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Women and Gender in Islam, by Leila Ahmed.

March 8, 2012


Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, by Leila Ahmed. Yale University Press (1993), Paperback, 304 pages

An important and insightful academic study that needs to be read by everyone who cares about women, gender, feminism, Islam, the Middle East, or colonization.

Lelia Ahmed is a superb scholar. She combines a traditional respect for the accuracy of the portrayal of the past with a sensitivity to modern theory about contested values and the political use of symbols. In this book, she provides a two-thousand-year survey of a vast region, consistently noting what still needs more research and the potential biases of her sources. She carefully traces differences of class and race within Islam and Middle Eastern societies. Historical context is absolutely critical in her account. Importantly, Ahmed is capable of recognizing contradictions and ambiguity that influence all our thinking.

Women and Gender challenges some basic assumptions about Islam and women. Ahmed clearly displays that Islam is not some sort of alien Other to western Christianity and culture. That view didn’t emerge until the Crusades. Initially, both religions developed in a region connected by trade and armies. She notes the irony of “western civilization” claiming that it started in Babylon and Egypt.

Another misconception that Ahmed identifies is that Islam somehow emerged in isolation, pure and untouched by its neighbors. While Islamic leaders have always claimed authority to interpret their religion, in fact other interpretations and practices have always existed. She distinguishes between the ethical message of equality and the orthodox religious institution that established a legal hierarchy devaluing and attacking women. Muslim women, past and present, have cherished that equality at the core of their religion in a way that is difficult for non-Muslims to understand.

Both Christianity and Islam developed in a region where women were losing the respect and power they had known before the rise of nations. As their religious institutions grew, both added addition restrictions on women and both voiced real misogyny against them. The changing times can be seen in the contrast between Mohamed’s first wife, a wealthy widow and merchant and his later wives and concubines who were secluded. After his death, his wives were able to continue to play important roles in the formalization of religious teaching, but soon such female power was lost. As the Muslim empire grow , it conquered neighboring countries taking many women as slaves and adapting other nations’ traditions of concubinage and harems. Women lost public power and even the language changed, blurring lines between the words for woman, sexual partner, and slave. Despite internal challenges, the place of women within Islam changed little until European involvement in the region increased in the nineteenth century.

In her treatment of the colonialism of the past two centuries, Ahmed focuses her account on Egypt. In doing so, she hopes to make her topic manageable, and she sees Egypt as both a forerunner and representative of patterns which would occur throughout the Middle East. Her choice also allows her to quote the outrageous comments of the British colonizers and those who supported them. Englishman tried to justify their intention to destroy Islamic lifestyles by stating the need to save Muslim women from abuse by inferior Muslim men. In doing so they co-opted feminism and created problems that still exist today.

The colonizers’ rhetoric about the problems of women was straight out of Victorian England, despite the fact that some British officials were working against suffrage in their homeland. In Egypt they did nothing about problematic laws relating to marriage, polygamy, and segregation of women, and they cut back on education for women and girls. Instead, they claimed that the most urgent need was to stop women’s use of the veil. [Ahmed lays out their logic, but it is somewhat convoluted and impossible to summarize.]

In 1898, an Egyptian man, in total support of colonization and the elimination of Egyptian culture, wrote a book entitled, “The Liberation of Women.” Although still sometimes identified as the first Egyptian feminist publication, it was in fact an attack on Muslim women as too dirty and too unattractive to attract their husbands’ desire and too ignorant to raise adequate sons. Those who sought to expel the British and regain control of their country argued strongly against the book. In the process, the veil came to symbolize all that was good or bad about colonization.

After surveying the conflicting forces and beliefs among Egyptians down to the present, Ahmed discusses the conflicted nature of feminism within Egypt in the early twentieth century. She recounts the waves of women entering higher education and the professions in the 1960s and 1970s, linking their expanded lives to economic and political shifts. Then she discusses the rising popularity of Islam in more recent decades, particularly among young upwardly mobile college students and graduates. Rather than labeling them as regressive, she suggests various ways in which veiling can provide a sense of protection and community as they move into unfamiliar worlds of education and urban life. She worries, however, about lack of awareness of the real dangers of Islamic political leaders using religion to curtail their options as women as they have done in Iran.

In her conclusion, Ahmed urges westerners in general and feminists in particular to re-examine what their own positions mean to those who have experienced colonization. To them we are implicated alongside those who would force their countries into various types of submission. If we focus on the sexism of the men in their community or in their political and religious structures, we can only force women to choose between their ethnicity and their womanhood—much as African-American women have been forced to choose.

This was a very difficult book to review because it was so rich and so full of fascinating details. All I can say is, you simply must find it and read for yourself.

Women and Gender in Islam receives my highest recommendation.

Related readings:
A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey, by Leila Ahmed. My copy arrived while I was working on this review. I am waiting to start it until I finish this review.

Sherezada Goes West, by Fatuma Mernissi.
In this book, I can see the need, described by Ahmed, for Muslim women to “prove” that their traditional practices are not the evil Other of western critics. None the less, Ahmed’s depiction of harems is a stark contrast to that of Mernissi.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2012 2:19 pm

    Thanks for this, Marilyn. What a fascinating review and a brilliant contribution to International Women’s Day.

    Do you review professionally? One of the issues that came up yesterday in The Stella Prize discussions was the need for women to put themselves forward to editors and offer to review upcoming books, particularly nonfiction. With your interests, this would seem to be an ideal role for you.

  2. March 9, 2012 6:31 pm

    Thanks. Ahmed is brillant. I can hardly take credit.

  3. March 11, 2012 1:57 pm

    I’ve had this on my wishlist since reading and loving her A Border Passage! I actually ILLed it, but sadly it arrived during a fibro flare-up and I couldn’t read it before it was due. 😦 I need to find out if my library will let me put in another ILL request for the same book.

    May I also recommend a book by an Iranian scholar: Words Not Swords by Farzaneh Milani? It’s v good! I blogged about it last year.

    • March 12, 2012 10:47 am

      I do hope you can get ahold of this book. You’d appreciate it I am sure, but not when dealing with fibro. I’d probably just request it again on ILL. I have done that before with no problem, although each library havs its own rules.

      Thanks for suggesting Words not Swords. I am finding books like this fascinating–as you can see.

  4. March 12, 2012 6:09 pm

    I just started Ahmed’s Border Passage and I see why you are so enthusiastic about it.

  5. March 14, 2012 6:38 pm

    This sounds so fantastic, it’s high on my wish list so glad to see your review. Definitely an author I want to read.

    • March 17, 2012 10:27 am

      Good. I think you will find it goes along nicely with your other interests.


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