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W.E.B.

Du Bois Institute

The Women of Islam


Author(s): Leila Ahmed
Source: Transition, No. 83 (2000), pp. 78-97
Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3137476
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http://www.jstor.org

THE

Position

OF

WOMEN

ISLAM

LeilaAhmed
When I arrived in the United Arab Emirates, a small country of spectacular
deserts,mountains, and oases on the shallow, vivid blue Persian Gulf, it was in the
middle of the most momentous transformation of its history.A few years earlier Zayed, the sheikh of Abu Dhabi, had
offered to use his oil wealth to finance
education, housing, and medical treatment for all the people of the region (including neighboring emirates) that was
now united under his titular leadership.
And thus the people of the region, a nomadic Bedu people, were in the process
of being settled; and the country as a
whole was being catapulted almost instantaneously into modernity.
To provide its people with these new
amenities, the U.A.E. had had to look to
other countries for skilled personnel, and
they looked above all to other Arab
countries. By the time I got there, foreign

FuadAl-Futaih,
Untitled. Penciletching

tors and nurses,teachers and headmasters

and headmistresses.To house this vast


and, as it were, invadingpopulation,as
well as the local people,cities had arisen
almost overnight out of the sands.Ten
years earlier there had been no constructedbuilding in Abu Dhabi, which
was now the capital,only tents and reed
huts;no buildingother than the solitary
whitewashedfortressthat now stood in
the middle of a city of towering highrises.

Abu Dhabihadthe airof a placeconjured out of the sandsovernight.Silhouettes of cranesstood againstthe horizon
in everydirection,two or threebuildings
going up at once alongsideeach other.
Nearbytherewere stillother new-looking buildings; beyond these one saw
structuresthat were at at once newlooking andderelict.Blockshadgone up
too fast.Manybuildingshad to be abanArabs-Egyptians, Palestinians, Syrians, doned after two or three years.There
was one such apartmentblock that I
Jordanians, and others-outnumbered
the local Bedu population six to one. passedin my afternoonwalksalong the
corniche:a grandblue-and-whitetower
These other Arabs were architects, doc-

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%\14~s

i?r;

f.

I'.'
E E -:~~~~~~~~~~.;I-I
t

I) ?

I i

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-/

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:ala<'^
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',.

FuadAl-Futaih,
Black Face.
Mixedmedia

that stood like a ship,with a commanding view of the sea;gleaminglynew and


completely uninhabitable.I would hear
the seawind thatalwaysblew here,whistling and moaning through its gaping,
darkeningwindows and doors,whining
and whistlingand tugging and fidgeting
as if to pick it apart.
I was often conscious in Abu Dhabi
of the foreignnessof all this-modern
high-rises,higgledy-piggledyconstruction cranes,new and derelictbuildings,
and this invasion of other Arabsfrom
abroad-their culturessmotheringand
overwhelmingthe localBedu culture.All

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in the name of modernity and education. It often seemed like somethingdream,nightmare-conjuredjust yesterdayout of the sands,and thatwould any
moment passaway.Leftto nature,to the
deft, steadyworkingsof desert,sea,and
wind, all of this surely-I'd find myself
thinking-would soon disappear,the
old desertsimplicityonce more restored.
It was not an unpleasingthought.
In all of Abu Dhabi there was only
one placethathadits own intrinsicloveliness:the old whitewashedfortressbuilt
in the local style,with its ancient,studded wood door, beside it a cluster of

sheltering palms and a small thicket of


vivid,yellow-floweringshrubs.
And so I sensed even then that I was
witnessing loss: the vanishing of Bedu
culture,its banishmentto the edges of
life, its smotheringby a supposedlysuperior culture bringing "education."I
sensedthis but I didn'tquite understand
or trustmy intuition.Afterall,wasn'tall
this-education, modernity,progressa necessaryand incontrovertiblegood? I
don't know the answereven now.But I
do believe that I was right in my feeling
that I was witnessing the imposition of
a profoundly different-and in many
waysinferior-culture.

