Related ideas of gender roles in Islam and Christendom
I was reading Cicero, a somewhat elitist German magazine, while waiting for an appointment with my doctor last week. I scanned several essays that all dealt with the mass sexual harassment in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Groups of young men, apparently mostly from North Africa, had banded together to grope and steal. That event made headlines internationally. The German public was shocked, so the topic of Muslims’ attitude towards women is being widely discussed since.
One of the Cicero essays quoted from the Koran to prove that Islam is inherently anti-women. The author, however, failed to mention that the Bible includes similar lines. The Bible states that God created Eve from Adam’s rib because Adam needed a helper. Old and new testament alike call on wives to obey their husbands. Christianity has a history of considering women particularly prone to sin because Eve tempted Adam into original sin.
The Church hierarchy was male-dominated from the beginning in all its varieties, whether Catholic or Protestant. The Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, to this day, do not include women in the clergy. Only in the second half of the 20th century did Protestant churches begin to ordain women as priests. As for Judaism, the world’s first female rabbi was only ordained in 1935 in Germany, when the Nazis were already in power and would soon destroy Jewish culture in Germany. At the time, right-wing extremists in Germany targeted Jews, now they obsess about Islam.
The historical truth is that Mohammed was inspired by the Bible. The way the Koran and the Bible consider women is not identical, but it is related. And indeed, women’s liberation is a relative young idea in western culture. Up to only a few decades ago, a West German woman needed her husband’s formal permission to earn money. In the not so distant past, a wife could not possibly be raped by her husband, according to German law, because he had the right to her body anyway.
Angela Merkel is Germany’s first ever woman to head the national government. She came to office in 2005, after the predominantly Muslim countries Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Turkey had been led by women. Bangladesh now has had women prime ministers for 25 years, with only very brief interruptions.
As a matter of fact, some of the disgusting molestations that happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve were not criminal offences according to German law, but merely misdemeanours. Does that tell us something about Germany’s cultural heritage or about Islam?
In 2012, a gang rape in Delhi caused in international uproar. The way Indian society, which is predominantly Hindu, treats women became a hot topic. Indeed, many Hindu men believe that women need a male guide, are supposed to be subservient and are prone to sin. That attitude is not that different from age-old Muslim or Christian traditions. Isn’t it obvious that historical attitudes of male dominance transcend religion?
In my eyes, the Cicero authors are intellectually lazy. They are not really trying to understand a foreign culture; they are doing their best to find fault with it. They don’t want to ponder the complexity of European history; they want to feel superior. They want to be shielded off from global problems, and don’t want Germany to welcome refugees and migrants.
I think it needs to be pointed out, moreover, that all major religion consider sexual violence and abuse sinful. That is true of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism. Sexual harassment is unacceptable everywhere. The sad truth is that it occurs in all countries and cultures. Traditional attitudes play a role, but the root cause is certainly not one particular religion.
P.S.: One of the Cicero authors had a Muslim name. I view his contribution more favourably than the others because he has confronted his own culture. He deserves attention. But that does not mean that his view is the only way to see things. The harshest critics of the Catholic Church I know are former Catholics. I respect their views – but I respect the Catholic Church as a legitimate institution nonetheless since it gives spiritual substance to very many people. Islam does so too.
P.P.S.: Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an internationally known harsh critic of Islam. She is from a Muslim background herself. Not all her arguments make sense. For good reason she opposes female genital mutilation (FGM), but she is wrong to claim it is Islamic. FGM is not mentioned in Muslims’ holy scriptures, but is prevalent in many African cultures, including predominantly Christian ones.