Damsels in distress, the chivalrous caliph, and the misogynistic scholar: a modern fairy tale

A long time ago, in a galaxy that is unfortunately not nearly as far away from me as I would like, I was taught that the reason for all the problems that women face today—especially in “the West”—is that relations between men and women are seriously out of balance.

And that's why brothers don't need to bother trying to understand women! Epic lulz!

“The first time that someone shows you who they are, believe them” (Maya Angelou)

Western women have been misled into rejecting their divinely created feminine natures. They don’t value marriage and motherhood, and try to emulate men by cutting their hair short and wearing masculine-style clothes and having careers and being promiscuous. Therefore, men are understandably put off by them, can’t respect them, feel emasculated by them, and don’t want to marry them. As a result, the family is in disarray, single motherhood and juvenile delinquency are on the rise, men feel lost and confused, and women are wondering where all the good men have gone. But (we were told) there is a simple  answer to all these problems:  Return to Islam. Go back to “the True Teachings of the Qur’aan and the Sunnah” (as the Salafis would phrase it), or to “Sacred Tradition” (as the neo-traditionalists would say). To the fitra—the innate, divinely given nature of every human being, which says that “true” men are hyper-masculine and “real,” god-fearing women are ultra-feminine… and anything that doesn’t fit into that binary view of gender is just laughable. Go back. Nothing else works. Anything else is rebellion against God.

Because women don’t need autonomy, or independence, or feminism, or godless “human rights.” What women need (and really really crave, deep down) is to be protected, cared for, and put on a pedestal by good men. Every woman should do her best to deserve to be treated like a queen, by being pious and modest and home-oriented and accepting of male authority. And if women are deserving, then of course good men will step up and act like good men should, by protecting them and their children, respecting them, and supporting them financially.

And there are no problems with this simple approach. None at all. Underage marriage, domestic violence, child abuse, or rape? Ha ha ha!! Only those western feminists get all upset about such non-issues for no reason, because they are silly emotional women who hate Islam / don’t understand what True Islam (TM) teaches / are misled by their modern sentimentality and rebellion against God’s perfectly just Law / secretly envy the veiled Muslim woman who is pure and beautiful and respected, and they want to bring her down to their level / they are misguided by their nafs and the shaytaan / whatever. Misogyny? What?! Of course we don’t hate women! We respect our women!

Well, that was then, and this is now. New life, new galaxy. Having learned the hard way all about the fine print of this “simple,” natural and allegedly god-given approach, I’m not going back.

The “fine print” in a nutshell is this: Basically, that “our women” only merit protection, respect, or even to be treated with minimal human decency as long as (1) we men still see some advantage to claiming them as “ours” AND (2) we magnanimously decide that their appeals for good treatment or help have some merit AND (3) they are well behaved and pious and modest and respectful and continue to defer to our authority AND (4) it won’t cost us more time, money, energy or inconvenience than we think that it is worthwhile to expend on them.

But some women and men are still in that galaxy.

Since the ’80’s in North America, there has been a general trend towards moderating the overtly harsh patriarchal rhetoric that used to be more common. There has been an illusion of fundamental change, with some religious leaders attempting to (re)brand themselves as “moderate” and their organizations as “woman-friendly” and committed to “equity.” Which I guess is why when one Abu Eesa Niamatullah, a rock-star scholar at AlMaghrib Institute, let loose online with some misogynistic comments (including the meme above), it set off a storm of controversy. And his non-apologies, along the lines of  “I’m sorry if you were offended” didn’t help the situation much. Nor did his boastful statement that he doesn’t answer to any group, madhhab, or scholar, but only to God (aka, only to himself).

While some other scholars and community leaders and activists supported him, or mildly criticized him, some voiced strong objections to what he had said. Yasir Qadhi claimed that he was “shocked” by the quick and vehemently negative response to Abu Eesa’s comments. And why wouldn’t he be? When has there ever been such a public denunciation of a Muslim scholar’s misogyny, by practicing Muslims? I can’t remember anything like this happening before.

