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Women in the Popular Culture of Islam
Last Updated: October, 2009

In the social structures, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the old attitudes toward women. It is important to note that even religious scriptures cannot altogether escape from adopting new attitudes. Since the social attitudes are so pervasive, the scriptures are therefore being re-reading and re-interpreted, at least among progressive sections of these societies. Similarly, the question of women in societies is analogous to that of slavery. In feudal and pre-feudal societies, slavery was considered justifiable and the slaves themselves had accepted the social exploitation. However, these attitudes towards slavery and serfdom had to change rapidly because of the emergence of capitalist societies.

Among religious scriptures, Quran, the Islamic holy book, set-forth social rules and talks about the treatment of the slaves and their rights pertaining to the acquisition of freedom. Muslim jurists and theologians quoting from the Quran continued to justify slavery throughout the middle ages. A slave who ran away from his master was considered to be a "sinner," and the scripture was quoted as justification. The Quran also limits women's rights and defines her inferiority to man. Today, the theologians are subject to sociological influences and their interpretations must be in accordance with the sociological perspectives of the time -- at one time, women were looked at as nothing more than instruments of perpetuating one's progeny, to produce children and provide pleasures for their husbands.

The theory of divine law is no longer applicable to the institution of exploitation. Human consciousness in modern societies is conditioned by the concept of human rights and human dignity. The laws regarding women were enacted or interpreted from the scriptures during the dark ages of the medieval period by the jurists. Women no longer accept these laws today. They no longer accept their subordination to men and they demand equal rights to those of men. The scriptures will either have to be abandoned and laws enacted on a secular basis, or they will have to be re-reading and re-interpreted to suit modern conditions (Engineer 1-5).

Despite the actions of a vocal minority of feminist Islamists, the Islamic world has made little progress in the area of gender relations. Women in Western societies linked to modernity have become a role model for those women associated with the traditions of Islamic societies. As one feminist remarks, "a specter is haunting Muslim societies - the specter of modernity (Moghadam 249)." In Muslim societies, programs for rapid and radical social changes tend to evolve without altering traditional gender roles and differences. The state manages relations, whether discourse supports women's emancipation and equality or glorifies and practices traditional gender roles.

The fundamentalist Islamist simply have interpreted and legalized the Quranic precepts and formulized along these lines: She actually cannot travel without her husband's written permission. She cannot serve on juries, nor can she serve as witness, her testimony does not earn any weight. They can go to law school but cannot become judges or lawyers. For her to be eligible for government scholarships to study abroad, she must be married and accompanied by her husband (Moghadam 171-206).

The limit to which the society can achieve its gender boundary maintenance depends upon the knowledge and behavioral training of children in preadolescence. Their understanding individual rights within the social groups of family and society will determine their outlook on gender roles. The larger question, which remains to be answered by Islamist Feminists, is how to liberate the mothers of future generations. It seems that the answer lies in the intervention of international organizations in these societies. The western belief in individual freedom is a vital force in changing the social forces and institutions that promote gender bias.

The social system, which creates a public world of men and a private one for women in these societies, tends to promote gender boundary maintenance. Slogans such as "domesticity is the women's holy war" are the manifestation of political pressure, which the state exercises in order to prevent the influence of the international communities. If, however, greater and more influential bonds are formed between the feminists and international communities, more progress is likely. The history of western societies proves that these forces have a positive influence on the cause of women's liberation.

Islamic theologians are deeply convinced of the inferiority of women, which they presume even on the basis of their construction of the reason/emotion dichotomy. Their assumptions of female inferiority are based on primitive beliefs: "Women mature too fast. The breathing power of men's lungs is greater and women's heartbeat are faster... Men heed reasoning and logic, whereas most women tend to be emotional... courage and daring are stronger in men (Moghadam 172)." Obviously, with such analogies, it is evident that these theologians are completely shut-off from the world of science and have no knowledge of operant conditioning. This is a term used by behaviorist psychologists who refer to such behavior development as the basis of developing both reasoning and emotion.

Behavior depends on whether enforcement is used to encourage reasoning or emotional responses. This belief itself is a product of the operant conditioning by which the theologians have been acculturated. Since they have kept their mind in a pre-scientific mode, they remain oblivious to modern theories regarding the development of perception. They do not recognize their limited training in responding to realities outside of their own. It seems that their small nest can only comfort a little bird. Education for both sexes is the only way to rescue them from intellectual poverty. The education of the future generations, however, hinges upon the intervention of the West, and the creation of a larger body of feminist activists. Until then, ripples on the surface of Muslim society will only serve to obscure the depths of despair into which most women are sinking.



Fatima Farideh Nejat holds a Bachelors degree in Interdisciplinary Studies of Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology and Women's Studies; and a Masters of Arts degree in International Training and Education from the American University in Washington, DC. She served in diplomatic corps of Iran working at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, DC, from 1970-80. She is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of the Army, Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.


Works Cited

  • Bowen, Donna Lee. "Islamic Law and the Position of Women" Diss., World Bank, EMENA/EMPTH, 1992.
  • Engineer, Asghar Ali. The Rights of Women In Islam. St. Marteen's Press. New York, NY. 1992 Mitter, Sara S. Dharma's Daughters. Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick, New York. 1938.
  • Moghadam, Valentine M. Modernizing Women - Gender and Social Changes in the Middle East. Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc. United Kingdom. 1993. Boulder, colorado. 1993.
  • Nejat, Abdolrahim. Ool Va Tasib. Sepehr Publisher, Inc. Tehran, Iran. 1963. (My father was a professor at the University of Tehran; Main area of research: Comparative religion - I translated the part quoted in the paper)
  • Robinson, Francis. Atlas of the Islamic World Since 1500. Facts on the file, inc. New York, NY. 1982.
  • Rahman, H.U. A Chronology of Islamic History, 570-1000 CE. G. K. Hall and Co. Boston, Massachusetts. 1989.
  • The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 2nd edition (with amendments), 1990-1410 AH. Ramin Publisher Inc., Tehran Iran. 1990. "Islamic Propagation Organization - P.O.Box 14155/1313. Tehran Iran."
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