Extracts: Does God Hate Women?

Does God Hate Women? (cover)
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Two extacts are available here. The first is from Chapter 1, ‘A God of Bullies’; the second from Chapter 7, ‘Islam, Islamophobia and Risk’.

On Religious Misogyny

On Islamophobia

On Religious Misogyny

Does God Hate Women? Chapter 1, pp: 19-24

Generations of women had sacrificed their feelings to preserve the work of God

Carolyn Jessop was born into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that still practices polygamy, or as they call it, ‘plural marriage.’ Her grandmother taught her she had been blessed ‘to come into a family where generations of women had sacrificed their feelings to preserve the work of God.’ Her only purpose was to have as many children as possible. This did not explain why her mother beat her so often or why so many of the women wore dark glasses to hide their black eyes, but it did give her a feeling of having been singled out for something important.

Jessop was eighteen when her father announced that God had picked a husband for her: Merril Jessop, a 50-year-old man with weathered skin and yellow teeth. She had never met him, but she knew he already had three wives and several dozen children. She had gone to school with some of his daughters. She had heard bad things about the way Merril treated his family. Boys who worked for his construction company said he didn’t pay them and he worked them like dogs.

She adored her father, and her church had taught her ‘to honour our mothers and our father,’ but she was outraged. Her father however explained that when a directive like this came down from the Prophet, it was essential not to waste time.

I could barely breathe – then Dad said the wedding would take place in two days’ time. My life had been swiped out from under me.

I later discovered that Merril had married into my family only to stop my father suing him over a business deal that had gone sour. More humiliating still, he hadn’t meant to marry me, but my younger and prettier sister, Annette. When he asked the Prophet to arrange the marriage, Merril got our names mixed up. [1]

Afghanistan, Arizona – they’re not as different as one might expect. Caroline Jessop was allowed to stay in school longer than Shabana, but she was handed over to a stranger just as peremptorily as Shabana was. In secular society, forcing girls to have sex with unknown men is called pimping, and it is straightforwardly a crime. If it’s done under the umbrella of religion, and the girl is handed over for marriage rather than prostitution, then it is no longer a crime. But from the point of view of the girl, the experience is much the same – she is forced to have sex with a stranger. She also has no ability to decide the shape of her life for herself; she is an object of exchange between men, handed over like furniture or farm equipment.

Child marriage and early childbirth can cause physical damage to girls. In particular it can cause fistula, a hole in the wall between the vagina and the bladder or rectum. Every year from 50,000 to 100,000 women giving birth in poor countries are left with this affliction [2], which renders them incontinent, wet, smelly, and ostracized. Child marriage is one of those practices that are part religion, part custom, and that, whatever the causal proportions are, religion makes much harder to reform.

The BBC spoke to one such woman during an international conference on maternal health in October 2007. Halima Gouroukoye of Niamey, Niger, was 13 when her parents arranged her marriage; she wasn’t happy about it but they told her the prospective husband was a good man and would look after her. She got pregnant after her first period and gave birth at 14. She was ill throughout her pregnancy but she still had to do all her usual work – collect wood, prepare meals, clean the house and care for her husband as well as work in the fields. She was in labour for two days at home, then went to a clinic, where she was told she would need a Caesarian.

[B]ut the doctor sent me home because I couldn’t afford the operation.

I had to wait for my family to collect the money to pay for the operation. Then we drove to Niamey which took a day. By that stage I had been in labour for days. I didn’t know where I was, I was almost unconscious. [3]

The baby died, and three days later Halima realized she couldn’t hold her urine. She didn’t tell her husband, but went home to her parents. Everyone thought she was cursed. Two months later she returned to Niamey, where an NGO provided her with the operation to mend the fistula.

Dr. Kees Waaldijk runs a clinic for fistula patients in Katsina, Nigeria. He has operated on 15,000 fistulas in twenty two years, repairing nearly all of them.

Safiya, 23, was in the post-op ward after living for a year in the hut of a traditional healer who tried to cure her by stuffing potions into her vagina. Daso, 23, said she had leaked urine and feces for five years. Her husband divorced her.

Rumasau, 16, unluckily began labor on a Saturday, when her local hospital had no physician for her. She had to wait until the following Tuesday for an emergency Caesarean section. [4]

The operation is simple and nearly always successful, but the number of new cases is far outpacing repairs, and many girls are repaired simply to be re-broken. ‘To be a woman in Africa is truly a terrible thing,’ Dr Waaldijk observed. [5]

But not only in Africa.