As soon as I arrivedin the country,I was


placed on a committee charged with
overseeingthe developmentand reform
of education throughoutthe Emirates.
In the precedingfew yearsschools had
openedfast,without much planning,and
we now had to reviseandrationalizethe
curricula.My fellow committee members were Egyptianslike me, or Palestinians. There were no locals on the
committee, although we reported as a
committeeto the ministerof education,
who wasfromAbu Dhabi.This arrangement was typical.Advisersand advisory
committees were made up of foreign
Arabs, but the people who held the
highest posts were local. The latter
were drawnfromamongthose few who
had had a formaleducation-there was
only a small handfulin the countryand from among the sons of important
families.
All the other members of the committee were men. In those days there
were no more than threeor four people

in the entirecountrywith Ph.D.'s,and I


was one of them. It was this that had
madeit possibleto appointme, a woman,
to such a high-level committee.
Nobody in the world-except

maybe

academics and textbook writers-sits


around the fireside telling stories in
standard Arabic.
We began our work by polling the
localsabouthow they wantedto see education developed. We also visited
schools,observedclasses,andinterviewed
teachersand students.I met with local
women to hear how they felt about
women'seducation.Of courseI was the
only member of the committee who
could do this,since the local Bedu society was strictly segregated-women
did not meet with men who were not
relatives.
Mariam,one of the firstwomen I interviewed,was a memberof one of the
rulingfamilies.I satwaitingfor her in the
reception room at the women's center
with my companion, Gameela, an
Egyptianwho had been in the Gulf for
severalyears.She hadbeen assignedto be
my interpreter,for to begin with, Gulf
Arabicwas scarcelyintelligibleto me. In
the cornersata heavyfigurecompletely
hidden in a black 'abaya.We both assumedthatthiswas some simplewoman
waiting to meet with Mariam,but she
turnedout to be Mariamherself.I went
through the questionnaire,asking her
about women and education. She was
probablyin her fifties,and she was nonliterate.
Of course women should have the
rightto educationup to the highestlev-

THE WOMEN OF ISLAM

81

els, she said.And of course they should


be able to pursue whatever profession
they wished.
What about-I asked,moving on to
the next item on the questionnairewomen'srole in Islam,and the requirements of Islam?
Who founded Islam? Mariam instantlyretorted.A man or a woman?
Startled, my companion, who was
dressed in Egyptian-style robes and a
headveil of strictpiety,murmured,"The
ProphetMuhammad,peace and mercy
be upon him!"
"Exactly!"saidMariam."Andwhose
side do you think he was on?"
Mariamtold us she was engagedin an
argumentwith Fatima,the principalwife
of Zayed, the ruler, and with other
women, as to what should be the emblem of women's centers in the Emirates.A gazellehadbeen proposed,partly
to honor Zayed, whose emirate,Abu
Dhabi, meant "fatherof [place of] the
As the Arab culture of literacy marches
inexorably onward, local cultures
continue to be erased their linguistic and
cultural creativity condemned to
permanent, unwritten silence.
gazelle."Mariamwantedit to be the face
of an unveiledwoman, with some sign
indicatingthatshe was a doctoror engineer.A gazellesoundedlike a nice idea,
she said,but it associatedwomen with
animals,nonhuman creatures,and that
was a dangerousthing to do.
Mariamwas amongthe most remarkable and forthright of the women I
would meet in Abu Dhabi. But all of

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them sharedher passionabout the importance of education for women and


many had those same qualities of
strength,directness,clarity,and secure
confidence in their own vision. There
was Moza, a cousin of the ruler.In her
late twenties-too old to havebenefited
from the country'seducationalrevolutions-she attendedliteracyclassesuntil a few daysbefore she gave birth. In
fact, she had founded and endowed
the Women'sAdult Education Center,
where she took the classes.A woman of
enormous wealth, she wanted other
women to be able to pursue an education. Women'scenters offering literacy
classes (and childcare for the women
who took them) existedthroughoutthe
Emirates,manyof them fundedby local
women.
Those qualitiesof resolve,spiritedness,
and passionwere there,too, in the new
generation.Hissawas a youngsterof fifteen when I met her; she had been removed from school and married off
againsther will when she wastwelve.She
appealed her case to the president,
throughhis wife SheikhaFatima:Hissa
insistedthat Islamgaveher the right not
to be marriedwithout her consent and
the right to education, and she demandedboth.She won. As we strolledin
with its white colonnades
the schoolyard,
and splashesof bougainvillea,she told
me she intendedto become a petroleum
engineer.Hissa'sstory was unusual,but
the schoolswerefull of young women as
spiritedas she:they had every intention
of going on to become engineers,architects,scientists.Few wanted to majorin
literatureandthe humanities,the subjects
that girls are steered toward in other
countries.

Fuad Al-Futaih,

Woman in Red Dress.


