What would Mohammed do?

Geraldine Brooks, an expert on the role of women in Islam, says the "haters of beauty" behind the Miss World riots misrepresent what is a "pro-sexuality" religion.

Published December 4, 2002 8:08PM (EST)

Two weeks ago, a Nigerian fashion writer's throwaway remark -- that Mohammed would have approved of the Miss World pageant and probably would have chosen a wife from among the contestants -- sparked riots that killed 220 people, left thousands homeless and earned the author, Isioma Daniel, a fatwa.

By and large, the West found this imbroglio baffling, and many immediately blamed Islam. But the religion, to those who know it, is anything but strait-laced. Islam produced Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic and poet who wrote verses such as, "When someone quotes the old poetic image about clouds gradually uncovering the moon, slowly loosen knot by knot the strings of your robe." Nowhere in the Koran does it say adulterers should be stoned. Nowhere does it say that women should be completely covered.

In the kaleidoscope that is modern Islam, there are a thousand images of women, says Geraldine Brooks, author of "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women." Turn the prism one way and you get outspoken religious feminists in Iran and the mosque down the street. Turn it another, and you have Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, where women are not even allowed to raise their voices, lest men find it alluring.

Wahhabist religious schools -- funded by Saudi Arabia -- have managed to disseminate extreme Islamist views into developing countries. In this way, Brooks maintains, the Saudis are much to blame for the growing restrictions placed on women in poorer countries around the world.

Nigeria, she says, is no exception. "In Nigeria you have a small group of Islamist extremists who want to impose Islamic states on parts of the country where there are significant Christian minorities who just won't take it," says Brooks. "And so, when you throw a match on that, all the bitterness about other things is being expressed, not just what somebody wrote in a newspaper."

In an interview with Salon, Brooks talks about the rise of what she calls "the haters of beauty" in Islam, and discusses the fragile coexistence in the religion of "pro-sexuality" and a fear of women gaining power.

So, how do you get from Rumi to people chanting "down with beauty"?

Well, I think the best place to start is with Mohammed himself and look at what his attitude was, as far as we can know it, toward women and sex. And it's pretty interesting to me. If you look at Mohammed's life, women were crucial figures in it. His first wife was older and a wealthy woman.

He worked for her, didn't he?

That's right. He used to take camel caravans for her merchant business.

And so she was the first convert to Islam. When he first saw the angel that called out to him, "Recite!" which is the first word of the Koran, he thought he'd lost his mind, and he came crawling to her, it says in the texts of Islam, and threw himself into her lap and said, "Cover me, cover me."

She was the one who convinced him that it was a true vision and that he was a prophet, and gave him the confidence and the means then to preach the word, so she's an incredibly important figure. While she lived she was the only wife he had.

Now, after she dies, he starts taking multiple wives and there's a lot of revelation in the later part of the Koran about women and what women should be doing, and you have to read it very closely with the history to see how a lot of this came out of the conflicts that were occurring in the early Muslim community.

But the upshot of it was that Mohammed starting marrying women for reasons of political alliance with tribes that the Muslims had conquered. One thing he did was marry older widows as an example, because this was now a religion at war and there were a lot of widows and somebody had to provide for them. And so Mohammed, by taking widows into his household, was setting an example that he wanted the rest of the community to follow.

But that makes for a complicated household, as we all know, and it also makes for jealousies and bitterness and people tried to get at him through his wives. The upshot of it was that he had a revelation decreeing that his wives should be secluded and not seen by the rest of the community. So that was a big change, but that wasn't for the majority of women. Other women in the Muslim community went on going into battle and one of them saved his life in a battle after the male warriors had fled, and she was respected for that.

So, you have to look at the roots there, and what you see in 7th century Arabia compared to what the rest of the culture was doing is not bad. Women have a role and they're definitely given the rights and the responsibilities of the faith. But then after Mohammed's death, the caliph Omar, who is a well-known misogynist, and who told Mohammed that he's too soft on his wives, starts to make things much more difficult for women.

If you look in Christian teaching it's like what St. Paul does to women in the early Christian community in terms of lessening their status and taking away their rights and making them somehow "unclean." But actual Islam doesn't have the same kind of hang-ups about sex that Christianity does. Islam is very pro-sexuality. It says: Marry and enjoy your wives. Women are entitled to pleasure in sex.