Mami, they are not treating me

Abortion is tightly restricted in several South American countries. Columbia used to have a total ban, until its Constitutional Court ruled on May 10 2006 that abortion in cases of rape, fetal malformation and endangerment of the life of the mother should be legal. The lawsuit was brought before the Court by Monica Roa of Women’s Link Worldwide, who was the target of death threats, burglaries, and charges of genocide in the course of her effort. Her opponents were senior figures within the Church, who are enormously powerful in a country where more than 90% of the population is Catholic. [6]

Nicaragua redressed the balance by enacting its own blanket ban in November 2006, joining Chile and El Salvador as the three countries in the world to have such total bans. The law was ratified by the National Assembly in September 2007. Both the original enactment and the vote in September 2007 were widely attributed to the desire of political parties to ensure and maintain support from the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church. Human Rights Watch issued a report in October that year on the serious effects the ban was having on the lives and health of women and girls. HRW found no prosecutions of doctors under the new law, yet also that ‘the mere possibility of facing criminal charges for providing lifesaving health services has had a deadly effect.’ [7]

Sofía M.’s doctor told Human Rights Watch she had been diagnosed years earlier with a mental imbalance that causes her to be violent whenever she is not medicated. In March 2007, when she discovered she was pregnant, Sofía M. knew she could not carry the pregnancy to term. She said, “I don’t want to kill. But in my case, I couldn’t have the child…It would not be born healthy because I can’t stop taking the medicine.…If I can’t even take care of me, how would I take care of a child?”

Sofía M. and her mother went from one clinic to another, but no one wanted to carry out the abortion because of the law: “They said they couldn’t do it because it is illegal.” She finally found a clandestine provider through a friend and told Human Rights Watch of the added anxiety in having to procure illegal services: “I was afraid; I did not know what it was going to be like. [8]

Others were not so lucky.

Angela M.’s 22-year-old daughter is another case in point. Her pregnancy-related hemorrhaging was left untreated for days at a public hospital in Managua, despite the obligation, even under Nicaraguan law and guidelines, to treat such life threatening emergencies. In November 2006, only days after the blanket ban on abortion was implemented, Angela M. told Human Rights Watch of the pronounced lack of attention: “She was bleeding.… That’s why I took her to the emergency room … but the doctors said that she didn’t have anything.… Then she felt worse [with fever and hemorrhaging] and on Tuesday they admitted her. They put her on an IV and her blood pressure was low.… She said. ‘Mami, they are not treating me.’…They didn’t treat at all, nothing.”

From comments made by the doctors at the time, Angela M. believes her daughter was left untreated because doctors were reluctant to treat a pregnancy-related emergency for fear that they might be accused of providing therapeutic abortion. Angela M.’s daughter was finally transferred to another public hospital in Managua, but too late: “She died of cardiac arrest.… She was all purple, unrecognizable. It was like it wasn’t my daughter at all.” [9]

Chile’s 1874 penal code made abortion illegal in all cases; in 1931 a national health law allowed doctors to give legal abortions where necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life or health. In 1989 General Pinochet, as one of his last acts in office, annulled this statutory exception to the general illegality of abortion; thus the law now prohibits abortion in all circumstances. Nevertheless a very large number of women risk illegal and thus unsafe abortions every year; surveys indicate that 35% of all pregnancies in Chile end in abortion, which translates to about 160,000 abortions per year, 64,000 of them by girls under eighteen. Illegal abortion is a leading cause of maternal mortality in Chile. [10]

In Lublin, Poland, a 14-year-old schoolgirl known by the pseudonym ‘Agata’ said she was raped by a fellow student and left covered in bruises and pregnant. She and her mother applied for permission to have an abortion, which in Poland is legal up to twelve weeks in cases of rape, but when they went to the hospital, Agata was shown, alone, into a room where a priest was waiting. The doctor returned later and said she would not perform the abortion; Agata says the doctor and the priest dictated a letter in which she agreed to keep the baby, and she complied just to get some peace. Her mother contacted the Women’s Federation in Warsaw and, with their help, found a clinic willing to perform the abortion, but when they arrived they found the same priest waiting, along with anti-abortion campaigners; the doctors then refused to perform the abortion. Agata told the Gazeta Wyborcza that she wants to be a mother later, not now. [11]


1. Carolyn Jessup, The Guardian, December 15 2007.

2. UN Population Fund, Campaign to End Fistula, http://www.endfistula.org/fistula_brief.htm, accessed September 28 2008.

3. BBC News, ‘They thought I was cursed’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/7050934.stm, accessed December 16 2007.

