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The House of Obedience

BY THE SAME AUTHOR


Le Nord (Maspero, 1967)
Un ouvrier park (Le Seuil, 1968)
L'Algerie independante (in collaboration with Gerard
Chaliand) (Maspero, 1972)
Les Travailleurs etrangers en France (Le Seuil, 1973)
L'Algerie de Boumediene (Presses de la Cite, 1978)
Je hats cette France-la (Le Seuil, 1979)
Contributions to Collective Works
Les Villes nouvelles de la province francaise (EPHE,
Laboratoire de sociologie industrielle, Paris, 1969)
Le Mythe du developpement (Le Seuil, 1977)
'Women in Algeria', in Women in the Muslim World
(Harvard University Press, 1978)
The House of
Obedience
Women in Arab Society

Juliette Minces

Translated by Michael Pallis

Z e d Books L t d
London and New Jersey
The House of Obedience was first published in French
by Editions Mazarine, 8 rue de Nesle, Paris, France, in
1980, and in English by Zed Press, 57 Caledonian Road,
London Nl 9BU, UK and 165 First Avenue, Atlantic Highlands,
New Jersey 07716, USA, in 1982.

C o p y r i g h t © Juliette Minces, 1980.


Translation copyright © Zed Books, 1982.

Cover designed by Andrew Corbett.


Cover photo by Christine Osborne.
Printed and bound in the United Kingdom
by Billing and Sons, Worcester.

Fourth impression, 1992.

All rights reserved.

A c a t a l o g u e r e c o r d for t h i s b o o k is
a v a i l a b l e from t h e B r i t i s h L i b r a r y

ISBN 0 86232 012 7 Hb


ISBN 0 86232 063 1 Pb
Foreword

This book is essentially the product of my observations in the


field, during more than four years spent in the Indian Subcontinent,
Iran, Turkey, Black Africa, etc., including two years in the Magh-
reb and Arab Near East. I was able to see the sort of lives women
led there.
My knowledge of the area enables me to situate the Arab world
fairly precisely, both in terms of the Muslim world as a whole and
in terms of the non-Muslim parts of the Third World. My approach
is certainly not based solely on the contrast between the Arab
societies and the West.
In order to be as specific as possible, rather than present a dis-
parate series of comments on each Arab country, which would
have been both over-ambitious and repetitive, I have chosen to
illustrate my point with two examples which struck me as partic-
ularly interesting: Algeria in the Maghreb and Egypt in the Near
East.
Algeria defines itself as a socially and politically revolutionary
country. Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world
(out of a little more than 100 million Arabs, 40 million are
Egyptian); furthermore, Egypt's urban elites have long been
'Westernized', while its peasantry is tied to the land to a remark-
able degree. In other words, two worlds coexist there without
really meeting, and one may encounter a huge range of possible
lifestyles, especially as far as women are concerned.
I have deliberately not included any study of Saudi Arabia, for
example; Wahabism* is very much a particular case. I have tried
not to make my Western experience the criterion for universal and
absolute judgements. (As Maxime Rodinson puts it, Arab society

* An especially strict and puritan Sunni sect.


The House of Obedience

object whose actions might detract from the honour of the family,
arouse desire in other men or cast doubt upon her husband's
virility and manhood, which must constantly be reasserted.
Finally, it is her task to maintain the tradition, transmit it to the
young and ensure that even the most recalcitrant boys and girls
respect it.
Older women transmit men's authority and are thus equally
important in maintaining customs. Few of them will accept
changes in attitudes brought about by schooling. They remain
convinced of the validity of the tradition which assigns to each
person his or her proper place within the family or the clan: their
authority over their own domain is often as despotic as the men's
and they will exercise every means of pressure at their disposal to
ensure that the established order is respected, formally at least.
Only a few exceptional individuals, having at last acquired this
power over the household, will use it to help younger women
escape the traditional bonds.
In the countryside, where the majority of the population lives,
the family system reflects an agrarian tradition which casts the
house and the fields as a single economic unit, within which
husband and wife play complementary roles. Marriage thus be-
comes an economic necessity, since women are necessary to the
accomplishment of certain tasks. It is therefore arranged as early
as possible. The young wife goes to live with her husband's family,
until he sets up his own household, and often becomes the servant
of her mother-in-law, helping her with many domestic tasks. An
extra pair of hands is always useful.
As for the children, they are soon put to work and rapidly
acquire responsibilities, especially the girls. But they never question
parental authority. The different age groups live closely together
and, providing the traditional family structure is scrupulously
respected, there rarely develops that clash between generations
which we witness so frequently in the West. The many quarrels
between mothers and daughters-in-law described in Arab literature
almost never pose a challenge to the fundamental equilibrium of
the family.
The family is the real centre of most activities, be they social,
economic, religious, educational or political. The interests of the
extended family almost always prevail over those of the individual
or even over those of the community as a whole. It is always worth
remembering that a married woman's status depends on her ability
to have children. The larger the family, the greater its prestige,

20
The House of Obedience

Furthermore, Western society itself is in the midst of a moral


crisis in which its values are being thrown open to question as
individuals search for a different lifestyle and new relationships,
both within the couple and within society at large. Westerners are
no longer complacent about their own conception of the family,
individualism, sexuality and the organization of work. Yet although
the Western notion is no longer seen as a sure road to fulfilment,
the fact remains that no other ideology has established norms of
modernity. These Western norms are perceived by most Arab and
Muslim women (and men) as a danger, a threat. At the moment
it is particularly difficult to find a way of instituting profound
reforms without undermining a whole socio-cultural edifice based
on Islam, which has many positive aspects. The people fear that
any tampering with this edifice will lead to a disintegration of
civilization itself.
It is thus hardly surprising that the fundamentalist religious
revival enjoys the support of many Muslim women who seek to
mark themselves off from the behaviour of the ruling classes.
Islam symbolizes the moral values by which Westernized corrup-
tion can be judged.
It would seem that the moral crisis in the West can have similar
effects. After all, is it unreasonable to interpret the popular
enthusiasm for the conservative positions recently adopted by
Pope John-Paul II as a return to comfortable and safe values, a
response to the same needs as those animating the revival of Muslim
fundamentalism?

112
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contemporaine, ( L e Seuil, Paris, 1 9 7 0 ) .
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(Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1 9 7 8 ) .
B e n a t i a ( F a r o u k ) : he travail feminin en Algerie, ( S N E D , Alger,
1970).
B e r q u e ( J a c q u e s ) : Les Arabes d'hier a demain, (Seuil, Paris, 1 9 6 0 ) .
B o u d j e d r a ( R a c h i d ) : La repudiation, (Les L e t t r e s Nouvelles —
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( M a s p e r o , Paris, 1 9 7 2 ) .
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(Maison T u n i s i e n n e d e l ' E d i t i o n , T h e s i s , 1 9 7 5 ) .
D e b e c h e ( D j a m i l a ) : Les grandes etapes de revolution feminine en
pays d'Islam.
E t i e n n e ( B r u n o ) : L'Algerie, cultures et revolution, Le Seuil, Paris,
1977).
F a n o n ( F r a n t z ) : The Wretched of the Earth, ( H a r m o n d s w o r t h ,
Penguin).
— Sociologie d'une guerre, ( M a s p e r o , Paris, 1 9 6 5 ) .
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Identity, ( V i n t a g e B o o k s , N e w York, 1 9 6 4 ) .
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1979).
H o l t (P.M.), L a m b t o n ( A n n K.S.) a n d L e w i s ( B e r n a r d ) : The
Cambridge History of Islam, Vol. 2 B , ( C a m b r i d g e University
Press, 1 9 7 0 ) .
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( N e w York, M o n t h l y R e v i e w Press).
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Paris, 1 9 6 7 ) .
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Neuchatel, 1958).

113
The House of Obedience

Le monde de I'lslam, (Elsevier S e q u o i a , Paris-Bruxelles, 1 9 7 6 ) .


M a k h l o u f ( C a r l a ) : Changing Veils: Women and Modernisation in
North Yemen, ( C r o o m H e l m , L o n d o n 1 9 7 9 ) .
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( L a f f o n t , Paris, 1 9 6 2 ) .
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d'Afrique du Nord a I'epoque coloniale, S t o c k 2, Paris, 1 9 7 9 .
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114
Introduction: A Confessional Universe

political power and strength. Under such conditions, the choice of


a spouse is far too serious a matter to be left to those directly
concerned. Marriage is thus an issue for families to decide and not
for the future couple. It would be a nonsense to bring love into the
matter, in all but the most exceptional cases. Not that 'feelings'
do not exist, especially in the countryside, where work in the fields
brings young people of different sex together, young people who
have often known each other since childhood in the village or
within the extended family (marriages between more or less
closely related cousins are in fact the preferred option). So platonic
idylls sometimes do arise and lead to marriage, providing this suits
the interests of the two families concerned.
But apart from such cases, it is only in the towns, amongst the
more educated strata who have abandoned the tradition, that
'love matches' are made, and even there they are still a relatively
recent phenomenon. Traditionally, a woman in love is to be
treated with great suspicion. Usually, she will be considered
immoral. She is not really supposed to have dealings of any sorts
with men other than her brothers and her father. Modesty requires
her to lower her eyes before a stranger, or to veil herself when she
cannot avoid his presence. She may not be a physical recluse like
the women in the countryside but her whole behaviour is meant
to reflect what 1 would call her psychological reclusion.
This 'modesty', this 'sense of shame' which is demanded of her
is so important that sexual passivity and submission to her hus-
band are called for. A woman who evinces any interest in the
sexual success of her marriage, is, in theory, likely to become sus-
pect in her husband's eyes, especially in the early days of the
relationship. The reality is of course slightly different since, as we
shall set-, the manipulation of sexuality is one of the most fre-
quently used weapons of femininity. Nonetheless, it is still true
that when a young girl is led to the bridegroom's bedroom, the
only prenuptial advice her mother gives her is usually to be docile
and 'above all don't move, or your husband will think you have
been with another man'. Chastity is crucial, in all things, and is an
affair for the family, whose honour depends on it.
Sexuality in Islam has a legitimate and vital function within the
framework of marriage (and not just in order to procreate);
adultery, on the other hand, is severely punished, and the sanctions
laid down by the Koranic law threaten both men and women with
stoning or flagellation. In everyday life, however, society is relative-
ly lax towards men and extremely hard on women, who run the

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The House of Obedience

risk of being killed by their own family in order to regain lost


honour. Only blood can wipe off such a stain.
Birth control is not formally forbidden by the Koran, under
certain conditions, but most women reject it because they see
numerous pregnancies as their best guarantee against repudiation.
As for the men, they see birth control as an attack on their
virility.
In short, Islamic law continues to reflect the patriarchal and
patrilineal nature of a society based on male agnatic ties. In this
system of family laws, women, be they daughter, wife or mother,
have an inferior status.

The Arab World

I have chosen to write about Arab women rather than all Muslim
women simply because the Arab world itself contains many very
different societies. To speak in terms of Muslim women would
have meant analysing societies as divergent as Indonesia and
Albania.
According to Maxime Rodinson,* a number of common criteria
allow us to define the Arabs. Firstly, there is the Arabic language
and its different dialects, which delimits a geographical area
stretching from Morocco to Mesopotamia. Even then, there are
exceptions, notably the Berber cultures in the Maghreb.
Another, more modern, criterion is Arabism, an ideology which
involves a drive towards unification and which cannot be ignored.
Its basis, apart from language, is seen to lie in a common history
and culture going back to the 7th and 8th Centuries A.D., the
period of the Arab tribes' great conquests, when they created an
enormous empire and propagated a new monotheistic religion,
Islam.
Naturally, this does not prevent North Yemen being very differ-
ent from Morocco or Egypt, or the Bedouin tribes having little in
common with the sedentary peasants of Syria. We shall occasion-
ally go into the details of these differences, but only where they
determine specific types of behaviour towards women, who are our
real subject.
The Arab countries are generally taken to include Syria, Lebanon,

* Les Arabes, I'UF, Paris, 1979.

22
Introduction: A Confessional Universe

Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Gulf Emirates, the two
Yemens, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and
Mauritania. Although they are members of the Arab League,
Somalia and the Republic of Djibouti do not use Arabic as their
everyday language.
While one can invoke a linguistic and religious unity of the Arab
world, it would be hard to find any trace of political unity. The
various states mentioned generally have conflicting economic
policies, and the differences between them in terms of resources
and revenues are considerable. The limits of solidarity are quickly
reached.
The Arab and Muslim societies do, however, all have an almost
identical vision of women, a vision which is the very root of the
status of women in those countries. As we have seen, the tribal or
familial structural basis of these societies imposes upon women a
role and a position such that any modification of their status
threatens to bring down the patriarchal, familial or tribal pillars on
which those societies rest.
It may, at first, seem paradoxical that the richest countries,
notably those of the Arabian Peninsula (except Kuwait) and Libya,
are by no means the most liberal in their legislation affecting
women. Similarly, although Syria and Iraq, countries claiming a
socialist (Ba'athist) orientation, have promoted the participation of
reasonably well-to-do urban women in economic and public life,
Algeria, which presents itself as even more revolutionary, has
brought little radical change to the traditional constraints. In all
cases, attitudes towards woman and her place in society have
changed very gradually, and only because econorric and social
necessities made it essential. Where there have been no such
pressures, legislation has remained unaltered.
In most Arab countries, the last few decades have seen a modern-
ist commercial or bureaucratic bourgeoisie develop, and women
have benefitted from the relative Westernization of these strata.
Some have gained access to university education and a few can
practise lucrative professions, instead of living cloistered segre-
gated lives. But this is obviously only true of a small minority
amongst the female population. Over the centuries there has in
fact been considerable vacillation, at least among the elite. At first,
during the colonial era, there was a fascination with the West, its
values and its power. Mustapha Kemal in Turkey, soon followed
by Rcza Shah in Iran, tried to introduce reforms and promote
what in those days was universally considered to be progress,

23
The House of Obedience

namely an imitation of the West. Half a century later, after all the
struggles of decolonization, the West was perceived as a domin-
ating force to be shut out lest it destroy the character and person-
ality of the region.
This feeling made for a desire to 'return to the sources': the
quest for identity was pursued in terms of Islam which is indeed
the source of local culture, especially for the Arabs, whose
language is that of the Koran. Islamic values were reaffirmed and
presented as the only suitable ones for the societies concerned; all
other influences were more or less violently rejected as corrupting,
or, at best, totally inadequate. This fundamentalist revival put for-
ward the most rigid interpretations of religious dogma as the only
model to be followed. The idea was to make the differentiation
from the West as sharp as possible.
For women, this 'revival' implied not only a rejection of Western
ways but also withdrawal back into the traditional family universe.
But this tradition, especially in its revived form, was partly based
on a nostalgic myth; the ancient ways could not really be main-
tained intact, given the changes which had already taken place in
society and in family life itself.
The evolution of most of these societies meant that women
could no longer live in the relative security provided by the tradit-
ional family. Yet the 'modernization' which has done away with
the security of the extended family has not provided women with
a substitute, since few women were prepared to assume complete
and sole responsibility for their own lives. The contradictions have
thus become even more acute. The societies of the Arab world have
been shaken to the core by Western penetration and have been too
profoundly modified for a return to the old lifestyle to be possible,
except in the most unusual cases. Western-type urbanization,
which seems irreversible, has broken the structure of the extended
family, which offered the only way back to the authentic tradition-
al lifestyle.
The transformation of the Arab world's economic structures and
methods of production has not only helped dislocate the tradition-
al family, it has made it possible for women in the towns to work
out of the house. (In the countryside, women have always worked
in the fields.) This new feature may as yet only affect a limited
number of women, but it has important consequences and reduces
their dependence on the economic level at least.
Furthermore, girls have been given access to schooling in several
countries. True, the girls stay at school for far fewer years than the

24
The House of Obedience

namely an imitation of the West. Half a century later, after all the
struggles of decolonization, the West was perceived as a domin-
ating force to be shut out lest it destroy the character and person-
ality of the region.
This feeling made for a desire to 'return to the sources': the
quest for identity was pursued in terms of Islam which is indeed
the source of local culture, especially for the Arabs, whose
language is that of the Koran. Islamic values were reaffirmed and
presented as the only suitable ones for the societies concerned; all
other influences were more or less violently rejected as corrupting,
or, at best, totally inadequate. This fundamentalist revival put for-
ward the most rigid interpretations of religious dogma as the only
model to be followed. The idea was to make the differentiation
from the West as sharp as possible.
For women, this 'revival' implied not only a rejection of Western
ways but also withdrawal back into the traditional family universe.
But this tradition, especially in its revived form, was partly based
on a nostalgic myth; the ancient ways could not really be main-
tained intact, given the changes which had already taken place in
society and in family life itself.
The evolution of most of these societies meant that women
could no longer live in the relative security provided by the tradit-
ional family. Yet the 'modernization' which has done away with
the security of the extended family has not provided women with
a substitute, since few women were prepared to assume complete
and sole responsibility for their own lives. The contradictions have
thus become even more acute. The societies of the Arab world have
been shaken to the core by Western penetration and have been too
profoundly modified for a return to the old lifestyle to be possible,
except in the most unusual cases. Western-type urbanization,
which seems irreversible, has broken the structure of the extended
family, which offered the only way back to the authentic tradition-
al lifestyle.
The transformation of the Arab world's economic structures and
methods of production has not only helped dislocate the tradition-
al family, it has made it possible for women in the towns to work
out of the house. (In the countryside, women have always worked
in the fields.) This new feature may as yet only affect a limited
number of women, but it has important consequences and reduces
their dependence on the economic level at least.
Furthermore, girls have been given access to schooling in several
countries. True, the girls stay at school for far fewer years than the

24
A s u l t a n was d e e p l y d e p r e s s e d . His vizier grew
w o r r i e d a n d i n q u i r e d as to t h e r e a s o n . T am in love
with a n o t h e r h a r e m ' , replied t h e S u l t a n .
Ottoman anecdote

A m a n ' s s h a d o w d o e s m o r e for a h o m e t h a n t h e
s h a d o w of a wall.
Egyptian proverb
2 Everyday Forms of
Oppression

The Arab press is usually full of incidents which involve acts of


violence against married women or young girls, incidents which
are locally considered as very run-of-the-mill stuff. Here, a brother
has assassinated his sister because he — or the family — has decided
she has been having an affair with a young man; there, a male
member of the family has kidnapped a young girl who had run
away from home to avoid a forced marriage; elsewhere, a husband
has seriously beaten up his wife because she disobeyed him; and
so on. The readers' letters columns frequently contain correspon-
dence from women complaining that repudiation has deprived
them not only of the guardianship of their children, who have
reached the age when they are expected to return to their fathers'
home, but also even of the right to visit them. Women students
often write to protest at the offensive behaviour they have to
endure in the streets from men or old women who insult them
because they are not wearing a veil; they bewail the fact that they
cannot be in a public place without being immediately exposed to
verbal or physical aggression.
It may seem surprising that, in our day and age, women living
in countries where the law often grants them the same civil rights
as men - as is the case in many Arab countries of the Maghreb
and the Near East — can nonetheless be so despised, manipulated,
deprived of control over their own fate and reduced to the status
of a minor their whole life long. The women with whom tourists
come into contact in the towns of the Arab countries represent
only a tiny fraction of the Arab female population; they are
usually Westernized, having had an opportunity to pursue their
studies and play a role outside the house. Often their families are
part of the modernist bourgeoisie. They are very far from consti-
stuting the norm. On the contrary, they are the exception which

29
The House of Obedience

proves the rule; they are looked down upon in traditionalist or


popular circles and violently rejected, unless their profession and
their way of life (which must be exemplary) cast them as asexual
intermediaries. In that case, although they no longer belong to the
traditional world, the service they provide as teachers, nurses,
doctors, etc., gains them a certain respect, in spite of their being
women.
The strict segregation between the sexes which still prevails is
not often broken down, even in such cases. Professional women,
by the very nature of their occupations, usually deal only with
children and other women. Furthermore they are expected to
conform to the general law of these societies: they must marry
and have children of their own.

A Man's Society

In order to speak of women in the Arab world ~ or even in the


Islamic world as a whole — several different criteria have to be
brought into play, not just social class, but also country and even
region. True, the vast majority of those women who have aban-
doned the veil and the saroual, the traditional long dark dress, and
who now wear Western clothes, pursue their studies and choose
their husbands, belong to the modernist bourgeoisie. But the
working-class women of Helouan, near Cairo, or those who live on
Tunisia's northern coast also do not wear veils and they seem to
have fairly egalitarian relationships with the men.
Furthermore, many educated, apparently modern daughters of
bourgeois families are still forced to accept the sudden decision of
their families to marry them off. An understanding mother may
take her daughter's tastes into account, but it is out of the question
that the girl should choose her own husband. The mother will at
most find a partner who has some of the qualities her daughter is
looking for. And usually the daughter will conform with her
family's wishes.
From early childhood, girls are taught obedience. This amounts
to thorough-going conditioning and is justified by Koranic law
which lays down that women should be respected but also stipu-
lates that their position is inferior to men's. Authors who claim
that this is not so, since an element of the Islamic division of
labour is that the woman is the mistress of her own home, forget
that women are given no choice in the matter: the division of

30
Everyday Forms of Oppression

labour is imposed by men, and a woman's only option is to fulfill


her allotted role. Conceived by men and for men, like all other
societies, Arab society is distinctive in that the men's prerogatives
in most fields are still undiminished despite the various reforms
introduced to help women in recent years.
Her father, her elder brother, her uncle or other male guardians,
even her cousins exercise absolute authority over a woman or girl
of their family; later her husband and his family will take over this
role. A young girl passes from the tutelage of the men of her
family to the tutelage of her husband without ever acceding to
true adulthood, even though Koranic law envisages her as an adult
from the onset of puberty and the civil law treats her as such from
16, 18 or 21 years of age in the various countries which have
moved away from Koranic law, on this subject at least. Should a
particularly courageous woman refuse this tutelage, she will be
shunned or physically forced to submit. A woman who has been
cast out by her family faces a very hard and isolated life. Most
will not find it easy to get work, given that girls are often taken
out of school by their parents at puberty and receive no profession-
al training, not to mention the high level of unemployment which
prevails in all underdeveloped countries. The isolation of rebellious
women is reinforced by the whole community, to whom such
behaviour is quite unacceptable. There are no institutions geared
to help women in this situation: the family has always been con-
sidered to be the only possible institution, and women's education
ensures that a revolt on their part remains unthinkable.

The education young girls receive from their mothers and aunts,
especially when the extended family still lives under one roof, is
conceived precisely to enforce respect for the tradition, a tradition
which requires that girls should be docile, submissive, discreet,
active, modest, quietly spoken and without curiosity about the
outside world: the family's honour, which rests on the correct
behaviour of the girls and women, must be safeguarded at all costs.
The girls are taught that their sole aim in life should be marriage
and childbearing. They must obey not only their fathers, but also
their brothers, even when the latter are much younger than they
are. In short, from her early childhood, everything is done to turn
a girl into the ideal wife and mother.
The birth of a boy is an occasion for great festivities, even
amongst the poor; God has blessed the family's house. A baby
boy will be si"'!ded longer, his mother and sisters will carry him
until a later age, be will be pampered, spoilt, given everything. His

31
The House of Obedience

has its o w n specificity, b u t it is n o t , in itself, an e x c e p t i o n . ) N o n e -


theless, s o c i e t i e s which c o n t i n u e t o h o l d t h a t fifty per c e n t o f t h e i r
p o p u l a t i o n — t h e w o m e n — s h o u l d r e m a i n s u b o r d i n a t e , and be
relegated to t h e s t a t u s of m i n o r s or inferiors, c a n n o t b u t be a p r o b -
lem f o r u s .
F i n a l l y , i n this w o r l d w h e r e w o m e n r e m a i n u n e q u a l w h a t e v e r t h e
s o c i e t y , it is as a w o m a n t h a t I p r e s e n t this a c c o u n t .

viii
The House of Obedience

caprices will be forgiven and interpreted as signs of future virility.