Mixed media

It soon became ordinary for me to encounter these extraordinarywomen each


day, to observe the clarity and forthrightness with which they expressed
their opinions and went about their lives,
the sense of humor and quick laughter
that they brought to their gatherings.
Only a handful of local women had had
formal education and, like the local educated men, they held responsible positions (though they were less public and
less powerful than the men)-as headmistresses,say,or regional educational directors. It became ordinary too, then, to
wait in an office or reception room and
observe one of the younger, formally educated women arrive, wrapped in the
black 'abaya.Once in the privacy of an
all-women's space, she would let it drop
to reveal an elegant pantsuit. Naturally it
was soon quite obvious to me that the
local culture bred people who needed no
instruction from anyone in the qualities

of strength, clarity,vision, understanding,


or imagination.
As the responses to our questionnaire
began to come in, it quickly became evident that it was not only the women
here who supported women's education.
The local men, too, were overwhelmingly in favor of equal education for
women. They believed that women
should be able to qualify for any profession.Whatever either sex felt about segregation and about women's pursuing
professional lives within a segregated
context, they did not want to see women
held back intellectually or prevented
from pursuing the professions they
wished.
These views, I discovered, were not
those of the committee. As we reviewed
the responses and prepared to reformulate the country's educational goals, Dr.
Haydar, the chair of the committee, instructed us to set aside the local people's
views regarding equal education for
women. The majority of our responTHE WOMEN OF ISLAM

83

FuadAl-Futaih,
Blue Face.
Mixedmedia

dents were uneducated people, he


pointed out;most,in fact,were illiterate.
They had nice hopes and wishes about
equal education for women, but their
lackof educationmeantthey didn'thave
the knowledgeor capacityto foreseethe
consequencesof policiesin the way that
educated people could. That was why
they had us here, to tell them of those
consequences,to tell them how best to
developtheir society rationally.
Haydar,a Lebanesewho had studied
in Egypt and America, was a complicated man. The notion of women's
equalitywas deeplyantitheticalto him;a
sneering,bittertone creptinto his words
whenever he spoke of it. Invariably,
his
of
how
out
of
conexample
thingsspun
troland into destructivechaoswhen societies treated women as equal was
America,where, I surmised,he had sufferedsome awfulrejection.In America,

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he once said,they were giving women


the right to servein the army,including
positions where they would have men
servingunderthem.
"Canyou imaginea pregnantwoman,"
he said,makingthe gestureof a swollen
belly before him, "giving ordersto her
soldiers!"He looked at each of us in
turn, laughing a humorless,scandalized
laugh.Laughterensued from all around
me. That moment has stuckwith me.
If women had degreesin engineering
or some such subject,he asked,would
they stillbe willing to be the servantsof
society?If we, the committee,gave the
localswhat they wanted,the entirebasis
of society would be destroyed.For society dependson women'srolein the family,andon theirwillingnessto be the servants of men. Had the local people
thought of such things?Of course not!
Our job was to think of these things
and to planan educationalfuturefor the
country consonant with the Islamic
principles on which the society-and
the national constitution-was based.
Haydarwas, he told us, an atheisthimself. (I knew no one else in the Emirates
who openly declaredhis atheism;it was
a courageousact.) But his personalbeliefs were irrelevant,he insisted;it was
simply his professionalduty to see to it
that we came up with an educational
programthat conformed to the principles of the country,and Islamicprinciples were completelyclearas to the role
of women.

Haydar'scomments met with nods and


generalapprovalfromthe committee.We
shouldbegin, Haydarthen proposed,by
cutting down on math and science in

girls' schools and substituting, say,home


economics.
This appalled me, of course, and the
situation seemed hopeless-I was totally
outnumbered.
Brooding on the gray-faced men on
the committee, who were so casually
preparing to blight the hopes of the local women, and on the fact that these
men were nonlocals from other Arab
cultures who were now imposing the
narrow,bigoted ideas of their own back-

grounds, I decided to talk to Ibrahim,the


director of education. He was a local and
my immediate boss. He had been the
person responsible for my appointment
to the committee.
I knew Ibrahim was strongly in favor
of equal education for women. As a boy
he had attended the only school in the
region before the oil boom, an English
school funded by the British government. Then he had won a scholarship to
England, where he earned a B.A.

FuadAl-Futaih,
Girl in Blue and Red.
Mixedmedia

THE WOMEN OF ISLAM

85

FuadAl-Futaih,
SuraAl-Fatihafrom
the Holy Koran
Collage. Mixedmedia

He listened to what I had to say and


suggested that I tell Moza and the other
local women what the committee was
planning. So I stopped by the Women's
Center that evening and told Moza
about Haydar's plan over a glass of tea.
Within a week or two, the committee
got a directive frohmabove instructing us
to drop this scheme. After that, I didn't
much worry when Haydar came up with
some similar idea. I'd listen and mildly
demur-or even appear to agree-and
then let one of the women know what
was afoot. It always worked. I must confess that I enjoyed the bemused look on
Haydar'sface whenever he announcedas if despairing of these foolish, unpredictable locals-that he had got a call or
a note from the minister telling him that
the committee was not to do this or that.
I am sure now that in appointing me to
that committee, Ibrahim had hoped I

would serve precisely the role that I did.


