Marching for Oppression

Over the past few months, we’ve seen amazing and inspiring demonstrations of people power erupting across the Middle East, toppling dictatorships that have been in place for decades. It’s far too soon to say what form of government will emerge from these movements – whether they’ll give rise to true democracies, or whether new dictatorships will replace the old – and the unwelcome news that Egypt’s transitional military government has just sentenced a blogger to prison shows that it will take far more than toppling one dictator to break the old, entrenched habits of oppression and illiberalism. But whatever the future holds, the success of the protests has shown, at least for one shining moment, what free human beings can achieve when they cooperate to defy tyranny.

But there’s a dark side to people power as well. America’s founders knew that rule by a mob is no better than rule by a dictator, which is why they built so many counter-majoritarian safeguards into the Constitution. Democracy is an essential ingredient in a free society, but it’s no panacea, especially when the majority of people are openly prejudiced toward minorities. This past week, we saw this vividly in Bangladesh:

Dozens of people have been injured as Bangladesh police battled Islamists protesting against new government policies aimed at giving women equal inheritance rights.

The violence came as the hardline Islami Oikyo Jote, a coalition of Islamic groups, enforced a nationwide general strike on Monday, demanding the government institute Islamic law and scrap policies aimed at giving women greater rights to property, employment and education.

Although Bangladesh’s population is about 90% Muslim, its laws are relatively secular by the standards of the region. Its current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is a woman, and it’s invested heavily in education and job training for women, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote in Half the Sky [p.238], which has created a stronger civil society and a thriving export industry, part of the reason it’s far more stable than nearby Pakistan.

However, for Bangladesh’s overwhelming Muslim majority, laws relating to marriage, family and inheritance are based on the principles of sharia. Among other things, these laws mandate that daughters inherit only half the share given to sons. Sheikh Hasina’s government has proposed changing this to give women an equal share, which enraged the Islamic political parties who turned out to demand that sexism remain enshrined in the country’s family law. A main highway in Dhaka, a city of 10 million people, was blockaded by the strike until riot police dispersed it, and schools and businesses throughout the country remain closed.

This is what Islamist political movements stand for, this is how they want the world to see them: the spectacle of people marching not to end oppression, but to perpetuate oppression – not to demand that justice be done, but to demand that injustice continue to be done. The contrast is stark, especially when compared to the determined displays of national pride and secular unity in the popular uprisings that have toppled dictators. People joining together regardless of their beliefs are usually demanding something beneficial, some shared notion of rights; people marching together who are all of one belief, especially when that belief is in the majority, ought to be immediately suspect.

This ought to be a lesson to us about the terrible importance of secularism, for all human beings in general but for women in particular. Around the world, there are religious groups – not just Muslims – to whom modernity is meaningless, who would gladly drag us all back to medieval mores if given the chance. As societies become more prosperous, their influence tends to wane, but Bangladesh is still far from that point. The government needs to press on with their plans to give full and equal rights to all human beings, because only in this way can they leave the past behind and create a stable and secure society where the voices of religious extremism will no longer be a threat.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Yet another example of how an ancient, sacred text composed and redacted by people whose savage values we moderns generally do not share creates a picture of God – and, in this case, of his holiest prophet – exhibiting him as a barbarous despot.

    And of how those committed to the sacredness of that text, the truth of its stories, and the exemplary goodness of both its God and his prophet are trapped into extolling and sharing those very same savage values at no matter what cost to their own moral integrity.

    Or, worse yet, at no such cost at all to those miserable enough to have been raised and live in a society that never overcame that ancient savagery exactly because it was petrified in that sacred text.

  • Michael

    Ironically, at the time it was written this half-share inheritance for daughters was extremely progressive, since in most societies they received nothing, and could not own any property whether inherited or otherwise.

  • kennypo65

    Why is it that religion and mysogyny walk hand in hand?

    Oh, and happy birthday Hitch.