By their own behaviour, by their tenderness and indulgence,
mothers create the despots who will eventually rule over their
daughters and daughters-in-law, and thereby reproduce the same
male traits they themselves have often suffered from. A 15-year-
old boy who worked in Cairo but came from a small village in
Upper Egypt told me how he hit his elder sister whenever she failed
to obey him quickly enough. The matter seemed self-evident to
him. 'After all,' he added, 'she was misbehaving and deserved to
be punished; her job is to do as I tell her.'
Cuddled, cajoled and admired by all the women of his family,
the male child is fully indulged and given every freedom. Whilst
his sisters will, from a very early age, be helping their mothers with
domestic tasks, preparing the meals, cleaning, washing, caring for
younger children and so on, the little boy will be allowed to play
in the street or at home, do as he pleases, give orders and hand out
punishments until he is old enough to join the world of adult men.
Perhaps one of the reasons that women, including the sisters with
whom the boy plays when they are very young or when they have
the time, continue to have this attitude is that they know that he
will soon move into a different sphere. Furthermore, the tradition
implies that the whole future life of the women will be conditioned
by how the boy will behave towards them once he has become a
man, be it by providing for their material needs until their marriage
or by undertaking to look after them if they are divorced or
widowed.
The degree of despotism exercised by a little boy obviously
depends partly on his own personality and partly on how much
stress is placed on the respectability of his mother, his sisters and
his female cousins. In any case, it does not prevent strong bonds of
affection being established between boys, their mothers and their
sisters. As children, the boys live in constant contact with the
women. Mothers take their sons with them to the public baths, and
often eventually have to be told by other women that their little
boy is perhaps now a little too old for his presence to be acceptable.
The boys sleep in the same room as their mother and sisters since
the traditional house does not have separate bedrooms, except in
ihn case of polygamous marriages, when each wife has her own
'apartment' which she shares with her children. Nothing is deman-
ded of the little boy when he is young, but he is very rapidly
taught the rights and duties of a male, the stress being on the fact
that Islam has conferred these responsibilities on him because he is

32
Everyday Forms of Oppression

superior to all women.


He also learns to become the chaperone of his sisters whom he
accompanies whenever they have to go out. He is not only their
protector, but also the guardian of their virtue, which gives rise to
a murky feeling of possessiveness which can often be more intense
than the classical incestuous reaction. This feeling is sanctioned by
tradition, since women literally belong to their family, and later
to their husband. If he has secured his parents' approval, a brother
can thus 'give away' one of his sisters to his best friend, to further
the friendship.
A boy may respect the women of his family but he will despise
any woman who does not belong to his family group unless she is
a potential bride. As far as he is concerned, an unveiled woman has
deliberately put herself on offer. She must therefore be contemp-
tibly lewd. As a man he can respect only other men and elderly
mothers; throughout his childhood he has learnt that women are
there only for men's pleasure.
Suddenly, almost from one day to the next, the male child is, as
ii. were, torn from the womb a second time; he enters the world
of men. His father takes charge of him, takes him to the market,
where women are not allowed (men even buy clothes and under-
wear for the women of their household, especially in the Maghreb),
and to the fields where he has to make the transition from spoilt
child to hard-working peasant, unless his father has a profession,
of course, in which case he will become an apprentice in the
family workshop or stall. The boy's happy, spoilt and idle life is
over. He may try to seek comfort from his mother or to speak to
his sisters but he no longer belongs with them. From now on, most
of his life will be spent outside. As a schoolboy, once he has done
his homework, he joins his friends in the street — something a girl
could never do. What he does with his time is his own business,
unless his father intervenes; but it is still rare for a father to
concern himself with the education of his children, even of his
sons. That remains the mother's role, and she rarely has any
authority over the boys.
However, if a child is deemed ill-mannered, noisy, violent, or
disrespectful towards his elders and betters, the blame falls on the
father, who is accused of not knowing how to run his own house-
hold. No challenge to the father's authority is permissible; he is
the man, the progenitor, the breadwinner (even if his wife works);
traditionally, he does not eat at the same table as everybody else,
but sits apart, alone or with his guests, and is served by one of his

33
The House of Obedience

children. If he is not alone, the women retire to the kitchen or the


back rooms. His elder sons may eventually be allowed to sit with
him and listen respectfully to what he has to say, but they will
rarely speak without being spoken to and will never smoke in his
presence (or indeed in their mother's presence). It is also not con-
sidered seemly to listen to records" or modern music in the presence
of one's parents. Obviously, the advent of television has changed
things somewhat in those families who can afford to buy a set.
Generally speaking, the father takes all the important decisions
concerning both his wife and children. But certain local traditions,
or certain relatively recent reforms limit a few of his prerogatives.
As we have seen, the father and his friends eventually take over
from the women the task of inculcating the hypertrophied mascu-
line values of the society, including virility which must be stressed
constantly, especially to women outside the family, if they are not
protected by the rules of hospitality, but also to one's friends, in
boasts and stories. This is part of the reason for the number of
verbal or even physical acts of aggression endured by women in the
streets. What would an honest woman be doing in the streets
anyway?
Yet the absence of women in public places has as its corollary a
permanent sexual obsession which a wife (or even four of them)
cannot appease. This phenomenon has got even worse recently,
with the appearance of advertisement hoardings and cinema posters
showing couples entwined, and with the growth of tourism and the
corresponding discovery of other lifestyles, which seem tempting
but frightening.
In this respect the best protected countries are the most tradition-
alist ones, where cinemas have been banned, and in which tourists
tend to stay tucked away in the big international hotels where they
have no contact with the population at large: on the whole, these
countries are opposed to any form of Westernization, except per-
haps that which affects the oil industry.

The Arab Man

There can be no doubt that the impact of capitalism has promoted


the development of more Westernized ways amongst the privileged
sectors of the population. It has also given birth to new classes,
some of which are directly linked to it. These classes have initiated
a degree of reform vis-a-vis Islam, right from the end of the 19th

34
Everyday Forms of Oppression

Century.
By contrast, in those social strata which remained untouched by
capitalism or which were its victims — the traditional traders of
the souks and bazaars, the artisans in both town and countryside
- - a rejection of the West grew apace. Western innovations, in any
case, found no place amongst the nomads or the traditional c o m -
munities in the countryside. Schooling was quite irrelevant to the
shepherds and modernization of agriculture remained limited,
since the peasants were too poor to invest in new methods and
tools. The 'new ideas' were deemed useless. In order to protect
their own identity, especially after their countries had been colon-
ized, the people strove to preserve their tradition and developed a
nationalist ideology which put considerable stress on the
'unrevised' values of Islam. Islam became an ideology of resistance.
Women's liberation was thus quite out of the question, and
remains so today. Men's image of themselves and of women has
changed little except amongst the Westernized or cosmopolitan
elites (Egypt, Lebanon) who are, by definition, only a small
minority. Women's liberation would require a real change in atti-
tudes, a particularly difficult process, especially as it involves a
loss of power for the men.
We have seen how the little boy is brought up, the attention that
is showered upon him and the almost unlimited rights he enjoys
simply because he is a boy. This deliberate promotion of narcissism,
by attaching such excessive value to his virility and to virility in
general, forces him to feel 'committed to machismo' in a way
which conditions all his behaviour. The way he feels, the way he
acts and sees things Ls moulded by it. If he does not conform to
the image of the virile male that society conveys and expects him
to internalize, he will immediately be mocked and depreciated. In
this sense, one can also talk of the oppression of men.
This forced commitment to machismo has several manifestations.
Firstly, on the economic level, a man who cannot provide ade-
quately for his family is looked down upon and loses his self-
respect, especially if he is already of an age when society expects
him to stop behaving like a young man (usually around 40). On the
moral level, as we know, the chastity of girls and wives is the
guarantee of family honour. If the family, or more accurately, the
men of the family, believe, correctly or not, that one of the women
has misbehaved, the father, or a brother, or even a cousin, is duty
bound to avenge the family honour, usually by killing the girl or
woman who has become suspect. A man who refuses to follow the

35
The House of Obedience

custom suffers an irredeemable loss of face.


Certain social groups are more tolerant, or less punctilious, and
crimes of honour are committed more frequently amongst certain
social classes than amongst others. The elites, the modernist
bourgeoisie, no longer conform. At worst, the father or brother of
a girl whose misbehaviour has been proven will give her a good
hiding or, if the culprit is a wife, the husband will demand a divorce.
In the poorer and more traditionalist classes, especially in the
countryside, a man cannot escape his obligations, for fear that
everybody, including the women, will think he is 'not a real man'.
The women have learnt to play upon all the so-called weaknesses
of their male relatives in order to reduce the oppression that
weighs upon them, but in denouncing these weaknesses, they per-
petuate their own oppression. They force men to be the male
chauvinist autocrats which this male-oriented society has produced.
There is one area, in particular, within which this virility, or
rather this perversion, manifests itself: sexuality. Sex is not sinful
according to the Islamic tradition. A 'real man' is supposed to have
an active sexual life, or at least to behave as if he did. Boasting on
the subject is coirmonplace. It is difficult for a man, given his
education, to imagine any form of relationship other than a sexual
one with a woman who is not a member of his family. A woman
from another family can only be a prey.
This attitude becomes a reflex, despite the revulsion he feels on
other levels for women, those impure beings who menstruate and
whose genitals are defiling. The religious prescriptions (ablutions
after lovemaking, necessity of purification before prayer if there
has been any contact with a woman, ban on embracing or even
desiring a woman during Ramadan) both reinforce and justify this
revulsion. Yet sexual attraction and the need to boast of one's
exploits (multiple, of course) prevail over disgust at women's
bodies, and the men remain sexually obsessed. Amongst boys and
girls, puberty and consciousness of sexuality are precocious, espec-
ially amongst the poorer classes. A 10-year-old urchin will quite
naturally make obscene or sexually complimentary comments to a
passing woman in the street. He knows what he is saying, and his
superiority as a male allows him to do so. By comparison, Western
children seem backward.
However, although sexuality is not bound up with the notion of
sin, as in Christianity, people rarely talk about it except with those
of their own age. But they think about it all the time, obsessionally.
Adolescence starts very early on the sexual level: it is followed

36
Everyday Forms of Oppression

by at least ten years of frantic and almost total frustration, which


is all the more difficult to bear in that the boy is a little male and
must prove himself socially. This feeling of frustration, born of the
specific structures of the society and of this long sexually frustrat-
ing adolescence, will stay with him for the rest of his life. It is a
society which condemns a man to masturbation and chronic sexual
obsession, even when sexuality is satisfied, since the women of his
family (apart from his wife) are forbidden and the others are
hidden away.
This psychological frustration is compounded by what one
could call a 'psycho-visual' frustration resulting from women's
incarceration. Women are rarely seen without a veil. The veil,
which protects them when they leave their homes, only accentuates
the obsession of adolescents and adult males alike. Even a married
and sexually satisfied man cannot avoid it. Extra-marital relations
are difficult to organize, especially for the poor, and resorting to
prostitutes is looked down upon and is in any case beyond many
people's means. Men are thus constrained to chastity — or to only
partial relief with their wives •- a condition they cannot accept since
society demands they demonstrate their triumphant virility.
Women remain as strangers, and they are so much part of another
world that the men feel really happy only amongst themselves.
Relations with women are exclusively sexual or familial; all other
contacts or leisure activities are conducted amongst men, whom
one can trust and share things with. Hence a widespread male
homosexuality, which may be repressed but is also free of the
connotations of sin, perversion or sickness that it carries to this
day in the West. Homosexuality is condemned mainly because it
does not lead to procreation, one of the major goals of this society.
There are, in fact, two different kinds of homosexuality. One is
aristocratic; a taste for very young boys is seen as the epitome of
refinement throughout the Islamic world — as a supplement rather
than a substitute for the harem. Arab, Persian and Ottoman liter-
ature is full of allusions of this kind to pederasty. The second is
more of a substitute and serves for the poorer classes in the towns
and countryside. The shortage of available women and the diffi-
culty of accumulating the invariably necessary bride-price often
delay marriage for men, who find temporary relief in homosexu-
ality, but usually stop once they are married.
There is no opprobrium attached to the 'active' homosexual. It
is the 'passive' partner who is looked down upon, assimilated to a
woman (and naturally, embarrassed because of it). But he will

37
The House of Obedience

generally be a very y o u n g m a n , w h o will get his o w n b a c k by


b e c o m i n g ' a c t i v e ' as he gets older or w h e n he m a r r i e s and recovers
his virility.
T h e m e n ' s sexual obsession i s even m o r e o p e n l y m a n i f e s t w h e n
faced with a Western worran. In s u c h cases, s e x u a l i t y c o m b i n e s
with an a l m o s t racial form of n a t i o n a l i s m . T h e idea is to p r o v e n o t
only o n e ' s o w n p o t e n c y b u t also t h e s e x u a l s u p e r i o r i t y o f o n e ' s
g r o u p . F u r t h e r m o r e , t h e Western w o m a n i s n o t a m e m b e r o f t h e
clan, so e v e r y t h i n g is permissible, t h e r e are no r e s t r i c t i o n s w h a t -
soever. S h e is seen as n o t o n l y a p p r o a c h a b l e b u t available, since
her b e h a v i o u r is t h e o p p o s i t e of w h a t is e x p e c t e d of a ' d e c e n t '
w o m a n — only t h e b e h a v i o u r of a t r a d i t i o n a l Muslim w o m a n is
c o n s i d e r e d ' d e c e n t ' . Even m o r e t h a n a n A r a b w o m a n , a Western
w o m a n is seen as p o t e n t i a l p r e y . A n y refusal on h e r p a r t is g r e e t e d
with a s t o n i s h m e n t , s o m e t i m e s with anger, a l w a y s w i t h aggressive-
ness. D o e s h e r a t t i t u d e a n d dress n o t p r o c l a i m t h a t s h e i s o n offer
t o t h e first b i d d e r ? D o e s she n o t h a v e t h e r e p u t a t i o n o f being
' f r e e ' and t h u s at t h e disposition of every m a n ? ( F r e e d o m f o r a
w o m a n i s t h o u g h t t o consist i n n o t saying ' N o ' . ) I n any case, h o w
could s h e refuse s u c h a s u i t o r ?
T h i s naive c y n i c i s m is o n l y e x p l i c a b l e in t e r m s of t h e s p o i l t
child's u p b r i n g i n g which little b o y s receive. T h e h u n t i s o n p e r m -
a n e n t l y , a n d t h e n e e d to h u n t is insatiable. T h i s is overlaid with a
w e l l - k n o w n p h e n o m e n o n , t h e desire o f t h e c o l o n i a l l y d o m i n a t e d
t o revenge himself u p o n t h e w o m e n o f t h e d o m i n a t o r . C o l o n i z -
a t i o n , in t h e b r o a d s e n s e , h a s i n d u c e d a terrible feeling of h u m i l -
i a t i o n , even of s h a m e . F o r a long t i m e , E u r o p e a n w o m e n w e r e
c o m p l e t e l y f o r b i d d e n t o A r a b m e n , a n i n t e r d i c t even m o r e h u r t f u l
than t h a t p l a c e d u p o n their o w n w o m e n f o l k — h e n c e a very
p o w e r f u l sexual a t t r a c t i o n .
A m o n g s t t h e Westernized intellectuals, t h e h u n t begins w i t h
c o n v e r s a t i o n a n d e x c h a n g e of views: t h e y h a v e discovered t h a t
w o m e n a r e c a p a b l e o f such feats. T h e Western i n t e r l o c u t o r , o f t e n
relatively u n i n f o r m e d a b o u t t h e s e societies, is t h e n less a w a r e of
being p u r s u e d . T h e possessiveness o f a n A r a b lover, t h e j e a l o u s care
h e lavishes o n her, c o n v i n c e s t h e Western w o m a n t h a t , t o h i m , s h e
is u n i q u e . S h e imagines t h a t this c o n c e r n , even if excessive, is at
least d i r e c t e d at her p e r s o n a l l y , w h e r e a s in reality it is a i m e d at
her w h o l e s e x . A n d since s h e also s h a r e s i n t h e c u l t o f m y t h i c a l
virility, s h e i n t e r p r e t s t h e d o m i n a t i o n , b r u t a l i t y and e x t r e m e
possessiveness s h e is often e x p o s e d to as signs of a t t a c h m e n t . T h e
fact i s t h a t few m e n h a v e g e n u i n e l y m a d e t h e t r a n s i t i o n a n d given

38
Everyday Forms of Oppression

up the desire to dominate in this type of relationship. Generally,


those who have lived in exile, away from their own country and the
social pressures which would prevent them living on equal terms
with their wife and going out with her in public, even if she was
a foreigner.
More often, the Western woman will be the Arab man's mistress
and he will take a compatriot as his wife: after all, his lineage is at
stake, and so is the peace of mind which the traditional education
of women provides for men. His identity is less likely to be thrown
open to question. And yet, it is. The transitional society imposes
upon men an even more acute contradiction than upon women.
Their whole existence is threatened. 'What am I, in this society
which demands that I maintain my position when I no longer have
the means to do so?' Machismo, which once seemed a solf-evidently
correct attitude, and which to this day is not threatened, thanks
to the traditional submissiveness of women, is now being indirectly
undermined, if only by the fact that many women have to work
out of the house, and if only by schooling for girls, who often do
better than the boys despite the obstacles put in their way by their
parents. Faced with this menace which is slowly but steadily
whittling away at their autocracy, the more unadaptable men
react very badly. Sexual obsessiveness and aggression become
pathological, complete with psychosomatic consequences. The
incarceration of women, leaving the men with no outlet except
masturbation or homosexuality, has produced societies which fall
sick the moment the traditional system is weakened.

Men of the ruling classes are also obsessed but they find a partial
solution in foreign travel and in a certain evolution of women's
condition in the circles they move in. For the others, at the mom-
ent, there is no answer.
There has really been no sustained effort to change these ways
of thinking, except perhaps in 'l\inisia (even if the results there
arc not always evident) and in revolutionary Yemen. The central
point that is never raised is how to change the status of women.
Marriage in its present form remains the cornerstone of the whole
system. A radical transformation of the roles attributed to women
would imply a revolution at every level including the political,
especially in the countries where the maintenance of the status
quo in this domain is one of the guarantees of stability for the
ruling regimes.

;i9
The House of Obedience

The Incarceration of Women

On the one hand, there is the outward-facing world of the men,


who still believe, explicitly or implicitly according to the degree of
modernization, that women must be kept confined and submissive.
On the other, there is the world of the women, codified to varying
degrees in the different countries, with its own strength and auton-
omy vis-a-vis the specific prevailing conditions. Men have no access
at all to the women's world, but women, protected by the veil,
hidden behind the mousharabiehs, * can slip through public places
without being recognized, can look onto the street without being
seen, can overhear men's conversations in the courtyards or in the
rooms next to the kitchens. The only condition is that they should
be discreet, that they should pass unnoticed and unrecognized.
They are excluded from all decisions, their advice is rarely
asked, they are not even really supposed to exist as individuals; yet
information is passed from neighbour to neighbour, from cousin
to cousin. New arrivals have to follow the rules established by the
local women themselves. Specific times are set aside when the
women gather at the well or the spring, and the men know they
have no business being around on such occasions. The women also
meet once a week on average at the public baths. There they can
wash, eat, rest, talk and discuss together. Potential daughters-in-
law are assessed, physically, with very precise gestures: the little
girls are prodded and squeezed with almost professional interest.
Fortunately, their mothers are there to reassure their daughters
about this sudden curiosity: they realize that a possible marriage
is being considered. Sometimes, thanks to the complicity and
friendship between women, a young girl hidden behind her veil is
allowed a glimpse of her suitor. He enjoys no such privilege, unless
they are relatives and have known each other as children. In the
towns, the public baths are one of the few places where women of
different families can meet, even though they usually go in family
groups or, at most, with a few neighbours. The bathroom of the
modern flat is thus a very mixed blessing, in that it has contributed
to the further isolation of the traditional petty bourgeoisie.
In the past, friendships were usually established between women
of the same family. More recently, especially in the towns. Wider
contacts have become possible, notably at school, where little

* A kind of shutter which enables women to see what is going on without


being seen themselves.

40
1 Introduction: A
Confessional Universe

Western feminists have an unfortunate tendency to approach the


status of women throughout the world as if it were a single issue. In
doing so, they ignore historical factors and other differences in the
degree of exploitation or lack of emancipation of women of
various classes and in various countries.
Of course, it is quite true that women everywhere are subject
to effective discrimination, often unattenuated by legislation, even
in the supposedly advanced societies of the West. Everywhere,
there is still a long way to go before equality becomes a fact in
education and daily life. Yet however unsatisfactory their con-
dition, it is usually recognized that women are 'persons', individ-
uals. This status has enabled them to carry their demands further
and further, to an ever wider and more receptive audience.
Ijet us not forget that the most 'aggressive' feminists are usually
those whose socio-cultural position provides them with the means
to run their own lives and thus to become aware of the extent of
their alienation. If working-class women rarely go beyond deman-
ding 'equal pay for equal work', it is because this is the central
problem which must be solved before others can be tackled and
understood.
This digression on Western feminists is not simply a sidetrack.
Many young women from the Third World, having come to
Europe or America to complete their studies, return to their
countries and try to engage in the kind of feminist struggles they
have witnessed in the West. Their concern to liberate themselves
and their sisters is quite legitimate, but their way of proceeding
separates them from their own community; involuntarily, they see
it only from the outside and cannot describe it in familiar or
adequate terms. The result is that they are not understood by the
women of their country; they have effectively become 'Westerners'.

13
Everyday Forms of Oppression

girls get their first opportunity to meet others from a different


group.
Visits to the hospital or the dispensary are another way of
getting out of the house. Of course, the women never attend such
places alone. In the countries where these establishments have
been set up, there are always long queues of women waiting to be
treated for ailments which may be quite imaginary but which
justify a brief escape from confinement. If the staff is any good,
they use the opportunity to teach the women something about
infant care and, if the law permits, about elementary birth control.
The latter is always presented not as a way of avoiding pregnancy
altogether but. as means of ensuring the best possible conditions
for pregnancy and of forestalling the endless miscarriages which
are so frequent that they often lead to sterility. The international
organizations, amongst others, have repeatedly sought to draw
attention to the deplorable gynaecological state of these women,
but there is still an enormous amount that, needs to be done, if
only because of the shortage of health centres and the women's
reluctance to seek advice over anything except sterility.
The women also receive each other in their homes and visit
each other, having obtained the prior consent of their fathers or
husbands, of course. They manage to create a society, even a
culture of their own, in parallel, a world in which love between
women and even homosexuality are not so rare. In the villages
there is a high level of mutual aid between women, and solidarity
against the men Ls well developed. A husband whose wife usually
respects the rules of society will not be informed of any mistake
she may have made. A father will not be told that his daughter
came home late, even if the women themselves impose some
punishment. Advice is constantly exchanged on how to run the
household, pregnancy, children and women's ailments, how to
keep a husband and prevent repudiation or the introduction of a
new wife, etc. In all these matters, matrons, wise women, match-
makers and fortune-tellers play a major role. Their skills are
invoked to facilitate a pregnancy or a birth, to protect children
from illness, or to secure some magical or religious-cum-magical
means of acquiring or retaining influence over a husband.
In these countries, where women are generally kept unedu-
cated and confined, magic and superstition play a crucial role. In
the poorer classes, exorcism is a cormion practice. I attended one
such session in a working-class district of Cairo. It took place in a
cheap tenement block (a couple and their two children were

41
Everyday Forms of Oppression

girls get their first opportunity to meet others from a different


group.
Visits to the hospital or the dispensary are another way of
getting out of the house. Of course, the women never attend such
places alone. In the countries where these establishments have
been set up, there are always long queues of women waiting to be
treated for ailments which may be quite imaginary but which
justify a brief escape from confinement. If the staff is any good,
they use the opportunity to teach the women something about
infant care and, if the law permits, about elementary birth control.
The latter is always presented not as a way of avoiding pregnancy
altogether but as means of ensuring the best possible conditions
for pregnancy and of forestalling the endless miscarriages which
are so frequent that they often lead to sterility. The international
organizations, amongst others, have repeatedly sought to draw
attention to the deplorable gynaecological state of these women,
but there is still an enormous amount that needs to be done, if
only because of the shortage of health centres and the women's
reluctance to seek advice over anything except sterility.
The women also receive each other in their homes and visit
each other, having obtained the prior consent of their fathers or
husbands, of course. They manage to create a society, even a
culture of their own, in parallel, a world in which love between
women and even homosexuality are not so rare. In the villages
there is a high level of mutual aid between women, and solidarity
against the men Ls well developed. A husband whose wife usually
respects the rules of society will not be informed of any mistake
she may have made. A father will not be told that his daughter
came home late, even if the women themselves impose some
punishment. Advice is constantly exchanged on how to run the
household, pregnancy, children and women's ailments, how to
keep a husband and prevent repudiation or the introduction of a
new wife, etc. In all these matters, matrons, wise women, match-
makers and fortune-tellers play a major role. Their skills are
invoked to facilitate a pregnancy or a birth, to protect children
from illness, or to secure some magical or religious-cum-magical
means of acquiring or retaining influence over a husband.
In these countries, where women are generally kept unedu-
cated and confined, magic and superstition play a crucial role. In
the poorer classes, exorcism is a coirmon practice. I attended one
such session in a working-class district of Cairo. It took place in a
cheap tenement block (a couple and their two children were

41
The House of Obedience

living in a single room). The husband earned the family's keep by


playing in an orchestra specializing in exorcism seances, known as
a zar. The audience was mainly made up of women who had heard
about the coming event on the neighbourhood streets. The gestures
they made as they stepped over a small incense-burner showed
clearly that the problem they had come to resolve was a sexual one.
Two of the women appeared to be members of the troupe, the
older one assuming the role of master of ceremonies.
According to a psychiatrist who showed me around, marabouts*
also began to set up shop in the poorer areas of Algiers towards the
late 60s. Once the tension of war had ended and disappointment
with the achievements of independence began to set in, such
practices became popular again. The marabouts had followed the
rural exodus and could now rely on a regular clientele, prepared to
pay their last dinars in the hope of improving their fate. But women
were not the only clients. Men, too, came to consult the marabouts
(in other countries as well as in Algeria); their main problems
seemed to be psychosomatic disorders, depression and impotence.
Marabouts and fortune-tellers of all sorts have traditionally been
the first people to turn to whenever one is facing a particularly
difficult problem.
Incarceration is often even more difficult to bear in the towns:
the young wife whose husband is well enough off to prevent her
working finds herself brutally transplanted into her husband's
family, where she knows no one, and cannot even maintain close
links with her own family. She may be alone amongst women who
do not necessarily approve of her and who expect her to be
obedient and retiring until she has children. If she has sons, it may
enable her to gain greater respect from her husband and slightly
reduce her mother-in-law's influence over him. But the fact remains
that, in any conflict between mother and daughter-in-law, the
husband will almost always come down on his mother's side; she is
the one who really counts as far as he is concerned, especially as
he barely knows his wife and will thus have no idea just how far
he can trust her. Not to mention that agreeing with the mistress of
the household is the safest way of ensuring an easy life for himself.
As soon as she has had children, especially sons, the young wife
will put strong pressure on her husband to set up a house of his
own, where she will at last be mistress of her own household.

