Muslim Women in the Middle East
By Dr Zahia Salhi, Dept of Islamic Studies, University of Leeds
In today's Islamic world one may not be able to speak of gender equality, but rather of gender inequality. In these societies inequality of the sexes reproduces, guarantees, and paves the way for political inequality and affirms it as the foundation of cultural existence, as identity ( Mernissi: 1991, p.23)
This becomes more evident if the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is compared to various Islamic countries' Codes of Personal Status, which institutionalise gender inequality and classify women, as second-class citizens, or rather as half citizens. It is worth mentioning at this stage that the personal status law is one of the few areas in the Muslim world where the Islamic texts and Islamic scholars' legislation have been implemented in the official space.
This state of things stirred several campaigns for legislative reforms from Morocco to Kuwait. In their quest for reforms women are faced by a fierce resistance from the radical Islamists who claim that an ideal gender pattern already exists in Islam, and any attempt at changing it is considered a direct attack on the religion. They often repeated that all feminist demands are stirred up by the enemies of Islam, that feminists are pawns in the hands of the West, and feminism a dangerous and ungodly doctrine.
Such positions resulted in the persecution, severe condemnation and total exclusion of feminist leaders across the Muslim world. In Bangladesh Taslima Nasreen experienced severe attacks and was accused of kufr, non-belief in Islam, as she has claimed that the Qur'an has to be modified, which is considered a major offence. What Taslima was calling for was not a literal modification of the text, but a re-interpretation of it. A phenomenon that exists and is current in Islam, as the Qur'an is a text open for interpretation.
Another feminist leader to experience severe exclusion is Nawal al-Saadawi, whose long and painful struggle for women's rights in the Arab world in general and Egypt in particular, earned her several forms of prosecution including a jail sentence under Sadat's regime, exile in the United States for a period of six years, and lately she was condemned by the Azhar scholars, who launched a campaign to use legal means to forcibly divorce her from her husband at age seventy, as she dared to attack Islam.
The type of persecution experienced by feminist leaders in Algeria, reached a very dangerous crescendo, as physical violence amounting to assassination of feminist activists was the lot reserved by the Islamic fundamentalists for those who dared to question the creed of Allah.
This leads to the conclusion that every attempt at improving women's conditions in the Muslim world is considered an attack on Islam. This in turn leads to the question whether Islam is a religion hostile to women? And why is it that Moslems are content to discriminate against their women, and strip them of their basic human rights?
The plight of Muslim women today is three-dimensional:
First, they have to stand up to their governments by insisting that 'Codes of Personal Status' are to be repealed and demand that egalitarian rights be promulgated.
Second, they have to challenge patriarchal values that are prevailing in the society and whose impact is more powerful than that of religion.
Third, they have to resist and fight Islamic fundamentalism, whose Misogyny is beyond belief.
Misogyny Past and Present
It is the atrocities of the present that made several Muslim women take a genuine enquiry into the early years of Islam and find out by themselves about the place women occupied in the life of the Prophet and in his surroundings.
Alarmed by the misogynist claims spread by Islamic fundamentalists at a threatening speed through their populist discourse, Assia Djebar writes Far From Medina as a reply to the claims of the Islamic fundamentalists that women had no right to write history. Being a historian herself Djebar felt threatened as well as discredited: " The bearded ones have discredited me. A woman has no right to write on the prophet". (Djebar nd.: 57) She added: " This is (the book) a work imposed by circumstances ... I needed in view of this bloodshed, to bear witness, to say: 'this is our religion too' ". (Djebar nd.: 57) By writing Far From Medina Djebar voices a double defiance in the face of the fundamentalists. Writing this collection of stories, which she prefers to call a novel, is in itself an act of defiance; she writes the history of Islam as a woman, but more importantly reminds the religious extremists that women like Aisha, the prophet's favourite wife, was a trusted source of Prophetic tradition, and enjoyed her status as a respected and trusted source of knowledge. In Far From Medina Djebar describes the Golden Age of Islam, focusing on the active role played by women in early Islamic society, an aspect of the period often neglected in historical works. Going back to the works of Ibn Hisham, Ibn Sa'd and al-Tabari, all three historians of the first two or three centuries of Islam, whose books are considered trusted sources of Prophetic tradition, Djebar rewrites the history of women in early Islam from a feminist perspective, retelling well known historical events with a new emphasis on the part played by individual women. She sheds new light on the prophet's relationship with his wives and with his daughter, Fatima, whom she puts forward as the first woman to be betrayed in Islamic history after the death of her father; like all her Muslim sisters, she is stripped of her rights after the death of the Prophet.
