On ISIS, Sex Slavery, Rape Culture, and Religious Fundamentalism

I recently read a disgusting story involving ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State/Da’esh and the plight of female sex slaves traded between its members. I relayed the following story to my class and asked them for their initial thoughts on slavery, but specifically on sex slavery and the exchange of female sexual slaves between men.


The story stated that a wealthy ISIS operative owned a female slave. (This is apparently not uncommon in this culture.) This ISIS operative then sold two of his daughters in marriage to another ISIS operative to be wives for him. (Again, remember that polygamy, or having two or more wives at once, is not unlawful in this culture. There is some question about having two sisters as wives at the same time.)

To one of the daughters he sold in marriage he also gave his female slave as a gift to the daughter to be her slave. However, when that daughter could not bear children for her new husband, she gave her husband that same female slave to have sex with him and bear children for him. The female slave bore him two children, but his wife claimed both boys as her own children.

Later on, one of her husband’s sons by the wife’s sister (his other wife) also had sex with the female slave.


This was the plight of one woman–a sex slave–as told in the story.

I placed the above story on a powerpoint as I read it to my class. I then asked my class for their reactions to this story.

“Barbaric!” said one student.

“Horrible!” said another.

“Who would do that?” asked yet another.

One exasperated student chimed in, “How is this legal? How is this not banned by Islam?”

“Well, this is the problem with Islam!”, replied another male student. “They have slavery and they don’t respect women.”

Most students were disgusted. One student was near tears. “How could they treat women like this?” she muttered. “Those poor women. They never had a chance.”

Another determined student bellowed from the back of the room: “This is why we need to defeat them. ISIS. We can’t let this happen!

And before I could respond, he continued: “And this is why we have to keep them from coming here to the United States. Any religion that allows THIS in its so-called “holy book” should not be allowed in this country!”

And there it was. I stood silently, looking down at the ground.

After a deliberate, silent pause, I looked up, looked around the class, and then said, “Note that I didn’t include any names in this story. Let me replace the words ‘ISIS operative’ and ‘female slave’ with some actual names and I want to ask you the same question.”

I clicked on my laptop and the following story appeared in place of the earlier one.


The story stated that a wealthy MAN NAMED LABAN owned a female slave NAMED BILHAH (Gen. 29:29).(This is apparently not uncommon in this culture.) LABAN then sold two of his daughters (LEAH AND RACHEL) in marriage to another MAN NAMED JACOB to be wives for him. (Again, remember that polygamy, or having two or more wives at once, is not unlawful in this culture. There is some question about having two sisters as wives at the same time.)

To RACHEL he also gave his female slave, BILHAH, as a gift to RACHEL to be her slave (Gen. 30:3). However, when RACHEL could not bear children for JACOB, she gave JACOB BILHAH to have sex with him and bear children for him (Gen. 30:4). BILHAH bore him two children, DAN AND NAPHTALI, but RACHEL claimed both boys as her own children.

Later on, one of JACOB‘s sons, REUBEN, by RACHEL‘s sister (LEAH) also had sex with BILHAH (Gen. 35:22).


“Now how do you feel about this account of sexual slavery?” I asked the class.

The students stared at the screen, some with wide eyes and open jaws.

Our boisterous student protested from the back of the classroom: “That’s not the same! That’s a long time ago. That’s a completely different context.”

“Actually,” I replied calmly, “It’s the exact same story, just with the names changed.”

“Yeah, but…” one student chimed in, “…this is different. This is from the Bible. This is different.”

“You’re right!”, I responded, “This is the birth of ancient Israel.”

I continued, “Isn’t it fascinating that the twelve tribes of Israel are the result of a polygamous marriage–a man married to two women at once, in fact, two sisters, which is explicitly banned in Lev. 18:18: (“And you shall not take a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.”)–and two sex slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah.”

I reiterated: “The twelve tribes of Israel are the product of one man, two wives, and two sex slaves.”

“OK,” one student interrupted, “…but this was God’s plan. God was OK with this. God didn’t punish this. This was part of his plan.”

I retorted, “First of all, you’re right. Gen. 25:6 says that Abraham had sex slaves (concubines).”

I continued: “In Exod. 21:10, God says you can have multiple wives: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.” So does Deut. 21:15-16: “If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn.”