Hermits or holy men endowed with magical-religious powers.

42
Everyday Forms of Oppression

Although she will be locked up in the house, she can bring in a


sister or a cousin, and, if her husband can afford it, hire some
servants: her incarceration will then seem less onerous. When she
is running a household and bringing up children, it will be easier
for her to convince her husband to allow her to visit the various
female members of their respective families, liven then, she will
never go out alone. Should her husband go away for several days,
his wife will invariably go to stay with his family until he returns.
Even a woman who is not kept locked up wiil usually have her
mother or her mother-in-law come to stay whenever her husband
has to travel. The decision is generally taken at the instigation of
the husband, but often the women themselves do not feel psycho-
logically equipped to stay by themselves, even for a few days.
A husband exercises both physical and psychological domin-
ation over his wife. He will frequently be extremely violent
towards her, and will vent all his frustration upon her. Battered
wives are very common, although the Koran gives physical violence
its valid grounds for divorce. But it is so generally accepted that a
husband may beat his wife, and the women are so unaware of their
rights that they very varely bring their husbands to court. Indeed,
many women offer the fact that they are not beaten as proof that
they have a good husband.
Despite the constraints of a male-dominated society, women
have developed all sorts of strategies to reduce the effects of this
domination. Firstly, there Is that parallel society we touched upon
earlier, which is often very powerful especially in those countries
where the tradition is respected. Neighbours and relatives play a
considerable role in a woman's life. Through gossip and intrigue,
thoy can exercise a degree of control over the affairs of the men.
A group of women will organize a sort of self-control over the
behaviour of each individual woman and will so arrange things that
the men art; totally unaware of what is going on amongst them.
Although a Muslim woman barely exists before her marriage,
once she is married and has her own household her rule over it is
undisputed. The house, and all it involves, is her domain. Within
it, she enjoys considerable respect and real power in family
matters. This is sometimes noticeable in her relations with her
husband but more strikingly in the very strong influence she has
over her children, even once they have become adults. Simply
because she is a married woman and a mother, she acquires a
specific position within the parental household; the roles she
plays, which she has been trained for and which are the very basis

43
The House of Obedience

of her self-respect — her roles as wife and mother — can only be


filled by women. She runs the family (although the patriarchal
system favours male domination and control), while the men draw
their power from the family's prestige and from their activities in
the outside world.
Within her home, a woman does not feel subordinate, oppressed,
inferior or powerless compared to the men. She has her own tasks,
which are hers alone. She watches over the smooth running of the
household, and also all its inhabitants, including the men. She
decides what domestic jobs need doing and how to do them. She
can use the upkeep of the house as a weapon, by deliberately
neglecting it for instance. She can take care that the food is of
good quality or abundant, or she can do the opposite, all of which
adds up to a considerable range of indirect pressures she can
exercise, providing she is sufficiently secure and need not fear
repudiation or the introduction of a second wife.
One of her main trump cards is manipulation of her husband's
sexuality. She will take good care of her appearance, remove all
her body hair, subtly and discreetly make herself desirable (but not
directly, since virtue demands she take no interest in sexual matters),
all in order to 'keep' her husband; or, on the contrary, she will
'punish' him by refusing her favours under various pretexts, depre-
ciating his virility and rendering him incapable of any sexual activity
whatsoever. Should this incapacity become known in the outside
world — and we have seen how quickly news can travel — the man
will immediately lose face, since his potency is one of the main
symbols of his power.
In fact, this society has produced a specific mentality amongst
women, which is common to all subject creatures. Hypocrisy,
deceit and duplicity are, in the end, the only weapons available,
and many women do not hesitate to use them. Amongst the rich,
who do not work, one might add arrogance, laziness and vanity.
The women reflect the idea that male society has of them; the
stronger the oppression, the more difficult liberation becomes.
Given the framework of relationships defined by the system, no
other behaviour is possible, since direct confrontation would be
suicidal. This approach becomes second nature, to the point that
even the least subordinate of women have recourse to it the
moment they feel threatened. In this respect, Muslim women are
often admirable tacticians.
In geographical terms, there is greater rigidity concerning women
in North Africa, especially in Algeria, Libya and Mauritania; also

44
Everyday Forms of Oppression

in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates, with the exception of


Kuwait. In these countries, if a man can afford not to have them
work outside, the women will be particularly restricted. Their role
will be confined to that laid down by the tradition: sexual objects,
prolific mothers, and transmitters of the tradition. In the towns,
unlike in the villages, they do not have the advantage of having
friends and relatives nearby, people they can visit and the possi-
bility of participating in various ceremonies, especially if they
have come to the town from a village themselves. The transition
is abrupt and often traumatic.
But those who suffer most from traditionalism are the ones
who have been sent to school and then abruptly withdrawn at the
onset of puberty. They have enjoyed a relatively unconfined life,
have been able to make projects and have benefited from a certain
childish freedom; suddenly they find themselves at the mercy of
tradition, married to men they do not know, subordinate to their
husbands and mothers-in-law just like the women of days gone by.
Because they have lived a different life, dreamed of a different
future even if they always meant to be wives and mothers as well
- they feel particularly frustrated by the fate which has befallen
them. Being literate, they seek refuge in romantic novels or
women's magazines. Sometimes, on learning that they arc about
to be married off, they try to run away or commit suicide —
individual responses to a collective problem.
Working women form a particularly small minority in the
Islamic world compared to the rest of the Third World. Even those
who work outside the home still have to look after all the domestic
chores, not to mention the education of the children if there is no
other woman in the family who can look after them. Very few
countries have developed child care facilities (creches, nurseries,
etc.) to help working women. Finally, only women practising a
liberal professional or whose husbands earn a high salary can
afford to employ servants (of whom there are nonetheless great
numbers). In short, the idea that men might participate in domes-
tic duties has not yet made any headway.

Immigrant Women

One might think that the social pressures would diminish once
outside the country. Yet the position of most immigrant Arab
women in Europe is much the same as in the Arab countries,

45
The House of Obedience

despite some apparent adaptations to European life. We are, of


course, talking about working-class immigration; the rich face no
such problems, especially as in their case the process of Westerniz-
ation will have already begun at home. As officials or intellectuals,
they will already sjpeak at least one foreign language; their women
will be used to the Western lifestyle, will be free to go out, receive
friends and even find work for themselves. The situation is quite
different for working-class women. Generally speaking, the man
comes first, alone, and is only joined by his wife and children
later. The family then reproduces the local traditions fairly faith-
fully, at least during their first few years abroad.
In Europe, most Arab immigrants are from the Maghreb, mainly
Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans. The undeniable and notable
differences in the status of immigrant women from these three
countries is merely an accurate reflection of their situation in their
country of origin. This is particularly manifest when it comes to
work. For instance, a lower percentage of Algerian women in
France work than their Moroccan or Tunisian counterparts. None
of them have to wear veils, but many more of the Algerian women
are kept locked up at home. They rarely go out and never alone,
partly because the women of this social category speak little
French (this is true also of women from the other parts of the
Maghreb), partly because traditional ways, even attenuated by
emigration, prevent them doing so.
Women from the Maghreb are often helped and chaperoned by
a neighbour or one of their children who speaks the language of
the host country. But the point is that, unlike at home, they do
have to go out. They do the shopping and other chores which their
husband cannot carry out while he is working his shift. They have
to learn to cope with the complexities of dealing with the admin-
istration and organizing the (compulsory) schooling of their
children. Finally, the pressure of tradition lessens the longer they
stay abroad; even if they continue to respect the forms laid down,
they steadily acquire an increased autonomy, especially if they live
apart from their community. It is more difficult to cloister a
woman abroad, if only for purely material reasons. (The traditional
structure persists much more in the immigrant shanty-towns where
many families from the same country are housed next to each
other.)
The girls go to school quite normally, at least until 16, since they
cannot legally be withdrawn before reaching a certain age. But
their timetable and their friendships are very closely watched. They

46
Everyday Forms of Oppression

are rarely allowed to go out with European friends, even other


girls, who are seen as giving a bad example by associating with
boys. The tradition demands a strict separation between the sexes;
for instance it shapes what happens during the holidays and major
festivals (circumcision, marriage, religious festivals, the end of
Ramadan, etc.) when men and women will each have their own
separate celebration, dancing and singing. An adolescent girl from
the Maghreb will only be allowed to visit a classmate under the
pretext that they intend to do their homework together. In many
immigrant families, homework or even reading are a real problem
given the overcrowding and noise in the home, furthermore, they
are considered a waste of time for girls who could otherwise be
helping their mothers with important domestic tasks. Permission
to go out is not often granted.
On top of all this, the girls' education is frequently hindered
unconsciously by the parents, who thereby sabotage the efforts
that many of the girls make to be conscientious pupils and thus to
escape the fate they know awaits them. The boys'schooling also
suffers, in that in this case the parents are too indulgent towards
them, do not inculcate the idea of making an effort and do not
put a high premium on academic success; and yet many families
remain in Europe precisely because of the educational facilities
available to their children. There are, of course, many other —
institutional - obstacles which handicap immigrant children at
school.
If an adolescent girl has learnt a trade, her parents will often
insist that she practise it at home. She will then usually not be
allowed to take the completed work (sewing, etc.) to the factory
alone. However, economic pressures have forced more and more
parents to let their daughters work in the outside world. Here,
too, parental surveillance is strict, and workshops or offices staffed
only by women are considered infinitely preferable. Naturally, the
young girl will bring all her salary home and will very rarely have
much pocket money. Many do manage to keep a little aside, how-
ever, by not telling their parents about a rise or bonus.
Most marriages are still decided by the parents, who choose a
spouse amongst the immigrant community, unless arrangements
have been made with correspondents in the home country. Both
boys and girls are affected, but it is more difficult for the girls to
sidestep the family's decision. Once the girl is married, she usually
stops work. Pregnancy soon follows, since the tradition according
to which a wife is primarily a bearer of children still exercises a

47
The House of Obedience

considerable hold over both men and women, despite the oppor-
tunities for birth control which exist in Europe. Requests for
family planning advice are only made once three or four children
have been born (not to mention any miscarriages), and even then
only by the women, never by the men. A husband will rarely allow
his wife to use contraception unless her health is suffering or the
family is in dire financial straits.
Finally, 'mixed' marriages, which are generally disapproved of,
are often kept secret from his parents by the young man involved.
As far as girls are concerned, the civil law of most Arab countries,
following in this the religious law, forbids them to marry a non-
Muslim. If they do not comply, they can find themselves in
serious trouble, especially as the children — who actually belong
to the husband — will not be considered part of the 'tribe'.
It is customary for a young man who has emigrated by himself
to come home once he has saved enough for the bride-price; his
family will then marry him to a girl he may never have seen. He will
stay with her for a few months and then go back alone, to avoid
forcing her to share the living conditions he has to put up with in
Europe. In the meantime, he will entrust her to his family and
arrange to rejoin her during the holidays. Only if his parents have
emigrated with him will he take his bride back to Europe: a woman
is thought unlikely to be equipped to confront the unknown — in
this case a foreign country — without the support of a family
framework. Faced with the range of problems posed by the arrival
of his wife and children, the husband often hesitates to bring them
to Europe, preferring to leave them under his parents' watchful
eyes. Loneliness, isolation and a desire to be with his children,
whom he would otherwise only see during brief holidays, may
nonetheless convince him that he needs them with him, even
though he knows that the inevitable changes which Arab women,
especially the younger ones, go through in Europe could threaten
his very status as father and husband. Children who have been to
a European school and who have absorbed and learnt to value the
Western lifestyle may no longer recognize their father's absolute
authority as self-evident. As for his wife, she will discover with
some astonishment the powerlessness of her husband in Western
society, and may come to look upon him in a less flattering light.
The old frameworks break down, but there are no new ones to
replace them. In fact, an attachment to the code of the Muslim
world persists, since the Western lifestyle is judged too lax and
therefore cannot be adopted. The families feel torn between two

48
Everyday Forms of Oppression

civilizations and are confronted with choices nothing has ever


prepared them for. All of which often leads to serious trouble
within the family with grave consequences for the children. The
disequilibrium between the demands of tradition and reality,
between the desirable and the feasible is too great, especially as
many immigrants come from rural areas which are still very
traditionally oriented. Under such conditions, many women,
especially the older ones, would prefer to go home, to regain the
moral comfort of the traditional family, with its constraints and
security. In any case, there is one domain in which even the most
'liberated' young men will usually give way, even if they are students
who drink alcohol, eat pork and have lived with European girl-
friends. They will let their parents arrange their marriage. Events
may not follow an absolutely classical course; the fiance's will
possibly be allowed to see each other before the wedding (a major
concession); they may even refuse to go ahead with it. But the
principle will be accepted. Very few will actually refuse to comply
with a tradition which is still too deeply rooted to be totally
rejected. The young man may immediately start planning future
adultery, but he will eventually let his parents many him off.
After all, his education predisposes him to accept a code which
supposedly guarantees him an untroublesome wife, a guarantee
which is in some sense given by his parents, whom he usually
wishes to please.

Two Symbols of Women's Oppression

The Veil
The veil is one of the key symbols of women's position in the
Muslim world. Yet it Is worth remembering that many societies,
from antiquity to the present day, have veiled their women. The
practice has persisted mainly in the Islamic areas, except among
the Kurds whose women go unveiled. The eternal black scarf
worn by Sardinian, Corsican, Sicilian and other women of the
Christian Mediterranean is a vestige of what was once a very
widespread accoutrement. In fact, Arab women have not always
been veiled. The aristocracy insisted upon it, but as long as the
village or tribe managed to preserve its old endogamous structure,
the veil was not essential for ordinary women. Furthermore, the
strict separation between the sexes meant that women had no need
to hide their faces. They only wore a veil when they had to leave

49
The House of Obedience

It is not so easy to move from one society or culture to another!


Still less easy to go from an underdeveloped society, where the
invariably more traditional peasantry is numerically so important,
to an industrial society where urbanization and a different system
of production have already transformed people's way of thought.
It is hard to go against custom or religion or traditional and still
solidly implanted social and family structures. Turkey, which
imposed a Swiss Civil Code to replace Islamic law during Ataturk's
revolution, is a striking example of the enduring strength of
tradition, even if, of all the Muslim countries, it remains one of the
few to have granted women a degree of legal emancipation. One
could also mention Iran which was long presented to us as a
society where Westernization and secularization had been accepted
at every level of urban life. The real problem is whether similar
solutions can be brought to bear on such totally different situations.
What the Arab feminists demand is equality before the law and
in daily life, which for the moment their society cannot grant, for
the very precise reasons linked to tradition and religion but also
to certain political and economic problems. It is far too superficial
to say that all women are equally exploited and subordinate, for-
getting all the differences that the specific history of a society
implies.
Let us begin by removing a possible source of ambiguity.
Muslim or Arab women are not exceptional. Most pre-industrial
societies are unfortunately similar in many ways when it comes to
the inferior status of women. The role of women in the Arab world
has not, historically, been so different from that of women in
other societies and cultures over the centuries. The civilizations of
the Mediterranean, Asia Minor and the Near East are there to
prove it.
What is particular, and problematic, is that while women else-
where gradually liberated themselves - to some extent — from the
total supremacy of men, most women in the Muslim world con-
tinued to be totally subordinate. They live under a system which
has barely changed despite the undeniable evolution of their
societies and the efforts of certain would-be 'revolutionary' govern-
ments to grant women greater equality and rights, in keeping with
what we would call a desire for 'modernization'.
The traditional structures have survived the vicissitudes of
history (colonization, introduction of capitalism, etc.) and are par-
ticularly strong in that they rest on a whole corpus of rules, codes,
traditions and laws drawn from the Koran. Inasmuch as the Holy

14
The House of Obedience

the village to go to town, where they had to be hidden from


strangers. The practice spread and became more or less strict when
the village economy was transformed by the introduction of
Western manufactured products which sold at cheap prices and
ruined the old pattern of local production which had, until then,
enabled village societies to be almost self-sufficient. The economi-
cally disrupted villages began to empty as their inhabitants flooded
into the towns. As this anarchic urbanization progressed, the
market economy accentuated class stratification; the model laid
down by the urban bourgeoisie gradually became more general.
The richer villages began to ape the great families of the towns
who veiled their women. And in the towns, where the traditional
society was threatened by the prevailing conditions, the veil
became a way of preserving the old structures.
In many areas, the practice of veiling women spread as the
traditional structure was modified and the urban way of life
became the recognized pattern. The phenomenon gradually affec-
ted every social category which could imitate the urban bourgeoi-
sie. In the meantime, of course, the women of the bourgeoisie,
who were in contact with the West, began to question not only the
veil but their confined lifestyle and even the basic principles of
Koranic law. In the face of such 'decadence', the veil gained addit-
ional importance as a means for many poor families to defend the
traditional Islamic values against Western incursions, cultural
depersonalization and the supposed or real moral laxity of
Westernized women.
The strictness with which the veil is worn varies from place to
place. In some countries, such as Egypt, traditional women wear
only what is known as the Islamic veil, a sort of hood which
surrounds the face without covering it, but which hides their hair;
also a long dress, which covers their arms and legs but does not
restrict their movement. Elsewhere, in the outlying provinces of
Iraq, for instance, women are conpletely hidden under the abuy'a.
Algerian women wear the white haik, a long cloth thrown over
the hair and sometimes held with the teeth, when the women's
arms are full. The lower half of the face is hidden behind a hand-
kerchief. Certain eastern regions of Algeria favour the black veil, a
long cloak which covers the entire face and body except for one
eye. In the Mzab, the custom is even stricter, the women are not
only totally veiled, they turn their head away when they pass a
man in the street.
In Dhofar, women hide their faces behind little masks, often

50
Everyday Forms of Oppression

m a d e o u t o f l e a t h e r and prettily d e c o r a t e d b u t which are t o r t u r e


to wear in t h e boiling h e a t . In Y e m e n t o o , t h e veil is w i d e s p r e a d ,
b u t it is lighter and w o m e n play with it with a certain c o q u e t t i s h -
ness. In s o m e of t h e less puritanical c o u n t r i e s , t h e veil actually
enables c e r t a i n w o m e n t o c a r r y o n illicit a m o r o u s i n t r i g u e s with-
o u t r u n n i n g t h e risk of being recognized. M o r o c c o is o f t e n
m e n t i o n e d in this c o n t e x t . As m o r e and m o r e girls go to s c h o o l ,
h o w e v e r , they m a y c o m e t o a b a n d o n this c u m b e r s o m e g a r m e n t
which s y m b o l i z e s their s u b j e c t i o n .
I n fact, t h e r e are t w o c o n t r a d i c t o r y t e n d e n c i e s . O n t h e o n e
h a n d , t h e veil is falling i n t o disuse as a result of w o m e n ' s schooling,
w o r k and greater p a r t i c i p a t i o n in public life. On t h e o t h e r , and in
t h e s a m e c o u n t r i e s , s o m e w o m e n are o s t e n t a t i o u s l y t a k i n g u p t h e
veil for political reasons, as a m a t t e r of c h o i c e r a t h e r t h a n in
r e s p o n s e t o family o r social pressures. I t s y m b o l i z e s their d e m a n d
for a m o r e ' m o r a l ' e c o n o m i c , political a n d social life, as p r e s c r i b e d
by Islam; a r e t u r n to t h e wellsprings of Muslim i d e n t i t y a n d a n e w
f u n d a m e n t a l i s m , e x e m p l i f i e d t o d a y by Iran.

Circumcision o f W o m e n *

I was six y e a r s old t h a t night, w h e n T lay in my bed, w a r m a n d


peaceful in t h a t p l e a s u r a b l e s t a t e w h i c h lies half w a y b e t w e e n
wakefulness a n d sleep, with t h e rosy d r e a m s o f c h i l d h o o d
flitting b y , like gentle fairies in q u i c k succession. I felt
s o m e t h i n g move u n d e r t h e b l a n k e t s , s o m e t h i n g like a h u g e
h a n d , c o l d »nd r o u g h , f u m b l i n g over m y b o d y , a s t h o u g h
l o o k i n g for s o m e t h i n g . A l m o s t s i m u l t a n e o u s l y a n o t h e r h a n d ,
as cold a n d as r o u g h a n d as big as t h e first o n e , was c l a p p e d
over m y m o u t h , t o p r e v e n t m e from s c r e a m i n g .
T h e y carried m e t o t h e b a t h r o o m . I d o n o t k n o w h o w
m a n y o f t h e m t h e r e w e r e , n o r d o I r e m e m b e r their faces, o r
whether they were m e n or women. The world to me seemed
e n v e l o p e d in a d a r k fog w h i c h p r e v e n t e d me from seeing. Or
p e r h a p s t h e y p u t s o m e k i n d of a c o v e r over my e y e s . All I
r e m e m b e r i s t h a t 1 was f r i g h t e n e d a n d t h a t t h e r e w e r e m a n y
of t h e m , a n d t h a t s o m e t h i n g like an iron grasp c a u g h t h o l d of

* A c o m m o n practice in Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq to some


e x t e n t Jordan; less so in Syria. It is also widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa,
in Ethiopia and Somalia.

