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Clichs of Muslim Women in

the West and Their Own World


Wijdan Ali. President of the Royal Society of Fine Arts, Jordan

Clichs about the Orient and its women have


imposed themselves with considerable force on
the popular imagination of the West and have
been perpetuated in Europe since the Middle
Ages. The projection of evil onto marginal or
ineffectual groups within a society has always
been an easy and useful method to find scapegoats. Jews in Medieval Europe were stereotyped and tried for a number of fictitious
crimes such as poisoning wells, killing children for their blood, and crucifying and cannibalizing their victims. Along the same lines,
women were associated with the devil and regarded as enemies of the Church. Hence the
witch-hunts that tried women for sexual voraciousness, cannibalism and consorting with evil
spirits. The projection of evil onto an alien
culture was also a distinctive aspect of medieval Europes intolerance,1 due to its ignorance
of such cultures.
At the time, the Islamic state was the ogre
that threatened not only Europe but Christianity as a religion and a civilization. It was
considered as anti-Europe, posing a cultural,
religious, political and military confrontation
with the West. The Prophet Muhammad was
ridiculed in the most noxious manner. He was

described as a lecherous arch-seducer who utilized God to justify his own sexual indulgences.
Such concepts, whose popularity was transmitted from one generation to the other, were simultaneously coupled by the misogyny inherent in the European psyche. Consequently,
Muslim women were doubly demeaned (as
Easterners and as women).2
Sir Richard Burtons licentious translation
of the Arabian Nights, which gained great
popularity in 19th century Victorian England
was regarded as a highly literary work. In it
he portrays the cunning Scheherazade, whose
knowledge and education only serve to keep
her alive for a thousand and one nights by recounting erotic tales to her king. Here it should
be mentioned that the original is nothing but
oral folklore traditions from India, Persia, Iraq,
Syria and Egypt recorded in a vulgar vernacular to appeal to the popular prejudices among
the illiterate masses to whom they were recounted. Other Eastern women who gained
iconic value in Renaissance and late 19th century painting, literature and music were the
exotic Cleopatra who seduced Mark Anthony
and the wicked Salom rewarded with the
head of John the Baptist. Orientalist paintings

1. Rana Kabbani (1986), p. 5.


2. Ibid., p. 7.

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Clichs of Muslim Women in the West and Their Own World

by Jean-Lon Germe, John Fredrick Lewis,


Jean Lecompte du Nou, Luis Riccardo Falero,
and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, among
scores of others, featured countless scenes of
naked Muslim women. Unlike her European
peer, the nude Muslim woman emerged in
Orientalist paintings outside mythology and
was placed within a definite milieu which in
the mind of the artists gave her a realistic character that appealed to the Western bourgeois
public. Hence the most widespread clichs
portrayed Oriental women, through literature
and art, as the evil, uninhibited and profligate
sex object whose sole aim in life was to seduce
and satisfy the illicit desires of the Oriental
male (and later European male travellers).

The Islamic world was regarded as an


enemy (or the enemy) since the Crusades,
colonialism had a rich vein of bigotry and
misinformation to draw on
Eventually, a second image of Muslim
women emerged in the West. This image was
of an ignorant and repressed woman whose
culture, based on religion, forced her into servitude behind the veil. Her father, husband or
brother was responsible for her and had the
power to physically mutilate her, and prevent
her from leaving her home to be educated, earn
a living or choose her partner in marriage. She
could not assume public office, pursue a profession or have a say in any matter related to
her destiny, and her role was confined to raising a family behind closed doors. Once more
Islam itself was being attacked as a backward,
repressive and cruel religion which subjugated
half of its followers by keeping them in seclusion. This gave civilized Europe an added legitimate reason to colonize the Islamic Orient
and introduce civilization to its natives

