August 09, 2005
Fatima Mernissi: The Veil and the Male Elite
Lately I’ve been reading a lot about women, personal status law and gender inequality in MENA. While it is a common knee-jerk reaction to blame Islam for oppressing women in the region, one need only look non-Muslim communities in and around the Middle East to see that similar practices often cut across religions. Mistreatment and neglect of women and female children is perpetrated by Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others, justified to varying degrees by calls to religion, local custom or ancient tradition.
Having said that, it’s also quite common to see people claiming that Islam elevated the status of women, when compared to the jahiliyya (pre-Islamic period) in Arabia. This appears to be true (although it remains controversial to what degree), but these same writers generally fail to mention that both the Qur’an and the Hadith contain passages stating quite clearly that women are not equal to men in some rather important respects. For me, the inequality is exemplified by a verse in Sura 4 (here are two translations):
Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what God would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): for God is Most High, Great (above you all). – 4:34 (trans. A. Yusuf Ali)
Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made some of them excel the others, and because they spend some of their wealth. Hence righteous women are obedient, guarding the unseen which Allah has guarded. And those of them that you fear might rebel, admonish them and abandon them in their beds and beat them. Should they obey you, do not seek a way of harming them, for Allah is Sublime and Great! - 4:34 (trans. Majid Fakhry)
Guardianship, obedience and the “appropriate” interpretation of this verse have been widely debated by religious scholars. Based on the full title of Moroccan feminist writer Fatima Mernissi’s work, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, I expected a discussion of Qur’anic verses that suggested both equality and inequality in terms of gender. Of course, I had already been disappointed by Mernissi’s meandering style in Islam and Democracy, so it was not particularly surprising to discover the same unfocused, overly-poetic writing here. My guess is that this work is not a rigorous sociological study as much as it is a description of her personal journey, with a bit of history thrown in for interest.
Part 1: Sacred Text as a Political Weapon
In this section, Mernissi goes into great detail describing how the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) were collected and verified by his Companions and later scholars. Not only does she delve deeply into the complex chains of isnad, but she questions hadiths related by certain Companions, based on evidence of misogyny (recorded in other sources). While the extended history is somewhat interesting, Mernissi has an odd habit of veering off topic to discuss an obscure detail for many pages, without linking back to her original point. It reminds me of the Arabian Nights tendency to tell tales-within-tales, except that the device is highly irritating when applied outside of fictional storytelling.
Mernissi praises the rigor and objectivity of early hadith collectors like al-Bukhari, yet does not explain why these “questionable” hadith were still accepted by such esteemed scholars. She builds an especially detailed case against one Abu Hurayra, who recalled a number of hadith with negative connotations for women. Drawing on the 14th c. work of Imam Zarkashi, Collection of ‘A’isha’s [the Prophet’s wife] Corrections to the Statements of the Companions, Mernissi uses ‘A’isha’s refutations as a basis for questioning Abu Hurayra’s recollections:
’A’isha disputed many of Abu Hurayra’s Hadith and declared to whoever wanted to hear it: “He is not a good listener, and when he is asked a question, he gives wrong answers” (78)
What she does not explain is why Abu Hurayra continued to be accepted as a reliable source by a some scholars, in spite of this condemnation by ‘A’isha, another highly-regarded hadith narrator. Mernissi stops short of questioning the methodology used to authenticate all hadith and studiously avoids discussing the Qur’an in this context as well. While I personally find her silence irritating, an esteemed ‘Aqoul colleague has suggested that this may very well be a more practical way to encourage reinterpretation, since questioning the sacrosanct Qur’an is admittedly a rather delicate matter.
Part 2: Medina in Revolution, The Three Fateful Years
In Part 2, Mernissi paints a picture of uncertainty in Medina, during the difficult years before the Prophet’s conquest of the Arabian Peninsula. In her view, the pressures of war and the challenge of balancing the interests of his followers forced Prophet Mohammed to make concessions on key issues regarding women.