51
The House of Obedience

m y h a n d a n d m y a r m s a n d m y thighs, s o t h a t I b e c a m e
u n a b l e t o resist o r even t o m o v e . I also r e m e m b e r t h e icy
t o u c h o f t h e b a t h r o o m tiles u n d e r m y n a k e d b o d y , a n d un-
k n o w n voices a n d h u m m i n g s o u n d s i n t e r r u p t e d n o w a n d
again b y a rasping m e t a l l i c s o u n d w h i c h r e m i n d e d m e o f t h e
b u t c h e r w h e n h e u s e d t o s h a r p e n h i s knife b e f o r e slaughtering
a s h e e p for t h e Eid.
M y b l o o d was f r o z e n i n m y veins. I t l o o k e d t o m e a s t h o u g h
s o m e thieves h a d b r o k e n i n t o m y r o o m a n d k i d n a p p e d m e
from my bed. They were getting ready to cut my t h r o a t
w h i c h w a s a l w a y s w h a t h a p p e n e d with d i s o b e d i e n t girls like
myself i n t h e stories t h a t m y old rural g r a n d m o t h e r w a s s o
f o n d o f telling m e .
I strained m y ears t r y i n g t o c a t c h t h e r a s p o f t h e m e t a l l i c
sound. The m o m e n t it ceased, it was as though my heart
s t o p p e d b e a t i n g w i t h it. I w a s u n a b l e t o see, a n d s o m e h o w m y
b r e a t h i n g s e e m e d also t o have s t o p p e d . Y e t I imagined t h e
t h i n g t h a t was m a k i n g t h e rasping s o u n d c o m i n g closer and
closer t o m e : S o m e h o w i t was n o t a p p r o a c h i n g m y n e c k a s I
had expected b u t another part of my body. Somewhere below
m y belly, a s t h o u g h seeking s o m e t h i n g b u r i e d b e t w e e n m y
thighs. A t t h a t very m o m e n t I realized t h a t m y t h i g h s h a d
been pulled wide a p a r t , a n d t h a t each o f m y lower l i m b s was
being h e l d as far a w a y from t h e o t h e r as possible, g r i p p e d by
steel fingers t h a t never r e l i n q u i s h e d their p r e s s u r e . I felt t h a t
t h e rasping knife o r blade was h e a d i n g s t r a i g h t d o w n t o w a r d s
my throat. Then suddenly t h e sharp metallic edge seemed to
d r o p b e t w e e n m y thighs a n d t h e r e c u t off a piece o f flesh
from my body.

I screamed with pain despite the tight h a n d held over my


m o u t h , for t h e pain was n o t j u s t a pain, it w a s like a
searing flame t h a t w e n t t h r o u g h m y w h o l e b o d y . After a
f e w m o m e n t s , I saw a r e d p o o l of b l o o d a r o u n d my hips.
I d i d n o t k n o w w h a t t h e y h a d c u t off from m y b o d y , a n d
I did n o t t r y t o find o u t . I j u s t w e p t , a n d called o u t t o m y
m o t h e r for h e l p . B u t t h e w o r s t s h o c k of all was w h e n I
l o o k e d a r o u n d a n d f o u n d h e r s t a n d i n g b y m y side. Yes, i t
was h e r , I c o u l d n o t be m i s t a k e n , in flesh and b l o o d , r i g h t in
t h e m i d s t o f t h e s e s t r a n g e r s , t a l k i n g t o t h e m a n d smiling a t
t h e m , a s t h o u g h t h e y h a d n o t p a r t i c i p a t e d i n s l a u g h t e r i n g her
d a u g h t e r j u s t a few m o m e n t s ago.
T h e y carried m e t o m y b e d . I saw t h e m c a t c h h o l d o f m y

52
Everyday Forms of Oppression

sister, w h o was t w o years y o u n g e r , in e x a c t l y t h e s a m e w a y


t h e y h a d c a u g h t h o l d of me a few m i n u t e s earlier. I cried o u t
with all my might. N o ! N o ! I c o u l d see my sister's face held
b e t w e e n t h e big r o u g h h a n d s . It h a d a d e a t h l y pallor and h e r
w i d e black e y e s m e t m i n e for a split s e c o n d , a glance of d a r k
t e r r o r which I can never forget. A m o m e n t later a n d she was
gone, b e h i n d t h e d o o r of t h e b a t h r o o m w h e r e I had j u s t
been.*

T h e d e s c r i p t i o n a b o v e i s b y a n E g y p t i a n w o m a n d o c t o r a n d writer,
recalling h e r o w n c i r c u m c i s i o n . In h e r case, t h e r e were no festivi-
ties t o a t t e n u a t e t h e s h o c k o f t h e o p e r a t i o n . T h i s p a r t i c u l a r l y
barbaric c u s t o m is pre-Islamic in origin, a l t h o u g h it is p r a c t i s e d in
m a n y Muslim c o u n t r i e s o f t h e Near E a s t a n d especially Black
Africa u n d e r t h e n a m e of Islam. • •
T h e r e are t h r e e different t y p e s of circumcision or clitorideet-
o m y . T h e m o s t benign form i s ' S u n n i t e ' c i r c u m c i s i o n , w h i c h d o e s
n o t necessarily sexually cripple t h e w o m a n providing she m a n a g e s
t o o v e r c o m e t h e psychological t r a u m a ; i t consists i n t h e r e m o v a l
of t h e clitoral h o o d , a n d is t h u s akin to t h e circumcision of b o y s .
I n t h e t o w n s , this i s t h e m o s t c u r r e n t m e t h o d a m o n g s t t h e m o r e
e n l i g h t e n e d o f t h e social s t r a t a w h o h a v e n o t y e t a b a n d o n e d t h e
practice altogether.
Excision p r o p e r is a different m a t t e r , involving t h e a m p u t a t i o n
of t h e clitoral glans, or even of t h e e n t i r e clitoris. T h i s f o r m is
practised m a i n l y i n E g y p t . I n o t h e r areas, t h e y also c u t off t h e
adjacent parts o f t h e m i n o r i n n e r lips (labia m i n o r a ) , o r even t h e
lips themselves.
The third type of clitoridectomy, infibulation, is practised
n o t a b l y i n t h e S u d a n , T r o p i c a l Africa, Eritrea a n d S o m a l i a . I t i s
k n o w n a s t h e ' P h a r a o n i c ' circumcision and involves t h e a m p u t a -
tion of t h e clitoris, t h e m i n o r i n n e r lips a n d m o s t of t h e major
o u t e r lips. T h e t w o p a r t s o f t h e vulva are t h e n s t i t c h e d t o g e t h e r .
O n l y a small vaginal o p e n i n g is left to allow u r i n e a n d m e n s t r u a l
b l o o d to be e v a c u a t e d . While t h e scar tissue is f o r m i n g , t h i s small
orifice is k e p t o p e n w i t h a s h a r d of w o o d , a n d on t h e girl's w e d d i n g
night, it is w i d e n e d with a r a z o r or a scalpel. E a c h t i m e t h e w o m a n

* Nawal el Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Eve, Zed Press, London, 1 9 8 0 ,


pp.7-8.

53
The House of Obedience

is about to give birth, the stitches are removed, and then she is
sewn up again.
Leaving aside the pain and fear which must, in themselves,
cause a permanent trauma, infibulation has very serious physio-
logical repercussions. Apart from permanent frigidity, it often
leads to urinary or gynaecological infections, abortions or sterility,
painful menstrual periods, cysts, abscesses in the vulva and even
cancers. The narrowing of the vaginal orifice alone can cause
sterility, not to mention obstetric complications.
The reasons given to justify this practice centre on respect for
the custom and the prevention of sexual immorality, since excision
is supposed to quell girls' sexual desires. In certain countries,
notably parts of Ethiopia, there is also a widespread fear that an
unmutilated girl will not be able to find a husband.
Finally, in rural areas throughout the Arab world, excision is
considered as an obligation which every little girl must submit to.

54
3 The Legal Status of
Women: Reforms and
Social Inertia

Despite the undeniable strength of traditional Islam today, both


as a religion and as a font of legislative and judicial authority, a
number of legal reforms have been introduced in the Muslim
countries. These bear essentially on the family, which is in fact
why they have had so little effect, especially outside the major
towns.
In any case, the reforms are always expressed in terms of an
Islamic framework, not in terms of a secularization. No Arab
country has created a non-confessional state. Islam is the state
religion everywhere except in Lebanon. What reforms have been
adopted are always presented by the legislators themselves as new
interpretations of the Sharia, an adaptation of Holy Law to the
modern conditions which have so transformed the family, especially
in the towns where the extended agnatic family group has given
way to the nuclear family. Although women are still dominated
within the new unit, they do occupy a more important position.
The reforms are thus a belated and timid acknowledgement of
what has already happened.
As we have seen, the political and economic influence of the
Western world and its mode of production has led to a transfor-
mation of the traditional activities of both men and women. The
West introduced new products, which were far more competitive
in price than the old range of goods manufactured at home; the
domestic craft economy which often employed women and girls
was ruined as a result. The new Western goods also paved the way
for a minimal level of industrialization, which gradually changed
people's entrenched attitudes. New needs and habits of consump-
tion arose as the old mode of production fell apart. Schooling
became a necessity, even for women. New social classes emerged,
notably those linked to the Western world by trade or business.

57
The House of Obedience

Industrialization required a new kind of workforce, with a different


attitude to time, work and living space. More rational attitudes
developed; superstition and even religious practices were dis-
placed from the centre of things. Working in a chemicals factory,
for instance, demands manipulation of products which were once
considered unclean. Indeed the new rhythms of factory production
are not really compatible with the requirement to pray five times
a day.
The rural exodus and male emigration forced women to take
charge of their own lives and assert themselves much more in the
new context which had been established. Gradually the climate
of opinion shifted in favour of some improvement in the legal
status of women, to bring it more into line with the new role they
were expected to play in society.
These reforms concerned the age of consent, compulsory edu-
cation, an end to forced marriages, access to paid work, child care,
the right to vote, etc. Over the last 50 years, many of these reforms
have been adopted, although some of the more traditionalist
countries did not see the necessity. It is noticeable that those
countries which were most exposed to direct European influence,
through colonization or mandates, have implemented the more
far-reaching reforms; the Gulf states have not. The most advanced
countries as far as reform of the status of women is concerned are,
first, Tunisia, then Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
Elsewhere — and Iran is a good illustration for all that it is not
an Arab country — the reforms have had a negative effect, as we
shall see. Wherever they have been seen as a rejection of Islam, a
corruption of public morals and an attack on people's identity,
they have provoked violent fundamentalist reactions. Egypt in
recent years is a case in point.
In a country like Algeria, which defines itself as revolutionary,
two elements have combined to relegate women's problems to the
background: namely, constant power struggles and, secondly, the
quest for an identity after the disturbing experience of coloniza-
tion. The new Family Code which had been promised ever since
independence was achieved in 1962 is still only a project. Indeed
it would seem that really important changes have only been imple-
mented in those few Arab countries where there have been social
revolutions under the aegis of a mass revolutionary party, as in
South Yemen for example.

58
The House of Obedience

Industrialization required a new kind of workforce, with a different


attitude to time, work and living space. More rational attitudes
developed; superstition and even religious practices were dis-
placed from the centre of things. Working in a chemicals factory,
for instance, demands manipulation of products which were once
considered unclean. Indeed the new rhythms of factory production
are not really compatible with the requirement to pray five times
a day.
The rural exodus and male emigration forced women to take
charge of their own lives and assert themselves much more in the
new context which had been established. Gradually the climate
of opinion shifted in favour of some improvement in the legal
status of women, to bring it more into line with the new role they
were expected to play in society.
These reforms concerned the age of consent, compulsory edu-
cation, an end to forced marriages, access to paid work, child care,
the right to vote, etc. Over the last 50 years, many of these reforms
have been adopted, although some of the more traditionalist
countries did not see the necessity. It is noticeable that those
countries which were most exposed to direct European influence,
through colonization or mandates, have implemented the more
far-reaching reforms; the Gulf states have not. The most advanced
countries as far as reform of the status of women is concerned are,
first, Tunisia, then Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
Elsewhere — and Iran is a good illustration for all that it is not
an Arab country — the reforms have had a negative effect, as we
shall see. Wherever they have been seen as a rejection of Islam, a
corruption of public morals and an attack on people's identity,
they have provoked violent fundamentalist reactions. Egypt in
recent years is a case in point.
In a country like Algeria, which defines itself as revolutionary,
two elements have combined to relegate women's problems to the
background: namely, constant power struggles and, secondly, the
quest for an identity after the disturbing experience of coloniza-
tion. The new Family Code which had been promised ever since
independence was achieved in 1962 is still only a project. Indeed
it would seem that really important changes have only been imple-
mented in those few Arab countries where there have been social
revolutions under the aegis of a mass revolutionary party, as in
South Yemen for example.

58
The Legal Status of Women

Reproduction and Birth Control

In a .system such as Islamic society, where the family is the key-


stone of the social structure, it is hardly surprising that women's
fertility should be higher than in other societies with the same
level of development. The birth rate in the Islamic countries is in
fact 3.3% per annum which means that 1,000 women of child-
bearing age will, on average, have some 838 children in less than
5 years. The birth rate reaches 3.6% in Syria and Iraq (and in
Pakistan), where fertility is even higher. The ratio of children to
women is highest in Syria and Algeria, lowest in Turkey and
Egypt.
The same demographic features distinguish the Muslim from the
non-Muslim populations of Europe and the USSR. One only has
to compare Europeans of North African origin with the indigenous
populations, Arab and Jewish Israelis, Muslim and Maronite
Lebanese, Christian and Muslim Egyptians to confirm the point-
On the other hand, it is difficult to establish any correlation
between the level of economic development and the ratio of
children to women. For instance, there is a very marked diverg-
ence in the ratios for Algeria and Turkey, although the two
countries are similar in terms of Gross National Product. In other
words, the birth rate in these countries is not directly linked to
economic factors: it depends more on the status of women.
In any case, as in. all underdeveloped countries, the Gross
National Product corresponds only very partially to reality. What
really matters is the distribution of income. Inequality is the rule;
the majority of th;; population, be it in the rich countries such
as Libya, Iran or Algeria or in a poor country such as Egypt, live
on far less than the declared per capita income, while a tiny
percentage of the population shares out the bulk of the national
income amongst itself. This is, of course, just as true of Africa
Asia and Latin America.
In principle, Islam does not reject birth control. No text in the
Koran either authorizes or forbids it. The Holy Book advises the
faithful to increase and multiply, but other verses recommend
having fewer children, so that the family as a whole may enjoy a
better standard of living.
Similarly, attitudes to contraception vary enormously from
country to country. There is no uniformity in the policy of the
various states. Often, the legislators do not even bother to inter-
vene. Obviously, there is also a great disparity between under-

59
The Legal Status of Women

Reproduction and Birth Control

In a .system such as Islamic society, where the family is the key-


stone of the social structure, it is hardly surprising that women's
fertility should be higher than in other societies with the same
level of development. The birth rate in the Islamic countries is in
fact 3.3% per annum which means that 1,000 women of child-
bearing age will, on average, have some 838 children in less than
5 years. The birth rate reaches 3.6% in Syria and Iraq (and in
Pakistan), where fertility is even higher. The ratio of children to
women is highest in Syria and Algeria, lowest in Turkey and
Egypt.
The same demographic features distinguish the Muslim from the
non-Muslim populations of Europe and the USSR. One only has
to compare Europeans of North African origin with the indigenous
populations, Arab and Jewish Israelis, Muslim and Maronite
Iebanese, Christian and Muslim Egyptians to confirm the point-
On the other hand, it is difficult to establish any correlation
between the level of economic development and the ratio of
children to women. For instance, there is a very marked diverg-
ence in the ratios for Algeria and Turkey, although the two
countries are similar in terms of Gross National Product. In other
words, the birth rate in these countries is not directly linked to
economic factors: it depends more on the status of women.
In any case, as in. all underdeveloped countries, the Gross
National Product corresponds only very partially to reality. What
really matters is the distribution of income. Inequality is the rule;
the majority of th;; population, be it in the rich countries such
as Libya, Iran or Algeria or in a poor country such as Egypt, live
on far less than the declared per capita income, while a tiny
percentage of the population shares out the bulk of the national
income amongst itself. This is, of course, just as true of Africa
Asia and Latin America.
In principle, Islam does not reject birth control. No text in the
Koran either authorizes or forbids it. The Holy Book advises the
faithful to increase and multiply, but other verses recommend
having fewer children, so that the family as a whole may enjoy a
better standard of living.
Similarly, attitudes to contraception vary enormously from
country to country. There is no uniformity in the policy of the
various states. Often, the legislators do not even bother to inter-
vene. Obviously, there is also a great disparity between under-

59
Introduction: A Confessional Universe

Book serves as both Bible and Civil Code, it is the determinant


element which influences every aspect of private and social life.
On the other hand, these traditional structures, for all that they
are so oppressive both for men and for women, originally represen-
ted a source of great security. Their real foundation is the exten-
ded family — or the tribe — with all that that implies in terms of
solidarity and interdependency. In such a context, nobody is left
to fend for themselves and relatives provide a form of social
security which only the most modern contemporary states can
match. Although women essentially remain minors throughout
their lives, subordinate first to the men of their family and then to
their husbands, the Koranic law theoretically guarantees that,
whatever happens, they will be cared for till the day they die, as
long as they respect the norms of decency laid down for women.
In practice, however, this guarantee has gradually become increa-
singly fictitious.
Given all this, and given these women's ignorance of life outside,
it is hardly surprising that so few of them seek to break o u t into a
world for which nothing has prepared them.

The Koranic Law

When Islam came to the fore in Arabia during the 7th Century, and
before it spread from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, it was not
only a new religion but also a movement of social reform with
particular relevance to the status of women. In pre-Islamic Arabia,
for instance, women were treated as chattels, to be bought and
sold or inherited. Polygamy was unlimited and the husband could
break off the union as he chose. Infanticide of baby girls was quite
common.
Islam gave women a legal status, with rights and duties. They
were allowed to keep their father's name after marriage and
acquired a legal personality. The bride-price* was henceforth to be
the sole property of the bride; marriage thus became a contract
between husband and wife, rather than a transaction in which the
women's guardian sold her to her future husband.
The man's right to divorce a woman on the spot as he chose was
restricted by the imposition of a three-month waiting period,

* Dowry paid by the fiance before marriage.

15
The House of Obedience

populated countries such as Saudi Arabia and overpopulated ones


such as Algeria and Egypt.
Countries like Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, whose rate of popu-
lation growth is very high, have created a network of family planning
centres, with varying degrees of success. But the efforts that have
been made (they sometimes even include economic pressure upon
couples with more than two children, as in Egypt where parents
lose all maternity benefits for a third or subsequent child) bear
relatively little fruit. They are blocked by the entrenched attitudes
of both men and women, and by the population's generally low
level of education.
Modern techniques of contraception are more usually used by
the educated women of the bourgeoisie than by those of the pro-
letariat or peasantry. But the poorer women do still use traditional
methods which have been known for centuries, such as coitus
interruptus, spermicidal concoctions and condoms: Avicenna, the
great 11th Century thinker and man of science, described twenty
different contraceptive methods.
As for abortion, Islam allows it, providing the intervention takes
place before the fourth month of pregnancy. In reality, however,
it is illegal everywhere except Tunisia.

Marriage

All Muslim schools and sects traditionally recognize the right of a


child's guardian to commit the child, boy or girl, to a promise of
marriage without his or her consent. However, the formal agree-
ment of both spouses is required before the marriage itself can take
place.
Traditional Hanafi* and Shia Law authorizes adult women — in
other words women who have reached puberty — to contract their
own marriage, without any need for a guardian to be involved.
Nonetheless, many little girls are married off to adults, with all
the psychological strains and physiological damage that may entail.
Little girls reach puberty very early in the countries concerned,
often at ten or eleven, and it is all too easy to imagine the effects

* The Hanafi School is one of the four schools of Sunni Islam. It is especially
strong in Egypt. Sunnis form the majority of Muslims. Shia Islam is pre-
dominant in Iran and Iraq.

60
The Legal Status of Women

of a premature pregnancy on barely nubile children; frequent and


repeated miscarriages, high infant mortality, not to mention often
permanent gynaecological trauma. Although boys may also be
married off very young, they do not run the same risks. Further-
more, boys who have been married off without their consent can
later lead an extra-marital sexual life of their own choosing.
According to the most recent statistics, about 45% of young
girls between 15 and 19 are already married. In some countries,
5% are already divorced or widowed before the age of 20; there is
often an enormous age difference between the spouses, since
bride-price usually prevents very young men getting married,
unless they come from relatively wealthy families. Very few
women remain unmarried until they are 30 and only a tiny
minority never marry at all.
Recently, most Muslim countries have sought to limit the mini-
mum age for marriage. Generally speaking, it has been set at 18
for boys, but varies from country to country as far as girls are
concerned. In December 1972 during the Arab Women's Confer-
ence held in Kuwait, the participants issued a unanimous appeal
for governments to ban the marriage of girls under 16. The legal
minimum age is 15 in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, 16 in Egypt,
17 in Syria and Jordan. Even some of the most religiously conser-
vative countries, such as Libya, have introduced this kind of legis-
lation. There is, however, very little official publicity to ensure
that these measures are enforced.
As not all births are registered, countries like Syria specify that
both spouses should be healthy and past the age of puberty as well
as laying down a legal age of consent. But in practice, here as
elsewhere, there are very few sanctions against early marriage. On
the other hand, nearly all countries now require marriages to be
officially registered, which serves as a fairly effective counter to
forced marriage. In Tunisia, the bride herself must draw up her
own contract; elsewhere, in Morocco for example, a woman still
needs the consent of her guardian to enter a contract of marriage.
Although these reforms are a considerable step forward, not all
countries are equally progressive and non-observance of what laws
there are is frequent. This is especially so in countries with a pre-
dominantly rural population, where prenuptial medical examin-
ations are rejected as a violation of the future bride's modesty. It
is also often difficult to ensure that the two fiances provide
documents proving their age and identity. For many people, civil
marriage and its registration are in any case of far less importance

61
The House of Obedience

than the signature of a traditional marriage contract, a ceremony


which often long precedes the civil rite.
Finally, the regulations for registration of civil marriages con-
tains a clause stipulating that both fiances must officially give their
consent to the proceedings. If the woman remains silent, this is
considered as evidence of her acceptance. In societies where the
social pressures are so considerable, ranging from psychological
constraints to physical coercion, few girls dare express any oppo-
sition. The resulting scandal and its consequences would be too
serious. Nonetheless, the reforms in question will perhaps improve
the status of women by providing a legal basis on which they can
defend their rights in matters of inheritance, divorce or guardian-
ship of children.
Theoretically, the nikah (Islamic marriage contract) is supposed
to protect the woman's rights. But it is liable to different interpre-
tations by often very traditionalist religious authorities. The fact
remains, however, that it is thanks to this contract that women —
or their guardians — can introduce clauses which secure their rights
as a wife. It usually specifies not only the sum of the bride-price
and how the latter is to be paid, but also lays down the conditions
under which the woman herself will be entitled to demand a
divorce. In some cases a clause preventing the husband from taking
a second wife is included in the contract. On the other hand,
women have no protection against repudiation and should they
themselves demand a divorce, they will generally have to forego
any portion of the bride-price which is still unpaid at the time. The
marriage contract can now also be drawn up to include clauses
guaranteeing a woman the right to some freedom of movement
and the right to work outside the home, two major departures from
the old law.

Polygamy

According to the Koran — which, in its time, put limits on poly-


gamy — traditional Sunni law allows men to take up to four wives.
If they belong to certain Shia sects, they can take as many
'temporary wives' as they choose, not to mention concubines. The
law does not require the man to obtain either special permission
from any court or even his existing wife's consent before he
contracts an additional marriage. He is responsible to his conscience
alone.

