Sexual Slavery in the Islamic World (Updated)

Probably one of the best letters to the editor of The New York Times that I’ve seen in a long time, on the subject of sexual slavery in the Islamic world. It’s a response to a March 13 article, “ISIS’ System of Rape Relies on Birth Control“: 

To the Editor:

Men and women are equally complicit in these crimes. I founded and directed a women’s center in a very conservative city in Pakistan. Our most vicious enemies were other women. Some of our most dedicated supporters were men. Many husbands were eager for their wives to learn valuable skills. But those men’s own mothers often refused to allow daughters-in-law to participate in our program.

In many or most cases of bride-burning, the mother-in-law is the ringleader. In most honor killings, the mother is a willing participant.

What sort of woman encourages her son to rape another woman?

Please don’t tell me about oppressive cultures in which women have no voice. Every human being has agency. Over the past 40 years I have spent significant time in a conservative — now fundamentalist — Muslim culture. I have seen poor and uneducated parents do everything for the welfare of daughters. I have seen rich, sophisticated, world-traveling parents who kill daughters who dare to date an “unacceptable” suitor.

Sisterhood isn’t global. It’s not even local. When women value other women, they will force change. It is women who raise boys who grow up to perpetrate these horrors.


Lebanon, N.H.

Of course, we’d want statistical confirmation of what she says, but it has a certain plausibility about it. It’s also a useful corrective to a certain kind of bien-pensant “multiculturalism” (though not, I think, to multiculturalism as such). Indirectly, the claim that “every human being has agency” has interesting implications for how we think about moral responsibility and moral luck.  (Strictly speaking, the “every” is probably a little overstated, but read charitably, I understand her point.)

Weird, random fact: Back in March 1987, I got a letter to the editor published in The New York Times under the name “Irfan Ahmad.” (My full name is “Irfan Ahmad Khawaja,” but my father threatened to throw me out of the house if I affixed the family name to the letter; hence the use of the abbreviated version.) One Sarah Akhtar of Flushing, Queens wrote a response. I wonder if it’s the same one? According to Robert Putnam, writers of letters to the editor tend to be “serial offenders.” I suspect that they also tend to repeat the offense at the same publication. So it’s more than a mere possibility.

Postscript, March 20, 2016: I just got an email from Sarah Crysl Akhtar. It is the same person!

13 thoughts on “Sexual Slavery in the Islamic World (Updated)

  1. Of course, we’d want statistical confirmation of what she says, but it has a certain plausibility about it.

    I believe she is exactly right. For an excellent, exhaustive review and analysis of the social science literature on this, see Baumeister and Twenge, “Cultural Suppression of Female Sexuality.

    Their basic finding is (from the abstract):

    The view that men suppress female sexuality received hardly any support and is flatly contradicted by some findings. Instead, the evidence favors the view that women have worked to stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage.

    They argue further that the more powerless women are in a society, the more dependent they are on men, and so the more this is liable to be true (i.e., that female sexuality is suppressed to enhance its “market” value). In societies where women are more empowered, their sexuality is released from this bondage. Such societies will tend to have more relaxed sexual mores. (So, three cheers for feminism!) Baumeister and Twenge produce a great deal of evidence to show that it is women, not men, who are the principal enforcers of harsh codes that suppress female sexuality in societies that have these codes. They do so for the good reason that the harsh codes protect their economic interests.

    A follow up article, by Baumeister and Vohs, “Sexual Economics: Sex as a Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions” broadens the argument and applies it to a wider range of phenomena.

    Both articles are long review articles, but fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just a brief thought, but I suspect that the sense in which most feminists claim that men suppress female sexuality is entirely consistent with this finding and with Akhtar’s version of it. That claim, as I understand it, is simply that men — “not all men,” in the famous phrase, but men generally — act in ways that reinforce the cultural norms and institutions that suppress female sexuality. I’m not sure how there could be much serious doubt about the truth of that claim; doubt and disagreement would arise about the details. For a completely un-subtle example, consider classical Athenian law: for a citizen woman of any age to have sexual relations with anyone other than her lawful husband makes her liable to divorce if she is married and makes her unsuited for marriage if she is not; men contributed to this norm by generally segregating their wives and daughters from men outside the family, by divorcing their wives when they could be shown to have committed adultery — willingly or not — and by endorsing, and perhaps on occasion acting upon, the law that made it legitimate to kill a man whom you caught in bed with your wife or daughter. In other words, Athenian men not only suppressed female sexuality by endorsing norms and institutions that threatened to severely disgrace women if they had sex with anyone other than their husbands, but they suppressed it by enforcing a kind of gendered segregation even for women who hadn’t had sex with anyone other than their husbands. In our own culture, where things are rather more complicated, it’s hard not to conclude that many men say and do things that reinforce norms that have the effect, if not the intention, of suppressing female sexuality; the idealization of sexual purity and innocence, along with the disparagement of “overly” sexually active women as “sluts” and the like, rewards women with praise for avoiding sex and threatens them with shame for failing to do so. Of course, our culture also has the contradictory norm — often endorsed or reinforced by the same men who endorse or reinforce the purity/slut norm — of encouraging women to make themselves sexually available and ridiculing those who don’t. But nobody said culture had to be coherent. The Athenians had the same kind of contradictory double-standard, but with boys rather than women. The rationalization that Plato’s Pausanias offers for that double-standard isn’t very convincing to me, but even if he’s right about that, it’d be nowhere near plausible as an account of what goes on in our society.