I was recruited to be his ally against the
stifling attitudes that had inundated the
Emirates from other Arab countries.
As director of education, Ibrahim had
considerable power. But he was not a
member of an important family and, as
these things still counted, he had to use
his wits to bring about the outcomes he
wanted. His superior, the minister of education, was from a prominent family
and had a B.A. from Cairo; he had the
power to override his decisions and accept the recommendations of our committee. He was much more ambivalent
than Ibrahim on the question of equal
education for women.
The divide on this question, as I gradually came to understand, was not at all
a straightforwarddivide between women
and men. While the nonlocal Arab men
on the committee were opposed to equal

education,the local men asa groupwere


not. Ibrahim,educatedin England,was
in favor of it-but so were others,
among them the nonliterate and the
barelyliterate,includingZayed,the president of the country and a nonliterate
man, who had committed funding to
men's and women's education in equal
measure.

Among local men, there was a divide


between those who were ambivalent
about or opposedto equaleducationfor
women-mostly men educated in the
Arabicandprimarilyin the Egyptianeducationalsystem-and those who supported equal education.A smallminority of the lattergrouphadbeen educated
in the Englishsystem;the restwere nonliterate or barely literate-in other
words, they were men who belonged
fully to the oral,living cultureof the region.

At the time the only thing clearto me


was that there seemed to be something
distinctly more oppressive toward
women in the attitudesof nonlocalArab
men, and that the Arabic,Egyptian-inspirededucationalsystemseemedto have
a perceptiblynegative effect intellectually.It seemed to close minds insteadof
opening them up-close minds in all
with regard
sortsof ways,but particularly
to women.
What I was observing,I realizenow,
was the profoundgulf between the oral
cultureof the region, on the one hand,
and the Arabiccultureof literacy,on the
other.Oral cultureshere in the Gulfindeed, oral cultureseverywhere-are
the creations of communities of men
and women;they representthe ongoing
interactionsof these communitieswith
their heritage,beliefs,outlook, circum-

stances,andso on. But the Arabicculture


of literacy-a culture whose language
nobody,no living community,ordinarily speaks-clearly isn't the product of
people living their lives and interacting
with their environment and heritage.
The KenyanwriterNgugi wa Thiong'o
has pondered the relationshipbetween
mothertongueandwrittenlanguage.He
describeshis mother tongue as the languagethatpeople usedastheyworkedin
the fields,the languagethat they used to
tell stories in the evenings around the
fireside.It was a languagealivewith "the
wordsandimagesandwith the inflection
of the voices"of the people who made
up his community, a language whose
wordshad "a suggestivepower well beyond the immediate and lexical meanings. Our appreciationof the suggestive
magical power of language was reinforced by the games we played with
wordsthroughriddles,proverbs,transpositionsof syllables,or throughnonsensical but musicallyarrangedwords.So we
learned the music of our language on
top of the content. The language,
through images and symbols,gave us a
view of the world."
All of Ngugi's words apply to Gulf
Arabicand EgyptianArabicand to the
many varieties of vernacular Arabic,
none of which currentlyhas a written
form.But Ngugi'swordsdo not applyto
standard
Arabic,the only writtenform of
Arabic that there is. Nobody in the
world-except maybe academics and
textbook writers-sits aroundthe fireside tellingstoriesin standardArabic;no
one working in a field anywherein the
Arabworldspeaksthatlanguage;no childrenanywhereplayword gamesand tell
riddlesand proverbsin standardArabic.

THE WOMEN OF ISLAM

87

But if this language and its culture are


not the language and culture of a living
community, whose culture is it that is being disseminated by the culture of literacy that Arab governments are zealously
imposing on their populations through
schools and universities? Rooted in no
particular place and in no living culture,
from whom does this culture emanate
and whose values do its texts embody?
Presumably they are the values and
worldviews of government bureaucrats
and textbook writers and the literate
elites of today, along with those of the
Arabic textual heritage on which textbooks and the contemporary culture of
literacy still draw. The Arabic literary
heritage was produced over the centuries
primarily by men: mainly middle-class
men who lived in deeply misogynist societies. Perhaps it is their perspective, recycled today in textbooks and throughout
the Arabic culture of literacy, that imparts to that culture its distinctly negative
disposition toward women.
Whatever its sources and whoever its
creators,it is, as I observed it, a sterile and
oppressive culture. I remember my uneasy feeling in Abu Dhabi, as I watched
Egyptians and Palestinians trained in this
prevailing culture of literacy inculcate it
in their young charges, that I was witnessing the tragic imposition of a sterile, inferior, bureaucratic culture on
young minds-and the gradual erasure
of their own vital, local culture, a culture
much richer and more humane. And this
was being done in the name of education.
The imposition of this culture of literacy throughout the Arab world amounts
to a kind of imperialism-a linguistic
and cultural imperialism conducted in

