The Desert Mothers, the Prophet Mohammed, and the #yesallwomen meme

I had mixed reactions when an article by W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson, ‘One way to  end violence against women? Married dads‘, was circulated using the #yesllwomen hashtag, which has recently been the focus of a powerful discussion about how ‘every-day’ misogyny feeds sexual and domestic violence. Sadly, this particular article’s digital lead-in (the permalink) was highly disturbing – almost a taunt against the mothers of children who suffer violence. (Here is the unfortunate wording, which you will see if you click on the link: ‘the-best-way-to-end-violence-against-women-stop-taking-lovers-and-get-married’.) As I read it, the article was arguing a different and more valuable point. But the titling and permalink suggested that the writers were blaming women for associating with abusive men, and the point was lost in the shuffle. As a result, it was treated by many commentators as if it were a stealth attack intended to spearhead a misogynist backlash.


Sign in the Desert of Saudi Arabia: Allahu Akbar (‘God is the Greatest’) – source:

One of the most refreshing responses was from a male domestic violence lawyer writing in from a Muslim perspective. In Islan’s way to end violence against women: civilised men Qasim Rashid argues that when violent men try to use religion as a ‘cover’ for male privilege, they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. 

Like other feminists, Rashid is deeply disturbed by arguments that women and children are to blame if they fail in their effort to avoid (or at least protect themselves from) dangerous men. And he is indignant at the suggestion that the Qur’an supports this view:  ‘While clerics and priests today declare that women should “get married” or “dress more modestly” to avoid domestic violence, Prophet Muhammad held a different view. While encouraging marriage and modest dress for both genders, Prophet Muhammad significantly and as a foundation commanded men, “You be chaste yourselves, and women will be chaste.”‘

As a historian writing about the ancient world I experienced a moment of recognition when I read this saying. I’m not a scholar of early Islam, but I know something about the desert world that Islam emerged from, and the Prophet’s pithy saying against men who complain that women are ‘tempting’ them ‘clicked’ with my sense of the wider current of folk  wisdom in the desert of the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of antiquity. In Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women, I’ve written about the holy women of the deserts of Egypt and Judaea in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. There, communities of women would gather around a female teacher, a little-known strand of early Christianity which gave rise to the female monasteries of the Middle Ages.

One of the most striking sayings of these holy women comes from Mother Sarah of Pelusium, an ascetic leader living at the eastern edge of the Nile Delta, probably in the fifth century:

‘…Once as she was going along the road with some nuns a groups of monks came from the other direction. As they came near the monks discreetly crossed to the other side so as not to confront the nuns. Amma Sarah observed, “If you were true monks you would not have noticed that we are women.”’

Disturbingly, other evidence suggests that one of the motivations of these all-female communities was to establish a space in which women could live a life without having to face the dangers of marriage. These included the danger of childbirth but also, simply, of living in a household with men – especially in the case of lower-class women, who were the majority of nuns. These women faced harsh realities, but met them with courage and often a strong sense of irony.

Returning to the twenty-first century, what Wilcox and Wilson’s article actually shows is that marriage in itself is no bar to abuse in modern America (where the research they are aggregating was conducted). Rather, they point to a specific male ‘marriage profile’ that tends to correlate with a noticeably lower rate of domestic violence (including sexual violence). The data seems to suggest that a man who fathers children exclusively within an already established marriage and remains married to the children’s mother offers a far lower risk to children cohabiting with him than do other types of adult men, including unmarried biological fathers, married step-fathers, and live-in boyfriends of single mothers.

As it happens, scientists have been suggesting for decades that in a divorce-permissive environment the couples who remain married are overwhelmingly those in which both partners behave in a supportive manner toward one another. So it’s a chicken-and-egg question: quite possibly, it is not marriage that makes men non-dangerous. Rather, the non-dangerous men stay married because they are non-dangerous to begin with.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 13.14.59So why do the dangerous men feel entitled to hurt women and children? One of the themes of the #yesallwomen debate has been the to speak out about how cultural traditions silence the victims of violence. Religious ideas often play a part in this, and as a result there is a widespread perception that religious ideas lie at the root of male brutality toward women and children.

Yet the research doesn’t really bear this out. Factors like the education and independence of girls and women play a more significant role than religious affiliation per se. Like marriage, religious institutions can serve different agendas depending on how they are used. And in many parts of the world, religious institutions play an important role as providers of female education. This is not to say that brutal males do not use religious rhetoric to justify their sense of entitlement. But a bully’s justification for his actions should never be taken as an unbiased indication of their cause.  Making it harder for these justifications to seem believable is something that I suspect both the Prophet Mohammed and Mother Sarah would agree on.

 This post was written as a contribution to the #Peace3 ‘How to End Gender-Based Violence’ Twitterparty sponsored by the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation, which can be followed at 



  1. […] from a  position of shared humility and curiosity, and so it was in this case. (In another post, The Desert Mothers, the Prophet Mohammed, and the #YESALLWOMEN Meme, I’ve written about how these ancient-modern connections can also help scholars to see the […]

  2. […] posts: Jesus, Muhammad, and Gender, The Desert Mothers, the Prophet Muhammad, and the #yesallwomen Meme,  Dreaming in […]

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