Mohammed actually has a couple of sayings in the hadith -- which is the sayings of the prophet -- one of which I always liked, about foreplay, which is, "When you go to your wife, do not go to them as birds do, but be slow and delaying." And also there's the time he goes and tells off one of his friends because he's not sleeping with his wife and is practicing celibacy and [Mohammed] says, "That's not part of my way. If you want to follow my way, you have time for praying and time for fasting, but you also have time to make love to your wife."

So it's quite pro-sex, and that's the astonishing thing when you travel around some of the more repressive countries of the Middle East, because in private, within marriage, it's very licentious, it's very Victoria's Secret catalogs and very glamorous and women go to a lot of trouble to be beautiful for their husbands, but that's a very private thing and it mustn't be taken into the public sphere.

You write [in "Nine Parts of Desire"] that Islam is one of the few religions to include sex as one of the rewards of the afterlife.

Well, for men anyway. Although there's been some pretty interesting research on that passage of the Koran that says the word "virgin" is mistranslated and it should say "white raisin." Which is going to leave a lot of people very disappointed.

Oh, absolutely. So when did things start to change?

It starts to change when Islam moves out of 7th century Arabia, it starts to change with Omar, and then as the religion moves into other cultures that are repressive of women it almost invariably adopts the repressive customs.

Mesopotamia and the Persians were into the seclusion of elite women. If you were an aristocrat, you would never go out without being completely covered, if you went out at all. In fact, in Mesopotamia, if you were a slave you had to go uncovered, and if you were a slave who covered yourself you would be punished for doing that, because that was aping your betters. They had this notion that elite women [should be] secluded women, and that kind of meshed with the idea that seclusion had been ordained for the prophet's wives. And so it became the norm that Muslim women were supposed to be secluded to some extent if you could afford it in the household, or if you couldn't do that, then at least covered. So that's where that came from, rather than from within the faith itself.

And then, tragically, Islam arrived in Egypt -- in the 8th century, I think -- and the hideous custom of genital mutilation for women, which has come down the Nile from stone age Central Africa and become very much a part of Egyptian custom, then gets incorporated in Islamic custom. And it doesn't travel backward into the Arabian Peninsula countries, but as Islam travels forward into Southeast Asia, that custom goes with it, as if it's part of the teachings of Islam.

And the stoning of adulterers?

The Koran does not proclaim stonings. You're supposed to shut her up in a room alone, that's supposed to be the punishment. The stonings -- I'm not sure what the origin of that was. It was certainly in the old Hebrew tradition that you would stone adulterers, and Mohammed had a lot to do with the Jewish communities in Arabia, so it may have come into the Islamic practice that way.

But basically, in Islamic law -- the sexual part of Islamic law -- it's almost impossible to get a conviction if you're doing it the right way. You have to have four male witnesses to actual penetration, and you can imagine the number of times when that would be the case. And if you don't have four witnesses you're not even supposed to bring the charge, and you can be flogged for bringing a charge you can't prove. So, the fact that it happens at all is a distortion, because it's not supposed to.

Basically what progressive Islamic scholars will say is that the prohibition is there to keep social order, to show that it's important, but the fact that it's essentially not prosecutable under Islamic law is supposed to be a balance to this. And also there are so many outs -- it's not a death penalty matter if you're not married; it's only a death penalty matter if you have a legitimate way of satisfying your sexual needs and you don't take that way and you do this instead.

But these things aren't widely known, I think, even by people who support the Islamic scholars in some of the more undeveloped parts of the Muslim world.

It largely sounds like Islam was much more progressive and pro-women several centuries ago than now.

Well, it depends where you mean, because when you talk about Islam now you're talking about a billion people, living in every kind of circumstance you can imagine. So if you talk about Islam in Malaysia, there are women police chiefs there, and in Indonesia the president is a woman, so where are you talking about when you say "Islam now"?

We tend to jump immediately to the Taliban, Saudi Arabia, etc., and not the mosque down the street. Because "Islam now," I can tell you, at the mosque near where I live has some pretty red-hot women's activists as key figures there. So it's not a monochrome picture at all.

Sure, but there are a lot of people out there who took one look at the riots in Nigeria, people being burned alive over a beauty pageant, and said, "This is a religion that hates women."