      That women in many cultures often use sex as a resource and contribute to the suppression of female sexuality seems entirely right. But it also seems like something that feminists have long acknowledged, in theory at least if not always in rhetorical practice. It’s important to avoid the simplistic picture of wicked men deliberately conspiring to oppress women as their merely passive victims, just as Akhtar says. But that doesn’t get men off the hook. After all, what would happen in Pakistan if virtually all of the men decided to oppose bride-burning, or in the U.S. if virtually all of the men decided to oppose slut-shaming?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t know about Akhtar herself, but I certainly agree with that. In fact, I was going to say something similar in the original post. I think Akhtar’s letter and your comment just focus on different aspects of the same phenomenon, and have different interlocutors in mind. I agree that feminists have long acknowledged that women suppress the sexuality of other women. And you don’t have to search for particularly radical sorts of feminist to find the acknowledgement: purely by chance, I happened to watch “The Joy Luck Club” (1993) last night (behind, as usual) and the “women contributing to the suppression of female sexuality” phenomenon is central to the action of the film. And it’s not as though anyone thinks of Amy Tan as a hard core feminist. (Well, I’m sure someone does, but never mind.) The point is, the idea is out there.

        That said, I do think that there’s a strain of multiculturalist rhetoric that has trouble looking the relevant facts squarely in the face, and Akhtar’s letter speaks to that. When this form of multiculturalism manages at last to focus on the oppression of women in “foreign cultures,” the rhetoric falls into the trap Akhtar is criticizing: men bad, women victims.

        If you want to see how simple-minded multiculturalism can get, I’d suggest reading textbooks of counseling psychology, or reading the journal literature in counseling psychology on “counseling the multicultural client.” (Obviously, I am not suggesting that you actually do this, because you probably don’t want to see how simple-minded it can get.) Though it’s not directly related to Akhtar’s letter, this article is very commonly cited. Uncharitably put, the thesis is: it is the “multicultural counselor’s” duty to accommodate patriarchy, as long as it takes a “non-White” [sic] form. The idea that perhaps we shouldn’t even be accommodating women’s subversion of female sexuality (and that it exists) is probably too radical for this crowd to take in. But somebody needs to say it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Actually, one quick afterthought: without disagreeing with anything you say about it, in its current general usage, I think that the term “slut shaming” involves a bit of rhetorical blackmail.

          Suppose you find hook ups and promiscuity generally questionable on ethical grounds. I don’t even mean that you come and out regard them as immoral. I just mean: imagine you find them questionable. Suppose, further, that you find them questionable–not women engaging in them, but anyone engaging in them. Statistically, since most people are heterosexual, this will mean that you find them questionable in the case of both men and women in roughly equal numbers. But let’s say you just sincerely find them questionable across the board in any sex/gender combination, male, female, straight, gay, bisexual, whatever.

          If you say this out loud, and apply it even once to the case of a woman, you risk being accused of slut shaming.

          Suppose that you backtrack and say that the judgment applies both to women and men. The accusation stands.

          Suppose you point out that it follows from a more general suspicion of this approach to sexuality. The accusation still stands.

          At the end of the day, the terminology of “slut shaming” seems to me to have the following rationale: For a long time, men have been indiscriminately promiscuous, and their doing so has been taken for granted. So justice demands parity in taking questionable behaviors for granted. Therefore, now women should be given carte blanche to act exactly as men have for so long acted. And if you question the results, well then: you are engaged in “slut shaming.” Indeed, if you question any aspect of giving women carte blanche, you are “slut shaming,” even if you have as adverse a judgment of the carte blanche that men have had (and have).