Basically, the objectors felt betrayed. Abu Eesa had publicly let down his side of the patriarchal bargain. “Good women” are supposedly to be honored, respected and protected by “good men,” so why was a scholar making hateful, dismissive comments about serious topics such as rape? Why didn’t Abu Eesa realize that what he said is triggering to domestic violence survivors, and a slap in the face to girls and women who have undergone rape and abuse? Why didn’t he see that by expressing such hateful ideas, he is simply encouraging a legion of pint-sized pimple-faced Muslim Rush Limbaughs still living in their parents’ basements to let loose on Facebook and Twitter, feeling even more empowered to express their misogynistic views in the name of Islam?

But Abu Eesa and his supporters had their own responses, and were not shy to express them.

I was only joking. He was only joking. Can’t you take a joke? You Americans don’t understand British sarcasm. You’re taking it out of context. 

With every post and tweet from the latter camp, the myth of a community in which misogyny is a thing of the past while “equity” is the future is being publicly torn to shreds.

But all was not lost—these sorts of people have had lots of experience silencing dissent. So, unsurprisingly, we witnessed  accusations that objectors are “causing fitna,” invective against feminists in general and Muslim feminists in particular, claims that those who are objecting to Abu Eesa’s comments are acting irresponsibly by not “looking for 70 excuses for your brother” and even worse, by creating a spectacle on the internet for Islamophobes to see… and even crazier comments on blog posts and facebook moaning about feminazis and overly sensitive women who just can’t take a joke and how there are no properly feminine women to marry any more and these Muslim feminists don’t understand the first thing about Islam and how anyone who knows Abu Eesa knows that he really treats his wife like a queen so there’s no way he could be a women-hater and anyway the houris are far better than earthly women so take that, feminists…..

And it’s not only men who are standing up for him. There are also female commenters who plead that his comments are being misunderstood, or taken out of context, or that he’s a wonderful teacher so why are people criticizing him??

His more sober supporters were less concerned about what he said, and more concerned about who has the power to define what. A world in which a conservative scholar or community leader could be taken to task in public, on the internet, by other Muslims for his misogyny was not one that they wanted to see. It was not accidental that Yasir Qadhi compared this to a witch hunt. Everyone knows that the male religious leaders are the ones who have the right to chase down the (rebellious female) witches, and not the other way around.

His supporters are exposing the fact that “gender equity in Islam” (aka enlightened patriarchy-done-right) and misogyny aren’t opposites. They are two sides of the same coin. That is why the first (“Islamic gender equity”) so easily slides into the second (straight-up misogyny), when women start questioning or resisting patriarchy-done-right. And the excuse is usually that it’s the women’s fault—women aren’t being religious enough, women aren’t being modest enough, women are being too worldly and demanding, women aren’t putting their families first, women are being too picky and over-sensitive, women are being corrupted by western feminism…. Oh, if only women didn’t make men disrespect and abuse them.

His critics don’t want to believe it. Their identities as modern, forward-looking Muslims committed to justice and fairness are at stake, after all. So, some of them react in a way that I recognize all too well. That was what we were taught to do—appeal to the “good men’s” supposedly innate urge to protect “good women.” Appeal to men’s better side, by reminding them gently of their duties to God and the example of the Prophet. Use lots of I-messages, explaining how what they are saying/doing “hurts me.”

Basically, act like a stereotypical damsel in distress. Appeal to the caliph to come galloping to her rescue on his horse. Just like in the mythical golden age of Islam.

Yes, these were the fairy tales so many of us were sold. The fairy tale about men’s chivalrous nature. The fairy tale about how some women—good women, who are worthy of such respect and honor—would be treated like queens.

And when fairy tales were not enough to keep us silently in our place, then there was the shaming: Isn’t that just like western women?! They’re so thin-skinned. They can’t take the slightest joke. They’re so weak. They don’t understand how men just are. They’re so out of touch with reality. They’re mangia cakes, just like my Italian neighbor says. Pathetic!

We internalized the absurd idea that for women, strength is about being able to “take” misogyny, disrespectful treatment, and abuse, all the while rationalizing it “Islamically” or calling it something more palatable. But that even naming it as misogyny and abuse, much less wanting to oppose it, is a sign of weakness.