Djebar remarks: "I was particularly struck by the fate of many women living during the period touched on in these pages, which begins with the death of Mohammed; I have tried to make them alive again...Muslims or non-Muslims, they make their appearance, but in unforgettable circumstances, in the pages of chroniclers who were writing a century and a half, two centuries after the events; chroniclers, admittedly conscientious in recording the facts, but of course already habitually inclined to let any female presence be overshadowed.( Far From Madina, 1994: xv)
The novel gives space to a variety of women: women from the Prophet's immediate family, migrant women, Madinan women, Meccan women, rebel women and Muslim women involved in fighting. Most of whom are excluded from the pages of Islamic history and literature.
A most disturbing feature in the widely distributed feature film Al-Risalah (The Message), which relates the history of early Islam, is the obtrusive absence of such women. The only woman to be given an active role is Hind, the wife of abu-Sufyan, who, led by feelings of revenge, organised the killing of Hamza, one of the main characters in the movie, and with the use of a dagger she cut a slice of his liver and ate it.
The portrayal of women in this film does, in deed, raise questions, one sure thing is that it fails to take the opportunity to portray the revolutionary aspect of Islam with regard to the new roles adopted by women, as it denies them their contribution and sacrifices in the establishment of the new religion. At this point it is worth mentioning the revolutionary role of Islam in saving women from the atrocities they went through in pre-Islamic Arabia. Islam put an end to female infanticide, and gave women the right to inheritance rather than being themselves part of the inheritance and being sold and bought in market place.
Though not in a very obvious manner, the film bears a misogynous aspect, as it is content to focus on one negative female character, obliterating the roles played by an immense number of women. Suffice to say that the first convert to Islam, is Khadija, the Prophet's first wife, whose status in Mecca gave him protection from the prosecution of the Maccan nobility. In this, Al-Risalah makes it clear that the protection the Prophet enjoyed in Mecca was not Khadija's, but rather that of his uncle Abd al-Muttalib, which in a way is a distortion of reality.
This leads to the distorting role played by the Arab media in promoting a negative image of women. Azza Kamel, head of Appropriate Communication Technic (ACT) in Egypt, cites examples of contemporary Egyptian films with titles verging on the misogynous, such as A Dangerous Woman, The Devil is a Woman, A Woman of iII-Repute, The Curse of a Woman, and so on". (Women's Rights and the Media, p.13)
Such misogynous portrayals have proliferated in an alarming pace during the last three decades. 'Guardians of Islam', who claim to be concerned about its future and make it their duty to save Muslim society from the danger of change and westernisation, invested in publishing extensively on women and Islam, making the preservation of the Muslim faith synonymous of the preservation of women. What is most interesting in this matter is " that this is happening at a time when Arab publishing is experiencing a severe crisis...so it is indeed surprising to find that these new editions are often issued in luxurious bindings and are circulating at astonishing low prices" (Mernissi, p.97) Such publications promote ideas which stipulate that:
Housework is more suited to female biology and psychology than professional work; the rates of mortality and morbidity are actually higher among employed women than among women who stay at home; employed women are less moral; and female employment causes male unemployment. It is asserted that a woman's natural place is within the confines of her home, and her natural job is to look after the well being of her husband and give birth to the next generation of good Muslims. The outside world is designed for men and any woman who dares to venture into it is exposing herself to the masculine gaze, and thus causing fitna, discord ( ZSS)
Among these books one can find the new edition of Ibn al-Jawzi's Kitab ahkam al-nisa' , (Statutory Provisions Concerning Women). The republication of this book in 1980 is part of a veritable media campaign.