  • Brian M

    One frightening thing to think about: the assumption that societies…or the world as a whole…will inevitably “become more prosperous”? Given environmnetal degradation and the potential impacts of climate change and the increasing likelihood that we have reached or will soon be reaching “peak oil”, this assumption may be incorrect. The frieghtening possibility of widespread devolution is there. Especially if materialist consumerism is unsustainable, does that mean a reversion to the Demon Haunted World?

  • Sharmin

    That’s so sad. This is the perfect example of why we should be in favor of gender equality in all areas of life, not just some. I know people who are in favor of equal rights for women and girls in some areas (getting a job outside the home, getting an education) but think that the Islamic rules should still apply in family and household matters. I hope the people who are in favor of equal rights win out in the end.

    @Michael: Yeah, it is kind of ironic. But the problem is that they now use the fact that it was progressive for its time to ignore the fact that its now known to be unfair.

  • Roy

    Democracy IS “rule by a mob”. I know, the definition has changed through repeated misuse. What we have is “rule of law”, which is much better at protecting minority
    rights. A country with 90% Muslims is going to have a real tough time letting the other 10% worship (or not worship) some other deity. There could be a high percentage of “liberals” but the fundamentalists will not retreat one step in the systematic repression of women or non-believers.

  • Joffan

    So, is this a real example of that rare beast, the tyranny of the majority? Or just another vocal (and violent), well-organised and -motivated pressure group?

    I suppose I should ask how complete the general strike was – but enforced by threats, it could be pervasive without reflecting that level of support for the demands.

  • Demonhype

    You know how often my mom has stamped her foot over something like gay marriage or some other violation of minority rights and said “MAJORITY RULES! MAJORITY RULES! THAT’S HOW DEMOCRACY WORKS! THIS IS AMERICA!” Yet that is a very over-simplistic understanding of democracy, more of an simplistic ideology than a fact, and not even representative of the democracy of our Founding Fathers in America here. No, the rule of majority is not automatically benevolent, the majority does not have to get its way in all things or else it’s not democracy, and if it does then it runs a very likely risk of becoming as evil as any tyranny. A just society has to have protections of the minority so they are not tyrannized or persecuted or oppressed by the whims and prejudices of the majority, and this does not make it not-democracy. That “rule of law” is a part of the democracy in question and helps to define it.

    There is no magic holy text of Democracy that one must adhere to in order for it to be democracy, other than the premise that the people should have some measure of power and voice in the government that rules them–all people, not just the largest and most popular group. The rule of law is in service of this premise, and is a part of it. There are many different kinds of democracies in the world with different parameters for how they work and what kind of limits there may or may not be on the majority. There is no necessity that the majority should always be able to crush the minority in all things or else it can’t be defined as democracy. Mob rule is not the ultimate defining characteristic of democracy.

    I would personally even go so far as to say that “mob rule” is closer to anarchy or tyranny than democracy, since it is one single mantra “we get what we want because there are more of us and our whims overrule everything else” that defines little else–hence the term “mob rule. When you take that concept of “majority rule” and then create the parameters in which it will work for your society, both the concept of “majority rule” and the rule of law that defines combine to produce democracy. If only the largest and most popular group in your society has power or a voice and the minority is silenced and oppressed by this majority will, you do not have a genuine democracy, only a country held captive by a brute squad/echo chamber–no different from any tyranny except in the number of tyrants.

    Also, I won’t say that a mob-rule society is not a democracy, but it would not be a just one, and much of the perceived justice and morality in the concept of democracy comes from the rule of law that constrains the mob-rule and places limitations on the majority, rather than empowering the majority over the minority. Democracy is not celebrated as the most just system of government because of mob-rule mentality but the rule of law that defines it and empowers even minorities to be able to speak freely, avoid oppression, and protect their rights even against majority will. If you are willing to strip the rule of law from democracy, which is what makes it just, then you must also be willing to strip the title of “most just system of government” from it as well.

  • Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Liberalism was born in opposition to monarchy, aristocracy, and theocracy.

    Against the first two it came to champion popular government and republicanism.

    But theocracy was its first enemy and remains its most durable one.

    Hence the ideals of laïcité in government and of secularism in social life, both of which historically required the reduction of religion from an organized power dominating culture, society, and the state to a matter of private opinion.

