Women in the popular culture of Islam
January 14, 2004
The question of women's status has acquired great importance in communities throughout
the entire world. For centuries it was a "natural law" in many parts
of the world that women were inferior to men and must submit to patriarchal authority
to allow for the smooth running of family life. For thousands of years women
were kept in absolute subjugation in all patriarchal societies. Islam's holy
book, in the formulations of "shariah," the Islamic law, is relevant
to the status of women. It has promulgated general principles of family or personal
status law. Therefore, the general principles of family or personal status law
relevant to the status of woman and the discussion of how "popular culture" in
patriarchal societies influences the status of women would become essential to
The orthodox schism of Islam has diverse interpretations
of family law. The five schools - Sunny, Shi'i, Hanafi, Maliki,
Shafi'i and Hanbali - record variations
in different areas of family law. I will be focusing on the Shi'i sect, the
majority of whose population resides in Iran.
Shi'ism began as
a movement of political opposition to the early Caliphs (the
rulers), which justified itself doctrinally by claiming that the
successors of Muhammad were the descendants of his cousin and son-in-law,
Ali. The belief developed along with the exoteric interpretation
of the Quran that
there was a secret interpretation, which had been transmitted from Muhammad
to Ali, and then from Ali to his heir. There are twelve, of which the twelfth
will be resurrected and his return will bring peace on earth, according to
the followers of the Shi'i sect (Robinson 46).
In less than a century after the death of the prophet
Muhammad in 632, Muslim rule covered more of the earth than had
the Roman Empire at its peak. The Empire
of the desert dwellers from Arabia stretched for 4,500 miles and over three
continents, from the frontiers of China in the East to Spain and Southern
France in the West.
Under Muslim rule came Greeks, Berbers, Copts, Armenians, Arabs, Persians,
Turks, Sogdians, Indians and Chinese. The two mighty empires of the Byzantines
Persians had been at war with each other for centuries. I believe that, historically,
the field was open for Islam and its conquest, since the two so-called super
powers were at war. Politically, the prophet Muhammad tried to conquer as
much territory as possible. The battles of Badr, Uhad, and Ditch
expanding the territories of Islam (Rahman VII).
Regarding Mohammad's personal life, it is significant
to note the nature of his relationships with women. At the age
of twenty- five, Muhammad married
a wealthy forty-year-old widow, who was his only wife until her death in
This gave him financial security, enabling him to pursue his own inclination
to solitary introspection and involvement in trade. It also enabled him
to have up to seventy wives before his death (Rahman 1-25).
The position of woman in Islamic society resembles
their role in the prophet Muhammad's personal life and as it was
revealed into the Quranic verse.
Even today, few subjects engage observers of Muslim society more strongly
the position of women. Contemporary positions on gender in Muslim society
entrenched. The voices heard tend to be those of partisans; ardent feminists;
ulama, the theologians for whom the position of women has become the
very touchstone of their capacity to defend Islam; secular leaders,
the position of
women symbolizes the shameful backwardness of their people in the face
of the West. Everyone has a position - objectivity is scarce.
It is undeniable that the holy law of Islam seems
to openly assert the superiority of men over women. For instance,
a man may marry up to four
wives at one
time, but if a woman takes more than one husband at a time, she commits
adultery, and is subject to the severest penalties in this world and
the next. A man
a non-Muslim without demanding her conversion, but a woman may only marry
Muslim. A man may seek a divorce unilaterally, but a woman may do so
only for limited
reasons, before courts, and with difficulty, while custody of the children
remains with the father. Furthermore, the man's share of an inheritance
is twice that
of a woman, and his testimony in court has twice the value of hers.
example, for adultery, the court needs eight witnesses, so there could
be four men
and eight women, with the eight women equal to four men. Regarding
the inferiority of wife to husband, the Quran, (sura 4, Verse 38):
that, "men are
the managers of the affairs of women - for that God has preferred in bounty one
of them over another... - and those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish
them to their couches, and beat them." Then, in sura 2, verse 228 the Quran
informs us: "the husband is one degree higher than the wife, because he
earns by his strength and expends on his wife." The institutional
implications of this super-ordination of the man over the woman, literally,
means that the
only time men and women socially interact is during copulation.
In addition to these judicial marks of inferiority,
there are those not specifically mentioned in the Quran, but which
stem from its general
for instance, does the Quran state that all women should be secluded
in the harem or that they should veil themselves from head to foot
it. General support for the former practice, however, is found in
the following verses: "O wives of the prophet, you are not like any other women... - stay
in your houses and display not your beauty like the displaying of the ignorance
of yore..." (sura 33, verse 32-33), (Robinson 221). It is said that Mohammad
had 70 wives, and the reason was that widows among Arabs were worthless, and
infanticide was common among female infants. Muhammad advocated polygyny and
the right to have many temporary wives or "sigheh" due
to the social conditions of the time.
Family or personal status law is the area which
governs male and female interaction in the familial sphere. Marriage
to an orderly
society, and described as a legal commitment sanctioned by God
and acknowledged by society.
