On “Lightly Beating” Your Wife

Yesterday the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory committee on all matters Islamic to the Pakistani Government (which was only meant to be formed for ten years but has never been disbanded), came up with its own “Women’s Protection Bill”. This 136-page treatise is in response to the laudatory Punjab Government’s Women’s Protection Bill, which introduced mechanisms for protecting women from domestic violence.

The CII and other religious groups had protested vociferously against this bill (even though similar bills that go further than the Punjab bill and actually criminalize domestic violence have already been passed in Sindh and Balochistan). They promised to present their own version which was based on Islam and the teachings of the Quran. It’s important to note that the government is under no obligation to listen to any of their recommendations, and even within the CII there was opposition to many items in the bill. The CII’s token female member was not present on the day the bill was agreed upon in the Council.

What they came up with yesterday was in fact a group of very strange recommendations, the most outrageous of which was the idea that a man can “lightly beat” his wife if she disobeys him, doesn’t wash after sexual intercourse, doesn’t let him have sexual intercourse when he wants it, doesn’t wear a hijab. It also recommends that coeducational education not be allowed in primary school. And on and on.

It boggles the mind that anyone could find any of these recommendations sensible, but they don’t come out of nowhere. The vast majority of Pakistani men do believe that it’s their divine right to discipline women and keep women under control. And they confound masculinity with violence: therefore, the masculine thing to do is to keep your women under control by using violence. They know no other language: not the language of warmth, or kindness, verbal and non-verbal, which is actually prescribed in Islam.

Indeed, the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) never raised his hand against a woman, neither his wives nor his daughters nor any of the women in the Muslim community. We can point to verses in the Quran which have been translated to prescribe “beatings” (translated and interpreted by men, of course, reflecting their own patriarchal values). But the spirit of Islam and the actions of the Prophet go in the opposite direction. In the Prophet’s last sermon, he instructed Muslims to treat their wives with kindness, because they are “your partners.”

For a breakdown that looks at the rights of Pakistani women as citizens of this country, a conversation on GEO with human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jehangir shines a clear light on this entire episode.

What do you think of these recommendations given by the CII?
Asma Jehangir: It’s an insult to me to even discuss these recommendations. The scholars who give these recommendations should think carefully about what they’ve said. Those who recommend that Pakistani women should be beaten need to realize that Pakistani girls and women are not here to be beaten. The rest of the recommendations are so bizarre that I think these scholars need to think about the effect this would have on the next generation’s way of thinking: do they really think a husband should monitor when his wife bathes and when she wakes up, what she’ll wear? Has a man married a wife or a concubine? Where is the sense in any of this?

These scholars are part of a state institution. Have they forgotten that a woman is as much a Pakistani citizen as they are? If our Parliament has any shame, they will appoint scholars who want to protect and take care of our vulnerable and innocent girls and women. Our girls have won Nobel Peace Prizes and played international cricket – what have these scholars done for our country besides promote violence and war and advocated the beating of women?

Do you think these recommendations are an attempt to make women into second class citizens?
Asma Jehangir: The whole world’s mullahs can get together but they cannot implement these laws. Pakistani women know how to protect ourselves, and we want to live in dignity.

There is a recent saying that has become popular with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” It is clear that the men of the CII and this cockamamie bill they’ve come up with reflects the fears of men in Pakistan that their superior status as males is being threatened by the emancipation and empowerment of women in this country. This bill is part of the ongoing backlash against the women’s movement in Pakistan. Men are starting to feel oppressed by women standing up for their rights.

The best thing women can do in this case is to not back down, refuse to treat this bill as anything to be even considered seriously. In a country with such severe problems of domestic violence and violence against women, this is a mere distraction, a smokescreen to cover up the real problems we face as women and citizens of Pakistan. Those of you who are our allies will continue to fight the realities of what it means to be a woman in Pakistan.

The rest of you can line up with the CII and get ready to go the way of the dinosaurs.

NOTE: Here is an excellent explanation of verse 4:34 in the Quran which most classical scholars and today’s misogynists take to mean the Quran sanctions wife-beating. You’ll see that there is another, more logical meaning to this verse if you follow the link.

PS: Here are some of the recommendations the CII missed out on, according to the Khabaristan Times

Patriarchy, the world’s most popular religion

I’ve been exchanging notes with a novelist in America, Carolyn Cohagan, who has written a very interesting Young Adult novel called Time Zero. In a New York Times article for Women in the World, she describes her book as a dystopian novel for girls, inspired by homegrown fundamentalism. In an email, she asked me, “Do you think people in Pakistan realize that the US has fundamentalist communities with polygamy, forced marriages, and restricted rights for women? What do you think their reaction would be?”

Cohagan was inspired by the Taliban’s draconian rules for girls and women during their rule in Afghanistan. In her novel, Cohagan writes about an America taken over by fundamentalists, and her protagonist is a 15 year old girl, Mina Clark. But in her NYT article, Cohagan refers to not just Muslim communities in the US, but Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and fundamentalist Christian communities such as evangelical and Mormon ones, immigrant and non-immigrant families. These are where American girls are subject to many of the same rules and practices you might see under the Taliban, or authoritarian regimes or extremist societies in the developing world.

Cohagan’s work (and this is why it’s so important that we talk to each other, especially when we’re from different sides of the world, to see what’s common and experienced universally) reaffirms my own explorations of these subjects. I’ve come to the conclusion that patriarchy is a powerful religion in its own right. Powerful because it is able to subsume so many of our established religions, whether Abrahamic or polytheistic, or non-theistic, and to subvert the roles of women to its own agenda, which is to establish a world order in which women are a type of slave class in servitude to men.

Patriarchy is also intricately linked to capitalism, which requires the servitude of women, minorities, people from developing nations, and ranks them as inferior to a ruling class made up mostly of men. There’s no surprise in the fact that men own most of the property on the planet, most of the land, lead most of the companies and the means of production.

This paragraph in Cohagan’s essay stood out for me.

As the world moves forward with technology and communication, one might assume that social progress is inevitable within these conservative communities. On the contrary, according to the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, fundamentalism thrives in times of technological leaps forward. “All fundamentalists feel that in a secular society, God has been relegated to the margin, to the periphery and they are all in different ways seeking to drag him out of that peripheral position, back to center stage.”

