The Vagina Diatribes, Part II: Radical Islamism and Enlightened Demeaning Sexism

nlightened Demeaning Sexism (EDS) is an unfortunate amalgamation of the two forms of sexism that come from Ambivalent Sexism Theory – hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. In the briefest of lay terms, hostile sexism reflects deeply adversarial attitudes toward women who are believed to demand special favors because of their gender and vie for power over men while benevolent sexism is a supposedly supportive and kindly view toward women that proclaims their moral superiority over men and thus the need requiring male protection.

Key for the present study is the admission within Ambivalent Sexism Theory that both forms of sexism are rooted in the same gender ideology with ultimately negative consequences. It is this ideological foundation, rooted in a negative judgmental perspective toward women and their place in society, which seems to apply in the worst examples fueling radical Islamic gender ideology.

The supposedly nurturing or protective stereotyping of women in benevolent sexism still ultimately results in the constraining of women’s freedom and the placement of barriers against female power and influence. It is interesting that this has as yet never been applied explicitly to the world of radical Islam. This is perhaps because there is a tendency in the West to assume gender bias in Islam across the board: no one felt the need to assess if there was variation in the way that bias was expressed. Most presume that groups like DAESH, Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban would be some of the most severe examples of hostile sexism. And while it is true that these groups most certainly do provide evidence of HS, what seems to be missing is how their HS is more often than not produced from an ideology rooted firmly within benevolent sexism.

Since women are portrayed by radical Islamists as the more righteous and morally superior gender (regardless of whether women wish to have that designation), any deviation from that elevated status results in severe condemnation. Challenges to these self-imposed gender norms are never met with protection but punishment. Ironically, studies of the negative repercussions of benevolent sexism in the West have up to now been rather under-documented, since the belief is that those effects are more obscure and have only indirect influence. This is not the case within radical Islamic groups, which tie their gender edicts into religiosity with incredibly explicit empirical evidence. The Taliban of Afghanistan in the early 2000s are one of the most vivid examples. A short list of their gender policies included the forbidding of women to work outside the home; the requirement that women be covered head-to-toe anytime they ventured outside in public; the prevention of girls from attending any public schooling; the necessity of male escorts accompanying women at all times when they did need to venture outside of the home; the elimination of certain types of feminine clothing or jewelry; and the application of extremely harsh punishments for fornication and adultery.

Taliban leaders were always quick to say that all such policies were rooted in Islamic law, but the evidentiary foundation of such claims is thin at best. What explains Taliban leadership motivation more powerfully are all of the studies within Ambivalent Sexism Theory. What begins as benevolent sexism to protect the ‘managed superiority’ of women in a dirty world of men turns into an aggressively codified system of violence where gender hierarchy is rigidly enforced. In other words, these policies are better understood through the prejudice, fear, and innate insecurity of modern male leaders issuing bureaucratic decrees. The subjugation of women under Taliban rule was a heinous fusion of benevolent sexist ideology framing and rationalizing a punitive system of hostile sexism. This fusion is ‘enlightened demeaning sexism’ and it seems to be a powerful causal root when analyzing the more egregious examples of radical Islamist gender policies.

This hypothesis is affirmed by previous studies that show both hostile and benevolent sexism at work in potentially radicalizing Islamic males when trying to justify their behavior toward women in society. Studies of Turkish males in 2010 showed that as men’s religious beliefs and practices increased, they were more likely to evaluate ‘traditional’ women positively and view ‘non-conformist’ women as a regression hurting societal values. These views were then subsequently used to justify why men should be dominant over women. This study shows the value in promoting cross-disciplinary investigation: when Turkish society and domestic politics are considered, lensed through the historical legacy of governmental secularism, it becomes important to consider that ‘intensive religious instruction’ in Turkey amongst males will tend to be more conservative and traditionalist, as it exists as a perceived counterbalance to the government’s supposedly hyper-anti-religious stance. As a result, the ‘religious ideology’ being pushed is not so much a generic version of Islam but one that is highly radicalized and gendered in favor of male hierarchy and the subordination of women. Once again, this time in Turkey, EDS is presented as being rooted in religious doctrine but is better understood through contemporary male leadership voicing discomfort about the ‘modern woman.’

