Students wear niqabs, shout slogans in front of the Ministry of Higher Education in Tunis
Students of the Faculty of Arts in Manuba, wearing niqabs, shout slogans in front of the Ministry of Higher Education in Tunis on January 11. © Fethi Belaid - AFP/File
Students wear niqabs, shout slogans in front of the Ministry of Higher Education in Tunis
Barbara Petzen
Last updated: February 5, 2012

Essay: The Diverse Roles and Aspirations of Middle Eastern and Muslim Women

It is a common assumption in the U.S. that all Muslim women are oppressed, and that their religion forces them to cover their bodies and even their faces, denies them education and the right to work, and makes them subservient to men. While it is certainly true that most Muslim women, like women in other cultures, struggle against various forms of inequality and discrimination, it is important to distinguish carefully between constraints imposed by Islam as a religion on the one hand and local cultural and legal restrictions on women’s autonomy on the other. Women in different countries face enormously different circumstances, and we must examine the experiences of women in particular places and times in order to appreciate both the obstacles they face and their own agency in overcoming them.

In the Middle East today, Muslim women must negotiate a complex system of restrictions and opportunities created by the intersection of (1) how Islam is practiced locally; (2) cultural practices, traditions and expectations related to gender; and (3) the legal and civil structures and intent of the state. The nation-state may reinforce what are seen to be traditional restrictions on women based in a conservative interpretation of religion, as in Saudi Arabia or Iran, or it may contradict traditional interpretations of Islam and forcefully encourage women to become what it considers to be more modern, as in Tunisia or Turkey.

Early Muslim Societies

These three elements—religion, culture and political structures—have been shaping the environment in which women live since before the advent of Islam. Islam itself arose in—and dramatically changed—a particular cultural environment. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a tribal society in which the virtues of warfare were paramount. Women were often seen as chattel to be seized in raids from other tribes. Sometimes girl babies were killed at birth by exposing them to the elements because they were considered a liability to the family’s economic survival and/or honor. At the same time, certain individual women of high status and ability had some autonomy. Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, was a successful businesswoman who hired Muhammad to conduct business for her, and was impressed enough with him that she initiated a marriage proposal.

The Quran made explicit and dramatic reforms to the position and treatment of women in the early Islamic community. It explicitly states that men and women are equal in the eyes of God, and addresses the revelation frequently to “you believing men and women.” Furthermore, the Quran absolutely forbids female infanticide, instructs Muslims to educate their daughters as well as sons, insists that women must agree to a prospective husband, gives women rights (including custody of young children) if they are divorced by their husband, gives women the right to divorce in certain cases, and gives women the right to own and inherit property, among other reforms. While these changes do not add up to our contemporary definition of gender equality, they mark an enormous legal change in the status of women that is arguably unequalled in the West until the nineteenth century.

Legal inequalities remained, despite these Quranic reforms. In Sunni Islam, for example, female heirs get only half of what men inherit. Some scholars explained that this was because men are expected to care for their mothers, wives, children and any unmarried female relatives, and therefore need greater resources. Women also did not have the same legal authority as witnesses as did men. Polygamy (the marriage of one man to up to four wives) was accepted, but discouraged, and on the whole practiced less frequently than imagined by those in the West. Some scholars now argue that it was originally allowed only because so many Muslim men of the early community were killed, and their wives and daughters had no protectors or providers. Many contemporary Muslims cite the Quranic phrase "But treat them equally... and if you cannot, then one is better" and argue that monogamy is preferable, or even mandatory. The Quran also acknowledged the practice of slavery, as did Judaism and Christianity, but put restrictions on its practice.

Some women in Muslim societies have been prominent social and political actors. Female relatives of the Prophet Muhammad were particularly important in the early Muslim community because they knew his practice and teachings so well. In addition to Khadija and Aisha, both wives of the Prophet, Fatima (the Prophet’s daughter) and Zaynab (the Prophet's granddaughter) are also very important role models for many Muslim women. The tenets of Sufism were first articulated by a woman named Rabi’a, a freed slave who became a prominent scholar in the 8th-century city of Basra in Iraq. She refused to marry because she did not want any earthly distractions from her love of God. This tradition of women’s religious leadership continues today--one example is Zaynab al-Ghazali, who led the women's wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

While it seems clear that the Quranic revelations ushered in a number of legal innovations that benefited women, the scholarship and social mores of succeeding centuries pushed back against this early reformist intent. In many cases, the most restrictive interpretations of gender-related injunctions of the Quran and hadith (sayings about the practice of Muhammad) were adopted, and more liberal interpretations were rejected. As the Muslim state expanded into areas that had been controlled by the Byzantines and Sassanians, it also adopted some of the practices of these societies related to women. For example, the practice of veiling, which was common for upper-class women in both Sassanid Persia and Byzantium, was integrated into Muslim practice in the Middle East. The cultural practice of a large harem of concubines for the ruler and uppermost elite was also adopted. Even the Quranically-mandated rights for women were not always followed, depending on the strength of local patriarchal customs. Women in 19th-century Ottoman Egypt, for example, were often not given the full inheritance due to them by law. If they challenged the family members who withheld their money in an Islamic court, however, they could win.