It was beyond messed up.

But then, I guess that’s what comes of taking patriarchal fairy tales as true.

Whether the critics of Abu Eesa’s comments will have any impact is hard to say. Will AlMaghrib fire him? A snowball’s chance in hell that they will, I’d say. Will he be more careful of his words in future? Again, hard to say, given that there’s evidently still an outspoken audience that welcomes and applauds misogynistic commentary. I don’t think this will end with a happily ever after.

The more important question to my mind is: Will conservative women and men who up until now have tied their hopes to “scholars” and “our sacred traditions” and what amounts to patriarchy-done-right begin to ask some serious questions about what they have bought into?

Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I don’t want my kids anywhere near this stuff.

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  1. #1 by Freedom To Be on March 15, 2014 - 5:31 pm

    There is also the cycle of abuse all up in this.

    • #2 by xcwn on March 15, 2014 - 5:50 pm

      Yes, that’s very true. In between the misogyny, he says some nice things… so it’s all ok really. He doesn’t mean it. Except that he does.

      • #3 by A'ishah Rose on March 16, 2014 - 12:53 am

        oh yeah. and the allegation now that we are making it up and that he never said it in the first place smacks of gaslighting.

  2. #4 by Freedom To Be on March 15, 2014 - 6:19 pm

    That and it’s all our own fault – why weren’t we better Muslims/more obedient? Yadda yadda… *shudder*

    • #5 by xcwn on March 15, 2014 - 6:39 pm

      Yep. Somehow, it pretty much always ends up being our fault.
      This sort of nonsense primes women for ending up in abusive relationships, come to think of it. :-(

      • #6 by likeoldkhayyam on March 15, 2014 - 10:14 pm

        Yes it does. And when you find yourself in the middle of the abusive situation you don’t recognize it as such, because traditional Islam somehow manages to pin it all on you (the victim)

  3. #7 by Ayman Fadel on March 15, 2014 - 6:44 pm

    Reblogged this on Aym Playing.

  4. #8 by Freedom To Be on March 15, 2014 - 7:07 pm

    I smell another blog post in the oven. Could it be chocolate chip? he he he

  5. #9 by Lamia El-Sadek on March 15, 2014 - 7:15 pm


    • #10 by xcwn on March 15, 2014 - 7:59 pm

      But man, I wish this stuff didn’t happen to begin with.

  6. #11 by rethinkingislam on March 15, 2014 - 8:25 pm

    God bless you for writing articles like these that lay it out so clearly and so lucidly.

    • #12 by xcwn on March 15, 2014 - 9:16 pm

      Thank you. Glad you like it. But I have been eagerly awaiting your post on this. I hope you are going to write one?

      • #13 by rethinkingislam on March 15, 2014 - 11:56 pm

        Thank you – I am composing it now. It will be thorough iA. I can now leave off a whole section and simply link to your writeup :)

      • #14 by xcwn on March 16, 2014 - 1:41 pm

        Eagerly awaiting your post….

  7. #15 by Yunus on March 15, 2014 - 8:53 pm

    This post is ridiculous. You’re generalizing from the actions of one guy (who has a lot of friends on the internet to defend him) to all Muslim men.

    [& etc... nothing that isn't already plastered all over the internetz...]

    • #16 by xcwn on March 15, 2014 - 9:23 pm

      Errr, no. I’m speaking primarily about my own experiences in highly patriarchal Muslim communities. I’m talking about the context that “this guy’s” comments are being heard in by people like me. And I’m observing that for the first time that I can recall, Muslims–men as well as women–are publicly calling out a scholar.