These days, Muslim women are struggling mightily for empowerment in their lives and in their countries and communities.  But their work, in their own contexts and on their own terms, runs the risk of being hijacked by those with other agendas. I’m not talking about ex-Muslims, who have their own struggle and many valuable things to say about the state of affairs in the rotten Denmarks we live in,  both in the Muslim countries and elsewhere. Nor am I talking about secularists and humanists, who have been invaluable in pushing the agenda of human rights and of tolerance of all people, regardless of faith (This is why I very much respect Taslima Nasreen, for example, because she’s been through it all and her perspective is important, even if her atheism is in direct opposition to my practice).

I’m talking about the male “allies” who think they’re freeing Muslim women, when all they’re really doing is replacing the patriarchy of religion, and the religion of patriarchy, with the religion of the future: technology, science, and the self – which can be as oppressive to women as religion can, when all three fields are dominated by men. (Take a look at this article from NatGeo which tells us that most of the world’s secularists are white men). Women, and especially women of color, have no seat at any of these tables.

These “allies” claim to care for the plight of Muslim women, and they firmly believe that without their help, Muslim women will never be “free”. They’re the ones that continue to insist Muslim women cannot free themselves without male stewardship. They show their care by “by bombing their countries, demonizing the religion, and supporting patriarchal structures” as grad student Hari Prasad put it:

I honestly adore how atheists, secularists and neo-cons are so concerned for the plight of Muslim women. It’s heart-warming.

@BinaShah they care so much for Muslim women, by bombing their countries, demonizing the religion, and supporting patriarchal structures

Less violently, but no less insidiously, they choose who can and can’t speak for Muslim women. They lionize certain spokespeople while demonizing others. They decide what Muslim women should and shouldn’t wear.  When Muslim women protest, or insist that they should be the ones with choice, these “allies” declare Muslim women brainwashed, terrorists, apologists, sympathizers, and slaves.

Witness how Mona Eltahawy was pilloried on Twitter when she said (and she doesn’t mince her words) that if you aren’t a Muslim woman, or non-white, you need to “shut up” and “listen”, instead of attempting to call the shots in this movement. The howls of anger were loudest from “allies” who couldn’t believe they were being told they couldn’t take the lead in this revolution. She went on to say “I don’t care about Western feminists. This is a fight for us, Muslim feminists, to have.” (And then she called everyone “fuckboys” which really made the fur fly)

Non-Muslims can certainly be allies to Muslim women in their struggle for empowerment, freedom, and equality. Western feminists, too, can be allies to Muslim women. But they need to take the back seat in this revolution. They need to listen to Muslim women talk about what they want for themselves. As Malik Ali tweeted, “Even the privileged (within Pakistan), unless they’re active or have ground experience can’t fully relate to the struggles of the oppressed. So it’s challenging for those ten thousand miles away, whether they’re expats, ex-Muslims, etc. If you’re sincere, research local activists and social workers, listen to what they say and support them.” (You are wise indeed, and a full ally of this movement)

The moment “allies” impose themselves on this struggle, dictating to Muslim women what’s good and bad for them, and decide what the end result of that struggle looks like (“Give up Islam!” is the biggest refrain which certainly doesn’t help anyone), they cease to become allies. And when men do this, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, eastern or western, they are simply continuing the tradition of patriarchy – only under different rulers.

There’s a great term for these allies, which comes from grammar: “false friends”. They are words “in two languages (or letters in two alphabets) that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning.” In this case, these “allies” of Muslim women are actually false friends who want you to choose them and their way of life over the one that you want for yourself. They want to convince you that you don’t actually know what’s best for you because you’ve been so brainwashed or intimidated or oppressed by the men of your community.  Their agenda is to prove that their way of life is superior to yours, and they need to hold your hand and lead you to it.

Don’t fall for it.

The Stoning of Farzana P.

This story about a pregnant 25 year old woman, Farzana Parveen, being bashed to death with bricks by her brothers and uncles because she dared to marry of her own choice, is the kind of news that makes your heart drop and your stomach churn.  It’s being called an “honour killing” in the press, but it is murder – in fact, we should call it an execution.

Farzana was going to court in Lahore to testify that she had married her husband out of choice, in response to a fake kidnapping case brought about by her family, who were enraged that she chose to marry him instead of the cousin they’d picked out for her.  Thirty people stood and watched as Farzana was shot at and attacked with bricks, but nobody did anything.

It reminds me of the famous case of Saima Sarwar of Peshawar, who sought legal help from famed human rights lawyer Asma Jehangir, in fighting her own case against her family to divorce her chosen husband and marry a man of her own choice. Saima’s mother and uncle showed up in Asma Jehangir’s office while Saima was there, and her uncle shot her in the head. Saima died, and the uncle was never prosecuted because Saima’s family “forgave” him for the crime.

People in Pakistan get away with these kinds of executions of women because of weak laws, contradictory legislation, and the overarching power of jirgas, or extra-judicial tribal court systems which reserve the harshest punishments for women exercising their free will.

We have a Protection of Women ordinance, enacted in 2006, which amended the Hudood Ordinances, making rape a crime under the Pakistan Penal Code, and also made it illegal to force a woman to marry, kidnap or sell her into prostitution, and accuse her falsely of adultery or extramarital sex.  We also have a bill, enacted in 2004, which makes “honour killing” a crime. A Punjab law minister called for the crime to be tried in anti-terrorism courts in 2011, but I’m unsure whether this was ever enacted.

However, the 2004 law against “honour killing” is contradicted directly by the Islamic law of Qisas and Diyat, which allows a family of a victim to “forgive” the criminal and lessen the punishment or forgo it altogether. Most criminals use this loophole to get away with their crime.

Worse still is that attitudes towards women who marry of their own free choice as having stained the honour of the family still persist. Even the policemen at police stations often won’t register a crime against a woman in this case because they agree with or sympathise with the angry family who wanted her dead.  Combine this with a still-strong jirga system where men get together and condemn a woman (and sometimes her husband or partner, but he is almost never met with the same fate) to death for having acted out of her own free will.

They ignore the tenet of Islam that states any marriage must be enacted out of free will, and that a woman has the right to choose her own husband. This law in Islam is set in stone and cannot be argued with. But the tribal system, which is steeped in patriarchy, ignores this basic fact and still seeks to control the lives and bodies of women by forcing them into marriages they don’t always want.

