A History of Women’s Seclusion in the Middle East: The Veil in the Looking Glass (review)
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A History of Women’s Seclusion in the Middle East: The Veil in the Looking Glass. By Ann Chamberlin. New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp. 316. $108.00 (cloth); $50.50 (paper).

In this book Ann Chamberlin, a playwright and author of historical fiction trained in the languages and archaeology of the Middle East, tackles the timely and sensitive topic of the practices of seclusion, including veiling. This impressionistic book sets out ambitiously to understand modern [End Page 164] Muslim practices through an examination of the history of the origins of seclusion practices. Most of the book is dedicated to examining when, how, and why seclusion practices were adopted in the ancient Near East. Inherent in answering these questions is a desire to understand what made the institution an attractive one for societies and specifically for women as well as what advantages it might have conveyed to practitioners of various ages and genders. This emphasis on origins has clearly dictated the contours and content of the book, and the most persuasive chapters of this book are on the ancient antecedents of modern practices of veiling and seclusion.

The introduction and first chapter address the state of scholarship on the topic, which Chamberlin suggests has been overly critical of Middle Eastern gender systems and practices, especially in light of the failings she perceives on the part of Western society. In order to correct these misperceptions about veiling and seclusion, the book draws upon comparative anthropology, using varied examples to draw general conclusions about the nature of human societies and the kinds of positive roles that seclusion might have played.

The following closely related chapters are used to delineate ancient seclusion practices to the extent they can be known through pictorial representation, architecture, and textual and linguistic evidence. Most examples are from Mesopotamian cultures, but supporting material is also drawn from far afield such as modern Arab houses and tents, plans of villas from Pompeii, the Bible and Quran, and the archaeological remains of prehistoric settlements in Turkey. Chamberlin solidly demonstrates that cultural norms of gender seclusion and veiling were widespread in the ancient Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent. The final chapter of this section explores the gendered sacred spaces in temples of the Sumerian and Babylonian states, and her discussion of the royal women appointed to a lifetime of administering these sacred spaces describes them as demonstrating a general concern for women’s welfare. Chamberlin’s claim that these spaces inspired women to adopt seclusion practices in their private lives outside the temples is based on her assertions that their exercise of power was more benign than that exercised by men and that women would create safe and secure spaces for each other and their children, assertions that may seem to some to be naive. A link between ancient religious worship practices of Mesopotamian goddesses and modern practices of seclusion is interesting to contemplate but is not really demonstrated to academic standards.

The next group of four chapters draws primarily from ethnographies of nonindustrialized societies in addition to those of early hominids and apes, examining the most basic components of gender. Chamberlin’s conclusion is that Middle Eastern systems of male honor and endogamous marriage were adopted in the very distant past (before the development of cities) and that the patriarchy that accompanied these practices represented strategies to protect the good of the group, in this case, the clan. In Chamberlin’s view, it was the development of trade and “early capitalism” in the towns of the [End Page 165] Fertile Crescent that represented the real threat to women’s autonomy and led them to abandon public life. With the growth of cities and the market, urban societies undermined the kinship ties that had provided the less powerful members of the clans with connections of loyalty, mutual responsibility, and protection. Chamberlin suggests that the adoption of seclusion practices countered these threatening social trends. In Chamberlin’s account, the women of ancient Mesopotamia recognized that seclusion would create a safe and secure exclusively female world of close female kin. From these sanctuaries they could then demand protection and financial support from men.

Once capitalist practices and values have been cast...