A quick reading of some of its chapter titles gives you the picture: chapter 26, 'Advise Women Against going out'; chapter 27, ' The Benefits for the Woman who opts for the Household', Chapter 31, ' Evidence Proving that it is better for a Woman not to see men', and chapter 67 gives the husband "the right to hit his wife". The most amazing chapter, however, is Chapter 6, devoted to the ' Circumcision of Women'. In this chapter Ibn al-Jawzi details the physical mutilations that are imposed on women, such as excision, which has absolutely nothing to do with Islam and which was completely unknown in the seventh-century Arabia. ( Mernissi, p.98)
Another publication to contain a chapter on this matter is published in 1983 under the title Fatawa al-nisa' (Fatwas Concerning Women), a book extracted from Ibn Taymiya's 35 volumes of fatwas Majmu' al-Fatawa al-Kubra (Collection of the great fatwas: Fatwas are judgements by great religious authorities on a given subject).
The most misogynist of the current crop, however, is the new edition of Husn al-Uswa (The Best Example) by M.S.Hassan Khan al-Qannuji in 1981. It speaks of women's sexual appetite, their inability to reason, and their number among the population of hell.
Disturbed by such unparalleled misogyny, Fatima Mernissi undertakes an historical and theological enquiry in her book Women and Islam , which she opens with a clear and simple question: Is Islam opposed to women?
To attempt and answer this question Mernissi invites her reader into the dark back streets of Medina, the first Islamic city, where the Prophet Mohammed established the new religion. She then faces the reader with another basic question: " Why is it that we find some Muslim men saying that women in Muslim states cannot be granted full enjoyment of human rights? What grounds do they have for such a claim? None!, she answers, "they are simply betting on our ignorance of the past, for their argument can never convince anyone with an elementary understanding of Islam's history ( Mernissi: 1991,vii).
Therefore, the way forward is to dissipate all fogginess over Islamic history and invite women to rely on their own understanding and interpretation of Islam, rather than totally depend on male interpretations of this religion giving them the privilege of appropriating it as being solely their own domain.
Like Assia Djebar, and other Islamic feminists, Fatima Mernissi studies with great dedication the works of Muslim scholars such as Al-Tabari, Ibn Hisham, Ibn Sa'ad and Ibn Hajar.
Shocked by the misogyny contained in some hadiths that denigrate women, Mernissi and Djebar make further investigation into their authenticity, and carry out historical and methodological research as to how such sayings could have come from the Prophet of Islam who championed women's rights.
The hadith, which mostly disturbed Mernissi, states that women cannot become leaders of the Muslims, in other words it denies Muslim women their right to political leadership. According to Al-Bukhari , it is supposed to have been Abu Bakra who heard the Prophet say: "Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity" ( Bukhari, vol.4, p.226). Mernissi claims, nothing bans me as a Muslim woman, from making a double investigation of this Hadith and its author, and especially of the conditions in which it was first put to use. Who uttered this Hadith, where, when, why, and to whom?
(Mernissi: 1991, p.49).
After a meticulous investigation to set straight the historical record, Mernissi casts doubt about the integrity of Abu Bakra whose memory she finds rather astonishing, as he always managed to come up with suitable Hadiths at critical moments. She says: " Abu Bakra had truly astonishing memory for politically opportune Hadith which curiously-and most effectively-fitted into the stream of history. ( Mernissi: 1991, p.58).
