Muslim Women in Europe: Oppressed by Religion or Politics?

Early this month Amparo Sánchez Rosell (President of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Valencia) met with the Special Commission on the Study of Gender Violence of Les Corts Valencianes. As reported by ABC Agencias and WebIslam, Sánchez asked the commission to eradicate the idea that Islam consents or encourages gender violence, which she believes is not true.

Although for many Muslim women this may be a common-sense approach, this claim may rise more than few eyebrows. While some people in the West, such as Geert Wilders, believe that Muslims are violent and that their practices are incompatible with Western life styles, few Muslims defend domestic violence. What is more problematic, domestic and sexual violence are sometimes equated with “Islamic cultural practices” and defended as such in secular contexts.

In a time when European governments feel strongly threatened by Muslim populations and actively respond to this by banning niqab and hijab or questioning whether they should allow immigrants to stay, Sánchez’s call for the eradication of a misunderstood Islam may not be in accord with the political environment. Islamic doctrines are put under the microscope and used as a political discourse in many European countries where no other religion has been analyzed in this way, even when other doctrines may not be gender friendly.

Fears of “Islamization” have resulted in the wide spread of radical right-wing parties and politicians in Europe, who blame many of their problems on Muslim immigrants as Ilgar Ibrahimoglu explains.

Whether Islam condones gender violence or not is a matter of debate. However, Sánchez  and others have pointed out that gender violence exists and it is practiced in a wide range of societies and contexts where a very strong “macho” culture exists, even if Islam is not present. Unfortunately, many countries around the world fall under this category.

Although we cannot deny that many Muslim women suffer abuse, this is not unique of Islamic societies and violence transcends religious background. The UN statistics of violence against women show that women from a wide range of societies have been abused at some point in their life. Among the included countries we find Ethiopia, Brazil, Germany, England, Bangladesh, etc., which represent a broad range of religious traditions. In the case of Spain, The Women´s Institute reports that, 53 women have been murdered by partners or ex-partners in 2010. Ten of them were Latin American, 32 were Spanish, five of them African and the rest were from different European backgrounds.

Sánchez also mentions that, at least in Spain, Muslim women who face abuse are particularly vulnerable because of their condition as immigrants. Spain’s Muslim population is predominately made up of immigrants, and many of these women have no access to government agencies to report abuse or they don’t speak the language. These women not only have a hard time at home but also feel marginalized in public because the media and other sources say their religion is the problem.

The image of weak Muslim women who have little or no agency prevails. Moreover, Islam is blamed for everything bad men do and everything bad that happens to Muslim women.  This discourse is also promoted by many political actors under the liberation banner. However, as Sánchez explains, undermining women’s faith by telling them that religion is the source of all their problems neither helps women,  nor does it explain why gender violence exist in secular contexts.

European countries have decried a lot about the condition of Muslim women, but have done little of substance to help. Some European governments have  focused only on restricting women’s right to dress the way they want which, according to Herman Salton is not  different than forcing women to wear hijab. Moreover, all the energies have been used to scrutinize the Qur’an whereas providing little credit to Muslim women’s movements.

Neither governments nor the media are interested in knowing what Muslim women think about topics such as the hijab or gender violence. The work of Muslim women is neglected and undermined in an environment were politicians rely on the “weakness” of Muslim women to create discourses and acquire some popularity.

Gender violence exists, and as Sánchez affirms, it happens in Muslim communities. Yet, this fact is used as a political discourse, which does not necessarily help Muslim women. If European governments are concerned about the inequality and mistreatment of Muslim women (who are not all immigrants), they should create support networks and accessible organizations that respect women’s faith and provide help. Such organizations exist, although they are non-governmental in most instances.

Both men and women from all backgrounds should be protected against violence, in all contexts, all cultures and religions. Politics is not the place to discuss Islam’s oppressiveness–that’s the job of the believer. Politics is the place to create public policy that grants and enlarges civil liberties, not that reduces them to a discussion on clothing.

Unfortunately, Muslim women in Europe may face challenges from both sides of the coin. On one hand, it is true that many Muslim women do not enjoy gender equality in Europe; on the other, European states are perpetrating this pattern by not letting Muslim women express their opinion and make their own choices. Instead of providing a safe space, they are creating a hostile environment for Muslim women. What option is left for Muslim women who are oppressed within their communities when the state oppresses them further?

  • Dina

    Very interesting article, Eren. Eid Mubarak to all of you!

