My Trouble with Islam

Just minutes after he was done sexually assaulting me, the man drove me home and gave me a religious lecture along the way.

“It’s too bad you’re not a Muslim,” he said, words I will never forget or forgive. “Because god sees everything that you do, and he knows that you are a bad woman.”

Less than half an hour earlier, this man of god had ignored my tears and stripped me naked, showing “mercy” by merely rubbing his penis against me until he ejaculated, instead of actually penetrating me. Me, the “bad woman.”

And you might think that would be enough to make me swear of Islam forever, but amazingly, it wasn’t. Four years later, in a fit of trying to prove myself open minded, I found myself knocking on the door of someone whose home served as a makeshift mosque in a rinky-dink Midwestern town too small to support its own Muslim house of worship. Having been raised an atheist, I became a curious seeker of spiritual truth, and I felt that Islam might have something to offer. After all, it sounded so good on paper.

But that day, no one opened the door. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so grateful for an unanswered call.

As far as liberals go, I’m a pretty good one. I believe in equal opportunity and justice for everyone, regardless of their sex, age, religion, race, physical ability and so on. I was raised to be open to other cultures, a value my mother instilled in me as we traveled abroad every other year. And, as is the custom among many liberal college-educated young people, I even harbored the bias that cultures other than mainstream American culture are quite likely are better simply because they’re not mainstream American.

So when Mr. Iran stopped by to look at my apartment as a possible sublease, I was eager to learn more about where he came from and what life was like there. He suggested taking me out to dinner to talk. I was thrilled. He said he’d pick me up the next evening.

It wasn’t until he turned into the Burger King that I thought something might be amiss. Not to diss the Whopper, but I had hoped dinner might be something a little more interesting. More worrying still, he decided we’d eat in his hotel room, rather than the BK dining area.

But I wasn’t about to panic yet. If he wanted to watch a nature documentary on TV while eating fast food before we got down to the nitty-gritty of cultural misunderstandings, fine. It wasn’t the evening I had envisioned, but what the heck.

It was when he started pawing on me that I realized what this was all about. And I realized how vulnerable I was.

Winter vacation had already started and my friends were all already out of town. I was leaving tomorrow, myself, flying back up north to be with family. But there was no one around for me to call, no one who could drive by and haul me out of there. And here I was with a man at least 15 years older and a lot stronger than me, who obviously wanted more than a broiled burger and fries out of the evening.

I froze. It’s something that baffled me for years after the fact, but that’s what I did. Like a rabbit caught in an open field, I just froze. My body did, anyway. My mid was whirring at thousands of RPM, fruitlessly willing myself to just do something while hoping that my unresponsiveness would tell him what I did not want. (Only now, years later, have I learned that the “fight or flight” response is actually a “fight, flight or freeze,” and untold multitudes of rape victims have likely blamed themselves for an instinctual physiological response.)

But he didn’t stop. His hands moved from my knees to my thighs to my breast. I started to cry, and that annoyed him. When I wouldn’t stop crying and I wouldn’t respond to his touch, he just dragged me to the edge of the bed, pulled my clothes off, put me on all fours and rubbed himself against me. And then told me what a bad woman I was on the drive home.

I ran to the shower and let the water run over me. I had to catch my flight home in a few hours, and I was resolved to not let my parents know what had just happened. Not to burden themselves with it. So I told myself to forget about it. I willed myself to just get over it.

But I didn’t, really. I harbored mistrust for Islam because of that night, and I felt guilty for it. So I overcompensated by forcing myself to be über-enthusiastic about Islam in the following years. I bought a Qu’ran and tried to read it. When my then-fiance introduced me to historical re-enactment, I decided to read up on Islamic empires in the Middle Ages and learned about Middle Eastern costuming. I took on a pen-pal from Lebanon over the Internet. I TRIED REALLY, REALLY HARD.

But … but … It just didn’t take. And for all my willing it to be otherwise, I’m left with the nagging sense that Islam is truly flawed, and the heart of its failing is how it treats its women.

