Too Important to Ignore

Today’s news includes a report about a sport federation that has banned Iran from hosting international volleyball games. Why?

Because an Iranian woman was arrested for wanting to watch the game.

In the West, this is bewildering. Why in the world would a women be arrested for wanting to watch a ballgame?

The answer to this question has very deep roots that go back centuries. It’s not particularly complicated, but the explanation is so far outside the experience of most Western peoples that it is best explained from the perspective of a woman who has lived in the culture, knows it intimately, knows the customs, knows the religion. While the focus of the explanation provided here is on Islam, Iran’s dominant religion, the roots of the practices and values described here pre-date the Muslim faith.

The full intensity of these conditions is greatest in Saudi Arabia and much of central sub-Saharan Africa. I’m a reasonably well-read, inquisitive, intelligent person and yet at 52 I’ve gone a lifetime not fully understanding that women in these parts of the world are routinely treated with less respect than we give our pets.

If you find this at all interesting, or if it just seems too improbable to be believed, I strongly recommend reading Ayaan Ali Hirsi’s books, Infidel and Nomad. They’re both real eye-openers.

We sometimes ask why so many stood by and did nothing when they knew what was happening to Jews during WWII. After reading this, can you stand by and do nothing?

From pages 152-156 of Nomad:

“Long ago, in the desert, nomads in clan societies bound themselves together by family ties, through old lineages that gave them protection and assistance across great distances. Outside the clan lineage lay danger and chaos, every man for himself. In a clan society, every kind of human relationship turns on your honor within the clan; outside it, there is nothing — you are excluded from any kind of meaningful existence. This was the most precious lesson that Grandma tried to teach her grandchildren.

“A man’s honor within a clan society — and these societies are, largely, about men — resides in his authority. Men must be warriors; shame consists in being seen as weak. Women are the breeders of men, and women’s honor lies in their purity, their submission, their obedience.

“Their shame is to be sexually impure, and it is the worst shame of all, because a woman’s sexual disobedience defiles herself, her sisters, and her mother, as well as the male relatives whose duty it is to control her. No Muslim man has any standing in society if he does not have honor. And no matter how much honor he builds up through wise decisions and good deeds, it is destroyed if his daughter or his sister is sexually defiled.

“This can happen if she loses her virginity before she’s married, or if she engages in sexual intercourse outside of the marriage — and that includes rape. Even the minor that she may have had sex is reason enough to label her “defiled” and lead to loss of honor for her whole family.

“A father who cannot control his daughters, a brother who cannot control his sisters, is disgraced. He is bankrupt socially and even economically. His family is ruined. The girl will not fetch a bride-price, and neither will her sisters or her cousins, because the mere suspicion of independent feeling and female action in their family taints them too.

“Such a man suffers a social death, exclusion from the mutual assistance and respect of the clan—the worst possible fate that could befall a person, whether child or adult, male or female. Controlling women’s sexuality and limiting men’s access to sex with women are the central focus of the code of honor and shame. Muslim women are chattel, and every Muslim girl must be a virgin at marriage. Once wed (with or without her consent), she must be faithful to her husband, who, in traditional societies, she will never refer to by his first name but only as rajel, my lord.

“In case of divorce or widowhood, the job of monitoring her sexual activities is assumed by her new guardians: her sons, if they are adults, or her husband’s father and his male bloodline. These men may select a new husband for her. Few Muslim women are ever free to choose whom they will have sex with. An element as powerful and potent as a Muslim girl’s virginity also has great commodity value, which means that virginity is above all a man’s business.

“Daughters are bait for attracting alliances, or they can be reserved for the highest bidder. Power, wealth, and the solidifying of clan relations may hinge on marriage alliances, so raising daughters of quality who are modest and docile is important. Using violence to ensure their obedience and to warn them against straying is a perfectly legitimate reminder of the law in a system of values in which women have only a little more free will than livestock. There must be blood on the wedding night from her broken hymen or she will be condemned as a slut.

“This ancient code of sexual morality is derived from tribal Arab culture. It dates from long before the Prophet Muhammad began receiving revelations from the Angel Gabriel, which were written down by his disciples on pages that have long since turned to dust. At the time, in that place – the desert towns of Mecca and Medina, whose distant tribes worshiped many different idols and gods – honor and shame were the central ideas that governed life between men and women. Islam cemented this into an everlasting rule.

