Summary: This is a page book report on the recent historical study Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. The book chronicles the position of women in Islamic society from the first marriage of Muhammad to the present day. It is steeped in the traditions of women’s studies, but it draws heavily upon historical accounts of Islam as a religion and a socio-cultural system.
Leila Ahmed’s 1992 study of the role of gender in Islamic societies is a comprehensive historic look at how women, and women’s issues, function in a system that has been traditionally hostile to them. This could, of course, be said about many socio-religious systems other than Islam, but Ahmed’s interests in this particular paradigm of gender relations stem from subjective experience as a member of the Islamic community in America. In the introduction, she claims that the most influential factors on the subordination of women in Islamic culture come from outside sources that Islam was forced to adapt to in its first period of growth. However, she also notes that the diverse religions that preceeded Islam in the Middle East were often goddess-based and had looser definitions of marriage (p. 4-5). Thoughout the book, she attempts to tease apart these two elements – what is intrinsic to Islam, and what was absorbed along the way from other societies.
The book is constructed in a historical format. Ahmed discusses the role of women in the pre-Islamic Middle East, the formation of ‘founding discourses’ formed in pre-Medieval Islam, modern Islam and the liberalization of women’s position, and the resurgence of fundamentalism, with the accompanying re-emphasis on the founding discourses of the religion. In each section, she draws on both Arabic scholarship and work in gender studies that deals with the social and religious position of women. Much of this work is anthropological, but a considerable portion is theoretical, and the author has had to do an understandable amount of work with Islamic doctrinal texts, particularly those works that came out of the late classical and early medieval periods of Islam’s development.
A key theme in the book is the consistent conception that women are primarily child-producing machines. This ‘biological fact’ has dogged women from the beginning of human history, when male-dominant social patterns were set up to ensure sufficient numbers of laborers in a group. Measures aimed at the protection of women, including segregation, reduced rights and privileges, and the veil, are all based on the presumption that protecting women is equal to protecting future generations; indeed, the future generative capacity of the group/society/species. This clearly defines women as biological/sexual organisms. It was not, however, until mind/body dualism showed up (with the advent of Christianity) that this overt physicality of women meant that they were less mentally-inclined. The relegation of women to child-bearing and child-rearing roles has been a consistent feature of all societies that oppress women, Islam being no exception.
The founding discourses that Ahmed talks about throughout the book are outlined in the second section, which I will discuss here. The discourse concerning marriage stems from events in the lives of two wives of Muhammad, Khadija and Aisha, which are cited in order to reflect contrasts between Jahilia society (in which Islam first took root) and Muslim society. Ahmed goes almost as far as saying that private property marked the beginning of outright misogyny, but concedes that even in those societies where communal property, matrilineal families, and loose definitions of marriage prevailed, women were probably still oppressed as a result of the “biological fact” argument ( p.42- 43). The lives of these two women point out the contrasts between Jahilia customs; in which Khadija proposed to Muhammad, who was a business contact and twenty years her junior; and early Muslim doctrine, in which Aisha was wedded to Muhammad as a child, and shortly thereafter began to observe the use of the veil, and the seclusion of women.
The displacement of matrilineal Arabic customs with patriarchal Islamic traditions cemented the importance of paternity in a culture that was beginning to develop along capitalistic lines. Other founding discourses addressed the treatment of women within a marriage, and the place of women in public society. The discourse surrounding veiling practices is especially pertinent to contemporary discussions of Muslim feminism. The practice of veiling among women was prevalent in Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Assyrian communities before Muhammad started requiring his wives to “take the veil” (p. 55). The association of veils with economic status may well have had something to do with the spread of this peculiar tradition beyond the confines of Muhammad’s home. The segregation of women in the home spread, in a few centuries, to edicts against respectable women appearing in public at all. Ahmed’s emphasis is on the male reasoning behind these movements, and their effects on women’s place vis à vis their status under local, non-Muslim traditions.
The discussion of modern Islamic women in this book is fascinating in that it portrays the modern era (from 1900 onward) as the first time since the death of Muhammad that outstanding women have acted to improve their position as a whole gender, and not merely stood out from a crowd of passive, invisible mothers/ daughters/ wives. The most active component in the liberation of Muslim women has been education (p. 190-1). College-educated women began to question the traditional Islamic teachings with exposure to new texts, especially those from western Europe. Urban migration after the industrialization of the Mediterranean area, and the presence of Allied forces in the Middle East during the world wars accelerated the pace at which women were exposed to men, and to the rest of the world.
The section on modern Islam contains a great deal of information on political movements in recent history, and describes the attitudes of the Muslim leadership as very similar to those that men in the West held about the relationship of women to work outside the home (p. 195). The movements toward what Ahmed calls “Islamism” in Egypt, and later in Pakistan, mark the beginning of contemporary Muslim thought, which is characterized by a return to the basic precepts, the foundational discourses, on which Islam was founded. This has tended to do more harm than good to the feminist element in Islamic society, though the spirit of inquiry and development is not likely to be squelched in a community where education is given paramount value.
The meaning of gender in Muslim culture is multifaceted, and by no means is it entirely misogynistic, as many Western portrayals of Islam would have it. Women occupy an interesting place in the Muslim family, and they cannot be removed from the fabric of commerce and society, no matter how many legislations are placed against their appearance in public. Visible or invisible, Muslim women have struggled to reconcile their faith with their desire for equality as human beings. Laila Ahmed’s book is, for those women as for all of us, a step in the right direction.
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