Damsels in distress, the chivalrous caliph, and the misogynistic scholar: a modern fairy tale

from A Sober Second Look, March 15, 2014

A long time ago, in a galaxy that is unfortunately not nearly as far away from me as I would like, I was taught that the reason for all the problems that women face today—especially in “the West”—is that relations between men and women are seriously out of balance.

Western women have been misled into rejecting their divinely created feminine natures. They don’t value marriage and motherhood, and try to emulate men by cutting their hair short and wearing masculine-style clothes and having careers and being promiscuous. Therefore, men are understandably put off by them, can’t respect them, feel emasculated by them, and don’t want to marry them. As a result, the family is in disarray, single motherhood and juvenile delinquency are on the rise, men feel lost and confused, and women are wondering where all the good men have gone. But (we were told) there is a simple answer to all these problems: Return to Islam. Go back to “the True Teachings of the Qur’aan and the Sunnah” (as the Salafis would phrase it), or to “Sacred Tradition” (as the neo-traditionalists would say). To the fitra—the innate, divinely given nature of every human being, which says that “true” men are hyper-masculine and “real,” god-fearing women are ultra-feminine… and anything that doesn’t fit into that binary view of gender is just laughable. Go back. Nothing else works. Anything else is rebellion against God.

Because women don’t need autonomy, or independence, or feminism, or godless “human rights.” What women need (and really really crave, deep down) is to be protected, cared for, and put on a pedestal by good men. Every woman should do her best to deserve to be treated like a queen, by being pious and modest and home-oriented and accepting of male authority. And if women are deserving, then of course good men will step up and act like good men should, by protecting them and their children, respecting them, and supporting them financially.

And there are no problems with this simple approach. None at all. Underage marriage, domestic violence, child abuse, or rape? Ha ha ha!! Only those western feminists get all upset about such non-issues for no reason, because they are silly emotional women who hate Islam / don’t understand what True Islam (TM) teaches / are misled by their modern sentimentality and rebellion against God’s perfectly just Law / secretly envy the veiled Muslim woman who is pure and beautiful and respected, and they want to bring her down to their level / they are misguided by their nafs and the shaytaan / whatever. Misogyny? What?! Of course we don’t hate women! We respect our women!

Well, that was then, and this is now. New life, new galaxy. Having learned the hard way all about the fine print of this “simple,” natural and allegedly god-given approach, I’m not going back.

The “fine print” in a nutshell is this: Basically, that “our women” only merit protection, respect, or even to be treated with minimal human decency as long as (1) we men still see some advantage to claiming them as “ours” AND (2) we magnanimously decide that their appeals for good treatment or help have some merit AND (3) they are well behaved and pious and modest and respectful and continue to defer to our authority AND (4) it won’t cost us more time, money, energy or inconvenience than we think that it is worthwhile to expend on them.

But some women and men are still in that galaxy.

Since the ’80′s in North America, there has been a general trend towards moderating the overtly harsh patriarchal rhetoric that used to be more common. There has been an illusion of fundamental change, with some religious leaders attempting to (re)brand themselves as “moderate” and their organizations as “woman-friendly” and committed to “equity.” Which I guess is why when one Abu Eesa Niamatullah, a rock-star scholar at AlMaghrib Institute, let loose online with some misogynistic comments (including the meme above), it set off a storm of controversy. And his non-apologies, along the lines of “I’m sorry if you were offended” didn’t help the situation much. Nor did his boastful statement that he doesn’t answer to any group, madhhab, or scholar, but only to God (aka, only to himself).

While some other scholars and community leaders and activists supported him, or mildly criticized him, some voiced strong objections to what he had said. Yasir Qadhi claimed that he was “shocked” by the quick and vehemently negative response to Abu Eesa’s comments. And why wouldn’t he be? When has there ever been such a public denunciation of a Muslim scholar’s misogyny, by practicing Muslims? I can’t remember anything like this happening before.

Basically, the objectors felt betrayed. Abu Eesa had publicly let down his side of the patriarchal bargain. “Good women” are supposedly to be honored, respected and protected by “good men,” so why was a scholar making hateful, dismissive comments about serious topics such as rape? Why didn’t Abu Eesa realize that what he said is triggering to domestic violence survivors, and a slap in the face to girls and women who have undergone rape and abuse? Why didn’t he see that by expressing such hateful ideas, he is simply encouraging a legion of pint-sized pimple-faced Muslim Rush Limbaughs still living in their parents’ basements to let loose on Facebook and Twitter, feeling even more empowered to express their misogynistic views in the name of Islam?

