– Houria Abdelouahed: « I realized that Aischa, the Prophet’s child bride, could be any little girl given in marriage too early.’’

Houria Abdelouahed: « I realized that Aischa, the Prophet’s child bride, could be any little girl given in marriage too early.’’


A Franco-Moroccan psychoanalyst, Houria Abdelouahed became a senior lecturer at the Paris-Diderot University after a doctorate on Ibn Arabi. After a book of interviews on Violence and Islam in 2015 with the Syrian poet and resistance fighter Adonis, she published Feminine Figures in Islam(Figures du féminin en Islam), then The Prophet’s wifes (Les Femmes du Prophète), a critique based on a study of theological texts. She explains the abusive link between religious beliefs, social organization and women’s status. In one of her articles « Veiling watching punishing » she explains that « Muslim jurisprudence is based on Sharia law (Islamic law) which places women under the male supervision. This jurisprudence stems from the Foundation’s hagiographic corpus, which has created a « history-legend » that could not become a « history work » (Michel de Certeau) because it bears the imprint of the sacred. The woman is then locked in the nets of a political power that exalts itself and reinforces itself with the divine injunction. Graced with the privileges given to him by the Text, the historian (of yesterday and today) constructed a History in accordance with power politics and a discourse of domination. The texts of Islam’s first hagiographers shaped the conceptual ground for women’s servitude. This should lead us to reflect on the impulse grounds of the Muslim religion.

French version here

Her work on religious texts:

« At one point, I started to look at how the Koranic text talked about women. I wanted to know more and started reading Tabari, historian and exegete of the Koran. I found his thinking very problematic from a feminine perspective. Also, at that time, my clinical work changed, I was working with Arab women, and I had the impression of an endless complaint. These patients were asking me about the repressed nature of my individual history and of the collective history. I realized that Aischa, the Prophet’s child bride, could be any little girl given in marriage too early.

Little by little, I found myself with the question of the feminine and the woman. And I became aware of women of Arab and Muslim culture’s singular voice, of their recurring complaint, and this is what led me to reflect on the entanglement of the individual and the collective, on the link: individual trauma and trauma as the result of a whole history and culture.

The Arab-Muslim culture is not reducible to theology. We had Averroes, Avicène, Ibn Arabi, Hallaj, Sohrawardi, Râzî. We have a mystical, philosophical, poetic text, but it is the theological text that has triumphed and makes the law. With the story of Zainab, a dazzling beauty that the prophet wanted, although the wife of his adopted son, two verses were revealed. The first one asks the Prophet’s wives not to expose themselves in the public space like other women. The second refers to hijab (the veil) for the prophet’s wives. Today, the verse regularly quoted asks believers to veil their jayb, their slit. But this can be the sexual or gluteal cleft or the space between the breasts. Tabari and other commentators of the text have outbid each other, talking about hands, feet, saying that the whole body must be veiled.

From the moment that they are the prophet’s wives, the prophet being himself the sacred and the beyond the sacred, they have become sacred objects. No questioning was possible. And is still not possible. Except by subversive, transgressive people. So, we can think that in the face of the strangeness of the female sex, men felt anxious and repressing women, they granted themselves too many privileges. And since it is sacred, there is no questioning possible, but a fierce will to dominate that calls the forces of heaven against women.

All monotheistic religions have tried to tame the female sex (…) We always come back to the same clichés, the same rules. Monotheism has been a disaster for women. We should study the previous civilizations, Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, on this issue, which has been done very little. For Islam, it is the « Jahiliya », the time of ignorance. And it’s catastrophic. Islam has seen itself, said itself, and expressed itself as the beginning of civilization. Mesopotamia, Babylon, the Medes, the Greeks, the Byzantines, the Egyptians are erased; it is the very negation of otherness. However, we know that in the Koran, many terms are not Arabic, and even that cannot be said. There was a denial not only of pre-Islamic civilizations but also of civilizations existing at the same time as Islam, because in Arabia, Jews and Christians were in large numbers. So, there is a real problem with otherness.

When religion is not an individual issue, but a mass madness, it represents a real danger, which questions all disciplines, from anthropology to psychoanalysis. How is it that a senseless speech triumphs? And how can we talk about Islamic feminism? Feminist and Muslim, I am willing to accept. That a woman does not want to shake all the foundations of identity, I can understand. But I don’t believe in feminist and Islamic. Some verses are open to interpretation, others are not. When a verse says: « Beat them if they continue to be insubordinate », whether we like it or not, the verb beat does not lend itself to multiple interpretations. And when Tabari interprets the verse « Beat them », he writes that the man can possess the woman without speaking to her. So, he can rape her.