Here’s the thing, though. Islam looks really good on paper. I’m serious. There’s a lot of talk about everyone being equal, about each individual being in a one-to-one relationship with god, no clergy in-between. There are even assertions that Islam improved the lot of women in the Arabian Peninsula over what it had been before (I find that one hard to believe, but I’m not enough of an expert to truly argue it).

And some of the Qu’ran truly is beautiful. This verse – one of the shortest books in the Qu’ran – is something I find truly comforting.

Have we not lifted up your heart and relieved you of the burden which weighed down your back?
Have we not given you high renown?
Every hardship is followed by ease.
Every hardship is followed by ease.
When your task is ended, resume your toil
And seek your god with all your heart.

The book is even called “Comfort,” and its words about the cycle of worry and relief roll around my head from time to time when I need it. So I don’t deny that there is beauty in the religion.

But, like so many things – like Communism and Anarchism and other multi-level marketing schemes – looking great on paper is not enough. And when you peel back the platitudes to see how the thing actually works, it’s just not pretty.

I proceed now with caution. I am aware that I have at least one reader in Saudi Arabia, and I value her readership and encourage her to speak up here – to set me right or back me up or whatever she feels she needs to say. I write now with her in the back of my mind, because I don’t seek to needlessly offend, and because I don’t want to cause her upset.

But I don’t think it serves me well to look aside when I see a pattern emerging out of the fear of being called hateful. I am not hateful. But I hate some of the things I see.

I’m talking about young girls who are murdered for being rape victims. I mean other young girls whose bodies are mutilated in order to be “clean.” I mean woman sentenced to be gang raped as a punishment for something her brother allegedly did. I mean women who are jailed for reporting rape. I mean mullahs who decree that wartime rapes are a valid weapon of war. I mean theocracies declaring 9-year-old girls old enough for marriage. I mean honor killings for marrying the wrong man or not getting married or leaving Islam, all in the name of religion. I mean the madness of Taliban rule and what it means for women’s lives. I mean a religion that outright declares a woman should receive half the inheritance of a man, and that domestic battery against her can be condoned. I mean women being declared by law to be second-class citizens who can’t drive, where girls are locked into a burning school lest they leave without being “properly” covered, and where women need a relative’s permission or leave the country. I mean what happened to me. All done or justified in the name of Islam.

For crying out loud, when the same sort of iniquities were forced upon black people in South Africa in the name of Apartheid, the rest or the world rightfully rose up in outrage until that unjust system was dismantled. But what I see in so much of the Islamic world cannot be described any better than “sex apartheid.” And the world is silent. No, it’s worse than that. The world says, “But you have to understand, it’s their culture…”

Oh, yes. I’ve heard all the arguments before.

  • “But that is the culture, not the religion.” You might as well say, “But that is the head side of the coin, not tails.” Because the culture seeks validation from religion, and the religion operates within a culture. They are entwined. And I’m not interested in a chicken-and-egg argument when the two are obviously in cahoots.
  • “But the Christian/Jewish/other religions have equally bad religious laws.” Boy howdy, do they ever! But outside zealots fighting to wrest control over Israel (and what is going on there is eine grosse shande!), I’m not sure of other countries that are trying to enact holy scripture as law. Other than say, Iran, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Jordan, Libya Mauritaia, Morocco, Nigeria (northern part), Qatar, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Well, and the Vatican, but I think you can only live there by invitation.
  • “But other religions treat women poorly, too.” I know! I spent an afternoon at an Orthodox Jewish religious service, and never again! Whenever a religion is used to treat women like lesser beings, it should be scrutinized. So let’s drag all denominations that do that into the light, instead of using “they started it” as an excuse to allow everyone to continue it.
  • “But America has its own rape epidemic. It’s just bad here.” Yes to the first; no to the second. Our criminal justice system has rightfully been compared to a second rape for victims, but no US court has ever sentenced a teenage girl to death by flaying for being raped. Or made her marry her attacker. Or sentenced her to gang rape because of something her brother might have done.
  • “But women in the Middle East choose to wear the hijab/live under Sharia law/get beaten by their husbands.” Yes, some do. I know because I’ve talked with some. And if that’s what they really want to do – fine. But what about the women there who don’t want it? What about women in Saudia Arabia who only want to be able to drive their car to their own business that caters to both men and women clients and then to fly out of the country whenever needed to attend a meeting? You can’t validate a system based on the choices of some when that system is used to invalidate the choices of many others.

