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Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate

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Are Islamic societies inherently oppressive to women? Is the trend among Islamic women to appear once again in veils and other traditional clothing a symbol of regression or an effort to return to a “pure” Islam that was just and fair to both sexes? In this book Leila Ahmed adds a new perspective to the current debate about women and Islam by exploring its historical Are Islamic societies inherently oppressive to women? Is the trend among Islamic women to appear once again in veils and other traditional clothing a symbol of regression or an effort to return to a “pure” Islam that was just and fair to both sexes? In this book Leila Ahmed adds a new perspective to the current debate about women and Islam by exploring its historical roots, tracing the developments in Islamic discourses on women and gender from the ancient world to the present. In order to distinguish what was distinctive about the earliest Islamic doctrine on women, Ahmed first describes the gender systems in place in the Middle East before the rise of Islam. She then focuses on those Arab societies that played a key role in elaborating the dominant Islamic discourses about women and gender: Arabia during the period in which Islam was founded; Iraq during the classical age, when the prescriptive core of legal and religious discourse on women was formulated; and Egypt during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when exposure to Western societies led to dramatic social change and to the emergence of new discourses on women. Throughout, Ahmed not only considers the Islamic texts in which central ideologies about women and gender developed or were debated but also places this discourse in its social and historical context. Her book is thus a fascinating survey of Islamic debates and ideologies about women and the historical circumstances of their position in society, the first such discussion using the analytic tools of contemporary gender studies.


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Are Islamic societies inherently oppressive to women? Is the trend among Islamic women to appear once again in veils and other traditional clothing a symbol of regression or an effort to return to a “pure” Islam that was just and fair to both sexes? In this book Leila Ahmed adds a new perspective to the current debate about women and Islam by exploring its historical Are Islamic societies inherently oppressive to women? Is the trend among Islamic women to appear once again in veils and other traditional clothing a symbol of regression or an effort to return to a “pure” Islam that was just and fair to both sexes? In this book Leila Ahmed adds a new perspective to the current debate about women and Islam by exploring its historical roots, tracing the developments in Islamic discourses on women and gender from the ancient world to the present. In order to distinguish what was distinctive about the earliest Islamic doctrine on women, Ahmed first describes the gender systems in place in the Middle East before the rise of Islam. She then focuses on those Arab societies that played a key role in elaborating the dominant Islamic discourses about women and gender: Arabia during the period in which Islam was founded; Iraq during the classical age, when the prescriptive core of legal and religious discourse on women was formulated; and Egypt during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when exposure to Western societies led to dramatic social change and to the emergence of new discourses on women. Throughout, Ahmed not only considers the Islamic texts in which central ideologies about women and gender developed or were debated but also places this discourse in its social and historical context. Her book is thus a fascinating survey of Islamic debates and ideologies about women and the historical circumstances of their position in society, the first such discussion using the analytic tools of contemporary gender studies.

30 review for Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate

  1. 5 out of 5

    Murtaza

    There's a curious and persistent disconnect that exists in cross-cultural discussions of the relationship between women and Islam. In the view of most non-Muslims, the religion seems hierarchical and obviously disadvantageous to women. The proof of this given are that its laws seem to seclude women in various ways and push them out of public space. To the chagrin and bewilderment of such interlocutors however, many Muslim women don't seem to agree with this conclusion. Not only do they insist There's a curious and persistent disconnect that exists in cross-cultural discussions of the relationship between women and Islam. In the view of most non-Muslims, the religion seems hierarchical and obviously disadvantageous to women. The proof of this given are that its laws seem to seclude women in various ways and push them out of public space. To the chagrin and bewilderment of such interlocutors however, many Muslim women don't seem to agree with this conclusion. Not only do they insist that Islam is not sexist — despite the undeniably sexist practices and laws reigning in much of the Muslim world — but they actually insist that it offers them a potentially superior form of egalitarianism, which they actively demand and would be loathe to part with. How do we reconcile this? In this excellent book, Leila Ahmed reconstructs something like a Women's History of Islam. The book traces the origins of misogyny in Muslim societies, but also explains what it is in the religion that human beings, women, who just like men naturally seek dignity and equality, find appealing. In doing so the book charts the ways in which the religion has been formulated and interpreted since its earliest days, right up to the modern period. Ahmed's thesis consists of two main points. First, the misogynistic structures of Islamic law were formulated not during the early period of Islam's creation, the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, many of whom were women and who contributed in various ways to the corpus of Islamic teachings, but during the later Abbasid Empire. As the Arab empire expanded, Islam interacted with and assimilated practices from existing Christian, Jewish and especially Zoroastrian communities in Iran and Iraq. Like most of the rest of the world, the pre-modern Middle East was an intensely misogynistic place. Many practices harmful to women reigned there, especially among the elites, including the maintenance of massive harems and patriarchal marriage structures that empowered men at women's expense. As Muslims gradually adopted the practices of the older and more sophisticated urban civilizations that they came to rule over, the elan of their earliest days, in which women were at times oppressed but at other times were warriors and compilers of hadith, began to wane. Perhaps most crucially, the spiritual context in which certain practices of the early Muslims took place — including practices of the Prophet himself — was forgotten or suppressed in favor of a dry legalistic interpretations of events. Things that were contingent to premodern Arabia were set in stone, while the spiritual background of the actions of the early Muslims, expressed in the egalitarian nature of the Quranic text, were downplayed or forgotten. The interpretations of Islam that that those in power laid down ended up being almost invariably disadvantageous to women but very convenient for the powerful men of the Abbasid period. If that were the whole story it would be quite elementary. Few women would stick with a religion that seemed to have been obviously legislated against their interests. But counter to the "establishment" Islam of politically powerful men, there has always been another egalitarian Islam that has appealed to the broad masses of people, including women. In its ethical and moral voice, Islam proclaims the total equality of men and women as living souls, differentiated in value only by their piety. While the applied outward structures of Islamic law have often been disadvantageous or hostile to women (though not as clearly as orientalists claim, nor have their own societies been much better in the full view of history), women have also justly continued to hear an egalitarian moral and spiritual message in their readings of the Quran. As such they have advocated for their rights on an Islamic basis throughout history and continue to do so. Their allegiance is to the popular, "non-technical" Islam, based on spiritual and ethical equality. It also happens to be this Islam that has held the emotional allegiance of the vast majority of Muslims since the inception of the religion. The first part of the book deals with the formation of Islamic law during the Prophet's time and its transformations under the Abbasids. It then glides very quickly over the Ottoman medieval period before getting into modern Egypt, which appears to be Ahmed's specialty. The richness of the research that she brings to both subjects is impressive. Ahmed mines huge numbers of primary source documents to unearth common attitudes towards women and explain how entirely contingent interpretations of doctrine and history have been reified into law. She doesn't seem to specialize Turkey, Iran or South Asia which necessarily limits the scope of the book but I found that her focus on Egypt constituted an intellectually satisfying case study. Ahmed's reading of contemporary Islamic movements in Egypt, many of which claim women as adherents, is nuanced and perceptive. She is correct that those who try to implement practices of a distant past that they do not know, which is indeed unknowable, are embarking on a fools errand. But using the example of Egyptian women's movements, Ahmed articulates how complex the modern revival of Muslim practice is. Anyone considering it to be mere reaction is missing the story. The Islamic dress of many working women in Muslim societies is entirely novel, a modern version of clothing with no precedent in the past when few women were educated or lived public lives. Egypt's Muslim women are articulating an alternative modernity in their lives and lifestyles, as they have moved into the professional job market, government and academy in unprecedented numbers over the past century. There are a number of general takeaways from the book worth reflecting on. Faced with oppression, some women in Muslim societies have attempted a wholesale cultural conversion to the West as their mode of feminist activism. Looked at soberly, this is a strange response and has in fact not been the norm over time. Meanwhile many "male feminists" who have set their eyes on Muslim women have been motivated by less than noble aims. Colonial officials explicitly saw targeting women as a means of destroying Muslim societies from within and leaving them prone for exploitation. Meanwhile, putatively reformist Muslim men like Qassim Amin have been positively hateful towards the women of their societies at times, decreeing their "emancipation" from the veil (defined by colonialists as the ultimate signifier of culture or lack thereof, a formulation implicitly accepted in turn by reactionaries) as a way of expiating their own embarrassment at being associated with unworthy women who are looked down upon by the West. Things are clearly not always as they seem and anyone making simplistic pronouncements about women and Islam is probably repeating some very tired and inexcusable old errors. If nothing else, I hope readers of this book will come away from it understanding the absurdity of giving Muslim women the ultimatum that to obtain their rights they must discard their culture and religion wholesale and become Westerners. For those who know or care enough to see it, Islam offers an egalitarian vision based on spiritual, moral and ethical equality among human beings. It is this vision that has kept the devotion of huge numbers of people of both genders, despite the oppression of the powerful. No culture or society is inherently misogynistic, even those that have annihilated thousands of women in literal "witch hunts" in their past. In the West, women's emancipation was made possible by the expansion of political freedoms to all, which made organizing on behalf of women possible in the first place. We should allow both the political and social space for Muslim women to articulate their own vision of rights and freedoms. This is in fact possible to do in an Islamic context and has been done by many of the brilliant women whose lives are recounted in this book. In creating such a program for women's empowerment, perhaps a more sustainable vision of feminism can take root in the Muslim world than the narrowly upper class and Western-centric version that was imported during colonialism and has been withering away every decade since the colonizers left. This book is justly considered a classic, both of women's studies and Islamic historical scholarship. It is a powerful rallying cry against misogyny, racism, colonialism, and the many other ugly expressions of power that try and dress themselves up in garments of virtue, whether secular or religious.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Beaman