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the name of education,Arabunity,and


the onenessof the Arabnation.Throughout the Arabworld,as this Arabculture
of literacymarchesinexorablyonward,
local culturesare erased,their linguistic
and cultural creativity condemned to
permanent,unwritten silence.And we
aresupposedto applaudthis,not protest
it as we would if it were any otherform
of imperialismor politicaldomination.
This varietyof dominationgoes by the
and we aresupname of "nationalism,"
posedto supportit no matterwhat is destroyedin its wake.
* * *

My time in Abu Dhabi-especially my


daysof conversationwith its womenrecalledthe world of my childhood.
The women of my family,too, had
of Islam,an untheirown understanding
was
different
from offithat
derstanding
it
cial Islam. For although was only
Grandmotherwho performed all the
religionwasan esregularformalprayers,
sentialpartof the way all the women of
the house made sense of their lives. It
was throughreligion that one pondered
the things that happened,why they had
happened,andwhat one shouldmakeof
them, how one shouldtakethem.
Islam,as I learnedit, was gentle,generous,pacifist,inclusive,somewhatmystical-just like thesewomen themselves.
Mother'spacifismwas entirelyof a piece
with this sense of the religion. Being
Muslim was about believing in a world
in which life was meaningful,in which
all events and happeningswere permeatedwith meaningeven if it was not always clearto us. Religion was above all
aboutinnerthings.The outwardsignsof
religiousness,such as prayerand fasting,

FuadAl-Futaih,
Untitled. Mixedmedia

FuadAl-Futaih,
TihamaWomen.
Penciletching

be. And all of these ways of passing on


attitudes, morals, beliefs, knowledgethrough touch and the body, in words
by
spoken in the living moment-are
their very nature subtle and evanescent.
They shape the next generation, but they
do not leave a record in the way that
someone who writes a text about how
to live or what to believe leaves a record.
Nevertheless, they leave a far more important living record. Beliefs, morals, and
attitudes, impressed on us through those
fleeting words and gestures, are written
into our lives, our bodies, our selves, even
into our physical cells and into how we
live out the script of our lives.

might be signs of true religiosity. But


they equally well might not. They were
certainly not what was important about
being Muslim. What was important was
* * *
how you conducted yourself and how
you were in yourself and in your attitude It was Grandmother who taught me the
toward others, and in your heart.
fat-ha (the opening verse of the Quran,
What it was to be Muslim was passed and the equivalent of the Christian Lord's
on quietly-not, of course, wordlessly, Prayer), along with two or three other
but without elaborate sets of injunctions short suras.When she took me up to the
and threats and decrees and dictates roof of our house in Alexandria to watch
about what we should do and be and be- for angels on the twenty-seventh night
lieve. What was passed on, besides the of Ramadan, she recited the sura about
general basic beliefs and moral ethos of that special night, a sura that was also
Islam (which are also those of its sister about the miraculousness of night itself.
monotheisms), was a way of being in the It is still my favorite sura;even now I reworld. A way of holding oneself in the member its loveliness.
world-in relation to God, to existence,
I don't remember receiving much
to other human beings. This the women
other direct religious instruction, from
passed on to us most of all through their Grandmother or from anyone else. Sitbeing and presence, by the way theywere ting in her room, the windows opening
in the world, conveying their beliefs, behind her onto the garden, the curtain
ways, thoughts, and how we should be in billowing, my mother once quoted to
the world by a touch, a glance, a wordme the verse in the Quran that she befor
or
instance,
prohibiting,
approving. lieved summed up the essence of Islam:
Their mere responses in this or that sit- "He who kills one being"-nafs, self,
uation-a word, a shrug, even a pos- from the root nafas,breath-"kills all of
ture-passed on to us, in the way that humanity, and he who revives, or gives
women (and also men) have forever life to, one
being revives all of humanpassed on to their young, how we should ity" It was a verse that she quoted often,

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FuadAl-Futaih,
Untitled. Mixedmedia

