From Mon Jul 28 11:00:11 2003
Date: Sun, 27 Jul 2003 12:35:44 -0500 (CDT)
From: MichaelP <>
Subject: LeMondeDip: Two items --Islam's rebel women/US: feminism lite
Article: 162056
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Claiming independence, asserting personal choice

By Abderrahim Lamchichi, Le Monde diplomatique, July 2003

How did a religion that originally offered women greater freedom than they had known in traditional societies come to be associated with their repression? Muslim feminists are claiming again the independence and respect that was accorded to women during the early centuries of Islam.

WE CANNOT judge the era of the founding of Islam by the values of our own time: and, indeed, what we understand as the emancipation of women was never really considered by any of the great monotheistic religions. Some of the West's Christian establishments have accepted relatively equal rights, contraception, abortion and divorce only under pressure from women's associations and after long battles. Islam is aware of these changes. It is inclined to blame the Koran or canon law for the prevailing misogyny in the Muslim world.

The problem is less religion itself than the way it has been interpreted by commentators. The Koran has multiple teachings with many meanings, and Muslims have always been free to comment on them according to circumstances. The texts have been interpreted over centuries and used both to endorse conservatism and intolerance and to promote openness, freedom, forgiveness and intellectual revival.

There is plenty of historical evidence for the servitude of women and the contempt and hatred they have suffered. The inequitable legal and social situation of women in most Muslim countries is extremely poor. But is this situation directly attributable to a religion that is seen as sexist, or is it the result of religious or civil authorities interpreting that religion according to a male desire to dominate, despite Islam's insistence on the equal dignity of men and women and the virtues of love and happiness?

We often forget the exceptional place given to love and sexuality in the literature, poetry and art, even in the sacred texts and laws of this wonderful civilisation. Western explorers encountering the Muslim world have been fascinated, or scandalised, by a faith that openly venerates the pleas- ures of the flesh, a tradition devoted to sensory satisfaction and hedonism as manifestations of divine grace. Love and luxury, sensuality and enjoyment: nothing was condemned. Islamic culture produced an art of love: a wise, realistic and subtle Prophet, who mused about desire and pleasure; a revealed text, the Koran, that does not evade relations between the sexes; and a literature that included the golden odes of the pre-Islamic poets, the Hadiths, Sufi writings and manuals of the erotic arts.

This aspect of the imagination flourished before Islam among the Bedouin Arabs and others in the area Islam first conquered. During the rapid expansion of Islam in the 9th-14th centuries, there arose a refined urban civilisation in Damascus, Aleppo, Basra, Baghdad, Kufa and Cordoba. Arts and sciences flourished, as did music and architecture, poetry and philosophy, chivalry and courtly love (dharf): a culture of love and eroticism (1). Some Islamic mystics, including al-Hallaj, martyred in 922, held beauty to be an attribute of God, sexuality an act of faith, and human love an earthly manifestation of divine love. The physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037), a great Arab philosopher, described many methods of contraception (2). During the era of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, erotic tales (many of Buddhist, Hindu and Persian origin) were translated into Arabic and compiled; under the Mameluke regime in Egypt they were given an Arab-Islamic polish, and later shared with the world as Sheherezade's stories of the Thousand and One Nights.

The sexuality of this world favoured men, and many passages in the Koran stress the pre-eminence of men; but most pre-modern societies shared this view, and the works of Muslim theo-logians condemning hedonism and devaluing women are mild in comparison with the views of eminent Christians who held women to be weak, a source of temptation, existing only to serve men and bear children.

And the message of the Koran and the ethics of the Prophet were a strong force for liberation in the lands that became the heart of Islam. Before Islam, women were tribal and family property, their function to bear and raise children. In the patriarchal family only male descendants were recognised, and it was not unusual for girls to be killed at birth or buried alive. In Arabia, as in other patriarchal societies around the Mediterranean (all to be deeply marked by the three monotheistic religions), control of women's sexuality was part of a strategy of domination: men had the monopoly on the exchange of property, and women were property. Boys were preferred to girls and girls were married young. According to the family code of honour, still in force today, girls must be virgins and wives chaste. Marriages were arranged to seal tribal alliances.

Islam sought to promote a new moral code, representing women as beings of reason, having rights, entitled to respect and a fair hearing. The Koran introduced remarkable innovations: the obligation of husbands to provide for wives and children; inheritance; financial independence for wives; rights at divorce and for widows; freedom to manage and dispose of property.