“As Islam grew and spread, it brought its sexual mores to other countries, from Mali to Indonesia. Under Shari’a, a Muslim woman is effectively the property of her father, brothers, uncles, grandfathers. These men are her guardians, responsible for her behavior, in charge of her choices. Above all, she must remain sexually pure.

“An inextricable mass of traditional dictates and rituals has been incorporated into Islam, and it is being further amplified by the Islamic revivalist movements that are sweeping through the Muslim world today. The fundamentalists seem haunted by the female body and neurotically debate which fractions of it should be covered, until they declare the whole thing, from head to toe, a gigantic private part.

“When and why did Arab, and subsequently Muslim, societies become obsessed with controlling women’s sexuality? Perhaps there was once some logic to it. For a tribe to be strong, its warriors need to be loyal to each other. Maybe independent female sexuality undermined that. Maybe fighting over women was even more divisive to a male society than fighting over camels, and so, once upon a time in the desert, it was resolved to control the women, to confine them to their homes, banishing them from the public sphere, or to veil them so they became invisible, to cut their genitals to limit their sexual desire and sew them shut to make sex unbearably painful.

“Grandma did not busy herself with such questions. She understood only that we had to follow the rules as if our lives depended on it – as, perhaps, her own life once had. She explained and enforced that code in our household. As she never tired of saying, “All I am trying to teach you is to survive.”

“Even today virginity is the linchpin of a Muslim girl’s education. Growing up, I was taught that it is more important to remain a virgin than it is to stay alive, better to die than be raped. Sex before marriage is an unthinkable crime. Every Muslim girl knows that her value relies almost wholly on her hymen, the most essential part of her body, far more important than her brain or her limbs.

“Once the hymen is broken, a girl is a thing used, broken, filthy, her filth contagious. This is h ow my cousin Hiran felt about herself when she succumbed to desire and then was diagnosed with HIV. This is how Ladan felt about herself and how she lost her self-esteem. She saw herself through the eyes of those closest to her, people like my grandma, and those old ghosts seemed to blame  her and scream at her, “Whore!”.

“Muslim cultures have evolved various means to police and guarantee women’s virginity. Many confine their women, depriving themselves of their labor outside of the home, and monitor their movements obsessively. This constant whisper of gossip, the continual surveillance of every untoward gesture and raised eye, is also a form of confinement, strangling every movement. When a woman leaves the house, she veils, another form of confinement: every breath of air you take outside your four walls is stifled by a thick, heavy cloth; every stride is hobbled, every centimeter of skin enclosed from the sun.

“Even out of doors a veiled woman is inside all the time. The air she breathes is stuffy; thick material presses against her eyes, her nose, and her mouth. Everything she does is h8idden and furtive. Blindfolded and reduced, erased from public contact, Muslim women often lose confidence in their ability to undertake independent action. Even independent motion seems strange. Every woman who has worn such a veil for years and then taken it off will attest that it is difficult to walk at first. It is as if, uncovered, your legs do not work the same way.

“After a girl first menstruates, she must have as little contact as possible with men outside the immediate family. In Saudi Arabia women are shut in their homes by law; this is not the case in other countries, but confinement is still common everywhere that there are Muslims.

“Even after they are married many Arab women are not permitted contact with an unrelated male. It is an offense even to look a man in the eye. Other societies, too poor to do without their women’s labor out of doors, must police their chastity by other means: it must be built into their bodies. This may be the origin of female excision, the only possible incontrovertible proof of virginity.

“And chastity must be built into their minds. Victims of rape do not report it if they survive it; unmarried women who get pregnant are banished or put to death. Too often girls take their own lives after losing their virginity in a way deemed to be illicit. Although Muslim doctrine has certainly amplified and confirmed this attitude, the tight web of restrictions on women that characterizes Arab and Muslim clans goes back further than Wahabi Islam, the most common school of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

“The very word harem, the section of the house where the women dwell (in Arabic, hareem), is derived from haram, forbidden. In most Muslim cultures people still retain memories of the old, pre-Islamic beliefs in jinn and ghouls. (This is sharply disapproved of by most Islamic purists, who believe it raises the possibility of deities other than Allah.) Those ghouls are most often withered old women or sexually voracious young women, who inspire fear and disgust in equal measure. Defiled every month by menstruation, the female is naturally closer to evil.”