Mernissi focuses on Prophet Mohammed’s most high-profile wives (‘A’isha, Umm Salama, Zaynab) and their efforts to challenge the male establishment and assert themselves politically and personally. Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife (and my personal favourite), is barely mentioned even though she was a successful businesswoman, inherited a vast fortune and proposed marriage to Mohammed, a much younger man. Of course, Khadija would not fit well with Mernissi’s claim that in the pre-Islamic period,
…only men inherited. The male child and the woman were excluded from succession (122)
How exactly did Khadija manage to inherit, do business and propose marriage during a period where women were considered to be little more than chattel? Mernissi is silent on this matter, yet goes on ceaselessly about his later wives and their efforts to promote greater equality in the face of misogynist Companions (e.g. ‘Umar al-Khattab). Downplaying the inequality in allocation of assets to women, she describes how Islam guaranteed a woman’s right to inheritance, where none had existed before. Then, when an explanation of the rationale behind unequal inheritance seems imminent, Mernissi wanders off on a tangent about false prophets and the dangers of instituting social equality (compared to the relatively low risk associated with advocating spiritual equality). For someone not blessed with great amounts of patience, these meandering half-explanations were quite unsatisfying.
Mernissi’s assertion that Mohammed made concessions on women’s issues to appease his supporters is somewhat plausible, but it seems equally plausible that the Prophet was simply a man of his time and did not place much importance on equality, even though he (and the Qur’an) advocated better treatment of women. She also purposefully skirts the issue of Qur’anic verses that imply guardianship and obedience, like the one quoted at the beginning of this entry. Hadiths may be discredited, but in Islam the Qur’an is an inviolable text. Mernissi treads very carefully when discussing sacred scripture, which I suppose should not be held against her under the circumstances (e.g. viewing her work in terms of practical objectives, rather than unproductive standoffs with the Qur’an). Still, it leaves me wondering how a Muslim woman might reconcile her modern way of life with sacred words recited centuries ago, in a vastly different society.
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As a language professional by education, may I just comment that it's mind-boggling how different those two translations are? Is that due to artistic license, debates over authenticity of source material, both, neither, all of the above, or none of the above?
Posted by: evaluna at August 9, 2005 11:18 PM
Different translation styles. As a general matter there is not a debate over the current Quranic text. The Quranic verses are somewhat difficult to render into English, if only because literal translation reads rather oddly.
For a fun little english language tool which gives two of the major Englih language translations as well as an.... interesting commentary, see http://www.al-islam.org/quran/
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 10, 2005 06:01 AM
As to the author and subject, I've long noted that Mernissi is a very typical Lit person, and also very typical of the Moroccan elite.
Neither of which recommends itself to particularly coherent and interesting engagement with the subject. I do business with less Lit type confreres or consouers of hers all the time - the type of people I get along well with to be frank. But they also are divorced from most of the population. Rather like looking to wealthy to middle class liberal New Yorkers for insights on reconciling Middle American culture with globalisation or some such.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 10, 2005 10:10 AM
It's unfortunate that the Qu'ran contains such anachronisms, and preserves them so well since Arabic is still used and the original text has survived so well. It's doubly unfortunate that religious leaders in the Middle East have decided to interpret these well-preserved anachronistic passages literally.
The suggestion to beat your wife is pretty bad; hope prospective female converts read that. I'm guessing it comes from treating women like children, among other things (like physical punishment being commonplace in the past).
Posted by: zurn at August 10, 2005 11:48 AM
Bother, all the holy texts contain such nonsense. Read your bloody bible.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 10, 2005 12:28 PM
Yeah, how one gets the entire Kosher code out of "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk" is completely beyond me...though I've heard that Ethiopian Jews take it literally and simply take precautions not to literally cook a baby animal in its own mother's milk.
Besides, haven't you seen all the Old Testament craziness about not mixing two fibers in a single garment, etc.? Islam sure has no monopoly on literalist wackiness.
Posted by: Eva Luna at August 10, 2005 02:02 PM
Bother, all the holy texts contain such nonsense. Read your bloody bible.
Wow, missing the point again I see. Yes, the Bible has those very same anachronisms, maybe even as bad. However, the texts most of Chritianity uses are not only translations but also interpretations, and who knows what was lost from the original collection of works that make up the Bible. Which was exactly my point: those anachronisms are too well preserved in the Qu'ranm, and too literally followed. It has less to do with specific religions than simply old vs new.
Posted by: zurn at August 10, 2005 02:42 PM
Then how to explain the Jewish interpretations, which are read in the original Old testament Hebrew by those who follow them strictly?
