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Paradoxes of Change : Culture Crisis, Islamic Revival, and the Reactivation of Patriarchy

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The preceding analysis placed the current Islamic revival in historical perspective by means of a comparison with Judeo-Christian culture. While noting important differences in content and structure which have influenced the relative positions of women in each society, it was found that patriarchy constitutes an essential element of both religious traditions. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic doctrines manifest similar themes of female inferiority paradoxically mixed with fears of female sexual power and wile, leading to the imposition of norms which preserve male control, such as female exclusion from public participation and restriction to dependent familial roles. Religious revivals in both cultures are characterized by resurrection of these patriarchal themes, thus explaining the return to the veil by some Muslim women and the anti-feminist sentiments of Christian fundamentalists in the United States. An additional point made by this study is that women function as symbols of cultural and religious identity. Traditional female roles as caretakers of the family, despite their lower valuation in the status hierarchy, constitute the bedrock of human social organization, and an important referent for individual identity. Levi-Strauss, in his classic work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship,67 characterized the exchange of females by male-controlled kinship groups as the foundation of human social organization. Thus, while females have less authority than males, they paradoxically remain powerful objects of kinship exchanges, thus becoming targets of exaggerated male control during periods of social disorganization. Large-scale social upheaval triggers the demand for a reintegration of the self within a stable meaning system, and consequently thrusts the ideology of traditional womanhood to a prominent position in the revival movement. Moreover, challenges to traditional female roles can themselves instigate a resurgence of religious fervor, underscoring the centrality of female subservience and domesticity to religious and cultural identity. In the Muslim region, for example, we have noted the stimulation of religious revivals by policies liberating women from seclusion and male hegemony, intensified in all likelihood by the perception that such policies represented foreign-inspired assaults on the integrity of Islam. An equally plausible hypothesis is that American Christian revivals have been provoked in part by challenges to traditional female domesticity embodied in the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century and the feminist movement of the late 1960's. Thus, this study has tentatively identified some factors which may precipitate revivals of traditional religious and patriarchal sentiments. Additional cross-cultural analysis is needed to elaborate and specify the conditions under which these social movements occur and their consequent effects on women's roles. Finally, this research suggests some theoretical revisions for the more general process of societal development. Prevailing theories of modernization, particularly those influenced by the functionalist perspective, have tended to conceptualize tradition and modernity as contrasting ideal types, equating modernity with a host of structural and cognitive transformations including secularization and female equality.68 Evidence from the United States suggests that the developed nations are neither immune to significant religious revivals nor unilaterally dedicated to women's rights. In the developing world, Muslim leaders have found that Islamic revival is not an impediment to national development, but may in fact provide sacred legitimation for potentially disruptive social change.69 Industrial development, urbanization, and the diffusion of economic rationality may thus coexist with intense religious devotion and popular support for patriarchal traditions.

Affiliations: 1: University of Texas, Austin, U. S.A.


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