It is a civil contract permitting intercourse and the procreation
of children. The woman is expected to be represented by her guardian,
who may be her
father or a close male relative; lacking any male family member,
judge may serve
as her guardian. A man may marry a Jewish, Christian or Zoroastrian
women. A Muslim woman may only marry a Muslim man. A woman who
is in Idda, which
waiting period following a divorce of three months, and for widow
four months and ten days, cannot remarry in the case of pregnancy.
recognizes a temporary marriage for a fixed term, usually entailing
which is set in a verbal contract affirmed by both the man and
the woman. Salmon
Rushdie, the author of Satanic Verses, is a Muslim writer whose
main objective in this book is to show the harm imposed to societies
selfish men. He
compares polygyny to institutionalized prostitution, thus making
evil masquerading as
virtue the broad theme of the book. Sunnis, the other sect in Islam,
also consider this practice to be little short of prostitution,
and prohibit it. Duties of
the wife are prescribed as obligations to her husband and her family,
are simply stated: she maintains the home, bears and cares for
her children and obeys
All Muslim societies, in interpreting the Qisas,
have adopted bills of Retribution. Article 23 passed by the Iranian
requires Qisas - provided the victim does not religiously deserve to be killed
- e.g., someone who swears at the great prophet and the saints or someone who
violates one's harim (bounds) and could not be repulsed but by murder; or that
the husband should see someone committing adultery with his wife, in which case
it is only permissible for the husband to kill both of them. In all of the above
cases it is not admissible to carry out Qisas on the murderer" (Mohanty
Article 237 of the Egyptian penal code states that,
as specified in the Quran, unlawful intercourse (zina) will require
A man who kills his adulterous wife and/or her partner - catching
them in the
is subject to the maximum punishment of a six-month prison sentence.
If a woman surprises her husband in like circumstances and kills
with murder. The reasoning for this discrepancy refers back to
Islamic law. Since a husband can marry a second wife, a wife
should not be
if she discovers
him in adultery, as he has an inherent right to relations with
another woman. However, the husband has exclusive right to his
Divorce is termed repudiation, as the right to dissolve
the marriage rests with the husband. The laws governing divorce
proper and kind treatment of the wife to her husband. There are
several forms of divorce, in which, in all forms, the husband pronounces
intent to divorce.
I am mentioning the ones worth comparing to the human rights quota
of the United Nations' "Convention on the Elimination of All
Forms of Discrimination Against Women" which Iran and many
Arab states (Muslim societies) have not signed.
a type of divorce in which the husband recites the verse pertaining
to divorce three times. If the couple at a later time decides to
get back together, she
has to marry another man, if only for an hour. The marriage must
be consummated before the new couple can get a divorce, at which
time she can remarry her ex-husband.
The second type of divorce occurs if the husband renounces Islam
(apostasy.) The marriage is considered void. The third type of
divorce is when the court
determines divorce because the husband is missing. In Shi'i sect,
it takes place 5 years after his disappearance, in Sunny sect,
90 years from the birth of the
husband. Custody is determined by the age of the child. Males
up to nine years and females up to 11 can stay with mother. Then,
the father or the father's relatives
receive custody of the child (Bowen 19-25).
Islamic laws of inheritance are renowned for their
complexity and are closely tied to social expectations of families
in Shi'ism, female heirs receive a share one-half that of male
heirs. For example, daughters receive one share of both land and
of each. The wife receive only one eighth of the building, none
of the land (Nejat 235).
The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran,
in a section designated to discuss women's rights, instead, explains
that: "Through Islamic social
infrastructures, women should benefit from their rights, since
family is the fundamental unit of society. Compatibility with respect
to belief and ideal,
which provides the primary basis for man's development and growth...
It is the duty of the Islamic government to provide necessary facilities
of this goal (the Constitution 21)." Since the rights of women
are not articulated within the constitution, and social relations
emphatically encourages gender
differences, female domesticity, and the devious notion of female
danger to preserve Islam, women have been oppressed further.
Islamic tradition of scholars and analogies from Christian
theology that are taught in seminaries is not the most essential
the Eastern and Western traditions. The most important element
of the intellectual
is a restrictive view of women, which pervades both religious writings
and popular beliefs. Images in the popular culture tend to focus
on ideas such
as the "self-sacrificing
women," as chaste and pure, the Virgin Mary, the mother. The
opposite of this is the woman who is the destroyer, the seductress,
and the bloody, destructive,
malevolent power. Neither the Madonna nor the Whore image is far
fetched. It is the pervasiveness of this traditional idea of womanhood
that tells how popular
culture circumscribes the range of identities from which people
the mythologically instructed community there is a corpus of images
and models that provide the pattern to which the individual may
aspire, a range of metaphoric
identity (Mitter 2)."