62
The Ijegal Status of Women

In many very traditionalist countries, polygamy is considered


as a husband's right and is still prevalent. The practice is justified,
once and for all, by the religious law and cannot be questioned or
modified by the parties concerned, even in the marriage contract.
For all that the practice is declining, mainly for economic reasons
(less than 10% of marriages in most Arab countries are polyga-
mous), the official acceptance of polygamy constitutes a perman-
ent threat to married women. In order to avoid it happening to
them, women feel constrained to be exemplary wives in every
respect, to please their husbands at all times. The introduction of
a new wife into the household means a division of material
resources as well as of affection. Polygamy also has a marked
effect on the birth rate. In order to keep their husbands to them-
selves, women strive to give birth to as many sons as possible,
whatever their own state of health, which is often already
weakened by too closely spaced pregnancies.
Nowadays polygamy is increasingly becoming a class phenom-
enon. Only a rich man can permit himself such a commitment in
countries where, given the very unequal distribution of wealth, the
poor get steadily poorer and the rich steadily richer. As for the
middle classes, they live mainly in the towns, and urban living
conditions have led them increasingly to adopt the nuclear family
structure. What limitations there are on polygamy thus seem to
flow more from economic conditions than from any reforming
zeal aimed at reducing the inequalities suffered by women.
For instance, in recent years several countries have tried to
restrict the practice; Tunisia, Algeria and Iraq have actually banned
it, as have two small but influential sects, the Druze and Ismaelis.
Until 1977, in Iraq, if a man wanted to take a second wife he
required the permission of a tribunal. This is still the case today
in Syria, where the court will ask the husband to prove that he has
the means required to maintain more than one wife. Elsewhere, in
Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon, polygamy is not directly forbidden,
but a woman can preclude it by including a special clause in the
marriage contract. There is no legal restriction on polygamy itself,
however. Moroccan law merely proscribes unequal treatment of the
co-spouses and does not specify any criteria by which such inequal-
ity of treatment could be determined. President Sadat, in Egypt,
has contented himself with a verbal 'declaration of war' upon
polygamy, without any accompanying measures. Even in those
countries where the practice has been restricted or outlawed, one
cannot safely assert that it has disappeared. A union can effectively

63
The House of Obedience

be solemnized in a ceremony before a sympathetic cadi (religious


judge) and the marriage need never be registered by the civil
authorities, although it will of course remain illegal in the eyes of
the civil courts. Finally, even in those countries where polygamy
is genuinely forbidden, offenders are rarely punished.

Divorce

Traditionally, divorce was the husband's inalienable right. He


could repudiate his wife whenever he chose, without having to
justify his decision in any way. Women, on the other hand, were
required to prove the validity of their request for the dissolution
of the marriage, and needed enormous courage to do so.
Nothing prevented men taking such a step out of anger, spite
or mere drunkenness. True, a divorce under such conditions would
be considered morally reprehensible but it would remain a matter
for the man's conscience. The law would recognize his decision.
Even threats of repudiation counted as effective repudiation, and
women were denied all recourse.
Sunni Islam recognizes two forms of talaq or repudiation. The
first supposedly corresponds to the sunna;* the husband merely
has to speak the simple formula for renunciation before a witness.
However, the divorce will become effective only after a period
corresponding to three of the wife's menstrual cycles, or, if she is
pregnant, after the child is born. The husband can also speak the
formula three times, in three successive months. After having
adopted one of these procedures — both of which are fully in accord
with the sunna — the husband can always change his mind. The

parties concerned the two families — are also free to intervene
and to try to bring about a reconciliation.
The most frequently used form, however, is the talaq al bid'a
or 'innovatory' divorce. It is generally considered to be a sin, but
nonetheless has force of law. The husband simply has to repeat the
formula for repudiation three times, in front of a witness, for the
marriage to be immediately, definitely and irrevocably dissolved.
The two spouses cannot then remarry each other, unless the repud-
iated woman contracts a second marriage and then divorces, in
which case her first husband can take her back. The sects, notably

* Muslim orthodoxy.

64
The Legal Status of Women

certain Shia sects, do not recognize this second form of repudi-


ation.
A divorced woman is entitled to demand any unpaid portion of
the bride-price: should her ex-husband refuse, she can take him to
court in a civil suit. As long as the 'waiting period' continues, her
husband is obliged to provide maintenance, since the divorce is still
theoretically revocable. On the other hand, if the divorce is irrevo-
cable, there are divergent interpretations as to what she is owed.
The Hanafi School (Sunni) grants women the right to maintenance
payments in all cases; the other three Islamic schools do so only
if she is pregnant.
Furthermore, a divorced woman cannot appeal to a court to
obtain material help from her ex-husband. A man's responsibility
towards his ex-wife ceases as soon as she has been repudiated, or
immediately the 'waiting period' is over, according to the formula
used. The stipulation concerning the consequences of a divorce
are thus particularly important, given the high number of legally
dissolved marriages.
Although it is always a dramatic event in the life of the woman
concerned, divorce, according to Koranic Law, should not involve
any serious economic repercussions, since everything was originally
conceived in terms of the extended family or clan. The divorced
woman's family is bound by certain moral and material obligations
towards her. She must be taken back into the family home and
supported financially. Her right to return to her parents' house
and her right to be provided for are beyond question. Indeed the
religious authorities cite it as a justification for the bride-price
paid by the husband when the marriage contract is signed. The
laws free the divorced woman of many of her responsibilities
towards her children; the religious family code assigns the job of
caring for them to the maternal or paternal grandparents, until
the day their father exercises his prerogatives and takes his children
back. In fact, everything is organized so as to facilitate the divorced
woman's speedy remarriage. This is even less of a problem since
many divorced women are very young and there is no opprobrium
attached to divorce, given the ease with which a man can repudiate
his wife for no reason at all. In exchange, and to ensure that she
has every chance of getting remarried, the divorced woman sub-
mits to the same constraints and draconian surveillance that are
imposed upon a young girl: she will thus have the family's
reputation behind her when it comes to finding a new husband.

Her status as a divorcee is always seen as transitory; the idea is

65
The House of Obedience

that she should remarry and bear children again as quickly as


possible. A woman can therefore only pass from one form of
tutelage to another, from that of her father and brothers to that
of her husband. Women are brought up to regard the divorcee as
a bride-to-be, and the material support a woman receives from her
family thanks to the bride-price system eliminates any need for her
to concentrate on non-domestic activities which might secure her
relative independence. Indeed such outside activities could delay
her remarriage or condemn her to spinsterhood.
Compared to a young girl, a divorced woman, especially if she is
still young herself, often finds it easier to find a husband quickly,
since the disadvantage of her age and her non-virgin state will
make her family less demanding as to the bride-price to be paid
by the eventual suitor. Obviously, the fact that she is not respon-
sible for the children of her first marriage also facilitates remarriage.
The same applies to the divorced man, who will often hand over
responsibility for the children of his ex-wife to his parents or
relatives.
Despite the precautions laid down by the Sharia to protect di-
vorced women, the fundamental inequality in this domain between
the rights of men — which are absolute — and the rights of women
— which are almost non-existent — has led several Arab countries
to pass legislation to reform an unacceptably backward situation.
Of the reforms introduced since the turn of the century, those
touching upon a woman's right to obtain a dissolution of her
marriage — a right which had always been refused until then — are
thus amongst the most important. Today, in most of the Islamic
world, a woman can demand and obtain a divorce if she can prove
that her husband is not of sound mind, or suffers from a disease
liable to make conjugal life dangerous, or if he abandons her or is
manifestly cruel towards her. This last notion is left rather vague;
since a woman is supposed to obey her husband in many domains,
he is entitled to use corporal punishment if dissatisfied, and this
will not be considered evidence of cruelty.
In Egypt, for example, a woman can obtain a divorce on the
grounds of cruelty if the treatment she has received is deemed
'intolerable for a person of her social status'. In other words, even
the conception of cruelty has a class component: everybody knows
that women of the poorer classes are used to being beaten!
The idea of submitting a man's motives for demanding divorce
to a legal enquiry was first introduced in 1953, by Syria. The law
stipulated that, if the man had no adequate grounds for divorce, he

66
The Legal Status of Women

could be required to pay his wife a sum equivalent to one year's


maintenance. In 1956, Tunisia passed a similar law, but did not
specify the legal limits for the maintenance payments. Iraq and
South Yemen followed suit soon after. In all three countries, a
demand for divorce must be brought before a court. In Iraq, a
man is required by law to appear in court if he wishes to repudiate
his wife, but if this is awkward for one reason or another, he can
have the repudiation registered during the 'waiting period'. Finally,
the courts have ruled that, even if the case has not been registered,
the procedure remains valid nonetheless.
A woman's right to divorce has been most adequately recognized
in Algeria and Tunisia, where she is no longer required to 'justify'
her action providing she is prepared to pay her husband an indem-
nity for the broken marriage. The most frequently cited grounds
for divorce is 'desertion of family life'.
Despite these reforms, which make repudiation by men a little
less easy and which enable women as well as men to demand a
divorce, the talaq is still very much in force. There was never any
question of suppressing it. Rather, efforts have been made to
provide a counterweight, while remaining within the framework
of an interpretation of Islam.
It is still true that, in order to repudiate his wife, a husband
merely has to repeat the talaq formula, '1 divorce you', three times
and then inform the authorities. He does not even have to tell his
wife about it. A woman, on the other hand, has to present and
justify her demand for divorce before a civil court. Furthermore,
while all men, even the most ignorant, know that they can repud-
iate their wives, few women are aware of their own newly acquired
rights. The new laws have not been widely publicized. Schooling
for women is a relatively recent development in most of the
countries concerned; illiteracy is so common amongst adult women
that it is hard to see how women can be informed of their rights
and given the confidence to use them. They are, of course,
exposed to many social pressures which militate in favour of the
traditional ways.
The Koran's prescriptions supposedly ensured that a repudiated
woman was not left to fend for herself, since her family was obliged
to take her back until she remarried. Current reality is a different
matter altogether. For various economic and sociological reasons,
family solidarity no longer comes into play so automatically. Apart
from the tribes and less impoverished member's of the peasantry,
a repudiated woman who does not remarry very quickly rapidly

67
The House of Obedience

becomes a burden. According to the classical norms, a repudiated


woman is a complete non-entity, just as a young girl does not
really 'exist' until she becomes a wife and mother.
A divorced woman is nonetheless relatively fortunate compared
to a widow, who is expected to return to her family with her young
children. She will be given economic support, but, unlike the
divorcee, she is not expected to remarry. A widow, often an older
woman who has to look after her children even though they belong
to the father's family by agnatic descent, is made to live a life of
chastity, abstinence and isolation, dedicated to the memory of her
late husband and devoted to her children. Generally speaking, her
chances of remarriage are poor, given the popular superstitions
which suggest that widows bring bad luck. What statistics there are
indicate a very low rate of remarriage.

Custody of Children

Traditional law is extremely rigid on the subject of who qualifies


as a child's guardian. Divorced or widowed women can only exercise
the function for a limited period, after which the children come
automatically under the guardianship of their father, in the case of
a divorced woman, or the closest agnatic relative, in the case of a
widow. The traditional majority view is that boys must be taken
from their mother when weaned, in other words at two years of
age, whilst little girls can stay with her till they are seven. More
rarely, custody Ls granted to the mother until the boys are seven
and the girls nine. Only the Malechite rite (one of the four schools
of Sunni Islam) allows the mother to keep boys with her until the
age of puberty and girls until they marry.
Even during the period when the mother is responsible for
bringing up the children, they remain under the tutelage of their
father or closest agnatic relative. The latter not only has the right
to determine the education they receive, he can also commit them
to a marriage without even consulting their mother. Furthermore,
a woman's right to bring up her children is not absolute. If she is
deemed physically or morally unsuited to look after them (even
though she usually has her whole family behind her), they can be
taken away. The same applies if she remarries a man who has no
connection with the children.
Once her children have been taken away, she is given little
opportunity to see them again. Visiting rights are limited, if only

68
The Legal Status of Women

because of the incarceration imposed upon women. Repudiation


can thus be a considerable blow to a woman and illustrates the
extent to which women are seen simply as instruments enabling
their husbands to perpetuate or increase the male lineage. Indeed
women are often referred to as 'so-and-so's mother' rather than by
their own name.
One can easily imagine the trauma that separation represents,
both for the mother and the children, for all that the mother at
least will have been expecting it. It is in fact one more reason which
holds women back from exercising their right to divorce.
These traditional rules concerning the guardianship of children
have now been somewhat relaxed. What reforms have been passed
concentrate essentially on the children's well-being. In Egypt since
1929, a tribunal decides who will have custody of children from
seven upwards for boys and nine upwards for girls. In Syria,
Tunisia, Iraq, Iran (until recently, since Ayatollah Khomeini has
consistently opposed the 1967 law on family protection) and
South Yemen, if is now stipulated that the interests of the children
must come first and that either parent may be awarded custody by
the court.

Inheritance

Generally speaking, a woman is entitled to her share of an inheri-


tance and can use it as she sees fit and to her exclusive benefit. She
is under no obligation to share her property or income with her
husband, even though he is bound by Koranic Law to provide for
her and her children in every way, however rich she herself may be.
In practice, a woman is often not entrusted with her share of an
inheritance, either because she allows her brothers to manage it
for her or because it is simply never handed over to her. Before the
introduction of Islam, women in Arabia were not entitled to
inherit anything at all. Islam granted them that right, which was
in itself a considerable step forward. But, as in other domains,
inequality was the overall rule; the pretext given by some commen-
tators was that, since women were provided for and protected
throughout their lives under Koranic Law, they did not need access
to assets in the same way as men did.
In any case, the Koran specifies that a woman's share of an inher-
itance must be half that of a man's . In practice, things are more
complicated. A childless widow may inherit one-quarter of her

69
The House of Obedience

before which the break could not be considered final. Women


were entitled to inherit and own property, without their guardians
or husbands having to serve as intermediaries. Even more crucially,
women could now themselves become guardians of minors. They
were authorized to go into business or ply a trade and they no
longer required their husbands' consent before taking a case to
court.
Polygamy was theoretically restricted to a maximum of four
wives; furthermore, the husband was required to be capable of
treating each of his spouses equitably. The Koran maliciously adds
that, if the husband was not certain of his capacities in this
regard (given that equity of this kind is probably impossible), then
he should only take one wife. But the matter was left to his own
conscience. On the other hand, he was allowed as many concubines
as he wished, providing such indulgence was within his means and
all the resulting offspring were recognized.
The Koran contains many other equally important reforms. But
as it spread, Islam became impregnated with local pre-Islamic
traditions, many of which have survived to this day, notably the
veil for the rich women of the towns and female circumcision in
many Arab countries. Nonetheless, in its golden age, Islam did not
prevent women from participating in social and public life. They
were entitled to education on the same basis that men were. Finally,
Islam also introduced a Family Code which defined the rights and
duties of men and women; it still constitutes the basis for the
Family Code which applies to Muslims in all the Arab countries.
The Civil Code and Penal Code have a similar origin.
These Koranic laws and prescriptions were reasonably well suited
to the society of 14 centuries ago, with its patriarchal or tribal
values, in which the male head of the family assumed authority
and enjoyed privileges corresponding to the enormous responsibili-
ties he had towards his direct family and his relatives. Later, differ-
ent schools evolved and their interpretations of the Koran were to
a greater or lesser extent more liberal. But there were few dis-
agreements as to the role of women, whose status evolved little,
since the conception of the family unit remained stable. The
Koranic law, like all laws, was also often sidestepped, to suit local
needs and interests, in many cases, to the detriment of women.
There are many Koranic Suras* dealing with women. They are

* Chapters of the Koran.

16
The House of Obedience

late husband's assets, or up to one-eighth if he leaves children. A


widower inherits half his late wife's assets if she dies childless, and
one-quarter if she has children. In polygamous marriages, the
widows receive equal shares of one-quarter of the assets if there
are no children, or of one-eighth if there are.
In many countries, women do not even receive the share of their
parents' legacy they are legally entitled to: the brothers usually
find a good pretext for not breaking up the property. Legally,
however, a daughter is entitled to up to half of her late parents'
assets. If there are several daughters, they are entitled to anything
up to two-thirds. On the other hand, if the deceased had both a
son and a daughter, the daughter ceases to be a 'Koranic heiress'
and becomes a 'residual heiress'. Her brother is entitled to twice as
much as she is.
Furthermore, according to Sunni law, a will can only be drawn
up in favour of a man and is only valid if the prior consent of the
other heirs has been obtained. When a husband sees that what his
wife stands to inherit when he dies is likely to be inadequate, he
will in fact often bypass the law of inheritance by transferring
assets to her in the form of gifts made during his lifetime.
Generally speaking, Sunni Islam favours agnates in all questions
of inheritance. F'or instance, if the only heirs are a daughter and a
distant agnatic cousin, the inheritance will be shared equally
between them, even if the cousin has never had the slightest per-
sonal contact with the deceased. Shia law is in one sense more
equitable since it divides up all heirs, excepting widows and widow-
ers, into three clearly distinct categories. The first group includes
the parents and all direct descendants. The second group covers
grandparents, collaterals and their descendants. The third group is
made up of uncles, aunts and their descendants. Any heir from the
first group excludes all those in group two, so that a daughter will
take precedence over her parents' brothers, uncles, grandparents
and all other agnatic relatives. The laws on inheritance thus reflect
the differing conceptions of the two main sects of Islam concerning
the family. The Sunni idea is based on a tribal unity whilst in Shia
thought the nuclear family made up of parents and their children
is the basic unit. This latter concept is understandably more favour-
able to women in matters of inheritance.
A few very timid reforms have been introduced. In Tunisia, girls
now have priority over collateral cousins and other distant male
agnates. In fact, the Koran stipulates that a brother has no claim
on the inheritance when the deceased has a living direct

70
The Legal Status of Women

descendant, but traditional Sunni law added the rider that the
descendant must be male. Tunisian law also insists that a surviving
spouse must share the inheritance with all other legitimate heirs.
In Iraq, the 1963 law is based on the Shia law, even though it
applies to both the Sunni and Shia communities of that country.
Any child, male or female, thus takes precedence over any collater-
als and other distant relatives. In the Sudan, Egypt and Iraq, a
husband or father can leave a larger portion of his assets to his wife
or daughter if he so chooses.

Education and Employment

There can be no doubt that, on paper at least, the reforms outlined


above have greatly improved women's status within the family.
Unfortunately, it is also clear that the laws are far in advance of
people's thinking. Furthermore, the laws are not strictly enforced
and those who break them are assured of the open or covert
support of the cadis and indeed of public opinion. Keeping women
in a permanent state of dependency is still seen as the best guaran-
tee against decadence. Most Muslims consider that it would be
very dangerous to allow women to break out of their cloistered
lives and enjoy greater rights.
The development of schooling for children of both sexes is
clearly one of the best available ways of changing people's attitudes
so that men and women can find fulfilment of sorts outside the
narrow constraints of tradition. It is not so much that more schools
and more pupils are infallible methods of changing archaic atti-
tudes and adapting people's ways of thought to the modern world.
True, the school is an opening onto the outside world and can, in
the particular context of the Arab world, serve as a vehicle for a
different conception of humanity. But one should not be too
Utopian. Everything depends on the ideology the teachers transmit
and the support they are given by political parties, associations, etc.,
especially if we are dealing with a reforming ideology.
More than in any other societies with a similar level of develop-
ment, the simple fact of allowing girls access to schools is a consider-
able step forwards, especially when one considers what it means
in terms of the tradition. Not surprisingly, the countries that are
most committed to retaining an unmodified Islamic tradition are
precisely those where schooling has barely been developed, even
for boys. Generally speaking, these are the countries which have

71
The House of Obedience

not yet gone through the economic transformation which makes


social change inevitable. Reforms of any sort are very rarely intro-
duced simply as a result of the benevolence of rulers. Schooling is
no exception: in the West it became generalized in response to the
needs of economies which were oriented towards the world market
and geared to the development of the forces of production — in
other words, when the country concerned needed a skilled work-
force capable of coping with modern conditions.
In this sense, the political will of the national leadership is
determinant. They do not have to be revolutionaries, as is clear
when one compares Algeria with Tunisia, or Jordan with Egypt
(Algeria and Nasser's Egypt do not, to be honest, really qualify as
truly revolutionary countries, whatever they themselves may have
declared to the contrary). The efforts that have been made to
provide schooling for children and the adult literacy campaigns
both make sense only in this context. The aim is to give girls the
tools they will need to master the roles they will eventually be
assigned as wives and mothers. Education will enable them to be
more competent in these functions, more aware of hygiene and
less prone to the superstitions which are particularly rife amongst
women.
As elsewhere, it is the girls from the more liberal and well-to-
do backgrounds who draw most benefit from education, since they
are the ones who can prolong their studies up to university level.
This is in no way new. The modernist bourgeoisie has long allowed
its daughters to pursue their studies in local schools, colleges or
universities, or even abroad.
These educated women, many of whom have acquired and
practise a profession, also fill an economic and social need. They
often accomplish tasks which men cannot yet carry out in the
Islamic countries, given the prevailing taboos and traditions: the
tasks which concern women directly. They may be doctors
(paediatricians, gynaecologists, etc.), lawyers, teachers, or journa-
lists. Paradoxically, men are the more discriminated against in these
professions, given the traditional structure which is still very much
in force, especially in the countryside. In other words, in the pro-
fessions, there is very little competition between men and women;
each sex has its own delimited field of action, unlike in other
underdeveloped countries. Nonetheless the number of these women
is still extremely restricted.
Of the great civilizations, it is the Islamic world, and the Arab
world in particular, which has the highest rate of illiteracy amongst

72
The Legal Status of Women

women, the lowest level of schooling for girls and, generally speak-
ing, the smallest number of women in paid employment. In 1970,
85% of women were illiterate, as against 60% of men (UNESCO,
1972). The gap between the numbers of literate men and women
is thus still large, and indeed grew by 5% between 1960 and 1970
as more schools, attended mainly by boys, were opened.
Studies of the literacy rate by age group illustrates just how
stubborn are the traditions which restrict women's access to
education; illiteracy is almost as common amongst young women
as amongst older women. For instance, in Libya in 1970, 84% of
young girls between 10 and 14 were illiterate, as against 95% of
women aged 60 years and over. Ttfe same applies to many Arab
countries where there have been no serious efforts to alter the
situation. However, in recent years, the number of schools has
increased considerably in several countries, even if the educational
system remains unsatisfactory and the number of teachers inade-
quate, once again especially in the countryside. In a word, the
struggle against illiteracy is not as advanced as in other Third
World countries outside Black Africa.
Even in those countries which have introduced reforms, con-
siderable disparities in schooling persist between boys and girls,
although the situation has improved somewhat over the years. It
is in any case difficult to assess the true level of women's schooling
and education in the various Arab countries. The available
statistics are not precise and are also relatively out of date. Part
of the inaccuracy conies from the fact that some countries,
Mauritania and Saudi Arabia, for example, are reticent about
indicating how many girls and women there are in each family.
Generally speaking, the statistics simply point to overall trends.
(This is true for most underdeveloped countries.)
One thing we do know: in most Arab countries, the level of
schooling for girls is, on the whole, low. It varies considerably
from country to country and also from area to area within a par-
ticular country. The most traditionalist countries have 'resolved'
the problem thanks to television, which enables little girls to
pursue their studies without leaving the family home. Of course,
television is not yet available to every family.
The result is that, in some countries, fewer than 10% of little
girls go to school. In a country like Tunisia, which has actively
promoted girls' education, 50% attend primary school at least.
By contrast, in North Yemen, the 1973 figure was 3% (8% for
boys). The percentage diminishes considerably when it comes to

73
The House of Obedience

secondary education. As for the tertiary level, women are still a


minority amongst the student population, although the number of
women at university is increasing as the local bourgeoisies flourish
In Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and more recently in Algeria
and Tunisia, education for women has been relatively firmly
established. These countries have done a great deal to encourage
parents to send their little girls to school, often in the face of a
deep-seated popular antagonism to the idea. But even they have
run into the problem of the incarceration of women, a major
obstacle in all Muslim countries. A girl's virginity is still greatly
valued and people believe that the best way of preserving it is to
keep the little girl locked up at home. Virginity is still usually
considered far more important than education.
The general public also fears that prolonged education may
defeminize the girls, delay their marriage and therefore have reper-
cussions on their fertility. The influence of education on young
girls' attitudes towards their parents is also feared. The obedience,
docility and modesty which is demanded of them could be under-
mined by the acquisition of knowledge other than that which is
traditionally passed on from mother to daughter. Merely attending
a school is all too likely to increase their expectations from life,
since they will discover that something other than what their
parents have planned for them exists. Not to mention the danger
that competition might develop between an educated woman and
her husband, which would strike at the heart of the man's prestige.
In practice, these threats are not imminent. The education young
girls receive at home — their conditioning — combined with social
pressures leads most of them to conform to existing norms despite
their schooling. Marriage remains the desired goal, the status which
must be preserved. Nonetheless, young men are now far less hostile
to the idea of marrying an educated girl, providing she conforms
to the traditional norms in other ways. Even if she eventually goes
out to work, her salary and resulting social recognition will not
necessarily be seen as a threat to her husband's status and
authority.
Furthermore, education has a certain influence on non-agricult-
ural employment. For instance, during the 1960s, less than 4% of
women who had attended primary school were in paid jobs, but
2 1 % of those who had been to secondary school were earning
salaries. Two out of three women who had completed a university
course had high-level posts, in Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia at least.
The entire traditional structure militates against uneducated

74
The Legal Status of Women

urban women working outside the home. There Is a fear that they
will come into contact with men, and that, by going out, they will
acquire too ureal a frcedutn. Men have little faith in their wives,
because oi' the very nature of Arab marriages. And there is also the
fear that the men themselves will lose face if they arc seen to be
incapable of providing for their families on their own. Paradoxi-
cally, it is still amongst the poorest classes of society that the
fewest women are in paid employment, although this is gradually
ceasing to be the case.
In the more educated social strata, economic pressures, often
connected with the adoption of new patterns of consumption, have
led young men to accept more readily the idea of.their wives going
out to work; a second salary is often a very valuable addition to
family income. In any case, it would be inaccurate to claim that
women in the Arab world were not part of the economically active
population. The statistics are often misleading, in that they rarely
take into account women who practise a craft at home and whose
husbands sell the product and keep the proceeds. Similarly,
women agricultural workers are often left out of the statistics,
even though in some sectors they play a crucial role. The fact
remains, however, that the level of women's employment in agri-
culture is lower amongst Muslim Arabs than amongst Christian
Arabs or amongst the women of other rural societies (in Latin
America, for example). As we have repeatedly pointed out, the
ideal of most Muslim societies remains the incarceration of women.
Although it has never been as strong in the countryside as in the
towns, this ideal has gradually become a dominant model and it is
only because of the prevailing economic conditions that it is not
enforced to the letter.
The low level of women's participation in the workforce is seen
as a brake on economic development in many countries, notably
Iraq, Libya and Egypt. These countries believe that the main causes
of the phenomenon are superstitions, social prejudice and the
attitudes of the women themselves towards work and social depen-
dency (United Nations Commission on the Status of Women,
1970).
Nonetheless, the economic importance of women's labour should
not be underestimated. They often work more than the men, since
on fop of working in the fields or the factory they have to look
after the house and children, li; the countryside, women partici-
pate in all agricultural activities, they look after the livestock and
are the main craft producers: they spin wool, make carpets and

75
The House, of Obedience

tents, weave cloth, sew clothes, make baskets, etc. All these activi-
ties are taken completely for granted and are rarely recognized as
work.
In the non-agricultural, non-traditional sectors, women with
some education have turned to activities which are akin to the
traditional specifically 'feminine' tasks (teaching, midwifery,
nursing, etc.). Many women are employed in the textile sector,
which provides segregated workshops; others find jobs as house-
maids, usherettes, etc. Amongst these workers there is a much
higher percentage of divorcees than of widows or spinsters (three
times higher in Egypt, four times higher in Syria, for example).
Probably divorced women who have not remarried quickly and are
thus seen as not living up to the expectations of their family and
of society at large are less subject to the restrictions imposed upon
young girls and widows, who return to their family.
Finally, except in the most highly qualified professions, women's
wages are invariably lower than men's, even when there is a specific
law to the contrary, as in Tunisia, Iraq and Egypt.

