Is Islam Misogynistic? The chapter opens with an anecdote about Kristof’s interpreter in Afghanistan, who appeared very modern until he said his mother will never visit a doctor because Afghanistan has no women doctors, and for her to visit a male one would be against Islam, even if she were dying. The authors report that, of countries where female genital cutting and honor killings are common, many are mostly Muslim. While Latin countries are known for machismo cultures, girls are more likely to be educated and cared for than in predominantly Muslim countries, where polls show some people “just don't believe in equality.” For instance, “more than 34 percent of Moroccans approve of polygamy.” The authors argue that these attitudes have far more to do with culture than with the Koran, but they acknowledge that this claim is complicated by the fact that Muslims who do oppress women often cite the Koran as justification. The authors ask the frank question, “Is Islam misogynistic?”
Kristof and WuDunn carefully but clearly approach this vital question of whether or not Islam is inherently misogynistic, taking pains to not generalize about all Muslims or all interpretations of the Islamic faith. Sensitivity here is important, because negative claims about Islam as a whole can on the one hand stoke Islamophobia, the prejudice against Muslims that stems from ignorance about the religion, and on the other can alienate Muslims who might otherwise be open to ideas of female empowerment. The authors stress that, while oppression in Muslim cultures is real, it’s important to recognize the distinction between the Islamic faith itself and the cultures where oppression is salient.
They begin with the history-informed answer, no. When Muhammad introduced Islam to the world, the authors write, Islam served women by limiting polygamy and banning female infanticide. Some Muslim women even owned property, which was more rare in Europe. Further, early Christian regard for women was often clearly misogynistic. The main difference is that Christianity has progressed more over the centuries than Islam. For example, in 2002 when a Saudi Arabia school caught fire, the police allegedly forced girls back into the fire rather than let them leave without body coverings. Plus, pious Muslims today are more likely to follow the codes of gender discrimination endorsed in the Koran than Christians and Jews are to follow corollary, obsolete codes in the Bible.
Much of Half the Sky’s Western audience will be better acquainted with the Judeo-Christian tradition than Islam. So, by comparing misogynistic Biblical prescriptions with similar ones in the Koran, the authors appeal to their readers’ possible familiarity with how modern interpretations have shed more extreme—and culturally obsolete—demands of the Bible, to show that the same may be done with the Koran. Further, they stress that Europe, which many consider to hold models of enlightened societies, has been at times more benighted than the Middle East.
However, the authors stress, many Muslim are fighting for gender equality. For example, some Islamic scholars refute Koranic verse translations that suggest beating women is permissible. Islamic feminists also argue that, “it is absurd for Saudi Arabia to bar women from driving, because Muhammad allowed his wives to drive camels.” Kristof and WuDunn use the complicated example of slavery as an analogy: Islamic law approves of slavery but also encourages freeing slaves, and though some Muslim governments abolished slavery only in recent decades, the institution is now officially banned in the Islamic world. The authors argue that, as with slavery, Islam can embrace women’s emancipation, too. They bring in the historical example of Aisha, one of Muhammad’s wives, who was falsely accused of adultery and defended by Muhammad. After Muhammad died, Aisha vocally refuted misogynistic views in Islam, and even led an armed rebellion (by camel) against a male caliph. Recently, Islamic scholars have resurrected Aisha’s work to reshape interpretations of the Koran.
It’s important to Kristof and WuDunn’s argument to cite voices within the Muslim community—not just onlookers—who view women in different, more empowering ways. This shows the complexity and discord within the Muslim community about how the Koran should be interpreted—Islam is not monolithic and unchanging, but contains a spectrum of factions that disagree. What’s more, these tensions have existed since the beginning of Islam, as the example of Aisha illustrates. One can even draw parallels between Aisha and the strong-willed women portrayed in Half the Sky, like Mukhtar Mai or Edna Adan, who also rebelled against the status quo.
The authors describe a time when Kristof “quizzed” female Saudi medical staff about their views on women’s rights. They resented the questions, demanding, “Why does it matter so much what we wear? Of all the issues in the world, is that really so important?” One woman explained that, when they are alone, women complain about Islamic rules, but don’t want anyone fighting on their behalf, which patronizes them. The authors argue that, “Westerners often miss the complexity of gender roles in the Islamic world.” Paradoxes abound in countries like Iran, where the vice president may be a woman but women need the consent of their husbands to travel abroad. Further, views on gender equality are quickly evolving in the Middle East, the authors write, among both men and women. They cite Soraya Salti as a leader in promoting entrepreneurship in Arab countries. A Jordanian, Soraya founded the program Injaz to teach business skills to 100,000 children a year, offering girls an alternate career path from the restrictive male-dominated workforce.
The anecdote about female medical staff place Kristof in a position of self-scrutiny, since he was the one asking the questions that the women found tiring and patronizing. This is another example of how the authors gain credibility by showing themselves to be susceptible to insensitivities. In this case, Muslim women in professional careers felt belittled by what they considered a Western obsession with what they can and cannot wear—this epitomizes a broader tension between the common Western fascination with Muslim dress but ignorance about Islam, and Muslims who feel misunderstood. Further, the Iranian female vice president serves as evidence that women may be simultaneously empowered in one way and repressed in another—rarely is the dynamic simple.