THE WOMEN OF ISLAM

91

FuadAI-Futaih,
Blue, Red,Yellow
Face. Mixedmedia

thatcame up in anyimportantconversation about God, religion, those sorts of


things.It representedfor her the essence
of Islam.
When I was thinkingabout all this,I
happenedto be readingthe autobiography of Zeinab al-Ghazali,one of the
most prominentcontemporaryMuslim

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women leaders. Al-Ghazali founded a


Muslim Women's Society that she eventually merged with the Muslim Brotherhood, the "fundamentalist" association
that was particularly active in the forties
and fifties. Throughout her life she upheld the legitimacy of using violence in
the cause of Islam. In her memoir, she

writes of how in her childhood her father told her stories of the heroic
women of earlyIslamwho had written
poetry eulogizing Muslim warriorsand
who themselves had gone to war and
gainedrenown as fearlessfighters.Musing about all this and about the difference between al-Ghazali'sIslamand my
mother'spacifistunderstanding,I found
myself falling into a meditation on the
seeminglytrivialdetail that I, unlike alGhazali,had never heard stories about
the women of earlyIslam,heroicor otherwise,as a young girl.And it was then
that I suddenly realized the difference
between al-Ghazaliand my mother and
between al-Ghazali's Islam and my
mother's.
The reasonI had not heardsuch stories as a child was quite simplythatback
then, those sorts of stories were to be
found only in the ancient classicaltexts
of Islam,texts that only men who had
studiedthe classicalIslamicliteraryheritage could understandand decipher.
The entire trainingat Islamicuniversities-the training,for example,that alGhazali'sfather,who had attended alAzhar University,had received-consisted preciselyin studying those texts.
Al-Ghazalihad been initiatedinto Islam
and had got her notions as to what a
Muslim was from her father,whereas I
had receivedmy Islamfrommy mother,
as she had fromher mother.So thereare
two quite differentIslams,an Islamthat
is in some sensea women'sIslamand an
official,textualIslam,a men'sIslam.
Indeed,it is obvious that a far greater
gulf must separatemen's and women's
waysof knowing,andthe waysin which
men and women understandreligion,in
the segregatedsocieties of the Middle

East than in other societies-and we


know thattherearedifferencesbetween
women's and men's ways of knowing
even in nonsegregatedsocieties such as
America. Besides the fact that women
often could not read(or,if they were literate, could not decipher the Islamic
texts, which requireyears of specialist
training),women in Muslimsocietiesdid
not attendmosques.Mosque-goingwas
not part of the traditionfor women of
any class (that is, attendingmosque for
congregationalprayerswas not part of
the tradition, as distinct from visiting
mosquesprivatelyand informallyto offer personalprayers,which women have
alwaysdone).Women thereforedid not
hearthe sermonsthat many men heard.
And they did not get the orthodox
(male,of course)interpretationsof religion that many men got every Friday.
They did not have a man trainedin the
orthodox (male)literaryheritageof Islam telling them week by week and
month by month what it meant to be a
Muslim,what the correctinterpretation
of this or thatwas,and what was or was
not the essentialmessageof Islam.
Rather,they figuredthese things out
among themselves:they figured them
out asthey triedto understandtheirown
lives,talkingthem over togetheramong
themselves,interactingwith their men,
and returningto talkthem over in their
communitiesof women. And they figured them out as they listened to the
Quran and talked among themselves
about what they heard.For this was a
culture, at all levels of society and
throughout most of the history of Islamic civilization,not of readingbut of
the recitation of the Quran. It was recited by professionalreciters,women as

THE WOMEN OF ISLAM

93

well as men, and listened to on all kinds


of occasions. There was merit in having
the Quran chanted in your house and in
hearing it chanted wherever it was
chanted, whereas for women there was
no merit attached to attending mosque,
an activity indeed prohibited to women
for most of history.

No wonder non-Muslims think Islam is such


a backward and oppressive religion: what
the sheikhs made of it is largely oppressive.
The women I knew didn't feel that
they were missing anything by not hearing the exhortations of sheikhs, nor did
they believe that the sheikhs had an understanding of Islam superior to theirs.
Although occasionally there might be a
sheikh who was regarded as a man of
genuine insight and wisdom, the women
I knew generally dismissed the views and
opinions of the common run of sheikhs
as mere superstition and bigotry. These
were not Westernized women: Grandmother, who spoke only Arabic and
Turkish,almost never set foot outside her
home, and never even listened to the radio. The dictum that "there is no priesthood in Islam"-meaning that there is
no intermediary or interpreter, and no
need for one, between God and each individual Muslim-was something these
women and many other Muslims took
seriously as a declaration of their right to
their own understanding of Islam.
The Islam I received from the women
among whom I lived was part of their
particular subculture: there are not just
two or three different kinds of Islam,but
many different ways of being Muslim.
But what is striking to me now is not
how different or rare the Islam in which
94

