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10-08-2015, 23:02

Women and Islam

Nowhere have the fault lines between tradition and modernity in Muslim societies in the Middle East been so sharp as in the ongoing debate over the role of women. At the beginning of the twentieth century, women’s place in Middle Eastern society had changed little since the days of the Prophet Muhammad. Women were secluded in their homes and had few legal, political, or social rights. Early in the twentieth century, inspired in part by the Western presence, a “modernist” movement arose in several countries in the Middle East with the aim of bringing Islamic social values and legal doctrine into line with Western values and attitudes. Advocates of modernist views contended that Islamic doctrine was not inherently opposed to women’s rights and that the teachings of Muhammad and his successors had actually broadened them in significant ways. To modernists, Islamic traditions such as female seclusion, wearing the veil, and even polygamy were pre-Islamic folk traditions that had been tolerated in the early Islamic era and continued to be practiced in later centuries. During the first decades of the twentieth century, such views had considerable impact on a number of Middle Eastern societies, including Turkey and Iran. As we have seen, greater rights for women were a crucial element in the social revolution promoted by Mustapha Kemal Atatürk in Turkey. In Iran, Shah Reza Khan and his son granted female suffrage and encouraged the education of women. In Egypt, a vocal feminist movement arose in educated women’s circles in Cairo as early as the 1920s. Modernist views had somewhat less effect in other Islamic states, such as Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria, where traditional views of women continued to prevail in varying degrees. Particularly in rural areas, notions of women’s liberation made little headway. Most conservative by far was Saudi Arabia, where women were not only segregated and expected to wear the veil in public but were also restricted in education and forbidden to drive automobiles (see the box on p. 268). Until recently, the general trend in urban areas of the Middle East was toward a greater role for women. This was particularly the case in Egypt and in Iran, where the liberal policies of the shah encouraged Western attitudes toward sexual equality. With the exception of conservative religious communities, women in Israel have achieved substantial equality with men and are active in politics, the professions, and even the armed forces. Golda Meir (1898–1978), prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974, became an international symbol of the ability of women to be world leaders. Beginning in the 1970s, however, there was a shift toward a more traditional approach to gender roles in many Middle Eastern societies. It was accompanied by attacks on the growing Western influence within the media and on the social habits of young people. The reactions were especially strong in Iran, where attacks by religious conservatives on the growing role of women contributed to the emotions underlying the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Iranian women were instructed to wear the veil and to dress modestly in public. Films produced in postrevolutionary Iran expressed the new morality. They rarely featured women, and when they did, physical contact between men and women was prohibited. Still, Iranian women have many freedoms that they lacked before the twentieth century; for example, they can attend a university, receive military training, vote, practice birth control, and write fiction. The Iranian Revolution helped promote a revival of traditional attitudes toward women in other Islamic societies. Women in secular countries such as Egypt, Turkey, and far-off Malaysia have begun to dress more modestly in public, while public attacks on open sexuality in the media have become increasingly frequent. Women have won some small victories in their struggle for equal rights in the Middle East. In 1999, a governmental edict declared that women would be granted the right to vote in Kuwait, and women have been given an equal right to divorce.