I’ve often heard activists try to make the phrases “There is no honour in honour killing” and “dishonour killing” stick. It will take more than a few catchphrases to undo centuries of regressive, misogynistic thinking and attitudes, dearly adhered to because it suits the power structure that is already in existence. To get people to understand that an honour killing is murder, plain and simple, is the first step. For a man to understand that his honour doesn’t lie in a woman’s body may be the second step, but to get him to accept that she has her own autonomy and independence, and control over her own body is a final phase in the evolution of Pakistani society that may take generations to achieve.

In the meantime we’ll have people like Farzana and her unborn child, beaten to death with bricks grabbed from a construction site, outside a court in Lahore, while onlookers do nothing but watch and take photographs on their cell phones. We will have a nation where the laws do not protect women. We will have a country that people look at in disgust and horror, and grimace at, and thank God they do not have to raise their daughters there.

Farzana must not die in vain. We must use her death as a turning point in how we prosecute the executioners of women who exercise their free will. They are braver than all the men who sit in judgment over a woman like Farzana, condemning her to a death she does not deserve.

But do not rest complacent, even those of you who live in so-called civilised societies. All over the world, there is a war going on against women. In Pakistan, it takes the form of Farzana Parveen’s body, prone and covered by a sheet, battered and broken, in the ambulance, with her bewildered husband sitting next to her. In Nigeria, it takes the form of 200 schoolgirls kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery by Boko Haram. In the United States, we have three women and three men dead because of the revenge fantasies of a spoilt, rich boy who thought that he was owed sex by “blonde sluts”.

We’re already in the middle of the third world war. It is the war for women’s rights, safety, and dignity. We are not winning this war yet. I wonder if we ever will.

ADDITION: In a horrifying twist, we learned yesterday that Farzana’s husband, Muhammed Iqbal, had murdered his first wife – strangled her to death – in order to be able to marry Farzana, whose family approved of the match at first when money would exchange hands over the match. Muhammed Iqbal was “forgiven” under the Qisas and Diyat law by his son (or stepson, I’m not sure which), and then married Farzana. But then the deal with her family went sour, the money didn’t get paid, and Farzana’s family, enraged, waited for the couple outside the court, beat him and killed her. We also found out yesterday that Farzana’s sister was also killed by her family previously. This is starting to make all the people involved look like serial killers.

What we can clearly see is that “honour” is usually the pretext for murders that take place over money, property, or other family feuds. And then, after the “forgiveness” law is invoked, often a girl from one family will be offered in marriage to a man from the other family in order to end the conflict. It goes on and on, and only the women are made to pay the price for the machinations of these cold-hearted killers.

The real victims in this awful case are the two wives of Mohammed Iqbal. And the hundreds of women murdered each year in similar circumstances. Women’s lives are like currency to be squandered by the men who believe they own them – what a disgusting state of affairs.

Sexual Harassment and the Desi Woman

The Tehelka sexual harassment scandal has brought to the forefront of my mind all the incidents of sexual harassment desi women have faced in their lives. The predatory colleague at work, the anonymous groper, the drunk uncle – which woman hasn’t faced these and other incursions on our bodies and our personhood?  One thing’s for certain: the pain never really dies. The humiliation never really leaves you. It’s burned on to your skin along with the stares, the words, the touches.

When you’re a desi woman and you are sexually harassed, at work, at school, or in the home, you struggle with a kind of guilt that I’m not sure is mirrored or matched in other parts of the world. That’s because there’s a type of misogyny that exists in our South Asian culture which other cultures do not have. It places all the burden of guilt and blame squarely on the woman’s shoulders because she dared to leave the safety of the house to go out and work in an office or go to school on her own whims.

You see, a “good” Pakistani or Indian woman doesn’t go out of the house to mix with strange men. She never needs to stay late at night at work because she doesn’t work. She never needs to fear the spectre of sexual harassment because her chador, her demeanour, her morals will protect her. A “good” desi woman will immolate herself in fire to show her faithfulness to her husband. She will fast for the health of her husband. A”good” desi woman devotes herself to her house and her children, because that’s her role in life. She doesn’t seek fulfilment and excitement outside the house, like a man does.

So if you were at work and your boss decides you are his personal plaything and forces himself on you while you are in his office, or in the elevator, on a work trip, it’s your fault. If you are at school and the teacher assaults you because he is powerful and you are weak and small, it’s your fault. If you are walking in a market and someone touches you because he can get away with it, it’s your fault. You should have been at home, not outside.

And if you were sexually harassed by your husband’s brother or father, or a cousin or your own uncle, then it’s your fault too, because you must have done something that drew his attention, that attracted him. Maybe you didn’t cover yourself properly. Maybe you talked too loudly, smiled too much. Maybe you were too “bold”. Maybe you wore makeup. Jeans. High heels. Maybe you still did everything right but he touched you anyway. It’s still your fault. Men are like that. Women have to endure.

I can’t imagine the hell the Tehelka journalist who blew the whistle on Tarun Tejpal must be going through right now. She must be wishing that she’d never said anything, that she’d kept quiet, because if she had, this would have all gone away and she’d be left alone to deal with her pain and her grief. She would have internalized it, found a way to blame herself for it. She might have hung on to her job and then quit a few months later, unable to face seeing Tejpal in the halls of the office. Now a mighty media icon has been shown to have genitals of clay and it’s all her fault.

Perhaps the Indian media will rally around her. Perhaps not. Tejpal is a powerful man and he has his allies, male and female. Powerful men always do. They will find ways to justify his actions. They will say that his recusing himself from work for six months while his ‘misjudgment’ ‘lacerates his soul’ is punishment enough. If the details of the case prove sexual assault instead of harassment, there will be an outcry, but it will not stop women from being harassed or assaulted anywhere in South Asia.

And the young woman will be forced to immolate herself in fire to prove that she is blameless. But women never are. They are at fault by very virtue of their existence. She was there and I could not help myself.

Cop-out. Fade to black.

Why All Women Should Drive

It’s probably part of your morning routine, like drinking coffee or taking a shower – you pick up your keys, step out the door, walk over to your car. Put the key in the ignition, adjust your rearview mirror, step on the gas, and you’re off, driving down the road, taking the kids to school or going to work or just running down the road to get some groceries.

