Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (VII)

(continuing where we left off…)

2. The Social Aspect

a) As a child and an adolescent

“Despite the social acceptance of female infanticide among some Arabian tribes, the Qur’an forbade this custom, and considered it a crime like any other murder: ‘And when the female (infant) buried alive is questioned, for what crime she was killed’ (Q 81:8-9)

Criticizing the attitudes of such parents who reject their female children, the Qur’an states:  ‘When news is brought to one of them, of (the birth of) a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With same does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on!’ (Q 16:58-59)”

——

Early ’80’s ghost: Before Islam, some Arabs used to kill baby girls? How absolutely horrible. Isn’t it wonderful that Islam put a stop to that. This seems to be a religion that is pretty pro-woman.

Commentator: The author here is reading these quranic verses forbidding condemning female infanticide in a particularly modern way, that takes them out of context. Actually, the Qur’an forbids  “qatl awlaad” (killing boys/children) in five verses—Q 6: 137, 140, 151; 17:31 and 60:12. If you take a look at those five verses, you will see what is being criticized about infanticide is that it is a pagan practice that is associated with worshipping deities other than Allah, and with failing to trust in His ability to provide.

There is no real reason to read the verses that mention female infanticide as implying anything different from those condemning infanticide in general—unless the point is to imply that the Qur’an is weighing in on modern concerns with women’s rights and “the rights of the girl child”, which is anachronistic.

Super-commentator: The reader is expected to react with pity and horror—“Oh, the poor little girl babies!”—and be more open to the rest of what the booklet has to say about women’s social roles and legal status. In other words, this is emotional manipulation. Much as the section at the beginning of the booklet is, with all the depressing quotations about how awful ancient Indian and ancient Greek and Hebrew women and others supposedly had it.

And while I don’t want to be too picky, it should be pointed out that although the booklet uses the word “adolescent” in the heading of this section, this is an anachronism. “Adolescent” is a modern concept, that wasn’t found in Arabia in the Prophet’s time—or for many centuries after. Here again, this booklet is reading contemporary realities back into the Qur’an and the Hadith. Historical accuracy is not its strong point.

Early ’80’s ghost: Ok… I guess. But even if the author of the booklet is taking a few verses out of context, so what? Isn’t it a good thing that Islam forbids infanticide? I mean, it’s much more likely that people would kill girls than boys in any society that favors males over females (which is pretty much most human societies…), so banning this practice would benefit girls more than boys, wouldn’t it? And since Islam treats female infanticide like any other murder, this does send a message that the lives of girls and women are worth just as much as the lives of men.

Commentator: Yes, infanticide is certainly cruel. But back in the days before more effective ways of fertility control were available, infanticide and/or the abandonment of unwanted infants were fairly common in a number of societies. What was a woman or her family to do when they didn’t have enough to even feed the children that they already had? And infanticide didn’t risk the mother’s life or health—as trying to induce an abortion would have. Infanticide did allow for discrimination, though, so that people could decide that hey, maybe they could manage to keep that male infant after all, since he looked pretty healthy, but in the case of a girl, forget it. And such acts of discrimination would further reinforce the lower status of girls and women.

But what the Qur’an says is one thing, and what you may well encounter in conservative Muslim circles is quite another. This is part of the problem with this “Islam forbids” or “Islam treats” way of writing and speaking. “Islam” itself doesn’t forbid or treat anything, Muslims do. This way of speaking often obscures the distinctions between several different things: What the Qur’an says, the different ways that it has been interpreted by Muslims for the last 1400 years, what various hadiths say, how they have been interpreted, what the jurists and other scholars have said, and…  how different Muslim communities and individuals down through the centuries have actually lived their lives.

Did banning infanticide really raise the legal or social status of girls and women? That depends on so many different factors: the place, the time, the community, the social and economic situation…. Such a ban doesn’t necessarily prevent people from pretty much ensuring that their unwanted female infants aren’t likely to live long. Neglect and too-early weaning are fairly effective ways to cull all but the most strong of them. And even when such measures aren’t socially acceptable (at least, not if they are too overt), then the burden can be shifted from the infant girl to the mother without any legal problem. Women can be pitied and blamed for having given birth to “too many” girls, and be pressured to keep on getting pregnant regardless of their health or ability to care for more children, in the hopes that the next child will be a boy. Or, their husbands might divorce them, or take another wife in the mistaken belief that this will solve the “problem.”

