Explaining Hamas, Islam and the treatment of women

Image courtesty of the CBC.

Raheel Raza, Western Standard, Oct. 28, 2023

If Canadians wish to understand the diverse sects within Islam and why some, such as Hamas and other fundamentalist versions, have little respect for women—Islamic, or Jewish women raped and captured in the Hamas attack on Israel in early October—it helps to understand pre-Islamic Arab society and various strains in Islam ever since.

Some history: Before the advent of Islam some 1450 years ago, Arabs used to bury their new-born girls alive. As well, women were treated as chattel to be bought and sold, and considered to have no soul.

Classical Islam in the seventh century ordered Arab men to stop burying their girls and gave them new rights, including the right to ask for marriage, to divorce, keep their maiden name, and also keep their earnings.

After Mohammad died, variants of political Islam began to replace traditional/spiritual Islam with clergy-led laws enacted to control the public and women in particular. Known as sharia laws or Fiqh, they date from roughly the second half of the 8th century A.D.

Relative to women, they treated women as second-class citizens and arguably in opposition to the rights given to them by the Quran. For example, one Quranic verse states that “And they (the women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them” (Quran 2:229) or the one that especially resonates with me: “O people be aware of your Lord, Who created you (humans) from a single soul (nafs) and created therefrom mates for you” (Quran 4:2).

Over time, orthodox and extremist Muslims passed off sharia laws as divinely-inspired, but were in fact a throwback to pre-Islamic Arab societies.

Fast-forward to today and countries and regimes that adhere to sharia law, be they in Saudi Arabia, or Iran, have metaphorically buried women alive again and this is where the harsh treatment of women originates.

This view of women also explains why Israeli women were seen and treated as objects, as chattel, as property and as sub-human vis-à-vis the Hamas men who raped their way through various Israeli communities on October 7.

But it’s not just Israeli women, teenagers and girls treated as a man’s property. According to a BBC report in 2010, three years after Hamas took power in Gaza, Hamas’ initial impulse was to imitate restrictions imposed in more fundamentalist communities including forced head and body coverings, and threatened to create teams of women to patrol the streets to enforce such stricture.

The attempt failed. One Gaza woman, Jihad Roston, told the BBC that “People here didn’t accept it because [they viewed it as] a personal freedom. Even some men in Gaza refused.” But as Roston noted, Hamas “destroyed the reputation of Islam, by saying we’re doing this because it is religion.”

The attempt to repress women, though, has not failed in countries such as Iran after the 1979 Revolution or more recently in Afghanistan after the return to power of the Taliban, repression in both countries is a constant factor of daily life.

In Iran as an example, and despite recent protests, women still struggle for the simple right to walk the streets with their hair showing. As an example, consider Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman who died in a Tehran hospital in September 2022 under suspicious circumstances. The Guidance Patrol, the religious morality police of Iran’s government, arrested Amini for allegedly not wearing the hijab in accordance with government decrees.

Such “sin” (according to the ruling clergy) means, as with Amini, they can be arrested for the smallest “misdemeanors”—wearing lipstick or nail polish. Their punishment can include being whipped, prisoned, raped, tortured and even killed. Some have disappeared, never to be seen again and there is no recourse to justice for these women.

Unsurprisingly, Hamas and Hezbollah,direct ideological exports of Iran, reflect the anti-women ideology of the late Iranian cleric and ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini. Due to constant brainwashing, issues like Jihad, Shahadat (dying for the cause), and sacrificing their children comes naturally to such extreme movements as per the dictated doctrine. 

Is there hope? For those who live under such regimes, one hope is in constant push-back with the hope that the dam of repression breaks one day with support from liberal Western powers and Iranian dissidents living abroad, to rally for their cause.

The other bit of hope is the example of tolerant and secular-leaning Islamic leaders, the one who are laudable exceptions to anti-women practices in the Muslim world.

One is historic, in Turkey, where after the First World War, Kemal Atatürk’s rise to power as a military leader and then president between 1923 and 1937, signalled a shift to secularism. With Atatürk’s rejection of the politicization of Islam, Islamism as a political force was marginalized, at least until recent decades. Still, at present, Turks still have a choice to be religious or spiritual and women still have the freedom to choose their own paths, be it on matters of dress, education, career and marriage. 

Or ponder the example of Ismailis, a highly-educated, progressive community who follow a Western-educated Imam who emphasizes community service and obeying the law of the land in which they choose to live. Hence, unlike the virulent politicized Islamic sects, Ismailis have always kept the radical clergy at bay and Ismaili women have possessed equal rights relative to other Muslim sects.

Or put another way, the hope for Muslim progress is found in emulating Ismaili practice and in the historic secular governance of Kemal Atatürk. Therein lies the possibility of mutual accommodation between Islam, Israel and the rest of the West. 


Raheel Raza is a Senior Fellow with the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy and president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow.

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