  8. #17 by luckyfatima on March 15, 2014 - 11:22 pm

    This was on my mind, too. The hypocrisy. According to the Al Maghrib sort of paradigm, women (in particular mothers, daughters, sisters and if we are “good,” then wives…which represent all womankind) are elevated on a pedestal of honor and respect, and protected like precious pearls. Not mocked or joked about. So this Abu Eesa, presumably someone who is a man of knowledge, is going against this Islamic vision of protected jewels with his crude jokes. And then the obfuscation of his acts with tossing around terms like feminazis and liberal feminists with an agenda, it’s a smoke and mirrors trick. And I can’t believe that Yasir Qadhi denied that AE made a rape/FGM/DV joke. If he wasn’t serious, then that was a sarcastic joke. It’s so disappointing. Even though I never accepted their particular Islamic paradigm, I still believed that people at Al Maghrib, Al Bayyinah and similar “Western” institutes were essentially “good” and just going by their understanding of things, while I go by mine. (Even though they don’t condone any other way than theirs and allow me the same courtesy.) But this really means that they can’t even follow their own rules. They can obfuscate the truth and even downright lie, and they do not have some special respect for women. Anyone who doesn’t follow their exact prescriptions, even if she is covered and follows a similar praxis as them in daily life, though she differs ideologically (like many of the women who have been most vocal about this whole thing), is a feminazi with a sinister agenda. The emperor is naked. And yes, the goons on AE’s page who were aping AE with sexist comments…that is the attitude that was empowered here. Where were the feminazis making these kinds of crude statements about AE, where was the bad adab on the part of his critics? But his fans were calling women who criticized him ugly names right on his page. This whole thing has just had me sick to my stomach. Sadly, I don’t think this will affect Al Maghrib’s status at all.

    • #18 by xcwn on March 16, 2014 - 1:39 pm

      Sigh. Well, that’s patriarchy for you. It offers women the promise of protection, respect, etc, if only they’ll be “good” and submissive. Seems like a fair exchange to some women. Until you find out the hard way that it’s not you that gets to define what “protection” or “respect” is, or when men have lived up to their responsibilities to act in this way… nor is it you that gets to decide when you are being “good” and obedient enough. Patriarchy puts men in control. And those in control get to play the game however they want.

      • #19 by Sobia A-F on March 18, 2014 - 2:13 pm

        I couldn’t agree more. For my MA thesis I examined, among other things, the relationship between Canadian Muslims’ religiosity and attitudes toward women. For the women, who were mainly in their 20s and mainly raised in Canada, I found that high levels of religiosity were related to high levels of both hostile and benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism is your typical “women are stupid” type of hateful sexism. Benevolent sexism is sexism that sounds nice (“putting women on a pedestal” sexism) but in the end has the same effect of controlling women. (“Only a woman has the amazing ability to properly care for children….so she should stay home.”) As you can probably guess, most research has found religiosity (among Christians) to be related to benevolent sexism. It has not found it to be related to hostile, however. So I was surprised that in my sample it was related to both. I searched the literature a little more and found a possible explanation. This explanation was that, for these women, what may have been happening is that they were associating benevolently sexist attitudes with women who were behaving appropriately (religiously) and hostile attitudes to those women who they viewed as behaving inappropriately. So in their minds there were two different types of women – one right, and one wrong.

        Thank you for writing this amazing piece, by the way. You’ve said exactly what I’ve been thinking this whole time.

      • #20 by xcwn on March 18, 2014 - 10:59 pm

        That sounds like a really cool research project. Please publish it, if you haven’t already!

  9. #21 by A'ishah Rose on March 16, 2014 - 12:52 am

    Reblogged this on sister stranger.

  10. #22 by Susan Peterson on March 16, 2014 - 7:00 am

    I cannot bear to say his name but I loved your post. It made me sick to the stomach to witness the mocking, spiteful posts. And I agree with Lucky Fatima; the Emperor has no clothes. Again great post

  11. #23 by Freedom To Be on March 16, 2014 - 2:36 pm

    re: “Well, that’s patriarchy for you. …”

    Them’s quotable words, they are.

  12. #24 by hqas on March 16, 2014 - 10:12 pm

    Thanks to self appointed clerics ad these, Muslim mind-sets don’t change and west gets opportunities to go on the Islam o bashing drive with glee. Thank youuuuu for such thought provoking posts.

