Friday, March 6, 2009

Book: The Caged Virgin

Okay, yes, so far all the books have been about Muslims or Islam. But I'm reading alphabetically. It just so happens that the first three authors, alphabetically, happen to write about Muslim things. After I read Ms. Ali's biography the next book is about exorcisms, so there's a change of pace for you. :)

After everything that I'd heard about this woman, I honestly expected the book to read angry. It didn't. She's honest about the fact that she's an atheist, that she holds no faith in the 'fairy tales of religion'. But she doesn't seem to be one of those atheists who insists that religion must be destroyed, for it is inherently evil. Rather, she says that there is good and beauty in religion, but that all religions must be able to look critically at themselves, at their texts and history, and *adapt* to the modern world. Not throw away their faith or practices, but also not be stuck 2000 or 1400 or even 600 years ago.

The Qur'an, for it's time, was in many ways progressive. But, she says, the *spirit* of progression has been lost in Islam. Instead the prevailing schools of thought are those of men who insist on imposing Medieval concepts of law and justice on the believers, while riding around in their air conditioned Hummers. They condemn the West and those who 'imitate the nonbelievers' in even the smallest thing, while riding around in vehicles, taking advantage of technologies that were invented in the West. She views them as hypocrites, and worse.

But, of course, as I'm sure you can get from the title of the book, her focus is on the position of women in the Muslim world. As I mentioned, the Qur'an was progressive for it's time. It did elevate women from their previous status, which was something along the lines of a beast of burden at the time, for most women. But to apply some of those standards now doesn't really make sense. It is, when used in the strictest interpretation, oppressive to women. And she doesn't seem to believe that that was how it was intended.

Her main points were 1) child/forced marriages, 2) female genital mutilation, and 3) domestic abuse.

1. She contends that all arranged marriages are forced, and therefore begin in an act of rape the first time that the couple have sex. Because the woman has no choice, ever. Now, this scenario is probably true, in a percentage of cases, and the percentage may be higher in immigrant communities and 3rd world countries. But I *know* that it is not always the case, as I have come across a few women on the internet who are in arranged marriages, and were there of their own choice. The actual Islamic laws were followed in their cases, and they had the option to reject their prospective husband, should they so choose. You can argue that their families 'pressure' to marry took away their choice. I can't say one way or the other, but that these women seem to be intelligent and strong, and I believe them when they say that this is what they freely chose.

Now, child marriage. I have *never* come across any Muslim (on the net, since that's the only way I know any), that thought child marriage was acceptable. And these are devout Muslims, people. I think of Umm Adam, who is happily niqabi, who made hijrah to KSA, and is what I would consider an 'orthodox' Muslim. She had a man propose marriage, to her husband, for her infant daughter. Infant as in 'just born'. Of course, the marriage wouldn't happen until later. She was horrified, and told her husband in no uncertain terms that she never wanted that man near her or her daughters again. I know that there are Muslims (and other people, not picking on the Muslims here) out there who do believe in child marriage. And they'll point to the marriage of Mohammed and Aisha. Supposedly, Mohammed was engaged to Aisha when she was six, and married her when she was nine. Horrible and shocking, and the reason that lots of people accuse Mohammed of being a pedophile.

However, if you step back a second, and control your disgust, you'll learn that *everyone* got married *much* younger than we currently find acceptable. Twelve and thirteen was the norm. People did not live as long back then. Giving birth was dangerous, and quite frankly, women were viewed as a burden in a lot of ways. Their only purpose was to produce children, and a lot of them. Preferrably boys.

I like to point out that Mary, the Mother of God, was most likely thirteen or so when she gave birth to Christ. She was *engaged* already, to Joseph. This was common practice. It made sense. Of course, nine is still young. It's very young. And, honestly, I don't think that Aisha was that young when she married Mohammed. A very good post is over here, at Aafke's journal: How Old Was Aicha - an excellent read.

And, on a personal aside, look at us. Do we marry off our kids? No, not any more. But we turn them into sex objects, and then wonder when pedophiles do go after them, or when they start have children of their own at ten or eleven. Those 'Li'l Miss' beauty pagents, the clothes, the 'child stars', all of it. It just feeds into the sexualization of the children. And I find it all disgusting.

2) Genital mutilation. It's done to preserve the virginity of the women, to preserve the honor of the family. It's, again, a horrific practice. And it's, as the author herself points out, un-Islamic. It was a cultural practice that was sort of absorbed, and is half accepted in many places, because of the 'cult of the virgin' that exists in Islam. A woman who looses her 'honor', her virginity, not only shames herself, but her whole family. The men, in many cases, feel it's acceptable to kill the woman in such instances to restore their honor. In order to prevent it, they scar the inside of the woman's vagina (sometimes with glass shards), remove the clitoris, and *sew* the vagina shut. It's torture. It's something that needs to be stopped, and she believes that the *de*emphasis of virginity, of the tie of the families honor to the girls "purity" (not all virgins are pure, there's a *lot* that can be done without breaking the hymen) and education will help rid the world of such barbaric practices.

3) Domestic abuse. Again, we all know that it happens everywhere, across all borders of culture or religion. Ms. Ali contends that the Medieval view of women that is held in large patches of the Islamic community exacerbates the problem. The men view the women as property, and the women, often times, believe that the Qur'an gives the men these rights, and so never even think of questioning it. They have all grown up with it, and believe it to be right. And then you get women who *know* better, are better educated, and will leave. Will assert their rights. Again, I think it all falls down to education, of both the women and the men.

Of course, I'm going to have to disagree with Ms. Ali on some things. She denies God's existence. She believes that everyone should be free to have sex outside of marriage, and that that would take the pressure off of the men and women in Islam. Well, while I don't think that the strict gender segregation of Islam is right (it does seem to lead to some men and women who don't understand how to interact without it turning sexual), I also don't think that running around having sex with anything that catches your eye is the answer. You can know and understand about sex without actually having it.

Ms. Ali calls for an Enlightenment of the Muslim world. And I can't but think it would be a good thing.


  1. I enjoyed this! Thanks for sharing it...interesting!!

  2. It's an interesting book, really. Fairly short too, just a little collection of essays, about 170 pages long, if memory serves.

    I'm reading her biography now, and that's an interesting read as well.


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