TRANSITION

ISSUE

83

I was raisedis, but how ordinary and typical it seems to be. After a lifetime of
meeting and talking with Muslims from
all over the world, I find that this Islam
is one of the common varieties-perhaps even the common or garden variety-of the religion. It is the Islam not
only of women, but of ordinary folk
generally, as opposed to the Islam of
sheikhs, ayatollahs,mullahs, and clerics. It
is an Islam that doesn't necessarily place
emphasis on ritual and formal religious
practice; it pays little or no attention to
the utterancesand exhortations of official
figures. Rather, it is an Islam that stresses
moral conduct and emphasizes Islam as a
broad ethos, a way of understanding and
reflecting on the meaning of one's life
and of human life more generally.

This variety of Islam (or, more exactly


perhaps, these familial varieties of Islam,
existing in a continuum across the Muslim world) consists above all of Islam as
essentially an aural and oral heritage and
not a
a way of living and being-and
textual, written heritage, not something
studied in books or learned from men
who studied books. This latter Islam, the
Islam of the texts, is quite different: it is
the Islam of the arcane,mostly medieval
written heritage in which sheikhs are
trained; it is men's Islam. More specifically still, it is the Islam erected by that
minority of men who have created and
passed on this particular textual heritage
over the centuries: men who, although
they have always been a minority in society as a whole, have always made the
laws and wielded enormous power (like
the ayatollahs of contemporary Iran).
The Islam they developed in this textual
heritage is similar to the medieval Latin

textual heritage of Christianity-abstruse,obscure,and dominated by medieval, exclusively male views of the


world.Imaginebelievingthatthose medievaltexts representthe only true and
acceptableinterpretationof Christianity.
That is exactlywhat the sheikhsand ayatollahs propound, and this is where
things standnow in much of the Muslim world:most of the texts that determine Muslim law date from medieval
times.
What remains when you listen to the

Quran over a lifetime are its recurring


themes,ideas,and words,its permeating
spirit:mercy,justice,peace,compassion,
humanity,fairness,kindness,truthfulness,
charity.It is precisely these recurring
themesandthispermeatingspiritthatare
for the most partleft out of the medieval
texts or smotheredand buried under a
welter of obscure and abstruse"learning." One would scarcelybelieve,reading or hearingthe laws these texts have
yielded, particularlywhen it comes to
women, that the words justice,fairness,
compassion,or truth ever occur in the

body of law overwhelminglyskewedin


favorof men.
I am sure,then, that my foremothers'
lack of respectfor the sheikhs was not
coincidental. Generations of astute,
thoughtful women, listening to the
Quran, understoodits essentialthemes
and its faithperfectlywell. And looking
aroundthem, they understoodperfectly
well what a travestymen hadmade of it.
Leavingno written legacy-written
only on the body and in the scriptsof
our lives-this oralandauraltraditionof
Islamno doubt stretchesback through
generations,as ancient as any written
tradition.
One might even argue that the oral
traditionis intrinsicto Islamitself.The
Quranwasoriginallyrecitedto the community by the Prophet Muhammad.
Throughouthis life,andfor severalyears
afterhis death,it remainedan auraltext.
Moreover,a bias in favor of the heard
word, the word given life and meaning
by the human voice, the human breath
(nafas),is there, one might say,in the very

language.In Arabicscript,as in Hebrew,


No
wonder
think
no vowelsareset down,only consonants.
non-Muslims
Quran.
Islamis such a backwardand oppressive A set of consonants can have several
religion: what these men made of it is meanings;it only acquiresa specific,fixed
largelyoppressive.The men who wrote meaningwhen given vocalizedor silent
the foundationaltexts of official Islam utterance, unlike words in European
were livingin societiesanderasrife with scripts,which havethe appearance,anychauvinism,eraswhen men believedthat way,of being fixedin meaning.Until life
God hadmadethem superiorto women, is literallybreathedinto them,Arabicand
and that God fully intended them to Hebrewwordson the pagehaveno parhave dominion over women. And yet, ticularmeaning.Indeed,until then they
despitesuch beliefs and prejudices,here are not wordsbut only potentialwords,
andtherein the textsthey created,in the a chaoticpossibilityof meanings.It is as
detailsof this or that law,they wrote in if the scripts of these languages,marsome provisionor condition that,aston- shalingtheir bare consonantsacrossthe
ishingly,does give justice to women. So page,hold within them vastspaceswhere
the Quran's recurring themes filter meaningsexistin a conditionof whirling
through-if only now and then-in a potentialityuntil the moment thatone is
THE WOMEN OF ISLAM