          It gets to the point where any adverse judgment, no matter how it’s expressed, becomes “shaming,” and any adverse judgment on a woman, in the context of sexuality, is “slut shaming.” I find the thinking here implausible in the extreme, and am inclined to think that the term “slut shaming” just abets the problematic line of thought.

          Liked by 1 person

      • I’m trying to reply to Irfan’s replies to my reply, but it won’t let me do that directly. So if this doesn’t show up below Irfan’s replies, go read them first if you don’t want to be confused.

        1. I agree with everything you say in the first reply. There is a big difference between what such-and-such sort of theory says and what the rhetoric of its various proponents amounts to. This is particularly problematic with feminist theory, because it is relatively accessible and relevant to the lives and concerns of ordinary people. Hence it shows up — or people claiming to embrace it show up — in many contexts that are not formally theoretical, academic, or even particularly intellectual. This makes it more likely to be misunderstood or misrepresented in simplistic ways, whether by its adherents or its critics, than, say, Arpaly and Schroeder’s theory of reasons. My main concern in my reply was simply to point out that the salutary point about female agency is not, in fact, something that serious feminist theory has overlooked. But I don’t know how anyone who uses the Internet could sincerely judge that many expressions of feminism — and critiques of feminism — lack the nuance of serious feminist theory. So I think you, Other David, and I are really making complementary points here.

        2. On slut-shaming, I’m really with you; in fact I’m probably more of a prude than you are, and so I am sensitive to the way in which the “slut-shaming” label indiscriminately — though, I think, designedly — conflates the expression of views that are critical of some forms of promiscuity with the expression of hostility towards, well, “sluts.” I agree with the people who embrace the term that the latter is bad news; but I suspect that many of those people would accuse me of slut-shaming if I were to express my sincere views about sexual promiscuity. I suppose there’s a part of me that wants to be able to use the term in the restricted sense, because it seems like a pretty accurate description of a lot of what I have encountered in my life among manly men. But mainly I used it in the post in an effort to use the terminology of contemporary radical feminism. I’m certainly not committed to using the term, and I agree with everything you say about its potential for abuse. As I say, I’m probably even more sensitive to it than you are. After all, of the two of us, I suspect I am the only one who has ever regarded it as an open question whether the views of sexual morality held by folks like John Finnis and Robert George are actually right (considered view: they’re the best defense we’re going to get of traditional Roman Catholic teaching, but they’re still pretty hopeless).


        • I agree with all of that. Though I don’t have much use for Finnis or George, I do take Roger Scruton’s views on sexuality pretty seriously–seriously enough to regard much of what he says in Sexual Desire as a set of open questions (including his implicit comparison of masturbation to incest [pp. 317-20]). Scruton’s exact religious affiliation is a bit, er, inscrutable, but he’s about Catholic as a quasi-Anglican can get, and the view he defends in Sexual Desire is pretty prudish conservative. If anything, I regard Scruton’s views as deformed by his Kantian, not his Anglican, allegiances. The Anglicanism is kind of charming. The Kantianism isn’t.

          PS. If you’ve never read it, here’s Martha Nussbaum’s famous review of the book in The New York Review, and Scruton’s response.


          • I’ve read Nussbaum’s review but not Scruton’s book; in part that’s due, no doubt unfairly, to Nussbaum’s review. But Nussbaum’s debates with Finnis have not left her looking very good, at least from my point of view. It doesn’t help that she basically agrees with Finnis on about 90% of general philosophical principles and yet rejects about 50% of his substantive conclusions. I’m happy to concede that this is because they both help themselves to untenably intuitionistic methodologies, but both of them have always seemed to me to be more interesting and insightful than Scruton, precisely because Scruton embraces so many of the bad parts of Kant. But perhaps I should read that particular book after all. Meanwhile, I think Nussbaum’s ‘Objectification’ should at least make those non-prudes out there stop and reflect a bit about what they really ought to think about these matters. I don’t think she goes nearly far enough in that paper.


            • I definitely agree with you about Nussbaum on Finnis. The role she played in Evans vs. Romer was pretty reprehensible. Actually, her behavior so viscerally turned me off at the time that my reaction (or over-reaction) put me in danger of turning against her work as such. I had to make a conscious effort to re-appreciate her work in an objective way after that. I’ve gotten a lot out of Nussbaum’s work, but some of what she’s said and done leaves me shaking my head. I found this commentary on Evans vs. Romer useful.

