- A History of Women’s Seclusion in the Middle East: The Veil in the Looking Glass (review)
In twenty-one chapters that range from “Domestic Architecture,” “Evolution,” “Biology,” “The Clan” and “Environment for Seclusion” to “Trade,” “Capital and Land,” “Slavery” and “Masscult,” Ann Chamberlin has attempted to cover millennia of world history to argue for the advantages of seclusion for women. Flitting between Middle Eastern countries in the Neolithic period and today with several nods to North America, she reveals a sex-segregated reality that precedes monotheistic religions. Wildly comparative and interdisciplinary, her study advocates a system in which women are given privileges, like seclusion, because of their special attributes and needs. This is what many feminists call complementarity, or a patriarchal ruse whereby women are said to be equal, nay superior, to men and therefore meriting extraordinary attention in separate spaces. For Chamberlain such spaces are not “prisons” but “holy of holies” (57). Seclusion, she writes, “carries some of the benefits of tribal support into an urban environment” (91). A biological and environmental determinist, she asserts that, for a woman, seclusion protects “the next generation and her own individuality from exploitation,” a protection that is necessitated by a woman’s “closer connection to children and her ability to identify with all things exploitable (that) is in the biology” (85) and her physical weakness [End Page 227] (92). It may be that some women have found strength and affirmation in this enforced sisterhood; the trouble is that most have not.
The tone is often gratuitously sarcastic especially when discussing feminists’ hang ups concerning matrilineality (94) or inequality (149) or when she pontificates about the masculinization of women who consider themselves men’s equal (235) or about men’s inherent selfishness (89). Patrilineality is “not the worst thing that can happen . . . The clan still has a vested interest in women” and even if women are maltreated they will not suffer unduly because they and their children are in the tender loving care of the extended family (95–97, 222). Tell that bit of good news to a divorced woman whose children are taken out of her custody. Will she agree that “any attempt to improve the lot of women by legislation of relationships between individuals as equal but mere individuals cannot help but backfire” (130)?
Generalizations and essentialist narratives that compress time and space into sameness abound. Idealization of rural life for women contrasts with the hazards for women of urbanization. The honor system is the ultimate form of protection because it ensures that women are kept in seclusion, safe from outside harm. The fact that this system sanctions killing women for its infraction is attributed to modernity, “a situation in which male honor has none of the traditional outlets, no access to jobs” (179). In a remarkable rhetorical flourish, Chamberlain asserts that “harem walls” protect women’s “own music, dance, stories, expression” and that “where women’s symbols are secure, so are those of any minority,” (202) then, as happens quite often in this book, she goes on to undermine her point by writing that any woman “with the gumption, skill and energy” cannot be stopped by a harem wall (203). Yet, empowerment of women leads to witch hunts and to women’s fear of seclusion.
The cover advertises a lesson about “how the seclusion of women can be used as a feminist defense against exploitation—and as an empowering force.” But what the reader gets is an impassioned plea for women to acquiesce to exploitation. [End Page 228]
Miriam Cooke, Professor of Arab Culture at Duke University, has published on war and gender in the Arab world, Islamic feminism, Muslim networks, and dissident culture. Send correspondence to email@example.com.