On sexual slavery and the question of what makes something ‘Islamic’

Salwa al-Mutairi, a Kuwaiti politican, gave a cold-blooded proposal for Muslim men to take female slaves, especially non-Muslim female prisoners of war, for sexual use (or rather rape). It has rather unpredictably come under fire.

Slavery is one of the most abhorrent forms of abuse of power in this modern age. But the basic principles of al-Mutairi’s views have validation in Islamic texts. Like it or not, the Qur’an does not make any mention about ending slavery per se. It does recommend the freeing of slaves, particularly those who convert to Islam. But it also spells out the status of the slave as a person a man can have legitimate sexual relations with and by implication is someone who is sexually available.

Notwithstanding the incongruence between modern sensibilities and what is spelled out in the Qur’an as a book of wisdom and guidance, the abolition of slavery is now the expected universal norm. Every country has declared an end to slavery within its borders by the twentieth century. In predominantly Muslim nation-states, motivations behind the end of slavery was not so much a religious calling, but rather a mix of socio-economic circumstances, diplomatic strategy, and European colonial influence. It is at this circumstantial juncture that the right decision to universally turn back against slavery was established.

This is not to say that slavery has been completely wiped out from the face of the earth; today, slavery continues to exist in sex trafficking and in domestic labor, which enslaves thousands of migrant female workers.

Any intellectual discussion about sexual slavery and gender in the modern age should not be about sex and desire, but about power and the human weakness to abuse it. To say that men have an insatiable sexual desire and therefore need to channel it in “legitimate” terms (i.e., through concubinage, slavery, and even marriage) is missing the point.

How so? First, it is an insult to even suggest that men are inherently powerless to the will of their penises. Second, the Qur’an mentions allowances to multiple female sex partners (where wives, concubines, and slaves are thrown into the mix) only in the context of economic power; only rich men can afford to have multiple sex partners, especially concubines and slaves.

What is perhaps more intriguing and sets more tongues wagging is the fact that a Muslim woman is championing the slavery of other women. This is an example of what academic Deniz Kandiyoti describes as the “patriarchal bargain.” The patriarchal bargain posits that women are just as capable of oppressing other women to maintain or to gain access to social advantage. It is without doubt that any person, woman or man, with political influence would always seek to maintain power and privilege by pandering to those with more power and privilege.

The more powerful and privileged in question are those in the Kuwaiti government, who already claim a litany of human rights abuses, such maintaining a legislation that strips domestic workers of basic rights and ignoring the extensive abuse of migrant workers. This adds an additional dimension – xenophobia – into the mix. Much of the abuses against migrant workers – many of whom are Muslims – in Kuwait rests on the xenophobic attitudes of employers who view the workers as less than human. The fact that al-Mutiari’s suggestion women from war-torn Chechnya be bought to suffer yet more human rights abuses in Kuwait underscores this fact even more.

So in the context of sexual slavery as supported by the clerics al-Mutairi mentions, the more troubling question arises: is sexual slavery “Islamic”? Just because it is not prohibited in the Book does not make it right in practice. Easy as that. Another relevant question will arise by implication: so what makes something Islamic? It has been proven time and time again that what makes something Islamic is not necessarily spelled out in holy texts, but embellished mainly through privileged interpretation and historical contexts. Furthermore, the fact that slavery was a common and acceptable pre-Islamic practice during the prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) time, and the fact that some slaves gained status and power over those lower in the pecking order does not mitigate the loathsomeness of slavery.

Slavery or the abuse of female prisoners of war, the brutal removal of their freedoms and agency, and through silencing them and dehumanizing them goes against the very essence embedded in the respect for human lives, be it un-free or non-Muslim.

It is becoming clear that the Islamic discourse on slavery sheds very little light on the experiences of those at the nastier end of practice and this needs to change. The masculinist approach to holy texts that privileges the views of men needs to change. Also, what needs to change is the recognition that our modern sensibilities are shaped by history and socio-economic circumstances; what feels right, moral, and ethical rests on multiple factors.

We learn from history and experiences just as much from the holy texts. Much has changed since the days when slavery was taken for granted: if there’s anything more unacceptable it is the reduction of a whole person into something that can be bought and sold against their will.

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