The outcome is then to deny or at least doubt that the Prophet could have said such a misogynous Hadith. Furthermore, Mernissi warns about the authenticity of several other Hadiths that could have been distorted or even fabricated by the likes of Abu Bakra, and remarks that a tradition of misogyny was omnipresent in early Islamic history, manifesting itself as a remnant of pre-Islamic Arabian culture.
It is this inherited misogyny that continued to cast women as evil, deficient in intellect and inferior, despite the fact that the Prophet did not restrict his wives, but respected them as partners, whom he consulted about several political and social matters, and whom he encouraged to play an effective role in public life.
However, if Mernissi and Djebar and other Islamic feminist writers have managed to cast doubt on some narrators of the Prophetic tradition, such as Abu Bakra (as seen above), and Abu Hurayra, whom the Prophet's wife Aisha had criticised at several instances (see Mernissi, p.76), arguing that the omnipresent misogyny in Arabian society may have infiltrated the sayings of the Prophet, what answer could Fatima Mernissi and other Islamic feminists give to the radical feminists of the likes of Azam Kamgyan, Haideh Moghissi, Khalida Messaoudi and others who could say that such misogyny is also contained in the Qur'anic text. It is true that Islam considered men and women as equals, and the only basis for superiority of any person over another is piety and righteousness, not gender, colour or nationality. The Qur'an considers women men's equal partners, as demonstrated in the verse bellow:
Muslim men and Muslim women, believing men and believing women, obedient men and obedient women, truthful men and truthful women, steadfast men and steadfast women, humble men and humble women, men and women who give alms, men who fast and women who fast, men and women who guard their modesty, men and women who remember God much, for them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward (The Qur'an, chapter 33, verse 35)
Yet, is it not the Qur'an that also states clearly that " Men have charge of women, because Allah has preferred the one above the other and because they spend their wealth on them...If there are women whose disobedience you fear, you may admonish them, refuse to sleep with them, and then beat them"( The Qur'an chapter 4, verse 34).
In her article 'Women, Political Islam and Islamic Feminism', Azam Kamgyan, a member of the Middle Eastern Women's Association in London, insists that if the main purpose of Islamic feminism is to prove that Islam does not go against women's rights, then Islamic feminists should take a look at the status of women living under Islamic republics. If not then I invite them to read carefully the following chapters in the Qur'an: Women, The Cow, Light, Smoke, The All-Merciful and The Night Journey.
In her book Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism, Haideh Moghissi describes Islamic feminism as a heroic effort to rescue Islam from its bad reputation in the treatment of women. She insists that one should clearly distinguish between Islam as a faith, Islam as the ideology of a movement in opposition, and Islam as a ruling system, that is Islamic fundamentalism. Further on she accuses the Islamic feminists for making concessions to fundamentalist regimes and movements. Moghissi questions:
Is this tendency driven by fear of physical violence or by a paralysing anxiety lest one be accused of cultural insensitivity or 'Orientalist' tendencies? Or is it a post-modern specimen of the attitude to 'exotic' practices and institutions which, viewed from afar, are celebrated as ' authentic', 'local' responses to indigenous problems -and excused as inevitable because they 'fit' with the culture? Whatever the reason, despite their seemingly radical appearance I argue that such perspectives are quite conservative. (Moghissi: 1999, p.6)
I do not disagree with Moghissi in this, however I would like to add that the value of such enquiries is that they have at least resulted in a female version of Islamic history, and that these women have put their hand on sources that were for long considered the domain of men only. If these academic investigations failed to reach a wide audience of women, as they failed to bear fruit in the social domain, they have opened the door for further questions and further research to be carried out. Moreover, their re-reading of the sources exposed their patriarchal interpretations and opened the door for a fairer understanding of Islam.
In this, feminists' views have diverged a great deal. Whereas Mernissi, El-Saadawi and Leila Ahmed reject the veil for its imprisoning and political aspect, Yamani, Afshar and Maha Azzam view it within social and cultural realities.