4. Sharon LaFraniere, ‘Nightmare for African Women: Birthing Injury and Little Help’, The New York Times, September 28 2005.

5. Ibid.

6. Andrew Buncombe, The Independent, October 13 2005.

7. Human Rights Watch.

8. Ibid, pp. 9-10.

9. Ibid, p. 13.

10. Human Rights Watch, ‘Abortion: Chile’, http://www.hrw.org/women/abortion/chile.html,
accessed June 23 2008.

11. Derek Scally, ‘Polish girl caught up in row has abortion’, The Irish Times, June 23 2008.

On Islamophobia

Does God Hate Women? Chapter 7, pp: 153-157

…[A]ccusations of ‘Islamophobia’ are increasingly being employed in an attempt to defuse and silence criticism of Islam. Although there is no generally accepted definition of the term – which is hardly surprising given that its primary use is rhetorical – there have been a number of attempts to spell out what it involves. Perhaps the most influential is to be found in a Runnymede Trust report titled Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All,which was published in 1997.

According to this report, Islamophobia is ‘an outlook or worldview involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims’, which has the following characteristics: [1]

  • Islam is seen as a single monolithic bloc, unresponsive to new realities.
  • Islam is seen as not having any aims or values in common with other cultures, not affected by them, and not influencing them.
  • Islam is seen as inferior to the West – barbaric, irrational, primitive and sexist.
  • Islam is seen as violent, supportive of terrorism, and engaged in ‘a clash of civilisations’.
  • Islam is seen as a political ideology, used for political or military advantage.
  • Criticisms made by Islam of ‘the West’ are rejected out of hand.
  • Hostility towards Islam is used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.
  • Anti-Muslim hostility is accepted as natural and ‘normal’.

Unfortunately, though influential, this conception is badly flawed. Not least, it pathologises a number of beliefs that are almost certainly true. For example, it is not unreasonable to think that Islam is irrational. Like any religion, it is founded on truth-claims that don’t get anywhere near satisfying the criteria for rational justifiability. Anthony Grayling puts it like this:

Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.

This remark outrages the sensibilities of those who have deep religious convictions and attachments, and they regard it as insulting. But the truth is that everyone takes this attitude about all but one (or a very few) of the gods that have ever been claimed to exist. [2]

Certainly then most atheists are going to think that Islam is irrational. However, this judgement has nothing to do with prejudice or ‘unfounded dread’, even if it does lead to the further thought that Western societies that confine religion to the private sphere are ‘superior’ to Islamic societies (which do not).

Similarly with the claim that Islam is sexist. Even if one views Islam in its best light – ignoring honour killings, child marriage, FGM, and the like – it is still a long way from espousing sexual equality in its core teachings. Consider, for example, that the Koran contains the following lines (as we noted in Chapter 2):

Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them’. (Koran: 4:34)

It is not necessary to be a particularly radical feminist to think that there is something sexist in this kind of talk. Needless to say, the Islam apologetics industry will dispute the meaning and import of these words. But, in this context, that is neither here nor there. There is plenty of textual, historical and empirical evidence to support the view that Islam is sexist. As we saw in Chapter 2, not everybody agrees that this is what the evidence shows, but presumably very few people will argue that there is no case for Islam to answer. In this situation, it is absurd to think that people are prejudiced simply because they come down on the side of the claim that Islam is sexist (any more than they would be prejudiced if they think that there is evidence to support a judgement that Christianity is sexist).

A similar kind of argument can be levelled against the idea that it is Islamophobic to see Islam ‘as violent, supportive of terrorism, and engaged in “a clash of civilisations”’. Part of the problem here is that it isn’t exactly clear what this means. Clearly if you think that every Muslim is violent and supports terrorism then your views are verging towards the pathological. However, there are other ways of cashing out this statement where it would be much more reasonable to assent. Certainly there is textual evidence – in particular, the distinction between lesser and greater jihad – to support the claim that Islam countenances violence in certain, not clearly defined, circumstances; and there are legitimate worries about Islamic terrorism and the relationship between Western and Islamic countries.

There is some polling data that makes for interesting reading when one considers the issue of Islam and violence. It shows that there is fairly widespread support for suicide bombings amongst Arab and Nigerian Muslims, [3] and also, somewhat paradoxically, that:

Worries about Islamic extremism are pervasive among nations with sizeable Muslim populations. Majorities in seven of the eight nations where this question was asked are concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the world today.