              I should probably emphasize that I find Scruton’s views well worth considering (including the one I mentioned on masturbation). I don’t necessarily agree with them. What makes the Nussbaum-Scruton exchange so interesting is that the truth is distributed in odd and interesting ways on both sides of it. Much of what Nussbaum says in criticism of Scruton is right, but so is what Scruton says in defense of himself. Meanwhile, the book itself happens to intersect with some long-standing interests of mine–Freud, Sartre, and Nagel on sexuality–which I guess is why I (in particular) find it interesting. Anyway, I’d recommend it, even if you’re not particularly interested in F, S, and N. There’s a lot there to reflect on, even if you want to look past the Kantian bits.


      • That Clark paper is indeed very good. I’m not wholly satisfied with his positive interpretation of the Laws, but he shows conclusively that both Nussbaum and Finnis were being quite tendentious in their readings of it. I don’t think he shows Finnis to be mistaken, exactly; rather, he shows that Finnis’ interpretation is vastly oversimplified. But given Finnis’ own views about the polyvocity of ‘nature’ and his insistent rejection of views that seek to ground the normative on an appeal to nature non-normatively understood, I don’t think he’d have the slightest difficulty accepting Clark’s claims. Nussbaum, on the other hand, is just shown — as if it needed to be shown — to be blatantly wrong in her central contentions. Yes, the concept of ‘nature’ in the Laws is more complicated than Finnis let on, and yes, the rationale for the condemnation of homosexual acts in the Laws is more subtle and complex than a mere ‘perverted faculty’ argument (to use Finnis’ term for the kind of argument that he has consistently and unequivocally rejected); but she’s just wrong, and it’s hard to see how she could have failed to see how tendentious she was being.

        What’s always perplexed me about the Evans v. Romer case is that, if the question were simply whether it is possible to hold a negative view of homosexual acts without appealing to distinctively religious principles, then there should have been no need to consult the Laws; it’s just patently true that one can hold such a view without appealing to religious principles. What we really need to know is whether it is possible to hold a reasonable and defensible form of that view, and surely that’s not a question we can settle by arriving at a correct interpretation of Plato (contrary to many Straussians, on some correct interpretations of Plato, he is quite clearly wrong about some topics, whether or not he was justified in believing them given the epistemic limitations in play). If the test were just whether someone who is plainly intelligent and well-informed can hold a negative view of homosexuality without relying on religious doctrines for support, then the answer would be clear again; but of course intelligent and well-informed people frequently hold views that are subject to powerful, if not exactly decisive, objections. I’m really not sure whether to place disagreements about the morality of homosexuality as such into the “reasonable disagreement” category, but that has more to do with the difficulty of distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable disagreements. Without appealing to some non-neutral set of principles, there’s no obvious way to show that opposition to homosexuality as such is wholly unreasonable. I don’t have any qualms about appealing to such principles, and I’m firmly convinced that opposition to homosexuality as such is unreasonable. But in this respect the disagreement about homosexuality seems no different from disagreements about abortion, prostitution, pornography, euthanasia, war, torture, immigration, affirmative action, redistributive taxation, or anything else that people argue about in our political culture; these things are controversial precisely because there is no neutral set of principles to which one can appeal to settle the disagreements. So we’re left with difficult questions about the role of moral principles in the law. I don’t have any settled view about those questions, but in general I’m very sympathetic with the claim that the law should not, and probably can not, avoid appealing to moral principles. At the end of the day, I welcome the Supreme Court’s decision in Evans v. Romer not because I’m completely convinced that the legal arguments that the majority accepted are conclusive, but because it struck down a law that I regard as unjust and unjustifiable. And those aren’t legal categories.


      • From Sarah Crysl Akhtar:

        I’m of course following this with interest. My take:

        Societies act aggressively to ensure–as much as possible–that children do not become a public charge. And philosophers will turn themselves inside out to provide reasoned justifications for an essentially primitive mammalian instinct. You know–the way male lions do their best to kill cubs sired by their new mate’s previous–uh–partner…

        It’s all about property rights and burdens. The sexual control of women from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Ocean predates Islam. It’s tribal, keeping resources within the family and most especially preventing the subdivision of land.

        What does this have to do with demonizing “sodomy?” After all, the great benefit of same-sex adventuring is fun without offspring.

        But there’s a real danger of the new or side lover supplanting the lawful spouse as the adventurer’s primary beloved, leading to abandonment of the socially-sanctioned family–or at the very least the diversion of resources.