I believe there isn't another religious manifestation that stirred up such strong feelings as has the Islamic veil, which in today's context does not merely symbolise the religiosity of the person who wears it, or the subjugation of women as we often imagine, but takes a political dimension as it is often linked with political Islam.
Another precision I would like to make is the fact that while in some Muslim countries the veil is obligatory, such as in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, in some other countries it is left to the individual to decide whether to adopt the veil or not. One has also to point out the role of local customs in this matter, as the veil does not take a religious dimension nor is it imposed by governmental decree, but becomes part of local dress. In Muslim countries, whose governments are secular, such as Turkey and Tunisia, the veil is not permitted in the work place.
Another important feature I would like to point out is the varieties of veil that exist throughout the Muslim word. In fact, the existence of such varieties make the use of the term 'veil', a convenient shorthand for women's Islamic dress, which refers to the practice in which a woman covers her head and all of her body except her hands.
Most known forms of veil include: 1- The hijab, which is usually a dark coloured cloak and headscarf. 2- The niqab, usually described as a black gown that covers the whole body including the face and the hands. In this instance black gloves and stockings are worn whenever the woman goes out or is in the presence of men other than her father, husband, and other unmarriageable male relatives. 3- The burqa, mainly worn in Afghanistan and covers the whole body, from head to toe, having a kind of net around the eyes area. 4- The haik, also known as Turkish veil, is mainly worn in North Africa. It consists of a white sheet, which wraps the whole body showing only the hands and eyes. 5- Chador, mainly worn in Iran as an icon of the Islamic revolution. It is a kind of black sheet drawn on the entire body.
The variations in the form of the woman's Islamic dress indicate that there is no set description of the veil in the Qur'an. It is also important to add that covering of the face and body existed well before Islam. In some Arabian tribes various leather or fabric masks are worn to cover the face.
The Islamic veil was first imposed on a certain category of women: the wives of the prophet, at a given time: early Islam, in a given environment: Medina, and for specific reasons: ta 'arrudh, meaning that women, whatever their status were being harassed in the street. When this matter was brought to the attention of the Prophet, he sent some emissaries to question those who were acting in this manner, and they explained that they only harassed women they believed to be slaves.
At this stage God revealed verse 59 of chapter 33, in which He advised the wives of the Prophet to make themselves recognised by pulling their cloaks over themselves:
O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the women of the muminun [believers] to draw their outer garments closely round themselves. This makes it more likely that they will be recognised and not harmed
Soon after this events the Prophet's wives as well as women of the notables adopted the veil to protect themselves from harassment, which signifies recognition of the street as a male's space, where women were exposed to violence, pressure and constraint. At this point, I would like to question the legitimised harassment of slave women. Isn't Islam a religion that considers all Muslims equal? Also, Why is it that instead of educating the members of the new Islamic state to respect women and institute rights to protect them against violence in the streets, women were actually excluded from public space and the woman's body was considered 'awra, literally meaning nudity? Therefore, their only safe venture to the outside world was under the cover of the veil. Amina Khamiz al-Dhaheri remarks that it is precisely because elements in society consider women's bodies to be dangerous that women are expected to veil themselves as protection against immorality and seduction. (Women's Rights and the Media, pp.13-14)
The discussion of this matter in modern day history goes back to 1899, when Qasim Amin published his book Tahrir al-Mar'a, (The Emancipation of Women). Its unequivocal and eloquent attack on the position of women in Islamic society caused an immediate and lasting storm of controversy; a host of books and articles appeared attacking and defending the views he propounded. (Le Gassick: 1979, p.39) The publication of his second book, Al-Mar'a al-Jadida, (The New Woman) in 1901, added further fuel to the controversy. Qasim Amin did not give ground or attempt to compromise with the opposition, but amplified and extended his earlier points, insisting that all human society, including that of Islam, must seek improvement through constant development, and at the same time as he acknowledges the sensitivity and controversial aspect of the subject, he tries to disarm those critics certain to accuse him of introducing a bid'a, heresy, by charging them with being superficial and brain-lazy. ( Le Gassick: 1979, p.40).
