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Women and Gender in Islam

Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate

Leila Ahmed
Copyright Date: 1992
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Women and Gender in Islam
    Book Description:

    Are Islamic societies inherently oppressive to women? Is the trend among Islamic women to appear once again in veils and other traditional clothing a symbol of regression or an effort to return to a "pure" Islam that was just and fair to both sexes? In this book Leila Ahmed adds a new perspective to the current debate about women and Islam by exploring its historical roots, tracing the developments in Islamic discourses on women and gender from the ancient world to the present.

    In order to distinguish what was distinctive about the earliest Islamic doctrine on women, Ahmed first describes the gender systems in place in the Middle East before the rise of Islam. She then focuses on those Arab societies that played a key role in elaborating the dominant Islamic discourses about women and gender: Arabia during the period in which Islam was founded; Iraq during the classical age, when the prescriptive core of legal and religious discourse on women was formulated; and Egypt during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when exposure to Western societies led to dramatic social change and to the emergence of new discourses on women. Throughout, Ahmed not only considers the Islamic texts in which central ideologies about women and gender developed or were debated but also places this discourse in its social and historical context. Her book is thus a fascinating survey of Islamic debates and ideologies about women and the historical circumstances of their position in society, the first such discussion using the analytic tools of contemporary gender studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16271-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-8)

    I begain this book with the intention of bringing together such information and insights as were currently available on the conditions and lives of women in Middle Eastern Arab history. The only general accounts of women in Arab or Muslim history available when I started to research this book (some ten years ago) were such works as Wiebke Walther’sWoman in Islam,an attractively illustrated book, more anecdotal than analytical, which took little if any notice of the perspectives on women in history that contemporary feminist research on Western women, and to some extent on Arab women, had begun to...

  5. PART 1 The Pre-Islamic Middle East

    • Chapter 1 MESOPOTAMIA
      (pp. 11-24)

      The subordination of women in the ancient Middle East appears to have become institutionalized with the rise of urban societies and with the rise of the archaic state in particular. Contrary to androcentric theories proposing that the inferior social status of women is based on biology and “nature” and thus has existed as long as human beings have, archaeological evidence suggests that women were held in esteem prior to the rise of urban societies and suffered a decline in status with the emergence of urban centers and city-states. Archaeologists often cite Çatal Hüyük, a Neolithic settlement in Asia Minor dating...

      (pp. 25-38)

      By the fifth and sixth centuries c.e. societies of the Mediterranean Middle East essentially comprised Christian and to some extent Jewish populations. Like the societies of the Mesopotamian region, the societies of the Mediterranean Middle East have a history long predating the rise of Christianity. Indeed, the Christian societies of this region were heir to such a diversity of cultures that it would be impossible to review them comprehensively here. In the following survey I will review salient features of the mores of only some cultures of the area: those of Byzantine society, as the dominant imperial power in the...

  6. PART 2 Founding Discourses

      (pp. 41-63)

      In the sixth century c.e. arabia formed, as it were, an island in the Middle East, the last remaining region in which patrilineal, patriarchal marriage had not yet been instituted as the sole legitimate form of marriage; although even there it was probably becoming the dominant type of marriage, the evidence suggests that among the types of marriage practiced was matrilineal, uxorilocal marriage, found in Arabia, including Mecca, about the time of the birth of Muhammad (circa 570)—the woman remaining with her tribe, where the man could visit or reside with her, and the children belonging to the mother’s...

      (pp. 64-78)

      The egalitarian conception of gender inhering in the ethical vision of Islam existed in tension with the hierarchical relation between the sexes encoded into the marriage structure instituted by Islam. This egalitarianism is a consistent element of the ethical utterances of the Quran. Among the remarkable features of the Quran, particularly in comparison with the scriptural texts of other monotheistic traditions, is that women are explicitly addressed; one passage in which this occurs declares by the very structure of the utterance, as well as in overt statement, the absolute moral and spiritual equality of men and women.

      For Muslim men...