Not a big deal at all – unless you are a woman living in Saudi Arabia. Then you are not allowed to drive. Or get a drivers license. By law. Even if your child is dying in front of you, you can’t put her in the car and drive her to the hospital yourself. You’ve got to rely on a man – your husband, brother, driver, twelve year old son. You, an adult woman of sound mind and willing spirit, are not allowed to drive.

The reasons have been many, each more irrational than the last. It isn’t safe for Saudi women to drive, the security of Saudi women is most important, the customs and traditions of the Kingdom do not allow for this. If women drive, there will be mixing of the sexes which will lead to women losing their virginity. Driving causes harm to women’s pelvises and ovaries, resulting in children born with deformities.

But today on October 26, brave Saudi women will take to the streets behind the wheels of their cars and protest against being deprived of this right. I stand in solidarity with their protest. I read reports in the news that 200 clerics went to the Royal Palace in Jeddah to complain about the protest, and I also read that the women who are going to drive today are concerned that other activists might use this day as an excuse to get out on the streets and protest for other issues. Which would be a shame because this one needs to have the most attention, and doesn’t deserve to get hijacked – at least not today.

All women must learn how to drive. It’s a life skill that has so many uses in modern life today. I’ve seen women bus drivers in China, women taxi drivers in the UK, women truck drivers in the US, women driving mopeds and scooters in Thailand and India. In Pakistan, women drive. It’s an economic necessity. Not everyone is rich enough to afford a driver.

It’s unbelievable that there’s a country which takes pride in handicapping half its population, and bragging that this is because its women are so cherished and valued that they are treated like queens and don’t have to do something as menial as driving. But the women who want to drive know that’s a whitewash on the fact that the reason they’re not allowed to drive is because the men fear the independence it gives them. A woman who can drive is a woman in control of where she’s going, not just on the road, but in life.

And to a weak man, that thought is almost too frightening to bear.

Amina Wadud: Gender in the Quran

Today I followed a Twitter seminar on the topic “Reading for Gender from the Quran” based on the teachings of the Islamic Scholar Amina Wadud. This was a lecture delivered by Tweets – you followed the hashtag #femquran — on Islamic feminism, reading for gender in the Qur’an and other valuable lessons. The lecture was based on a workshop on the same topic held in May 2013 in Kuala Lumpur.

I’ve always been fascinated with studying the Quran in terms of how the original verses compare with the translations and interpretations that have emerged, most of them with a distinctly chauvinist flavor. There are several prominent female scholars of the Quran who are taking the Quran back, as it were, and reinterpreting those verses truer to the original intent of the Quran to give men and women equal status. One of those women is Professor Wadud; another is Laleh Bakhtiar, whose “Sublime Quran” I have ordered from Amazon and can’t wait to read.

I’m also particularly excited about the field of Islamic feminism: women interpreting the Quran for a more balanced perspective about how the Quran applies to us. I think reclaiming the Quran in this manner is the only way for Muslim women to truly achieve the equality we have been denied for so long by men who do not want us to step out of our second-class standing because it suits them to have a slave class sanctioned by religious text.

Professor Wadud is a Muslim scholar of long standing, and has addressed mixed-sex congregations in Cape Town and led prayers in 2005 at a US mosque – something women traditionally are never allowed to do; her brand of Islamic feminism argues that women can be imams. For Pakistanis, it’s good to know that the Pakistani scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi supports her stance, as well as other progressive Islamic scholars around the world.

She was most recently the source of controversy because when she went to India, fundamentalist Muslims in Tamil Nadu protested her presence and her lecture there was canceled. She posted a short essay called “Why I Try to Stay Away From The Media” saying that the media had made a huge deal about the protest in Tamil Nadu, ignoring the entire year of work she’d done without problem all over India.

Beginning her lecture, Dr. Wadud said, “Part of taking agency with our own belief is engaging with Qur’an. This is an eternal relationship with the Divine.” And she assured those of us following her lecture that nobody would be able to use the words of the Quran against us (as women). In fact, she said, women need to claim their own authority in order to add to the understanding of our tradition, and of Allah.

She recommended the book ‘Ulum Al-Quran’ as a very good introduction to Quranic exegisis, then noted that the Quran continuously chastises 7th century Arabia, the time and place that the Prophet, an ordinary person with extraordinary experience, lived. “Might it not be possible that Quran addresses that culture?” she asked.

She went on to give some background into the history of the Quran: “Within one year of the Prophet’s death, the revelations were compiled into one large manuscript with the leadership of Abu Bakr. The manuscript went to Umar, next Caliph, and on to Hafsa bint Umar (Hafsa the daughter of Umar), and then to Uthman, the next Caliph after Umar. And what we have today is the perfect revealed text – the original text is as it is. It is the primary source of Islam”

Dr. Wadud warned her listeners: “Just because you grew up speaking Arabic does not mean you can give an authentic interpretation of the Quran. Just because you are a ‘Quran specialist’ does not mean you are the only one who has the understanding.” (These are the usual excuses many male Islamic scholars give when excluding women from the discourse on religion and the Quran). Arabic is a prerequisite science to understanding the Quran, said Dr. Wadud. “But it is a classical Arabic that nobody speaks.”

She also explained Sunnah as the normative behaviour of Prophet is related to the 7th century context, not just in his relationship with Allah. Therefore we can consider Sunnah as the living embodiment of Islam.

Then came more explication about how the Quran’s language works: “God speaks in meta language, through the stories in the Quran. Metaphors are used to communicate the revelatory experience.”

Earlier verses of Makkah period are emphatic about the Oneness of God, of the Divine (the concept of Tawhid that all Muslims are familiar with), while the later verses of Madinah period are more practical, and meant for 7th century Arabia. According to Dr. Wadud the idea that Madinah verses have more authority than Makkah verses has been refuted. In fact, the earlier verses are more universal – and this adds weight to their importance and timelessness, whereas the Madini verses are more practical, and addressed Arabs living in the 7th century.

(And the major mistake we make as Muslims today is taking those verses out of context and trying to apply them to our lives today – slaves and concubines, for example, do not exist in modern life, but in 7th century Arabia they were a reality, and so had to be addressed. This does not mean that Muslims today can take slaves and concubines, though – and you’d be amazed how many people come to my blog with the keyword search “Can I have a concubine in Islam?”)