Nevertheless, it took twenty years for Egyptian women to respond to Qasim Amin's call and summon their courage to go into the streets unveiled. This took place during the 1919 uprising " amidst the violent disorders and protests at Britain's continued refusal to grant Egypt independence" ( Ibid.)
Extensive discussions about the veil followed the work of Qasim Amin and have never come to a halt. All over the Muslim world feminists launched violent attacks on the veil comparing the act of unveiling to the act of liberating women. However, whereas some feminists discuss the veil within the social context of Muslim societies, taking a mild approach as to whether to wear or remove the veil, some other feminists argue that the veil is not a prerogative of Islam and was only prescribed to the wives of the Prophet. Another group of feminist activists reject the veil in a radical manner casting it as an object that excludes women from the public sphere, which they can only enter under the cover of the veil, in other words it suppresses women and only allows them to enter the public space as unidentifiable beings. Thus, the veil is described as a symbol of oppression.
Whereas the fifties saw a massive rejection of the veil mainly in newly liberated countries, the last two decades have been marked with a return to the veil. I have identified three reasons for this return, as follows:
First: A return for social reasons, as many women speak of the veil being more convenient for social reasons as they failed to impose themselves in the public space without being harassed by men. The veil liberates them from sexual harassment and public gaze and permits them to access areas in the public domain with less trouble. Such reaction might be considered as a defeat experienced by women who are being forced by social pressure to give in to society's demands. It is interesting to notice here that this act takes us back to the days of early Islam when women in Medina had to resort to the veil to protect themselves from sexual harassment. In this I disagree with those who maintain that the veil is liberating in that it enables women to become the observers and not the observed (Ibid.). For me this constitutes a kind of retreat from once public space, making women's safest place only in the confines of the home and whenever they move to the public space they have to enter it under the shield of the veil.
Second: A return for economic reasons, many women resort to the veil as they fail to cope with the dictates of fashion industry, which are increasingly taking an enslaving aspect with the economic decline experienced by the majority of Muslim countries.
Third: A political return, as the veil is being claimed by Islamist women, as it symbolises a return to their Muslim identity. Haleh Afshar comments: " Islamist women are particularly defensive of the veil. The actual imposition of the veil and the form it has taken is a contested domain. Nevertheless, many Muslim women have chosen the veil as the symbol of Islamisation and have accepted it as the public face of their revivalist position. For them the veil is a liberating, and not an oppressive force."
Many leading Islamist women refute the idea of veiling as a symbol of oppression, Samira Fayyad ( Fayyad in Roald: 2001), who has been active in the struggle for female influence in the Islamist movement in Jordan, writes:
There are many roots of this significance in woman's position. The first of which is the divergence of women's liberation movements away from the essence of the problem. Those involved in the movement should have joined the mainstream of a general liberation movement working for the liberation of man and woman in times when both were suffering. Upholding her banner of woman's liberation emphasized her peculiarities as female and overlooked her integral nature as a rational and sensible human being. Rather, she should have concerned herself with the national problems side by side along with men bearing full responsibility, ignoring marginal matters such as changing dress-styles and other trivialities.
I am rather surprised by the naiveté of such claims, Arab women have always sided their male compatriots in battle or national struggle, to be rewarded thereafter with betrayal. The best example in such instance is the betrayal of Algerian women after the national revolution.
