This article was recently published in The NationalThere are few concepts in the Muslim psyche that paint an image as vivid and forceful as the era of The Jahiliyyah, the Period of Great Ignorance, that preceded the advent of Islam. It is considered by Muslims to be a dark, ungodly, forsaken time when men and women believed in many deities, lived lives of tribal partisanship and warfare, showed immense racism, inflicted oppression on the poor and meted out gruesome treatment to women.Of the horrors of the Jahiliyyah that Islam eradicated, some of the most salient are about women. Women had little control over their lives. They could not own property, in fact wives themselves were treated as chattel and were inherited by their sons when their husbands died. Worse, young girls would be buried alive by their fathers, to prevent shame falling on the men. In fact, this latter tradition was so abhorrent to the nascent Islam that it is even mentioned in the Quran with disgust.When Muslims today talk about this practice of female infanticide, it is almost a form of shorthand to refer to the terrible state of human society before Islam.Islam was a radical set of propositions. Its foundation was the belief that there is no god but (one) God. Pre-Islamic Arabs were ardently polytheistic. They were happy to add on one more deity to their collection, but the problem was that Mohammed wanted them to dispense with all the others and take Allah as their only divinity. This meant dispensing with the traditions of their forefathers, and this was unthinkable for them. Mohammed was clear in his response: cultural traditions are no reason to keep doing the wrong thing.
Polytheism also brought wealth to the pre-Islamic Arabs in the form of the pilgrimage to the gods kept in the Kaaba. Destroying the gods would mean a significant reduction in trade resulting in diminished status and wealth.There are signs that monotheists were already present before Islam’s advent, suggesting that the idea of one God was not rejected just on ideology but also on grounds of culture, economics and power.The same applies to the treatment of women. The early Muslims who migrated from Mecca to Medina, were perturbed that their usually docile women were picking up what they saw as insolent behaviour from the Muslim women of Medina who were more used to having discussions with their menfolk. The new free status of women and their right to own property was also seen as problematic by the early Muslims, who not only were no longer in possession of the women and their women’s wealth, but now had to share war booty with the women as well, further impacting negatively on their wealth.Again, culture, power and economics were the driving forces behind maintaining the un-Islamic practices of the Jahiliyyah.Why am I analysing the history of the Jahiliyyah in an article which is going to discuss the startling horror of the violence and abuse against Muslim women today? The answer is very simple: because exactly the same things are happening today, and for the same reasons.Muslims must learn from their history to understand that these practices are once again with us, and that if we are proud that the advent of Islam eradicated them, then we must honour the promise of Islam and eradicate them again today.In February of this year in Turkey, a 16-year-old girl was buried alive by her family. Police found a two- metre hole that had been dug underneath a chicken pen in the family home. Inside it, they found the body of the girl, in a sitting position with her hands tied. Media reports said the father had told relatives he was unhappy that his daughter had male friends. A post mortem examination revealed large amounts of soil in her lungs and stomach, indicating that she had been alive and conscious while being buried.I feel sick when I think of the poor young woman, buried for supposedly bringing shame on her family. It is horribly reminiscent of the same way that girls during the Jahiliyyah were buried for bringing shame on theirs. And although this case connects the two in a very graphic way, many women are murdered in similarly motivated so-called “honour killings” all over the world. How have we returned to a society where the most abhorrent acts of the Jahiliyyah are once again being perpetrated?Such violence and death used against women is, of course, not limited to Muslims. Tragically, women are treated badly across all societies, irrespective of culture and religion. Those who wish to propagate their vile anti-Muslim vitriol should look closer to home and to the suffering of women wherever they are. For example, the World Health Organisation reports that worldwide up to one in five women reports experiencing sexual abuse as children, that trafficking of women and girls for forced labour and sex is widespread, and that rape is increasingly becoming a weapon of war.
More specific to the Muslim world, it is true that women’s suffering once again echoes the Jahiliyyah. A Saudi tribal court ruled that a woman’s marriage could forcibly be broken up against her will but in line with her family’s wishes. In India, a Muslim woman raped by her father-in-law was forcibly divorced from her husband because the judge ruled that even though it was she who was the victim, the rape had nullified her marriage. In Afghanistan, women are bought and sold in public markets. (Thankfully both the Saudi and Indian rulings have been overturned)It is hard not to come to the conclusion that these are cases of women being treated as property, with no self-determination, no marital rights and being killed or kept alive at the whim of men. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that this is reminiscent of the time of Jahiliyyah.Such incidences make it clear that when it comes to improving life for women, the barriers that faced the early Muslim community are still the same today. Many societies control women by claiming that “freedom” is breaking with culture and tradition, that that is not “how we do things”. But Islam is adamant that “following our forefathers” is a fallacious reason. Using women as tools to assert status and wealth show us that the motivations of economics and power are still widely prevalent today as well.The word Jahiliyyah has a powerful impact on the Muslim psyche, and so I use the word with careful consideration. It is not an easy choice to do so, but I feel that the time has come that the only way to wake up the Muslim world to the enormity of the suffering and horror that some Muslim women face is to use terminology from within the Muslim tradition that conveys the magnitude of that suffering: Jahiliyyah.The Muslim world needs a wake-up call to ensure that the violence against women stops. Anyone who has any connection or pride in the remarkable changes that came with the advent of Islam must open their eyes, see what is happening to women in the Muslim world and work to change the status quo. Anything less is to open yourself up to the charge of hypocrisy.continue reading
If any women amongst you have tried to buy clothing of an intimate nature in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf, you will know how mortifying it is that the shop assistants are almost always male. Lingerie shops are complicated and confusing places (yes, even for women!) and having men to ‘assist’ in the process is enough to make any woman flee in distress.continue reading
That is why one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest contradictions is that in a country where women are given little choice but to cover up from top to toe, and are strictly segregated, it is men they must deal with to choose their underwear. This is because the religious hardline and the religious police don’t like to see men and women mixing and they feel that encouraging women to work in retail will encourage this (but men selling underwear is fine). In addition, reducing the unemployment level of men is seen as an important goal. There is already a 2006 law which says only female staff can be employed in women’s apparel stores, but this is rarely implemented.