Muslims do not know all these hadiths about sexuality, just as they do not know Aisha’s words about sex. You have to be a theologian to know them, or very curious. The problem in Muslim countries is that you have great intellectuals who, after reading Kant, Hegel, Freud, Lacan or Lévi-Strauss, will not look at these texts, which do not reflect any work of thought, so they do not know Islam. Or you have imams who read these texts, but ignore Kant, Hegel, etc., and remain as if they lived in the old times. It should be added that most educated Muslims do not know these texts, do not know that the prophet could order a man’s beheading and take his daughter as his wife the same day. They might tell me that what I am saying in this book did not exist. That is why I am quoting my sources. All you have to do is read these texts (…) In the transmission of Safiya’s story – she became the prophet’s wife on the very day that her father, the head of a Jewish tribe, and her husband were beheaded ‒ what is shocking is that the text says: « She did not speak », without ever questioning this silence, its melancholic dimension. Even if we are not psychoanalysts, if we stick to the factual information of historians, we can see that Safiya did not transmit hadiths. This means that even if she was converted, even if she was married to the prophet and therefore the mother of believers, her word was not reliable, because she was Jewish. The words of Aisha, of Hasna, are transmitted, not those of Safiya. It is a closed and narcissistic conception. There is no opening possible. We must insist in making this dark part of history known, which is not very well known, and which requires thought. A historian’s work is cruelly lacking, because our references remain Tabari and Ibn Kathir, authors of the first centuries of the Hegira who confuse History and legend. The Tabari Chronicles tell us that the Muslim religion has imposed itself through force and violence, but we do not do anything about it. For there is no thought without freedom of expression. To weave the shroud, to give subjectivities, we need the right to speak singularly, we need democracy and secularism. The West has won enormously with secularism. As long as we are not secular, we will continue to suffer. This does not mean the abolition of religion. But that everyone can be with their belief without imposing it on others. »

About the veil:

« I remember very well, I was still a student, the period in which the veil made its entry into Morocco through Kashk’s tapes, through broadcasts and also after the Iranian revolution. There was an overbidding and rivalry between Iran and Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia really wanted to invade the religious and social terrain faster than Iran. And both contributed to the making of that Islam, which has nothing to do with my grandfather’s or grandmother’s Islam, my grandmother who wore the haik, opted for the djellaba and the removal of the veil. And we, little girls, were in miniskirts, elephant pants, etc. There was an evolution and the premises of a Nahda. Women were very supportive of this desire for emancipation.

Arab intellectuals are starting to wake up. But the journey will be long. I’m struck by the veiled little girls I see. In adults, we can talk about hysteria, hysterical identification, and purity as a fantasy… We can speculate. But when it comes to children, I don’t think we have the right.

Ibn Arabi (13th century mystic) writes: « Femininity is what circulates in the world » and « Any place that does not accept the feminine is sterile » or « The contemplation of God in women is the most perfect ». How is it that mystical thought is forgotten or denied today among those who glorify Muslim identity? It is as if the latter was constituted only by the precepts and cruel ways (voices) of the theological. Where are the other movements of thought: philosophy, poetry, erotology, ilm al-kalâm (rationalist movement that gave birth to philosophical thought)? I remember those holidays by the sea where the question of the veil did not arise. The beaches were full of whole families (boys and girls, mothers and fathers) in swimsuits. Grandmothers lived by proxy the emancipation of their granddaughters. And the mothers identified themselves with the figures of great Egyptian actresses (Faten Hamama, Hind Rustum, Madiha Yousri). Today, the concept of identity is constantly haunting the social and political scene, but in the form of discomfort and symptoms. The burkini is a way of showing a difference with Western ways of dressing. It must be heard and analyzed as a symptom and not prohibited. Hear the underlying suffering that is identity-based suffering. What does the burkini mean to these girls born in France?

The new unease in Arab-Muslim culture, through the problem of hijab (translated as « veil ») revolves around this interlacing between seeing and being seen. Undoing the reflexivity between the seer and the visible, so that the seer (the woman) ceases to be visible. This is the unease with which the problem of the veil confronts us, thus mobilizing a multiplicity of fields of intervention and discourse: theological, social, psychoanalytical, political through the question of secularism, legal… The word al-hijâb (translated as veil) is in no way mentioned by the Koran as synonymous with any female clothing. It appears as a metaphor (…) In its material meaning, the hijab appears twice as the equivalent of a curtain. (…) In the second sura, the hijab is no longer the sign of spirituality (here of the woman who transcends the earthly in the name of divine love) but comes to designate the private space of the prophet. The great commentator and exegete Tabari (9th century) gives the following interpretation: In order to celebrate his marriage with Zainab, renowned for her great beauty, the prophet invited some friends. But the latter, after the meal, delayed leaving, preventing the prophet from enjoying the new wife. Weary, however, he had to wait for the departure of the last guest before stating firmly: « It is a hijab (curtain) between you and me ». The term, here, is intimately related to the power of desire and sexuality. Another version relates an incident that occurred during a meal when a guest’s hand brushed against that of Aisha, the prophet’s young wife. In both versions, it is the latter’s wives who are the subject of Koranic interest, which reminds us: « Ô, you the wives of the prophet! You are not comparable to any other woman’’. And the Koran continues: « Stay in your houses, do not show yourself in your attire as women did in the time of the first paganism » (Jacques Berque).