    Which is worse, having no book on a subject or having a flawed one? This is the dilemma Ahmed's book faces us with. The book suffers from factual errors and methodological shortcomings. Nevertheless, it's the first book to attempt the ambitious task of offering a historical survey of the topic. To mention but one mistake: Ahmed asserts that the case of Khadîja (the Prophet's first wife) shows that before Islam women in Mecca inherited property. To back this statement about women in pre-Islamic Which is worse, having no book on a subject or having a flawed one? This is the dilemma Ahmed's book faces us with. The book suffers from factual errors and methodological shortcomings. Nevertheless, it's the first book to attempt the ambitious task of offering a historical survey of the topic. To mention but one mistake: Ahmed asserts that the case of Khadîja (the Prophet's first wife) shows that before Islam women in Mecca inherited property. To back this statement about women in pre-Islamic Mecca inheriting property, she writes, "Other women besides Khadija are mentioned in the texts as trading in their own right, for example, 'Aisha bint Mukharib (Ibn Sa'd, 8:220. 255, no. 26)." The presumption is that inherited money can serve as capital for trade. Consulting the source she cites, Ibn Sa'd 8:220, one notices a few things. (1) The woman's name was Asmâ, not Â'isha. (2) She was indeed Meccan; however, she is only reported to have engaged in trade in Medina during the reign of 'Umar, i.e. after the death of the Prophet. Clearly, the report has no bearing on the pre-Islamic era (nor on Mecca in that period). (3) Furthermore, she sold perfume that her son sent her from Yemen. So the report does not bear on the question of inheritance at all. That's three mistakes in one citation.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sofia

    Leilah Ahmad provides a fascinating, well cited and thought provoking history of women in the Middle East prior to the advent of Islam. She provides a history of how the prevailing attitudes and beliefs regarding women were absorbed into Islamic thought as the empire expanded. Ahmad goes on to discuss the effect of colonialisation of Arab countries and the resistance from the indigenous populations arising in the form of certain dogmatisms. From here on she focuses on the Arab world, and more Leilah Ahmad provides a fascinating, well cited and thought provoking history of women in the Middle East prior to the advent of Islam. She provides a history of how the prevailing attitudes and beliefs regarding women were absorbed into Islamic thought as the empire expanded. Ahmad goes on to discuss the effect of colonialisation of Arab countries and the resistance from the indigenous populations arising in the form of certain dogmatisms. From here on she focuses on the Arab world, and more precisely on Egypt. While thoroughly interesting, it could have been even better had she been able to include the non Arab world and its history too. Nonetheless it is still an excellent book and still so relevant all these years after its first publication. ********Edit******** Read this first in 2014, then again in 2015 for my MA, and then again this year (2018) for a Islam and Feminism Critical Reading Group, and have upped my rating to 5 stars because this is a book that keeps giving each time I read it!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Cara

    Over 20 years old now, this book is still a great introduction to women in Islam. It's detailed and even-handed, suffering only from an over-emphasis on Egypt and a lack of information about the non-Arab Muslim world. Leila Ahmed insists that Egypt is somehow representative of the Arab world as a whole, but it's obvious she's just more familiar with her own country. I don't really blame her for this. I would have also liked to see some comments on the non-Arab world - even though Islam Over 20 years old now, this book is still a great introduction to women in Islam. It's detailed and even-handed, suffering only from an over-emphasis on Egypt and a lack of information about the non-Arab Muslim world. Leila Ahmed insists that Egypt is somehow representative of the Arab world as a whole, but it's obvious she's just more familiar with her own country. I don't really blame her for this. I would have also liked to see some comments on the non-Arab world - even though Islam originated in the Arab world, most Muslims are not Arab and no book about Muslim women can be considered complete if it focuses only on the Arab world. I don't agree with the author about everything, but though she states her opinions, she is not at all disrespectful of opinions other than her own (for example, on the wearing of Islamic dress). It is nice to read a book on the subject that's not invective and inflammatory, one way or the other.

  5. 4 out of 5

    N.