Last year, women held a boycott of shops which employed male staff, and took their money to outlets which had female staff. You can read about it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/25/saudi-women-boycott-linge_n_179229.html
This year, Saudi women are planning to hold the boycott again, starting from tomorrow February 13th for two weeks. (I guess with Valentine’s Day being banned there is no rush to get out and buy some frillies anyway). If you are in Saudi, you can support the boycott as well.
As one commenter on this article “Ban men from selling lingerie in KSA” explained: “The more money that women spend in women only lingerie stores the more it demonstrates that women only stores are a financial success and what the consumer wants and is willing to pay for women only service. Interestingly women still purchase a large proportion of lingerie outside of KSA when people take holiday’s as they prefer the service outside of KSA.”
To me, the contradictory nature of the seediness of men monopolising lingerie sales vs the strict separation of women to the point of exclusion from the public space, highlights a key point: women are told that all the segregation and ‘guardianship’ is to protect them and safeguard them, but clearly this is not the case – it is all about safeguarding men’s interests in employment and in control.
What is the difference between a church spire and a mosque minaret? This is a question that has pre-occupied me since late 2009, when the Swiss voted in a referendum to ban minarets, carrying the motion by 57.5%.The ban has provoked controversy, and it is likely to be taken to appeal on the grounds of being a violation of religious freedom and expression. Church spires are remarkably similar in size and shape to minarets, and Switzerland has plenty of the former. Yet the population invests different interpretations to the two, even though the stone and mortar are very similar. What is the meaning we ascribe to such materials, and what is it that gives them their different meanings?Given the political climate and increasingly strong anti-Muslim sentiment, this difference in reaction to minarets and spires comes as no surprise. It is one piece of a jigsaw puzzle of seemingly small and disparate trends: proposals to ban the niqab and the hijab; the pride in calling yourself ‘Islamophobic’; or the recent proposals for profiling. Politics to one side, what is it that gives a faith building its sacredness? Whether Muslim or otherwise, is faith really to be found in the confines of four walls designated as ‘place of worship’?The Muslim populations in the UK arrived in stages from the beginning of the 20th century. Mosques were immediately set up primarily to meet the spiritual needs of prayer. They were ‘virtual’ mosques – hosted at community centres, schools or other hired buildings for the duration of the community needs. Their temporary function reflected the fact that many Muslim immigrants saw their own presence in the UK as temporary.As time passed, a sense of permanence was invested in the worshippers’ lives as well as their place of worship. Buildings were bought and converted, and more recently purpose built. Many converted buildings are topped with a small green dome, or other physical attributes that denote the traditional typology of a mosque – large dome with minaret. The immediate needs of the community, along with constrained budgets mean that the functions offered by the mosque are prioritised over its form.Although this is understandable, it is very sad. After all, one of the functions of the mosque ought to be for the beauty of its form to inspire worshippers, to engage them with the sublime, to create a connection to the transcendent. More than anything, the mosque ought to resonate fiercely with the worshipper’s surroundings and the culture that they are steeped in. This allows the individual to understand their own status as a unique individual while at the same time being part of the wider community. It allows the community to understand its own relationship to its surroundings and express its own nature amongst a community of communities. After all, human beings look different, speak different languages, dress differently – shouldn’t the mosques where they gather communally and worship communally, show variation in keeping with their local cultures too?It is the people that make the faith building sacred. If you have ever stepped into an empty place of worship, the overwhelming energy and sparkle is electrifying, as you, the human being, bring meaning into that place.That is why a minaret that looks so much like a spire can cause such anxiety and prejudice – because it is not the building that is the issue, it is what the building represents. Those who voted for the ban are expressing their negativity to the people who bring it to life.Under this analysis, we must be conscious of the fact that some Muslim countries also show immense negativity towards places of worship for other faiths, although there are promising signs that this is slowly changing. The constraints placed on churches, synagogues and temples are against the spirit of respect inherent in Islam for other religions. Even more significant however, is the fact that these constraints indicate that Muslim countries also see faith buildings simply as expressions of political meaning. Whether it is Switzerland or Saudi, Italy or Egypt, we need to see places of worship not as expressions of ‘otherness’ but rather as places where human beings can spark their own spiritual connections, and resolve the very human tension between individuality and being part of a community.Far left image: Fraunmester Church in Zurich, Switzerland.Left image: Mahmud Mosque in Zurich, Switzerland.Other than age, the church spire and mosque minaret look remarkably similar, so why do they mean such different things?