Former dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies for Women at Al-Azhar University, Souad Saleh, came out in public one day, defending the concept of Mā malakat aymānukum ("what your right hands possess"), a Quranic expression referring to slaves. She argued that, at times of war with non-Muslims, Muslims can “enjoy” non-Muslim women sexually—though in this context, “enjoy” seemed a very ambiguous term, since any sexual activity would occur against the women’s wills.
That is to say, it would be rape. Sex with a female against her will falls under one definition in all legislations internationally—it is rape and assault. Why, then, the insistence on sugarcoating one of the most heinous crimes, and the attempt to whitewash it with religion?
Saleh went on to set an example to illustrate legitimizing rape. Rape is halal if given a nicer name. Rape is legitimate so long as you coat it in religion. Abduct a woman, forcibly make her take off her clothes, and have intercourse with her gunpoint—but do not feel any guilt. She is your halal, and this it the law of God, according to the Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies. Who are we to know better than Azharite scholars? She made an example saying that if we, referring to Egyptians, fought Israel and won, we would have earned the right to enslave their women and bed them.
Is she not aware that we signed a peace treaty 36 years ago? More importantly; what if a non-Muslim country raped muslim women? Will Saleh defend the right of the other country to rape our women, or is it only Muslims who have the right to rape? According to her words, the rape of women is an exclusive right for Muslims. If the same were to happen to Muslim women, violent protests would erupt everywhere. Saleh herself would condemn that “brutal violation of human rights”. Seemingly, human rights values are only applicable when we talk about our rights as Muslims—others, not so much.
I recalled Saleh's argument when I was watching the painful testimony of Nadia Taha narrating what she suffered at the hands of Islamic State fighters in Iraq before the UN Security Council, begging for its help to save the thousands of other victims still in their hands. Taha is a Yazidi woman. When Islamic State took over large swathes of northern Iraq, she was kidnapped, along with other 150 women.
Islamic State published a video featuring its fighters in the act of sexual enslavement. It begins with kidnapping the women and separating them from families. After the fighters chanted Allahu Akbar, they began kidnapping the women from the arms of their husbands and fathers, who stood humiliated at gunpoint. The women are then collectively deported to another place. Cutting the victims from their families is the first step toward breaking them psychologically.
For how much longer will Al-Azhar continue clinging to outdated concepts and ideologies?
After Taha was extracted from her family, she was chosen by a very big man. She had no say in the matter, as if she were nothing more than chattel, rather than a respected human being. She had to beg a smaller fighter to take her instead. Imagine the extent of the humiliation—asking for a smaller man to rape her. She tells the story of how she was forced to stip naked. The man did not only force her to take off her clothes, he forced her to do so in front of a group of his peers. Subsequently, hey all took turns raping her, until she finally passed out. Being a slave does not only mean being treated as a commodity for sexual pleasure, but the slave can also be given as a boon.
In a Human Rights Watch report issued in March 2016 on the rape of Yazidi women by Islamic State fighters, Galila (a pseudonym) is a 12-year-old girl who was raped by seven fighters, who “took possession” of her during the war. "I was sold and changed hands as a gift," she recalls, noting that the last of her rapists was the most formidable, as he tied her legs and arms.
In reality, I do not blame Islamic State. It is nothing but the by-product of ancient ideas, the same ones our religious institutions cling to, refusing any attempts to renounce or reform them. In all its actions, Islamic State relies on fatwas that permit the captivity of non-Muslim women. The text of the fatwa reported in the Islamic State e-magazine Dabiq reads: "Captives and slaves may be traded, as they are simply currency that can be traded. It is permissible to have intercourse with girls who do not menstruate yet, if they are fit for this purpose. If they are not, they can be used for sexual pleasure without intercourse. A slave may also be beaten for discipline."
I blame Saleh and those with similar minds. These are the true cause of the calamity suffered by Taha and thousands of other women.To this day, Al-Azhar students still study the jurisprudence of slavery. In Kitab al-Ikhtiyar li Ta'lil al-Mukhtar, which is included in the curriculum of the third year of secondary school in Al-Azharite schools, it is written in page 338 and onward that if an Imam forcibly invades a town, he is free to divide its spoils amongst his fighters, or impose a jizya on its residents and taxes on their lands. It adds that, depending on the Imam's wishes, he could kill prisoners, enslave them, or leave them.
Did Al-Azhar, and its professor, Saleh, not hear of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War? Have they not heard of the term “war crimes”, and that the rape of female prisoners is a crime against humanity according to international law? Surprisingly, Saleh is considered a moderate Islamist scholar in Egypt. But if this is moderation, what is extremism?
Salafist Sheikh Abu Ishaq Hiweiny says that poverty in Islamic countries is caused by abandoning Jihad. He claims that if Muslims practice Jihad and invade other countries, and convert their residents to Islam, those who refuse to convert would have their women and money taken away. As for his interpretation of the legitimacy of enslavement, Hiweiny has stated that an infidel is a person who does not deserve to live, and therefore it is favorable to enslave them.
The issue can be summarized in the fact that Taha is Yazidi and not a Muslim. The Yazidi religion is an ancient religion that predates Christianity and Islam. If she has been a Muslim, Islamic State would not have raped her, and Salah would not have defended her rape.
Why do we insist on justifying a heinous crime such as rape until now, when we balk in anger whenever the West commits a minor violation against Muslims? Why insist on the perception of non-Muslims as inferior, especially those who do not believe in the Abrahamic religions? If we want the world to treat us with respect, we have to inform our youth that all humans have equal rights regardless of religion. And if we want the whole world to stop fearing Islam and Muslims, we first have to teach our youth and children that rape is a crime and that each and every woman must be treated with respect, even if she is a captive from war. These are the basic, fundamental principles of humanity, which the whole world should have embraced by now.