    A book you won't regret reading, however it is far from being flawless . First, I found the title quiet misleading; almost half the book was dedicated to the feminist move in the Arab world and mainly in Egypt. I won't say that this was not informative or interesting , actually it was, but that was not what I was curious about , or the impression given by the book title. Actually I expected more concentration on Islamic doctrine and customs. Second, the first half of the book had two major flaws A book you won't regret reading, however it is far from being flawless . First, I found the title quiet misleading; almost half the book was dedicated to the feminist move in the Arab world and mainly in Egypt. I won't say that this was not informative or interesting , actually it was, but that was not what I was curious about , or the impression given by the book title. Actually I expected more concentration on Islamic doctrine and customs. Second, the first half of the book had two major flaws in my opinion; lack of evidence or lack of "credible" reference, and some of what I may call "jumping to conclusions". Leila Ahmed, chose to rely on what she called references, though some of which are nothing more than a more or less similar book to hers, i.e. a book which needs a reference itself, and in many times Ahmed depended only on one reference as such to prove her point. In other parts, Ahmed used just one or two pieces of evidence to reach a major and transforming conclusion; like when she used Kadija's financial status and Welfare and another woman (I don't recall her name and to whom I didn't find any reference in other books) to conclude that women of the Arab peninsula enjoyed financial independence and inheritance rights!! Third, in my opinion, the author's argument was quiet vague or ambiguous in some parts; first she was clear that much of the customs practiced in Muslim countries, some of which are misogynistic are due to indeginous customs of neighbour civilizations rather than Islamic doctrine. Ok I can understand that, but Ahmed didn't refer to some Quranic verses which suggest women subordination or lack of efficiency, (according to some widespread interpretation of those verses). Another point which Ahmed left unexplained, was her referring to that "Islam may have given women some subordination or inequality in practical or legal practices , though Islam sure gave them full spiritual equality". Ahmed blamed Islamic societies for concentrating on the first part while failing to embrace that "spiritual equality". I wished she would have given us at least one or two examples of how that spiritual equality would have been embraced or legalized. On the whole the book is an interesting informative read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Katrina

    If this book was not so academically dry, I would recommend it my friends who have been asking about how Islam and feminism intersect. Ahmed gives a long view of women in Islam from the time of the Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) to the late twentieth century, using examples from throughout the Middle East and many from Egypt. At first I thought Ahmed was anti-Islam, since her views of early Islam contradict most of what I've read on the period; she argues that women were actually very If this book was not so academically dry, I would recommend it my friends who have been asking about how Islam and feminism intersect. Ahmed gives a long view of women in Islam from the time of the Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) to the late twentieth century, using examples from throughout the Middle East and many from Egypt. At first I thought Ahmed was anti-Islam, since her views of early Islam contradict most of what I've read on the period; she argues that women were actually very ill-treated whereas others argue that early Islam gave women rights that were unusual for the region and time period. However, she goes on to introduce the idea of ethical Islam, the teachings of the Qur'an that men and women are equal, and uses this to show that Orthodox Islam is just one interpretation of Islam -- one which unfortunately has become dominant around the world and under which women have not fared well. I was particularly interested in her chapter on feminism, in which she argues that Western feminism (often misused by colonialist men who were far from feminists back at home) did much to damage the fight for women's rights in the Muslim world, because it advocates a wholesale rejection of Islam as a culture rather than a feminism based in ethical Islam.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Edward