(…) If we make the Text work, we quickly come up against unavoidable contradictions, even dead ends. The exegetes stipulate that the verse (24:31) only targets free women, and not jawârî (slave women) who, because they are objects of sale and purchase, says Râzî, require the gaze and the palpable approach of the body. The slave woman is obliged to reveal what the free woman is called upon to conceal. The habit also serves to distinguish the Muslim woman from the dhumia, the one who must pay a tax to keep her religion. Thus, the veil becomes a sign of discrimination. According to this logic, the clothe does make the woman. « Tell me how you dress, I’ll tell you if you’re free or slave, Muslim or miscreant’’. And if we accept the verse in its original meaning, that of the Fuqahâ (doctors of the law), we must accept the slavery and sequestration of so-called free women in a closed space where all their being is accomplished only in motherhood and domestic activities.

(…) The burqa that recurs repeatedly in the veil debate also belongs to the bestiary vocabulary. In Arabic ‘al-burqu’ or ‘al-burqa’ is a well-known term, it is reserved for dawâb and Bedouin women, says Ibn Manzûr. However, dawâb (plural of dâbba) refers to mounts, crawling animals, or beasts of burden. The term also refers to the muzzle of the horse and what women put on their faces with two ‘’gaps’’ (kharqân) as eyes.

(…) « Admonish those whose infidelity you fear’’ (nushûz)

Put them in separate rooms and hit them. It is not a question of infidelity, as the translation requires, but of nushûz. All exegetes agree that this term means the feeling of superiority, isti’lâ »alâ azwâjihinna (to feel superior to their husbands), as Tabari and Râzî will write, establishing a scale in this taxonomy of punishment: first, reprimand them, before relegating them to their rooms, before hitting them if they persist in disobedience. To what? To God and their husbands, Tabari replied. As we progress in the comments, we are struck by the plea for a « quantitative art of suffering » (expression of M. Foucault). The punishment is settled (hit with a miswak, branch of a tree, do not hit the face because the latter is majma’al-mahâsin, the place of beauty). But what appears, at first glance, as compassion is a cruel affirmation of a right of power and an intrinsic superiority. In this taxonomy of punishment, the man adopts what he considers to be « the greatest of humiliations », namely, to possess the woman carnally in a desired and absolute silence. And Tabari continues: « To persist in not speaking to her and to possess her is very hard for her (wa dhâlika ashaddu’alayha) ». Or, ‘’man forsakes her and refuses to share his bed until she returns to him (submissive) and does what he wants (hattâ tarji’a ilâ mâ yuhibb)’’, or, Tabari writes, « until she respects the divine imperative to submit to your rights » (these are the husbands’ rights). Respect for man becomes a divine duty and divine law merges with the law of man. Finding a technique to adjust the punishments will make the female body the main character in this « semiotechnics of punishment ». Either it will be chastised or abandoned as a suffering erogenous body, crossed by desire and the call to the other who does not respond, or taken in degradation. Thus, what seems to be a « reasonable aesthetic » is an unheard-of violence. The body is caught in the meanders of a power that « exalts itself and strengthens itself with its physical manifestations ». The punitive system is to be placed in a certain political economy that subjugates the female body and operates on it an immediate hold both physical and psychological.

(…) When it comes to women, commentators hasten to put the divine on the side of the male principle. Their elocution about paradise and what is promised to men in the afterlife is, as such, exemplary. Sexual becomes an endless orgy and unlimited male pleasure (…) Lust thus questions the place given to women in the Muslim imagination.

The woman remains a body, possessed when the man desires it or taking up domestic duties in this world. What about her enjoyment? How will she be rewarded? A veil on her sexuality as a woman. Her destiny is thus sealed: obedience here on earth and chastity in the afterlife. So, it is with women.

Is it to prevent men from petrifaction that the woman must veil her hair?

At this point, the veil does not only mean women’s servitude on the social scene, but their subjection to a discourse on the female body in relation to what remains in men as archaic anguish. Exemplary is the story that historiographers please us with: the liquidation of the Pantheon of the mother goddesses of the pre-Islamic period was particularly difficult and an envoy of the Prophet, charged with putting an end to the reign of one of these three goddesses, had to try several times because of the monstrous and threatening physical aspect of the latter. She was « an abysmal woman, with dishevelled hair, putting her hands on her shoulders and grinding her teeth ».