through deculturizing them and forcing them


to adopt Western culture.
The issue of women only emerged as the
centrepiece of the Western account of Islam
in the late 19th century, when Europeans installed themselves as colonial powers in Islamic
countries. This new centrality that the issue
of Muslim women came to occupy in the Western and colonial narrative of Islam seems to
be the result of the fusion of the old narrative
of Islam as the enemy of Christianity, and the
broad, all-purpose narrative of colonial domination regarding the inferiority, in relation to
European culture, of all other cultures and
societies, and finally and somewhat ironically,
came the language of feminism which was
evolving with particular vigour during this
time in the West.3 Victorian womanhood and
mores pertaining to women, along with other
aspects of society at the colonial centre, were
regarded as the ideal and a measure of civilization. Such concepts were politically useful
to the Victorian institution as it faced mounting vocal feminism. Ironically, at the time
when the Victorian male establishment was
developing theories to challenge the claims of
feminism, ridiculing and rejecting its ideas, it
adopted the language of feminism and redirected it in the service of colonialism toward
other men and their cultures. The idea that
men in societies beyond the borders of the civilized West aggrieved and mistreated women
was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism,
to render morally justifiable its project of undoing or eradicating the cultures of colonized
peoples. Because the Islamic world was regarded as an enemy (or the enemy) since the
Crusades, colonialism had a rich vein of bigotry and misinformation to draw on.4
At this point one should look at the facts that
identify a Muslim woman and what rights and

3. Ibid., p. 150.
4. Ibid., pp. 150-151.

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duties her religion accords her. Until Islam came


in the seventh century AD the status of women
in the pastoral tribal society of the Arabian Peninsula was that of an object or a beast of burden (there were certain rare incidents during
the first Jahiliyya period when the tribe was
attributed to the mother). She was exploited for
sexual pleasure, childbearing and the execution
of menial jobs that men refrained from performing. She was part and parcel of the mans
possessions to the extent that after his death she
was part of the inheritance and belonged to his
inheritors along with his possessions. Meanwhile, the attitude of women towards their servitude was of total submission. The status of
women in the whole Middle East was not any
better than that of Arab women.
After the coming of Islam, for the first time
women were given equal rights as men. In the
family a woman was not only given the right
of consent to marriage but her consent became
a condition for the validity of the marriage
contract. Her marital rights and duties were
defined. As a wife, her respect was obligatory
on the husband who was obliged to provide
her with the three basic needs: food, clothing
and shelter according to her social status. If
he failed to provide her with one she had the
right to divorce him. As a mother her children
were obliged to obey and respect her. As a
daughter she was saved from infanticide as was
the custom among pre-Islamic society. She was
given the right to inherit and to appropriate
and was the only custodian of her property
with no interference from her family including her husband. Her civil and religious rights
and duties were equal to men.5 The Quran and
the traditions of the Prophet urged both men
and women to seek education on equal terms.
The Prophets wives and daughters were not

only knowledgeable in matters of their religion but were also referred to as authorities to
interpret religious traditions and instruct Muslims in matters of their faith.6 Islam gave
women the right to political participation,
holding public office and lawful debate, fraternizing and practising all the professions that
were available to men. Since the early days of
Islam women took part in war and commerce
(Khadija, the Prophets first wife, was a merchant in whose employment was the Prophet
himself before the revelation came to him),
practised nursing and medicine, and instructed
the people privately and in mosques.7

After the coming of Islam, for the first


time women were given equal rights as
men
There are two subjects in Islam that seem
to be of particular interest to the West. The
first is polygamy and the second is the veil. Islam did not invent polygamy. Judaism allowed
men to have an unlimited number of wives
according to their income. Both David and Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines
despite the fact that they were both prophets.
The Old and New Testaments did not forbid
polygamy, which was in practice until the 16th
century. In 1650 the Frankish Council in Nuremberg allowed men to have two wives. The
Mormon practised polygamy until the 1970s
when they were forbidden to do so by civil law.
When Islam came it regulated polygamy by
restricting it to four wives, each having equal
family and inheritance rights. However, polygamy in Islam can only be practised under
certain circumstances such as illness or infertility of the first wife or the decrease of the
male population due to war. Certain conditions

5. Wijdan Ali (1983), pp. 90-95.


6. Ibid., pp. 3-5.
7. Ibid., pp. 24-28.

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were imposed on men, among them total equality in the treatment of their wives, although if
he could not abide by this stipulation then he
was allowed only one spouse.8
Despite the various interpretations regarding the veil and seclusion of Muslim women,
there is no clear text in the Quran that imposes either on women. The Quran itself does
not mandate that women should be completely
veiled or separated from men, but tells of their
participation in the life of the community and
common religious responsibility with men to
worship God, live virtuous lives, and to cover
themselves or dress modestly.9 During pilgrimage to Mecca, both men and women perform their ritual without being segregated and
a womans hands and face must be uncovered
both at pilgrimage and while performing the
five daily prayers; both rites are among the five
pillars of Islam.
We finally come to the applications of religious and social rules to Muslim women
which call for a retreat in history. The subordination of women and the discrimination
practised against them is the outcome of the
gradual evolution of social and economic conditions that had been in existence in the Middle East since Neolithic times. The rise of urban life which first appeared in Mesopotamia
(present-day Iraq) accelerated the existing division of labour between women and men,
which had previously allowed men an increasingly large role in their agricultural societies
as bread winners and a source of revenue thus
allocating women to dedicating more time to
childbearing and domestic activities. Urban
life further reduced womens social and economic power, fostering a development of atti-

