Historical overview of women and gender in Islam

tone in that it is “a first attempt to gain a perspective on the discourses on women and gender at crucial, defining moments in Middle Eastern Muslim history (Ahmed, L., 1992, p. 4).” In other words, her history is the first to take into account women in Muslim history. The Koran speaks little about women as women and more as sinful annoyances that tempt men. Her book is meant to reverse this. In chapter 1, the treatment of women in Islam grows out of what was already there. Here, Ahmed states that “The subordination of women in the ancient Middle East appears to have become institutionalized with the rise of urban societies and with the rise of the archaic state in particular (ibid, p. 4).” In other words, it was largely already there and Islam just appropriated it. While her treatment of Christianity in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 is largely satisfactory, it does not deal with the effects of the Marian cult upon Christianity which is major influence upon Islam via the filter of Byzantine Christianity. This is explained in the review and analysis below. This is a bit shocking to this author as this is very basic to understanding the Koran’s view of womanhood. Ahmed then builds upon this in Chapter 2 but does not build upon the Christian influences upon Islam to explain the schizoid nature of Mohammed’s veneration of the Virgin Mary in particular and his misogyny towards women in general. This is a major problem with the book and only a revision will answer it.

This book presents an historical overview of women and gender in Islam. It is written from a feminist perspective, using the analytic tools of contemporary gender studies. The results of the investigations cast new light. The author is attempting to present material on women and gender from the entire swath of Middle Eastern history. This includes the pre-Islamic era. This is to include information about changes in the history of women over this period. This is necessary to understand the entire history, Islamic included since Islam built upon traditions that were already there in the region, in particular those already prevalent in Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, etc.

Examples abound. Islam makes mention of the rib being taken from Adam to make Eve (ibid, p. 5). In addition, the veil for women comes down directly from Sassanid tradition which built in turn upon the Achmaenid traditions that came before them (ibid).

In this book Leila Ahmed adds a new perspective to the current debate about women and Islam by exploring its historical roots, tracing the developments in Islamic discourses on women and gender from the ancient world to the present.

Islam has built upon mores and attitudes toward women that already existed in the region prior to the ascendance of Islam. Ahmed argues that the oppressive practices to which women in the Middle East are subjected are due to the prevalence of patriarchal interpretations of Islam rather than Islam itself. She maintains that at its inception, Muhammad gave Islam two divergent voices, including an ethical structure that advocates the moral and spiritual equality of all human beings as well as a hierarchical structure as the basis of male and female relations.

The book is well researched, citing what is known of ancient marriage laws and including literary writings and histories of some 19th and 20th Century women writers. Her particular position is apparent throughout and she presents no apologies for this. Often she writes about the veil and blames colonialism for using it as a misunderstood interpretation of women’s subjugation.

The book first covers the traditions of women before Islam and continues through the period of time up to present. Author refers to some habits or ayats that puts restrictions on women as the result of the societies of the times of the past. There seem to be an inherent claim that you can interpret the Quran with current social conditions. It is disputed issue if the Qur’an can and should be interpreted based on current social conditions. Qur’an clearly requires covering of the women, veil is another issue.

She shows continuity between the old attitudes and the current regime of Islam in the Near East (ibid, p. 11). However, then she goes on to argue that Islamic texts and institutions need to be separated from patriarchal culture and reappraised in terms of merit, and listening to the voice of equality and justice. Ahmed concludes by exhorting feminists, both Muslim and Western, to undertake this task by critically engaging with, challenging and redefining the Middle East regions’ diverse religious and cultural heritage (ibid, p. 248). This author would argue that you can not have it both ways and that she has to take one or the other position without irreconcilable contradictions in her reasoning.

In chapter 1, she argues that much of Islamic values toward women come directly from Persian and Byzantine precedents (ibid, pp. 25-26). Against this she posited ancient Egyptian society that was allegedly more egalitarian, non-misogynistic and held women in high esteem (ibid, p. 31). Out of this, the Greeks were shocked by this supposedly libertine attitude when they conquered Egypt (ibid, p. 33). The radical egalitarian virginity movement provided a way out of the male dominated world (ibid, 34-37).

While the books approach has a lot to be argued in its favor, it really does not deal seriously with innovations that happened. In many ways, the status of women changed dramatically. Even in the relation of myths such as the creation myth, Islam differs from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. For instance, there is no mention in Islamic myth about who was created first, that is Adam or Eve (ibid, p. 4) in addition, the book does not deal well with the gradualism in the adoption of traditions. For instance, while the book mentions this, it does not explain why the phenomenon happens. For instance, during Mohammed’s lifetime, only his wives were required to veil. After his death and following the Islamic conquest of the Near East, only in places where upper-class women were veiled did the veil become a popular item of women’s dress “by a process of assimilation that no one has yet ascertained in much detail (ibid, p. 5).”

In addition, religions such as Christianity capitalized upon the degradation of women in the Roman Empire by exalting women. This resulted in the adulation of Mary and of celibate women. However, this does not translate in to the very negative view that people in the Middle East view women today. I read the book assuming that author was always referring to Muslim women but now I am not sure. I wish author could back up her feminist claims with ayats or habits and prove that the interpretations were wrong.

It is valuable to look at the historical development of anything and women’s history is no different. Only by checking out the historical development over time is it possible to accurately portray the total picture of the development of the treatment of and attitude toward women in the region.

Her focus is on the development of ideas rather than the physical details of women’s lives, yet many individual women stand out in the book. She identifies the cultural influences which led early Islam toward misogyny and away from egalitarianism (elements of both misogyny and egalitarianism exist in Islamic thought, an explosive mix), but inadequately in the opinion of this author.

It will be important to tie this in better with the concept of the Marian cult of virginity. This is essentially this author’s problem with Chapter 2. The sources of Moslem tradition are the apocryphal Arab Gospel of Childhood (also known as the Arab Infancy Gospel), the Protogospel of James, the Gospel of Pseudo Matthew, the traditions of judaizing Christians and also the Hadith. Islam venerates Mary highly and gets its concept of female fidelity from her (Finazzo).

While Islam venerates the Virgin (indeed, the Koran is very high in its praise), it is this author’s opinion that the rest of the Koran’s attitudes toward women is so negative that it very much outweighs this. Ahmed needs to examine to what extent Mohammed “missed the boat” (so to speak) with regard to his treatment of women and whether or not this reflects a difference between the Mecca and Medina strains of the Islamic Sharia. The Sharia tends to follow the later Medina sayings and these are much more radically conservative (“Living Islam”). It is this creeping conservatism that is not really explained by Ahmed, as we can see in Islamic fundamentalist circles today. While things were not as radical in 1992 when she wrote the book, it is disappointing that she does not explore that more. It is obvious to this author that the disconnect on many issues caused by the differences between the Mecca and the Medina is also playing itself out in this area as well.

To recap, the introduction lays the book’s tone as a first attempt to discuss women in Islamic Middle Eastern history. In other words, her history is the first to take into account women in Muslim history. In chapter 1, the treatment of women in Islam grows out of what was already there. In other words, it was largely already there and Islam just appropriated it. Ahmed then builds upon this in Chapter 2 but does not build upon the Christian influences upon Islam to explain the schizoid nature of Mohammed’s veneration of the Virgin Mary in particular and his misogyny towards women in general. This is a major problem with the book and only a revision will answer it.

Works Cited

Ahmed, L. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Finazzo, G. “The Virgin Mary in the Koran.” EWTN.com. EWTN, n.d. Web. 13 Feb 2011. .

“Three Themes of Inquiry.” Living Islam. Independent Broadcasting Associates, 2002.

Web. 11 Feb 2011. .

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