    Like Amina Wadud's "Qur'an and Woman," this is another good book to read if you want the perspective of a Muslim woman on issues of gender within Islam. Whereas Wadud's book took a more theological, exegetical approach from the Qur'an, Ahmed examines the issue more from a socio-historical one. She begins with evidence of what life was like for women in Arabian society before Islam (Jahilia), moving into Muhammad's time, to the Golden Age of Islam and beyond. Also like Wadud, Ahmed does not Like Amina Wadud's "Qur'an and Woman," this is another good book to read if you want the perspective of a Muslim woman on issues of gender within Islam. Whereas Wadud's book took a more theological, exegetical approach from the Qur'an, Ahmed examines the issue more from a socio-historical one. She begins with evidence of what life was like for women in Arabian society before Islam (Jahilia), moving into Muhammad's time, to the Golden Age of Islam and beyond. Also like Wadud, Ahmed does not sugarcoat the often poor record of women's rights in Islamic societies. Her point is to put this record in a fairer context, since much of the discussion about this issue is often done on behalf of women by men, both Muslim and non-Muslim. One of the most contentious battlefields in this area is still going on today: The Discourse on the Veil. Should Muslim women veil? Is it inherently oppressive? These questions are making the rounds in news stories now, but they are old ones. Properly understanding them, and even knowing why they are asked at all requires some historical background. For this particular matter Ahmed begins with where veiling even came from. Like the "72 virgins" verse, veiling is not mentioned anywhere in the Qur'an. As with the virgins again, the popular notion of what veiling means today came from interpretation and cultural practice over time, long after Muhammad's death. Veiling was actually a holdover from pre-Islamic culture. The Byzantines practiced veiling, and it usually denoted class status. Women from wealthy families wore the veil as a marker of privilege, indicating that they were not like common women who were "exposed" to the public. This practice carried over into Islamic society at first in a very limited way: only Muhammad's wives wore veils. Only later did this become more widespread. Ahmed argues that this is true of many Islamic practices, and is not unique to Muslim societies. All cultures carry a past that influences it, whether this is acknowledged by its members or not. The transmission of values and norms can never be fully controlled, and no society ever makes a completely clean break with the one that preceded it. Think of the U.S. and British culture. Despite literally waging a war with Britain to break away from it, a huge portion of what we consider the "American" way of life is inherited from them. This includes everything from language, to legal proceedings, to classical ideas about freedom and human rights. Getting back to Islam and gender, Ahmed states that at its beginnings "Islam selectively sanctioned customs already found among some Arabian tribal societies while prohibiting others. Of central importance to the institution it established were the preeminence given to paternity and the vesting in the male of proprietary rights to female sexuality and its issue." This produced mixed results for women at the time. Some changes were incontestably good--female infanticide was forbidden and curbed under Islamic rule, for instance. But others were definitely not. Among them were laws that put women at a disadvantage in court and legal matters, like divorce and inheritance. However, this was already a problem before Islam: "But it is also relevant to emphasize that although Islamic laws marked a distinct decline, a Greek, a Roman, and a Christian period had already brought about major losses in women's rights and status. In effect, Islam merely continued a restrictive trend already established by the successive conquerors of Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. In inheriting the mores that by the time of the Arab conquest had become the mores of the dominant, Christian population, Islam accepted what was deeply consonant with its own patterns of male dominance. Islam, then, did not bring radical change but a continuity and accentuation of the life-styles already in place." Women had been losing ground, so to speak, for centuries prior to Islamic dominance. Muslims did not invent this situation, then or now. So why do so many women "allow" their "oppression" under Islam, today? Essentially, there are two versions of every religion: one that is bound up in rules and dogmas; the province of the elite, clerical order. The second is the ethical, often mystical vision that touches the layman in a personal way. It is the domain of the heart, the direct communion of one's soul or consciousness with what is considered higher or transcendent: "The unmistakable presence of an ethical egalitarianism explains why Muslim women frequently insist, often inexplicably to non-Muslims, that Islam is not sexist. They hear and read in its sacred text, justly and legitimately, a different message from that heard by the makers and enforcers of orthodox, androcentric Islam." This intersects with Wadud's book, which details the textual source of these ethical and egalitarian principles. I have observed this myself over the years, speaking to the religious and participating in religion myself. All spirituality begins and ends personally, regardless of how much stock you put in authority, scriptural or otherwise. It is what resonates with you at an ineffable level that draws you to, and keeps you in a religion, philosophy, way of life, etc. That resonance may or may not align with what is considered strictly orthodox, and yet this is usually not a problem for the "faithful." Ahmed notes that many Muslims, female Muslims included, believe that problems Islam faces today about gender equality will eventually be resolved because Islam is inherently just--it is people and their imperfections that bring the problems about, not the Qur'an, or Allah, etc. The same sentiment is common among Christians, who speak of the "sufficiency" of the Bible, and how whatever problems one might have from it stem from outside the text, not within it. So how can the Islam of common practice be brought into accordance with what Ahmed calls its "ethical vision?" For feminism specifically, it must start with letting Muslim women find their own voice. For too long, they have been told what they should or shouldn't do in their quest for greater autonomy. This is part of the Discourse on the Veil, and it is vital to know its history if there is to be any constructive dialogue about it. Ahmed also emphasizes the role racism and colonialism have played in the matter of Muslim female rights. During the late 19th and early 20th century, many Islamic societies underwent a series of humiliations and defeats at the hands of Western powers, a process that took place around the world for decades. Europeans were blunt about their supposed superiority over these defeated peoples, believing their victories to be proof of said superiority. Military conquest was often followed by cultural conquest--the denigration of native practices and customs in favor of imported Western ones. Ahmed notes that a common target was the Muslim woman: "Even as the Victorian male establishment devised theories to contest the claims of feminism, and derided and rejected the ideas of feminism and the notions of men's oppressing women with respect to itself, it captured the language of feminism and redirected it, in the service of colonialism, toward Other men and the cultures of Other men. It was here and in the combining of the languages of colonialism and feminism that the fusion between the issues of women and culture was created. More exactly, what was created was the fusion between the issues of women, their oppression, and the cultures of Other men. The idea that Other men, men in colonized societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilized West, oppressed women was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonized peoples." Colonialism was not only brutally unethical, it was hypocritical. Western men derided the veil as evidence of "backwardness" in Islamic societies, but took no notice of the inequalities in their own culture. Their concern for women's rights curiously dried up once the matter of changing Islamic societies was past. This had a huge and lasting impact on Muslim women, Ahmed argues. First, it prompted a lot of internalized shame and racism within Islamic communities. Muslim men in particular saw their culture being trampled left and right on the international stage, and basically bought the imperialist narrative that this was because that culture was inferior. Consequently, they absorbed and regurgitated this narrative, further enabling Western colonization. The most famous example of this was Qasim Amin, an Egyptian author who wrote "The Liberation of Women" in 1899. In it, he called for the unveiling of Egyptian women as part of the modernization process, so that Egypt could be counted among the "civilized nations." It was a landmark work that caused a great stir in the political and literary circles of the day, and Amin is still often referred to as the "first Arab feminist." As with many historical anecdotes though, this is a rather oversimplified and uncritical glossing of the facts. Ahmed delves into the book itself and shows that for a book purporting to "liberate" women, it does little more than shame and blame Egyptian women for all their nation's problems. By wearing the veil (which they often had no choice in doing) women were holding back Egypt. You can see how this put Muslim women between a rock and hard place. Second, it prompted those who wished to resist Western colonization to associate unveiling, and by extension other issues pertaining to women's rights, with colonization itself: "Further, colonialism's use of feminism to promote the culture of the colonizers and undermine native culture has ever since imparted to feminism in non-Western societies the taint of having served as an instrument of colonial domination, rendering it suspect in Arab eyes and vulnerable to the charge of being an ally of colonial interests. That taint has undoubtedly hindered the feminist struggle within Muslim societies." Ironically, by insisting on the superiority of its ways, the Western world has all but assured that some will never accept them, even if positive or needful. We see the fruits of this arrogance every day in headlines from the Middle East and elsewhere. Ahmed qualifies her lengthy overview of colonialist influence with the following: "My argument here is not that Islamic societies did not oppress women. They did and do; that is not in dispute. Rather, I am here pointing to the political uses of the idea that Islam oppressed women and noting that what patriarchal colonialists identified as the sources and main forms of women's oppression in Islamic societies was based on a vague and inaccurate understanding of Muslim societies." Her point is one that many feminists in more recent years have been trying to make: feminism must be intersectional. It has to account for the many layers that come into play when combating entrenched oppressions, like sexism. Issues of class, racism, and culture, both internal and external, must be incorporated into any attempt toward solutions. Otherwise you end up with white Victorian men and women telling Arabs to just abandon their culture because its worthless. Such "help" is always doomed to fail in the long run for the very simple reason that no one likes to be told that their entire way of life is garbage. If you wouldn't take this well from someone else, don't do it to others. Secondly, it isn't even necessary. Ahmed points out that there is a history of misogyny in Western societies too: "Nevertheless, Western feminists do not therefore call for the abandonment of the entire Western heritage and the wholesale adoption of some other culture as the only recourse for women; rather, they engage critically and constructively with that heritage in its own terms. Adopting another culture as a general remedy for a heritage of misogyny within a particular culture is not only absurd, it is impossible. The complexity of enculturation and the depth of its encoding in the human psyche are such that even individuals deliberately fleeing to another culture, mentally or physically, carry forward and recreate in their lives a considerable part of their previous enculturation. In any case, how could the substitution of one culture for another be brought about for the peoples of an entire society or several societies?" Substituting cultures is exactly what many westerners do when they propose "solutions" for female Muslim problems. "Take off your veil" is coded language for "your culture is inferior, and until you surrender it I will never respect you," regardless of intent. Ahmed notes that the reasons for wearing hijab and Islamic clothing is varied and complex. Many women choose to wear it not just for religious reasons, but because it confers very real social and cultural benefit. It creates a sense of belonging and place that is instantly recognizable and in which women can share among themselves. It can also paradoxically free them from the awkwardness and sexually charged nature of interaction between the sexes in Western settings--women who dress this way are automatically treated differently by men, because it is assumed that they are not interested in romantic or sexual dalliance. Consequently, they can be left alone to pursue entrance into professional and academic fields. Its adoption is much more grass-roots than the Arabic feminism of the past, which was usually more top-down. "From this perspective Islamic dress can be seen as the uniform, not of reaction, but of transition; it can be seen, not as a return to traditional dress, but as the adoption of Western dress--with modifications to make it acceptable to the wearer's notions of propriety. Far from indicating that the wearers remain fixed in the world of tradition and the past, then, Islamic dress is the uniform of arrival, signaling entrance into, and determination to move forward in, modernity." What does this mean in the practical day-to-day life of being a non-Muslim American interacting with Muslim women, who also wants to be just and kind to them? The answer is as simple as it is revolutionary--stop talking down to them. Let them make their own choices about their own lives. Malak Hifni Nasif, a 19th-century Egyptian feminist quoted by Ahmed, was once asked something similar. Her response: "Not dictating to women about whether they should veil but enabling them to obtain an education and allowing them to decide for themselves was the course she commended to men."

