Female circumcision, chadors, patriarchal property systems — those were local cultural accidents that were adopted into Islam, the same way that Christianity adopted Yule Logs or the Roman religion adopted any number of local gods.

Religion is a closed loop of cultural justification, so arguments from within that frame are important to overcome oppressive cultural institutions, but religion is on the whole a pretty inherently conservative set of institutions, and so as the world becomes more secular, believers within those frames will almost always be playing catch-up to secular shifts in mores.
posted by klangklangston at 1:03 PM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


" Human rights abuses are not something that needs to be "culturally understood" any more than child abuse needs to be "understood" as anything other than a pathology where one or more people are harmed for the benefit of others."

… but what constitutes a "human rights abuse" is culturally dependent, and the very idea of "rights" is culturally dependent (e.g. Athens had no concept of what we'd call civil rights).

And "one or more people harmed for the benefit of others" pretty much describes any transaction that isn't win-win or non-zero.
posted by klangklangston at 1:10 PM on March 9, 2016


Actually I've been reading a lot of ancient greek and roman authors recently and there were actually many different schools of thought that cared about the experiences of humans and animals. While there weren't clear abolitionist movements, writers mention poor treatment of slaves and failing to provide proper food as part of the reason for slave rebellions.

I think, humans have had the capacity to see others pain for long in our history and it shouldn't be considered "relative" to cause others pain. We are in a complex world, and doing good and reducing harms is difficult, but many in ancient history, pythagoreas, jainists, some Jewish monks in ancient Egypt are said to have refused servants or slaves believing all to be equal, and did their own work.

I don't think we should let humans off for controlling and exploiting each other so easily as "it's all relative".
posted by xarnop at 2:22 PM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


"Actually I've been reading a lot of ancient greek and roman authors recently and there were actually many different schools of thought that cared about the experiences of humans and animals. While there weren't clear abolitionist movements, writers mention poor treatment of slaves and failing to provide proper food as part of the reason for slave rebellions. "

Which, again, isn't "rights" as such. Rights as we know them are pretty much a liberal theory from the Enlightenment, pulled heavily from Catholic theories of natural law, which themselves were heavily influenced by Aristotle.

When you say "Human rights abuses are not something that needs to be 'culturally understood,'" you're making a whole ton of unjustifiable assumptions and basically saying that people should agree with you because they should agree with you — not only do more than a few people not see things like Aisha's marriage as abusive, they may not agree with you that humans have rights, or if they do, what those rights actually are and mean. You're relying on cultural assumptions while positing your cultural beliefs as universal and invisible.

Beyond just the emptiness of ipse dixit reasoning, the article highlights why cultural relativism can be an important tool: The arguments that convince Akram come from recognizing what justifications he holds as persuasive and using the rhetorical tools of that cultural context to change his mind. An appeal to human rights wouldn't work — an appeal to the judicial lineage and a fatwa from Ibn Shubruma.

Saying "human rights" is a great way to fire up the base of people that already agree with you. But as the U.N. has repeatedly found, it's a pretty ineffective way of persuading people that don't.

And here in the U.S., "inalienable rights" are part of our catechism, but it's pretty debatable whether they even exist in any meaningful form (as opposed to alienable or constructed rights).
posted by klangklangston at 6:37 PM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Reading some of the exmuslim comments I am hearing concerns that white peoples attempts to see rape of children as "culturally relative" is also unwelcomed by some.
posted by xarnop at 7:40 PM on March 9, 2016


What bothers me about some of these conversations is that regardless of the actual moral implications of things that happened in Muhammad's life, like his marriage to Aisha, the discussion of women in Islam is very frequently missing the voices of Muslim women themselves. We can discuss all we like whether or not some practices constitute human rights violations, but we often do so without consulting with the people who would actually be affected. The logic behind this is often that they aren't free to speak openly, or that they haven't been exposed to Western feminism, or any number of points.