    But so long as organized religion exists nothing can prevent those organizations from functioning in varying degrees as political blocks whose power varies with the extent of their encadrement of the population as a whole.

    Hence the need for popular opposition to priestly power, even among the believers.

    [Aside:] Exactly the kind of popular opposition the French call “anticlericalism.”

    Exactly the kind of popular opposition that, in America, frustrated church authorities find in their pews where people insist on legal and relatively easy divorce, abortion, legal access to contraception and pornography, shopping and entertainment on weekends, holidays and “holy days,” and a popular culture that largely ignores religious norms of belief and conduct.

    That is, popular support even among the believers for just the features of modern life and culture that lead social conservatives to complain of the shameful immorality, depravity, and shallow materialism of the modern Occident in the eyes of the very same devout and religion-drenched global Muslim culture they both fear and admire. [/Aside]

    And hence the need for constitutional or legal guarantees of the separation of church and state like the US First Amendment or, as are found in some Muslim republics, bans on religious parties.

    Every such device is an anti-democratic barrier against the danger that majority rule will smother the state with clerical rule.

    Liberalism, though wed to popular government, is and has always been about more than democracy.

    The tragedy is that while many Western conservatives, though hostile to Islamism, are indulgent toward Christianism in the name of democracy many Western liberals are hostile to Christianism and indulgent toward Islamism, also in the name of democracy.

    And in this connection the most consistent and principled recognition of the danger posed by both Christianism and Islamism to liberal values, whether at home or abroad, has come from atheists all across the political spectrum.

    The partisans of liberal Christianity are soft on Islamism while the partisans of conservative Christianity are soft on Christianism.

    Both, frequently, in the name of democracy.

  • Le Grolandais

    To illustrate the word of Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, the mayor of a town near the St-Jean Lake, in Québec, is in court because he wants to continue to pray (catholic style) before beginning town council. It is absolutely inacceptable, but the same guy would probably strongly protest if, for example, mayor Nenshi (Calgary mayor since a few month) imposed reading of Qu’ran versets at the Calgary city council.

  • Tommykey

    You know how often my mom has stamped her foot over something like gay marriage or some other violation of minority rights and said “MAJORITY RULES! MAJORITY RULES! THAT’S HOW DEMOCRACY WORKS! THIS IS AMERICA!”

    Demonhype, I guess your mom never read Alexis DeToqueville.

  • unintentionalhypocrite

    I’m waiting for some apologist to come along and argue that no, you’ve got it all wrong, Islam is a religion that respects women, really!
    …respects women.

  • Leum

    @unintentionalhypocrite: Yes, for the time and culture, the Qur’an’s command to allow women to serve as witnesses in court and to receive inheritance were a marked improvement. The fact that their voices had less power and received less than men does not mean that the moves were not progressive ones.

  • Ebonmuse

    I would put it this way: The religious laws in the Qur’an were less unfair to women than the laws of other cultures of the time. That, of course, is not the same thing as actually being fair.

  • Jim Baerg

    I’ve heard the claim before that bad as sharia law is, it was an improvement upon pre-muslim arab law & custom. Does anyone know what evidence there is for the laws & customs of that time & place to back up or refute the claim?

  • jemand

    People claim that for old testament law as well…. my investigation on that score eventually convinced me that was a pleasant lie, some areas were better, others worse, there didn’t seem to be any clear evidence for life being “better” unless you counted “worshiping the right god and getting into heaven” on the benefit side, an obvious cheat.

    However, it’s been awhile, I lost my research, and so can’t share anything other than my general impressions on that score. I’m guessing Islamic law is probably similar. There may be areas where there is an improvement on other local societies with regards to women’s rights, but other areas where there is definitely not. And there probably were lots of not necessarily equal cultures in the regions that later became Islamic, my guess is that sharia does *not* have the very best parts of all those other cultures put together, plus a few improvements over the sum of the best.