  8. 5 out of 5

    Carmen

    Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992. (forgive me, this is a rough review...) Leila’s Ahmed’s groundbreaking 1992 work, Women and gender in Islam, is an extremely well-researched and informative introduction to a history of women in Islam, though, as with any such work with broad ambitions, there are shortcomings in terms of coverage. (For a good overview of her argument in the book, read the conclusion) Ahmad begins her book with a background on women in ancient Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992. (forgive me, this is a rough review...) Leila’s Ahmed’s groundbreaking 1992 work, Women and gender in Islam, is an extremely well-researched and informative introduction to a history of women in Islam, though, as with any such work with broad ambitions, there are shortcomings in terms of coverage. (For a good overview of her argument in the book, read the conclusion) Ahmad begins her book with a background on women in ancient Mesopotamia as well as in the Christian pre-Islamic era, pointing out that the veil and other aspects of culture that eventually became associated with Islam were class markers in many pre-Islamic societies. Surprisingly in her chapter on the life of women during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, she argues that Islam created a new patriarchal order which undermined certain forms of freedom women had in pre-Islamic Arabia. In a chapter that outlines the more open and matrilineal marriage customs of Arabia before the coming of Islam, she points out that Muhammad’s first wife Khadija’s economic independence had more to do with pre-Islamic culture than with Islam itself, and argues that the public participation of women in religion and general life during Muhammad’s lifetime was a cultural norm that was undercut by new Islamic practice. “The ground was thus prepared […:] for the passing of a society in which women were active participants in the affairs of their community and for women’s place in Arabian society to become circumscribed in the way that it already was for their sisters in the rest of the Mediterranean Middle East” (62). She points out that, while Islam did seem to undermine certain cultural liberties women had in pre-Islamic Arabian society, it did protect them from some of the excesses practiced by neighbors. Furthermore, Ahmad contrasts what she calls “two distinct voices within Islam, and two competing understandings of gender, one expressed in the pragmatic reg ulations for society […:] the other in the articulation of an ethical vision” (65-66) It is this ethical vision which Ahmad focuses on and which she argues undermines “the hierarchichal structure” between men and women. She claims that it is this ethical vision, rather than to practice, to which laywomen point when they say that in Islam men and women are seen equal. With the spread of Islam into other societies and culture, she claims that these cultures affected interpretations of Islam in which women were required to become much more passive. She also claims that such historically determined power relations impacted the collection of hadith and the version of the Quran that was accepted as the final version, pointing out that alternative viewpoints on the role of women such as those of the Qarmatians or certain Sufis were suppressed. After chapters about early Islam which are extremely detailed, her chapters on Medieval Islam seem to gloss almost 800 years of practice, and it is at times hard to discern which Islamic society, in which era, she is dealing with. This chapter does, however, serve as a transition between a focus on the early era of Islam in the first half of the book to a detailed focus on 19th and 20th century Egypt in the second half of the book. For the rest of the book she describes how colonialism impacted the history of Egyptian feminism. Because the British cynically co-opted feminist arguments for “women’s rights” as justification for continued occupation, this ends up associating emergent women’s movements with colonialism and the West. Especially illustrated in the fight over veiling, the veil and women, at large, become territory over which culture wars are fought. As Spivak has also pointed out white men were fighting "brown men" to “protect” "brown women." Ironically, these same men were fighting incipient feminist movements back in Europe. Ahmad also critiques early Egyptian writers who conflated European culture with women’s rights—pointing out that it is ludicrous to ask a woman to adopt a completely different culture in a move for equality, especially when European cultures historically had just as problematic treatment of women. She looks at several different feminists from varying backgrounds, including Zeinab al-Ghazali who was affiliated with the reformist Muslim Brethren movement and who believed that Islam provided women with all of the freedom they needed; as well as Doria Shafik whose feminist activism appealed more to Western feminism and who campaigned for women’s political rights. Ahmad continues with the developments of the late twentieth century in which opportunities for women to participate in education grew, as did the return to more conservative dressing affected by political developments in Saudia Arabia, Iran, and elsewhere. Her focus on Egyptian feminism means that she sometimes reviews the thought of non-Muslim Egyptian feminists—such as the Christian Palestinian immigrant Mai Ziyada and other Coptic Christian women. In conclusion, she critiques the tendency of resistance movements to be trapped in discourses determined by the West. With regard to the role of women, she argues that “The Islamist position regarding women is also problematic in that, essentially reactive in nature, it traps the issue of women with the struggle over culture—just as the initiating colonial discourse had done. Typically, women—and the reaffirmation of indigenous customs relating to women and the restoration of the customs and laws of past Islamic societies with respect to women—are the centerpiece of the agenda of political Islamists […:] in least in part because they were posed as central in the colonial discursive assault on Islam and Arab culture” (236-237). In the end, she says we need to escape this circle in a way that would not be “complicit” in “serving Western interests but that, at the same time, would neither set limits on the freedom to question and explore nor in any way compromise” the ability of women to pursue the right to equal contribution to society. One theoretical problem I would have liked her to address further is in her differentiation between what she calls the “androcentric” practice in Islam and the ethical message found in the Quran, a message she also recognizes in Christianity and Judaism. Ahmed writes “Arguably therefore, even as it [Islam:] instituted a sexual hierarchy, it laid the ground, in its ethical voice, for the subversion of the hierarchy” (238) My question, (and I acknowledge that, as a non-Muslim, this is one of my major questions as I try to respectfully learn as much as I can about Islam), how does one deal with this seeming conflict between the technical aspects of practice, even within the lifetime of the Prophet, and the ethical voice that appears to "subvert" it. Is the life and are the teachings of the Prophet, which occurred in a specific time and culture, to be emulated or are they to be transcended by way of the ethical vision that was revealed to him?

  9. 4 out of 5

    Pelks

    This book was an excellent read and really uncovers a lot of the thorny (and sometimes unexpected) ways that feminist discourse about the Arab or Muslim world has been co-opted by misogynist/colonial powers. It also presents a different and, frankly, refreshing look at the differences between Islam as a power structure and what Ahmed calls "ethical Islam". Despite being about these complex and fraught subjects, the book is a fairly straightforward read which remains mostly free of any difficult This book was an excellent read and really uncovers a lot of the thorny (and sometimes unexpected) ways that feminist discourse about the Arab or Muslim world has been co-opted by misogynist/colonial powers. It also presents a different and, frankly, refreshing look at the differences between Islam as a power structure and what Ahmed calls "ethical Islam". Despite being about these complex and fraught subjects, the book is a fairly straightforward read which remains mostly free of any difficult academic jargon. Although arguably the book is not perfect, there were stil multiple times while reading that I was genuinely fascinated by the ideas presented, and I felt that I gained a lot of much-needed perspective from reading it. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in intersectional feminism, and at the very least the chapter entitled Discourse of the Veil should be read widely.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Yon Nyan (BiblioNyan)

