Jacques Rifflet: “A Girl Is a Small Catastrophe”

Jacques Rifflet is not a household name, to be sure.  He is a Belgian lawyer, an emeritus professor of both international politics and comparative religion, and a putative expert on the Islamic world who has been a journalistic consultant on the Gulf War and called upon frequently by the Belgian government as an adviser.  He’s also frankly ignorant and, so far as I can tell, has been drinking the outdated, racist, misogynist Orientalist Kool-aid by the bucketful.

Recently, Rifflet was brought in to give a briefing on Islamic topics to Belgian and Luxembourgeois soldiers about to be shipped out to duty in Afghanistan.  Among the several pearls of Rifflet’s wisdom (a large chunk of which exist, in French, at Parlemento) was this:

…a daughter, to a Muslim, generally signifies that the man has poor quality sperm.  I’m not joking.  Virile men make boys, and men who are not so virile make girls.  It’s also obvious that because a girl has to be married, they cost a dowry, a girl is a small catastrophe because you have to, as we say in French, marry her off.  A boy, he is strength, he is a warrior, he’s very important, a boy.

To say that Rifflet richly deserves  the condemnation he’s been earning in the Belgian press and the Muslimah blogosphere is an understatement. On the official side of things, the backpedaling has been reasonably strenuous.  Rifflet has offered feeble excuses, while the Belgian Minster of Defense has officially disowned him in front of Parliament.

I could forgive Jacques Rifflet’s magisterial ignorance of human biology if he could be trusted to get his Islam right, but this supposed expert appears to be flunking Islamic Culture 101. Here’s a tip, Prof. Rifflet, and you might want to take notes: Traditionally, Islamic marriage is not a dowry system.  It’s a bridewealth system, where the groom and his family give large gifts of money and/or goods to the bride and her family. Not the other way around. They may both be problematic from a feminist point of view, but they’re still different things.

I’d just file this under “Good To Know That The Rest Of The Western World Is Holding Up Its Racist, Sexist, Xenophobic, Ignorant End” but for the fact that lying to the people you’re equipping with guns tends to produce problematic results. And for the tiny, nay niggling, problem that we simply don’t know how common this kind of disinformation might be in all the many militaries (including that of my own country) currently sending troops off to fight dubious wars against people about whom they may, it seems, be quite dubiously informed indeed.

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Hanne Blank is a writer, a historian, a cook, and a domestic worker. She is the author of various books including Virgin: The Untouched History (Bloomsbury, 2007), Unruly Appetites (Seal Press, 2003), and the forthcoming Straight (Beacon Press) and Homework: Sex, Politics, and the Soul of Keeping House. A Midwesterner by birth and inclination, she currently lives, works, and teaches in a nineteenth-century stone millworkers' cottage on a dirt road in Baltimore.