Seven-in-ten or more are concerned in Indonesia, Pakistan, Tanzania and Lebanon. And more than half of Pakistanis and Tanzanians are very concerned….

Similar proportions say they are concerned about Islamic extremism in their countries. Majorities in seven of eight countries are very or somewhat concerned about the rise of extremism in their country, and worries are especially widespread in Lebanon (78%), Pakistan (72%) and Egypt (72%). [4]

So the question arises whether non-Western Muslims who are worried about Islamic extremism are guilty of Islamophobia? If they are not, then it would seem perverse to claim that similar fears in the West are necessarily a manifestation of anti-Islamic prejudice, especially since things such as the level of anti-Semitism and support for suicide bombers in mainly Muslim countries are worth worrying about.

There is a counter-argument to these points: namely, that Islamophobia is not identical with a particular set of critical attitudes, but rather is indicated by it (where Islamophobia is defined as an ‘unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims’, for example). However, the trouble with this argument is that the concept simply isn’t employed in this kind of nuanced way. Rather, it is used as catch-all pejorative designed to neutralise any criticism of Islam. Kenan Malik, writing in 2005, makes the point like this:

‘Islamophobia’ has become not just a description of anti-Muslim prejudice but also a prescription for what may or may not be said about Islam. Every year, the Islamic Human Rights Commission organises a mock awards ceremony for its ‘Islamophobe of the Year’. Last year there were two British winners. One was the BNP’s Nick Griffin. The other? Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. Toynbee’s defence of secularism and women’s rights, and criticism of Islam, was, it declared, unacceptable. Isn’t it absurd, I asked the IHRC’s Massoud Shadjareh, to equate a liberal anti-racist like Polly Toynbee with the leader of a neo-fascist party. Not at all, he suggested. ‘There is a difference between disagreeing and actually dismissing certain ideologies and certain principles. We need to engage and discuss. But there’s a limit to that.’ It is difficult to know what engagement and discussion could mean when leading Muslim figures seem unable to distinguish between liberal criticism and neo-fascist attacks. [5]

In this sense, then, the term ‘Islamophobia’ is employed for its perlocutionary effects; [6] that is, for the purpose of closing down debate, and controlling what can and can’t be said about Islam. In part, this works because people self-censor for fear of provoking Muslim ire. Malik, for example, recalls that he once began an essay on Thomas Paine for the Independent newspaper by quoting from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, only for the quote to be cut from the final version because it was thought to be too offensive to Muslims. [7] He remarks that the irony of censoring an essay written in celebration of free thought seemed to escape the editor. More recently, Random House cancelled the publication of the The Jewel of Medina – a novel that tells the story of Aisha, Muhammad’s child bride – after Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas, complained that the book was a ‘very ugly, stupid piece of work’, which ‘made fun of Muslims and their history,’ and warned that there was a very real possibility that its publication would provoke widespread violence. [8]

Spellberg’s warning turned out to be accurate. On September 4 2008, Gibson Square, a UK publisher, announced that it had bought UK and Commonwealth rights to the book. Just over three weeks later, the house of the owner of Gibson Square was firebombed, apparently as a protest against the publication of the book. Professor Spellberg, however, deserves no credit for her role in this affair, since if it had not been for her intervention, then likely Random House would have published the book, there would have been no fuss, and no firebomb.


1. The Runnymede Trust, ‘Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All – Summary’, 1997.

2. Anthony Grayling, ‘Believers are away with the fairies’, Daily Telegraph, 26 March 2007.

3. 53% of Egyptian Muslims think that suicide bombings can be justified; 54% of Jordanian Muslims agree; as do 50% of Lebanese Muslims, and 44% of Nigerian Muslims. (The Pew Global Attitude Project, ‘Unfavorable Views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase in Europe’, 17 September 2008, p. 25, http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/262.pdf, accessed 18 September 2008.)

4. Ibid, p. 29.

5. Kenan Malik, ‘The Islamophobia Myth.

6. The philosopher J. L. Austin distinguished between the conventional meaning of a speech act – in his terms, the locutionary act – and the effect of a speech act, what he called the perlocutionary act or perlocutionary effect.

7. Malik, ‘The Islamophobia Myth’, op. cit.

8. See, for example, Asra A. Nomani, ‘You Still Can’t Write About Muhammad’, The Wall Street Journal, August 6 2008, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121797979078815073.html, accessed 29 September 2008.