- Does Islam Create a “Specific Historical Destiny” for Muslim Women? A Review Essay about India, Iran, and Uzbekistan
The subject of Islam and Muslim women triggers visceral reactions from outsiders, with veiling in particular taken as a metonym for passivity and subjugation, the response from colonial officials and missionaries long ago to a range of critics of the practice today. The books at hand take up both the production of discourses and the social history of Muslim women in the broad swathe of land from South Asia to Iran to Central Asia. To opt for covering in some form, there as elsewhere, may well, of course, convey disparate meanings apart from the limiting role routinely imputed to it. It may be a mark of social mobility and respectability, not least in facilitating entry into urban life; it may be a sign of national or transnational belonging; [End Page 155] it may mark political protest—or it may convey the dignity of a responsible and pious life.
The historian Marianne Kamp, in the book listed above, sees veiling as a pragmatic route to survival at a critical moment in Uzbek history. Minoo Moallem, in her work under review, argues that veiling in some form for women, for all its limits, as part of an Islamic language for both women and men, is a passport to participation in civic life in Iran today. In contrast to Uzbekistan and Iran, many Muslims in South Asia, the focus of the remaining three books under review, have lived in largely non-Muslim societies. The “invisibility” of Mahua Sarkar’s title does not point to physical concealment but to the metaphoric invisibility of Bengali Muslim women imposed by nationalist discourses. Ramya Sreenivasin’s study of multiple versions of a single romantic tale provides deep background to the emergence of this story. Finally, the accounts of Hindu women in Anandita Ghosh’s edited volume, in the company of these other books and particularly Sarkar, invites the question of what is lost by the typical practice of historians of India’s colonial period of writing about Hindus and Muslims separately. In part this question overlaps with the title of this essay, which asks whether women of Muslim background behave in a predictable way because of their adherence to Islam. The answer is found in Kamp’s striking phrase: there is no “specific historical destiny” for gender relations among Muslims.
Together these books contribute to seeing, in the title of Ghosh’s book, “behind the veil” of women’s lives, lifting the heavy veils of “Orientalism” and geopolitics that fall on scholarship and “common sense” alike—the veils of essentialist, anachronistic constructions of a Hindu/Muslim divide; of women as only passive and victimized; of Islam as monolithic; and of Islam as, par excellence, the religion that constrains women.
Ramya Sreenivasin, deploying formidable linguistic skills and the eye of someone trained in literature as well as history, surveys a single poetic tale, Jayasi...