Dr. Wadud then turned to the issue of gender in the Quran. “In the Quran, the use of gender-neutral language is virtually impossible because the Arabic language has gender markers.” Moving from these gender markers is a real challenge. Amazingly, in the Quran, Allah refers to Himself, Herself and in the plural (that blew me away when I read it!). And according to Dr. Wadud, “Grammar is literal, not an ideology.” In other words, if Allah refers to Himself, or in the plural, it is not meant to be taken literally – as Allah has no gender and is only One.

Addressing the issue of how women have been squeezed out of the religious conversation, Dr. Wadud asked, “Doesn’t the female have a relationship with God? There are consequences to leaving the female out. We need to interrogate this.” She added that nowhere in Quran nor does the Prophet say that the leader of prayer has to be male. “Where does that come from? We have been duped.”

The Quran, said Wadud, mentioned 35 prophets by name but there were thousands of other prophets. “The thousands of other prophets could have included women. Why can’t we imagine this to be a possibility?”

Dr. Wadud said that Quranic language ascribes the masculine form neutrality, and called this a matter of linguistic convenience, not gender privilege. “When someone says this is what the text means, you have to ask how they came to know that. It is your job to question.”

Here is one of Dr. Wadud’s most important points: All gender inequalities in the text refer to 7th century Arabia and what Quran was trying to achieve at that time. Justice is relative. And when it comes to resolving contradictions between verses, Dr. Wadud recommends that we resolve on the side of justice – “then you’ll be an active participant in meaning-making.”

According to Dr. Wadud, “Accept contradictions in the Text. They are context-specific. They are not universal, not intra-Quranic, and not Divine.”

Dr. Wadud exhorted us to “Be dynamic, be passionate. Be an active participant in meaning-making. Consider all angles, all nuances. You are relating with the Divine.” The Quran is a revolutionary text. There’s more text about social justice and women than any other. But “We let it fall behind, to dis-use.” A living, dynamic eternal text, the Quran’s trajectory is towards greater and greater social justice, said Dr. Wadud.

The Quran is not a conditional text. It does not give conditions. It is jurists that imposed conditions through law. (No prize for guessing which gender those jurists have been throughout time).

Turning to some of the more troublesome aspects of gender in the Quran, Dr. Wadud addressed the issue of whether or not the Quran sanctioned wife-beating (as so many use 4:34 to argue that it does). “Men don’t hit women because there is a verse in Quran,” said Dr. Wadud. “Men hit women because they have issues with self-control and violence.”  The problems begin when men who hit women go back to Quran to justify their actions. Whither the intrinsic spirit of justice in Quran?

“We need to look at not just Quranic tafsir but also at fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) to understand what certain terms in the Text mean. Fiqh is man-made.”

There are many meanings to the term ‘darab’, Dr. Wadud pointed out. “Laleh Bakhtiar found over 30 meanings to ‘darab’. Who actually decides what meaning, what impact?” (‘Darab’ is the word in 4:34 which has been traditionally translated as ‘beat’ but Islamic feminist scholars translate it as ‘separate’).

Instead of going with what’s been traditionally told is the correct way to interpret the Quran, Wadud exhorted us to “take a ‘conscientious pause’ (first coined by Khaled Abu El Fadl). It is a requirement of true faith, a moral responsibility.”

“If you hear or see anything and cannot in your heart keep faith in Allah, you must observe a conscientious pause. If you feel you are not comfortable with something in your faith, observe a conscientious pause. It is not lazy, not an excuse. You don’t get to say ‘I don’t like that!’. An emotional response is not what is being sought, but a moral response.” And Wadud said that a conscientious pause was a moral phase because “you are going to actively seek a greater, fuller understanding.”

On feminism, Dr. Wadud had this to say: “Feminism may be historically rooted in the West, but it had its limits. It faced many challenges inevitably. Diverse global cultural contexts required a redefinition, even debunking of accepted version of feminism introduced by the West. So we see this historical trajectory, and that is Islamism –> secularism –> Islamic feminism.”

There are many people who say there is no such thing as Islamic feminism, or that Islam and feminism are contradictory terms, but Dr. Wadud believes otherwise. “Islamic feminism is a modern innovation. It came to us in late 1990s. It is modern, it is now because we are living in the now.” According to her, Islamic feminism uses gender as a category of thought, as a tool to interrogate ideas, concepts, goals, etc to decipher truth.

Dr. Wadud went on to question how we define ‘the human being’, saying that it must be true for all human beings. “To define ‘the human being’ as ‘male’ is problematic. To define the human being as male is to exclude women or make them somehow deficient, be an ‘other’, be deviant. To define the human being as male is to make women out to be other than fully human.”

The process of including everybody when making a definition becomes problematic. There are inevitable consequences, said Dr. Wadud. For example, “If you understand the Prophet to be receiver of knowledge and therefore the parameter, how to deal with issues of menstruation?”

Whether conscious or unconscious, blanket definitions are problematic, exclude, divide, have consequences that are dangerous. Such definitions should say something to you about the speaker. Such definitions are not ultimate human reality/realities.

Dr. Wadud addressed women specifically when she said, “Your life is an ultimate source of reality. Your biology is an ultimate source of reality. Nature is an ultimate source of reality.”  And that what the Quran says about the Creator is unique, not gendered. “What Quran says about the ultimate human being – all levels of existence occur in duality, i.e. yin yang. There is no [gender] hierarchy. “ She repeated: “What our Sacred Text says about the Ultimate Human Being: there is no [gender][hierarchy.”

Instead, the ultimate human being is both male and female (min kulli shay’in khalaqnaa zawjayn). “As a man or a woman, we are trustees of the Divine Will. As a human being, you become a moral agent on earth.”

Addressing the question of whether or not Islam is a fair religion, she stated: “Islam is about upholding ethics, justice. And that consciousness (taqwa) leads to a certain type of behaviour judged only by Allah.”

According to Dr. Wadud, the Quran is explicitly gender-inclusive in all stages of life, death and the afterlife. The umbrella term to encompass all this is Tawhid.

“Tawhid therefore includes elements of oneness, unity, uniqueness. Tawhid is not a method. It is the foundation of social justice. If Tawhid is the theological basis, then a system of ethics (Maqasid of Shari’ah) becomes the methodological basis.