76
4 Two Examples of Women
In Arab Societies

The Maghreb: Algeria

In 1962. after eight years of armed struggle, Algeria freed itself


from 130 years of colonization. Countless Algerian women of
every social class had participated in the struggle and many had
joined the maquis. They had acted as liaison agents and nurses, they
had planted bombs, they had hidden, fed and protected resistance
fighters. They themselves had been arrested, sometimes tortured
and sent to detention camps. Just like the men. So much so that it
seemed obvious to the outside world that Algeria's independence
would inevitably lead to the liberation of women and their recog-
nition as persons by the men.
Frantz Fanon's theories*, according to which the experience of
violence and armed struggle would bring about revolutionary
changes in the condition of women and young people, supported
this viewpoint. According to Fanon, the mere fact of having taken
up arms and participated in violent action would make women
conscious of their own alienation and induce them to fight for
their own liberation. Similarly, the men, at long last aware of the
injustice they had inflicted on women until then, would support
their demands out of respect for the self-sacrifice and political
maturity the women had shown. Fanon argued that armed struggle
alone, with no aim other than national independence, would be
enough to transform irreversibly people's attitudes and hence the
status of women.
What he failed to take into account was, firstly, the underlying
motivations of the men and women engaged in the struggle, and

* L'An Vde la revolution alfiericmic, Maspcro, Paris, 1960.

79
The House of Obedience

secondly, the nature of the FLN (National Liberation P'ront), the


movement which had launched the insurrection on 1st November
1954. He placed far too much emphasis on spontaneity and
redemption through violence.
Experience has shown that only a struggle backed up by a
modernizing and revolutionary ideology with its own social objec-
tives can pull the masses out of their social and cultural conserv-
atism, by proposing a new form of society. Only if such an ideology
enjoys massive support can it really change people's attitudes.
Unfortunately, projects of this kind, which are capable of changing
the status of women, usually also introduce a kind of puritanism
oriented towards accumulation and production. In the process,
sexual and personal problems are relegated to the background in
the name of a rejection of bourgeois decadence.
The FLN was a populist nationalist movement dedicated to
recovering Algeria's independence. But the Front was always very
vague whenever it came to defining the content of this indepen-
dence. Militants were mobilized on a basis which really challenged
only the colonial authorities, who were charged with having
destructured the entire country. Once the FLN had launched the
insurrection, it was soon joined by the various other nationalist
tendencies who had until then failed in their more reformist
attempts to secure equitable representation within the French
political system. The more populist groups were gradually supp-
lanted by classical political parties, whose leaders eventually rose
to the top of the FLN hierarchy. In any case, the aim was to
secure the support of the popular masses, and especially the
peasants, who had remained all the more attached to the Islamic
tradition, given that it represented the main form of resistance to
the colonial ideology. Religious practices were revived, even re-
imposed, which enabled certain advocates of a French Algeria to
dismiss the resistance as a holy war. To tell the truth, Islam was
indeed the mobilizing and unifying element, for lack of any other
ideology to take its place.

Algeria's history and the nature of its colonization had endowed


it with a very specific character, and unlike in many other countries
of North Africa and the Near East, had led to a hardening of the
tradition. The tradition had acquired a semi-mythical component,
in which the precolonial period — about which the Muslim popu-
lation actually knew very little — was cast as a golden age which had
to be recaptured. There could thus be no question of challenging
the structures of society; on the contrary, they had to be re-established,

80
The Maghreb: Algeria

since they had been undermined by colonization. Furthermore,


colonial Algeria had been linked to France as a set of departments
(counties) and this system had turned the country into one of the
most politically, culturally and economically disinherited societies
in the world. The indigenous population were thus particularly
attached to the ancestral values which enabled them to distinguish
themselves from the settlers.
Administratively, Algeria had been part of France, but its entire
economy was organized to meet the needs of the mel.ropole or the
pieds-noirs (settlers) rather than those of the Algerians. Following
the Second World War, shortly before the insurrection broke out,
the Algerian inhabitants of these French deparlements were
undoubtedly second class citizens: they carried less political
weight than the 1 0% of European settlers. The ten million Algerians
who were referred to as 'Muslims' were denied any representation
or identity of their own. The study of Arabic, the language most
of them spoke, was forbidden in the state schools, which were
conceived entirely in terms of the European population: all teach-
ing was in French. As for the Koranic schools, they had steadily
declined in number and quality since the 1920s. The teachers had
received little training themselves and were content to have their
pupils endlessly and mechanically recite verses from the Koran.
In principle, the state schools were open to Algerian children,
but in practice, it was almost only the offspring of the petty
bourgeoisie who could attend. The rural population was too poor
or lived too far away from the urban centres to send their children
to school. In the towns, the children's studies were usually cut
short when they were put to work at an eariy age. And obviously,
if a family could afford to have only one child educated, it was
invariably a boy they chose.
Nonetheless, between 1959 and 1962, the year independence
was achieved, the number of 'Muslim' pupils had gone up from
600,000 to 1 million in the primary schools and from 10,000 to
21,000 in the secondary schools. Outside school, it was, of course,
the women who were mainly responsible for transmitting know-
ledge, a difficult task since they themselves had never been to school.
Their knowledge was based on traditions and customs, often
amounting to little more than magico-religious precepts and codes
of Muslim behaviour which gave the children, and especially the
girls, little opportunity to discover a broader social and political
life.
A similar type of dispossession was taking place on the economic

81
Introduction: A Confessional Universe

often contradictory and it is not our job to determine whether they


have been correctly interpreted or not, or even whether they are
liberal, just and egalitarian. What matters is that life has been
organized in the various societies in terms of a specific framework.
This framework, the Koran and the Sharia, continues to provide
the justification for practices of every kind, including pre-Islamie
practices such as female circumcision which the ordinary people
think of as prescribed by the Holy Books.
For the faithful — and there are practically no atheists or
agnostics in these societies — the Koran remains the word of God,
as revealed by the Prophet. The legislation derived from it is thus
not easily amended. Furthermore, this legislation has gradually
become impregnated with customary beliefs which have often had
the effect of distorting certain Koranic prescriptions. But since the
whole is presented as emanating from the Prophet, the task of
reformist legislators has always been particularly arduous, in that
one of the specific features of the Islamic religion, especially as far
as women are concerned, is that it has created a set of laws which
are relatively precise and hence difficult to modify.
If we are to understand how the organization of the family and
kinship groups affects the status of women in Muslim society, we
must take two important elements into account.
The first is the stipulation that a woman shall belong to her
agnatic group* (an originally tribal concept which continues to
have many structural ramifications). The implication is that the
male patrilineal relative is economically, legally and morally
responsible for his kin, whatever his own marital status.
The second element focuses on the criteria of family pride.
Conformity to norms of behaviour is considered an integral part
of the men's 'honour', but this honour depends mainly on the
behaviour of women in the family. Premarital chastity of sisters
and daughters, marital fidelity on the part of the wife and sexual
abstinence on the part of widows and divorcees (daughters or
sisters) are the principles on which the reputation and status of the
family depend. These principles have a very precise cultural
meaning: they represent a set of cultural constraints upon behav-
iour which serve as an extremely efficient form of control over
social relations.
The interaction between this awareness of economic and moral

* Patrilineally descended.

17
The House of Obedience

plane. Having dislodged the legitimate occupants, the settlers had


monopolized three million hectares of prime land, on which
they raised crops which in many cases the Algerian population
never consumed, even though they provided the workforce in the
fields. The vineyards are a typical example. On the eve of the
insurrection, agriculture provided the 20,000 settlers with an
income of 930 million francs, while a million Algerian peasants and
their families earned a bare 1 million francs. For the rural un
employed, there was no work outside the agricultural sector: about
30% of economically active Algerians worked in agriculture. All
the top administrative and service sector jobs were held by pieds-
noirs, and so were most of the lower level posts. Consequently,
unemployment was so widespread amongst the Algerian popu-
lation that many families, or often just the head of the family,
had to move to the cities or emigrate to France in order to find
work.
When the insurrection broke out on 1 November 1954, under
the leadership of a small handful of men, the peasant population
was quick to provide active support, especially in Kabylia and the
Aures region. The peasantry had been deeply affected by the
colonial situation and had long been receptive to the nationalist
slogans which had been circulating for years without ever really
leading anywhere. But the uprising was not the expression of a
homogeneous political movement organized around a political
theory. Even the watchword of agrarian reform was not listed as
one of the FLN's main objectives once the country was liberated.
From 1956 onwards, the influx of cadres from the various
nationalist movements who joined the Front reinforced its petty-
bourgeois and often socially conservative character. In 1957, the
repression in the urban centres became far more severe, especially
during the Battle of Algiers; many resistance fighters had to seek
refuge in the countryside; the leaders moved abroad and contin-
ued the struggle from there. In 1959, the French Army turned
itself into a steamroller which crushed most of the opposition in
the maquis. Nearly a million people, out of a total population of
ten million, were detained in camps; hundreds of thousands had to
flee to Tunisia or Morocco. From 1957 onwards, given what had
already happened in the towns, the peasantry bore the brunt of
the war. It was only when the countryside, which had been
ravaged by the French Army's 'pacification' and 'population re-
groupment' programmes, stopped fighting that the struggle moved
back to the towns again, often without much contact with the

82
The Maghreb: Algeria

leadership abroad.
Throughout this period, women were just as active as men and
just as committed to armed struggle. But this in no way changed
their status, and the fact that they were participating in one way or
another in the war did nothing to free them from the patriarchal
yoke. Like the men — and perhaps even more so, except in the
case of young women students — they were not fighting for social
change as well as national liberation. On the contrary, the whole
idea of recovering national independence was to restore the old
lifestyle which colonization had disrupted and which was reme-
mbered with great nostalgia. Identity could only be established
through Islam. Although they were oppressed by the men, this
oppression seemed easier to bear than that imposed by coloniz-
ation. The structures of Muslim society were not open to question,
since colonialism had sought to destroy them. In fact, the women
were hardly aware of the double alienation they suffered. Women's
participation in political life had always been very limited. As in
other countries, it was only the few who came from liberal fam-
ilies who had over been able to pursue their studies in Algeria or in
France. For this privileged minority, access to French society had
opened up new ways of thinking, and when independence came,
they made considerable advances. But the majority of women
knew only the tradition. The life they led and the education they
had received offered them no possibility of imagining that they
could, like the men, undertake autonomous political activity
within an organization. That was seen as the men's affair.

When the repression became harsher and more efficient, the


militants called on the women to carry out the tasks they them-
selves could no longer accomplish. It was not that the women had
been in any way unwilling to participate before. Nonetheless, they
were only called in now because there was no other way. In other
words, in most cases women were used precisely because they
were women: in the initial stages, they were less at risk than the
men. It would appear that few women (except the students
amongst them) joined the struggle on their own initiative. They
always required the consent of a husband or brother. There were
even cases of men sending their women into the maquis as nurses
or liaison agents simply to keep them out of the way of the French
soldiers, who were not averse to raping women in the villages they
moved into, in the maquis, the women were 'sisters', and hence
free from male importunities. Those who did not participate
directly in the struggle were expected to act as a sort of pressure

33
The House of Obedience

group, harassing the administration and the prison authorities for


information as to which camp or prison their relatives or husbands
had been sent to, so that the prisoners would not become 'missing
persons' and could be helped as must as possible.
In the towns, women began to be used much more systemati-
cally when the FLN launched its terrorist bombing campaign.
Hidden behind their veils and considered by the French authorities
as too attached to traditional ways to take part in such activities,
they were able to slip in everywhere where the men could no longer
go. At first, women were never searched, while men regularly werej
the authorities, concerned to 'keep the peace', did not wish to
offend the susceptibilities of the 'Muslims' (most of whom were
still believed to be pro-French) by openly laying hands on their
women. The FLN took advantage of the fact and entrusted the
transport and placing of bombs to the women. The women's
commitment was sincere and courageous, but it was always based
on substitution. They committed themselves as the daughter, sister,
wife or mother of an active male militant, especially amongst the
poorer classes. The women only became really active when the
men could simply not do without them.
When they were arrested and tortured, they showed as much
courage as the men. A few even became national heroines during
the war, and were proclaimed as such by the FLN in its propaganda.
The Front hoped that by publicly honouring women combatants it
could convince world and especially French public opinion of the
progressive nature of the struggle, and thereby win the support of
anti-colonialist elements in France. The French Left was in fact
very divided on the issue, and although the idea of 'peace in Algeria'
had been widely adopted, only a small minority was speaking of
independence.
One might think, like Fanon, that the women militants of
Algeria, who had faced up to so much danger, would thereby have
become conscious of their own value, as individuals rather than
simply as women, and of the autonomous role they could play.
What prevented them doing so? The fact was that, for them, and
for everybody else, the only reason for their intervention, (always
at the men's request) was the exceptional situation. They never
saw the link between their actions and their own worth.
Indeed the aims of the struggle in one sense further delayed the
development of women's consciousness. The struggle for national
liberation was based entirely on demands for a fairer, more
egalitarian society. The militants who wanted to go further, to

8-4
The Maghreb: Algeria

develop plans for a new, economically and structurally different


society, were physically liquidated by their own comrades in the
underground, or discredited themselves by refusing, for ideologi-
cal reasons, to participate in the armed struggle when it was
launched. This is what happened to the members of the Algerian
Communist Party, for instance; although they later changed their
minds and joined the struggle on an individual basis, they were
too closely linked to the French Communist Party (PCF) to
endorse fully an armed struggle which was not organized by
Marxists and which was 'only' nationalist. Right up to 1956, the
PCF was still arguing for a 'genuine French union' (the liberation
of the working classes in the metropole would lead to the liber-
ation of their counterparts in the colonies). After all, for many
PCF militants, Algeria was still a part of France. Not surprisingly,
the Algerian CP, which might otherwise have broadened the FLN's
ideological base, suffered badly from its links with the PCF.
The FLN was fighting precisely to ensure that Algeria should
no longer be part of France. It was fighting to recover the country's
identity, to reject the products of colonization and restore the
lifestyle which colonization had helped to destroy. In this sense,
the presence of one million Westerners did little to modify the
attitudes of the Algerian people. Perhaps, on the contrary, it pro-
voked a certain hardening of support for the Islamic tradition,
which was not (mite so firm in the neighbouring countries which
had escaped colonization on Algerian lines. Women saw their con-
tribution to the struggle as a way of hastening a return to the old
way by forcing a decolonization. Once the job was done, they
firmly intended to return to their homes, their proper place which
they should never have been forced to leave. Islam had retained its
sway as an ideal to live by and as a means of resisting colonization.
The form of Islam in question had to be all the more rigid in that
it was threatened by the liberal temptations experienced both by
Algerian emigres living in France and by urbanized Algerians, to
whom French schooling had shown a different model of society
or who had discovered notions such as trade unionism through
their work in the factories. True, this influence never went so far
as to throw into question the status of women, the modalities of
marriage, etc., but it had, in many cases, notably weakened religious
observance, especially the dietary interdicts and the period of
abstinence during Ramadan.
Except for a few students, the women had never been exposed
to thi;; influence. They were not prepared to face the profound

85
The House of Obedience

changes that building a new society would have involved; too many
of them were illiterate, few were used to paid employment and
almost none had been trained to act autonomously in personal and
social matters. Even in the towns, most women were incapable of
imagining a way of life different from the one they had learnt from
their mothers. At most, they may have wished for a relaxation of
the restrictions imposed upon them.
Independence was finally won in July 1962, and the women were
sent back to their homes. Some of them, usually the younger ones,
had thought that their participation in the struggle entitled them
to certain rights. They were soon disillusioned. Yet the first
President of the Algerian Republic, Ben Bella paid homage to them
before his overthrow, and even encouraged women to take a slightly
more active role in public life; amongst other things, he was
obviously concerned to reinforce his popularity. The new state had
granted women the right, to vote. And in 1963 a law was passed
fixing the minimum age for marriage at 18 for boys and 16 for
girls, but the personal consent of the bride was still not required.
Forced marriage, child marriage and polygamy were outlawed, but
despite these reforms, women's status and role barely changed.
Indeed women have never campaigned for any modification of
their status since.
On the contrary, in the struggle for power between the President
and the General Secretary of the Party which soon ensued, the
latter used appeals to Islam to reinforce his support. For instance,
in 1963, the head of the FLN decreed that whether or not some-
body observed Ramadan was an appropriate criterion for determ-
ining how Algerian they were. Religious observance and nationalism
went hand in hand, and many Algerians who had rather abandoned
strict religious adherence felt obliged to respect Free Algeria's first
Ramadan, simply in order to prove the purity of their commitment
to the country's independence. Since then, things have become
more institutionalized and the social pressures have grown so
strong that even non-believers feel compelled to conform to the
edicts of religion.
From the beginning, the FLN and subsequently the Algerian
state never sought to implement a policy geared to emancipating
women. They argued that the people would reject such a move,
especially in the rural areas. Indeed it is fair to say that the eman-
cipation of women has remained a taboo subject in Algeria.
Although the initial independent regime had contented itself
with proclamations, the coup d'etat which brought Houari

86
The Maghreb: Algeria

Boumediene to power on 19 June 1965 was a definite step back-


wards for women. The new President's punctilious nationalism and
authoritarianism actively reinforced the conservatism of the
people as a whole. There has been very little reform. The new
Family Code which has been promised for years is still in the
draftiny stage. The laws against early or forced marriage are widely
ignored. Custom and religious law prevail over the Civil Code: in
order to marry a very young girl, all one needs to do is to lie
about the birth dates or find an accommodating cadi — of whom
there is no shortage in the countryside.
Although women now have the right to divorce, they have little
protection against repudiation. Polygamy has died out of its own
accord, mainly due to economic factors. Women have been granted
the right to work and many now earn salaries, but they still repre-
sent only about 6% of the urban employed population. Unemploy-
ment in the country is so high that it is almost considered indecent
for a woman to go looking for a job. Most working women occupy
subordinate positions (nurses, cleaning ladies, typists, textile or
electronics workers, etc.); at best they can become secretaries in
the administration. An increasing number are gaining access to the
liberal professions. But the fact is that at the moment the Algerian
economy needs women to stay at home.
Out of an active population of six million people aged from 19
to 65, 45% of men are more or less unemployed, and 97.5% of
women are without paid work. The total population is over 18
million (1979 census) and the growth rate is of the order of
350,000 people a year. From 1965 to 1975 only 60,000 jobs were
created in industry, which is more oriented towards capital
accumulation than job creation. In 1978 there were about 800,000
registered unemployed (a figure which by no means represents all
the under- or unemployed people in the country), and nearly a
million people working abroad. It is worth noting that the safety
valve which emigration once provided for the Algerian economy
has ceased to function since 1974, when nearly all the countries,
who were taking immigrant workers, including France, closed their
frontiers. The Algerian Government had, in any case, suspended
the emigration of its workers to France shortly beforehand.
The economically active population is now growing by 175,000
people a year. However, we should bear in mind that most working
women are employed in the agricultural sector or as servants, and
thus do not appear in the census figures for the working popu
lation. A fair estimate would be that there are around 100,000

87
The Maghreb: Algeria

Boumediene to power on 19 June 1965 was a definite step back-


wards for women. The new President's punctilious nationalism and
authoritarianism actively reinforced the conservatism of the
people as a whole. There has been very little reform. The new
Family Code which has been promised for years is still in the
draftiny stage. The laws against early or forced marriage are widely
ignored. Custom and religious law prevail over the Civil Code: in
order to marry a very young girl, all one needs to do is to lie
about the birth dates or find an accommodating cadi — of whom
there is no shortage in the countryside.
Although women now have the right to divorce, they have little
protection against repudiation. Polygamy has died out of its own
accord, mainly due to economic factors. Women have been granted
the right to work and many now earn salaries, but they still repre-
sent only about 6% of the urban employed population. Unemploy-
ment in the country is so high that it is almost considered indecent
for a woman to go looking for a job. Most working women occupy
subordinate positions (nurses, cleaning ladies, typists, textile or
electronics workers, etc.); at best they can become secretaries in
the administration. An increasing number are gaining access to the
liberal professions. But the fact is that at the moment the Algerian
economy needs women to stay at home.
Out of an active population of six million people aged from 19
to 65, 45% of men are more or less unemployed, and 97.5% of
women are without paid work. The total population is over 18
million (1979 census) and the growth rate is of the order of
350,000 people a year. From J 965 to 1975 only 60,000 jobs were
created in industry, which is more oriented towards capital
accumulation than job creation. In 1978 there were about 800,000
registered unemployed (a figure which by no means represents all
the under- or unemployed people in the country), and nearly a
million people working abroad. It is worth noting that the safety
valve which emigration once provided for the Algerian economy
has ceased to function since 1974, when nearly all the countries,
who were taking immigrant workers, including France, closed their
frontiers. The Algerian Government had, in any case, suspended
the emigration of its workers to France shortly beforehand.
The economically active population is now growing by 175,000
people a year. However, we should bear in mind that most working
women are employed in the agricultural sector or as servants, and
thus do not appear in the census figures for the working popu
lation. A fair estimate would be that there are around 100,000