Posted by: Eva Luna at August 10, 2005 03:01 PM
Maybe I can explain it by saying the Old testament is just as flawed as the Qu'ran? Note that I'm not saying that's necessarily what I believe, but it's a possible explanation.
Let's not play the "which religion is better" game. For one thing, I'm not religious, so maybe some wrong assumptions have been made. I'm agnostic, so I'm not anti-religion either. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have good intentions, and produce plenty of good results. Religion has a place in modern society, in any society.
Old testament, Qu'ran, Bible, it's all the same to me. They are all texts written long ago, containing many anachronisms, specifically about married life and women, that don't necessarily apply today. They all have far more good than bad in them, and are great as long as one doesn't dwell on the power-tripping parts like beating your wife.
My point about the Qu'ran is that compared to the Bible (and I guess I was only comparing it to the Bible), it's a far more "intact" text. Hasn't it been kept far closer to its original state than the Bible as commonly used? The Bible as commonly used comes in many, many versions, all with different wordings, and all being translations. Wouldn't that make it easier for the anachronistic details to be preserved whole? Isn't the wahhabist regime a little obsessed with living like it's 600 AD in some respects? I just thought it was an interesting point. And then there's the further problem of fundamentalists who dwell on those passages and interpret them literally. It's supposed to be almost the literal word of Allah after all.
And all this about fundamentalist imams and wahhabism, I don't think it's inherent to Islam. It's seems to be part of the process for all religions. It's more a sociological/economic/historic phenomenon than a religious phenomenon.
Is it the part I said about converting that was offensive? Sorry if that caused confusion. I guess I was thinking of Christians converting to Islam, in which case my thought would be "why convert to essentially the same thing but as practiced in some places a more anachronistic religion?". Converting is a far bigger decision than simply staying Muslim because you were brought up that way. I'm not saying all Muslim women should convert to something else because of a few passages in the Qu'ran. Like I said, there's far more good than bad, and it's worth sticking to it if you're religious, if you don't dwell on the bad. That may even be worth converting to, but I would still make sure those who do are aware of these passages, since there are plenty of Islamic religious leaders who interpret it literally, causing actual suffering. But there plenty of bad apples in any basket. Again, sorry about the confusion.
Posted by: zurn at August 10, 2005 03:35 PM
First, I love you all (stop sniping)
Second, I think I know what zurn is getting at. The Qur'an is prized for being highly accurate and is accompanied by tons of exegesis from 9-10th c. scholars. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of differing opinions for each verse, and there is also contextual commentary describing what happened at the time a given verse was revealed to the Prophet. My impression is that it's actually quite difficult to "understand" a verse at face value. Of course, the problem with fundamentalism is that it tends to ignore these shades of meaning, or prefers interpretations that are exclusionary.
In the early 1900s, a lot of ME countries (incl. colonial-backed ones) responded to modernity by setting up secular, Euro-style public education systems and universities. People who went to secular schools had more opportunities to secure high-status positions, while the ones who studied at religious schools were marginalized. Governments also took control of religious endowments, further weakening the ulema. In places like Egypt, religious movements were brutally suppressed.
It seems to me that radical/fundamentalist Muslims saw secularism as an act of intellectual/cultural imperialism by the West. Extending this thought, it's possible that anything that can be labelled "Western" is automatically a threat to Islam. I've read articles by imams who criticize the application of Western modes of thinking/analysis on religious scripture. Even UN human rights declarations are viewed by some as an intellectual attack by the West on Islamic values.
In this context, I can see how Muslims who feel like they are under attack by the West might be resistant to any "new" ideas/interpretations and instead look to 9th century scholars for guidance. Haven't really thought about it, but there must be a set of common factors that lead to fundamentalist trends in a society.
Posted by: eerie at August 10, 2005 04:38 PM
"First, I love you all (stop sniping)
Second, I think I know what zurn is getting at. The Qur'an is prized for being highly accurate and is accompanied by tons of exegesis from 9-10th c. scholars. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of differing opinions for each verse, and there is also contextual commentary describing what happened at the time a given verse was revealed to the Prophet. My impression is that it's actually quite difficult to "understand" a verse at face value. Of course, the problem with fundamentalism is that it tends to ignore these shades of meaning, or prefers interpretations that are exclusionary."
