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Divine inferiority
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 evaluate.

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 only legitimate 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 one 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 and the 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 brought success, 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 Khadijeh, a wealthy forty-year-old widow, who was his only wife until her death in 619. 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 than the position of women. Contemporary positions on gender in Muslim society are deeply 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, for whom 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 may marry a non-Muslim without demanding her conversion, but a woman may only marry a 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.

For 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): recites 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 injunctions. Nowhere, 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 when they move outside 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 is recognized as essential 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, the 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 is the waiting period following a divorce of three months, and for widow four months and ten days, cannot remarry in the case of pregnancy.

Shi'ism recognizes a temporary marriage for a fixed term, usually entailing a pre-arranged financial agreement, 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 by 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, which are simply stated: she maintains the home, bears and cares for her children and obeys her husband.

All Muslim societies, in interpreting the Qisas, have adopted bills of Retribution. Article 23 passed by the Iranian parliament, regarding adultery, states: "Murder 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 261).

Article 237 of the Egyptian penal code states that, as specified in the Quran, unlawful intercourse (zina) will require stoning her to death in public. A man who kills his adulterous wife and/or her partner - catching them in the act - is subject to the maximum punishment of a six-month prison sentence. If a woman surprises her husband in like circumstances and kills him, she will be charged 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 unduly upset 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 wife's body (Bowen 41).

Divorce is termed repudiation, as the right to dissolve the marriage rests with the husband. The laws governing divorce are complicated and mainly centered upon 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.

"Setataghe" is 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 and gender roles. Generally speaking, in Shi'ism, female heirs receive a share one-half that of male heirs. For example, daughters receive one share of both land and building. Sons receive two shares 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 for attainment 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.

The Islamic tradition of scholars and analogies from Christian theology that are taught in seminaries is not the most essential aspect of the Eastern and Western traditions. The most important element of the intellectual tradition 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 choose. "In 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 to note that even religious scriptures cannot altogether escape from adopting new attitudes. Since the social attitudes are so pervasive, the scriptures are therefore being re-reading and re-interpreted, at least among progressive sections of these societies. Similarly, the question of women in societies is analogous to that of slavery. In feudal and pre-feudal societies, slavery was considered justifiable and the slaves themselves had accepted the social exploitation. However, these attitudes towards slavery and serfdom 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.

The theory 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 (Engineer 1-5).

Despite the actions of a vocal minority of feminist Islamists, the Islamic world has made little progress in the area of gender relations. Women 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. Their understanding individual rights within the social groups of family and society will determine their outlook on gender roles. The larger question, which remains to 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 maintenance. Slogans 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 construction of the reason/emotion dichotomy. Their assumptions of female inferiority are based on primitive beliefs: "Women 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 shut-off from the world of science and have no knowledge of operant conditioning. This is a term used by behaviorist psychologists who refer to such behavior development 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 of perception. 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 of Arts 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 Assistant Professor at the Department of the Army, Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

Works Cited
-- Bowen, Donna Lee. "Islamic Law and the Position of Women" Diss., World Bank, EMENA/EMPTH, 1992.
-- Engineer, Asghar Ali. The Rights of Women In Islam. St. Marteen's Press. New York, NY. 1992
-- Mitter, Sara S. Dharma's Daughters. Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick, New York. 1938.
-- Moghadam, Valentine M. Modernizing Women - Gender & Social Changes in the Middle East. Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc. United Kingdom. 1993. Boulder, colorado. 1993.
-- Nejat, Abdolrahim. Ool Va Tasib. Sepehr Publisher, Inc. Tehran, Iran. 1963. (My father was a professor at the University of Tehran; Main area of research: Comparative religion - I translated the part quoted in the paper)
-- Robinson, Francis. Atlas of the Islamic World Since 1500. Facts on the file, inc. New York, NY. 1982.
-- Rahman, H.U. A Chronology of Islamic History, 570-1000 CE. G. K. Hall & Co. Boston, Massachusetts. 1989.
-- The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 2nd edition (with amendments), 1990-1410 AH. Ramin Publisher Inc., Tehran Iran. 1990. "Islamic Propagation Organization - P.O.Box 14155/1313. Tehran Iran."

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Modernizing Women
Gender and Social Change in the Middle East
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