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Nov 09 2011

Wives, be subject(ed) to your husbands

I’m not married. I have no idea if I ever will get married. But if I do, it won’t be to anyone who’s read this book:

Malaysian officials have banned a controversial book that offers sex tips to Muslim women, reports say. The book, entitled Islamic Sex, is believed to have been read by a few hundred people. It was published by a group known as the Obedient Wives’ Club, which has been widely criticised for promoting polygamy and denigrating women.

The Obedient Wives’ Club told journalists last month that the book was intended as a spiritual guide to be read only by club members to help them comprehend sex. The club has previously said women should act like “first-class prostitutes” to prevent their husbands from having affairs or resorting to violence.

Yikes.

Funnily enough, there’s no advice to the husbands on how to make sex a life- and relationship-affirming experience for their wives. It’s almost as if the publishers of this book think that sex is a woman’s duty, and that the husband’s role is to simply enjoy it. Almost as if, despite constant propaganda from Muslim apologists (and other theists, to be sure), following the Qur’an doesn’t establish women and men as equals, but rather as a dominant and submissive relationship (but not the good kind).

And in case it escaped anyone’s notice, the title of this blog post comes from another religious tradition grounded in misogynistic ideas about women. I know that if this blog had more Christians in the comment section, I would be admonished to look at the next line which says “husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them”, as though that was a balance. It does not say “wives, love and honour your husbands, and reward their labour with kindness”, or something that would at least be fitting for a balanced relationship. Instead, it says be subject… there’s no parsing that to mean anything other than man first, woman second.

Oh, and there’s stuff about slaves obeying their masters in there too… you can probably guess how much I look to Colossians for good advice.

Malaysia is, to its credit, outraged by this kind of misogynist claptrap. Any country that wishes to establish a society based on mutual respect and rights for all its citizens must obviously reject these kinds of antiquated notions. Malaysia seems to go back and forth when it comes to human rights and secularism, but the fact that progressive forces are at work there is an encouraging sign. What is less encouraging is that they think banning the book is a good idea. Those readers who are new to this site may not know my stance on book bans, but the TL/DR version is that no matter how offensive the content, books should be allowed to be published.

Allow me to explain: men who read the Obedient Wives’ Club book and think “gee, there sure are some nifty ideas in here” aren’t going to stop oppressing their wives simply because they lack the literature. Women who read the book and say “finally, a how-to guide for ME!” won’t be any less self-oppressing or held down by the patriarchal ideas Malaysia is currently swimming in. Banning the book prevents it from being discussed and refuted. What would be a much more classy move from the government of Malaysia would be to mandate an insert with social services numbers, or anti-abuse networks (assuming those exist in Malaysia, which they very well might not). Even better would be a full-bore campaign saying “this book exists, and is repulsive. Any man with this book brings great shame upon his family, and any woman reading it should know that she deserves a better marriage.”

As we discussed previously, this kind of “complementary” philosophy between the sexes might sound nice, but once taken beyond the individual level it becomes patronizing and abusive. A person who is very down-to-Earth might, for example, benefit from being in a relationship with someone who is more broad-thinking. A person who is very artistic and creative might be well-balanced by someone who is pragmatic. A person who is emotional and nurturing may do well with someone who is rational and providing. That being said, telling women that they ought to behave along certain lines and not others will only result in them achieving secondary status – or at least that has been the pattern thus far.

The Obedient Wives’ Club’s “be a wanton sex-fiend so your husband won’t beat you up” manual is abhorrent, to be sure. It is symptomatic of an underlying culture run rife with anti-woman sentiment, with many troubling parallels for my own culture. Banning the book doesn’t solve the problem, nor does it approach a solution. It should be recognized as what it is – a troubling dead canary in a coal mine of misogyny. Burying the canary’s carcass doesn’t make life any better for the miners – it just covers up some disturbing truths.

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15 comments

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  1. 1
    papango

    I think one of the issues around banning this book in Malaysia is that the Malaysian government is pretty ban-happy. So not banning would probably be seen by some as a tacit endorsement.

    Malaysia does have a domestic violence victims network. The Women’s Aid Organisation is the most well known as it runs shelters, counselling (by phone and in person), and child care centres for women now making their way in the world independent of their abusive husbands. But there are other groups working on the legal framework (Sisters in Islam, for example) and smaller groups working at local levels, especially in rural areas.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Thanks! Good to know. Those kinds of resources have really positive ripple-effect forwards and end up helping more than just the women who call.

  3. 3
    Pierce R. Butler

    And just how is a good obedient Muslim wife, who previously was a good obedient Muslim daughter, supposed to know exactly what a first-class prostitute does (never mind how)?

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    One would imagine that the book is at least somewhat explicit.

    My question is this: what kinds of planes have prostitutes in first class?

  5. 5
    Leon

    Right on target, Crommunist! I agree–the book needs to be refuted and mocked in the marketplace of ideas, not censored by the authorities. And your “canary in a coal mine” analogy is apt.

  6. 6
    Michael Swanson

    It boggles the mind that in the 21st century women are still treated like slave-whores in much of the world. I miss the naive, sci-fi near future I imagined when I was ten. We’d colonize space–our first peaceful colonization, what with no pre-existing cultures to murder/exploit!–and our view of our tiny planet from space or the Moon or Mars would create an understanding of how connected and how unquestionably equal we are–not in ability, but in intrinsic value and truly inalienable rights–and peace, not only between nations, but between races, cultures and genders, would happen within decades and religion would just fade away. Now, at a burned out forty years of age, I just hope that 50,000 years from now A) we won’t be gone, B) Carl Sagan will be remembered by at least a 1000th as many people as Jesus, and C) a fair of portion of the population will have ceased treating women, as a matter of course and cultural normalcy, like complete and utter shit.

    I think I’m still being unreasonably optimistic.

  7. 7
    Zugswang

    It seems odd that they felt it necessary to write an entire book that boils down to a stupid Bobby Knight quote. (“I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”)

  8. 8
    Pierce R. Butler

    So how did the author(s) of the book find out?

    Just in case: book your next flight on Air Malaysia!

  9. 9
    madderthanhatters

    I think I threw up in my mouth a bit. Mmuurph.

  10. 10
    mirax

    The Malaysian government periodically outlaws ‘deviant’ islamic sects like the Al Arqam sect from which the OBC springs and the syncretic ‘teapot’ cult you were previously tickled by as it sees itself as the guardian of the one true Sunni Islam (of the shafi school). It is not particularly enlightened when it comes to women’s issues. I daresay it is rather more frightened of the feminists from a group like Sisters in Islam than the morons from the OBC who have never challenged the government on any substantive issue.

    I dont know that I agree with you that the country “swings back and forth”. Most Malaysians of the liberal, secular persuasion are convinced that it has been one long backward swing. More of that some other day.

    Here’s a malaysian blog that discusses book banning. You might be surprised by the sort of books that got banned long before the crap from the OBC ever showed up on the radar of a global media looking for a sensational story. Darwin? check. Serious academic work? Check.

  11. 11
    Crommunist

    That link is broken. Can you re-post?

  12. 12
    mirax

    Sure.

    http://www.thenutgraph.com/the-bane-of-book-banning/

  13. 13
    mirax

    I also noticed that I kept typing OBC when I obviously meant the OWC.

  14. 14
    mirax

    Lots of Malaysian blogs are in English and a very good source of information. I can give you a list if you are interested, seeing that you have written about the country several times already.

  15. 15
    Crommunist

    Whenever it comes up in the news, it is usually about something bloggable. I’d be happy to have the list for reference, but I don’t have any particular hate-on for Malaysia – they just provide me with useful news items.

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