I love you all, too (well, almost all, anyway :-) ). My only point was that Muslims are far from havin a monopoly on literalism, and if you want to see sniping and variance of opinions, my own Jewish brethren probably consider me a heathen (which I probably am), but also mostly consider anyone who doesn't agree with their own, nitpicky analyses of their own individual sects to be heathens. And if you want to see endless nitpicky textual analysis, you can definitely turn to various Orthodox Jewish sects for billions of examples (ever hear the saying "two Jews, three opinions"? Trust me, it has a basis in reality).
Not that I'm a fan of how Orthodox Judaism treats women, for that matter, though at least we don't tend to have the ugliness of honor killings; just trying to make a point. Hope nobody took it as sniping.
--Eva Luna, Loser Jew
Posted by: Eva Luna at August 10, 2005 04:48 PM
Well I'll continue with the "Love for all. Hatred for none" mantra that seems to be gripping this particular forum, even though it sounds rather trippy and Hippy-like. Well, zurn, Eva et al...have you people read "Peak of Eloquence" (Nahjul Balagha) by Ali bin Abu Talib. If your answer is negative, then I suggest you get hold of a copy as fast as possible. A dear acquaintance suggested it to me after I complained that I was getting rather disillusioned with religion, among other things, by viewing what was happening on our fair planet, using religion as an excuse. This particular book turned out to be one surprisingly good read. Also, if anyone's interested in the Sunni/Shi'ite divide and actually has time to spare. I would suggest this book called "Then I was guided" by Syed Muhammad Tijani Samawi or "Peshawar Nights" by Sultanul Waizin Shirazi (if you're rolling your eyes at my sheer obnoxiousness , blame my friend for it all).
Peace. Shalom. Salaam
Posted by: AEDisillusioned at August 11, 2005 12:57 AM
So what, pray tell, is wrong with being hippy-like?
I'll put them on my very long reading list, though I haven't made much headway in the list lately anyway. Darn Homeland Security is a time sink.
Posted by: Eva Luna at August 11, 2005 09:33 AM
Lots of things are wrong with being hippy minded, but that is another subject entirely.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 11, 2005 09:47 AM
Hey, I resemble that remark! It is possible to have balance and all that.
Besides, as Dad always says (an Ivy-educated engineer/MBA after your own heart, BTW), if we didn't have hippies, our pants would fall down.
Posted by: Eva Luna at August 11, 2005 10:18 AM
at least we don't tend to have the ugliness of honor killings
As far as I've understood things, these take place for cultural and not religious reasons. They just happen to take place in Muslim societies (Jordan, Pakistan). I've not come across reports of the same in Oman and Malaysia, for instance.
Posted by: Dubaiwalla at August 12, 2005 01:01 AM
Honor killings seem to me to be a tribal issue. I note a recent arty in The New York Times on India discussing accusations of witch craft and the like against women, as well as events functionally the same as "honor killing." Unsurprisingly, rural quasi tribal people.
You see the same things in Sub Saharan Africa in Xian regions.
Not religion, tribalism.
I would suppose that were there to be a group of highly conservative tribal Jews somewhere, say in deep Atlas mountains, one might find such.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 12, 2005 08:58 AM
There are some deeply conservative tribal Jews - the Tats (Mountain Jews) in Dagestan, plus probably others I don't know about. Still never heard of a Jewish honor killing. It may have something to do with different attitudes toward sex in general - while premarital and extramarital sex are frowned upon certainly among more traditional Jews, a) traditional Jews are the minority among Jews in most places, and b) sex outside marriage is really only considered a sin per se if at least one party is committing adultery rather than simply fornicating. Of course, this is not exactly the milieu I am most familiar with...but I've certainly known Orthodox Jews personally who had premarital sex and really didn't make a huge secret of it.
Posted by: Eva Luna at August 12, 2005 10:10 AM
To Fatima Mernissi, I have just started to read your book " The Veil and The Male Elite". Just by reading the preface I know that this book will be worth my time. I am a student of middle eastern culture and have lived in the middle east for a few years. Thank you for highlighting the fact that so much of what goes on against women is not a result of the Qur'an, but the result of male interpretations. Sincerley Allan D. Jones.
Posted by: Allan D. jones at October 3, 2006 11:38 PM
Mate, you appear to be a bit dim. May I suggest you look into something other than an academic career?
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 5, 2006 04:42 PM