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Middle Eastern Women in Gendered Space: Religious Legitimacy and Social Reality

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Abstract The notion that Islam dictates gender separation in the pre-modern Middle East is widely held by observers, some scholars, and even Muslim women. When studying different aspects of gender in the Middle East, however, one comes up with evidence that challenges the common view of gendered space. In mainstream Islamic orthodoxy, there were situations in which women seemed to have left their homes and mixed with men who were not their kin. The principles and social practice relating to women’s appearance in public space for religiously-sanctioned purposes were interwoven, resulting in complicated and ambiguous situations. In order to explore the principles as well as the practice of religiously sanctioned gendered spaces over time, three venues will be visited: the communal prayer, studying and teaching, and the Islamic shari’a court. These venues have been and continue to be the foci of negotiation between religious legitimacy and social reality.

1. FN11 I have explicated my view of the connection between women’s role in battle and the ecological setting elsewhere and Nikki Keddie has made a compelling case for the empowerment of women in nomadic and nomad-influenced settings. Ruth Roded, “Mainstreaming Middle East Gender Research: Promise or Pitfall?” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 35 (Summer, 2001): 15–23; Nikki R. Keddie, “Introduction: Deciphering Middle Eastern Women’s History,” in Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron, eds. Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 1–22.
2. FN22 A medieval illustration from northern Iraq shows women carrying out agricultural labor with men, all of whom are wearing skimpy clothing. Another from Baghdad shows women inside buildings as well as outside, with hijab but no face-veils, Yedida Kalfon Stillman, Arab Dress: A Short History from the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times (Leiden-Boston-Koln: Brill, 200), plates no. 28, 53. Judith E. Tucker, Women in Nineteenth Century Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 16–63.
3. FN33 Singers, dancers, and prostitutes were clearly regarded as socially tainted but they earned quite a lot of money and were frequently taxed by the government authorities. Maya Shatzmiller, “Women and Wage Labour in the Medieval Islamic West,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 40 (1997): 174–206; Arlette Nègre, “Les Femmes Savantes Chez Dahabi,” Bulletin d’Études Orientales 30 (1978): 119–126; Ahmad cAbd ar-Raziq, La femme au temps des mamlouks en Égypte (Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1973); Huda Lutfi, “Al-Sakhawi’s Kitab al-Nisa’ as a Source for the Social and Economic History of Muslim Women During the Fifteenth Century A.D.,” Muslim World 21 (1981): 104–124; Miriam Hoexter, “La shurta ou la répression des crimes à Alger a l’époque turque,” Studia Islamica, LVI (1982), 120–22; Abdelhamid Larguèche, “Anthropologie de la prostitution dans la ville arabe,” Marginales en terre d’Islam, Dalenda et Abdelhamid Largueche (Tunis: Cérès Productions, 1992), 13–83; Gabriel Baer, Egyptian Guilds in Modern Times (Jerusalem: The Israel Oriental Society, 1964); Amnon Cohen, The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem (Leiden, Boston, Köln: Brill, 2001); Ian C. Dengler, “Turkish Women in the Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age,” Women in the Muslim World, eds. Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978); Tucker, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, 87, cites women who lost custody of their children because they worked outside their home. Even teachers had social problems, see: Ela Greenberg, “Between Hardships and Respect: A Collective Biography of Arab Women Teachers in British-ruled Palestine,” Hawwa 6 (2008): 284–314.
4. FN44 Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992); Ruth Roded, Women in the Islamic Biographical Collections: From Ibn Saʿd to Who’s Who (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 1993), 100–101.
5. FN55 I owe this insight to the writing of the convert Nasir a-Din Dinet, who lived in Algeria at the turn of the nineteenth-twentieth century; see: Ruth Roded, “Modern Gendered Illustrations of the Life of the Prophet of Allah—Étienne Dinet and Sliman Ben Ibrahim (1918),” Arabica 49 (2002): 325–35.
6. FN66 Muhammad ibn Ismail Bukhari, The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih al-Bukhari: Arabic-English, trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan. Al-Medina al-Munawwara: Islamic University, 1973–1976, 2nd revised edition, 1: no. 675.
7. FN77 Asma Sayeed, “Early Sunni Discourse on Women’s Mosque Attendance,” ISIM Newsletter 7/01: 10.
8. FN88 Bukhari, os. 301, 347, 490. Clearly, it is menstruating women who must keep away from the Musalla, the symbolic barrier in front of a praying person. Placing women in the unclean category of dogs and donkeys is far from flattering, and Aisha bint Abi Bakr objected to this comparison trumping it with her own experience with the Prophet. Moreover, in the Quran, no rituals of worship are forbidden for a menstruating woman. I thank Amira Sonbol for bringing this point to my attention.
