Gender Studies

Gender Anthropology in the Middle East: The Politics of Muslim Women’s Misrepresentation

The Western view of the role of women in Muslim societies presents a strikingly ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, the patrilineal, patriarchal structure of the Muslim family has been so emphasized that it is believed to be at the heart of the assumed subordination of women in Muslim societies (Rassam 1983; Joseph 1985). On the other hand, a matrilineal structure is believed to exist in at least some Muslim societies. Frantz Fanon speaks of how the French colonizers of Algeria developed a policy built on the “discoveries” of the sociologists that a structure of matriarchal essence did indeed exist. These findings enabled the French to define their political doctrine, summed up by Fanon as: “If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women, we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves, and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight” (Fanon 1965, 39).

France’s success or failure in adopting this policy, and the repercussions of the adoption of this formula, are beyond the scope of this paper. What is important here is its implication vis-a-vis the importance of women. Also, it enables us to be cognizant of a structured irony in the politics of studying Muslim women, whether for practical colonial purposes, or for intellectual orientalist aims. In the case of women, for example, French colonialists tried to use them to destroy the structure of Algerian society by attributing to them an almost absolute “significance.” On the other hand, orientalists have used Muslim women also, but with the aim of destroying the image of Islam by rendering them absolutely “insignificant” within the religion.

The view of Islam as a purgatory for women underlies most works written on Muslim women. They are commonly depicted as isolated from men, passive actors in the so-called public domain, confined to their kin groups, and so on. Such views have limited the discussion of women to the narrow topics of veils, honor and shame, patriarchy, kinship, and polygamy. And, of course, Islam has been held responsible for this presumed degradation despite a considerable amount of literature, both historical and sociological, which characterizes these negative tendencies as being either pre-Islamic, non-Islamic, un-Islamic, or as being one result of a process of the ideologization of Islam (Abdalati 1977; Alhibri 1982; Izzeddin 1953). Goody, for example, finds the position of women in seventeenth-century Turkey as one bearing no relation to any notion of a large patriarchal family. Women appeared freely before the court, sued other citizens, and were sued themselves.

They were owners  of property and made no less than 40 percent of all transactions (Goody 1983, 28). In relation to polygamy, Goody relates that in the Turkish city of Bursa in the seventeenth century, only 1 percent of men had more than one wife, compared with some 33 percent in Africa in the recent past (ibid., 34). This shows that Islam permits polygamy, but that it can by no means be considered a polygamous system.

The Western view of Muslim women is usually cast in terms of an implicit contrast to Christian Europe, a continent in which some see pre-industrial England as a particular paradise for women (ibid., 27). This contrast reflects certain theoretical, cultural, and gender biases, all of which had their effect on the way Muslim women were perceived. Pastner alludes to the fact that Victorian and post-Victorian England’s practice of separating women and men into separate spheres inhibited English writers who had a great impact on Middle Eastern anthropology (i.e., Burton, Daughty, and Dickson) from appreciating the interdependence of sex roles in Muslim societies (Pastner 1978). Said sees the gender bias as a result of nineteenth- and twentieth century orientalist thought which described men and women as isolated from each other, and which presented them in an image of sensuality and seductiveness (Said 1978, 311). Joseph blames not only orientalism, but also functionalism, sexism, and certain feminist approaches which strengthened one another in emphasizing the powerlessness of Muslim women (Joseph 1985, 3). Nelson views the prevalent misrepresentation of the reality surrounding Muslim women as a result of the maleness and foreignness of the researchers, both of which denied them direct access to Muslim women (Nelson 1974). In fact, the combined impact of functionalism, orientalism, and sexism reveals another irony: on the one hand, Muslim women come across in orientalist literature as isolated strangers and as individuals alienated from their society, while on the other hand, they are used as a vehicle for constructing an image of the whole culture.

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