There are some very prominent women in Muslim countries who speak out against Islam, and they don't mince words. But there are also a large number of women who do not - not because they're ignorant or afraid, but because Islam is a part of their lives. We don't tend to hear so much from the latter group in the West. There's a large Islamic feminism movement that approach the issues that affect women from within a Muslim framework. Critics might use the tired argument that they're engaging in "no true scotsman," but the point is that we in the West cannot keep talking about women in Islam as if they are totally unable to speak for themselves.
posted by teponaztli at 8:43 PM on March 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


"There's a large Islamic feminism movement that approach the issues that affect women from within a Muslim framework. Critics might use the tired argument that they're engaging in "no true scotsman," but the point is that we in the West cannot keep talking about women in Islam as if they are totally unable to speak for themselves."

Well, yeah, and part of the point of the article is that there have been women in Islam speaking on this stuff for pretty much as long as there's been Islam.
posted by klangklangston at 8:53 PM on March 9, 2016


So klang, I do think your comments are getting very close to rape apology so I'd like to hear maybe you clarify if that's not your intent. To my ears, when you say rape is a culturally relative issue you're getting extremely close to saying that rape is ok if the person who does it comes from a culture that thinks it's ok which is going to understandably elicit visceral responses from people who have experienced the pain of rape, or the pain of being taken advantage of sexually as a minor before you understand what is happening or how to defend yourself. You seem to be acting like it's on me to prove rape is wrong by engaging your line of thought, but I think it's on people who rape to learn that it's wrong, not on me to come up with the right words that will convince them their culture that believes in rape is wrong. I think it's on them to not rape me and I shouldn't need a philosophy major to defend myself from people whose culture tells them they can rape me.

There are muslim women who, from my understanding of reading, think rape is wrong and child marriage is wrong and they don't always appreciate cultural sensitivety that rests on the backs of women's safety.
" I am no fan of poverty porn made for Western audiences, but people burying their heads in the sand at the expense of women’s safety and lives is much worse. Seeing the threat to women’s lives and safety in Pakistan simply as something which would tarnish the image or reputation of the country instead of the crisis and lethal force it is, reflects that many segments of society don’t quite care to understand what many women face." From Muslimah Media Watch which is one such site uplifting Muslim women's voices in all this and would be great for more people to read at!
posted by xarnop at 6:57 AM on March 10, 2016


klang is not trying to morally equivocate away issues of rape and violence. He is pointing out that the concept of basic human "rights" as we understand them today are culturally located and have not held the same meaning throughout human history. That's not to say that a rape in the first millennium was any less of a terrible thing. However, when we are examining cultural products from a time and place, we need to recalibrate our understanding of a human "right" to the specific cultural context, especially when we are trying to do an accurate reading of a text.
posted by Think_Long at 7:08 AM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think the idea that culturally sensitity is important is a reference to a sense of inherent worth of other human beings voice and perspective.

And once you say that matters, then inherent voice and worth of those whose consent is violated or who are unable to make informed consent inherently becomes a relevant issue. You're thinking of the word "right" and focusing on a definition. I'm focusing on the meaning of the inherent worth of human beings and the wrongness of suffering. Word definitions matter, and human right means "right believed to belong justifiably to every person."

I believe that everyone deserves protection from rape and it's not culturally relative to the time and place even as I agree that people in particular times and places are trained to believe it's ok. You could say that my belief in peoples innate worth of protection from rape is just culturally driven but I would say it's driven by pain and innate knowing that was traumatic and painful and empathy for others that I don't want them to go through it. My culture actually empowered men to believe they could rape me, so I've have actually had to argue with a LOT of men who believe there's no innate wrong in rape and it's just some silly personal opinion I have.

I think it's more than that. But yeah I guess that's just like, my opinion man.
posted by xarnop at 7:17 AM on March 10, 2016


I think maybe we are just working toward cross purposes, because I don't disagree with anything you've written. I'm more speaking to best-practices for textual interpretation, not trying to minimize the messed up ways that the intersection of culture, violence, and sexual violence are expressed now or in history.
posted by Think_Long at 7:26 AM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


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