    This book is about the sexism and gender roles in Islam. It begins with the ancient historical context and works its way through the years, focusing on how the evolution of patriarchal societies took shape, and then tapers off with discourse about the differing roles in the modern era. This is the first book that I have read regarding Islam and feminism, and I must say that I found it to be wholly intriguing, and an excellent place to begin your research if you are interested in the same subject This book is about the sexism and gender roles in Islam. It begins with the ancient historical context and works its way through the years, focusing on how the evolution of patriarchal societies took shape, and then tapers off with discourse about the differing roles in the modern era. This is the first book that I have read regarding Islam and feminism, and I must say that I found it to be wholly intriguing, and an excellent place to begin your research if you are interested in the same subject matter. The book offers plenty of insight into the history of Islam and how it was shaped by influences outside of the faith, particularly during the time of its establishment. It was quite fascinating to see (via Ahmed's interpretation) how women were subjugated into these severely dehumanised beings due to men sexualising them constantly. It puts into perspective how many things either haven't changed during this present time, or how much of it has regressed in terms of equality. Ahmed uses an array of sources for her discussion, some of which consist of Hadiths and verses from the Quran, usually highlighting how women are mostly viewed as equals within the core precepts of the faith of Islam. I believe that Ahmed asks all of the important questions regarding gender roles within the religion, and how much of that is a society's inherent thirst for power and their need to oppress versus what the fundamental beliefs of Islam pertain to. However, with that said, the book is over 20 years old and does show a bit of its age. The vernacular used is highly academic and severely dry and dense. If you're looking for something that is intelligent but also easy to absorb, you won't find it here. She gets supremely detailed, often time going on long information dumps to provide background or context for one or two arguments that aren't given enough attention to make her point. Another thing to keep in mind is that when she wrote this book, there weren't nearly as many people discussing gender roles and the progression of intersectionality in Islam, so her sources are few and far between, as well as not aptly versed in the subject matter. Lastly, a lot of the words used are also a tad bit outdated given the evolution of language and how many of the words either have different meanings now, or are rarely even used. Another aspect that can be a bit frustrating is that Ahmed's thoughts are limited to the Middle-East and Egypt. This is most likely due to her being Egyptian and wanting to focus on, not only her own background and experiences, but also the region where Islam originated so as to stick to the foundations of these societal practises. While many Muslima in present times are not of Middle-Eastern or Arabian descent, I felt (personally) on a cultural and religious scale that the information can be applied to those who are interested in or practising Islam just because of how much of the religion's influence stems from these parts of the world. Regardless of the challenges that came with reading this, mostly in relation to its age if I'm to be honest, I feel that this is a very vital piece of reading material for people who would like to learn more about gender roles in Islam, and really any organised faith, and those who'd also like to obtain some basic historical information on the evolution of male-female dominant societies. As I've mentioned before, it's a superb place to start because it lays out the groundwork by asking all of the right questions, particularly for intersectionality in today's climate, and shines a light on the commonly taboo topics that very few people like to discuss when having discourse about equality.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Spencer Riehl

    Fascinating, clear, detailed, and readable. Things to remember for the future: 1) This book does an amazing job placing the foundation period of Islam within the wider middle eastern and Mediterranean cultures, almost all of whom shared terrible misogyny and repression of women. Except for maybe Egypt at this time. Greeks were no good, Romans no good, Jews no good, and Christians not really any better than the cultures Islam was originally created within and then spread and conquered. 2) What Fascinating, clear, detailed, and readable. Things to remember for the future: 1) This book does an amazing job placing the foundation period of Islam within the wider middle eastern and Mediterranean cultures, almost all of whom shared terrible misogyny and repression of women. Except for maybe Egypt at this time. Greeks were no good, Romans no good, Jews no good, and Christians not really any better than the cultures Islam was originally created within and then spread and conquered. 2) What Ahmed terms the “ethical guidance” of The Quran is worth digging into more. Ahmed interestingly points out how much tension there is between the messages of the Quran, the ethical decisions of Mohamed, and the later Islamic legal tradition. Basically, the laws are awful, in contradiction with the ethical standards set by the Quran. 3) The way the West influences the discourses within Islam. Particularly interesting is the way westerners who had no love for feminism back Home chose to champion supposedly feminist causes in the colonies in order to actually reinforce their own hegemony. “It was this discourse of colonial “feminism” that the notion that an intrinsic connection existed between the issues of culture and the status of women, and in particular that progress for women could be achieved only through abandoning the native culture, first made its appearance” I have never thought about the way the encouragement to abandon one’s culture only goes one way, and that’s implications for where we believe the root of sexism or racism lies. Very good book. Thoroughly enjoyed and feel more well informed today than two weeks ago.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Dylan

    This book was well written and provided the new perspective I was hoping to gain by reading this. I would be interested to read some other books on the topic of Women and Islam to get a more well rounded perspective because I am sure this book is biased (just like any book of a certain topic). My ultimate takeaway: Religion and culture are two different things.