Under war circumstances Algerian women removed their veils in the 1950's, and moved from their roles as mothers, wives and daughters in the confines of their homes to take on more active roles in the mountains either as nurses or fighters, as well as being active in big cities depositing bombs a carrying weapons. Their unveiling process was often compared to the liberation process of their country, as is their contribution to the war of independence comparable to the act of liberating themselves, not only from the shackles of colonialism but also from those of tradition and patriarchy. The Battle of Algiers portrays this unveiling process among the women of Algiers in a very tactful manner, women made use of their veil to smuggle arms when French soldiers were not permitted to search them, as they were made to understand that a Muslim woman was not to be touched by men, yet when the French army found out about women's contribution to the war from under their veils they resorted to searching them. At this stage they removed the veil and dressed like Europeans to escape the search and were smuggling arms and bombs in their handbags.
Moroccan women too participated in the liberation movement of their country. Yet, at the end of the protectorate and the return of King Idris to the country, they were sent back to their homes and were rewarded with a 'Code of Personal Status', which casts them as second-class citizens. A sense of betrayal was felt by women, who at that stage were unable to express their anger and dissatisfaction. In her novel, Year of the Elephant , Leila Abu Zaid expressed the deep feelings of such women in the early years of Moroccan independence. The main character Zahra goes through a double sense of betrayal, first as she goes through the divorce process, which makes her face the 'Code of Personal Status', and second as her husband, who was her companion in the nationalist movement, during the liberation process, repudiates her in the most inhumane manner to replace her with a young wife who could suit his new status in liberated Morocco. For all her nationalist activism and her devotion to her husband and her nation, she ended up working as a cleaner in a French school.
This sense of betrayal is also experienced by women in Algeria, " Soon after independence Algerian men obliterated the strong ties they forged with their female compatriots during the revolution and denied them their basic civil rights". They too were rewarded with a piece of legislation called 'the family code'.
It is almost a set pattern throughout the Middle East and North Africa that despite their visible roles and considerable contributions to social and political revolutions, women are often rendered worse off than in the past in some important legal sense. " The primary vehicles through which the discriminatory attitudes and laws have been introduced and sustained have been theology and the notion of cultural authenticity, the latter rephrased as 'resistance to Western Cultural Imperialism' " (Suad Joseph: 2000, p.288)
Women Living Under Codes of Personal Status:
Codes of Personal Status are a set of laws derived from Islamic sources, and applied by Muslim countries on issues of law concerning women; these include marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, polygamy etc.. As stated above the personal status law is one of the few areas in the Muslim world where Islamic texts and Islamic scholars' legislation have been implemented in the official space. Muslim countries that base their laws concerning women on Islamic jurisprudence do not necessarily refer to the same sources in other domains, such as banking, trading in alcohol and drugs, allowing prostitution and night clubs, etc.., which obviously result in palpable contradictions in such societies, as well as clear patterns of double standards.
Codes of Personal Status proclaim men to be superior to women and codify women's subordination, proclaiming them to be considered minors under the law and define their role primarily as daughters, mothers or wives. Such traditional views of women do not always accord with social reality. In several Muslim countries women are working as lawyers, pilots, teachers, doctors, nurses, and government ministers, holding senior positions of responsibility in the public sphere. Nevertheless, they bear the status of minors in their own homes, to the extent that a woman can be ordered by her husband to leave her career and devote herself to the household, as her primary duty. Contemporary interpretations of Islamic law claim that women can only go out to work if they do not neglect their household duties and above all it must be remembered that married women can only leave the confines of their homes with the consent of their husbands. Such views are widespread in most Muslim countries, which often make women who want to keep a career end up in perpetual exhaustion and depression, trying to cope between career and home. It is worth mentioning that in rural areas women's workloads are often double the loads of men, and although they contribute considerably to the family income, their work in the fields or in the home is often invisible.
In more radical countries, however, many professions are closed to women. In Iran, for example, women lost all they had struggled for over a century with the arrival of the Islamic republic. " Female judges were sacked, the faculty of law closed its door to female applicants and article 163 of the Islamic constitution declared that women could not become judges" ( Yamani: 1996, p.201), because, according to conservative ulama, judgement was considered the prerogative of Muslim males only. In the early post-revolutionary years Iranian women were barred from almost half of University departments, and Ayatollah Khumeini insisted that women had to leave the political arena. Haleh Afshar asserts " Since its inception the Islamic Republic has never had a female member of the cabinet and the numbers of female Majlis representatives had been less than five in all but the last Majlis, where they reached nine." ( Yamani: 1996, p.203).