I am sick of hearing of atrocities done to women in the name of Islam. And I really hope Muslims, especially Muslim women, are sick of it, too.


  1. Pingback: Her Trouble with Islam | B's Room

  2. In a nutshell, we’re only an Islamic country in the sense that we all cover up and nobody openly sells drugs.
    And some women are starting to ditch the abaya – long cloakish thing – for just modest clothing.

    So yes, I’m sorry, but it is culture, not religion.

    My reply got too long, though. Sorry!

  3. I disagree. Islam doesn’t sound good on paper. It sounds good from the mouths of (mostly western) apologists, but that’s basically lying for Mo. When you actually read it, it’s quite different.

    The situation of women before Islam WAS better. Just think of Kadijah, first wife of Mo, a businesswoman with Mo being her boy-toy, she had him by the balls. Now women aren’t allowed to do sh!t, if men don’t allow it.

    Also, see this hadith:
    Sahih Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 43, Number 648
    Narrated ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas:
    …Then ‘Umar went on relating the narration and said. “I and an Ansari neighbor of mine from Bani Umaiya bin Zaid who used to live in ‘Awali Al-Medina, used to visit the Prophet in turns. He used to go one day, and I another day. When I went I would bring him the news of what had happened that day regarding the instructions and orders and when he went, he used to do the same for me. We, the people of Quraish, used to have authority over women, but when we came to live with the Ansar, we noticed that the Ansari women had the upper hand over their men, so our women started acquiring the habits of the Ansari women. Once I shouted at my wife and she paid me back in my coin and I disliked that she should answer me back. She said, ‘Why do you take it ill that I retort upon you? By Allah, the wives of the Prophet retort upon him, and some of them may not speak with him for the whole day till night.’ What she said scared me and I said to her, ‘Whoever amongst them does so, will be a great loser.’ … So, I entered upon the Prophet and saw him lying on a mat without bedding on it, and the mat had left its mark on the body of the Prophet, and he was leaning on a leather pillow stuffed with palm fibres. I greeted him and while still standing, I said: “Have you divorced your wives?” He raised his eyes to me and replied in the negative. And then while still standing, I said chatting: “Will you heed what I say, O Allah’s Apostle! We, the people of Quraish used to have the upper hand over our women (wives), and when we came to the people whose women had the upper hand over them…”

    Do you know why 9-year-old girls are halal? Because Mo did it. Aisha was 9 when he first raped her. (And no, she hadn’t had her menarche yet. As if that would make a difference anyway, because Mo is supposed to be the al-Insan al-Kamil (perfect human) after all, not just a dude from his times.) What is even worse, is that according to the Koran there is no age limit for sex with prebubescent “women”. (Read Q 33:49+65:4) Oh, of course he’ll have to marry her first, in case she’s a Musilmah anyway, that makes it all ok.

    The reason why rape victims are punished, is basically for the same reason as in the other middle eastern religions, women are viewed property of a man. Islam basically doesn’t recognize rape, what is being punished is zina, sex outside a marriage/ownership. A women is always the property of a man, first her father, then her husband or master (if she’s a slave), by being raped his property is violated, and this has to be punished, not what was done to her. Her owner can rape her as he likes.(Bonus fact: Do you know what Ali had to give to Fatima as payment for the access to her genitals? His coat of mail.)

    Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 54, Number 460:
    Narrated Abu Huraira:

    Allah’s Apostle said, “If a husband calls his wife to his bed (i.e. to have sexual relation) and she refuses and causes him to sleep in anger, the angels will curse her till morning.”