9. FN99 Bukhari, nos. 347, 552.
10. FN1010 Bukhari, no. 830.
11. FN1111 Bukhari, nos. 825, 829.
12. FN1212 Bukhari, nos. 824, 832.
13. FN1313 Sayeed, 10.
14. FN1414 Bukhari, no. 326.
15. FN1515 Sayeed, 10.
16. FN1616 Kalfon Stillman, plate no. 32.
17. FN1717 Zeren Tanindi, Siyer-i Nebi, Islam Tasvir Sanatinda Hz. Muhammed’in Hayati (Istanbul: Hurriyet Vakvi Yayinlari, 1984); Siyer-i Nebi: An Illustrated Cycle of the Life of Muhammad, Eng trans. Maggie Quigly-Pinar. (Istanbul, 1984); cf. Bukhari, no. 830.
18. FN1818 I saw this arrangement in the al-Jazzar Mosque in Acre and in Turkey. In Istanbul, for example, this was reserved for the Sultan. Amnon Cohen, personal communication, 17 August 2009.
19. FN1919 last accessed 7.11.2011; accessed 7.11.2011.
20. FN2020 In the 1990s, Muslim women in South Africa gradually challenged men’s domination of the mosque emboldened in part by Islamic scholar Amina Wadud’s khutba Friday talk. In 2004, Wadud lead a mixed prayer in New York (see: below). At the same time, several Muslim women in Toronto served as imams for mixed prayers. In 2005, in Barcelona, at the first international Islamic Feminism Conference, Wadud again lead the prayer. Gender-equal prayer was established in Washington D.C. following Toronto’s lead. On Saudia, see: below. The various efforts throughout the Muslim world and the links between them have not been fully documented.
21. FN2121 See: Roded, “Islamic and Jewish Religious Feminism: Similarities, Parallels and Interactions” (forthcoming).
22. FN2222 Raquel Ukeles, “Debating new religious roles for women in contemporary Islamic law” unpublished paper, February, 2006.
23. FN2323 On Wadud’s scholarship and Islamic feminism, see: Ruth Roded, “Islamic and Jewish Religious Feminism: Similarities, Parallels and Interactions” (forthcoming) and Roded, “Human Creationin theHebrew Bible and the Quran—Feminist Exegesis” (forthcoming).
24. FN2424 Women’s participation in the prayers near the Kaaba in Mecca as well as various stages of the hajj pilgrimage is worthy of further study.
25. FN2525 28 August 2006;§ion=0&article=78202&d=30&m=8&y=2006&pix=opinion.jpg&category=Opinion 30 August 2006 31 August 2006[157]=157–542963 10/5/2006 from the Saudi Gazette 12 September 2006.
26. FN2626 Bukhari, no. 51.
27. FN2727 A fifteenth-century illustration depicts a mixed-gender study group, entitled “Layla and Majnʿn at school”. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (S1986.289); E. Baer, “Muslim teaching institutions and their visual reflections. The Kuttab” Der Islam 78 (2001), 73–102.
28. FN2828 H. Edib, The Memoirs of Halide Edib (London: John Murray, 1926).
29. FN2929 Justin McCarthy, The Arab World, Turkey and the Balkans (1878–1914): A Handbook of Historical Statistics (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982).
30. FN3030 Ela Greenberg, Preparing the Mothers of Tomorrow: Islam and Education in Mandate Palestine (University of Texas Press, 2010), 33–34.
31. FN3131 See: Ela Greenberg, “Invading Spaces: Challenging the Private-Public Dichotomy in Girls’ Education in Mandate Palestine” in this volume; and Greenberg, Preparing the Mothers of Tomorrow, 33–34.
32. FN3232 A similar phenomenon has been observed in the Jewish community of Libya in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. Rachel Simon, Change Within Tradition Among Jewish Women in Libya (Seattle& London: University of Washington Press, 1992); Kehat, Feminism and Judaism, p. 106. Among Jews, the prohibition against the education of girls was rooted in the Mishna and the Talmud, and was linked to women’s loose morals and foolishness. Kehat, 94–102.
33. FN3333 Roded, 69–71.
34. FN3434 Roded, 65–66.
35. FN3535 Roded, 66–67.
36. FN3636 Roded, 68.
37. FN3737 Roded, 73, 75–76.
38. FN3838 Mohammad Akram Nadwi, al-Muhaddithat the women scholars in Islam (Oxford Interface Publications, 2007), xxi.
39. FN3939 Despite his laudable effort to collect information on 8,000 female transmitters of hadith, he warns against the misuse of the book from a “woman’s studies approach” which has no basis in the sunnah, xxi.