On the other hand a quick glimpse to the Iranian criminal code, reveals the extent to which women are relegated to lesser citizenship. A glaring discrimination suffered by all women living under Islamic laws is the fact that the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man, meaning that the testimony of one woman is not valid. Under Iranian criminal law women's lives are worth only half as much as men's and " although women have to take full responsibility for their actions from the time they reach 'maturity' (marriageable age) at age nine, males take responsibility for their actions only from the age of fifteen ( Suad Joseph: 2000, p.299).
Nevertheless, the family code is the most salient political issue for all women living under Islamic laws. Needless to say that it constitutes a tangible obstacle to women's emancipation, as it keeps them in a subservient position by making it impossible for them to make basic decisions without the need for tutelage from a male member of their family.
With regard to marriage, the family code institutionalised polygamy and made it the right of men to take up to four wives (see for example article 8 of Algerian family code). In Iran not only can men marry up to four permanent wives, but they can have as many temporary wives as they wished, through the practice of Mut'a marriage.
Whereas men can marry without their father's permission, women, regardless of their age or education cannot arrange their own marriage contracts unless represented by a matrimonial guardian, waliy ( Article 11 of Algerian family code).
Another area where considerable restrictions can be found is divorce. Under Islamic law, the right to file a divorce is essentially a male privilege, which can be exercised without explanation or justification. On the other hand women have no right to apply for divorce, a practice made so difficult, if not impossible, for them. Women may only obtain divorce under some specified conditions by submitting to khol'a, " Which allows women to divorce on the condition that they give up any claim to alimony. Khol'a [sic] is the problematic ransom that women must pay for their freedom, just like slaves" (Messaoudi & Schemla 1998: 53).
The rates of divorce in the Middle East are considerably high, its consequences, however, are dramatic for both women and children, wives and mothers have no right to the family home, since this is automatically awarded to the husband. Moreover, Muslim states do not provide housing or financial support for divorced mothers. Consequently, in the absence of assistance from their parents, divorced women often find themselves in the streets with their children.
In matters of inheritance, family codes strictly adhere to the basic principles of shari'a, which stipulates that the female's share of inheritance equals half the male's share. Nevertheless, cultural tradition often interferes with the Qur'anic source and takes precedence, especially in rural areas, where the status of women as possible heirs is generally ignored, and women who find themselves in such a predicament are prevented from protesting because they run to the risk of being ostracised.
Worth of note, here, is the suffocating effect of traditions on women in the Middle East, whose oppression surpasses by far that of religion. A prevailing misogyny casts women at the lowest scale in society, which emphasises their vulnerability. Women in the Middle East are victims of numerous forms of violence, which in some cases amount to family honour murders, wife battering and marital rape. All three abuses considered by society as well as by the authorities as families' private matters. The introduction of matrimonial laws effectively transformed women into silenced legal subjects of their male relatives and husbands.
Middle Eastern women feel abandoned by their governments and exposed to all forms of abuse. Their campaigns to recover their lost rights, and plea to become full citizens, is often a lonely and isolated struggle. Khalida Messaoudi , an Algerian radical feminist leading the campaign for abolishing the family code, states: " Men were painfully absent from our struggle. This reinforced my conviction that Algerian women could expect salvation only from themselves" ( Messaoudi:1995, p.56).
In deed, at present women in the Middle East and North Africa can only count on themselves, and their lost rights can only be retrieved through their solidarity, hard work and determination. Yet, one must emphasise the negative aspect of illiteracy among women, which keeps them unaware of their rights, and most of all of the enslaving aspect of the codes of personal status.