This article seeks to examine and celebrate women’s heritage in the past and bequeath it as a gift to Arab and Muslim women on the occasion of International Women’s Day. As our ancestors once said: Heritage has many faces.
Through this heritage, we will explore a legacy that is over 1,300 years old, including poetry, proverbs and some jurisprudential and political views that represent various examples of the status of women in antiquity – ones that could never have helped bring about the modern concept of ‘women’s rights’. In fact, they were completely against such a modern perception and placed women within an obsolete framework that merely considered them as childbearing vessels and a source of pleasure.
During this time women were only limited to certain activities. This can best be exemplified in the words of one of the poets of antiquity who criticized women’s keenness to learn the art of writing when he said, “What have women got to do with writing, labor and rhetoric? These arenas belong to us and the women’s only task is to give us pleasure! (Incidentally, there is a famous incident attributed to the speaker of one the Arab parliaments who said something along the lines to one of the female MPs when she requested her right to speak!)
It was believed that women were created for a particular function and the men were compelled to deal with these creatures to satisfy human needs. In the words of another renowned poet, “Women are demons who were created for ‘us’. God protect us against the evils of these devils.”
Notice the use of the term ‘us’! Women were regarded as demons in human form whose opinions cannot be relied upon in life’s issues or when it comes to serious matters. One can find scores of maxims and stories where the final message in essence conveys a crippled image of women and limits her role in everyday life. A woman is deemed a source of pleasure for her husband, a mother to her children and an individual who is devoted to fasting and prayer, and perhaps she could bring water or harvest crops – but that’s the extent of it.
But, wait! This very heritage in which we witness this disfigured image of women that prevents them from attaining a moral and cultural status where they can be recognized is the very same one in which we find elements that adopt a fairer attitude towards women. There exist poems, adages, stories and fables that view women in a positive light within the context of their era; perhaps even applicable to our era as well.
It is recounted in al Alawi’s [al Habib Ahmed Bin Zayn al Habshi Ba Alawi] book ‘Al Mostatraf al Jadid’ that the distinguished scholar, al Fakhr al Razi (died 606 Hijri, early 13th Century) who was a Islamic Shafi’i school of thought disciple had said, “Concealing women is quite difficult since women have to handle things using their hands. It is necessary for her to uncover her face when testifying, or during trial and marriage.” If this were written by any of today’s writers with the same degree of candor in any Egyptian newspaper, let alone a Saudi or Kuwaiti newspaper, it would create an incredible commotion. This is because what al Razi and his contemporaries expressed during their time was not embroiled in destructive dualities such as secularism and Islam, tradition and modernity, peculiarities and globalization, among others.
Al Khatib al Baghdadi (died in 436 Hijri, approximately AD 1044) recounted in his books an account about one of the prophet’s companions named Abdullah Bin Omar who was quoted as saying that the men and women used to perform their ablutions before prayer together in the same area during the time of the Prophet Mohamed (pbuh).
In his famous book ‘Tahrir al Mar’ah fi A’hd al Risala’ (The Liberation of Women at the Time of the Revelation), the Al-Azhar Sheikh Abdul-Halim Abu Shaqa discussed the image of Muslim women as one that was not negative and where she was not helpless or isolated from public life. The beauty and strength of his book and lengthy defense, especially in the light of the traditional mentality, lies in the fact that he committed to citing texts from the Quran, the accurate Sunna ahadith and famous interpretive jurisprudence. A close reading of his book gives rise to various conclusions rather than the miserable image that many fundamentalists seek to propagate along with the prevalent social culture about women in some Arab countries – all in the name of religion!
Sheikh Abu Shaqa states in his book that the involvement of women in public life during the prophet’s (pbuh) time was an ordinary practice. He stated that women were not banned from going to markets, public forums or expressing their opinion. So, where did these conspirators come up with this horror drama that they call ‘intermingling between genders’!
Thus, and as a Saudi citizen, I would like to express my appreciation for the long-anticipated tardy action undertaken by organizers of the latest Riyadh International Book Fair when they abolished the ‘al dakhil’ custom, which had formerly designated different shopping days for men and women when in fact they were not separated based on gender in the Holy Mosque in Mecca long before the advent of Islam. With the dawn of Islam, these practices remained unchanged. Prominent Umayyad poet, Omar Bin Abi Rabi’ah, became famous for his poems about beautiful women who were present in the vicinity of the Holy Mosque. We never heard that authorities and the religious scholars wanted to separate between the men and women in the Holy Mosque because of Omar Bin Abi Rabi’ah poetry of courtship.