  13. #25 by Ex-H on March 17, 2014 - 1:13 am

    Thank you so much for writing this! I saw this story floating around on facebook and very few of the women I went to school with (and who study there now) said anything about this. The ones who did were in the minority. I’m glad you put into words exactly what was wrong with this, a scholar, making misogynistic comments and when called out, simply tells everyone else that they’re overreacting. I hate to say it, but it all feels very high school. “What? I was joking! You can’t take a joke now?” Unfortunately, he isn’t the worst out there. I hope this ends, at least for some people, the unhealthy obsession-borderline-worship-of-sheikhs/scholars these communities/schools encourage.

    • #26 by xcwn on March 17, 2014 - 1:50 am

      It would be nice of it did lead to serious questioning of the whole celebrity-scholar phenomenon. But I’m not holding my breath.

  14. #27 by Ex-H on March 17, 2014 - 1:14 am

    Oh, and I just saw that you linked me on your blog! Thank you so much! I am honored. :)

    • #28 by xcwn on March 17, 2014 - 1:52 am

      You’ve very welcome. I find your blog insightful. It gives me some idea of what I must have put my daughters through.

  15. #29 by Falah on March 17, 2014 - 8:15 pm

    we posted this on our facebook group WE WANT WOMEN IMAMS. Please check us out and leave your comments there.

  16. #30 by rosalindawijks on March 18, 2014 - 10:32 am

    An interesting & insightful post. Is the title meant as a critique of the article “Wa Mu’tasima!” ?


    • #31 by xcwn on March 18, 2014 - 10:56 pm

      Yes, but not only that particular article. It’s a very widespread attitude—that male chivalry is ultimately the answer—and traces of it could be found in other responses as well.

  17. #32 by rosalindawijks on March 19, 2014 - 11:24 am

    Benevolent sexism – I like that term. Comparing women with pearls and diamonds who are SO precious that they have tp be secluded and misogyny are two sides of the same coin, just like filo-semitism is paired with antisemitism and patronizing blacks is linked to mroe gruesome forms of racism, and so on…..

  18. #34 by centaurie on April 19, 2014 - 3:50 pm

    Because women don’t need autonomy, or independence, or feminism, or godless “human rights.” What women need (and really really crave, deep down) is to be protected, cared for, and put on a pedestal by good men. Every woman should do her best to deserve to be treated like a queen, by being pious and modest and home-oriented and accepting of male authority. And if women are deserving, then of course good men will step up and act like good men should, by protecting them and their children, respecting them, and supporting them financially.

    Having a moment here, because it’s mindblowing how similar the underlying assumptions in conservative cultures are, despite insistance of either side (western & eastern) that the speaking culture is the “better” one!!!!!

  19. #35 by rosalindawijks on May 20, 2014 - 5:56 am

    An Islamic feminist sister just shared this article, which made her mad. Very mad. It has so much crap in it I almost can’t even begin to debunk all it’s stereotypes. Waring: It CAN be triggering.

    Waqar SA
    Bid farewell to feminism and embrace a happy life of home economics and motherhood so that you may be happy.

    Imaams have noted the alarming rise in the number of unwed Muslim women. The reasons are multi-faceted. Some of them (taken from an informal survey) include the following:

    – City life is not conducive to face to face interactions between Muslim families such that a large number of men are aware of an available woman

    – Women delaying marriage to pursue education thus passing her prime

    – Women overweight / fat

    – Parents getting in the way and demanding a male suitor with restricted criteria

    – Women’s perception of men’s lack of maturity

    – Women themselves having overly strict criteria

    – Sexual abuse history

    – Women’s sexual adventures prior to marriage

    – Women’s career orientation

    – Women’s low self-esteem

    – Fear of marriage

    – Women feeling or men viewing her as not beautiful enough

    – Divorced / Widowed

    – No outlet/avenue for meeting Muslim men

    – Woman’s disability / handicap

    – More available Muslim women than available Muslim men

    – Women’s adoption of western feminism

    The list is not exhaustive and some women may not suffer from any of the above.In this article the focus will be on the last reason – women’s adoption of western feminism.