Super-commentator: The author’s statement that “the Qur’an forbade this custom, and considered it a crime like any other murder” is rather misleading. Non-Muslim readers are likely to read this and assume that in Islamic law, female infanticide is punished just as the murder of an adult male would be. But this is not accurate. In Islamic law, intentional murder is typically punished by retaliation (qisas), meaning that the murderer will himself (or herself) be killed—that is, if the heirs of the murdered person do not opt to forgive the murderer. However, it is not that simple in a case of infanticide if the killer is the father, because according to the jurists, a father is not subject to retaliation if he kills his child.

Early ’80’s ghost: Ok, that’s just really heavy… I’ll have to think about that for a while. This is just a bit too much.

But just a question—surely nobody today really thinks that if a woman gives birth to a girl that it’s her “fault”? Doesn’t everybody know that it’s the man’s sperm which determines whether a baby is a boy or a girl?

21st century ghost: You will live to find out the answer, but I’ll tell you now anyway—no, everybody doesn’t know that. Even those who may have heard it in school may not have then decided that the belief that the ability to father sons is an expression of virility is therefore false. What a given person decides to do with whatever knowledge they may have can be very… complicated. As you yourself will find out.

———————————————-

“Far from saving the girl’s life so that she may later suffer injustice and inequality, Islam requires kind and just treatment for her. Among the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (P.) in this regard are the following:

‘Whosoever has a daughter and he does not bury her alive, does not insult her, and does not favor his son over her, God will enter him into Paradise.’ (Ibn Hanbal, #1957)

‘Whosoever supports two daughter till they mature, he and I will come in the day of judgment as this (and he pointed with his two fingers.’ A similar Hadeeth deals in like manner with one who supports two sisters. (Ibn Hanbal, #2104)”

——-

Early ’80’s ghost: So, Islam—sorry, I mean the Hadith—says that girls must be treated equally with boys.

Commentator: The wording here is misleading, sliding as it does from a prohibition of “injustice and inequality” in treatment of girls, to “kind and just” treatment for them—followed by a couple of very generally worded hadiths that urge a man to avoid burying his daughter alive, insulting her, or favoring his son over her, and encourage him to regard supporting her financially as a good deed that will work to his favor on the Day of Judgment.  While “injustice” and “just(ice)” are opposites, “inequality” and “kind(ness)” are not—at least, not in the minds of many Muslim conservatives. It is quite possible to argue that treating boys and girls, men and women unequally in a number of circumstances is the kindest thing you can do, because that is how God wants it. And, as we will see, the author does hold that a number of laws that treat males and female unequally are nonetheless just.

Super-commentator: As for the hadiths he quotes… they simply do not paint a picture of a society in which it is assumed that boys and girls will normally be valued equally, much less treated equally. Quite the contrary. The father has to be offered the promise of eternal reward in order to treat his daughter decently. It is implied that daughters are typically regarded as lesser than sons, and as financial burdens that are often resented by men. The implication is that girls are weak and have to be protected and cared for—and that while pious men will attempt to cheerfully shoulder that responsibility in order to please God, that is the exception rather than the rule. These hadiths do not envisage a time when girls and boys will be equally welcomed by parents, much less given equal treatment in any sort of modern sense—such as equal chances in life.

Commentator: Here again, the author is not adequately preparing the reader for the attitudes and practices that they will likely encounter if they end up living in or having dealings with conservative Muslim communities.

———————–

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  1. #1 by Anonymous// on February 5, 2013 - 10:22 am

    I see what you mean, but don’t overdo it on the anachronism thing. I was once quite an extreme constructivist but I think our approach needs to be more evidence-based (check out Samar Habib’s book to see what I mean)…otherwise, keep it up.