40. FN4040 Muhammad Akram privileges private houses as the venue of women’s study, 77. This is in line with his preference throughout the book for family and female ties, e.g. pp. 64–71, 97–102, 142–149. Nevertheless, he does report on women who studied and taught in public places and who travelled long distances to seek and spread learning.
41. FN4141 Roded, 77.
42. FN4242 Roded, 72.
43. FN4343 On Islamic feminists, see: Roded, “Islamic and Jewish Religious Feminism”. On a conservative Muslim female scholar, see: Ruth Roded, “Bint al-Shati’s Wives of the Prophet: Feminist or Feminine?” British Journal of the Middle Eastern Society 33 (2006): 69–84; Roded, Human Creationin theHebrew Bible and the Quran—Feminist Exegesis. Moroccan Nadia Yassine is a learned Islamist woman but her gender activism is yet to be proven.
44. FN4444 2 (al-Baqqara): 282.
45. FN4545 Mohammad Akram Nadwi, 20–22.
46. FN4646 al-Marghinani, The Hedaya or Guide: A Commentary on the Mussulman Laws, trans. Charles Hamilton. (London, 1791, reprinted Karachi, 1989,) 2: 667–668. Judith E. Tucker, Women, Family, and Gender in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), deals with this discussion extensively, pp. 140–144, 161–162.
47. FN4747 Marghinani, 2: 668–669.
48. FN4848 Mohammad Akram Nadwi, 19.
49. FN4949 Kalfon Stillman, plate 54.
50. FN5050 Eli Alshech, “Out of Sight and Therefore Out of Mind: Early Sunni Islamic Modesty Regulations and the Creation of Spheres of Privacy,” Journal of Near East Studies 66 (2007): 276–279.
51. FN5151 Ronald C. Jennings found however only one case in a thousand where a woman acted as a legally binding witness, a shahida, as in the Qur’an and Marghinani. see: “Women in Early Seventeenth Century Ottoman Judicial Records—The Sharia Court of Anatolian Kayseri,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 18 (1975): 51–114.
52. FN5252 Abraham Marcus, “Men, Women and Property: Dealers in Real Estate in Eighteenth-Century Aleppo,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 26 (1983): 137–63.
53. FN5353 Tucker, Women in Nineteenth Century Egypt, 201.
54. FN5454 Iris Agmon, “Women, Class, and Gender Muslim Jaffa and Haifa at the Turn of the 20th Century,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 30 (1998): 477–500.
55. FN5555 Leslie Peirce, Morality Tales: Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); on different voices, see: 199–204.
56. FN5656 Tucker, Women, Family, and Gender, 158.
57. FN5757 Shlomo Dov Goitein, A Mediterranean Society (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967), 1:129.
58. FN5858 Jennings, 72–74; Amnon Cohen and Elisheva Simon-Piqali, eds. Jews in the Moslem Court: Society, Economy and Communal Organizations in Sixteenth Century Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Yad Itzhak Ben-Zvi, 1993), nos. 325, 353, 334; Margaret L. Meriwhether, The Kin Who Count: Family and Society in Ottoman Aleppo, 1770–1840 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999); Madeline C. Zilfi, “‘We Don’t Get Along’: Women and Hul Divorce in the Eighteenth Century,” Women in the Ottoman Empire, 264–296.
59. FN5959 Jennings, 60, 65.
60. FN6060 Cohen and Piqali, nos. 325, 353, 334, 202.
61. FN6161 Peirce, pp. 157–161.
62. FN6262 Tucker, Women, Family, and Gender, 158.
63. FN6363 Cohen and Piqali, 325.
64. FN6464 Ido Shahar, “Practicing Islamic law in a legal pluralistic environment: the changing face of a Muslim court in present-day Jerusalem” (Ph.D. diss., Beer-Sheva: Ben Gurion University in the Negev, 2006).
65. FN6565 Laila Abed Rabho, “The Discourse of Muslim Women in the Shari‘a Courts of Jerusalem and Taibe,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2009. See also: article in this volume.
66. FN6666 Tucker, Women, Family, and Gender, 183; Alshech, 68.
67. FN6767 Abraham Marcus, “Privacy in Eighteenth-Century Aleppo: The Limits of Cultural Ideals,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 18 (1986): 167–174.
68. FN6868 Roded, Dinet and Sliman, Arabica 49 (2002): 325–359.

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