But Abu Eesa and his supporters had their own responses, and were not shy to express them.

I was only joking. He was only joking. Can’t you take a joke? You Americans don’t understand British sarcasm. You’re taking it out of context.

With every post and tweet from the latter camp, the myth of a community in which misogyny is a thing of the past while “equity” is the future is being publicly torn to shreds.

But all was not lost—these sorts of people have had lots of experience silencing dissent. So, unsurprisingly, we witnessed accusations that objectors are “causing fitna,” invective against feminists in general and Muslim feminists in particular, claims that those who are objecting to Abu Eesa’s comments are acting irresponsibly by not “looking for 70 excuses for your brother” and even worse, by creating a spectacle on the internet for Islamophobes to see… and even crazier comments on blog posts and facebook moaning about feminazis and overly sensitive women who just can’t take a joke and how there are no properly feminine women to marry any more and these Muslim feminists don’t understand the first thing about Islam and how anyone who knows Abu Eesa knows that he really treats his wife like a queen so there’s no way he could be a women-hater and anyway the houris are far better than earthly women so take that, feminists…..

And it’s not only men who are standing up for him. There are also female commenters who plead that his comments are being misunderstood, or taken out of context, or that he’s a wonderful teacher so why are people criticizing him??

His more sober supporters were less concerned about what he said, and more concerned about who has the power to define what. A world in which a conservative scholar or community leader could be taken to task in public, on the internet, by other Muslims for his misogyny was not one that they wanted to see. It was not accidental that Yasir Qadhi compared this to a witch hunt. Everyone knows that the male religious leaders are the ones who have the right to chase down the (rebellious female) witches, and not the other way around.

His supporters are exposing the fact that “gender equity in Islam” (aka enlightened patriarchy-done-right) and misogyny aren’t opposites. They are two sides of the same coin. That is why the first (“Islamic gender equity”) so easily slides into the second (straight-up misogyny), when women start questioning or resisting patriarchy-done-right. And the excuse is usually that it’s the women’s fault—women aren’t being religious enough, women aren’t being modest enough, women are being too worldly and demanding, women aren’t putting their families first, women are being too picky and over-sensitive, women are being corrupted by western feminism…. Oh, if only women didn’t make men disrespect and abuse them.

His critics don’t want to believe it. Their identities as modern, forward-looking Muslims committed to justice and fairness are at stake, after all. So, some of them react in a way that I recognize all too well. That was what we were taught to do—appeal to the “good men’s” supposedly innate urge to protect “good women.” Appeal to men’s better side, by reminding them gently of their duties to God and the example of the Prophet. Use lots of I-messages, explaining how what they are saying/doing “hurts me.”

Basically, act like a stereotypical damsel in distress. Appeal to the caliph to come galloping to her rescue on his horse. Just like in the mythical golden age of Islam.

Yes, these were the fairy tales so many of us were sold. The fairy tale about men’s chivalrous nature. The fairy tale about how some women—good women, who are worthy of such respect and honor—would be treated like queens.

And when fairy tales were not enough to keep us silently in our place, then there was the shaming: Isn’t that just like western women?! They’re so thin-skinned. They can’t take the slightest joke. They’re so weak. They don’t understand how men just are. They’re so out of touch with reality. They’re mangia cakes, just like my Italian neighbor says. Pathetic!

We internalized the absurd idea that for women, strength is about being able to “take” misogyny, disrespectful treatment, and abuse, all the while rationalizing it “Islamically” or calling it something more palatable. But that even naming it as misogyny and abuse, much less wanting to oppose it, is a sign of weakness.

It was beyond messed up.

But then, I guess that’s what comes of taking patriarchal fairy tales as true.

Whether the critics of Abu Eesa’s comments will have any impact is hard to say. Will AlMaghrib fire him? A snowball’s chance in hell that they will, I’d say. Will he be more careful of his words in future? Again, hard to say, given that there’s evidently still an outspoken audience that welcomes and applauds misogynistic commentary. I don’t think this will end with a happily ever after.

The more important question to my mind is: Will conservative women and men who up until now have tied their hopes to “scholars” and “our sacred traditions” and what amounts to patriarchy-done-right begin to ask some serious questions about what they have bought into?

Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I don’t want my kids anywhere near this stuff.