        Justifications for “moral judgments” or “God’s law” always grow out of some real social concern. A celibate priesthood reserved resources for the church. Surplus women are dangerous rivals to other women, but if they can be subject to the authority of senior wives, some of their power is diluted.

        Why the attempt to suppress child-raising by same-sex couples in conservative states, by preventing adoptions, or by making it hard for partners in same-sex couples to adopt their partner’s biological child(ren)? It was easier to tolerate such couples when they were minimal drains on the communities resources. But if they begin forming multi-generational families just like everybody else, they’ll need equal shares of those resources.

        There are probably some basic health-related issues, too, that every society recognized even if they hadn’t reached the sophistication of epidemiological studies. Suppressing the spread of venereal diseases is a valid concern of every social group. The basic “unnaturalness” of anal sex is that the rectum is not primarily purposed to receive the penis; it doesn’t produce lubrication the way a vagina does; the results of rectal tears are more dangerous to the body, pathogen-wise.

        But–hey. I’m not an academic. I see it a bit differently…



    I don’t use the social media platforms that enable comments on your site, so I’m adding to the discussion here.

    I think academic studies/research projects are always and unavoidably colored by the aims and preconceptions of the researchers. Real life is different.

    Any parent can (or ought) to tell you that humans are born not only with personalities but with ethical values. Those can be reinforced–or not–by the family and by society, but to imagine that people are blank slates on which a culture’s values are indelibly inscribed is just not true.

    And I wish everyone would grow up and move past terms like “feminism.” Of course there seems to be no suitable replacement since “humanism” now has a specific meaning of secular ethics. I’m not a “feminist.” I believe in human rights and universal justice, and that there are good people, and bad people, and weak people influenced by bad people, and that cruelty and oppression are equal-opportunity failures of human beings who choose to act wrongly or to fail to prevent others from doing so.

    On that ISIS story, about 10 or so of my comments were posted in the NYT thread. Quite a number of people responded with indignant attempts to refute the idea that women actually could choose not to act vilely towards other women–that they were helpless in the face of centuries of cultural oppression.

    Nonsense. I saw within my own extended collection of (now-former) in-laws that a mother’s behavior was not necessarily replicated by all of her daughters.

    There’s one basic truth that crosses all cultures. The person with economic power achieves every other sort of power too. Graduates (or students remaining long enough to achieve reasonable proficiency) of the women’s center I founded in D. I. Khan*–even if they came from very poor families–sometimes became the primary wage earners because of the high rate of male unemployment. As soon as they had money in their own hands they began making decisions about how to spend that money–to send their own children to school, or to refuse marriage.

    A very serious impediment to the education of women in conservative areas is that families cannot protect girls and women who leave the house. A poor father or brother is powerless.

    And I found that middle- and upper-class women were not eager to see poor women gain any sort of economic power. Even in a good-size city, individual neighborhoods were run like feudal estates. In situations where whole families worked as servants for rich households, a woman stepping out of line threatened the livelihood of her husband/sons etc. etc.

    Anyway I’m certainly glad to have added to this conversation.

    * “D.I. Khan” refers to Dera Ismail Khan, a city (really, a frontier town) in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. [Note added by IK.]

    Liked by 3 people

    • Sarah,

      I can’t begin to express my admiration for the work you do (or have done). My family is from Pakistan (Lahore), and some of my cousins are in human rights work (some in politics, some in journalism), but few of us have spent much time in Dera Ismail Khan. The few who have are probably from the military part of the family, if anything. One of my cousins, Saad Rafiq, has recently established a hospital in Lahore, and a late uncle had established one in Karachi, but Dera Ismail Khan is pretty exotic territory for just about any of us.

      I think people find it very difficult to think clearly about how to engage in moral judgments about people in faraway places under difficult conditions. I’ve encountered people who make excuses for the anti-Semitism one sometimes encounters in the Palestinian territories. There’s a tendency to dismiss whole swatches of people as living under conditions that are so different from ours that one can’t apply universal standards to them. And while it’s true that people under conditions of duress have to be held to different criteria of responsibility than people who live in comfort or luxury, it isn’t true that they’re absolved from judgment altogether, or that they’re incapable of living up to justice. That’s why the stories and commentary of practitioners like you is so important. For some of us, it’s a rare life-line to realities we never encounter.

      As you say, feudal attitudes and feudalism itself are at least as bad a curse for Pakistan as is religious fundamentalism (ultimately, the one thing ends up enabling the other).

      In any case, I’m glad you wrote, and I’m glad we’ve “encountered” one another in this way after almost thirty years.

      Liked by 1 person

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