Islam is often depicted in the West as anti-woman.  Up to this point there have only been a few passages in the first part of the Qur’an that depict women negatively or that seem to advocate harsh treatment of wives.  It has seemed thus far that the anti-female claim is unfounded, and I am certainly not one to jump on a bandwagon.  But this passage certainly does put women in quite a negative light.  The negatives aren’t just the basic facts of the seduction scene involving Potiphar’s wife; those are in the Bible too.  The sexism comes out most in what is added to the story in the Qur’an.

Every woman in this surah is pictured as “treacherous” or, at least, lecherous.  The main woman of the surah is the unnamed wife of the unnamed “Egyptian governor” that buys Joseph the slave and makes him a servant in his household.  Christians know him as Potiphar and his wife.  Potiphar leaves the house one day with the highest of instructions to his wife for how Joseph is to be treated (12:21).  She is to treat him well and view him as an adopted son.  However, her subsequent behavior is anything but motherly.  This main female character behaves quite unbecomingly, first through seduction and then through force (“she bolted the doors,” 12:23).  When Potiphar arrives back at the house to find a shirtless Joseph headed for the door and his wife with Joseph’s shirt in her hand and a guilty look on her face, it is the woman who is quickly declared a sinner, not Joseph (which is certainly correct in the situation).  Then Potiphar delivers this scathing, globalized assessment of all women, not simply his wife:

This is another instance of women’s treachery: your treachery is truly great. (12:28)

In one sentence all women are labeled “treacherous,” that is, deceitful, untrustworthy, and faithless.

It would be easy to say this is just a single female character and an unfortunate globalization of the female gender, then along comes other women in the town (12:30).  These other women are introduced as “malicious gossips” and then, true to form, they together declare Potiphar’s wife to be a sex-crazed seductress consumed by passion (12:30).  So the victim of their barbs throws a feast for these women and ends the event by parading Joseph before them, which causes all of the women there to lust for his unmatched beauty.  In a truly ridiculous detail added seemingly for dramatic effect, when Joseph first walks into the room the women who had been cutting fruit with their knives are so intoxicated by Joseph’s beauty that they distractedly cut their hands instead of the fruit they were holding (imagine the iconic scene we have all seem in TV of a distracted waiter pouring water into a glass to the point where it overflows onto the customer because a beautiful woman has walked into the restaurant).  Thus, its not just Potiphar’s wife who is so base.  Joseph’s physical perfection makes them think he is a god or an angel (12:31).  So now have they fallen into idolatry?

Two more times in this section the behavior of the women — the only women in this surah — is called “treachery” (12:33-34).  In case we didn’t get the point, women fade from the surah with one more character assessment:

The governor’s wife said, “Now the truth is out: it was I who tried to seduce him — he is an honest man.”  [Joseph said, “This was] for my master to know that I did not betray him behind his back: God does not guide the mischief of the treacherous.” (12:51-52)

Notice that the ugliest characterizations of women come in the details that have been added to the biblical story in the Qur’an.  The implication of these Qur’anic additions seems to be that all women — not simply Potiphar’s wife — possess an irrational, unseemly passion.  Women are uncontrolled and sexually aggressive in a very depraved manner.  Here we have a righteous young man being used by God to advance His will but women are attempting to derail his holy mission.

This is an unfortunate development, in my opinion.  Or maybe I am reading it wrong?

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