tude that held them to an inferior position.10


During the life of the Prophet in Mecca and
Madina, women contributed to the social and
economic life of their society, enjoying social
power, visibility and freedom.
The Arabs who emerged out of the Arabian
Peninsula a few decades after the death of the
Prophet in 632 AD, to conquer new lands including most of Byzantium and all of the Persian Sasanian Empire, soon became a minority
in the conquered lands and were influenced by
the practices of their peoples. Those practices
included a form of government that the
Abbasids adopted from the Persians and social
practices previously common in Syrian and Persian society, such as the seclusion of women,
which were applied to the upper-class urban
Muslim women during the early centuries of
Islam.11 Thus, generally speaking, the status
women enjoyed at the beginning of Islam began to be undermined and they were restricted
to household activities and childrearing.

During the life of the Prophet in Mecca


and Madina, women contributed to the
social and economic life of their society,
enjoying social power, visibility and
freedom
Islamic law is derived from the Quran,
which Muslims regard as direct Divine Revelation, the Hadith, which is the sayings of the
Prophet and the Sunna, which is the traditions
of the Prophet. Being sacred, the Quran left no
room for change or human tampering. However, the authenticity of the recorded sayings
and traditions of the Prophet that were written
down at least a century after his death were both

8. Ibid., pp. 64-66.


9. John L. Esposito (1994), p. 204.
10. Guitty Nashat (1993), p. 5.
11. John L. Esposito (1994), p. 204.

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challenged from the beginning. Islamic jurists


developed arguments that justified the more
restrictive provisions by arguing that even
though the Quran did not require them, the
Prophets enactment of them should give them
the force of law. Consequently, the sharia, the
religious law that derived from these sources,
was also treated as infallible. The gradual restrictions placed on womens public role and
their exclusion from the major domains of activity in their societies and the control imposed
on them were the combined outcome of the
worst features of Mediterranean and MiddleEastern misogyny with an Islam interpreted in
the most negative way possible for women.12 One
should keep in mind that all the jurists were
men as well as the rulers who continuously
sought control over their populations. With half
of them being women it was easier to restrain
them than to restrict men.

Women prime ministers assumed power


in the Islamic world before they did in
the West
However, the picture is not that dark. During the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties and in
Islamic Spain women attained a high level of
education and were well versed in jurisprudence, history, philosophy, astrology, literature,
and music among other arts and sciences. A considerable number of Muslim women throughout history played important roles in public life
and were rulers in whose name coins were
struck (among such examples are two queens:
Asma and her daughter-in-law Arwa, ruled in
Yemen (11th century), the Fatimid Sit al-Mulk
in Egypt (11th century), Shajarat al-Durr also
in Egypt (13th century), Sultana Radiyya in

12.
13.
14.
15.

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Delhi (13th century), five Mongol Khatuns were


heads of dynasties (13th and 14th centuries),
and in South-East Asia seven sultanas ruled in
the Indies, three in the Maldives and four in
Indonesia (14th century).13
The status of Muslim women began to deteriorate only after the political and economic
climates in their own countries took a turn for
the worse, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, causing social degeneration and intellectual stagnation which laid the ground for misinterpreting religion, manipulating and
controlling women to alienate them from society. In spite of all this, a medical school to
train women doctors was established in Cairo
in 1832,14 when the first public high school for
women was only established in the United
States in 182415 and whereas women prime
ministers assumed power in the Islamic world
before they did in the West.
The encroachment of Western economics
which brought social changes to the Islamic
world, the adoption of the concepts of liberty
and equality from the French Revolution by
Muslim intellectuals and the birth of modern
nationalism among Muslim peoples affected
men and women on a complex multi-level.
Male intellectuals began calling for the emancipation of women from their social restrictions. For the first time in history women found
their cause at the centre of national demands
and began to play a positive role to attain them.
Social and political reformers in Egypt and
Turkey insisted that the veil be removed and
more freedom be granted to their female partners.
Since the 1960s a new political, religious and
social movement has been spreading like a bush
fire throughout the Islamic world. It became

Leila Ahmed (1993), p. 128.


