The Wash Post yesterday carried two provocative pieces about women's status in Islam. In "How I Came To Love the Veil," Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who was captured by the Taliban while going undercover in a burqa, explains why she ended up converting to Islam a few years after her captivity. She claims that the violence against women endemic in Muslim countries "have nothing to do with Islam"; rather the violence and subjugation stem from independent "cultural issues and customs." Western male critics "go on about veils, child brides, female circumcision, honor killings and forced marriages, and they wrongly blame Islam for all this—their arrogance surpassed only by their ignorance."
Ridley argues that Islam is really the theological equivalent of The Traveling Sisterhood of the Ya-Ya Pants, a tight-fitting vehicle for empowerment and liberation: "A careful reading of the Koran shows that just about everything that Western feminists fought for in the 1970s was available to Muslim women 1,400 years ago."
Ridley then undercuts her close-reading argument (let's forget for the moment that "careful readings" often have nothing to do with how religion is practiced):
As for how Muslim men are allowed to beat their wives—it's simply not true. Critics of Islam will quote random Koranic verses or hadith, but usually out of context. If a man does raise a finger against his wife, he is not allowed to leave a mark on her body, which is the Koran's way of saying, "Don't beat your wife, stupid."
In another Post piece, "Clothes Aren't the Issue," Asra Q. Nomani, who born a Muslim in India and raised in West Virginia, begs to differ. She talks about the large following among imams for "a literal reading of the 34th verse of the fourth chapter of the Koran, An-Nisa , or Women. '[A]nd (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them,' reads one widely accepted translation."
Verse 4:34 retains a strong following, even among many who say that women must be treated as equals under Islam. 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….
Last October, I listened to an online audio sermon by an American Muslim preacher, Sheik Yusuf Estes, who was scheduled to speak at West Virginia University as a guest of the Muslim Student Association. He soon moved to the subject of disobedient wives, and his recommendations mirrored the literal reading of 4:34. First, "tell them." Second, "leave the bed." Finally: "Roll up a newspaper and give her a crack. Or take a yardstick, something like this, and you can hit."
Nomani's case (full thing here) doesn't directly rebut Ridley's that larger cultural issues may be in play here (though Ridley's dream of a protofeminist paradise in Islam's earliest days is a real groaner, as is her unwillingness to deal with the inter-related nature of religious and cultural life under, say, the Taliban). It's useful to put such sentiments in historical perspective. Well into the 20th century in the West, wife beating, if not exactly condoned, was tolerated in a way that's unimaginable today (think of the scene played for laughs, say, in The Quiet Man, where an Old Irish nag offers up a thick branch to John Wayne to beat Maureen O'Hara with).
Arguably, Islam predominates in societies that haven't embraced equal rights for women (or, for that matter, representative democracy in general) and that's the real problem, even if the Koran lends clear sanction to the physical abuse of women. From the point of view of those on the receiving end of widespread violence, that distinction may not be that important.