In the social structures, it is becoming increasingly
difficult to maintain the old attitudes toward women. It is important
that even religious
cannot altogether escape from adopting new attitudes. Since the
social attitudes are so pervasive, the scriptures are therefore
at least among progressive sections of these societies. Similarly,
the question of women in societies is analogous to that of slavery.
societies, slavery was considered justifiable and the slaves themselves
had accepted the social exploitation. However, these attitudes
had to change rapidly because of the emergence of capitalist societies.
Among religious scriptures, Quran, the Islamic holy
book, set-forth social rules
and talks about the treatment of the slaves and their rights pertaining
to the acquisition
of freedom. Muslim jurists and theologians quoting from the Quran
continued to justify slavery throughout the middle ages. A slave
who ran away
from his master
was considered to be a "sinner," and the scripture was quoted as justification.
The Quran also limits women's rights and defines her inferiority to man. Today,
the theologians are subject to sociological influences and their interpretations
must be in accordance with the sociological perspectives of the time -- at one
time, women were looked at as nothing more than instruments of perpetuating one's
progeny, to produce children and provide pleasures for their husbands.
of divine law is no longer applicable to the institution of exploitation.
Human consciousness in modern societies is conditioned by the concept
of human rights
and human dignity. The laws regarding women were enacted or interpreted
from the scriptures during the dark ages of the medieval period
by the jurists. Women
no longer accept these laws today. They no longer accept their
subordination to men and they demand equal rights to those of men.
The scriptures will either
have to be abandoned and laws enacted on a secular basis, or they
will have to be re-reading and re-interpreted to suit modern conditions
Despite the actions of a vocal minority of feminist
Islamists, the Islamic world has made little progress in the area
in Western societies
linked to modernity have become a role model for those women associated
with the traditions of Islamic societies. As one feminist remarks, "a specter
is haunting Muslim societies - the specter of modernity (Moghadam 249)." In
Muslim societies, programs for rapid and radical social changes tend to evolve
without altering traditional gender roles and differences. The state manages
relations, whether discourse supports women's emancipation and equality or glorifies
and practices traditional gender roles.
The fundamentalist Islamist simply have
interpreted and legalized the Quranic precepts and formulized along
these lines: She actually cannot travel without her husband's written
permission. She cannot
serve on juries, nor can she serve as witness, her testimony does
not earn any weight. They can go to law school but cannot become
judges or lawyers. For her
to be eligible for government scholarships to study abroad, she
must be married and accompanied by her husband (Moghadam 171-206).
The limit to which the society
can achieve its gender boundary maintenance depends upon the
knowledge and behavioral training of children in preadolescence.
within the social groups of family and society will determine
their outlook on gender roles. The larger question, which remains
be answered by Islamist Feminists,
is how to liberate the mothers of future generations. It seems
that the answer lies in the intervention of international organizations
in these societies. The
western belief in individual freedom is a vital force in changing
the social forces and institutions that promote gender bias.
The social system, which creates a public world
of men and a private one for women in these societies, tends to
promote gender boundary
such as "domesticity is the women's holy war" are the
manifestation of political pressure, which the state exercises
in order to prevent the influence
of the international communities. If, however, greater and more
influential bonds are formed between the feminists and international
communities, more progress
is likely. The history of western societies proves that these forces
have a positive influence on the cause of women's liberation.
Islamic theologians are deeply convinced of the
inferiority of women, which they presume even on the basis of their
Their assumptions of female inferiority are based on primitive
mature too fast. The breathing power of men's lungs is greater
and women's heartbeat are faster... Men heed reasoning and logic,
whereas most women tend to be emotional...
courage and daring are stronger in men (Moghadam 172)." Obviously,
with such analogies, it is evident that these theologians are completely
from the world of science and have no knowledge of operant conditioning.
This is a term used by behaviorist psychologists who refer to such
as the basis of developing both reasoning and emotion.
Behavior depends on whether
enforcement is used to encourage reasoning or emotional responses.
This belief itself is a product of the operant conditioning by
which the theologians have
been acculturated. Since they have kept their mind in a pre-scientific
mode, they remain oblivious to modern theories regarding the development
They do not recognize their limited training in responding to realities
outside of their own. It seems that their small nest can only comfort
a little bird.
Education for both sexes is the only way to rescue them from intellectual
poverty. The education of the future generations, however, hinges
upon the intervention
of the West, and the creation of a larger body of feminist activists.
Until then, ripples on the surface of Muslim society will only
serve to obscure the depths
of despair into which most women are sinking.
Fatima Farideh Nejat holds a Bachelors
degree in Interdisciplinary Studies of Anthropology, Psychology,
Sociology and Women's Studies;
and a Masters
degree in International Training and Education from the American
University in Washington, DC. She served in diplomatic corps of
Iran working at
the Iranian Embassy in Washington, DC, from 1970-80. She is currently
at the Department of the Army, Defense Language Institute in Monterey,
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religion - I translated the part quoted in the paper)
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K. Hall & Co.
Boston, Massachusetts. 1989.
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Propagation Organization - P.O.Box 14155/1313. Tehran Iran."
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