Fatima Mernissi (1994).
Leila Ahmed (1993), p. 134.
Letha Scanzoni and John Scanzoni (1976), p. 22.

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known as fundamentalist Islam, a term which


was coined by the Western media and translated and picked up by the press in the Islamic
world. Although political Islam began in Egypt,
in 1928, by Hassan al-Banna, the founder of
the Muslim Brotherhood, the so-called fundamentalist Islam only gained momentum after
the preposterous defeat that the Arabs experienced in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The general atmosphere among the
masses, particularly in the Arab world, was
one of deep disappointment with their leaderships and world powers who dealt, and continues to deal, with political problems in the
Islamic world by practising double standards
and applying principles of human rights selectively. As the only power they could trust
was God, people turned to religion as a refuge from their depressing and frustrating
political and physical reality. The success of
the Khomeini revolution in Iran in 1979 was
instrumental in strengthening and spreading
Islamic fundamentalism throughout the region.
Like Jewish and Christian fundamentalist
movements, Islamic fundamentalism has many
sects and divisions within, according to each
factions interpretation of the religion. The outward principles of such movements are obvious: mainly to attain justice by implementing
religious precepts in daily life, while the ulterior motive in general is to use religion in order
to gain political and economic power. Thus Islamic fundamentalism served many including
the West. The traditional enmity to Islam was
revived, especially after the demise of Communism; hence the portrayal of Muslims as oil suppliers, terrorists and blood thirsty mobs. Consequently, the issue of Muslim women was once
again brought up in the Western media. New
clichs were circulated based on books and films
such as Death of a Princess among others. The
veiling of women occupied central stage. Yet
the veil that was either forced on or wilfully

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adopted by women is quite different from the


veil in the early decades of the 20th century. At
present the veil serves several purposes among
which are: protection against sexual harassment
at work, economic benefits among low income
groups, and a means of gaining social acceptance, but most important it is a form of asserting a Muslim womans identity and a symbol
of resistance to foreign culture and the West,
which has been assailing and degrading her own
civilization, religion and sexuality as long as she
can remember.

Islamic fundamentalism served many


including the West. The traditional
enmity to Islam was revived, especially
after the demise of Communism
The end of the 20th century finds Muslim women in high and low positions from
prime ministers to street sweepers while
equal pay has hardly been an issue in Islamic
countries. However, there are two points with
which I would like to conclude this paper. The
first is the vastness of the Islamic world. It
covers a geographic land mass that extends
from the Atlantic Ocean to Sub-Sahara Africa to the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula to Central and South-East Asia. This
alone makes it impossible to generalize and
say all Muslim women are or are not emancipated. Despite all the achievements of
Muslim women in Islamic countries, such as
Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco, there are still
states where women are considered as secondclass citizens, although their situation is
changing albeit at a snails pace. The second
point is that we live in a male dominated
world. Men are the ones who set and break
the rules. The fact that any achievement for
women throughout the world has got to be
either granted by or forcibly taken from men
is enough proof of their dominance. Everyday for centuries Jewish men repeat this

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prayer Blessed art thou O Lord our God King


of the Universe, who hast not made me a woman.16 From the Book of Genesis I quote:
In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children;
and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and
he shall rule over thee. (Genesis 3, 16). However, nothing should discourage women from
fighting for their right. If today the future is
theirs, one day the present will be theirs.
References
A HMED , L., Women and Gender in Islam, New
Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1992.

ALI, W., Muslim Women in Modern Society, 1983


(unpublished paper).
ESPOSITO, J.L., Islam. The Straight Path, Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 1994.
KABBANI, R., Europes Myths of Orient, London,
Pandora Press, 1986.
M ERNISSI , F., The Forgotten Queens of Islam,
Cambridge, Polity Press, 1994.
NASHAT, G., Introduction, in W. Walther, Women
in Islam, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University
Press, 1993.
SCANZONI, L. and J. SCANZONI, Men, Women and
Change, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University,
1976.
VINCENT, M., A Womans Place, Harlow, Longman,
1982.

16. Monica Vincent (1982), p. 9.

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