Some theologians interpreted the Koran's severe regulations on the universal practice of polygamy as enjoining monogamy. Polygamy is permitted under Islam, subject to equity, but it is not a religious rule. Forced marriage had been a feature of many pre-Islamic societies but, according to interpretations of religious law, it was condemned by Islam and the consent of both parties was an absolute requirement. Draconian conditions attached to repudiation were calculated to dissuade husbands from resorting to it.

CONTRARY to common belief, Muslim women did not lead the confined life they do now under strict regimes. Early Islam was a time of relative tolerance between the sexes, who mixed freely, even in public places. Wives and concubines—women of rank—were confined but ordinary women came and went freely. Among the Prophet's contemporaries, other women besides his wives, daughters or companions had an important role. They took part in discussions and expressed strong public dissent. Many women attended legislative assemblies and held high office. Muhammed entrusted Khadija (d 619) to spread the word and allowed Umm Waraqa to conduct prayers because of her knowledge of the Koran. Muslim history is full of independent women: warriors, poets, wealthy businesswomen and efficient administrators.

Many women had considerable political influence in the later classic age. Some were intellectuals or theologians, others heads of state such as the Queens of Yemen, Asma (d 1087) and her daughter-in-law Umra (d 1138), who gave the Friday sermon in the mosque; or the Fatimid, Sitt al-Mulk, sister of the caliph al-Hakim, who reigned 1020-1024. But this golden time was followed in the 14th century by a dismal period. Legal, social and cultural constraints became harsher, art and science gave way to dogma that stayed unchanged for centuries. The position of women deteriorated. Local traditions were revived, and these, with the strictures of theologians, perpetuated a male-centred system, an ethos of servitude supporting a decadent social order.

The sumptuous palaces that caliphs and potentates built throughout the empire to house their many slaves and concubines reinforced the image of a religion both sophisticated and puritanical. From this era comes the caricatured Western view of Islam as a place where sex is confined and debauchery rife, and the fascination with the harem, with its important place in the design of palaces. For most of the Muslim poor, beset with material cares, monogamy was and is the rule.

Islam spread rapidly, dominating societies where traditions were in flux. Sometimes it adjusted to the local culture, even where that was the antithesis of Koranic teaching; sometimes it took issue with unjust aspects of local culture. Authorities in the Muslim world usually ruled in accord with a prevailing balance of social forces, the weight of local tradition, the teachings of the Koran as interpreted by the local culture, the legislative practices of theological doctrines and the direction of political development. Religious law has had to take account of local conditions.

The idea of improving the condition of women was first considered in the 19th century under the Ottoman Empire, and engaged Muslim reformers (the Salafis) and members of the Arab nahda (renaissance). Distinguished men supported the cause. Mumtaz Ali, from India, wrote a book on women's rights in 1898. Rifa'at al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), from Egypt, was an early reformer who saw education and employment as essential conditions for emancipation, after a visit to Paris in 1826 (3). The Egyptian reformer Qassim Amin (1863-1908) (4) condemned the servitude of women and recommended that the hijab be abandoned, polygamy banned and girls educated. His ideas were violently condemned by the ulema but had a considerable impact on the forerunners of the women's movement. In 1913, another Egyptian, Mansour Fahmy, defended a thesis at the Sorbonne on the condition of women in Islam (5). The Tunisian reformer Tahar Haddad (1899-1935) also condemned the alienation of women.

Since the fall of the Ottoman empire and independence, Muslim states have been confronted with violent social and economic upheaval, new patterns of consumption, advances in medicine, urbanisation and the employment of women. In recent decades, the family has changed profoundly and the time is right to improve the condition and legal status of women. Women are often the focus of resentment when new arrangements break down, since conservatives and neo-fundamentalists see them as a visible embodiment of fears.

In Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, supposed to protect the holy places of Islam and set the standard for Islam's norms, women are generally confined to domestic activities. Educated middle-class women are not allowed to drive cars and are often barred from holding political office. Under the Taliban in Afghanistan, there was sexual apartheid. In regions where tribal traditions thrive, women are subject to shocking ancient customs (stoning as a punishment for adultery in northern Nigeria, crimes of honour in Pakistan). These shameful customs, for which there is no religious justification, have been encouraged by the proliferation of radical Islamist movements and are widely tolerated by the authorities. Other countries have made significant reforms. Egypt introduced a family code with a monogamy clause. Polygamy has long been prohibited in Turkey and Tunisia. It is very limited in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and not common in Muslim countries in Asia.