95

singled out and uttered. And so by their


very scripts, Hebrew and Arabic seem to
announce the primacy of the spoken,
living word; they announce that meaning can only be here and now. Here and
now in this body, this breath (nafas),this
self (nafs) encounters the word, gives it
life. Without that encounter, the word
has no life, no meaning. Meaning always
only here and now, in this body, for this
person. Truth always only here and now,
for this body, this person. Not something
transcendent, overarching, larger,bigger,
more important than life-but here and
now and in this body and in this small
and ordinary life.
We seem to be living through the
steady, seemingly inexorable erasure of
the oral and ethical traditions of lived Islam, and the ever-greater dissemination
of written Islam, textual Islam, men's Islam. Worse still, we are witnessing the
unstoppable spread of fundamentalist
Islam-textual
Islam's narrower and
descendant.
Practitioners of the
poorer
FuadAl-Futaih,
Woman Looking
to the Mirror.
Mixedmedia

older, learned Islam usually studied many


texts; they knew that even in these medieval texts there were disagreements
among scholars, differing interpretations
of this or that sura. But today's fundamentalists, literate but often having read
perhaps a single text, take it to be definitive, the one and only truth.
Thus, literacy has played a baneful role
both in spreading one form of Islam,and
in working to erase oral and living forms
of the religion. For one thing, many of
us automatically assume that those who
write and who put their knowledge
down in texts have something more
valuable to offer than those who simply
live their knowledge and use it to inform
their lives. And we assume that those
who interpret texts in writing-the
sheikhs and ayatollahs-must have a better, truer, deeper understanding of Islam
than the untutored Muslim. But the only
Islam that the sheikhs and ayatollahshave
a deep understanding of is their own
gloomy, medieval version.

The Art of FuadA-Futalh

first directorof fine artsin the Yemen


Ministryof Culture,but he would soon
resign to concentrateon paintingfullFuadAl-Futaihwasborn to aYemenifa- time.
Exhibitions throughout Europe,
ther and a Somali mother in I948.
America, and the Muslim world folWhen he was four yearsold, his family lowed.
moved to Aden, then one of many
Al-Futaih'sartdoes not adhereto the
British protectoratesin South Yemen, strict
conventions of traditionalArab
where Al-Futaihbecame something of
art,which tendsto be in thrallto antiqa bookworm.In 1962,he went to study
uity, full of calligraphyand arabesque.
English literaturein Cairo,a city then Forhundredsof yearsafterthe adventof
enlivenedby GamalAbdelNasser'sPanIslam,Arabicartwas definedby the fact
Arabicand Pan-Africandream.Al-Fu- that artistswere not
allowed to paint
taihstayedawayfromradicalpolitics,but God or
man, only trees, flowers, and
he did occasionallyattend speeches at
inanimateobjects.In Al-Futaih'spaintthe Riche Cafe and often found himings,on the other hand,the femaleimself in conversationwith the writers,
age is at the center:his women appear
journalists,andintellectualswho wereits subduedbut dignified;
they speaktheir
patrons.
condition through the strong spirit in
In I967, Al-Futaih left Egypt amid their
eyes,the explosivesexualityin their
the Arab-Israeli
tensionthatwouldspark
shape-the very elements that tradithe Six Day War.But he arrivedhome tionalYemeni
societytreatsas taboo.His
to find that SouthYemen was hardlyat
paintingschroniclethe perennialstrugpeace, either:the British crown was in gle between
spiritualityand eroticism;
the processof handingthe territoryover
evoke
the
they
spiritualmythology of
to the Communist-backed National the
Arabworld.
LiberationFrontIn the city of San'a,AlFutaihheardover the radiothat he had
-Tijan M. Sallah
won a scholarshipto study theater in
East Germany,but he found himself
trapped as Royalists and Republicans
waged their war over the city. By the
time he managedto escape,his scholarshiphadbeen awardedto someone else.
Eventually,Al-Futaihstudiedgraphic
design and painting in Diisseldorf. In
1977,he marriedIlonaKline,a German
woman,andbeganexhibitinghis paintings in Berlinandelsewhere.An exhibition in Baghdadcaughtthe attentionof
the Iraqiministryof education;Al-Futaihfound himselfillustratingchildren's
books for Iraq.In 1980, he became the