Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why women?

I realize that the other day I left something out. In facing the question of Islam and apostasy, I didn't deal with the fact that the news concerned women.

The numbers are frightful. Der Spiegel reports that in Germany at least fifty women have been killed because of the relations they entertained (friendship or love) with non Muslims. I also read that for London the number is of a least twelve a year. Not to mention are the cases of girls who are for the same reason pushed to suicide by the family. On the whole, in Europe are counted thousands of Muslim girls who disappear, having allegedly left for a journey abroad, never to be seen again. And so on, with a sequel of horror stories.

The question then is: why women?

To give an exact answer from the Muslim point of view, one should be an expert of sharia, the Islamic law (fixed in its main schools around the year 1200) that defines for them the religious meaning of Islam.

I am not such an expert. I am, though, quite knowledgeable in comparative anthropology, and I'll try to give an answer on the basis of this.

We are used to think of men and women simply as male and female specimens of the human species. At least, this is the official doctrine of our egalitarian society. As matter of fact, things go rather differently. We always recognize the where from of the people we meet, by their somatic characteristics and still more by the way they speak, dress, behave: so, they are always men and women of a certain country and class, or tribe, clan and family.

We discern differences among people, marked by borders that separate those we are more or less familiar with, from those we are more or less at odds with. And we all know how tense things can become when we cross those borders.

No matter how loose our family ties have become, marriage still requires, for the taboo of incest, the crossing of a threshold. In theory, this simply requires in our system of kinship that we abstain from having sexual intercourse with our most close relatives, essentially, today, father or mother, brother or sister; every other man or woman would be allowed. In practice, however, we have always known that it is not a good idea to go too far to find a mate, otherwise we could run into trouble.

Actually we run into trouble today also with those who are apparently close enough! This may well owe itself to the fact that we want culturally to ignore the dangers inherent to the crossing of thresholds, reducing all Christian precepts in sexual matters to morality, while not seeing that they indicate precisely the way to avoid tensions and hence troubles.

At the opposite pole of the spectrum from the indifference commanded by today's lassitude in sexual mores, stand Muslims, who, even when living in the Western world, are very jealous of their women.

The eminent anthropologist Mary Douglas suggested, in some books of hers published more than thirty-five years ago – Purity and danger and Natural symbols – a possible way for understanding why. She showed, on the basis of a large comparative evidence, that the tension between people separated by a certain border represent a fear of defilement, i.e. to be polluted.

The position of women in this regard is peculiar: they are in fact the ones through whom new life enters into the society of men, defined by visible or invisible borders. For the same reason, if they have sexual intercourse with people across the border, they can be seen as vehicle of defilement for the society to which they belong.

Something of the kind can be certainly said of the strictly endogamic southern society d'antan, where the border was marked by race. The difference with Muslims is that in this case, if a negro was suspected of having looked at a white woman, he risked to be lynched. With Muslims it's true the reverse: if their women are suspected of getting close to non Muslim men, it's they who risk being killed.

The great divide is here between inside and outside the umma, the community of those who have accepted submission (Islam, literally) to Allah.

But this is a religious reason, it could be objected, not to be confused with a racial one.

In the face of such an objection, I would answer: perhaps; do not then, however, come to tell me anymore that religion is a system of beliefs, that can change while leaving everything else untouched


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