“Islam is emphatic that there is NO intermediary between Allah and you (woman or man). Islam is emphatic about the fact that there is horizontal reciprocity between woman and man,” said Dr. Wadud. And she claims that “It is strategic, it is wise to decide on a case by case, issue by issue, nation by nation, etc basis.”

All citizens have same rights with respect to implementation of any law.  All citizens have same rights with respect to the reform of any policy that denies, prohibits or limits equality. And the “Buddhist principle of transcendence will also help understand Tawhid. We can understand this through other faiths.”

Today, reasoned Dr. Wadud, there are many who claim women’s roles at home (private sphere) are equally important as men’s as leaders (public sphere) But if women’s roles in the home are so important, why isn’t everyone clamoring for that role? Why isn’t there more competitiveness? Dr. Wadud rejects this “complementary” model of gender roles, saying, “The complementarity model is unequal. It is vertical, cannot be exchanged, people’s roles become fixed.”

“Equality isn’t about sameness,” continued Dr. Wadud. And the last word?  Islam does not advocate gender hierarchy.

Voluntary Segregation and Gender Apartheid

I’d heard a couple of months ago about an event at UCL London sponsored by the Islamic group Islamic Education and Research Academy. The event was a debate on Islam and atheism, but what made the headlines was the fact that the audience was separated by gender: men and mixed couples in the front, women in the back. This wasn’t forced – it was deemed “voluntary”. If you wanted to sit in mixed seating, you could; if you wanted to sit in women-only seating, you could. (I’m not sure where the men who didn’t want to sit with women went).

At the time, I shook my head and put it down to over-zealous students a little too fond of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan’s way of doing things. It’s both illegal and impossible to carry out that level of gender segregation in the UK, but this group and others like it were striking a little symbolic blow for the type of strict gender separation that they admire so much. Perhaps a little nostalgia for the way things are done in these countries, or “back home”; or some non-existant pinnacle of Islamic civilization to which we all belong whether we know it or not.

Yesterday, I saw someone called Mohammed Ansar, a British commentator on Islam, talking to British columnists David Aaronovitch and Sunder Katwala on Twitter about “voluntary segregation”. He was telling them about a summer BBQ he’d attended where it was “groovy” because it was all “voluntary” – “chaps talking to chaps and chapesses talking to chapesses” were his words. “It wasn’t scary at all! No monster under the bed!”

I have been told before that I should learn how to keep my mouth shut. I’m afraid I’m a bad student. I butted into the conversation and told all of them that I had grown up in a conservative Sindhi family (extended) where segregated social events were the norm. And that gender segregation is a travesty in all its forms.  I followed it up with a rant about the hideousness of gender segregation, the end result of what is usually women herded off into separate schools, hospitals, public transport, prayer areas at mosques. Their facilities are usually awful, neglected, and dirty, never given as much money or maintenance or quality as men’s only facilities. “The Quran tells believing men to lower their gaze, not put women in a box so that they don’t have to struggle with self-control,” I tweeted. “Segregating women usually means ‘out of sight, out of existence’.”

Mo reared back and said that he had never grown up in or was in favor of “hard” segregation, but that there was nothing wrong with “voluntary” segregation. “Your experience sounds bad but it isn’t the only one!” he tweeted. Or words to that effect. We went back and forth like this for a while, and I asked him to read my essay on the niqab and the illusion of free choice, but he refused, stating that I was “rude”. Now where have I heard that before? Oh, yes, we uppity women, who don’t present our views with the appropriate respect and deference…

Well, I’m sorry, but this is nonsense, pure and simple. Because like the niqab, “voluntary” segregation, or the freedom of choice surrounding it, is also an illusion. Perhaps the segregated weddings I went to, the ladies’ bus compartments 1/4 the size of men’s, the one ladies’ compartment on the Dubai Metro, the mosques from Hong Kong to Northern Virginia where either women are not welcome or there’s one stinky room upstairs where women lie on the floor to nap or to eat their lunches, were my “poor” experiences, forced upon me rather than of my choice. And that “groovy” summer barbecue was the epitome of Muslim chic where everyone just automatically drifted apart (like many of my parents’ generations’ dinner parties where the men sat one one side drinking whiskey discussing politics and the women sat on the other and talked about servants and children).

But what proponents of “voluntary” segregation are so disingenuous about is that the “choice” comes about because of social coercion, as this followup article about UK university gender segregation so beautifully illustrates. The spoken and unspoken assumption is that a good Muslim woman would never want to mix with men: she will automatically want to remove herself from their presence and put herself in the back of the room. Any woman who doesn’t “choose” this for herself is cheaper, less moral, or even a slut. We Muslim women have absorbed this message and our own thinking has become warped, so now, we are quick to demonstrate our chastity to the men and women of our community before they can accuse us of having loose morals.

This results in what you see happening on PIA flights, where women will sometimes object if they’re seated next to a man and ask for the “chap” to be moved. It happened once at a segregated wedding I attended in the Memon community, where all the ladies were chatting and laughing. Suddenly they stopped in their tracks and grabbed their dupattas and chadars, covering themselves up because a twelve year old boy had entered the room. He didn’t even have any hair on his upper lip, but I was informed that he had reached the age of puberty and so everyone had to veil themselves in front of him.

I’ll never forget a religious lecture I attended: the sheikh was young, hip, had been born and raised in New York. All the women were so excited to see him; I too fixed a dupatta on my head and entered the room where he was to address all of us. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a curtain erected in the middle of the room and two speakers on either side. The sheikh did not want to be in the same room as the women, so he was going to speak from behind the curtain, on a microphone. Even though each one of us was dressed in the proper Islamic attire, heads covered, arms and legs covered, some even with their faces covered, the sheikh deemed his presence amongst us too sinful to submit us to even a glimpse of him! And in the end everyone raved about how “good” he was instead of how silly the whole exercise had been.

There are people who think that if you veil yourself or segregate yourself out of choice, that’s fine and dandy. I wonder what happens when you decide you don’t want to sit with black people, or Jewish people out of choice too. Someone on Twitter told me that was a very offensive comparison, and perhaps it is, but gender apartheid is as real a concept as racial apartheid. I’ve heard the term “separate but equal” before – from people in America who opposed the civil rights movement and the integration of blacks into white schools. Funny how that same term is used to describe how women and men should be treated.