    The topic of western feminism is rather vast and would take numerous articles to cover. Feminists are generally angry, reactionary, and unfulfilled creatures. It is easy to tick them off and they make for fabulous comedy. Feminism goes against the grain of female nature so much so that several high profile feminists later in life rescind their views and marry and embrace traditional gender roles. They often bear the resulting vituperation from other feminists because the happiness they gain in traditional marital roles is well worth it. Western feminism is an emaciated lamb with scant meat and lots of bones. In what is one of the best articles written this year on the subject of why American/British women cannot find marriageable men author Suzanne Venker obliterates western feminism and she does so by completely understanding the nature of man.

    The following excerpt is taken from a home economics book intended for high school girls, teaching them how to prepare for married life.

    This guideline closely mirrors what women have been teaching their daughters for millennia. Women who follow this are extremely happy in their marital lives. If you are a woman who feels this guideline is anathema to you then you are probably a feminist.

    1. Have dinner ready: Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal — on time. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him, and are concerned about his needs. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospects of a good meal are part of the warm welcome needed.

    2. Prepare yourself: Take 15 minutes to rest so you will be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people. Be a little gay and a little more interesting. His boring day may need a lift.

    3. Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives, gathering up school books, toys, paper, etc. Then run a dust cloth over the tables. Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift, too.

    4. Prepare the children: Take a few minutes to wash the children’s hands and faces if they are small, comb their hair, and if necessary, change their clothes. They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part.

    5. Minimize the noise: At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of washer, dryer, dishwasher or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet. Be happy to see him. Greet him with a warm smile and be glad to see him.

    6. Some Don’ts: Don’t greet him with problems or complaints. Don’t complain if he’s late for dinner. Count this as minor compared with what he might have gone through that day.

    7. Make him comfortable: Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or suggest he lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him. Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soft, soothing and pleasant voice. Allow him to relax and unwind.

    8. Listen to him: You may have a dozen things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first.

    9. Make the evening his: Never complain if he does not take you out to dinner or to other places of entertainment; instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure, his need to be home and relax.

    10. The goal: Try to make your home a place of peace and order where your husband can relax.

    A Pakistani American man wrote a passionate response to this home economics book: “If western women had followed that, they wouldn’t be so ____ up in the year 20**. Single moms, ever high divorce rates, completely screwed family system are few of the gifts of “feminism”. Look where this ____ has led you. More and more American/British men (young & wealthy) marrying foreign women because they are looking for peace and happiness in their lives, something which feminist women have ____ up for herself a while back.”

    A wise Moroccan woman untouched by western feminism added: “Moroccan women know the meaning of marriage and what a man needs. It’s not all about the sexual experience but it’s about the mindset and the respect. We believe that a man should be treated like a king, and that he should always feel special.

    Most women nowadays expect to be equal to their man, and act more like a man than a woman. Marriage these days are failing and the reason is people are marrying for money or people are no longer trying to make it work. Also if a woman does not try hard enough to please her husband, the marriage is a failure.

    Let’s go back to 30 years ago, women were the queens of their homes, respected by their men and they acted like ladies. So my point is Moroccan women still believe that the men will always have authority in the house, and when you treat him like a king, he treats you like a queen.

    Plus think about it, if your husband comes home to a cooked meal, beautiful wife, nice environment, you massage him, make him feel relaxed and no stress, do you think he will ever leave you? No, that’s what men are looking for, you need to baby them to keep them, they just won’t tell you go. The trick is to make him dependent on you without being forcing. Do the things he likes, bring him his food, he will never let you go.

    Act like a modern woman who wants to be equal and you will always be alone.

    You can always keep respect and dignity and still keep your man. And doing all these things for your man doesn’t mean you are lifeless, you can still have your life, dreams, hopes and enjoy life like anyone else, but with a man in your arms.

    I am Moroccan and I rarely witness men divorcing their Moroccan wives, unless she files for it. I think any woman can keep her man, if she knows the secret to keeping him. It’s not about beauty or body, it’s about intelligence and understanding your husband’s needs and wants, just like economics. Hope this helps.”

    Adapted from Muslim Spice

    • #36 by xcwn on May 22, 2014 - 12:17 am

      This is one of those things where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Muslim plagiarism FTW! We have nothing to learn from the kafirs when it comes to gender relations… unless it happens to support our misogyny.

      The advice to “be a little gay” seems to be the only worthwhile phrase in the entire piece.

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