[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
There are times that I strongly disagree with my colleague Barçın Yinanç, the associate editor of our paper, whose view of Turkey’s self-styled secularism is generally more positive than mine. But I felt quite in tune with her last weekend, when I read some of the fuming comments she received for simply saying something positive about Islam in her latest story. “Welcome to the club,” I then said to her in an email. “This is called Islamophobia.”
In fact, Barçın had not even expressed any opinion. She had just reported those of Laura Rodriguez, a Spanish convert to Islam and the representative of Spain’s Muslim women. “Islam gave me the rights not given by Catholicism,” Ms. Rodriguez had reportedly said, and listed these as “individual liberty, legal rights, the right to education, the right to employment and the right to sexuality.”
A feminist religion?
I can understand why this was news to some of the readers of the Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review. The current Muslim world, on average, is in a much worse state of affairs than any predominantly Christian country in terms of women’s rights. But the current Muslim world is one thing, Islam as a religion is another. And the problems of the former do not always stem from the latter, as some Westerners seem to assume.
To get things right, we should go back to the beginnings of Islam and see what its emergence meant for women. I, as a Muslim, might be found biased on these matters. So let me refer to Bernard Lewis, the eminent historian, who notes the following in his book, “The Middle East:”
“In general, the advent of Islam brought an enormous improvement in the position of women in ancient Arabia, endowing them with property and some other rights, and giving them a measure of protection against ill treatment by their husbands or owners.”
But Lewis also adds that “the position of women remained poor, and worsened when… the original message of Islam lost its impetus and was modified under the influence of pre-existing attitudes and customs.”
The seclusion of women, for example, came from Byzantine and Persian customs rather than the Quran, whose definition of female modesty is open to interpretation. Female circumcision, a most horrible thing, came from North African traditions, and is practiced today only among the Muslims of that region, along with many non-Muslims. (In most other parts of the Muslim world, including Turkey, female circumcision is simply unknown.)
The obsessive fixation on female honor, and the consequent “honor killings,” are also the product of the patrimonial culture more than Islam as a religion. As I have written before, the Quran denounces adultery, but considers the adulterer and the adulteress equally guilty, whereas honor killings universally target women. Moreover, the Quran takes strong precautions to protect women from the false accusations and rumors of adultery – a sensitivity we hardly see in most Middle Eastern societies.
In fact, thanks to Islam, Islamdom was ahead of the West in term of women’s rights until the modern age. That’s why some non-Muslim women in the Ottoman Empire preferred shariah courts to their own. And when the British applied their law in some of their Muslim colonies, women’s property rights, always respected by Islamic law, evaporated.
Of course, nostalgia for such a bright past should not make Muslims blind to the modern West’s great leap forward in women’s rights, and how badly their societies lag behind. But they, and others, should also not misread the problem.
‘Women’s right to sexual pleasure’
Another interesting point is the Islamic view of sex, which, again, used to be much more favorable in Islamdom than in the West.
It is not a secret that mainstream Christianity, and especially Catholicism, has not been a great fan of intimacy, at least until modern times. Medieval Christianity even exhibited, in the words Orthodox theologian Nicolas Zernov, an “exaggerated fear of sex.”
But Islam, from the beginning, regarded sex — within the bonds of marriage, of course — as God’s blessing. It was not seen as just a duty of procreation but also a source of pleasure for both sexes. There are hadiths (sayings) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad advising husbands to be a gentleman by giving more time to foreplay. Hence even the more conservative scholars of the shariah wrote about “women’s right to sexual pleasure.”
The conceptualization of intimacy, too, was remarkably different in pre-modern Islamdom than the West. American historian Daniel Pipes, who is often accused of being too critical toward Islam rather than apologetic, notes this in his book, “In the Path of God.” “Unlike traditional Western views of the sexual act as a battleground where the male exerts his supremacy over the female,” he writes, “Muslims [saw] it as a tender, shared pleasure.” Sexual satisfaction, Muslims also believed, “leads to a harmonious social order and a flourishing civilization.”
The great irony of our times is that while Islamdom lags behind the open-mindedness in its origins, Christendom — if there is still such a thing — has evolved immensely. Why this is the case is the million-dollar question. But it is also the right one.