What on earth happened to our beautiful way of moderation, the Islam of the Middle Path? As John Lennon said, “Woman is the nigger of the world”. I’ll remember that the next time someone tells me I’m supposed to be honored and respected that nobody wants to sit next to me.

PS. Please don’t waste my time asking me if I believe in separate bathrooms or changing rooms for men and women.

Does Islam Allow Wife-Beating?

Today I read an article by Qasim Rashid called “The Islamic Solution to Stop Domestic Violence”.  Cogently argued by the author, who is an American lawyer and member of the Muslim Writers Guild, the essay attempts to analyse the contentious verse 4:34 from the Quran, which has been interpreted for centuries as permission for Muslim men to strike their wives if those wives are rebellious or disobedient, to God or their husbands.

The verse translates to something like this:

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

Here is a little background on the verse.*

Historically the revelation of this verse happened when Sa‘d ibn al-Rabi‘  hit his wife Habiba bin Zayd on the face because she rebelled against him. Her father went to Muhammad and said: ‘I gave him my daughter in marriage and he slapped her.’ So the Prophet said: ‘Let her have her retaliation against him.’ But as she was leaving with her father to go do this, the prophet called them back, saying, ‘Come back; Gabriel has come to me’ and 4:34 was revealed (1).

Daraba has many definitions some of which are to beat, strike, hit, to shoot, fire, shell, to separate, part, to turn away from, leave, forsake, avoid.  Different translations can give insight into the ways these translators view the word.  For example, Yusuf Ali writes “(and lastly) beat them (lightly)”, Shakir says “and Beat them,” and Haleem marks “then hit them.”

Rashid says that the verse, with its layers of conditionality, and then taking into account the way Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, treated his wives (He specifically instructed his ummah, “Do not beat your wives”), cannot be taken as open season to beat up your wife in a violent way. Instead, the Muslim man must consider all his options, “actively foster reconciliation”, and then consider the final option, which still remains “chastising” your wife. And if you decide, not in anger, of course, but with rationality and reason, that you must still hit your wife, then do so only in a humane way, a way that will not leave marks upon the face, and that is in fact “healing”, as that’s one of the meanings of the word “daraba”, which people more commonly translate or interpret as to strike.

Now, I must at this point state that I’m a practicing Muslim who accepts the Quran as the literal, spiritual, and metaphysical word of God. The reason I don’t have any problem with verse 4:34 is because the word “daraba”, which has been translated and interpreted as “to strike”, has NINETEEN different meanings. One of which is “to heal” as pointed out by Rashid, but another is “to separate” as we see from the text I quoted above. And it’s that one that makes the most sense in the context of the entire verse: if you have problems with your wife, admonish her, do not sleep with her, and then, if the problem continues, separate. I do not accept at all that this verse meant that you can strike your wife, whether gently, forcefully, or anything in between.

It’s very telling that Muslim men, on the other hand, have accepted the most violent meaning of this word, and then twist themselves into pretzels trying to justify it, qualify it, conditionalise it (okay, I know that’s not a word, but forgive me), and propagate it. If the Prophet himself said “Do not beat your wives”, why on earth are you trying to contradict that? And then you embarrass yourselves and all of Islam by talking about this verse as a solution to domestic violence while advocating that women can be struck as a corrective measure for bad behaviour?

Why do you have to engage in mental gymnastics (to quote Urooj Zia, Pakistani journalist) so that you can feel okay about beating your wife? How can you beat your wife in a way that heals her or the relationship? Why must we always deal in irrationality to prolong our bloodlust for the patriarchy? As Asra Q. Nomani says, Indeed, Muslim scholars and leaders have long been doing what I call “the 4:34 dance” — they reject outright violence against women but accept a level of aggression that fits contemporary definitions of domestic violence”.

Instead, why don’t you read Muslim female scholars on the subject of verse 4:34, and their interpretations of the Quran, which I have to say are much closer to the spirit of Islam – the progressive, anti-establishment, anti-traditionalist revolution that came roaring out of the desert to challenge the accepted way of life amongst the Arabs of Mecca in the 7th century?

Here’s Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation of 4:34, taken from her 2007 translation of the Quran:

“Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they spend of their wealth. So the ones who are in accord with morality are the ones who are morally obligated, the ones who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. But those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping place, then go away from them; and if they obey you, surely look not for any way against them; truly God is Lofty, Great”.[41] “

And lest you think this verse in any way justifies men earning money while women are at home prohibited to work and earn their livelihood, I’d just like to ask you who was earning the money in the marriage between Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and his first wife Bibi Khadija (may Allah be pleased with her)?

Here’s a list of women you should read, and their thoughts on 4:34 based on a quick search across the Internet.

  • Dr. Riffat Hassan – who calls the Quran the Magna Carta of Islam and believes that  the meaning of the Qur’an should be determined through hermeneutics — examination of what its words meant at the time it was written. She interprets 4:34 as being addressed to all men and women, and translates “qawammun” as anyone who earns money, regardless of gender. 
  • Dr. Amina Wadud – Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, She says that the word “nushuz” in 4:34 means “disharmony, neutral in gender”. She also says the word “daraba” means not that you have permission to beat your wife, but the verse was intended to severely restrict practices already in place during the time of the Prophet. 
  • Dr Leila Ahmad, who teaches at the Harvard Divinity School (I can’t find any references online, but they’re in her book.
  • Fatima Mernissi, author of The Veil and the Male Elite

(thank you to Poppy Afzal Khan for this excellent list)

These feminist scholars who all know Arabic and have made it their life’s work to study Islam and the Quran and gender, argue that the verse is only one of many that have been interpreted in a way that is misogynistic, unfair, and against the intent of Islam to equalize men and women’s status. They argue that the Quran, the hadith and Shariah can be interpreted in a hardline way or a liberal way or a progressive way or a moderate way. And that there is a way to practice Islam that gives women full rights and respect, without reducing them to second-class citizens who must obey men, surrender their autonomy, agency, and bodies to the patriarchy.

In conclusion, I’d like to address my Muslim brothers and ask them why they just can’t come out and stand side by side with Muslim women, instead of continuing to keep them in second place? Why do they continue to insist that Allah subhana wa’taala meant for women to be inferior to men, when we all know that Allah created men and women of the same materials, imbued them with the same souls, has the same amount of reward and same amount of punishment for them in the afterlife? We can’t blame the Quran for its oppressive reading, says Asma Barlas. We can blame men and also women for those oppressive readings, that insistence on sticking to a system of slavery, that refusal to be courageous and accept that Islam means liberty and justice and equality for all.