  • archimedez

    Jim Baerg (#15),

    Judging by their answers to unintentionalhypocrite (#12), Ebonmuse (#14) and Leum (#13) should be able to answer your question viz. evidence, at least with regards to the Qur’anic laws and rules pertaining to women. I think you ask a good question, and I ask Ebonmuse and Leum to respond to it, at least within the scope of the Qur’an, as was indicated in their comments, in comparison to other cultures, and in comparison to the previous culture from which Islam emerged.

  • Jim Baerg

    One reason I wonder about the claim that Sharia was less bad than what came before is a novel I read. Poul Anderson is an author who usually gets his science & history right when it is something I know or can easily look up. Part of his novel _Boat of a Million Years_ is set in the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire just when it is conquered by the Muslims. That conquest is depicted as very much a change for the worse for women.

    Even if Anderson got that part right, it could be than late Roman laws & customs were better than Sharia while Sharia was better than the earlier Arab customs.

  • Leum

    From Reza Aslan’s No god but God page 61, paperback edition:

    With a few notable exceptions (like Khadija [Muhammad's first wife]), women in pre-Islamic Arabia could neither own property nor inherit it from their husbands. Actually, a wife was herself considered property, and both she and her dowry would be inherited by the male heir of her deceased husband….

    However, Muhammad–who had benefited greatly from the wealth and stability provided by Khadija–strove to give women the opportunity to attain some level of equality and independence in society by amending Arabia’s traditional marriage and inheritance laws in order to remove the obstacles that prohibited women from inheriting and maintaining their own wealth.

    While the exact changes Muhammad made to this tradition are far too complex to discuss in detail here, it is sufficient to note that women in the Ummah [community of early Muslims] were, for the first time, given the right both to inherit the property of their husbands and to keep their dowries as their own personal property throughout their marriage.

  • archimedez


    I’m familiar with this claim re inheritance, and Aslan gives his opinion on it, but the question is what is the empirical evidence for it?

  • Leum

    I’m not sure what his source was, but Aslan is a reasonably trustworthy source, so I think he has enough credibility.

  • archimedez


    I’m leery of Aslan’s apologetics, but on the pre-Islamic versus Islamic comparison on women’s inheritance rights, he seems to be going with the standard line made by most of the authors I’ve checked. The standard line, based on pious Muslim accounts, is that pre-Islamic Arabia was a land of chaos, cruelty, and wanton misogyny; then Muhammad and Islam came along and improved everything, emancipated women, and so on. The entire period before Islam is called the time of jahiliyya (ignorance). Needless to say, I’m skeptical of that very partisan story.

    The sources Aslan cites (at the back of the book in his notes) to support his above claims abut inheritance are Montgomery Watt’s (1956) Muhammad at Medina and Leila Ahmed’s (1992) Women and Gender in Islam. I don’t have access to either of these sources through Google, but I do know Watt made a quote similar to Aslan’s above. Ahmed’s views, overall, don’t quite match Aslan’s; Ahmed is quite critical of Islamic inheritance laws (see below).

    One counter-example to Aslan’s claim comes from an early pious Islamic source, Ibn Ishaq, who authored the earliest major biography of Muhammad. This example, describing the decision reached by a judge, is from the pre-Islamic period, and the important note below it is from the (modern) translator Guillaume, who was a scholar of Arabic and Islam:

    Ishaq, pp. 51-52 [my brackets and emphasis]

    Part 1: The Genealogy of Muhammad; Traditions From the Pre-Islamic Era; Muhammad’s Childhood and Early Manhood.

    ‘Amir b. Zarib b. ‘Amr b. ‘Iyadh b. Yashkur b. ‘Adwan

    “His words ‘a judge who gave decisions’ refers to the above-named ['Amir b. Zarib...]. The Arabs used to refer to every serious and difficult case to him for decision and they would accept his verdict. Once it happened that a case in dispute in reference to a hermaphrodite was brought to him. They said, ‘Are we to treat it as a man or a woman?’ They had never brought such a difficult matter before, so he said, ‘Wait awhile until I have looked into the matter, for by Allah you have never brought me a question like this before.’” So they agreed to wait, and he passed a sleepless night turning the matter over and looking at it from all sides without any result. Now he had a slave-girl Sukhayla who used to pasture his flock…”
    [The slave-girl tried to find out what was bothering him, and the judge, thinking that she might] “provide him with some solution to his problem,” said “‘Well then, I was asked to adjudicate on the inheritance of a hermaphrodite. Am I to make him a man or a woman?[1] By God, I do not know what to do and I can see no way out.’ She said, ‘Good God, merely follow the course of the urinary process.’ ‘Be as late as you please henceforth, Sukhayla; you have solved my problem,’ said he. Then in the morning he went out to the people and gave his decision in the way she had indicated.”