  2. #2 by Anonymous// on February 5, 2013 - 10:23 am

    btw I did get the impression that Kecia Ali was quite ambivalent about Foucault…

  3. #4 by ax on February 8, 2013 - 6:17 pm

    Quote: “The author here is reading these quranic verses forbidding condemning female infanticide in a particularly modern way, that takes them out of context. Actually, the Qur’an forbids “qatl awlaad” (killing boys/children) in five verses—Q 6: 137, 140, 151; 17:31 and 60:12. If you take a look at those five verses, you will see what is being criticized about infanticide is that it is a pagan practice that is associated with worshipping deities other than Allah, and with failing to trust in His ability to provide.There is no real reason to read the verses that mention female infanticide as implying anything different from those condemning infanticide in general—unless the point is to imply that the Qur’an is weighing in on modern concerns with women’s rights and “the rights of the girl child”, which is anachronistic”

    Hi,

    Unless I’ve misunderstood you, It’s surprising that you are making this weird argument.

    They were 2 different abhorent practices;
    I’m sure you know that people in pre-Islamic Arabia (and elsewhere) used to kill newborns –both male and female- because they couldn’t provide for them (and even do it now). And at the same time, people also used to kill specifically daughters (even if they could be provided for) for the simple fact that they were female. Thus, there are verses in Quran condemning infanticide (of both males and females) for fear of poverty. And they weren’t mentioned by Jamal Badawi b/c poverty doesn’t directly relate to the topic, but you mentioned them.
    And then there are verses (and ahadith) specifically condemning killing of daughters for the simple fact that they were female. And Jamal Badawi mentioned a couple of those verses and ahadith b/c they directly relate with the topic.
    The first type of infanticide was b/c of fear of poverty
    the second type was specifically b/c of dislike/hatred of female children.
    It seems that you conflated the two?

    And infanticide is not criticized just because it’s “associated with worshipping deities other than Allah” or with “failing to trust in His ability to provide.” But also b/c the act itself is wrong. It’s not as if killing babies would be ok if they were killed for reasons other than fear of poverty or associating deities. I know you didn’t say that but the statement “what is being criticized about infanticide is that…” seemed to imply that.

    However, I also generally disagree with “quoting random verses about how islam gave rights to women when rest of the world was backward and ignoring the reality of how actual muslims and muslim societies have acted for 14 centuries” approach

    • #5 by xcwn on February 10, 2013 - 11:36 pm

      ax—Briefly: I don’t think that there is much difference if any between the infanticide of female and male infants in the Qur’an itself. Some classical texts speak of female infanticide as having sometimes been motivated primarily by fear of dishonor if the girl was allowed to live, as well as the idea that she would be a burden (considerations that weren’t relevant to decisions of whether or not to kill healthy male infants). But for classical authors, the problem wasn’t primarily with the motivations (fear of dishonor; the notion that girls are burdens in the worldly sense), but with the end result (a dead female infant/toddler). The attempts of certain modern apologists to present this issue as a sort of “feminism avant le lettre” are anachronistic and quote sources selectively.

      But as far as the purposes of this blog is concerned, the main point being made in this post is that such apologetic claims were so far removed from the lived realities that converts like myself often encountered in conservative Muslim communities (and not only abroad, either…) that we were very ill-prepared. Explaining that would take another post.

      • #6 by ax on February 25, 2013 - 12:13 pm

        I thought I had posted a comment here a couple of weeks ago but I don’t see it here for some reason. So I’m posting again 🙂

        I don’t think I can be any more clear in highlighting the differences between general infanticide (of both males and females) b/c of poverty and specifically female infanticide b/c of dislike of females as mentioned in the Quran. The mere fact that female infanticide is specifically mentioned apart from infanticide in general in Quran and hadith is sufficient evidence of the difference between the two. The reasons and the causes of the two were very distinct and different as specifically mentioned.

        Regarding classical texts/scholars, I would need to see some specific text to understand what you mean. But at any rate, it is not a binary either/or dichotomy. The preponderance of concern with the end result of a dead female infant or lack of discussion regarding the specific motivations is in no way an approval of, or the acceptance of the motivations as valid. It would be a given that the motivations you mentioned (fear of dishonor, child being a burden) were unislamic in nature.

        And are you saying that if person B quotes a classical source that can be construed as women’s rights and says it as such, then that’s anachronistic b/c the idea of women’s rights is a relatively modern phenomena, and as such, person B’s statement is fallacious?

        As for the last paragraph regarding general purpose of the blog, then I’m in complete agreement with you 🙂 there is no doubt that the rosy picture painted is in direct contrast to the realities of the vast majority of muslim communities

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