    Sahih Muslim, Book 008, Number 3371:

    Abu Sirma said to Abu Sa’id al Khadri (Allah he pleased with him): 0 Abu Sa’id, did you hear Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) mentioning al-‘azl? He said: Yes, and added: We went out with Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) on the expedition to the Bi’l-Mustaliq and took captive some excellent Arab women; and we desired them, for we were suffering from the absence of our wives, (but at the same time) we also desired ransom for them. So we decided to have sexual intercourse with them but by observing ‘azl (Withdrawing the male sexual organ before emission of semen to avoid-conception). But we said: We are doing an act whereas Allah’s Messenger is amongst us; why not ask him? So we asked Allah’s Mes- senger (may peace be upon him), and he said: It does not matter if you do not do it, for every soul that is to be born up to the Day of Resurrection will be born.

    Then there’s also Q 4:24 and 2:223.

    Note: sahih ahadith are authentic, they are the source that comes right after the Koran.

    If you want to read more, I suggest (edited by both kafirs and moslems) and skepticsannotatedbible (they have a Koran, too). There used to be this huge ahadith collection at MSA West, but they took it down, apparently they were ashamed, because it was quoted so much by critics, first they took down the antisemitic ones, then all others. I have to give the christian fundies credit for not ever witnessing such a behaviour from them.

  4. I’m disappointed with the comment above. I believe there is room to discuss and even debate ideas without being intentionally rude, which I believe you have been. I know what hadith are, and I also know that they are categorized by how reliable they are believed to be. How reliable are the ones you cherry-picked considered to be?

    I do know the story of Aisha, and I admit it doesn’t sit well with me, either. Arguments that “it was a different time then and different standards applied” don’t work for me when we’re discussing someone who was meant to embody the kind of morality others should aim to have.

    Frankly,the religious texts of Judaism and Christianity are littered with unsavory things, too. We can spend the rest of the day looking around for things that offend us. Like the story of Lot and his daughters. It’s a fun night when that one gets discussed in Temple.

    Which is why I say, it matters more to me how things are lived out than what was written down a couple thousand years ago. It’s why I can get with Reform Judaism but won’t ever again go to an Orthodox Jewish service. I fundamentally (haha!) believe that religious texts are created by people, so in judging a text, you are at best judging the person who wrote it some thousands of years ago.

    How it’s lived out today, that matters much more.

  5. Thank you. I am so glad you wrote this. My girlfriend and I couchsurfed with a Jordanian man about a month ago and he gave us a rather unapologetic male view of Islam. Since then, and since we just got back from Morocco, this exact topic has been on my mind for quite some time.

    Our host kept saying things like “you can’t compare apples to bananas” when we would ask questions about the inequalities between men and women. I kind of just gave him the benefit of the doubt when he said this, not wishing to be a close-minded American, but since I spent some time in a Muslim country, I think we can and we should. And my experiences were quite mild, but still upsetting.

    You are absolutely right, the religion and the culture go hand in hand. The religion is the blanket over which the underlying culture shows its form, and I don’t think it’s hateful to think something is unjust, not right, immoral etc. when there is plenty of evidence around you. I don’t think it’s right to discriminate people based on their age, sex, skin color, but I think we’re all entitled to judge people based on their behavior. You are accountable for your actions, and if your religion justifies your horrible actions, then I think humanity should at LEAST have an opportunity to discuss it without it being dismissed as inappropriate judging or “hating.” no?

    So while it is completely true that Americans are living in a rape culture, I feel as though the situation in Muslim countries/Arab cultures is somehow more urgent. Just in virtue of the fact that as an American I am at least in theory protected equally under the law and as you mentioned, no US court would ever sentence a woman to be gang raped as punishment. For all the faults of the Western world, at least there are no more death by stoning or burning people at the stake. I think it’s time we stopped walking on egg shells around these topics for fear of “offending” people. Because really, I think offending people should be the least of our concerns when the lives of women are quite literally at stake.

    Again, thank you so much for posting this. It took a lot of courage. It makes me feel better and somehow worse at the same time…

  6. demogirl06

    Hi Femin…

    First of all, excellent post.

    Katie Seibert (commenting above) is my girlfriend and travel partner. She said it better than I could have. Can’t tell you how many 8-hour bus/train rides we had in Morocco recently (being stared at without relief) during which we tried to unpack our observations/experiences from our culturally ingrained prejudices. So yeah… she said it for me. I will further add that sexual harassment is never okay–ever. Men don’t understand that their looks, stares, comments, whistles, and everything else wear on women like water eroding stone. I sometimes think that it takes a PRISON SENTENCE to teach a man what this feels like.