This phenomenon of ‘masking modern masculine discomfort behind a veil of rationalizing religiosity’ can be traced, quite honestly, all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad himself. While it has long been established the many ways in which Muhammad was sympathetic to and supportive of women, there were societal constraints on that support during his lifetime: very few women were given leading roles or heavy decision-making power in the conveyance of new traditions. Few women could be openly active in public affairs, resulting in a de facto exclusion/seclusion of women that would ultimately become deeply consequential after the Prophet’s death. While many will point to the fact that Muhammad relegated his wives to a space separate from normal societal interaction with men, allowing them to converse directly only when a curtain separated them (purdah), the reality is that the institutionalization of the principle of seclusion only blossomed after Muhammad’s death. His successors brought about the codification of such laws and declared them as divine revelation. While the actual divinity of such edicts can be hopelessly debated, what is almost irrefutable is the notion that such edicts clearly reflected the dominant attitude of contemporary male leadership after Muhammad’s death. Thus, the tradition of justifying what is largely a societal male conceit with decorative religious argumentation goes all the way back to the founding of Islam (and can indeed be found in nearly every religion on earth). Over time this has been manipulated by those looking to establish their own gendered dominance in the face of advancing feminist progress.

Arguably the most virulent expression of EDS within radical Islam comes from the various interpretations and debates that have existed about the concept of jihad and the role women should or should not have in it. Most standard interpretations have jihad as a classically male pursuit when expressed as the need to fight and sacrifice for Allah. The female version is more often traditionally expressed as a righteous pilgrimage to Mecca. Shi’ite tradition is also hesitant to grant women an explicit physical role in jihad: while man’s duty is to sacrifice his wealth and blood until he is killed in the path of Allah, a woman’s jihad is to endure suffering at the hands of her husband and his jealousy of her. Thus whether Sunni or Shia it makes no difference: jihad is a clearly gendered, two-tiered system that establishes male dominance and increased value while putting women on a lower path.

Even more interesting (and another example of EDS) are the early books on jihad, which basically have jihad fighters the equivalent of the living dead: they should not be married or have families and are meant to see women as a sinful attraction tying them improperly to the temporal world when their focus should only be on Allah and heavenly reward. In other words, all of the fundamental comforts of home – marriage, sex, living with a woman – were supposed to be rejected by the fighter. Texts can be found on ‘marriage ceremonies’ taking place on the battlefield between Muslim soldiers and the women of paradise (houris). The most defiant and incredulous text codifying this tradition comes from the 15th century Ibn al-Nahhas al-Dumyati:

If you say [wanting to avoid jihad]: my heart is not comfortable parting from my wife and her beauty, the companionship I have close to her and my happiness in touching her – even if your wife is the most beautiful of women and the loveliest of the people of her time, her beginning is a small drop [of sperm] and her end is a filthy corpse. Between those two times, she carries excrement, her menstruation denies her to you for part of her life, and her disobedience to you is usually more than her obedience. If she does not apply kohl to her eyes, they become bleary, if she does not adorn herself she becomes ugly, if she does not comb her hair it is disheveled, if she does not anoint herself her light will be extinguished, if she does not put on perfume she will smell bad and if she does not clean her pubes she will stink. Her defects will multiply, she will become weary, when she grows old she will become depressed, when she is old she will be incapacitated – even if you treat her well, she will be contemptuous towards you.

The shocking violence of the above passage is not an implication that all Muslim men feel this way or that modern thinkers on jihad return to this admittedly popular classical text. What matters is how enlightened demeaning sexism dominates and how it seems to form a foundation for extreme male thinking within radical Islam. More importantly, it must be recognized that it is the gender of the thinkers and not their religious identity that is powering their thinking. Whether it is hostile, benevolent, or an amalgamation of the two, the sexism found dominating the perceptions and attitudes of men following radical Islam are always decorated with religious ideas but not truly informed by them. This trend only increases when the legacy of ‘male misinterpretation’ is examined across other aspects of radicalized Islamic tradition. Thus, in the end, the efforts to combat violent gender extremism must not focus on factors like culture, geography, and religion to the detriment of the overarching primary causal factor of gender, of maleness mutated by a supposed benevolence that is used to justify oppression.

Dr. Matthew Crosston

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Vice Chairman of Modern Diplomacy and member of the Editorial Board at the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.


Modern Diplomacy is an invaluable platform for assessing and evaluating complex international issues that are often outside the boundaries of mainstream Western media and academia. We provide impartial and unbiased qualitative analysis in the form of political commentary, policy inquiry, in-depth interviews, special reports, and commissioned research.


MD Newsletter