  13. 4 out of 5

    C

    This book is a seminal work of scholarship on themes of gender and femininity related to Islam. Of course, as Ahmed points out, such themes have dominated scholarly discourse for more than a century, but rarely did such scholarship ever actually grant voices to those it most closely concerned: the subjects themselves, Arab and Muslim women. For Ahmed’s remedying of this alone, it is worth engaging with, as well as for its necessary and valuable critique of ‘Western’ feminist discourses, which she This book is a seminal work of scholarship on themes of gender and femininity related to Islam. Of course, as Ahmed points out, such themes have dominated scholarly discourse for more than a century, but rarely did such scholarship ever actually grant voices to those it most closely concerned: the subjects themselves, Arab and Muslim women. For Ahmed’s remedying of this alone, it is worth engaging with, as well as for its necessary and valuable critique of ‘Western’ feminist discourses, which she deconstructs in a wider ranging analysis of the continual influence of colonial rhetoric. In other places, however, the book is remarkably flawed. Such weaknesses, which I will expound upon shortly, take away from what would otherwise be a remarkable study. The central thesis of the book builds upon a wider distinction between Islam, as a broad spiritual framework imbued with egalitarian principles, and the way in which Islam was formulated as law in the pre-modern period (what she somewhat sloppily calls 'establishment Islam') - specifically, during the Abbasid period when the flourishing of Islamic scholarship gave substantial articulation to some of the Qur'anic principles. The majority of formulators of this hermeneutical framework, Ahmed argues, inherited misogynistic assumptions that marginalised, objectified, and often significantly harmed women. Indeed, such understandings of Islam still remain highly influential today. This thesis is seemingly reasonable, and Ahmed substantiates it with quotes from scholarly giants like al-Ghazali among others. It is easy to trace her influence in the later work of Islamic Feminist scholars like Kecia Ali, Asma Barlas, and Scott Kugle. By far the book's strongest section is its long account of the rise of colonialism and feminism in nineteenth and twentieth century Egypt, Ahmed's particular area of expertise. She argues 'For women in general the effects of European political and cultural encroachment were complicated and, in certain respects, decidedly negative. Nonetheless, in crucial ways the outcome of the process of change the encroachments set in motion was broadly positive' (p.127). In exploring this complex and nuanced topic, focusing particularly on discourses around the veil, she brilliantly deconstructs the hypocrisy of a colonial framework that sought to dominate Egyptian society though a blend of orientalist theories of inferior subject races with stereotypes about 'Islamic culture' (portrayed as a (negative) monolith), and its treatment of women, so as to undermine and justify its subjugation of the local society. All the while, the same elites who posited the need to do away with the "backwardness" of Muslim culture, implicitly advocating the 'liberation' of Muslim women to overcome said backwardness, were simultaneously engaged in anti-suffrage politics on the domestic front. She argues: 'the Victorian colonial paternalistic establishment appropriated the language of feminism in the service of its assault on the religions and cultures of Other men, and in particular on Islam, in order to give an aura of moral justification to that assault at the very same time as it combated feminism within its own society' (p.152). This tract develops further into a survey on the emergence of indigenous feminist voices in Egypt, largely influenced by the colonial rhetoric, and on the rise of Islamist-inspired feminism after 1967 and in the context of the disillusionment brought about by the liberalisation of the Egyptian economy. Ahmed does a good job of documenting how Islamist-inspired feminists continue to carve out space in political and civil spheres otherwise dominated by, one one hand, authoritarianism and, on the other, Westernised feminists echoing the earlier colonialism. In reclaiming the veil from the former (who continually reinforce the destructive and misogynist patterns of many pre-modern scholars by codifying them into their legal systems) and the latter (who reduce female liberation to naive and cheap simplifications, such as their advocacy for "overthrowing" the veil), Ahmed shows how contemporary the Islamist-inspired feminists adopt a hybrid style of western-inspired Islamic clothing, best represented by the contemporary hijab, in order to carve out public space for themselves. She writes, 'the adoption of the dress does not declare women's place to be in the home but, on the contrary, legitimizes their presence outside it' (p.224). For anyone believing this appropriation of the symbol of the veil merely reproduces colonial discourse that reduces liberation to a spectacle of clothing, let it be remembered the veil is not donned by Muslim women because a man tells them to do so, but because they believe it is a physical manifestation of the spiritual modesty made incumbent upon them by God. Thus, they are not (though some do) flaunting their identity for public consumption, but use the clothing as a symbolic embodiment of their dedication to Islam as they believe it to be. In spite of all these strengths, nonetheless, the book's flaws are remarkable - in that an otherwise fine work of scholarship is greatly compromised by occasional amateur oversights and lack of critical insight. Chief amongst these flaws is in her sketch of the rise of Islam, which follows a general overview of the condition of women throughout the Middle East from roughly the 5000-3000BCE to the revelation of the Qur'an. While the book is meticulously cited, and Ahmed often critically examines the potential biases of her sources, surprisingly this attention to detail is lacking in the chapters on the impact of the Qur'anic revelation on Arabian women. For instance, her insistent reliance on the history of Ibn Sa’ad lacks the reflection that such histories (like those of Ibn Ishaq or Tabari) were traditionally compiled to the weakest standard of authenticity - that is, then tended to compile *all* existing narratives about historical events without examining their authenticity. While Ahmed does briefly quite from Sahih Bukhari, her primary sources for this period are often much weaker. Furthermore, she often uses these primary sources to back up far-reaching conclusions, conclusions not necessarily discernible from the sources themselves. For instance, her claim 'Aisha's role as revered figure and political leader in the post-Prophethood era 'had its roots in the customs of her forebears' (p.43), and therefore not - the implication goes - a positive example of the role Islam envisions for women, totally lacks substantiation. How can Ahmed speak for what constitutes the Sunnah of the Prophet's wives and what doesn't? This neat distinction that Ahmed so keenly posits is not actually derivable from the narratives about 'Aisha, nor from the evidence available from pre-Islamic Arabia. Other reviewers have done sufficient jobs at critiquing this aspect further, particularly in regards to how Ahmed often uses these sources to make much larger generalisations - for instance her argument that only the Prophet's wives veiled during his lifetime, and the insufficient evidence provided to support the claim that women owning property was common in pre-Islamic Arabia. But one such other misuse of a source bears mentioning: In detailing the story of a rebellion in Hadramawt shortly after the Prophet's death, she asserts 'women may have rebelled as women, rejoicing at Muhammad's death because of the limitations Islam had brought to them' (p.59). Yet the quote she provides to back up this claim mentions nothing of the sort. I will present it here in full for clarity: "There were in Hadramaut six women of Kindah and Hadramaut, who were desirous for the death of the Prophet of God; they therefore (on hearing the news) dyed their hands with henna and played on the tambourine. To them came the harlots of Hadramaut and did likewise, so that some twenty-odd women joined the six...[The text then lists the name of some women, including two it describes as grandmothers.] Oh horseman, if thou dost pass by, convey this message from me to Abu Bakr, the successor of Ahmed [Muhammad]: leave not in peace the harlots, black as chaff, who assert that Muhammad need not be mourned; satisfy that longing for them to be cut off, which burns in my breast like an unquenchable ember." The entire quote is bizarre. Neither does it support the assertion they rebelled because of limitations they felt Islam had brought them, nor does it offer a discernible reason for why the women opposed the 'harlots'. The sequence is strange and totally useless in forwarding Ahmed's argument. For a book so influential, and otherwise well presented, these transgressions are shocking. If not for the later analysis of feminism in Egypt, the book would be unforgivably flawed. Nonetheless, its continual influence on feminist and Islamic thought is a testament to its strengths. But some of the book, particularly these early sections, require caution.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

    This book is now 20 years old so I can forgive it for being out of date but I don't know that I can forgive it for being titled as it is. The author make legitimate excuses (lack of written records)for a very limited geographic and ethnic focus but given that the vast majority of Muslims are not Arab, I don't know that a book focusing so tightly on the Arab world should be titled as if it encompasses all of Islam. Still, the "historical roots" part is accurate as the historical roots of Islam This book is now 20 years old so I can forgive it for being out of date but I don't know that I can forgive it for being titled as it is. The author make legitimate excuses (lack of written records)for a very limited geographic and ethnic focus but given that the vast majority of Muslims are not Arab, I don't know that a book focusing so tightly on the Arab world should be titled as if it encompasses all of Islam. Still, the "historical roots" part is accurate as the historical roots of Islam are the Middle East/North Africa region. Yet for several centuries Turkey was the center of Islam and the Ottoman Empire barely gets a mention. I can't imagine the record keeping there was slipshod. I like how she explains the two-faced "feminism" of British colonialists who advocated for unveiling in Egypt and yet campaigned against women's suffrage at home. And I appreciate her examples of how ridiculous it is for westerners to have an idea that progress for women means completely abandoning one culture and embracing another. But I don't always agree with the author when she wanders into territory of "it's not Islam that's sexist, it's the practitioners." It's the same game played by other religions trying to justify obnoxious misogyny. She does distinguish between the things that are actually in the Qur'an and the things added later, but there's still plenty in the Qur'an that's not exactly awesome for women. (side note: if your book is supposed to be the direct word of god, I am going to hold it to a pretty high standard for "clarity of meaning" over "vague and open to interpretation"). Still, just because Ahmed doesn't follow my atheist reasoning doesn't mean that the history she recounts is faulty. This is definitely a book written for more the academically minded reader so it can be a hard slog at times and it can be depressing to see how little things have changed (or how things have moved backwards) in the past twenty years, but it is worth a read for people looking to understand women in the Arab world.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Natasha

    The first few chapters in which Leila Ahmed has addressed the historical events leading to the current problems are very informative and interesting to read. The last part, though, has a few errors and is based on selective information.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jarl Anderson

    Essential for a nuanced, global understanding of feminism that includes Islam.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    A must read, for any woman, religious or not, who considers herself a citizen of the world.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Josiah Sutton

