Echo of a darker age for women

I feel that the time has come that the only way to wake up the Muslim world to the enormity of the suffering and horror that some Muslim women face is to use terminology from within the Muslim tradition that conveys the magnitude of that suffering: Jahiliyyah.

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
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There are few concepts in the Muslim psyche that paint an image as vivid and forceful as the era of The Jahiliyyah, the Period of Great Ignorance, that preceded the advent of Islam. It is considered by Muslims to be a dark, ungodly, forsaken time when men and women believed in many deities, lived lives of tribal partisanship and warfare, showed immense racism, inflicted oppression on the poor and meted out gruesome treatment to women.

Of the horrors of the Jahiliyyah that Islam eradicated, some of the most salient are about women. Women had little control over their lives. They could not own property, in fact wives themselves were treated as chattel and were inherited by their sons when their husbands died. Worse, young girls would be buried alive by their fathers, to prevent shame falling on the men. In fact, this latter tradition was so abhorrent to the nascent Islam that it is even mentioned in the Quran with disgust.

When Muslims today talk about this practice of female infanticide, it is almost a form of shorthand to refer to the terrible state of human society before Islam. Islam was a radical set of propositions. Its foundation was the belief that there is no god but (one) God. Pre-Islamic Arabs were ardently polytheistic. They were happy to add on one more deity to their collection, but the problem was that Mohammed wanted them to dispense with all the others and take Allah as their only divinity. This meant dispensing with the traditions of their forefathers, and this was unthinkable for them. Mohammed was clear in his response: cultural traditions are no reason to keep doing the wrong thing.

Polytheism also brought wealth to the pre-Islamic Arabs in the form of the pilgrimage to the gods kept in the Kaaba. Destroying the gods would mean a significant reduction in trade resulting in diminished status and wealth. There are signs that monotheists were already present before Islam's advent, suggesting that the idea of one God was not rejected just on ideology but also on grounds of culture, economics and power.

The same applies to the treatment of women. The early Muslims who migrated from Mecca to Medina, were perturbed that their usually docile women were picking up what they saw as insolent behaviour from the Muslim women of Medina who were more used to having discussions with their menfolk. The new free status of women and their right to own property was also seen as problematic by the early Muslims, who not only were no longer in possession of the women and their women's wealth, but now had to share war booty with the women as well, further impacting negatively on their wealth.

Again, culture, power and economics were the driving forces behind maintaining the un-Islamic practices of the Jahiliyyah. Why am I analysing the history of the Jahiliyyah in an article which is going to discuss the startling horror of the violence and abuse against Muslim women today? The answer is very simple: because exactly the same things are happening today, and for the same reasons. Muslims must learn from their history to understand that these practices are once again with us, and that if we are proud that the advent of Islam eradicated them, then we must honour the promise of Islam and eradicate them again today.

In February of this year in Turkey, a 16-year-old girl was buried alive by her family. Police found a two- metre hole that had been dug underneath a chicken pen in the family home. Inside it, they found the body of the girl, in a sitting position with her hands tied. Media reports said the father had told relatives he was unhappy that his daughter had male friends. A post mortem examination revealed large amounts of soil in her lungs and stomach, indicating that she had been alive and conscious while being buried.

I feel sick when I think of the poor young woman, buried for supposedly bringing shame on her family. It is horribly reminiscent of the same way that girls during the Jahiliyyah were buried for bringing shame on theirs. And although this case connects the two in a very graphic way, many women are murdered in similarly motivated so-called "honour killings" all over the world. How have we returned to a society where the most abhorrent acts of the Jahiliyyah are once again being perpetrated?

Such violence and death used against women is, of course, not limited to Muslims. Tragically, women are treated badly across all societies, irrespective of culture and religion. Those who wish to propagate their vile anti-Muslim vitriol should look closer to home and to the suffering of women wherever they are. For example, the World Health Organisation reports that worldwide up to one in five women reports experiencing sexual abuse as children, that trafficking of women and girls for forced labour and sex is widespread, and that rape is increasingly becoming a weapon of war.

More specific to the Muslim world, it is true that women's suffering once again echoes the Jahiliyyah. A Saudi tribal court ruled that a woman's marriage could forcibly be broken up against her will but in line with her family's wishes. In India, a Muslim woman raped by her father-in-law was forcibly divorced from her husband because the judge ruled that even though it was she who was the victim, the rape had nullified her marriage. In Afghanistan, women are bought and sold in public markets.

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that these are cases of women being treated as property, with no self-determination, no marital rights and being killed or kept alive at the whim of men. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that this is reminiscent of the time of Jahiliyyah. Such incidences make it clear that when it comes to improving life for women, the barriers that faced the early Muslim community are still the same today. Many societies control women by claiming that "freedom" is breaking with culture and tradition, that that is not "how we do things". But Islam is adamant that "following our forefathers" is a fallacious reason. Using women as tools to assert status and wealth show us that the motivations of economics and power are still widely prevalent today as well.

The word Jahiliyyah has a powerful impact on the Muslim psyche, and so I use the word with careful consideration. It is not an easy choice to do so, but I feel that the time has come that the only way to wake up the Muslim world to the enormity of the suffering and horror that some Muslim women face is to use terminology from within the Muslim tradition that conveys the magnitude of that suffering: Jahiliyyah.

The Muslim world needs a wake-up call to ensure that the violence against women stops. Anyone who has any connection or pride in the remarkable changes that came with the advent of Islam must open their eyes, see what is happening to women in the Muslim world and work to change the status quo. Anything less is to open yourself up to the charge of hypocrisy. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a British commentator on Islam and author of Love in a Headscarf, a memoir of growing up as a Muslim woman