    [1] Guillaume’s note: “The point was important because a male received double as much as a female.”

    Guillaume, A. (2006; orig. 1955). The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah With Introduction and Notes by A. Guillaume. Karachi: Oxford University Press.


    The pre-Islamic Arabic societies were more diverse than most apologists suggest. There were reportedly hundreds of tribes, some nomadic, some sedentary and living in towns, some more closely connected to the neighboring empires than others, some still having more remnants of matriarchal elements than others. With such variation in conditions, influences, and traditions, it seems reasonable to suppose that there would be some variation in customs such as those regarding inheritance.

    In this next example, from modern scholarship, the author clearly subscribes to the belief that some pre-Islamic Arabs did let women inherit:

    Women and the glorious Qur’an: an analytical study of women-related verses of Sura An-Nisa’ (2004) Universitätsverlages Göttingen
    By Gunawan Adnan

    pp. 36-37 [my brackets]

    I.A. 6. The Concept of Inheritance in Pre-Islamic Arabia
    “Before the coming of Islam, women were usually excluded from inheriting from their families. The reason for this inequity again has to do with the tribal structure of the society where the strength of each tribe depended on the ability of its members to participate in war. [...]
    If a woman did have the right to inheritance, it was usually among tribes where there were still traces of an ancient matriarchal culture, which dictated that, the woman remain with her tribe after marriage. In this case, whatever she inherited would stay within the tribe and pass on to her children who belonged to her kin.
    [...] [Compared to Medina] Mecca had more advanced laws with regard to inheritance, perhaps because it had been influenced by other civilizations through its commercial contacts with Palestine and Persia, and some Meccans having lived in Roman cities like Gaza. It was in Mecca that Khadija, for instance, led a perfectly independent life as a wealthy widow engaged in a lucrative caravan trade. Her estate included real property because she gave her daughter Zaynab a house. It can be concluded then that Meccan women could hold property before Islam. Furthermore, because Mecca was considered a holy city and as a result, immune from invasion, the argument used in Medina, that no one should inherit who could not fight and defend property, no longer applied. [91]

    [91] W. Robertson Smith, Kinship & Marriage in Early Arabia.


    The next author presumes that some pre-Islamic Arab women had the right to own and inherit property, and notes that women in the neighboring civilizations at the time also had similar rights. (The latter point, BTW, addresses Ebonmuse’s claim). In fact, these rights are quite similar to those “revealed” in the Qur’an:

    2. The Islamic Inheritance System: A Socio-Historical Approach
    David S. Powers
    pp.11-29 In Islamic family law, By Chibli Mallat, Jane Frances Connors, University of London. Centre of Middle Eastern Studies

    p. 15

    [my brackets and emphasis]

    “…[pre-Islamic Arab] women living in towns and settlements presumably had the right to own and inherit property.
    [...] We may perhaps circumvent the bias and reticence of the sources by viewing the issue against the background of contemporary Near Eastern provincial law, that is, Roman, Syro-Roman, Egyptian, Jewish, and Sassanian legal systems. [...] all of these systems awarded shares of the estate to both males and females: Egyptian law awarded a double portion to the eldest son, while treating daughters and all younger sons on the basis of equality; according to Jewish law, the first son received a double share, while daughters inherited only in the absence of a son; in Sassanian law, a son’s share was twice as large as a daughter’s, and all sons were treated equally.”

    pp. 17-18
    “[...] both proto-Islamic [i.e., Qur’an-based] and Near Eastern provincial law arrange the intestate heirs into a series of hierarchically related classes and award the right to inherit to both males and females. There are differences too, but the similarities outweigh them.”