    I have a question for you–or maybe an observation. I’m not sure.

    I’m a strong believer that we “precipitate our own ends.” By that, I mean that the guy who always has bad luck and loses his job tends to DO something to help this trend; the person who always gets taken advantage of or conned by others tends to ALLOW these things to happen. And the girl who always gets taken advantage of…?

    I’m not saying that a girl who went to a frat house to get drunk was “asking for it” when she got raped. Not at all. But I do know that some people, by virtue of their personality, their sweetness, their whatever… make themselves more of a target. I will speak from my area of expertise, which happens to be hitchhiking. If a woman sits in the passenger seat timid, nervous, and scared, her driver feels this, reads this, and decides somewhere that she is a good target. If that same girl sits in that seat tall, confident, animated, and fearless, her would-be assailant thinks twice. I can think of loads of other examples, but you get the point.

    You are not naive; and I was shocked by your “fight, flight, or FREEZE” admission, and where it went. I wonder what you have written/will write on the subject of how to protect yourself. If you haven’t read it, you should check out THE GIFT OF FEAR, by Gavin DeBecker


  7. I think any criminal looks for the easy target, but what’s wrong with that picture isn’t that someone is an “easy target” but that the other person is a criminal. Or, to put it the way I heard someone first explain it to me, “Just someone is easy to hurt doesn’t make it OK to do it.”

    I struggle with the “how to protect yourself” thing. The incident I wrote about here wasn’t even the worst sexual assault I experienced. That one came a year later, and looking back, I can see many points along the way where things may have turned out differently had I been more cautious. But the thing is, I’ve always been a brave and adventurous person. I don’t want to be the kind of person who is always deciding not to do something because there might be a risk. Again, it didn’t justify the harm someone else chose to do, but I might have avoided it had I been a more cautious person. Yet that’s not who I want to be. In fact, the day after that rape, I vividly remember promising myself, “I won’t let this change who I am…”

    I was 17 when I went across Europe alone for a month, and people said I was fearless. I’ve read some of your blog, and my mind boggles at what you’re doing! If I prided myself in being adventurous, I can hardly imagine the words you use to describe what you do! Still, even in that one month, there were times when I did feel danger. I think whatever I have to say on the subject probably pales in comparison to the things you’ve learned along the way.

  8. Maria and I had a discussion about this after she posted her comment. If you’ve seen any of the photos posted on Maria’s blog you’ll notice that she is not exactly a small girl. I have the luxury (I truly feel it is a luxury) to travel around with a girl who is larger than many of the men we encounter. I encourage her to take her size into consideration, most women do not have the actual ability to match a man in size or strength. I think it grants a unique level of confidence (and she knows this).

    That being said, in Morocco I had my own experience of actual unwanted touching. Our host was “putting the moves” on me, shall we say. He put his arm around me, and put his head on my shoulder, and held my hands. I did not feel that I was in any actual danger, and yet it completely froze. I had no idea how to handle this situation. I did not know how to tell him to stop. I said nothing, I just took it and when I finally saw an exit, I just kept my distance from then on.

    I told Maria about this and later, he tried similar things on her. He extended his hand for hers and unlike me, who accepted out of social pressure, she simply told him “no touching” and he withdrew his hand.

    I do agree with you that “seeming” more easily victimized (or not) does not change the fact that it’s wrong to commit a crime. I think there are two parallel discussions going on here. One is this idea that women are in actual danger and they need to take certain measures to reduce that risk. Because you know, “this is how the world is.” And the other discussion is how do we put a stop to men perpetrating these crimes. Surely I should be able to feel safe doing normal things, and yet I am still constantly assessing what choices I have to make myself as safe as possible.

    I think Maria has a point, because of our deliberate choices we have managed to keep ourselves very safe and we have really experienced no serious danger. But I also STRONGLY agree with what you say, the solution is not in how women should be better at avoiding sexual violence. *sigh*

    So it looks like maybe this issue still needs some unpacking.

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