- Women and Islam
Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam centers on the conditions and lives of women in Middle Eastern Arab history. It is a response both to the growing strength of Islamist movements, which urge a return to the laws and practices set forth in the core Islamic discourse, and to the way in which Arab women are discussed in the West.
The book is divided into three parts. “Part One: The Pre-Islamic Middle East” includes a chapter on Mesopotamia and another on The Mediterranean Middle East. Citing archeological evidence, Ahmed points out that the subordination of Middle Eastern women became more or less institutionalized with the rise of urban centers in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers between 3500 and 3000 B.C.E. These centers gave rise to military competitiveness, the patriarchal family, the exclusion of women from most of the professional classes, the designation of women’s sexuality as the property of men, and the use of the veil to differentiate between “respectable” and “disreputable” women. Challenging the assumption that Islamic societies are inherently oppressive to women—a task that she undertakes throughout her book—Ahmed stresses the fact that the “Mesopotamian, Persian, Hellenic, Christian, and eventually Islamic cultures each contributed practices that both controlled and diminished women, and each also apparently borrowed the controlling and reductive practices of its neighbors” (18).
Reviewing, for example, some of the salient features of Byzantine society, Ahmed notes that the birth of a boy (but not that of a girl) was greeted with cries of joy, that, “barring some general disaster, women were always supposed to be veiled” (26), and that the system of relying on eunuchs to enforce the separation of the sexes was already in place. To show continuity with the rigid Byzantine customs, Ahmed turns to Classical Greek, and specifically Aristotelian, theories which conceived of women “as innately and biologically inferior in both mental and physical capacities—and thus as intended for their subservient position by ‘nature’” (29). Citing several scholars—Sarah Pomeroy, Dorothy Thompson, Naphtali Lewis, Jean Vercoutter, and Christiane Desroches Noblecourt—Ahmed finds that only the “remarkably nonmisogynist” culture of the New Kingdom in Egypt “accorded women high esteem” (31). But neither Ahmed nor her sources explain this anomalous situation. The rest of the chapter outlines how, in the centuries immediately preceding the rise of Islam, the politically dominant Christianity brought with it “the religious sanction of women’s social subordination and the endorsement of their essential secondariness” (34).
The four chapters of Part Two are grouped under the heading of “Founding Discourses.” Here, the text deals with Arabia at the time of the rise of Islam, carefully delineating the changes brought about by the new religion when it spread to the rest of the Middle East. When Muhammed became the established prophet, women lost their economic independence, their autonomy, and the right to a monogamous marriage. The period also witnessed the institution of the patrilineal and patriarchal marriage (Aisha was ten years old when she was married to Muhammed). After the prophet’s death in 632, the mechanisms for controlling women’s lives were more clearly articulated by the succeeding caliphs. Under Umar’s reign (634–44), for instance, segregated prayers were established (with a male imam for the women); and polygamy and marriage of nine- or ten-year-old girls were sanctioned. Umar himself was very harsh toward women both in private and in public.
At the end of this chapter, Ahmed makes one of the most important points of her argument: what has been consistently overlooked, she declares, is “the broad ethical field of meaning” in which these restrictive practices against women were embedded—“the ethical teachings Islam was above all established to articulate” (62). Her point has far-reaching implications for how we understand Islam’s attitude toward women. “When those teachings are taken into account,” she says,
the religion’s understanding of women and gender emerges as far more ambiguous than this account might suggest. Islam...