I know. It's easy to come to that conclusion. But I think we all have to look deeper these days and try to understand a bit more.

I think a place to start is with Islam in America and to get to know our own Muslim community a lot better than we do, because the interesting thing is that we don't usually see Islam in a democracy. We see Islam in all kinds of tyrannies and despotic countries and we think that that's the face of the faith.

In the United States, it's the first time there's been a significant Muslim population really feeling part of a democracy. I guess you could say in England, but because of the way English society is more closed to outsiders and immigrants, it's going to take more generations there than here.

But if you go to an American mosque, in most cases you'll find an incredibly multicultural scene; you'll find people who have origins in all corners of the globe. And actually, nowadays a Muslim in America is more than twice as likely to be African-American as they are to be Arab in origin. So it's pretty interesting place.

Because people have come from all kinds of cultural traditions, they have to practice a religion that they can all agree on, and you find that these extremes are very quickly brushed away in the need to get back to the essence of the faith. There's an overemphasis, I think, on the fact that women have to be the responsible ones in terms of containing their behavior so that society doesn't disintegrate into this orgy of sexuality that the Saudi Arabians particularly fear.

Why do you think there's so much fear, especially there?

Well, that comes out of the Bedouin Arab notion that male honor is dependent on female behavior. This is something that's mixed up with Islam but it's not of Islam, it's from the desert culture. And the idea is that your honor depends on the women of your name -- your sisters, your mothers, your daughters -- not your wife, interestingly, she's her father's and brother's problem. So if there's a hint of a suggestion that they're misbehaving sexually, you're cooked, man, and the only thing you can do about it is get rid of them. Kill them, to get your honor back. There's nothing else you can do.

Tell me about Wahhabism.

It's the most distorted view of Islam. It's really joyless. It's so austere that it denies any kind of human pleasure -- no music, no beauty. They really are the haters of beauty. So austere that when you bury somebody in Saudi Arabia you mustn't even mark the grave. So a graveyard in Saudi Arabia is just a fenced area of sand, with no markers whatsoever. And the austerity extends to men as well. It's total asceticism, really. Life as a complete restriction. And I don't think that any sensible reading of Islamic texts can bring you to that conclusion, because Mohammed was a really warm man and a passionate man who really loved his wives and made no bones about it. He was not some kind of person who preached that life should have no pleasure in it.

How did it get so distorted?

I guess Abdul Wahab must have been one of these charismatic preachers, like Jim Jones, who can lead people to act against their own interests and against their own rational thought. And then, of course, he had a lot of followers and they helped the first king of Saudi Arabia to the throne, and the quid pro quo for that was that the kingdom had to follow his teachings.

In these countries where you have stonings, these really extreme practices, why do you think that occurs? Why are women considered so threatening in those areas?

I don't know why in those areas and not other areas. I didn't go to Afghanistan under the Taliban so my only experience with this really is in Saudi Arabia. Iran, even though there are lot of restrictions on women, there weren't anywhere near as many as there were in Saudi Arabia. I really can't answer that question of why in one place and not another, except to look back at the cultural history and what was the situation for women in pre-Islamic times and try to draw some conclusions from that.

Do you think a situation like what happened in Nigeria is possibly a reaction to the Western sexualization of entertainment?

No. I mean, Africa is pretty sexual too -- we didn't invent this. No, I think Nigeria's own culture is pretty hot sexually and I think you have there a lot of intercommunal tensions. You have a place that's been incredibly misgoverned, that's had to put up with some unbelievably corrupt and cruel military regimes, and there's not a great sense of Nigeria -- Nigeria as a place, Nigeria as a nationality. It tends to be very much this tribal group and that tribal group, and Christians vs. Muslims, us vs. them. And I think it's that lack of cohesion that makes any explosion likely to flare up a whole round of other intercommunal tensions.

By the way, did you find the remark [in the Nigerian newspaper] blasphemous?

That Mohammed would have married ... it's not for me to say what's blasphemous to a Muslim. I think it was probably pushing the argument too far; I haven't read the whole article. The fact is, Mohammed did appreciate female beauty; there's no doubt about that. Some of his wives were supposedly very remarkable-looking women. Whether he would have wanted to marry somebody who was displaying that beauty in public would probably be the tricky issue. Because the hadith of how he got a couple of his wives after the battle, when the Muslim army had proven victorious, he would go and throw his cloak over the women that he wanted to take for a wife, and that was the sign to all his troops that she was the prophet's. But, of course, he also, famously, sent home a woman who didn't want to be married to him, so he never, as far as we know, forced his attentions on anybody.