*The verse has also been taken by most Muslims to show that men are breadwinners and are therefore in charge of women, who are by default childbearers.

The Arabic words in the verse most hotly debated over are:

Quwummun: breadwinners

Faddala: more excellent than, superior to (in the context of the translation above)

Nushuz: in the context of the translation above, “arrogance”, but also “rebellion”, “disobedience”

Daraba: in the context of the translation above, “to strike”

Rape Culture

This morning I read an article, “The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture”, which relates to the iconic photograph of the sailor bending a nurse over and kissing her passionately at the end of World War 2. While this photograph is beloved of many, the article actually says that it is a marker of “rape culture” because in all the interviews post-kiss, the woman in the photograph says that the sailor was actually drunk and forced himself on her, a far cry from the scene of romance, passion, and triumph over Nazi Germany that it was originally meant to symbolize.

You could almost make the troubling assertion that knowing what we know about how it came about, it’s actually a scene of triumph over a woman’s body, the sailor as conqueror of her being, representing America’s victory over the Axis powers. But that is a topic for another essay altogether.

Yet while I found the article to be an interesting commentary on the photograph, and it definitely gave me food for thought about how women’s voices are overridden by men’s, especially in war narratives and historical accounts of war, it made me wonder whether the term “rape culture” and how it has come into common parlance in the feminist discourse has been beneficial for women’s empowerment, or whether it has hampered women in the fight to move away from permanent victimhood.

Rape culture is the feminist concept that “rape and sexual violence are common and that prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalise, excuse, tolerate, or even condone sexual violence.” It is not a physical place that you can find on a map, but a state of terror that exists everywhere, according to its experts. The concept has been discussed in feminist academics since the 1970s, where second wave feminists declared all of America to be a rape culture, but it has only become a popular term since 2011’s SlutWalk movement, a worldwide protest against women being blamed for getting raped because of the clothes they wear.

The elements identified in creating a culture of rape are hard to deny: victim blaming, sexual objectification, the trivializing of rape. It’s explained well in the extract from the book Transforming A Rape Culture:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

This culture of rape is not exclusively a Western problem, either. India’s own Besharmi Morcha, or “Protest Action of Shameless Women” was meant to take place in coordination with similar protests in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong (but was stopped by the government). Before that, the Pink Chaddi campaign specifically addressed the same idea, with activists sending pairs of pink panties to government officials in Mangalore to express their disgust at the moral policing taking place in 2009.  It has its parallels in Muslim countries, including Pakistan, where women are encouraged to stay silent about sexual assault or commit suicide if it happens to them; where they can be raped if they go to a police station to report sexual assault; where sexual molestation is given the euphemism of “eve teasing” and women who don’t cover themselves head to toe in burqas, veils, and chadors are blatantly seen as inviting sexual assault.

Rape culture concerns itself not just with the physical act of rape, but with the conditions that allow it to be perpetuated and even encouraged in society. You could say that all of Pakistan, too, is a rape culture, with columns appearing in the newspaper questioning whether marital rape exists in Islam, where four eyewitnesses are needed to substantiate a woman’s claim of rape, thanks to the Hudood Ordinances and their remnants in our society; where girls and women are exchanged as compensation in feud settlements; where underage girls are married; where women are married against their will.

Rape Culture 101 is an excellent place to start if you want to delve deeper into this examination. And Rape Culture 5105 picks up the discussion and expands it even further.

But here’s where my first question arises: Where in the world, our physical space – or in minds, our psychic space – does rape culture not exist? There is no neighborhood, community, society, country in which rape does not take place. It is not a question of laws and attitudes, because even in places where anti-sexual assault laws are strictly enforced, and where violence against women is treated with the contempt and punished with the severity it deserves, rape still happens. Witness the Julian Assange case, where Sweden, one of the most progressive countries in the world, was the setting for two rapes (I am not going to discuss the political ramifications etc. here) committed by the same man. Pornography, sexual trafficking, domestic violence and all other forms of violence against women also take place in Scandanavian countries, which are the best places in the world in terms of legally guaranteeing equal rights for women.

Prominent feminist and scholar bell hooks makes the argument that looking at rape culture in isolation is unhelpful because we are divorcing rape from a more expansive culture of violence, and rape does not happen without a background or a context. If transformation of rape culture is to occur, it will happen within a larger movement of transforming culture from violence to non-violence.  I remain unconvinced that rape culture is a distinct and boundaried territory, either in the physical world or in the phenomenological one.

My second problem is with the actual phrase “rape culture”. There is something within me that rebels against its use. It brings to mind the idea that rape is so prevalent in our cultures, our ways of being, that rape is inevitable. That all women are fated to undergo some experience of rape, just by the default of living in a rape culture, even if they are not technically or physically raped. (Some feminists have held in the past that all sex is rape and all men are rapists. I do not agree with this notion.) There are huge problems with this assumption; it is meant to evoke anger to the point where people are inspired to transform the rape culture. But before it evokes anger, it evokes something larger and more immediate: fear. It turns all women into victims, in potential and in reality. We are all rape victims; it’s just a matter of time before the theory of rape turns into a physical reality, and we can do little to escape it.

This way of thinking is both defensive and damaging. It places women squarely back into the role of victim, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve: empowerment, strength, transcendence of victimhood. I understand that rape is always a possibility for any human being, man or woman. Depending on where you live, it is a probability – if you live in the Congo, or you were a woman in Bosnia during the Yugoslavian war, or if you are in Syria today. But it is psychologically unhealthy to restrict and define the world according to the paradigm of rape. On the other hand, we are all going to die, but if we were to see the world in terms of that physical inevitability, we would completely break down and be unable to live our daily lives.

So, for these reasons and probably more that I haven’t been able to articulate just yet, I am opposed to the unconditional use of the term “rape culture”. Rape doesn’t happen in a vaccuum, nor was the concept of rape created in one. We will probably never know who the world’s first rapist was. According to some feminists, it was the first man. But to condemn all women to the role of rape victim, either by a man or by culture or society, is a chilling indictment of the potential of humanity, and a prison that women do not deserve to be placed in by any academic, no matter how visionary or passionate about feminism and violence against women.