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Status of Women in Christianity & Islam (Book Notes: No God but God)

By June 8, 2006

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A common criticism of Islam is its treatment of women; at the same time, though, Christianity does not have a very good track record with its treatment of women, either. The reasons do not appear to be the same in both religions, though...

In No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam, Geneive Abdo writes: No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam

In the West, the status and treatment of women stem largely from an underlying cultural and social assumption that females are physically weaker and intellectually inferior to men. In Islam, however, it is fear of female power that justifies the suppression of women. Women must be controlled to prevent men, who are easily tempted, from being distracted from their social and religious duties. In Islam, women are perceived as active beings; in Western secular societies as passive. Therefore, controlling women, particularly their sexual desires, is essential to controlling men and ensuring order in society.

The Prophet likened the powerful attraction of women to that of Satan. “When the woman comes toward you, it is Satan who is approaching you. When one of you sees a women and feels attracted to her, hurry to see your wife.”

Contemporary Islamic fashion for women is designed to discourage sexual temptation or attraction between men and women who are not husband and wife. By hiding the contours of the body, women seek to move in and out of the public arena and maintain freedom from being seen as sexual objects. For many Islamists, anonymity within this space — the street, the office, the bank — is a form of liberation and a way of achieving morality and piety.

What Abdo doesn’t seem to realize is that her description of the West’s attitude toward women is relatively recent. Traditional Christian depictions of women used to be very similar to what she attributes to Islam: women are active, sexual beings whose very presence can tempt men to forget their duties and give in to carnal desires. This, in turn, can upset social order. Thus, controlling women is necessary for the general control of society and maintenance of social order itself.

It wasn’t until the Victorian era that the role and image of women was transformed — and dramatically, too. Instead of highly sexual beings who tempted men, women became passive beings who were in charge of preserving virtue in society. It was men who were assumed to be the sexual aggressors and who needed to be kept under control; women needed to be protected.

There may be more similarity between Islam and Christianity than Abdo seems to realize — and the differences attributable more to culture than to the religions themselves.

Abdo interviewed Mounir Mohammed Fawzi, a gynecologist and active supporter of female circumcision in Egypt, where 97% of all women are already circumcised:

“Why do you believe a woman should be circumcised?

“Women have strong sex drives. The only way to ensure order in society is to contain their sexual desires. Also, it has been proven scientifically that women are healthier if they are circumcised, and they have healthier babies. The clitoris can cause infection.”

“But don’t you think it is unjust to deprive women of having intense orgasms by clipping the clitoris? I asked, shuffling my seat after uttering words I knew were a bit extreme for his taste.

“No. This is why there is so much immorality in the West,” he replied, in a matter-of-fact tone. “At a young age, girls begin having sex. When they are older they tempt men because they can’t control their desires.”

Assigning blame to women for all the problems in society is an effective way for men to abdicate responsibility for their own actions. If women are going around tempting men, then it’s not men’s fault (or at least not entirely their fault) when they give in to temptation. It’s an interestingly paradoxical situation: women are ascribed a great deal of power and responsibility, but no way to exercise that power and responsibility in the social or political arenas.

Women’s power is almost entirely negative, it seems, and as a consequence women must be confined, controlled, and restricted both for their own good and for the good of the rest of society. It’s almost as if they are a virus or toxin that is necessary for society, but only in small quantities and only under close regulation.

The consequence of this is made quite evidence by Fawzi: it’s justified to deprive women of the same sorts of pleasure which men can enjoy because women cannot be trusted. Women cannot control themselves, so men must do it for them — even if it means mutilating them surgically.


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