“In Deut. 22:28-29, God says that if you rape a woman, you are not put in prison, but God says you must pay a fine to her father, and you must marry her and never divorce her: “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.”

“In Num 31:17-18, God says you can slaughter a city in battle, but spare the virgin women and force them to be your wife: Num. 31:17: “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

“In fact, this one was so popular, the Bible talks about it a second time in Deut. 21:11-14: “Suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.” But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”

“So yes,” I continued, “The Bible says that God commanded and/or allowed all these various forms of marriage.”

“Second,” I continued, “That’s exactly what ISIS would say. ‘This is God-ordained. God is OK with this’.”

Some students smiled, recognizing the crux of the lesson I was giving that day. Others sat silently, slowly absorbing the logical paradox and the cognitive dissonance they never before recognized. They saw that what they condemn today in Islam as practiced by ISIS is the very same practice that produced ancient Israel, at least according to the Bible.

Some students refused to see it. Others saw it, but couldn’t believe it. Others understood completely.

And this was the first lesson for the day: that what many condemn as atrocious in other religions, they embrace blindly in their own religion. Sexually abhorrent behavior is condemned when other religions practice it, but is often accepted as normal when it takes place in one’s own religion. We condemn the text of the other religion’s holy Scripture, until of course we realize that the passage is actually from our holy book.


I illustrated a second problem: Fundamentalists of one faith tend to assume that all adherents to other faiths are also literal fundamentalists, and because their Scripture says it, they all practice it to the letter today. This is not the case.

We know this is not the case because very few Christians and Jews are strict literal fundamentalists today. To be sure, there are many Christians and a few Jews who follow a strict, literal fundamentalist view of Scripture (or at least believe themselves to be doing so). But most Christians today do not. Most Christians understand that many biblical commands–many from God’s own mouth like endorsements of slavery and commands of genocide–are simply relics of the past–commands and acts done by a less civilized society thousands of years ago that are simply dismissed by today’s Christians.

Most Jews–specifically Reform Judaism–do not adhere to a strict literalist interpretation of Scripture. They are the first to say, “We know what the Bible says, and we understand that Jews in the past may have practice this, but we have matured as a society and we simply do not do that any more.” And Reform Judaism has a long, beautiful tradition of updating the biblical rules and establishing new moral regulations as society had progressed and become more civilized that do away with much of the abhorrent behavior described (and often commanded by God) in the Bible.

And yet some conservative Christians are strict literalists. They interpret the Bible literally, and believe that every word of both the Old and New Testaments to be the inerrant, infallible, unchanging Word of God. And it is most often these Christians that project their hermeneutic–their way of reading Scripture–onto Muslims, and falsely assume that all Muslims interpret the Qur’an in the same way. They believe that since all Christians should read that Bible fundamentally, all Muslims do read the Qur’an fundamentally.

This is simply not the case.

The fact is most Muslims do not interpret the Qur’an in a strict literalist manner. A majority of Muslims around the world have also updated and adapted their Islamic moral teachings to do away with the most horrific and problematic teachings of the Qur’an–in the very same way that most Jews and Christians have done with their Scriptures.

And yet, there are certain sects of Islam–in our present case, Wahhabi Islamic Militant Jihadists, who comprise the core of ISIS–who want to see the world interpret the Qur’an in the same strict literalist manner that they do. And they want their fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture to be the civil law of the land, governing all peoples, whether they are Muslim or not.

Ironically in America, this is the same desire of strict literalist Christians, who want to legislate their fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible over all Americans, whether they are Christian or not, and turn civil law into the Christian equivalent of Shari’a law.

Christian fundamentalists see all Muslims as Islamic fundamentalists because they don’t know any other way of reading Scripture. And as a nation we cannot allow fundamentalists of any religion to govern our country and turn the United States into ground zero of a religious war.


There was one additional point from the above sex slave exercise that I shared with the class: the reason that sexual misconduct against women is largely dismissed, excused, and tolerated today in this country is that it is interwoven into our predominant religious beliefs. Sexual slavery is part of the Bible. Bigamy. Polygamy. Rape. The taking of prisoners of war (the pleasing virgin ones) as wives. This is part of the Bible. Not only that, this is part of the Bible often commanded and authorized by God.