Kristof and WuDunn describe the Women’s Detention Center in Afghanistan, where “inmates include teenage girls and young women who were suspected of having a boyfriend and then subjected to a ‘virginity test—a hymen inspection.” The director, a woman named Rana, has both been empowered to build a career, and thinks that girls who have lost hymens deserve punishment. Ellaha is one young inmate for whom being in jail is safer than being free. When Ellaha found work at an American construction company in Afghanistan, a supportive boss arranged a scholarship for her in Canada. Her family resisted, wanting her to marry her cousin, but Ellaha refused, which inspired her younger sister to refuse an arranged marriage also. So in retaliation the family beat them both for days, chaining their wrists and ankles, until they agreed to marry their cousins. Eventually, Ellaha and her sister ran away and were arrested, subjected to a hymen inspection, which they passed, then jailed by Rana for their own protection.
Rana reflects more paradoxes common to some Muslim cultures—she has built a career in spite of male dominance and works to protect girls like Ellaha, but also believes that girls without hymens (not a reliable test of virginity) should be jailed. This begs the question, would Ellaha’s treatment be different if her hymen happened to not be intact? Further, the protection for girls is circumscribed, since the facility is a jail, not a shelter or women’s center.
The authors write that among the many reasons for Islamic extremism and terrorism is “the broader marginalization of women.” Societies with more men than women, like many Muslim societies, tend to have more violence, the authors report, especially when the male population is younger, as they are in Muslim countries. Some men are raised in an environment “with the ethos of a high school boys’ locker room,” they write, which can cultivate violence. Further, countries with more women’s oppression tend to also have economic problems that foment unrest, since economies are held back when women remain an untapped economic resource. The authors quote a UN report as saying, “The rise of women is in fact a prerequisite for an Arab renaissance.” Bill Gates made a similar claim to a conference in Saudi Arabia, about technology’s dim future there without the employment of women’s minds. Kristof and WuDunn also suggest that patriarchal homes inform governments to be more patriarchal.
The purpose of this section is twofold: it argues for other reasons besides the Islamic faith for why many terrorists are Muslim, and also claims women’s empowerment is necessary to dissolve the violence afflicting parts of the Islamic world. A key implication is that the integration of men and women leads to a better-balanced and less violent environment. Moreover, since poverty and instability make people more likely to succumb to anger and desperation, it follows that countries where women don’t contribute to economic growth may have more violence. This has nothing to do with Islam, the authors imply, but everything to do with misogyny.
The Afghan Insurgent. The authors begin by writing that, “Western aid efforts have been particularly ineffective in Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.” An influx of well-intentioned American volunteers arrived in Kabul in 2001, they write, buying SUVs and cornflakes, but seldom working in the countryside where they would have been more helpful. What’s more, some gestures were received as shameful, such as giving free soap to women—in Afghanistan, soap is associated with washing after sex, making the gesture deeply offensive. Some groups, the authors report, have been successful, but true success would require Westerners to recede and local citizens to engage. Perhaps most important is to gain the support of the local mullahs (religious leaders), even if that means making concessions in school curricula.
At several points in Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn urge more people to volunteer abroad. This section provides an important caveat—some volunteer efforts can be intrusive, dismissing the needs of the people volunteers intended to serve, while ignoring cultural codes. Even the best intentions don’t immunize volunteers against offending others in unforeseen ways, as with the soap example. The authors pragmatically argue that compromising aid groups’ ideals can be worth the expense if it helps local people embrace aid contributions.
The authors give the example of Sakena Yacoobi as a leader in successful aid efforts in Afghanistan. An Afghan Muslim herself, she founded the Afghan Institute of Learning, which the authors argue American aid groups would have done well to donate to instead of dispatching their own volunteers to Kabul. After earning two degrees in the U.S., Sakena opened a girls’ school in Peshawar, which had 15,000 students by the second year. The Taliban outlawed female education, so, incredibly, all eighty schools were secret, and only one was raided, luckily with enough time to turn the classroom back into a living room. After the Taliban fell, Sakena was able to extend her services to 350,000 people, including a university for women and workshops on legal rights. There are even religious lessons that teach women how to cite the Koran to defend their rights to their husbands. Sakena also runs health clinics and teaches vocational skills so women can earn money.
Kristof and WuDunn present Sakena Yacoobi as a paragon of social entrepreneurship in the Islamic world—she’s Muslim, and therefore sensitive to the needs of other Muslims in her native Afghanistan. Also, her education project managed to subvert the oppressive Taliban and integrated a holistic approach to education, treating health and economic stability as essential to learning.
The authors describe Sakena as, “one of the great social entrepreneurs of Afghanistan...and constantly in danger,” receiving daily death threats and changing bodyguards frequently. Although Sakena is a pious Muslim, some fundamentalists wish her dead. At the end of the chapter, Sakena is quoted as imploring the international community to channel funds not toward weapons but rather toward education, calling it the only way to defeat terrorism.
Though an exceptional example—not one readily emulated—Sakena is evidence of the power of women who stick to their convictions, refusing to compromise their faith while disowning the parts of their faith that oppress women. Notably, she gives a powerful counterargument to the popular idea that military might defeats terrorism—in her eyes and experiences, sending girls to the classroom packs a greater punch.