87
The House of Obedience

women working outside the agricultural sector. In other words,


employment for women is more readily available in Tunisia or
Morocco than in revolutionary Algeria. Yet it is generally recog-
nized, in Algeria as elsewhere, that paid employment is one of the
most likely routes to women's liberation. Given the high general
rate of unemployment as well as underemployment, priority is
naturally given to finding and creating jobs for men. Women's
liberation through payed work is thus still far off in the future.
On the political level, the traditionalist groups are still extreme-
ly influential, representing a source of pressure that those in power
cannot afford to disregard. Indeed it is on such groups that the
government relies for support for many of its decisions, including
the fact that Algeria is a confessional state. The three successive
governments since independence have all turned to the most back-
ward traditions in order to dismantle any opposition movements
or even any trade unions who sought to change the social struc-
tures or simply apply the oft-repeated slogan 'For the People, By
the People'. The reality is that, under a single-party state party which
is constantly being restructured and which is essentially made up
of notables and petty opportunists, there has been constant official
reinforcement of the most reactionary aspects of Islamic ideology.
The rural exodus continues, despite an agrarian reform pro-
gramme which cannot be considered a success. The towns are over-
crowded and surrounded by shanty-towns. Destitution, unemploy-
ment and poverty, highlighted by the indecent enrichment of the
new classes, have led to a pronounced feeling of insecurity in the
towns, where delinquency is growing amongst the young, as is
prostitution, a relatively unknown phenomenon until recently.
Especially in the towns, the nuclear family is replacing the
extended family, with all the new problems that implies: for in-
stance, the new pattern is poorly suited to ensuring strict adherence
to all the religious principles, especially as far as women are con-
cerned. The social pressure of the neighbourhood remains as a
factor, but the constraints are far less intense than when they are
exercised by all the members of the extended family as a whole.
The media, the Party, the authorities and the schools are thus
constantly required to reiterate and strengthen Islamic values.
Central authority takes over where the extended family can no
longer play its part.
As time passes, there are more and more young people who
have spent at least some time in schools. Increasingly, their demands
for an end to unemployment and for a more modern lifestyle

88
The House of Obedience

women working outside the agricultural sector. In other words,


employment for women is more readily available in Tunisia or
Morocco than in revolutionary Algeria. Yet it is generally recog-
nized, in Algeria as elsewhere, that paid employment is one of the
most likely routes to women's liberation. Given the high general
rate of unemployment as well as underemployment, priority is
naturally given to finding and creating jobs for men. Women's
liberation through payed work is thus still far off in the future.
On the political level, the traditionalist groups are still extreme-
ly influential, representing a source of pressure that those in power
cannot afford to disregard. Indeed it is on such groups that the
government relies for support for many of its decisions, including
the fact that Algeria is a confessional state. The three successive
governments since independence have all turned to the most back-
ward traditions in order to dismantle any opposition movements
or even any trade unions who sought to change the social struc-
tures or simply apply the oft-repeated slogan 'For the People, By
the People'. The reality is that, under a single-party state party which
is constantly being restructured and which is essentially made up
of notables and petty opportunists, there has been constant official
reinforcement of the most reactionary aspects of Islamic ideology.
The rural exodus continues, despite an agrarian reform pro-
gramme which cannot be considered a success. The towns are over-
crowded and surrounded by shanty-towns. Destitution, unemploy-
ment and poverty, highlighted by the indecent enrichment of the
new classes, have led to a pronounced feeling of insecurity in the
towns, where delinquency is growing amongst the young, as is
prostitution, a relatively unknown phenomenon until recently.
Especially in the towns, the nuclear family is replacing the
extended family, with all the new problems that implies: for in-
stance, the new pattern is poorly suited to ensuring strict adherence
to all the religious principles, especially as far as women are con-
cerned. The social pressure of the neighbourhood remains as a
factor, but the constraints are far less intense than when they are
exercised by all the members of the extended family as a whole.
The media, the Party, the authorities and the schools are thus
constantly required to reiterate and strengthen Islamic values.
Central authority takes over where the extended family can no
longer play its part.
As time passes, there are more and more young people who
have spent at least some time in schools. Increasingly, their demands
for an end to unemployment and for a more modern lifestyle

88
The Maghreb: Algeria

(Europe and the example of a different pattern of consumption


are close at hand) constitute a threat to the traditional values. So
much so that, in recent years, an Association of the Muslim
Brotherhood has emerged, for the first time ever in the Maghreb.
Although officially the movement Ls condemned as too reaction-
ary vis-a-vis many of Algeria's economic goals, its political views
are in fact fairly close to what the regime believes is good for the
population as a whole. If the present ruling class Ls to stay in power,
there must not be any possibility of a growth of political aware-
ness. The underlying structures and deep-seated attitudes of the
country must remain unaltered. Indeed the testy nationalism of
the Algerian authorities, which still finds a ready echo in the
countryside whenever it is a question of maintaining the tradition-
al structures, serves as a means with which to deny young people's
aspirations to a more Western social model, under the pretext that
such aspirations arc incompatible with an Islamic society, even
one which aims to be socialist.
As for the women, in the countryside and small towns especially,
if they want to be respected they have to conform to the rules.
The use of the veil has grown in the towns; many women accept, it
in order not to be importuned when they go out. The influx of
impoverished and traditionalist peasants has increased the pressure
on urban women; the new arrivals are shocked by the opulence and
relative liberty of the bourgeoisie. A woman without a veil is
immediately regarded as immodest and will be constantly attacked,
verbally or even physically. Consequently, except amongst the
ruling classes, many women prefer to re-adopt the traditional
costume - in the streets at least — to protect themselves. The
model of the Western woman, which was the ideal of the young
bourgeois, is still universally rejected by all the other classes,
including the women.
Nonetheless, more and more young women are trying to free
themselves from the tutelage of their in-laws, at least. Unfortunate-
ly, Algerian women are considered incapable of behaving 'decently'
once 'liberated'. The most common argument is based on the idea
that women are not ready, not educated or mature enough to live
in freedom with dignity and a sense of proportion. In other words,
women are still seen as children.
Yet the female population represents a little over half the
Algerian total. When national independence was achieved, women
were granted full civic rights: they can vote and can stand for
election to all the offices of state (parliament, management

8S
The House of Obedience

responsibility towards all female relatives and the fact that family
honour depends on the sexual purity of women has consolidated
the structure of control exercised by the men over their female kin.
The men of a family are institutionally supported in the exercise
of this function by the religious and legal system, which means
they can impose upon a woman whatever sanctions they see fit
whenever they feel that family honour has not been respected.
However, honour alone is not enough to justify such control. For
family sanctions to be truly efficacious, it is essential that the
family group should unfailingly accept the responsibility to provide
economic support for women kinfolk, and that women's economic
dependency be perpetuated thereby.
A woman in Islam is thus characterized by her status as a minor
and the fact that her role is restricted exclusively to the family, as
mother and teacher — in other words as guardian of the traditions;
only in the more privileged classes does she have the status of
producer.
In the towns, customs have evolved a little, but elsewhere,
amongst the poor, the peasantry and the nomads, traditional
family relations and attitudes remain very much in force. Even in
the towns, which are growing rapidly due to the rural exodus and
where urban living conditions make it difficult for all but the
richest to maintain extended families, it would be unthinkable for
even distant relatives to be housed and fed other than within the
family. Hospitality is a duty and must be free of charge, at least
during the first few days. In other words, even when urban con-
ditions have forced the family to become a nuclear unit (father,
mother and direct descendants), people still think in terms of the
extended family, with all the rights and duties that implies.
Amongst the rural poor, the desire for many sons continues to
have a real basis in the fact that children's labour in the fields is
necessary, especially for fruit picking and at harvest time. Further-
more a large number of sons is still seen as a source of pride and a
guarantee for the future, since boys are required to support their
elderly parents and their unmarried, divorced or widowed sisters.
In the countryside, neither schooling for girls nor birth control
as a means of securing a better overall standard of living are seen
as necessities, since there is little in people's own experience to
show that these 'novelties' do improve the living conditions of the
family as a whole. As a result, attitudes change only very slowly
and most aspects of the tradition remain unquestioned. Religion
and what is seen as desirable are still inextricably bound up with

18
The House of Obedience

committees, co-operatives etc.). But they still often require their


father's or husband's authorization before doing so. A woman
remains subject to male tutelage, not just in everyday life but also
legally (certain steps can only be taken with the permission of a
woman's husband or father). This is the case unless she is herself
the head of the family (if the husband is dead) and has to work
because the men of her family can no longer provide for her.
Furthermore, there are no institutions to which women or girls
who find themselves in difficulty can turn. Most magistrates and
lawyers are men. Social workers are few and far between, and are
mainly in the towns; their powers of intervention are in case very
limited.
Algeria's political structures do not allow for any groups to be
formed outside the framework of the only legal party; conse-
quently, there is no autonomous women's organization. The
National Union of Algerian Women (NUAW), the only women's move-
ment in the country, is simply a vehicle for the FLN. Its membership is
less than 160,000 and its leadership pays little attention to the real
problems women face. How could it? Its allotted role is to tempor
ize, not to mobilize women around feminist slogans. It has to be
said that even the NUAW constantly runs into opposition from
men, who are reluctant to allow their wives or sisters or daughters
to participate in its activities. But its impact is too weak to be able
to change this subordination of women, especially as the higher
echelons of the Party frequently intervene to block any incipient
activism. For instance, at the last NUAW congress (in September
1978), the FLN co-ordinator presiding over the opening session
declared that the movement's militants should be working 'to free
Algerian society from ignorance, illness, superstition, the various
social ills and harmful habits of consumption'. Later, alluding to
the 'preoccupations of contemporary women', he suggested that:

Some women express themselves through demands for free-


dom, equality at work and equal wages, as well as in com-
munal discussion of problems such as divorce, marriage or
participation in political affairs. This kind of preoccupation,
which is so current in the capitalist world, really stems from
bourgeois attitudes lacking any social dimension and based
entirely on individualism and selfishness. [My italics. J.M.]

The speaker made no reference to the Family Code, which was


supposed to define the personal and matrimonial status of Algerian

90
The Maghreb: Algeria

women. The Party co-ordinator was simply reiterating the official


FLN line, from which one may deduce that any attempt by
women to organize against the injustices they are constantly sub-
jected to would be repressed.
Under such conditions, there is little hope of collective efforts
to change society. Emancipation of women is simply not on the
agenda. Only individual solutions can be envisaged, usually involv-
ing great isolation; fleeing the home or even suicides are strikingly
frequent amongst women.
Although the National Charter (adopted June 1976) and the
Constitution proclaim the principle of equality between the sexes,
this remains a dead letter in many cases. The National Charter has
little to say about women anyway; a single page concerning the
National Union of Algerian Women. One passage reads:

The Algerian Revolution must answer the hopes of the


women of the country by creating the conditions necessary
for their emancipation. The Revolution would not be ful-
filling its aims if millions of Algerian women, who constitute
an immense potential force for social change, were to be left
out of the revolutionary process. . . . The NUAW must adapt
its actions to the specific problems of integrating women
into modem life, ft must be conscious that the emancipation
of women does not imply a rejection of the ethic with which
our people is so deeply impregnated. [My italics. J.M.]

Further on, under the heading 'Advancement of Algerian Women'


the text runs: 'improving the fate of women often involves trans-
forming a negative judicial and mental environment which is pre-
judicial to the exercise of a woman's recognized rights as a wife and
mother and to her material and psychological security.' [My italics.
J.M.]
The National Charter goes on to criticize

Exorbitant and ruinous dowries, unscrupulous husbands who


desert their wives and children, and leave them penniless, the
unjustifiable removal of children from the mother's loving
care, unmotivated divorces in which no provision is made for
the woman's maintenance, violence against women, which so
often passes unpunished, and exploitation of women by anti-
social elements, . ..

31
The House of Obedience

All this constitutes a fairly accurate description of the conditions


most women in Algeria live under. The problem is that nowhere
in the National Charter, or elsewhere, are the means by which the
state intends to remedy the situation ever specified.
These three quotes from official speeches (made at different
times) illustrate the major contradiction which afflicts a regime
torn between modernism (which the young people want) and
tradition. The rift is so great that one can in fact speak of two
Algerias, the one traditional in every respect, right down to its
mode of production, the other turned towards the West, which
serves as an ever-present model of consumption if not of behaviour.
This is the real stumbling block of 'Algerian specificity', a Western
technocratic and authoritarian model of economic development,
endorsed by the ruling classes and many of the young people,
coming up against the fact that the countryside remains firmly
committed to tradition.
In this contradictory context, women are supposed to emanci-
pate themselves without abandoning the moral code which is
primarily traditionalist: efforts towards emancipation within the
traditionalist framework are, of course, as likely to succeed as
attempts to square a circle. The reality is that women's lot is
marginally improved only in order that they may fulfil their
allotted role as wives and mothers.
In other words, women's political and economic role in Algerian
society is still extremely limited. Decisions continue to be a
masculine prerogative, even though women are legally full citizens
with the right to vote. The influence of husbands, fathers and
brothers remains predominant, in a negative sense. It was no coin-
cidence that in the last National Assembly elections (February
1977) only nine women were elected to the 261-seat Assembly.
Thirty-four women were candidates; four of those elected stood in
Algiers. It would seem that, generally speaking, women have little
confidence in themselves or in their 'sisters'.
In recent years, however, special efforts have been made in edu-
cation; the authorities are relying on the schools to change people's
attitudes. In 1971-72, nearly 60% of children were attending
school; in 1975 the figure was 73%. School is compulsory up to
age 14. There are, unfortunately, very great regional disparities,
and girls get little schooling in the countryside, where tradition
prevails over the requirements of modernization. While 85% of
girls attended schools in Algiers during 1975, in Medea the figure
was only 28% and in Mostaganem it was only 32%. These

92
The Maghreb: Algeria

percentages do not indicate the relative duration of boys' and girls'


education. It is well known, however, that the latter are often
withdrawn from school very early.
True, the number of girl students is increasing: women consti-
tuted 13% of the student population in 1971-72 and 23.3% in
1977-78. The figure was around 37% in medicine, a discipline
particularly favoured by girls; the young men continue to prefer
literary and legal studies. Within the bourgeoisie, degrees have
become a guaranteed path to a better marriage. The young grad-
uate thus acquires extra merit which reflects favourably on the
family as a whole. But one may justifiably ask what impact
schooling can have on young people's attitudes and conception of
womanhood, given the enormous pressure which is put on young
girls by society and especially by their families, through the edu-
cation they receive at home. We know from the example of
Western societies that such changes only occur if the appropriate
social structures have been set up and if the political will to bring
about change is really there.
The actual content of the education dispensed in the schools
obviously plays an important role. Yet there is nothing particu-
larly reformist in the Algerian curriculum. Sexual constraints are
equally manifest in schools and universities. Even in mixed schools,
segregation between little boys and little girls establishes itself
'quite naturally'. As for the universities, women students can find
that they are required to produce a certificate of virginity, at the
behest of the Rector, as happened in Algiers in 1972 for instance.
Many young women who have qualified for university entrance
are kept at home by their families until they marry.
Nonetheless there have been changes. Many educated young
women now refuse to live with their in-laws, and make this a pre-
condition of accepting a suitor's offer of marriage. If their demand
is met, marriage becomes, for them, a form of semi-liberation
compared to the life they had to lead in their parents' home where
everybody was so anxious to preserve the family's reputation and
honour, which are so dependent upon the daughters' virginity.
However, it is also worth recalling that, as in most Arab countries,
Algerian women are not legally entitled to marry non-Muslims
(the law does not apply to men, however).
On the whole, married women still suffer the same constraints
as before, especially in terms of their freedom of movement.
Women may be allowed to go to work or to school, since these are
necessities, but going for walks, to do the shopping or simply for

93
The House of Obedience

relaxation, is still frowned upon. However, married women are


moving about more these days, providing they wear a veil. They
can even be seen at the cinema, accompanied by their husbands.
But their mere presence, even when veiled, provokes an unpleasant
reaction from unaccompanied male spectators.
The young men's attitude towards women may seem less rigid
than their fathers' but it has not fundamentally changed.
Increasingly, they want a wife who will also be a companion,
but rather as in the colonial system, she is expected to be a second-
class citizen. This companion must be able to work (economic
constraints make this increasingly essential, especially as the young
have developed expensive consumer tastes) but this relatively
recent role has not brought any real modification to her tradit-
ional status.
Most young women still see their real function in life as marriage
and caring for children, to which they would dedicate themselves
full-time if only their husbands' means permitted. What changes
there have been in young women's attitudes only really emerges in
their choice of husband. Not that young Algerian women will go
so far as to force the man of their choice upon their families, but
they are beginning to learn how to say 'No' if the man suggested to
them is not to their liking. The families of the more educated girls
are also beginning to accept their daughters' right to reject suitors,
providing such a refusal does not imply a systematic opposition to
marriage, which remains the key to the whole system. If a young
girl is slow to marry, it will generally be thought that she suffers
from some handicap which has discouraged potential suitors.
People still find it very difficult to conceive that a woman could
actually refuse marriage in itself. In any case, few women deliber-
ately remain spinsters, and those who do are usually disapproved
of. Basically, Algerian men simply cannot imagine a woman living
free from all tutelage. A woman can only be so-and-so's daughter,
sister, mother or wife.
It would seem that the 'socialist' Algerian Revolution refuses
to face up to the problem of women's status, both within the
family and in society at large. Nothing is being done to change
people's fundamental attitudes, and the justifications offered for
this inertia are framed in terms of the traditional Islamic values,
which the need for an identity constantly reinforces.

94
The Near East: Egypt

The Near East: Egypt

Unlike that of Algeria, Egypt's recent history does not consist of


settler colonization, years of national liberation struggle and
foreign destruction of the national personality. And unlike both
Algeria and most other Arab countries, Egypt is an old nation,
whose identity has never really been threatened, despite the
Ottoman, French and British presences. This is probably why, as
early as the turn of the century, Egypt developed an enlightened
intelligentsia who broke away from the doctrinaire teachings of
Al Azhar, the great Islamic university, and turned to study the new
thinking from the West, which they eventually adopted as their
own. Early in the century (1923), a woman member of this intelli-
gentsia, Hoda Sha'raoui, publicly removed her veil and established
a feminist movement which enjoyed the support of political,
social and even religious reformers. The latter felt that the
'degradation' of Egyptian society stemmed from the incarceration
of women. The movement's actions were entirely oriented towards
the emancipation of women, with the removal of the veil as its
symbol. In the early 1940s Hoda Sha'raoui founded the National
Union of Arab Women. Even earlier, in 1920, working women had
organized themselves and forced the government to pass the first
laws regulating women's employment in the factories (mainly
textiles) and commercial establishments. Until then they had been
made to work 15 to 1G hours at a stretch, for derisory wages.
Thanks to their struggles, they obtained better working conditions
and salaries.

The same feminist movement called for the creation of schools


and the development of education for girls. By 1928, despite public
opposition, young women were admitted to the University.
Similarly, as early as 1925, the traditional Egyptian form of
repudiation, namely conditional repudiation, was outlawed. From
that time onwards, all the legislation has been geared to discourage
repudiation and divorce. The Egyptian legislature was also quick
to ban forced or early marriage, and young people having reached
the age of consent were allowed to marry without requiring the
permission of a guardian or parent.
In other words, Egypt reformed its laws to bring about a gradual
recognition of women's rights long before most other Arab coun-
tries. The new reforming legislation nonetheless remained firmly
within an Islamic framework. Without going into details, it is
worth noting that Nasser's rise to power reinforced the reformist

95
The House of Obedience

tendency and that by 1956 women had been granted full political
rights. That same year, free education was instituted for both boys
and girls. Due to the shortages of teachers and buildings, mixed
education became the rule in state schools: later, co-education,
which had originally been prompted by lack of facilities, became
Ministry of Education policy, in an attempt to change and
'modernize' the attitudes of both men and women.
It is undeniable that, in the towns at least, the atmosphere is
infinitely more relaxed than in the rest of the Arab world. Men
and women move about side by side without any apparent prob-
lems, even at work, and one gets the impression that the evolution
of the tradition has been smooth and unbroken, even amongst the
proletarianized strata of society. However, despite the reforming
legislation, women used to complain that the long-promised im-
provement of women's status had not been properly implemented.
Their demands were finally met in June 1979, despite the strong
opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is particularly
powerful in Egypt.
The new reform further restricts men's rights to repudiate their
wives. From now on, a man is required to inform his wife that she
has been repudiated, which was not the case before. Similarly, a
man must inform his spouse if he takes a second wife. The econo-
mic constraints imposed by the new law are also likely to dis-
courage men who are thinking of repudiating their wives or taking
a second bride. If a man repudiates his wife, he will be obliged to
pay her maintenance and indemnity; for instance a wife with
children can expect to retain occupancy of the family home.
Furthermore, the State Bank will provide financial support to the
repudiated spouse by paying her advances on the maintenance
payments which will later be deducted from the ex-husband's
salary.
Custody of the children, which used to be granted to the mother
only until the age of 10 for little girls and 7 for little boys, has
been extended. Girls now stay with their mother until marriage,
and boys until they are 15 years old, providing the repudiated wife
is deemed blameless. However, the legislators did not insist that
divorces be decreed by a tribunal. They accepted the 1931 law
which required that the proceedings be registered by a departmen-
tal official; this was a major advance at the time but seems sadly
out of date nowadays.
When it comes to reforms of the marriage laws, to women's
right to divorce, to questions of repudiation, family law and

96
The Near East: Egypt

contraception, Egypt certainly does not lag behind the other Arab
countries. The legislation has long striven to keep abreast of social
changes. True, polygamy is still allowed, unlike in Algeria: 3% of
all marriages are polygamous. The justification offered is that
polygamy is a lesser evil than divorce; the children continue to
have a home and even the women are thought to prefer sharing a
husband to not having a husband at all.
The reality of everyday life is, of course, somewhat different.
The laws are often ignored, and are far in advance of people's
attitudes. Yet one is always struck by the tremendous diversity of
lifestyles in Egypt, where the most traditional and the most
'modern' types of behaviour exist simultaneously. Many women of
the ruling classes, educated multilingual women, work and have
responsibilities equivalent to the men's, without it being seen as a
problem at all. Working-class women, even if they still represent
only a small proportion of the total female population (only about
3% of women are wage-earners, and the number has been falling
in recent years) have been granted equal rights with men, before
the law at least. Unlike in many other Arab countries, the work-
shops of the big factories are not segregated. Unfortunately, the
lack of creches and nurseries means that the women frequently
have to stop work in order to look after young children. When
they eventually go back to work, they often find they have lost
ground. 'We work like donkeys, and then our careers get disrupted
for lack of proper social services,' said one young woman. The
collapse of the extended family, which used to provide the
necessary social support, has created needs amongst the working
population which an underdeveloped country cannot easily
satisfy.