The only incident known was undertaken by the tyrannical and bloodthirsty ruler of Mecca, Khalid al Qasri, who was governor under the Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik Bin Marwan. In al Masoudi’s historiography ‘Merooj al Zahab’ (Meadows of Gold), it was recounted that, “Khalid al Qasri heard a poet reciting:
How lovely is the season of pilgrimage,
How lovely the Kaaba as a mosque
How lovely are those who crowd us
When we try to touch the black stone
Al Qasri said, “They [he used the feminine plural] will never crowd you again,” after which he issued a decree that ordered the separation between men and women during the circumambulation of the Kaaba!
Surely, this measure was not adopted out of excessive faith or piety on the governor’s behalf; in fact, al Qasri was one of the most unjust Umayyad governors, along with al Hajjaj, of course [al Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al Thaqafi]. Al Qasri was severely criticized by a number of jurists and religious scholars. The measure taken was an abusive and hypocritical action that contradicted the practices during the prophet’s (pbuh) time. Hypocrisy and discrimination such as al Qasri’s is what can impede natural evolution and restrict situation driving away any element of spontaneity.
The Abbasid Caliph al Qahir bi’allah; it was recounted that he issued a decree in 321 Hijri (approximately AD 933) that states upon banning female singers, wine and other types of alcoholic beverages, and also arrested musicians whom he exiled. Ironically, al Qahir was fond of his wine and was rarely sober, which is also besides the fact that he listened to music and had his pick of concubines and female singers. (Al Mostatraf Al Jadid Page 15).
However in contrast with al Qasri’s action, according to the book ‘Shar’h Nahj al Balagha’, similarly during the Ummayad era and in the vicinity of Mecca’s Holy Mosque, the famous jurist Abu Hazim [Salamah ibn Dinar Salamah ibn Dinar al Madani] heard a woman speaking obscenities and said: “You woman, aren’t you performing the pilgrimage?! Have you no fear of God?! The woman drew her veil to reveal a beautiful face and said, “I am one of those whom al Arji (the poet) described saying:
She removed the silk scarf from her face
And placed on her cheeks a thin garment
She is one of those who does not perform the pilgrimage for the sake of God
But to kill the naïve innocent!
To which Abu Hazim replied, “I beseech God not to torture such face!” This was recounted by Said Bin al Musayyib (one of the senior scholars at that time), who then said, “May God have mercy upon Abu Hazim. If he were a worshiper from Iraq he would have told the woman, “Go away, enemy of God, but it is the light humor of the Hijaz worshippers!”
This sense of humor that Said bin al Musayyib defended and which the jurist Abu Hazim enjoyed, is a sense of humor that religious people lack nowadays.
What is the aim behind all this talk?
I preferred not to tackle the issue of the reality of Arab women today, examining the attainment of their rights and measuring the degree of their progress in obtaining their legal, social, political, media and educational rights. This is quite a lengthy and important issue that many writers have covered and which specialists and observers will continue to write about. Moreover, observers cannot issue a generalized judgment pertaining to ‘Arab women’ and the attainment of their rights. There are many details, differences and discrepancies in the tracks of progress and regression in these areas. For example, women in Egypt, as seen by many, have relinquished some of their rights and their status has deteriorated compared to the monarchical, or even the Nasserite era. However, there are examples of Arab societies and countries that have surpassed Egypt.
In the Gulf States we can see other aspects of progress; some satisfying and others frustrating. However, in general there is a state of progression. Perhaps some people may disagree with that. Despite the state of paralysis that afflict some people when we discuss the issue of women in Saudi Arabia and in spite of the intimidation that is practiced against whoever grapples with the topic, women’s status in Saudi Arabia is progressing not regressing. Compared to many standards, Saudi women have reintroduced themselves into society and are now contending with those who want to lock their image into the old stereotypes. We can see Saudi businesswomen, cultured women, media figures etc. Also, there are some governmental endeavors that aim at adapting with the development of Saudi society in terms of women’s affairs, such as protecting women from violence and granting them the right to work.
It’s true that some steps have been countered and were impeded, such as not allowing them to work as saleswomen in shops that sell women’s clothing, however, there still is a state of motion to the cause. We must expect resistance from those who believe that they are protecting an ‘illusory’ virtue, as they rely on raising concerns that have always been lurking in the depths of the male community regarding the advancement of women. Despite this being a natural and expected resistance, we must be persistent, spread awareness and liberate religion from being exploited in issues that are elaborate and multidimensional by nature.
Perhaps the aforementioned historical stories indicate that we are the ones to decide which heritage we will hold on to and follow, thus deciding our own future.
It is a long and arduous path, but we must light the way even if the glow of the candle irritates those who oppose it.