In my graduate class about The United States and the Middle East, we discussed the idea that we can judge Islamic societies by how they treat their women. As an example our professor shared a story about a woman historian, whose focus is Turkey, who is concerned about the general decline of women in positions of government leadership. At a conference in Washington, she called attention to these changes and noted her concern for the direction Turkey, which is generally considered a more progressive Islamic country, is heading. However, on the brighter side, women have had a distinctive presence in recent revolutions, Egypt in particular, indicating that women are politically active in several Middle Eastern countries (see attached link). So, is women’s presence (or lack thereof) in public an indicator of progress or modernity in the Middle East? On another note, how can we judge ourselves, or the treatment of our women in the United States? –Huffman
Author Archives: huffmanma07
Open the Gates!
The idea that Islamic law in the Ottoman Empire remained static is a popular misconception. Complex situations arose that had not been addressed which required the application of Islamic doctrines. The so-called “gate of ijtihad” remained ajar long after the ninth century. From the rulings of Islamic judges emerge two prominent themes: a highly gendered system of law that continued to emphasize patriarchy.
One’s gender determined what was or was not permissible in society. Women had quite different gender roles than men. Strict regulation of the actions of men and women (specifically in regard to marriage divorce, and sexuality) were enforced to maintain social order. In In the House of the Law, Judith Tucker states that: “Marriage was the key to social harmony.” Women maintained some rights, choices in marriage or the right to nafaqa, however, such highly gendered institutions remained patriarchal.
An example of patriarchy in the legal system may best be exemplified by the man’s right to talaq, or a divorce that required no reason for initiation. Women had no equal right. Women could ask for an annulment to a marriage because due to a defect or they could offer their dowry or other compensation in return for divorce (khul). Even legal rulings on mothering ultimately led back to the father. Although mothers are perceived as nurturers and best suited for taking care of young children, in the end a child belonged to the father. The concept of the father as the provider, and patrilineal descent, remain engrained in present society.
Recently, a woman in Iran was accused of charges related to murder and adultery. Confusion arose about the proper punishment, whether she should receive lashes, be stoned, or be hanged. After international outcry, the case has made its way to the Supreme Court. It is important to note that Iran is mainly Shia Muslims, whose jurisprudence relies more upon interpretation than Sunni Muslims for example. Although there is little doubt she engaged in criminal activity, judges continue to deliberate on the consequences of her actions. The case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani proves that Islamic law and interpretation continues, possibly opening the “gates” wide enough to allow more progressive rulings and the establishment of new precedents.
 Judith Tucker, In the House of the Law (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 11.
 Ibid., 40.
 Meris Lutz. “Babylon & Beyond,” (January 2, 2011) http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/ babylonbeyond/2011/01/iran-adultery-sakineh-stoning-hanging-justice.html (accessed February 23, 2011).
Lost in Translation?
The varying interpretations of the Quran and hadiths indicate an occasionally ambiguous or contradictory stance towards women living under Islamic rule. Leila Ahmed’s book, Women and Gender in Islam, contains a chapter aimed at clarifying the reason for many discrepancies. “The Transitional Age,” or the time after Mohammed’s death and when the hadiths were being transcribed, is the crucial time when “two distinct voices within Islam, and two competing understandings of gender” emerged.
Since then, there has been an unending debate on how exactly Islam regards women. Ahmed asserts that the first Muslim society following the Prophet’s death called for a much more positive position towards women’s rights than the later Abbasid society exhibited toward them. This is primarily due to differences in interpretation; the Abbasid society’s interpretation of holy dictates reflects their adherence to a more strict system of patriarchy. The emphasis on patriarchy is congruous with the assumption that as time progressed after Mohammed’s death, women’s rights typically declined.
Examples of varying interpretations include the decision to marry girls at young ages and hold concubines. More specifically, the Surah regarding The Light makes no specific mention of what should be used to cover women’s breasts. However, an English translation adds the word “veil.” The struggle of translating from Arabic into other languages is often because of two prominent errors: “addition and subtraction.” By inserting or omitting words, even the slightest alteration in meaning can be substantial.
Translation is a prominent issue in studying Islam. However, the problem is not unique to Islam. The same problems affect Christianity. Varying interpretations may be as broad in nature as the Creation story. Did God really create the Earth in six days, or was it six much larger units of time as science would suggest? Christians conduct Communion in numerous ways; discrepancies exist about the proper way to dip the bread in wine (or juice). Varying methods of interpretation appear to be universal to the monotheistic religions. The only acceptable reactions are adherence to reliable historical texts and patience with those who may hold a different opinion.
 Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1992), 65.
 Ibid., 67.
 Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 64.
In the Beginning: The Origins of Patriarchy
When asked, most American students would say that Islam has had a negative effect on women. Islam did not create patriarchy in the Middle East. Monotheism in general, and Islam in particular, have had a significant impact on the roles of women and their rights, but it is not the root cause of male domination. The beginnings of patriarchy trace back to ancient civilization, but there is not consensus on the most important factors leading to reduced rights for women.
The traditionalist argument is founded upon the assumption that biology constitutes the impetus for differing gender roles for men and women. Because women are mothers, a sexual division of labor emerged and women’s sphere became the household. The feminists counter that patriarchy is a historical phenomenon; its creation has a beginning and therefore can have an ending. Gerda Lerner states “Patriarchy as a system is historical…it can be ended by historical process.” Yet the search for matriarchal societies as evidence against the universal nature of patriarchy is mostly fruitless. Patriarchy seems deeply embedded in societies across the globe, especially in many developing countries.
Prior to Islam there were several observable movements that enforced the escalation of patriarchy. For example, the roles of mother-goddesses and other female deities were gradually revised to reflect patriarchal cultures. Monotheism also contributed this erosion of women’s influence in religion. Before Islam, seclusion was already in effect, but escalated in the centuries following Mohammed’s life. The veil, previously used to signify the chastity or class of a woman and identify prostitutes, came to have a slightly altered meaning. The Bible similarly reinforced women’s subservient role to men. Women were no longer priestesses and female deities ceased to exist.
Thus, patriarchy was clearly established prior to Islam and other monotheistic religions, but how and why? It is crucial to remember that there is not a single answer. The establishment of patriarchy was multi-causal and gradual. As Lerner suggests, patriarchy grew out of biological and social conditions to become the cultural norm. The most important misconception that needs correction is that Islam created patriarchy in the region, although perhaps it explains certain circumstances in the Middle East today.
 Guity Nashat and Judith Tucker, Women In the Middle East and North Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 17.
 Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 6.
 Lerner, 42.