    This next example provides another culture for comparison, and adds a critical comment on the Islamic systems of law:

    The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East
    By Timur Kuran (2011) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
    p. 81
    “Bewildering variations [in inheritance practices in some European countries] could exist even within a politically unified region as small as Moravia or Saxony. Moreover, rules and customs could change over a matter of decades. Given this variability, it is unsurprising that certain European inheritance systems of the Middle Ages were as inflexible as the strictest Islamic variants. In parts of England, one-third of a deceased man’s movable property was reserved for his wife and another third for his children, who had to be treated equally. Under medieval Germanic law, a father had no testamentary powers at all; the post-mortem disposition of his property followed a fixed formula.
    For all their variations, practically every inheritance system of premodern Europe differed from the Islamic system in one critical respect. Because Christian canon law did not standardize inheritance requirements, practices were relatively easy to modify, and attempts at reform were less likely to be resisted as sacreligious.”


    More critical commentary on the Islamic inheritance laws [my emphasis; ellipses in original]:

    Women, the family, and divorce laws in Islamic history
    By Amira El Azhary Sonbol (1996)
    Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
    pp. 3-4
    “The historical arguments used by Arab feminists focus on women’s lives in pre-Islamic Arabia: women’s participation in battles waged by their tribes, the existence of polygamous and polyandrous marriages, and the wide acceptance of matrilineal practices. Some historians, like Leila Ahmed, have argued convincingly that Islam established a patrilineal, patrilocal system, emphasizing blood-relationships as essential determinants for inheritance of property. To assure legitimate inheritance, a young girl’s virginity had to be controlled through seclusion, veiling, and a very strict moral code. Thus, according to Ahmed, Islam, with its merchant economy, transformed women who had lived relatively unfettered during the jahiliyya period (period preceding the coming of Islam) into the property of their families and husbands (1992, 44). In Republic of Cousins, Germaine Tillion takes up the connection between inheritance of property and the subjugation of women. She concludes that the continued practice of cousin marriage among Muslim Mediterranean communities was owing to their wish to keep wealth within the family (1983, 73). “In making inheritance by women obligatory, the Holy Book…struck a terrible blow at the tribe…even as with more or less good grace they converted to Islam, tribes have bent their energies to evading ever since.” The seclusion of women, the use of the veil, cousin marriage, and the domination of women became the answer (1983, 149-50).”


    Some quotes of Leila Ahmed relevant to this discussion:

    p. 169
    “Islamic civilization developed a construct of history that labeled the pre-Islamic period the Age of Ignorance and projected Islam as the sole source of all that was civilized—and used that construct so effectively in its rewriting of history that the peoples of the Middle East lost all knowledge of the past civilizations of the region. Obviously, that construct was ideologically serviceable, successfully concealing, among other things, the fact that in some cultures of the Middle East women had been considerably better off before the rise of Islam than afterward.” [14]
    [14] Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, 36-37.

    p. 232, quote of Leila Ahmed
    “Jahiliya women were priests, soothsayers, prophets, participants in warfare, and nurses on the battlefield. They were fiercely outspoken, defiant critics of men; authors of satirical verse aimed at formidable male opponents; keepers, in some unclear capacity, of the keys of the holiest shrine in Mecca; rebels and leaders of rebellions that included men; individuals who initiated and terminated marriages at will, protested the limits Islam imposed on that freedom, and mingled freely with the men of their society until Islam banned interaction.” [81]

    [81] Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, 62.

    Quoted in Secular and Islamic feminist critiques in the work of Fatima Mernissi
    By Raja Rhouni (2010) Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill


    Also see this, about another pre-Islamic culture in the region:
    First Published: 2008-05-01
    Saudi scholar finds ancient women’s rights
    Hatoon al-Fassi argues women enjoyed more rights in Nabataean state than in Saudi

  • Leum

    Wow, that’s really interesting, and not at all the impression I’d gathered in my studies. It doesn’t really surprise me, though.