However, in this proletarianized milieu, relations between men


and women seem to be extraordinarily free: women do not hide
themselves when a man approaches. Conversation between a man
and a woman is not scandalous or odd, and the women easily hold
their own when it comes to jokes and repartee. The intellectuals'
explanation for this attitude is that education, the right to work
and the habit of paid employment have enabled women to
acquire more self-confidence and have gradually changed individual
behaviour; a woman who is earning her own wages will not be so
dependent upon men. (Yet despite the schools, illiteracy is still
rampant: nearly 80% of the total population is illiterate.)
In the countryside, things have changed little, despite the efforts
of the state. Women still wear the veil (especially in the south) and

97
The House of Obedience

those who do not work in the fields are kept at home. 'Crimes of
honour' are common. Women remain economically dependent,
unless they have property of their own, in which case they can
manage it themselves and receive all the revenues. Their fate is very
much that of their mothers before them. Marriages are still
frequently contracted between cousins, according to paternal
decisions. As one village teacher told me: 'Here, emotions are
stifled, and the choice of marriage partners is very limited, even for
the parents, because the communities are so small. The worst thing
is when an adolescent is married off to an old man. But the women
are all convinced that they must abide by the customs. It seems
perfectly natural to them.' Progress in the countryside clearly still
has a long way to go.
The various regimes, of both left and right, which have succeeded
one another in Egypt over the last 20 years, have all sought to
modernize structures and attitudes by passing laws or decrees,
including some which have allowed women greater autonomy vis-
a-vis the family and men in general. The real problem has been one
of information, of making sure that the laws were known and
enforced.
This modernization, from which the notables and their wives
have benefited most, was clearly the product of the West's impact
on the Egyptian ruling classes, who saw it as a new means of
enriching themselves and, eventually, of developing the country.
The early feminist movement, for example, addressed itself to the
women of the most privileged classes and reached only a cultured
public who had already been seduced by the Western ideology. The
enlightened strata believed that only this ideology could 'liberate'
the individual, free the country from destitution and remove the
traditional constraints. 'Enlightenment' came from the West, and
nationalism did not yet necessarily involve the strict application of
Islam. The presence of Copts (Egyptian Christians) and the foreign
colonies (Greek and Jewish, amongst others) facilitated the intro-
duction of ideas from the West. It is no coincidence that a modern
party such as the Wafd emerged in Egypt, which was faster to
adapt to the new circumstances than any other Near Eastern
society (except Turkey).
This 'cosmopolitan' intelligentsia, for whom Islam was not the
definitive code, although they did not reject it, were open to all
sorts of influences, since they were confident that whatever
happened they would remain primarily Egyptian. Such an attitude
may well have existed in other social strata as well, even those

98
The Near East: Egypt

whose attachment to tradition was much stronger. To the Egyptians


except for the Muslim Brotherhood of course, the tradition, even
when dressed up in Islamic garb, remained just that, a tradition.
Islam itself does not seem to have that total mobilizing force
which characterizes it in other Arab countries. In Egypt, Islam is
not the only source of identity. An Egyptian's primary identity
is always the fact that he or she is Egyptian. Perhaps that is the
explanation for this reforming tendency which has lasted for
nearly a century and which has been so influential. After all, the
regimes that ruled Egypt before Nasser were in no way revolution-
ary. What is interesting is that these reforms were instituted in
Egypt so long before anywhere else in the Arab world; in fact,
that is their only distinguishing feature. Women do not enjoy
greater legal rights in Egypt than in the towns of Iraq, Syria or
Tunisia. But the fact that these reforms were passed so long ago
can undeniably be felt in everyday life. Emancipated women are
more easily accepted; there is less hostility to spinsters; women are
even allowed to have a personal and sexual life of their own, at
least in the towns. There is a feeling of goodwill, of tolerance
towards those who no longer respect the tradition, providing their
behaviour is not ostentatiously provocative.

On the other hand, the new very Westernized bourgeoisie, with


their women draped in furs and jewels, are the real provocation,
the real insult to the impoverished classes, who do not hide their
judgement. What is disliked about the rich is not that they do not
conform to Islam but that they have grabbed all the wealth in a
country where the working class and peasant population are
terribly poor. In fact, poverty in Egypt has increased, and the
indecency of these fortunes too rapidly acquired by the new class
contrasts starkly with the physical deterioration of the towns, the
destitution of the people and the high prices of essential food-
stuffs. The Israeli-Arab conflict is no longer a sufficient explan-
ation for the incredible disproportion between the misery of the
many and the wealth of the few. As a trade unionist put it, 'For
the first time, one can say that people in Egypt are hungry.'
Only the fundamentalist movements, which are in fact relatively
powerful, display explicit hostility to anything which is not in
strict conformity with Koranic principles (interpreted in the most
reactionary way possible). Although these movements, notably the
Muslim Brotherhood, have not managed to take over the govern-
ment of the country, they do represent a considerable political
force precisely because by preaching the traditional values they

99
Introduction: A Confessional Universe

the tradition.
The Arab world is further characterized by clan or family ties
which are strictly regulated by Islamic law. This is true at every
level of society except amongst the intellectuals and Westernized
cadres. Endogamous marriages, which do not involve a dispersal
of family property or diminish the family's power, are seen as pref-
erable to exogamous marriages. Unions are often formed between
cousins who are more or less closely related. The family group, in
the broad sense, is the keystone of society. In order to ensure the
purity of the line, the fiancee must be a virgin, so girls are fre-
quently married off very young. They are educated almost entirely
with a view to their future roles as wives and mothers, and are
closely watched from puberty onwards. A girl's virginity is a family
possession of considerable importance, even today. Young women
of the bourgeoisie who have led a relatively free life during their
years at university usually have their hymen replaced before
marriage by accommodating surgeons whose fortunes are quickly
made.
In certain cases, for instance in the Gulf Emirates, a little girl
will become engaged very young and be sent to live with her future
husband's family at an early age, long before the marriage can be
consummated. Her education is thus completed by her mother-in-
law, who brings her up to meet the requirements of the future
husband and his household.
The enormous importance placed on women's fertility is a fund=
amental source of insecurity for those who are considered infertile
or who give birth only to girls; either of these misfortunes is suffic-
ient motive for repudiation, divorce or the introduction of a new
wife into the household. It goes without saying that the infertility
of a union is always blamed on the woman.
Once she is old and has had sons, however, a woman can exert
considerable influence within her family. Usually it will be she who,
at the request of the father, will choose a wife for her sons. It is to
her that her sons will come to share their troubles, for throughout
their childhood and adolescence, she will have been their closest
companion; relations with the father are often more difficult, and
extremely codified. An elderly woman may remain a minor vis-a-
vis her husband but she usually enjoys great authority over the
household and its inhabitants, which is very much her own dom-
ain. Men have their own world outside, in the coffee houses,
markets and in public life. At last she is universally respected; no
longer a sexual being, she ceases to be that crushed and dominated

19
The House of Obedience

can attack the Westernization of the ruling classes which, they


claim, is the root cause of the country's economic difficulties and
falling moral standards. In recent years, they have made many
converts, even amongst educated women. Although the general
trend is towards women's liberation and greater equality between
men and women, many active, educated young women are putting
on the veil again, of their own free will. Visitors to Cairo are
usually intrigued by this curious phenomenon. It is not often you
see women who have only just escaped from an almost complete
subordination, of which the veil and the traditional costume were
the symbol, returning to that subordination quite willingly. In
fact, this new behaviour, which might be called 'anti-feminist',
may well turn out to be a sort of 'feminism in reverse', with a
political connotation as well as a moral one. The political aspect
of these women's attitude is clear. Their position is similar to that
of the Muslim Brotherhood, to whom they are in no way hostile.
As for the moralistic connotation, it is a reaction to the changing
morals of the daughters of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.
Many of these young women lead a very free life and, as in all
societies where sexual repression has been intense, their behaviour
can be extreme: naturally, some people are shocked. There is talk
of student prostitution, a new phenomenon engendered by a
certain democratization of higher education. In the universities, the
daughters of very wealthy families rub shoulders with girls from
much more modest backgrounds who can only 'keep u p ' by
engaging in prostitution. One should always bear in mind that in
these circles consumer tastes are as developed as in the industria-
lized countries. No doubt the phenomenon has been exaggerated,
but it is nonetheless an indicator of the corruption which has
spread through every domain in the country. The veil is a very
clear symbol of demarcation from the corrupt morals of the ruling
classes: it indicates a 'purity', a desire to return to an original
inspiration and to be a woman without being a prostitute.
Female circumcision is also part of the tradition, and remains
the taboo subject par excellence. Although it was outlawed in 1959,
it is still a widespread practice, even amongst families who will
subsequently send their daughters to university. The women them-
selves are reluctant to discuss it, except perhaps a few intellectuals,
mostly doctors. The question never arises spontaneously in
discussions on the condition of women. People will stress marriage,
repudiation, child care, the backwardness of the countryside, the
problems of women's work, anything except female circumcision.

100
The Near East: Egypt

Yet nearly all the women 1 met in Egypt had been cut, whether
they were students at university, teachers, trade union officials,
cleaning ladies, workers or peasants. Many reject, it for their
daughters, but this attitude has not reached down into the popular
strata. There, the girls still have to undergo the operation, since
the religion - or the tradition, people are not too sure which —
requires it. Usually this means sterring clear of the hospitals,
calling in the midwife and using only a local anaesthetic. If a girl
is to become a woman, it is something she just has to go through.
In 1979, I asked women from poor backgrounds why they wanted
to impose such an ordeal on their daughters, given that they them-
selves had complained about the terrible pain. 'That is not the
point. It is the custom. God wills i t ' One woman, an administrator
who had refused to have her own daughter cut, nonetheless sought
to avoid the question by concentrating on the festivities which
surround the ceremony and which are supposed to make it less
atrocious. Nobody seemed to realize that the practice itself had
been illegal for 20 years. Indeed it is surprising how few women
denounce what is going on. Female circumcision in Egypt is less
of a mutilation than in some other parts of Africa (amputation of
the labia, infibulation) but I still find it quite astonishing that
people tolerate what is being perpetrated upon little girls and do
nothing to prevent it. The inaction of the Left is particularly
baffling. The Cairo intellectuals that I met no longer have their
daughters cut, but it seems that nothing is being done to explain
to more traditional families just how noxious a practice it is. And
yet there are perfectly adequate centres from which such an edu-
cation campaign could be based: the village family planning clinics
for example.

In 1965, the government launched a vast birth control campaign,


as a response to an enormous growth in population which the
Egyptian economy, weakened as it was by the war effort, simply
could not cope with. The Ministry of Social Affairs created a
special Committee on Women's Problems, to deal with the diffi-
culties encountered by women both within and without the
family. Since 1964 this Committee has been training women
volunteers, whose role in the villages includes the promotion of
family planning.
Birth control continues to run into great obstacles wherever
polygamy and repudiation have not yet been abolished. As we have
seen, the latter encourages procreation as a means of ensuring the
stability of a marriage. Even where there are laws which effectively

101
The House of Obedience

limit these two practices, most women, especially in the country-


side, are not fully aware of the fact, or do not really trust the law.
Uneducated women whose role is restricted to the family, who
are dependent and devoid of all ambition, find the very idea of
birth control difficult to grasp. Nonetheless the village centres
offering free family planning services are increasingly being used
by illiterate and very poor women. As in all Muslim countries
where contraception is legal, these women only come to seek
information after having already had several children. A big
family is still the ideal of most women of the poorer classes.
In practice, the centres have had only a small impact. But their
existence familiarizes people with the concept of birth control.
Thanks to the centres, people are increasingly beginning to accept
the idea, especially as the centres also provide health care for
mothers and children, creches and nurseries. In this way, the
workers in the centres try to inspire the mothers with new aspir-
ations and put a new value upon each individual child. Tradition-
ally, the individual does not really exist in him or herself, a child
is a gift from God, and what God has given, He may take back.
A child's death is thus no great drama. This attitude, deemed
fatalistic by Westerners, is actually quite normal given a very high
rate of infant mortality and the fact: that a dead child is quickly
replaced by a new pregnancy. The idea of a unique and irreplace-
able individual child does not make sense within the traditional
family structure. This does not mean that children are not loved
in these societies. On the contrary, the children are loved precisely
because they are children, because of what they represent for the
status of the family as a whole and of the mother in particular, but
not primarily because they are individual people. The possibility
of their death is accepted right from the start. By insisting on the
need to control the birth rate, the staff in the centres put much
greater stress on the value of each individual child and on the fact
that infant mortality (which has already dropped considerably) is
not some unavoidable product of destiny. The centres also point
out that having too many children may damage the mother's
health, prevent her looking after the children properly and gener-
ally harm the well-being of the family as a whole. It is, of course,
no easy matter to convince women to abandon such ancient
beliefs, especially as the old system boosts the men's egos and pro-
vides the women with a sense of security within the traditional
framework.

In 1964, the Ministry of Social Affairs launched a training

102
The Near East: Egypt

programme for young village women to extend the scope of the


old village community development scheme which dates back to
the 1940s. Community development was intended as a way of
rnobilizing.the villagers to take the improvement of village living
conditions into their own hands, with state aid. Villagers organized
themselves to improve roads, build schools, introduce electricity,
open youth clubs or village literacy centres, all with finance raised
in the village. Until 1973, however, it was mainly men who were
involved and who got the training, and the programme was not
always a complete success.
The new training scheme for young village women has worked
well. In each village, young women volunteers are recruited and
trained in several disciplines for a few months, before being sent
back to their community to act as agents for social change. By
1965, about a thousand women had been trained, with UNICEF
help. The women had to meet certain specific requirements to
qualify for the scheme and were asked for an undertaking to return
to their village afterwards. Young women wore chosen, preferably
though not necessarily married so that they would have greater
credibility when talking about birth control to other women in the
village. Since 1967, the training of these young women has been
severely reduced, for lack of funds. But the programme continues
nonetheless, and in 1973, for example, 1,229 women were trained,
of whom 968 returned to the village.
Rural women's clubs have also been established, but only a
quarter of them (a mere fifty-eight) seem to be actually operating.
The tasks the trainees faced were enormous. They were expected
to act as technical advisers and propagandists for birth control, to
promote increased consciousness amongst village women about the
real needs of families, and to encourage the community to set up
creches, women's clubs and craft training centres which would then
co-ordinate with existing local institutions. The project was too
ambitious and soon ran up against its own limitations: too few
volunteers, too low a level of education, etc. In the end, only
1,000 young women were trained under this particular scheme, for
4,000 villages. Where the project was put into practice, however,
the results seem to have been excellent.
Despite the existence of health centres in each village, where
women can seek advice and obtain contraceptive pills and IUDs,
(the two most commonly used methods), and despite active
propaganda efforts by local government representatives, nurses
and social workers, people's attitudes have not evolved quickly

103
The House of Obedience

enough and still constitute a major obstacle to the process of


modernization. Ignorance of the new laws and the regulations, the
influence of the village mosques (which are in effect local cultural
centres) and the fact that those who disobey the law go unpunished
has meant that in the countryside the family with many children
continues to be most women's idea.
However, unlike in Algeria, there is room for a feminist move-
ment in Egypt. Although it will inevitably develop first amongst
the most privileged women, it can eventually spread, through the
trade unions, the political parties and various other bodies, to
reach the most dispossessed women and inform them of the
possibilities opened up by the new reforms.

104
5 The Future of Arab
Women: Some Basic
Ambiguities

Whilst it is true that both in the Near East and in the Maghreb
many countries have modernized their legislation, the everyday
life of most women has barely been improved. The modernization
has mainly affected those few women in the towns who have had
access to genuine education and information, in other words those
who belong to the so-called privileged classes. These women know
the rights they have recently acquired and have been able to exer-
cise them. But they still constitute only a tiny minority, a sort of
display window that hides the misery of the rest, with whom they
have little contact. The privileged few can lead a satisfying
personal life and engage in the complete range of professional act-
ivities, but most women are still subject to the full weight of the
tradition. Their lack of knowledge about the outside world, and
the difficulty they have in imagining a different status and
different social relations mean that they hardly ever struggle to
improve their lot. They still accept the heavy burden imposed
upon them by the tradition. By the generally established norms of
human rights, they are the most oppressed women in the Third
World.
Fewer women are educated in the Arab world than elsewhere,
even though schooling for girls has made some progress in most
Arab countries. Admittedly, the absolute number of women with
some education is increasing, and the gap which separates them
from men is not as great as it once was, though it is far from
closed.
The percentage of women wage-earners is probably the lowest
in the world, and the birth-rate is the highest. In most Arab
countries, very little has been done to transform the Family Code
and people's attitudes; and where it is legal, polygamy plays a key
vole in increasing the birth rate. Except in Tunisia, and more

107
The House of Obedience

recently Syria and Iraq, the laws concerning the family are amongst
the most inequitable in the world. Most of the Arab countries are
still confessional states, where the legislation is based on Koranic
law reinterpreted, to varying extents, to suit local political needs.
This law, which custom has rendered even harsher, is grossly un-
favourable to women, in that it grants them no status outside the
framework of the patriarchal family.
In other words, reforms are always instituted within an Islamic
framework and even when women are to some extent recognized
as men's equals in terms of civil rights, inequality remains the
order of the day in practically every other domain. There have
been a few adjustments but no real revolutions. Even the most ex-
tensively reformist legislation has done nothing to change either
women's personal status or the Family Code. Where the state has
paid particular attention to women's conditions, it was usually
because demographic problems were becoming pressing and
urgently required a solution (as in Egypt). Once again, the real
issue was an economic problem, not a desire to liberate women
from the constraints and subordination imposed upon them.
In all these countries, there is a widely held belief that what
change is necessary will come about through schooling for girls and
the inescapable effects of industrialization. Few states actually
have any political will to promote women from their present status.
Indeed the idea is that women's status will only improve as the
nuclear family becomes more widespread — once again, the family
is the key — and as economic pressures force more and more
women to go out to find work. Hopefully, the dishonour which
today still attaches to a woman working in the outside world will
diminish as the practice becomes more general. Some progress in
this direction has already been made, especially under the
Ba'athist regimes of Syria and Iraq, and in Egypt, mainly in the
towns, of course. Naturally this is only possible if jobs are available
in the first place. Unemployment, aggravated by a high birth-rate,
is one of the major curses of all the predominantly rural under-
developed countries.
Furthermore the process which supposedly enables women to
liberate themselves through paid labour is very slow and, as in the
West, is often hard for the women concerned, for whom work
constitutes an extra burden rather than a liberation. They only
shoulder this burden because economic circumstances leave them
no other option, and it is all the harder to bear given that there are
few social service provisions such as creches and nurseries. As for

108
The Future of Arab Women

the men, they have not given up their patriarchal attitudes, even if
they are now forced to allow their women to go out to work.
Women thus end up having to serve as producers on top of their
normal roles as wives and mothers, and there are no structures
established to help them in this threefold task apart from the
traditional support provided by grandmothers. In fact, if one
excludes the elite, very few women have really benefited from the
'advantages' of modernism such as paid labour. Modernism has
simply disrupted the secure traditional family structure without
providing any real compensation other than a meagre salary and
extra tasks for those who work.
Finally, one has to recognize the obstacles to any progress that
are put up by both men and women, even in countries where
feminist demands are long established, such as Egypt. The demands
stem essentially from the elites who have benefited from recent
changes, and the obstacles are the invariable reaction of the trad-
itional strata of Arab society, especially the peasantry. What seems
new, and to an outside observer, relatively surprising, is that women
belonging to these elites, educated women who are fully able to
lead an independent life, are deliberately turning back to the
tradition, as in Egypt. This revivalism does not, of course, go so
far as to demand incarceration: these women move about freely,
alone or in groups, attend university and are intensely active. But
their desire for a 'return to the sources' leads them to refuse any
modernization — even that already achieved in their social group
— on the grounds that it is synonymous with Westernization, loss
of identity and moral depravity. The 'return to the sources'
represents an affirmation of Islamic values against Western values
which are deemed unsuitable for the societies concerned. It is an
essentially political stance which aims to prove that Islam is once
again a possible alternative to the West. The goal is to recuperate
Islamic values and endow them afresh with that prestige which they
lost under the pressure of past political and economic dependency.

It seems likely that the reinforced international influence of the


oil-producing countries has been one of the determinant factors of
this fundamentalist revivalism. The oil-producing countries have
suddenly emerged as key elements in a world economic crisis: they
are now actively courted by the great powers, including those who
once oppressed them. This turnabout has naturally infused a new
vitality into a society which had until then laboured under a sense
of inferiority and whose values had been depreciated if n o t
negated. The new role in the international balance of forces granted

109
The House of Obedience

by the great powers to the oil countries, notably those of the Arab
world, has enabled that world to recover its identity and its pride,
both of which are closely linked to Islam. The economic bargaining
power of these countries is now so extensive as to have induced
even the United States to modify its previously unconditional
support for the Arab countries' main enemy, Israel. Islam and the
Islamic countries can no longer safely be ignored, especially as they
are increasingly exercising an influence in areas which were once
the private hunting grounds of the West, such as Black Africa.
This is the essential background to any understanding of why the
people still refuse Westernization, and of why certain charismatic
leaders find such a ready audience (Khomeini in Iran, Ghaddafi in
Libya, etc.) when they appeal to the masses in the name of
nationalism and traditional values. In many countries this
tendency is reinforced by the attitudes of compromised and corrupt
ruling classes whom the people see as symbols of collaboration
with the West and who are held responsible for the impoverishment
and degeneration of Third World countries generally. The ground
lost by feminist movements is one measure of this hostility.
Socialism cannot be relied upon to hasten the necessary changes
either, even if it does modify the status of women. Wherever the
individual is seen primarily as a producer, an equally alienating
Puritanism is likely to develop. All the regimes claim that they have
more urgent and important matters to attend to than women's
liberation as we understand it, i.e. a liberation which extends also
to a personal, sexual and familial level. Priority is invariably given
to development, with the assumption that other problems can only
be tackled once economic scarcity has been overcome. This is the
usual argument used by all the existing regimes, whether of the
right or of the left, to explain their slowness in changing the
conditions experienced by women. In any case, the women are
themselves often not yet ready to accept these changes. Behind the
apparently Westernized world of the towns, there is the solidly
resistant core of the countryside, the shanty-towns and the petty
bourgeoisie. The latter are the most frustrated, since they are
aware of the need for change but cannot initiate it. The small
islands of emancipated, educated women who work in fulfilling
occupations and have a certain influence in urban society offer no
model for the broad masses. They are part of different world, a
shadow of the West.
Indeed, following recent events in Iran and other Islamic coun-
tries, it would seem that the whole issue calls for re-examination.

110
The Future of Arab Women

What can notions of 'modernity', 'equal rights'and changing


attitudes towards women really mean if these societies genuinely
wish lo remain confessional? Is there not some deep antinomy
between this desire and the entire historical, ideological and
cultural import of what we call modernity? Is the very idea of
'modernity' not itself simply a product of the evolution of Western
society? Can it be extended to other societies without causing an
absolutely fundamental disruption? Can it co-exist happily with
the fully justified desire to preserve one's own identity? Is there
only one form of modernity?
The existing notion implies a new relationship to time, space,
work and other people. More stress is placed on the role of the
individual and less on that of all social groups except classes. But
modernity is also the introduction and integration of capitalism,
with its specific forms of exploitation and social categorization,
which can put even more pressure on the masses. Since only the
most developed countries can be consumer societies, the compen-
sations offered the people of the Third World in exchange for
accepting new constraints, which make the old ones even harder
to cope with, are hardly satisfactory. The old model did at least
allow the masses a certain stability and security based on family or
group solidarity.
Furthermore, the new stress on the individual makes it apparent
thai, women too are individuals. This is in very sharp contrast to
the traditional education received by most women, which led them
to see themselves not as individuals but as fragments — albeit
important ones — of a broader whole, outside of which they had
no place and no purpose in life. For a woman who has been trained
to be subordinate, it is not easy to imagine that she could partici-
pate fully and autonomously in making decisions concerning either
her family life or her life as a citizen. In most cases, to live the
'different', 'modern' life, in which one is totally responsible for
oneself, implies accepting isolation, solitude and separation from
those one holds dear. As for proletarian wage-earning women, they
bear a double handicap: that which is inherent to their own
societies and that which is also borne by their supposedly better
equipped Western counterparts.
What room is there for 'modernity' in societies where the very
notion of an individual remains vague and where the traditional
structures., however dislocated, are still enormously powerful?
Western women, the models of modernity, who are seen as free
and independent, do not have a particularly good reputation.

Ill
The House of Obedience

Furthermore, Western society itself is in the midst of a moral


crisis in which its values are being thrown open to question as
individuals search for a different lifestyle and new relationships,
both within the couple and within society at large. Westerners are
no longer complacent about their own conception of the family,
individualism, sexuality and the organization of work. Yet although
the Western notion is no longer seen as a sure road to fulfilment,
the fact remains that no other ideology has established norms of
modernity. These Western norms are perceived by most Arab and
Muslim women (and men) as a danger, a threat. At the moment
it is particularly difficult to find a way of instituting profound
reforms without undermining a whole socio-cultural edifice based
on Islam, which has many positive aspects. The people fear that
any tampering with this edifice will lead to a disintegration of
civilization itself.
It is thus hardly surprising that the fundamentalist religious
revival enjoys the support of many Muslim women who seek to
mark themselves off from the behaviour of the ruling classes.
Islam symbolizes the moral values by which Westernized corrup-
tion can be judged.
It would seem that the moral crisis in the West can have similar
effects. After all, is it unreasonable to interpret the popular
enthusiasm for the conservative positions recently adopted by
Pope John-Paul II as a return to comfortable and safe values, a
response to the same needs as those animating the revival of Muslim
fundamentalism?

112
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The House of Obedience

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114