One other important concept for gender was elaborated in the early centuries of Islam as the Muslim state expanded. Relying on a prophetic hadith (an accepted action or saying of Muhammad) that said, “My community will never agree on an error,” the scholarly community or ulama gave a certain amount of latitude to local customs, so that those cultural practices that did not explicitly contradict Islam were deemed permissible. This legal doctrine, meant to reduce the possibility of intra-Muslim conflict, allowed for great cultural variation to exist between different Muslim societies as the religion expanded through both conquest and trade. Thus while some religious scholars in 9th- and 10th-century Iraq were prescribing more restrictive roles for women, elite women in Islamic Spain were sometimes able to bend these rules and mix quite freely with men.

Gender fault lines also existed across socio-economic class. Wealthier women historically have had more economic and educational opportunities by virtue of their class. Many wealthy women were and continue to be highly educated, their money and intelligence giving them the power to ignore society's traditional expectations of women and to participate fully in the economic, political, and cultural life of their community. Upper-class women, however, were often more restricted in their clothing and movement in public, since keeping them covered and out of public life was a way to demonstrate status. Poorer and rural women had relatively more freedom of movement but fewer educational opportunities. In addition, women in highly segregated Muslim societies sometimes created (and still do create) their own society set apart from the male world. In all cases, it is important to consider that whatever the cultural and economic background of a woman, her own abilities and personality determine to a great extent what she can achieve in her society.

The Colonial Experience and Gender

The position of women was frequently used by the colonial powers as a reason to interfere with the political and social institutions of colonized societies. While this was based to a certain extent on sincere do-goodery, it was also a political tool used to undermine the legitimacy of local traditions and replace them with colonial institutions. One can see an explicit example of this in the practice of the British governor general of Egypt, Lord Cromer. At home he was a member of the Anti-Suffrage League, but he decried the oppression of Egyptian women in order to denigrate Egyptian society and to legitimize British control, while restricting real educational reforms for Egyptian women.

For many in the Middle East who remember the bitter colonial experience, the West’s interest in “reforming” the position of women is therefore suspect. When the push for advancing women’s liberation comes from outside, it may be seen as part of an assumption that Western ways are superior and perhaps as a strategy to delegitimize the leadership of the modern nation-states of the region. On the other hand, the position of women can also be used by those within Middle Eastern societies as a touchstone for their unease about the encroachment of the commercialized and sexualized culture of the West. These factors can make it very difficult for women in the region to advocate for legal changes or more social tolerance for an expansion of women’s roles, since reformers may be seen as tools or dupes of the West.

Still, many regimes in the contemporary Middle East have sought to advance the status of women in law and in society as a marker of their own national progress and in order to take advantage of the full human capital of the society. In Turkey and Iran, Kemal Ataturk and the Shah, respectively, argued for adoption of secular Western ideas about the roles of women, in particular arguing (and even legislating) that women should remove their headscarves in order to participate fully in the modern world. The Arab nationalist and socialist regimes of Syria and Iraq brought in many reforms for women in the second half of the 20thcentury--while at the same time restricting the political freedoms of the society as a whole.

Negotiating the Islamic Tradition

Women in Middle Eastern societies who want to expand their rights and roles may, at one and the same time, have to defend themselves against the accusation of being too Western, fight against ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam and restrictive local cultural traditions, and disentangle themselves from being co-opted by an oppressive nation-state. One strategy being adopted by many women in the Middle East to advocate against the various restrictive social and legal practices of their own societies is to argue that their impulse to reform the role and status of women comes not from the West but from the Islamic tradition itself. They look to the early reformist spirit of the Quran and some hadith, rather than to the legal accretions of later centuries, to argue that Islam mandates that women have equal status in law and society, if in some areas different roles.

Women in the Middle East today who are struggling to better their own positions thus have an arsenal of tools to wield in opposing the laws, states and traditions that confine them. These may be secular arguments about human rights, equality and democracy and/or religious arguments about what they see as the inherent gender justice of Islam. In opposition to the 2009 election results in Iran, mainly elite women in Tehran demonstrated in their thousands--often using loose green headscarves as a symbol of support for their favored candidate. In Turkey, secular feminists argue freely with women who resist the state’s restrictions on the practice of religion, including the ban on headscarves in public schools and in public office. Even in the conservative Gulf states, perceptions of gender and their legal reflections are changing. In Kuwait, four women were elected to Parliament in 2009; in Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, too, women have won the right to vote.

In every state in the region, women are acting as social entrepreneurs, setting up organizations to combat domestic violence, oppose government malfeasance, increase educational opportunities for girls, insist on observance of human rights, and advocate for change across a wide variety of issues. Women are also using both established and new forms of artistic expression to throw light on the issues they consider most important, to critique their societies, and to point the way to their own visions of a more equitable life.

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