    I have a few points to note.
    While gendered violence happens in secular contexts and in the contexts of many religions, I do not see an argument supporting Ms. Sanchez’ quest to have Islam as a religion and its doctrines removed from the gender violence scrutiny. Yes, a lot of the gendered violence in Muslim and non-Muslim contexts is based on traditions rather than religion. Yes, a lot has not even anything to do with traditions, but socio-economic and socio-political context.
    - We all know the requirement of the wife to be obedient to her husband, and the sanction – under many restrictions, and however lightly – being gender violence as a form of chastization (gendered violence because the wife owes the husband obedience, not vice versa; and the husband is as an ultimate exit allowed to use violence, not vice versa).
    - We all know classical Islamic marriage principles, and not at all fundamentalist readings only, institute the right of the husband to intercourse. Only in very limited extents can the wife escape this right of the husband to enjoy her body. It is the duty she carries to please her husband “whenever he wishes” (unless sickness or the monthly time or pregnancy prevent her from doing so) in the classical Islamic marriage contract.

    The “husband’s right” and the “wife’s duty” exist in other faiths, too. But in Christianity at least in Europe this discourse is effectively muted. No Christian religious leader will spread this instruction to marital rape – or the tolerance of marital rape on the part of the woman – in the 21st century. Islamic sermons, fatwas, documents readily available on the internet, cds, in mosque owned shops etc as well as reputable books all explain the right of the husband to his wife’s body, and the right of the husband to under specific circumstances use violence to enforce obedience.

    I am not aware of another religion propagating these forms of gender violence to the extent Islamic scholars do. Young women are educated in this respect by imams, in Quran classes and in sermons all over Europe, and all over the world.
    From a feminist perspective, these are troubling concepts. And it is equally troubling youth and adults seeking Islamic knowledge are influenced in their (in)action with these concepts today, and tomorrow unless there is more protest and critique.

    Even if other faiths had the same concepts live and well, islamic teachings like all others has to be scrutinized and criticized for it from the feminist point of view, and from the humanist point of view. And in this respect I cannot agree with you educating women on how religion/Islam in this matter is not for their best at all does not help beaten or maritally raped women. I have to disagree with you on this fundamentally, but your article’s an interesting read.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Dina: In the U.S., several Christian sects/ministries actively teach in Sunday schools and sermons that women must submit to the husband (examples here and here). I know that we’re discussing Europe here, but I just wanted to point out that other faiths do actively push the same “female submission” narrative that some Muslim communities ascribe to.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Hello Dina thank you for your comments. In addition to Fatemeh’s sources, husband’s right to intercourse is prevalent in many other areas, including in secular contexts. For example, until recently in many Latin American countries, it was a reason for divorce if a woman didn’t comply with her “wifely duties” in terms of sex. However, if a woman claimed she was not receiving enough sexual attention it was not a reason for divorce and the woman was considered “deviant.” Besides that, marital counseling sessions offered to couples by various religious groups (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc) usually reinforce a woman’s duty to please her husband. Although in the West Christian authorities may not publically claim “marital rape” this is a very modern concept that does not exist in many societies. Until now, many people question the validity of this concept. Many say how can a married woman be raped by her husband if they have a vow of mutual ownership? The discourse is the same, a woman in expected to be submissive to the man that “takes care of her.” In that sense, we are taught by society that our body is not ours but it is an offering for someone else. We are expected to practice sexuality within the boundaries that a husband imposes and on top of that, we are expected to like it!… or at least not to complain. Very good points though! The issue is incredibly problematic!

  • Humayra

    Yes, some evangelical Christians push the “submitted wife” as an ideal–and interestingly enough, some conservative North American Muslims use this in order to argue that their (misogynist) teachings are in line with what all religions “truly” teach–or would if they hadn’t been “corrupted” by modernity.

    But I have to agree with Dina. While there are some Christian groups which openly push this stuff, I have never, ever seen or heard anything from even conservative Christians about wifely submission which is comparable to “mainstream” conservative Muslim literature/sermons on what a “good wife” should be. What Christians argue that a wife is religiously forbidden to leave the house without her husband’s permission, or that he can stop her from befriending any person he doesn’t approve of? Or, that the angels will curse a woman who refuses her husband sex? Puh-leeze.

    I sympathize with the author of this article in her search for a middle ground between the suddenly quasi-feminist rhetoric of the Islamophobic right-wing (since when did they ever care for women’s rights?) and conservative misogynist preachers. I also agree that in the end, trying to legislate an end to misogynist religious preaching won’t work, and that telling abused women that “your religion is the problem” is patronizing and unhelpful.

    But I think the reality is that politicians WILL keep pontificating about this issue anyway (anything to get votes), and since there’s little that can be done about that, how are Muslim feminists going to respond? Allow themselves to be manouvered into an apologist stance, so that they find themselves saying much the same things as conservative leaders who think that “Islam gave women all the rights they need 1400 years ago”, but with a post-colonial twist?? How is this helpful to abused women?