      (pp. 79-101)

      In abbasid society women were conspicuous for their absence from all arenas of the community’s central affairs. In the records relating to this period they are not to be found, as they were in the previous era, either on battlefield or in mosques, nor are they described as participants in or key contributors to the cultural life and productions of their society. Henceforth, women of the elite and bourgeois classes would live out their lives in seclusion, guarded by eunuchs if wealthy. Indeed, so confined and reduced were their lives that Nabia Abbott, the preeminent historian of elite women in...

    • Chapter 6 MEDIEVAL ISLAM
      (pp. 102-124)

      My aim here is to draw together the available information on women’s lives in the period subsequent to the establishment of Islam and to the consolidation of its founding institutions and the articulation of its dominant discourses. The focus here, geographically and with respect to the specific time-period, is largely determined by the availability of information. Thus the societies focused on are primarily those of Egypt, Turkey, and Syria and the sources and research drawn on relate chiefly to the fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries (the Mamluk and Ottoman periods). The lives of women in these regions and periods...

  7. PART 3 New Discourses

      (pp. 127-143)

      In the early nineteenth century the societies of the Middle East began to undergo a fundamental social transformation. Economic encroachment by the West and entrammelment in the global economy, the emergence of “modern” states in the region, and the domination, formal or informal, of much of the area by European colonial powers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries formed the overarching economic and political parameters of the transformation.

      As early as the first decades of the nineteenth century some women, particularly rural workers and lower-class women in countries, such as Egypt and Syria, where European-made goods had made...

      (pp. 144-168)

      Qassim amin’stahrir al-mar’a(the liberation of woman), published in 1899, during a time of visible social change and lively intellectual ferment, caused intense and furious debate. Analyses of the debate and of the barrage of opposition the book provoked have generally assumed that it was the radicalness of Amin’s proposals with respect to women that caused the furore. Yet the principal substantive recommendations that Amin advocated for women—giving them a primary-school education and reforming the laws on polygamy and divorce—could scarcely be described as innovatory. As we saw in the last chapter, Muslim intellectuals such as al-Tahtawi...

      (pp. 169-188)

      Change occurred rapidly in the first years of the twentieth century, change that was readily apparent to the eye: women’s and men’s apparel changed, and women were more commonly seen in the streets. A transportation network was laid, linking the major cities and eventually the smaller agricultural centers. The districts of cities were now linked by tramways and paved roads, and sewer piping was installed. City populations expanded at a rate of 20 percent between 1907 and 1917—slightly higher than the population growth rate for the countryside. The telephone was brought to Egypt in 1884, and the first cinema...

    • Chapter 10 DIVERGENT VOICES
      (pp. 189-207)

      Although the constitution of 1923 declared education a priority and the government made primary education compulsory for both boys and girls shortly thereafter, the government did not in fact have the resources to make education generally available. The existing buildings and teachers were stretched to the utmost, however, and education expanded rapidly over the following decades. Urban areas fared better than rural ones, for they had more teachers and facilities and both could be used in double shifts—at inadequate pay, women teachers complained.¹

      By 1930 the number of girls attending school, 218,165, or 24 percent of the total school...

      (pp. 208-234)

      In the second half of the twentieth century the roles of Egyptian women underwent massive expansion and transformation. Women entered all arenas of white-collar and professional work, including aeronautics, engineering, big business, and politics—even becoming members of parliament. The only positions they have not occupied are judge and head of state. The nature and variety of their participation in the economy, in political life, and in the visible, dominant culture are now enormously complex. That participation, plus their numbers in the work force and the economic necessity that most middle-class families find their income to be, along with the...

    (pp. 235-248)

    In the discourses of geopolitics the reemergent veil is an emblem of many things, prominent among which is its meaning as the rejection of the West. But when one considers why the veil has this meaning in the late twentieth century, it becomes obvious that, ironically, it was the discourses of the West, and specifically the discourse of colonial domination, that in the first place determined the meaning of the veil in geopolitical discourses and thereby set the terms for its emergence as a symbol of resistance. In other words, the reemergent veil attests, by virtue of its very power...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 249-279)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 280-296)