A correspondent, who had read my previous comments on women in Islam, asked whether I thought he was hysterical to say Islam enslaves women. He lives in a part of England where Muslims have recently become more of a presence, finds the routine sight of women in niqab shocking, and can’t understand why intellectual Western women take it in stride as an addition to multicultural richness or whatever. What, he asked, could ever serve as a wake-up call?
Here’s my (somewhat edited and perhaps wishy-washy) response:
It’s not hysterical to use the term, but “enslaved” shouldn’t be taken literally. Women can’t be bought and sold, and they have legal and moral rights (the legal right to share in inheritance, the moral right to equal treatment when there are other wives, etc.). A slave has no share in honor, so even the institution of honor killings shows that women are not literally slaves.
Or maybe I’m just saying that our current conception of slavery, as the reduction of a human being to an absolute chattel, is too narrow? In Islam they’ve had slave ruling classes, the Mamluks and Janissaries, so it’s obviously a broader category. Still, they don’t categorize women as slaves, and they’re not chary of using the classification, so I suppose I’d stand by the statement that women are not actual slaves in Islam.
I haven’t responded to your real concerns though. To say someone is not literally a slave is not to say his situation is OK. Women are obviously at a radical disadvantage in Islam, for both religious and cultural reasons. Their most basic problem I suppose is that men can have multiple wives and concubines and they can just dismiss wives they don’t like. So in principle women can be acquired in large numbers and disposed of at will, although (unlike slaves) they can’t legally be acquired without consent. And then there’s the basic problem that Islam has no use for natural law so there’s no bottom-line concept of reason in how people should act. That means that radical arbitrary inequalities and the principle of rule by will are a natural part of the system. That’s another influence that makes the system rather like slavery.
As to Western multicultural responses, here are some possible partial causes:
- The necessity of showing equal respect to foreign and native standards. If we don’t then native standards will have the edge but that would be a moral catastrophe because they’re non-universal.
- The basic principle of non-evaluation. There’s just atoms and the void and human subjectivity, so what you want and how to get it are the only real principles of conduct. Sharia is what the Muslims want.
- Complete loss of proportion. Any deviation from absolute equality is a moral catastrophe, so if women used to wear hats to church and a few still do who are we to talk about purdah. (Loss of proportion is necessary: common sense can’t be formalized, and it comes out of particular histories, so it’s irrational and racist.)
- A subliminal feeling that there’s some point to traditional culture and something amiss with the Western understanding (or non-understanding) of sex and the sexes. That can come out harmlessly (from the standpoint of maintaining and advancing the radicalism of Western society) in admiration for non-Western cultures. It’s like the Green movement in that respect: the need for something that transcends human wishes comes out harmlessly in worshipping the rainforest and promoting transnational bureaucratic control of all human activities.
As for what would count as a wake-up call: what would wake up? The English? The West? That would be the end of the world from our rulers’ standpoint. It would mean accepting that racism and xenophobia are the right way to look at things. So no wake-up call is possible within our current system.
If Western culture became disrupted and degraded enough so it no longer seemed a threat then our rulers could then turn their attention more directly toward disrupting and degrading other cultures. Dunno if the system will last that long. Presumably by that time it will be corrupted beyond recognition.
It seems to me that in this as other respects the right strategy isn’t looking for a wake-up call, it’s fundamental intellectual and spiritual revolution. The disaffected have to articulate a better view (which will require dealing with absolutely basic issues) and push it in public fora every way they can.