Muslim law, in the strict sense, does not apply in all areas, except in countries where sharia is recognised as the only law: Saudi Arabia, Sudan since 1983, Iran under Khomeini, Pakistan since 1988, Afghanistan under the Taliban. Legal provisions borrow from religious law in limited areas but on the whole modern law prevails. True secularisation of family law is confined to the ex-Soviet Muslim states of Central Asia, to Turkey, where parliament recently abolished the rule that sole parental authority was vested in the father, to Indonesia, to Tunisia (where Habib Bourguiba imposed monogamy in 1956), and to most Muslim countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Provisional solutions are disputed between reformers and modernisers, and conservatives. Some developments have been bizarre. Iran under the mullahs established equal inheritance rights based on a new reading of the Koran, while socialist Algeria introduced a family code in 1984 that was fiercely opposed by women's organisations. A huge Islamist demonstration in Casablanca in 2000 forced the incoming government in Morocco to withdraw a revised version of the mudawwana (code of family law) and a plan to integrate women in development.

Throughout the Muslim world, women writers, journalists, film directors, artists, political militants, lawyers, and others have fought for emancipation. Important battles have been won: girls are now admitted to schools and universities, the age of marriage has been raised, polygamy is in retreat, women of child-bearing age have fewer children and contraceptives are available. In Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey and Indonesia, women have access to education. They have entered the professions and the arts and hold top public, economic, political and administrative posts. In Turkey and the Indian subcontinent, women won the vote earlier than in some European countries. Muslim women have been heads of government. There are women ministers and heads of department.

MUSLIM women all over the world have taken control of their lives and fought for their rights. The present generation is supported by a network of associations, extending family planning centres, combating sexual exploitation, opposing family pacts that shield men from punishment, supporting single mothers and women living alone. This is closely bound up with the need to build free and democratic societies.

The traditional Islamist political parties have a different attitude from the radicals and neo- fundamentalists, who fear women as a source of temptation and are repelled by the Western way of life. Some prominent Islamist men subscribe to a patriarchal and sexist ideology but reformers in the movement have a more complex view. Although they insist that men and women must not mix and that women must wear the hijab in public, they are not, in principle, against Muslim women having rights and exercising responsibilities within the limits of their concept of morality.

In the Maghreb, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Iran and Indonesia, women are being educated and breaking into employment. Women militants are keen for academic and professional success but they wear the hijab and are devout followers of Islam. The traditional confinement of women made them invisible but these women wear the hijab as a signal of their intent to enter the public domain and assert their rights, starting with the division of work and power within the family.

Many women think misunderstandings have arisen not so much from the principles of Islam as from conservative interpretations, which they reject, or the perpetuation of local practices with no religious basis. Some share their male colleagues' vision of the world, rejecting the West, seen as a threat to Islamic values, and defending the traditional foundations of the family.

Others, wanting independence, boldly demand more freedom, real political responsibilities and genuine emancipation. They are often forced to leave political movements. They fight for emancipation under the banner of religion, believing that submission to God is the only way to be free of the power exercised by men—husbands, fathers, teachers, line managers. These women speak with a new voice. They are inventing Islamic feminism, a lever to reach an influential position in society and to get responsible posts in government, universities, business, politics and corporate life.


(1) See the fables of Al-Jahiz (780-805), who wrote in praise of young men and courtesans; The Perfumed Garden by the Baghdad scholar, Muhammad Ibn Dawud (868-909); and the 15th-century erotic manuals of Nafzawi.

(2) The poet and saint, Jalal Ud-Din al-Rumi (died 1273), was the founder of the Sufi way, al-Mawlawiyya, and author of the Masnawi, a masterpiece of Islamic literature.

(3) His book praising the freedom of French women was published in 1834. A translation into French appeared as L'Or de Paris, Editions Sindbad, Paris, 1989.

(4) His works on the emancipation of women were published in 1899 and 1900.

(5) He was expelled from the university in Egypt where he lectured. A French version of his work appeared as La Condition de la Femme dans l'Islam, reissued by Poche/Allia, 2002.

(6) Author of a book on the position of Muslim women, 1930.