I think that at the bottom of it, the distinction is between the public world and the private world. And the huge difference between the West and orthodox Islam is that orthodox Islam says "private is private, and you in the West have lost your way. You don't know what's private anymore, you use your daughters' bodies to sell cars, and this is not a good thing." And a lot of feminists would agree with them.

There are so many contradictions between what the Koran says and these places where you get a completely different interpretation. It's baffling.

I know. I think that's what happens when a religion falls into the hands of misguided teachers. The thing that makes me optimistic is in Iran, after the revolution, women who would never have been able to have a public life under the Shah because their families would have seen it as a godless system, were allowed to get educated. In fact it was required, and literacy shot up into the high 90 percent for women.

Now you see the younger generation coming up -- they are very self-confident, and they can't be challenged Islamically, they know their stuff. They've read the Koran, they've won prizes for reciting it, and so you have these women who are respected teachers who say, "This isn't what it says, and here's what it does say, and this is an Islamic state so you have to live by what it says."

They've managed to actually change a lot just through doing that, and nobody can really argue with it because it's not some secular politician trying to pass a law. They don't have to pass a law, because it's written in the Koran. So they've managed to achieve a lot in Iran, in terms of getting a better deal for women legally. And I think that women's literacy has been the key to that. And also the fact that in Iran women do have a public voice. It doesn't exclude them from the public sphere.

It seems like there's more extremism now than there was 50 years ago. Is that an accurate assessment?

Yes, and I think that the oil wells have fed a lot of that, because the Saudis have funded so many religious schools in the poor world that preach this kind of really diabolical brand of Wahhabite Islam. I think they have to take a huge share of responsibility for the growth of extremism. Not all of it, certainly, that would be ridiculous to say, but they've certainly fanned the flames. And the fact that most Islamic countries are unfortunately so badly governed and so repressively governed.

You write in "Nine Parts of Desire" that in poor countries, places where the men feel they're not in control, that the first thing they do is start to control the women.

Yes. If you have an Islamic revolution, think about it. Getting rid of bank interests, that's really going to screw up the economy, that's hard to do. It's Islamically correct to do it, to get rid of interests on loans, but much easier to order women to wear a head scarf, and then everybody looks at a picture of your country and it looks very Islamic. That's an easy thing to do, so that's why getting the women veiled is one of the first tactics of the Islamists.

How do these issues get resolved?

Well, I don't think we've seen any of them get resolved. But I'm hoping that the American Muslim community will have a louder voice in the Middle Eastern region. For example, there's a really good magazine that comes out of Seattle called Sisters, and that gets translated into Arabic and sent back to the Middle East and so forth and it's teaching a much more tolerant form of Islam. It's actually pointing out to women what their rights are in Islamic teaching, and it's very well done and very scholarly and accessible and all those good things. So I think that as the American Muslim community grows in confidence that will be one impetus for change.

I think there is a lot of potential in the kind of Islamic feminism that the Iranian women pioneered -- in terms of quite religious women trying to do reformation work on the religion as it's understood in their country, to the betterment of women. Apart from that it's pretty hard to be optimistic these days. It's going to be a long grind.

What I don't think works very well is Western feminists wagging their finger in the faces of Arab monarchs. I just don't think that's effective. I think it has to come from within Islam, and I think that the best thing Western feminists can do is to support Muslim women and listen to them. And if they say, "It's important to us that our daughters have the right to wear a head scarf to school without being teased about it," then try to figure out a way of having a bit of consciousness raising for our kids in school so that they don't tease girls about that, and then try and see the benefit for ourselves of having a range of approaches to teenage sexuality available for our own daughters.

A lot of us don't have a problem that our daughters might be in school with somebody who's wearing a bare midriff and a bellybutton ring and has 10 boyfriends, but we do have a problem that she's in a class with a girl who wears a head scarf and doesn't date. Now that's pretty cockeyed to me, because it seems you would want her to be able to make her way with a whole lot of options in front of her.

By Laura McClure

Laura McClure is assistant news editor at Salon.

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