The rape culture that exists today in the U.S. that terrifies women, and which many men fail to recognize, is the result of a problematic theology that has either accepted, openly or tacitly, or has largely dismissed the problem of the sexual mistreatment of women because of the very unwillingness of many Christians to critique these same practices in the very Scripture that they claim to be their moral authority.

Or put another way, because Christian fundamentalists in America are unwilling to acknowledge that there are horrific, amoral teachings and practices against women in the Bible, they resist addressing, or often even acknowledging, the culture of misogyny that exists in America today. For if they acknowledged the poor treatment of women in America today, they would at some point in the discussion have to question the teachings and practices involving women in the Bible, and fundamentalists are simply never going to do that.

So we get what we get: the belief that if the Bible is OK with the very rape culture it details in verse after verse, and the misogyny, and the suppression of women’s voices, and their authority, and their freedom of expression–and if God inspired his Holy Word–then it can’t be all that bad today. Right?

And this is the problem.

 

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8 Responses

  1. Exactly! The Bible helps to continue the culture, even if it exist as a cultural undercurrent, of women as objects….

  2. Beautifully stated. There comes a point, at least for me, when forgiveness is no longer possible. It is on hold; but, it is entirely possible that I have close blood relatives who voted for an avowed MCP (to say it lightly). I know that it is entirely possible given the rest of their demographic (fundie, far right, etc). I don’t have very many relatives left; but, I am willing to sever contact if his proves to be true. I know Steve didn’t.

  3. “That’s not the same! That’s a long time ago. That’s a completely different context.”

    I wasn’t there, but I’m hesitant to immediately write-off this student’s point. Being hypocritical in judging synchronically between one religion and another is foolish, but I think there are good reasons for treating diachronic comparisons across 3,000+ years differently.

    I think of it as being about “knowledge” versus “intelligence”. Consider Aristotle: he was much more intelligent than most of us are. But he lacked so much of the knowledge that we’ve inherited that he can come across as an idiot– his disregard for the value of observation and evidence, for instance. Consider also Thomas Jefferson: I think he probably had more moral “intelligence” than most of us, but in terms of moral “knowledge” his failings are obvious.

    I don’t think the correct response to Old Testament stories about buying and selling women like cattle is to recoil in horror and condemn them as barbarians any more than the correct response to Thales saying water is the ultimate reality is to recoil in shock and call him an idiot. And as for comparing the past with present: we tend to cut Richard Owen some slack for his anti-evolutionism, but Ken Ham surely ought to know better? Jacob lived in the Bronze Age; ISIS ought to know better.

  4. I guess I’d respond by saying that it’s not about now vs then (although I’d ask when it is ever ok to rape or commit genocide or to own people. Again the issue isn’t that ‘people did these things’, but that ‘God commanded /regulated/allowed these things’. If morality is objective, it cannot be dependent on context or time period.

    The issue for me is the fact that Christian fundamentalists are condemning Islamic fundamentalists for doing the very thing they do: attempting to impose their interpretation of scripture on everyone else.

  5. Wonderful piece! Please write more like it.
    However, your claim of objective morality belies a major point of the lesson: morals do change over time and often for the better. Another example of such change is our current celebration of wealth which is very different from Jesus’ concern for the ‘poor’ and the saying about the rich getting into heaven being like putting a camel through the eye of a needle.
    My guess is that some of your new blogs will also show ‘How far we’ve come.’
    Again, wonderful piece!

  6. The problem here is your bias against Scripture. The Bible does not condone every behavior it records. Some behavior it allowed because of the stubbornness of the people and for a time. Jesus himself denounced the practice of divorce. The moral equivalency argument is flawed because it isn’t true. Some cultures are better than others, although it is true that there are evils in all cultures. Besides your arguments are fundamentally secularist. I wonder if that makes a fundamentalist secularist? If that’s he case then your fundamental secularist religion becomes part of the problem and not the answer you would have us believe.

  7. Carlos, I might agree with parts of what you said, but it does not address the issue at hand. At no point in the story of Jacob’s wives and concubines are any of them condemned. No divorce took place. Nothing unsanctioned took place. So while you can argue that somethings were ״allowed״ like divorce “for a time” (which is how the NT handles a question about divorce), that answer plays no part in this situation. So again, the question remains: why is this OK when it’s talking about the origin of ancient Israel, but not OK by any modern ethical standard?

  8. Wow. Thank you. With your permission I would like to use this lesson in my Grad level Multicultural Psych class.

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