History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 April 2009

To Veil or Not To Veil...


My romantic fantasy of veiled woman in Arabic tradition as mysterious and intriguing figures has suffered a “reality split” from current studies of Middle East cultures. The cold hard truth is that my romantic fantasy was... a romantic fantasy.

Islamic law is based on previous Arab tradition, which unfortunately denied women most of their basic rights. The belief that women are inferior to men, and that they need men to protect them, underlies not only the Koran, but the collection of other religious scholars’ writings. Such writings are consulted, in varying degrees, by the ulama, or venerated religious judges, and this explains the variations in interpretation–from conservative (using the Koran only) to more liberal (using additional learned writings as supplements). Picture, if you will, the 20th century Congregationalist and the Born-Again Christian interpretations of the Bible.

The coming of Islam did improve the overall status of women in specific areas, even though many sections of the Koran seem to be addressed primarily to men. “Allah desires to make things light for you, for man was created a weak creature.” [The Koran, Sura 4, “On Women”]

Islamic law recognized a woman’s right to choose her own marriage partner and set limits on the practice of male polygamy (an Arab tribal tradition). A man can have as many as four wives if he can provide for and treat them equally.

Marriage
was defined as a contract between a man and a woman, or a man and a woman’s legal guardian [emphasis added]; the required dowry was to be paid directly to the bride, not to her male relatives. Women are entitled to inherit wealth and, further, married women should be able to control their own money and property. This was a huge change from the traditional Arab practice of a man’s owning not only the woman but all her wealth upon marriage.

Husbands must support their wives financially during marriage and even for a certain period after a divorce; “the divorced woman shall not be thrown out on the street or forcibly detained in the house.” In addition, there are specific recommendations for attaining a divorce, including a cooling-off period and working with an intermediary (a kind of couples counseling).

However, such decrees did not significantly change the dominant position of men in Muslim society. The Koran describes men as a degree higher than women in rights and responsibilities; also, it requires women to be obedient to their husbands. Men are permitted to divorce their wives without cause [emphasis added] and to deny women custody rights over children who have reached a certain age.

As Islam spread during and after the 7th century AD, it gradually absorbed some of the custom of the conquered peoples, including the practice of veiling and secluding of women. Seclusion in this case meant limiting women to the company of other women and close male relatives in their home or confining them in separate female living quarters.

Although veiling and seclusion are not specifically stipulated in most Islamic sources, some Muslim scholars have used passages from the Koran and the collection of Mohammed’s subsequent traditions to justify such practices. “Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except for what must ordinarily appear; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands.” ["The Book of Light," 24:31]

The issue of a wife accused of infidelity is handled thus: “Bring four witnesses from you [supposedly all witnesses were men] and if they testify to the whoredom, shut those women up in the houses till death take them... but if they repent and amend, turn away from them.” [Sura 4]

Through the centuries, as new situations arose, Islamic jurists and scholars have added learned opinions to the basic tenets of the Koran. One can hope that what is–or will be in future–added to the body of written opinions on women’s rights will be increasingly less repressive and more open to liberal and female-empowering interpretation.

4 Comments:

Blogger Keira Soleore said...

All throughout history in various parts of the world, women covered their heads and parts of their faces. All are not examples of suppression of women. Non-Muslim women who live in Arabic countries talk about the freedom of movement they feel they have with their full cover-ups without having men staring and/or commenting on them, unlike watching down a street in Italy or Brazil. There is certainly an element of mystery or subtlety in conducting a romance that, in our overt society, is thoroughly lacking.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks for this education, Lynna. When I was researching Renaissance Venice last year I discovered that many of the customs with regard to women were similar to Islamic ones; not surprising given Venice's "pearl of the orient" ethos at the time, its geographical location; and, as a maritime capital, its absorption of influences from both East and West. Upper class unmarried women were to remain veiled and in rooms apart from the normal hustle and bustle of a household. They were not to be seen by any men, including male servants. When they left the house they were to be strictly chaperoned and could only leave the house for specific reasons, such as going to mass. Since Venice was ostensibly a Catholic republic, and a culturally enlightened one at that, it was oddly unsettling to see customs that are more similar to Islam's Shariah laws.

4:37 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I tend to agree with you, Keira. Very little is left to the imagination these days and even the wearing of a wedding ring does not shield a woman in today's society from, as they say in Regency-speak, some very "impertinent" remarks. A little mystery has always been a woman's greatest skill and all too few women practice it these days.

I think the difference in some Arabic societies is the idea of "choice." If a woman chooses to go veiled because of the security and feeling of freedom it gives her then her choice should be respected. However, if she chooses not to she should not suffer everything from censure to death.

Having read the Koran I have to say the present day ulamas have done an peaceful and considered religion a great disservice. Lest we forget, it was Mohammed's WIFE who ran the family business and he approved and appreciated it.

As with all dictatorial societies, there are many Muslims who cannot read and have not had the opportunity to read and interpret the Koran for themselves. I am a firm believer that any of the three major religious texts - the Bible, the Koran and the Torah - are meant as guides to one's relationship with one's God. As a guide it is up to the reader to interpret what that relationship should be.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Evangeline said...

Yes, Islam has oppressed women, but so have many other religions. Though I do grow upset over women being forced to wear the veil, the growing numbers of Muslim women who defend the hijab make me less willing to outright condemn the practice because we're still viewing things through our Western eyes. I'm sure many Muslims would view us as the repressed, objectified ones if they studied our present pop culture with its emphasis on female bodies=sex. We're not so "enlightened" ourselves. And I also hesitate to place such an emphasis on making veiling and harems, etc "exotic" because it makes them seen as "Other" (this was discussed a bit at the Princeton Romance Conference).

9:39 PM  

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