Not a Wave, a Tsunami!—Part 7

Conditions for women in 19th Century USA

In my last post I promised to look at the situation for women in the Muslim world. While doing the research, I realized this would be a much larger project than anticipated. Islam has numerous sects and schools of jurisprudence, as is true of all of the major religions, and predominantly Muslim countries differ considerably from each other in their treatment of women.

An outsider who criticizes the practices of another culture or faith can be met with accusations of bigotry—in this case, Islamophobia. It is true that the critic’s negative opinions may burble up from an underlying wellspring of tribalism, to then drench her psychic landscape with xenophobia. But it is also true that some cultural practices, including those of one’s own society, deserve condemnation.

With that in mind, let’s review some of what Islam says about women, and compare it with the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity.

Domestic Violence

For Islam, Qur’an 4:34 says, “So, the righteous women are obedient, (and) guard (the property and honor of their husbands)…As for women of whom you fear rebellion, convince them, and leave them apart in beds, and beat them…”  (Qu’ran is what we call the Koran.)

The Jewish Bible (roughly the same text as the Christian Old Testament) does not advocate or even mention wife-beating. Various rabbis have advocated it, though, including the highly revered Maimonides, who wrote “A wife who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod.”

Many rabbis were vociferously opposed to the practice and considered a husband’s violence grounds for a divorce that could be forced on him by the religious court.

The Christian New Testament, like the Old, does not mention wife-beating. I couldn’t find any Christian writers opposed to wife-beating until modern times. A fifteenth-century publication, which was endorsed by the Catholic Church, instructed men to “scold her sharply, bully and terrify her. And if this still doesn’t work … take up a stick and beat her soundly … not in rage, but out of charity and concern for her soul.”


In most Islamic sects, a man can divorce his wife for any or no reason, but a woman must go to court and show cause. Acceptable causes vary widely among the legal schools.

Orthodox Judaism is similar. The Talmud specifically says that a man can divorce a woman because she spoiled his dinner or simply because he finds another woman more attractive, and the woman’s consent to the divorce is not required. A woman can’t initiate a divorce. However, per the Jewish Virtual Library, “a Jewish religious court can compel the husband to grant a divorce when there is a just case, such as when a husband refuses to have marital relations, when he does not provide adequately for her support, when he is unfaithful, when he is a wife-beater, or when he has a loathsome disease, such as leprosy.”

Christianity didn’t allow divorce in its earliest years. Per Matthew 19:9, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” The Catholic Church still doesn’t allow it, but some Protestant denominations do—thanks to Henry VIII, who divorced two wives and beheaded two.

Reproductive rights

All Islamic sects allow birth control, and allow abortion if the mother’s life is at risk. Different sects also allow it for other reasons.

In Orthodox Jewish tradition, both contraception and abortion are permitted if childbearing would endanger a woman’s life or health, including her mental health. Reform Jewish congregations generally leave decisions in these matters up to the woman involved.

The Catholic Church prohibits both birth control and abortion. A few Protestant sects, such as the Amish, and some conservative sects, such as the Old Colony Mennonites, prohibit birth control. A much larger number of Protestant denominations, but not all, prohibit abortion.

Inheritance and Property

Qur’an 4:11— “Allah instructs you concerning your children: for the male, what is equal to the share of two females.”

In Jewish law, according to the Torah, only sons can be heirs, with the firstborn getting a double share; daughters inherit if there are no sons. Husbands inherit from their wives, but wives can’t inherit from their husbands. However, modern Jews are unlikely to follow the traditional law in this regard, and Israeli inheritance law is egalitarian when it comes to sex.

Christian scripture never imposed rules in this area, but starting in medieval times in Christian countries such as England and later, the English colonies in the United States, a married woman could not own or control property, keep her wages, sign contracts, or inherit property. In truth, she was property.

To Keep in Mind

Americans tend to think of ourselves as more advanced than other nations, and members of a faith consider theirs the most just, most correct, and truest understanding of the will of whatever god(s) they believe in. But religious rules concerning women, and how women have actually been treated, vary with the different sects, within different countries, and over the centuries. For example, according to Global Connections, “until 1882, the property of women in England was given to their husbands when they married, but Muslim women always retained their own assets.” In other words, a little humility, a little less of the “we’re number one!” attitude is always in order.

In the next post, we’ll start looking at the situation for women in some contemporary Muslim countries.

2 Responses to Not a Wave, a Tsunami!—Part 7

  1. Connie Byrne June 17, 2024 at 8:42 pm #

    hey Martha, while I’ve been following these commentaries, and sharing a few, this is one of the few where I’ve felt compelled to add to your training thought. Our past seems to be coming back around to the present here in the states. Between the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, book banning attempts and all of the anti LBGTQIA+ attacks, I wasn’t sure it could get much worse. I was wrong. The Southern Baptist Convention just reaffirmed its ban on women in the pulpit and now totally oppose IVF, saying children born thanks to IVF are born as a result of sin. Now there’s a movement growing to eliminate “no-fault” divorce because it hurts men, destroys families and our society. They talk of covenants between married people where they agree to never divorce…and the Speaker of the House is bragging that he and his wife entered into a binding covenant when the married and he thinks everyone should.
    I’m starting to feel like the worst practices of most of the world’s religions will be starting to become women’s reality within our society unless we stop them in their tracks!
    The few I’ve shared this concern with seem to think I’m overreacting, but they said that when I said Roe v. Wade was in danger of being overturned if Trump won the 2016 election.

    By the way, I’ve been reading some of Jean Stewart’s earlier books on a post- apocalyptic society of women trying to maintain a Freeland that is truly free…populated almost exclusively by lesbians… similar to the classic Wander ground. The first one in the series is Return to Isis (1992),, followed by Isus Rising in 1993 (Rising Tide Press). I’m really enjoying them and have several other of her books eith more recent publishing dates

  2. Martha Shelley June 17, 2024 at 10:35 pm #

    Agreed! You aren’t overreacting. The MAGA/Christian Nationalist types won’t stop until they’re burning people at the stake.

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