    I would like to see MMW do more analysis of media which is produced by Muslims for Muslim consumption, which promotes conservative, anti-feminist religious ideas (or better yet, stuff which is basically anti-feminist but intended to be more palatable to a Muslim audience which would be turned off by blatant misogyny).

  • L Alahem

    So the comments are running down the rabbit hole of which religion promotes the idea that a woman doesn’t have the right to refuse sex. For the record, they all do.

    The article in question accuses the politicians of using Islam to marginalize the same women they would “save” from the demon. I’m a western woman. I’m a muslim. I figure it’s my divine right to dress the way I see fit, and if that preference is Hijab and Niquab, who are they to tell me what I can and cannot wear? I want to know what they are so afraid of? Why is it that if I wear a mini and a bikini top, that’s ok, but if I choose to wear an abaya, that’s not?

    To all the leaders of the western nations from Muslim women everywhere:

    Stop trying to save me. you want to make my life better? institute equal pay for equal work and support of my family in the workforce. Don’t look down on me, and don’t dare to presume my oppression without MY permission. If I’m oppressed by my religion, I’ll take it up with God. Stop trying to oppress me in the name of ‘saving’ me. Clean your own house before you come to mine with a broom.

    Thank you!

  • Dina

    Salam everybody, especially Fatemeh and Eren, who I would like to specifically ask one question:

    I hear you pick evidence for Evangelical (or other, I am not very knowledgeable on the different sects in the Americas) and Latin Catholic Christians still imposing the “husband’s right to the wife” and the submission of the wife to the husband (which clearly exists in Islamic, Judaist and Christian doctrine until today) in current practice.

    I wonder what this changes to my statement.

    I don’t think “look, they do it, too!” is ever a valid statement.

    My point remains: A husband’s right to the wife in sexual and other matters is highly, highly problematic, and both social research, political thinktanks, governments and authorities and serious news media better work against it right now. And stop it.

    It will be a particularly painful discourse for Muslims and Islamic scholars from my European perspective, as these are the scholars who overwhelmingly promote such doctrines in the countries of the EU. Sermons, publications, counseling in the Muslim context is full of the wife’s ability to refuse sex with her husband only for valid health and decency concerns, and the hadith of angels cursing the woman who refuses sex with her husband to the morning I have heard cited by countless scholars.

    Therefore I find the close scrutiny of all religions including Islam in publications and news reports on the situation of women in marriage highly essential, and I object to Ms. Sanchez wish to keep it out of scrutiny. And I suspect the “right to the wife”, or rather actions against this mentality, will be much more relevant and felt in the European Muslim than Christian community. We will see. I hope we will see, because this means this painful, but necessary (from a feminist perspective) will begin. Finally.

    Please do not feel attacked by me, I mean this debate in a very positive spirit, and hope this comes across. Written word on the internet can be tricky.
    But, really, my question stands. Why do many Muslim women (and probably men, too) think “look, they do it too” is in any way a relevant argument?

    I hope you spent Eid wonderfully with your loved ones.

  • Dina

    P.s. By coincidence, I learned yesterday that the UK main Islamic tv channel came under public criticism for promoting a “wife cannot refuse sex to her husband”.

    What an ironic coincidence I should have seen this just now (it is from last March).

  • Duff

    Hmm I think the comment above explains it perfectly. The Abrahamic religions are based on patriarchal systems, are homophobic and mysogynistic. You can’t get away from that, considering their holy books are thousand/s of years old and reflect their society at the time. It’s all very well when you are privileged enough to be able to choose to ‘submit’ to a religion and thus voluntarily accept the constraints on behaviour/dress/sexuality associated with the religion, in L Alahem’s word (above) ‘oppression with MY permission.’ That’s absolutely fine, you are just exercising your choice knowingly and more power to you.

    But it is very naive to think that all ‘muslim women’ are exercising this choice to be constrained by religion willingly. I use the term ‘muslim women’ very loosely, by that I mean not only those who have willingly embraced the religion but those born into muslim cultures/muslim majority countries who are expected to follow the religion and thus the associated limitations whether they want to or not, (for example, limitations in marriage in a country like Malaysia, where Malay women are restricted in who they are able to marry, as they are automatically classified as ‘muslim’ and can thus ONLY get legally married to a ‘muslim,’ regardless of whether they choose to be muslim or not).

    I think it is imperative that muslim organisations and websites like this work on bettering the status of such women (through moral support, economic support whatever) so that they are in a position where they can independently choose for themselves whether they want to accept the constraints on behaviour/diet/dress/sexuality Islam requires or not.

