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Women in Muslim History: Traditional Perspectives and New Strategies

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Fatima Mernissi

From Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory
© 1996 Zed Books, Ltd.
by permission of Zed Books Ltd.

Traditional Perspectives and New Strategies


Contrary to widespread belief, early Muslim historians gave considerable exposure to women in their writings. They did not, as might be expected, talk about them only as the mothers and daughters of powerful men. General history books, genealogies and chronicles identified women as active participants and fully involved partners in historical events, including the crucial emergence of Islam. In religious histories describing events which took place from the Prophet's birth to his death, as well as in religious texts themselves, such as Hadith repertories (testimonies of disciples concerning the Prophet's words and deeds) or Qur'an Tafsir (explanations, commentaries), women are acknowledged and their contribution generously praised as both disciples of the Prophet during his lifetime and as authors of Hadith after his death.

In fact, more than ever before, historical argument seems to be crucial to questions concerning the rights of women in Muslim theocracies. This is because all kinds of state policies to do with women, be they in the economic sphere (the right to work outside the home), or in the legal sphere (issues concerning personal status or family law), are justified and legitimized by reference to the tradition of the Prophet, that is, to historical tradition. Progressive persons of both sexes in the Muslim world know that the only weapon they can use to fight for human rights in general, and women's rights in particular, in those countries where religion is not separate from the state, is to base political claims on religious history.

A particularly illuminating debate taking place in the Muslim world today concerns whether or not there is a precedent for women to exercise political power in the highly controversial role of A'isha, the Prophet's third wife, who advised civil disobedience and herself led troops onto the battlefield in armed opposition to the fourth orthodox Caliph, 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib on 4 December AD 656 (A.H. 36), thereby contributing to his downfall. One of the results of the 'Ali-A'isha confrontation was the division of Muslims into Shi'a and Sunni, the Shi'a being unconditionally for 'Ali and, therefore, against A'isha as the symbol, among other things, of civil disobedience and of the right to contest the Caliph when he is believed to be in the wrong.1 Even today, an outstanding Shiite ideologue, the Iranian 'Ali Shari'ati, holds that the ideal for Muslim women is Fatima, the Prophet's daughter, who played no noticeable political role in Islam.2 A'isha is for the Shi'a the antimodel, the monstrous image of femininity. Women should content themselves, like Fatima, with being good mothers, daughters and housewives. In Egypt, Sa'id al-Afghani devoted ten years to writing his biography of A'isha. He says in his introduction and conclusion that he did so to show that women should be barred from politics. His book, A'isha and Politics, is a systematic marshalling of all conservative works on women to this end.3

The case of A'isha illustrates how closely the claim for or against women's rights is linked to historical scholarship in the Muslim world. Women's excellence in this field has had a tremendous impact. The definitive biography of A'isha by Zahiya Moustapha Khaddoura, a Lebanese woman scholar, which was written in the 1940s and republished in the 1970s, is a stunning rehabilitation of A'isha, which gives pride to Muslim women by supporting their claim, not only to political decision-making but also to legislation and shari'a (religious law) making.4 A'isha produced more Hadiths (which are, besides the Koran, the revealed text, the source of the shari'a, the religious law) than 'Ali. According to Ibn Hajar, the author of the seventeen-volume Fath al-Bari, one of the most authoritative Hadith commentaries of Boukhari Sahih (authentic Hadiths, since thousands were frauds)5 claimed that Caliph 'Ali contributed only 29 Hadiths, while A'isha contributed 242. And, since according to this widely acclaimed 15th century scholar Ibn Hajar died in A.H. 852), Boukhari sahih do not total more than 1,602 Hadiths (and not as he previously believed 4,000), A'isha alone contributed more than 15 per cent of the bases of the shari'a.6 Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, upheld by Shi'a progressive ideologues like Shari'ati as the ideal for Muslim women today, did not contribute, although she was the Prophet's daughter; nor, according to the same source, did Caliph 'Ali's wife contribute more than one single Hadith.

Muslim historians have been forced to grant women their due in the volumes of traditional mainstream treatises. But they have also devoted a specific genre of work to women, a genre we can call (since they often used this title themselves) Akhbar al-nisa (Women's News). These are biographical portraits of famous individuals which are notable for their particular attention to detail and for their inclusion of themes that the methodological rules of scholarship prohibit in more mainstream work.

Salah ed-Din al-Munajid identified more than seventy such books in an article called 'What was Written on the Subject of Women',7 which was an attempt to provide an exhaustive listing of every mention of these works by early historians. Of course, not all of them are available today due to destruction of libraries during foreign invasions, but many have been printed, and many more are still in manuscript form in Persian, Turkish and Arabic libraries (just to mention a few), waiting to come alive.8

The authors of these books were not dubious, unknown beginners. They included many of the most important scholars of both general and religious history as well as famous imams, literary figures and genealogists. The criteria for inclusion in these biographical portraits was the display of excellence in some field; beauty was just one of these criteria. Moreover, not only queens and aristocrats were included. Slaves made it into the 'Women's News' frequently and even managed on occasion totally to eclipse royalty and occupy primacy of place. A whole series of treatises on Qiyan - the cultural and literary contribution of women slaves to society - exists and begs thorough investigation.9

How then, with such a glowing presence in their history, do Muslim women come to have such a lowly image in their own society and in the world at large? In this chapter I try to answer that question and to challenge the situation.

As will be seen, the lowly image attributed to Muslim women in their own society today is not due to their absence from traditional memory or in written history. In fact, there is empirical evidence to show that the tradition of historicizing women as active, full participants in the making of culture (which we shall call nisa'ist, the Arabic synonym for feminist, from the word nisa, women) still continues today.10 It could be said that the only novelty in this tradition is that women are now no longer simply objects of Muslim history. They have become subjects as well, they write history, side by side with men. They have, since the turn of the century, been actively involved in the writing of women's history.

The clue to this mystery resides partly in the fact that the image of women in society is not derived from historical material per se by any simple process, but is crucially dependent on the media which can either disseminate such research or restrict its dissemination. History, the recorded memory of a culture, is never consumed directly like other products. Historical material goes through highly complicated processes, often tightly controlled and censored by those in power, before it is presented to citizens for selectively orientated consumption. In order to simplify these multi-faceted, multi-connected processes, let us first make the basic assumption that possessing good historical material showing women as full participants in society is an advantage and can of course be recuperated and harnessed to a nisa'ist strategy.

Contrasting the wealth of historical evidence favourable to women with their lowly status in Muslim society leads to the inescapable conclusion that the forces shaping image-making in the Muslim world discriminate against them. But we should be careful to label these forces conservative and not fundamentalist, because, despite the way Western commentators frequently confuse the two, Muslim women's passivity in political, economic and cultural spheres cannot be explained by the influence of fundamentalism alone. In most Muslim countries fundamentalists are viewed with suspicion by those in power and considered politically undesirable by the state. This confusion between the terms conservative and fundamentalist does not further the understanding of a dynamic and complex situation.

While most Muslim regimes disagree politically with fundamentalists about almost everything, they do agree with them on women and their place in society. The very deep political conservatism at the basis of fundamentalist movements is mirrored in the political nature, opinions and aspirations of most Muslim regimes. If only fundamentalists are taken into account, it is impossible to understand why the disparaging, discrediting image of Muslim women is so present in national media and why discrimination against them attains the status of a sanctified act.

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