    Everyone must acknowledge that the privilege of choosing to independently submit to a religion, like L Alahem and many of the women on this website have done, is not one that is afforded to all so called ‘muslim women.’

  • Dina

    Humayra, this:
    “I would like to see MMW do more analysis of media which is produced by Muslims for Muslim consumption, which promotes conservative, anti-feminist religious ideas (or better yet, stuff which is basically anti-feminist but intended to be more palatable to a Muslim audience which would be turned off by blatant misogyny).”
    is an EXCELLENT idea.
    Would love to read about this, too.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Thank you all for all this wonderful comments! You are right Dina, the “they do it too” is not a valid argument. Me, myself, struggle with this constantly. But I think there are so many shades to Islam. While some people and scholars go on to say women should do this or that or don’t do this or that, there are others (like many of us I suspect) that believe women have or must have a choice. In the political context, Sánchez (the lady in the article) may not believe that Qur’an promotes violence, but it happens. However, the issue is that first of all we should focus on all the victims of domestic violence and not only reduce it to the fact that Muslim women are the only ones that suffer this. Second, we should provide a space for Muslim women to discuss the issue. It is not useful for me to be told how awful/wonderful Islam is, if my reality is completely different. At the political level, I expect the state to provide me with support regardless of my background and in a non-judgemental environment. By accussing Islam of being the primary source of violence the secular state is engaging in a theological discussion, it is allienating a sector of society and is endorsing discrimination. This is something that the media is picking up very quick. How does that help abused women? yes, the issue must be discussed by professionals and the victims. The role of the state is to provide services to prevent, to resolve and to support. If the excuse is that Islam is the primary cause then the solution is to ban Islam… is that possible, acceptable, or usuful for Muslim women?

  • Dina

    “It is not useful for me to be told how awful/wonderful Islam is, if my reality is completely different. At the political level, I expect the state to provide me with support regardless of my background and in a non-judgemental environment.”

    Agree 100%.

  • Dina

    “If the excuse is that Islam is the primary cause then the solution is to ban Islam… is that possible, acceptable, or usuful for Muslim women?”

    I believe religious doctrines advocating marital rape (or acceptance of marital rape by women, which could in the most stretched sense be considered “consent”, and make it not rape in the legal criminal sense; to me a woman not wanting sex, but feeling she has to agree is a raped woman, in the social and socio-sexual sense rather than the strictly legal sense) and physical violence of husbands over disobedient wives, however “light”, have to be banned in democracies and human rights-guided countries.

    This branch of Islam, like Christianity, where it succeeded for the largest part, has to be banned. Preachers have to be punished for writing or spreading verbally such incitation to violence in conflict with criminal and civil codes. Foreign imams not conforming have to leave the democratic and human rights-guided countries. For Europe, I hope such policies will be implemented. Of course these imams will go back to the Maghreb, Egypt or the Gulf region, and women there will suffer their indoctrination. But as a citizen in Europe, I can only demand European authorities proceed this way with criminal and unjust religious sermons and literature; I cannot tell Morocco, Syria, Saudi-Arabia etc what to do. I hope Muslim women there will find the strength to demand the same from their authorities.

    I do not think it is in any way positive rape is rape, and incitement to rape or (“light”) beating is incitement to violence in general except for when it is done by a preacher, especially when it is a minority religion preacher, and general rules seem to not apply. This for me is discrimination. A Muslim female victim seems to be less worthy of strong state protection than other victims by showing lenience to the scholars sealing her fate.

    So, yes, these criminal practices have to stop. For people believing this is part of Islam, these parts of Islam must be banned, for they are criminal like any violence is.
    Just my 2 cents. Since I personally do not believe God can want husbands to behave this way with wives, no part of Islam is banned for me.
    What do you think?

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    I completely agree, and I also know that many Muslim women around the world (and men of course) do not believe in forced sexual intercourse and many accept that when a woman is forced to have intercourse against her will and the option to stop at any point in time, is rape. A number of Muslims and Islamic scholars fight people who think this is acceptable in both secular and Islamic contexts. But again, in a secular context, the role of the state is not to question whether this is Islamic or not, governments should protect people regardless of religious doctrines.

  • Dina

    Completely agree on violence having to be treated as violence no matter what causes it in the secular context. But whether or not it is considered Islamic by a number of community leaders and preachers has a substantial impact on how many human beings (women) will be affected, and may not file complaints. So this gives an estimate firstly on special measures being needed for different communities, and it will give authorities hints on whether residents of foreign countries or citizens incite violence against women.