    On the whole, this book is a fantastic introduction to the topic of women in historical Islam. There are a handful of criticism to be made: the book never explicitly discusses Surah 4, when arriving in the modern era the book concentrates most of it's focus on Egypt (partially, I assume, because Leila Ahmed is Egyptian), and it does very little discussion on gender in a broader sense (the title includes "gender," but ignores scholarship on eunuchs or on theological gender roles outside of an On the whole, this book is a fantastic introduction to the topic of women in historical Islam. There are a handful of criticism to be made: the book never explicitly discusses Surah 4, when arriving in the modern era the book concentrates most of it's focus on Egypt (partially, I assume, because Leila Ahmed is Egyptian), and it does very little discussion on gender in a broader sense (the title includes "gender," but ignores scholarship on eunuchs or on theological gender roles outside of an affirmation of an egalitarian Qur'anic ethos and a strictly material analysis). Despite those criticisms, though, the book does an excellent job exploring material conditions of women throughout Islam's history, giving excellent research on pre-Islamic Arabia, which many sources remain silent on. Ahmed paints a much more nuanced portrayal of how misogyny in Islam developed, using anthropological analysis of surrounding cultures and conquered cultures, and she does an excellent job discussing the controversy regarding veiling in the contemporary context, touching heavily on the effect of colonization and globalization. Highly recommend this piece for those interested in understanding historical Islam and Islamic feminism.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Liam Malia

    Ahmed's book comes recommended by Ollie Philosophytube (whose videos are excellent and well worth looking up on Youtube. This is definitely an academic text and an intermediate knowledge of Islam and Islamic history is advised to get the most out of this book. Ahmed's style can sometimes be overly formal and academic, and the limitations of the introduction format of the book were keenly felt: in her discussion of post-19th century Islamic history she was forced to focus mostly on Egypt. In a Ahmed's book comes recommended by Ollie Philosophytube (whose videos are excellent and well worth looking up on Youtube. This is definitely an academic text and an intermediate knowledge of Islam and Islamic history is advised to get the most out of this book. Ahmed's style can sometimes be overly formal and academic, and the limitations of the introduction format of the book were keenly felt: in her discussion of post-19th century Islamic history she was forced to focus mostly on Egypt. In a larger, more comprehensive text, she would have had time and space to include the rest of the Islamic world in her study, which would have been welcome. Nevertheless, her study of Egypt was thorough and impressive. The book functions as an excellent mythbuster for a lot of received ideas about Islam. Ahmed is as sharply critical of anti-Islamic western ideas (be they couched in feminist rhetoric or not) as she is of traditional Islamic and fundamentalist views. Her chapter on the veil is worth the not-inconsiderable price of this volume alone. Four out of five pillars of faith.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Faltesek

    Though this book was published in 1992, it remains highly relevant. Ahmed is careful to make clear what we know - and what we don't know- about the birth of Islam, the cultural practices already in place in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and which groups had control of writing and interpreting versions of the Quran at different pivotal stages. This is not a book of sweeping generalizations. It is a thoughtful, well-researched examination of the history of cultural and religious perceptions Though this book was published in 1992, it remains highly relevant. Ahmed is careful to make clear what we know - and what we don't know- about the birth of Islam, the cultural practices already in place in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and which groups had control of writing and interpreting versions of the Quran at different pivotal stages. This is not a book of sweeping generalizations. It is a thoughtful, well-researched examination of the history of cultural and religious perceptions regarding the role of women in Islam. I only wish it had been longer, and addressed the potential social/global repercussions of western views/beliefs about Muslim women. However, the majority of her research was done in the 1980s, when Islamaphobia was no where near as violent as it is today, so it's understandable. I definitely recommend this book.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Bill Kvebak

    For most Americans, Islam remains a religion they know very little about. Women’s roles in Islamic society appears to be one rooted in oppression. Several freedoms Westerners take for granted are not shared by women of Islam. Much like the veil worn by women of Islam, the secrets hidden within are seemingly hidden from Western eyes. Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed looks into the historical roots of the role of women in Islamic society and shed some light on the role religion has played For most Americans, Islam remains a religion they know very little about. Women’s roles in Islamic society appears to be one rooted in oppression. Several freedoms Westerners take for granted are not shared by women of Islam. Much like the veil worn by women of Islam, the secrets hidden within are seemingly hidden from Western eyes. Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed looks into the historical roots of the role of women in Islamic society and shed some light on the role religion has played in creating a society in which women have yet to achieve equality. Leila Ahmed is an Egyptian-American who was born in Cairo and is currently a professor of Women’s Studies in Religion at Harvard Divinity School. She has held the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity Chair since 2003 and published her memoir Border Passage in 1999 which details her multicultural upbringing and life as an immigrant in Europe and the United States. Women and Gender in Islam is “A first attempt to gain a perspective on the discourses on women and gender at crucial, defining moments in Middle Eastern Muslim history” (4). It is important to keep this perspective in mind while reading this book as a natural criticism is it’s lack of diversity in the discussion of women in Islam. The book concentrates largely on areas around Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq and omits women in Islam from the rest of the world. As she develops her theories regarding the role in which societies adopt Islam and the nature of Islam to adopt those societies rules and mores, one may wonder why societies without Arab influence are not explored. Ahmed’s qualification early in the book examines an early study of this topic and assures the reader more will be done on this topic in the future. One of the strengths of this book is the amount of history provided, Ahmed is a gifted writer of history and easily weaves her way through the history of multiple civilizations in the Mediterranean and explains the origins of Islam in a way that is easily accessible for even a novice. Her work would make an excellent addition to almost any college level course on the History of Islam or Women’s Studies. Women and Gender in Islam is organized into three different parts covering civilizations around the Mediterranean prior to the rise of Islam through the present. The first part outlines civilizations prior to Islam and includes civilizations like the Abbasids, the Greeks, and early Christianity. The second part focuses on the rise of Islam and the civilizations to which it spread first like Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. The third and final part of this book begins around the turn of the nineteenth century and one of its main focuses is on the relationship with colonial powers and the ways in which women respond to a growing nationalist mentality particularly with Egypt. The division of this book into this fashion is another advantage for the book as it would be easy for an experienced educator to use parts of this book to supplement any class that would have a specific focus on time or theme. For example. Part three of the book would fit in nicely with a course dealing with nationalist movements of the 19th and 20th century. Many different themes are present in this book and one of the more obvious is Ahmed’s use of the veil as a symbol. Western thought of the veil has is often thought of as an obvious form of women’s oppression in the Islamic world. Ahmed uses the veil to construct a complex set of associations within Islam which will change many preconceived notions of what is and isn’t oppression. We learn early customs within Islam of women wearing the veil was originally reserved only for the wives of Muhammad and that nowhere in the Koran does it specifically state women should wear the veil. We also learn shortly after the death of Muhammad the veil becomes a symbol of status for only elite women in society. During the turn of the century, we learn of some women who want to remove the veil because of the oppression which it was associated with while other women were advocating for the continued use of the veil because it represented something that was distinctly not of the dominating colonial powers and instead gave pride to national feelings. For readers who have a Eurocentric view of the world, the varied thoughts of the veil will bring enlightenment to the complexity of a culture of which they were previously ignorant. Ahmed also provides numerous examples of individual women who played interesting roles in the formation of Islamic societies. In the book Ahmed introduces us to Muhammad’s first wife Khadijah who was independently wealthy and one whom Muhammad relied upon to finance his life as he was listening to and then preaching about God. Without her support, it is impossible to believe he would have been able to continue to reach new converts. We are also introduced to Hind bint Utbah who was the wife of a Meccan leader and fought against the forces of Muhammad. The richness of the people discussed in Women and Gender in Islam enriches the book and captivates the imagination of the reader. Ahmed’s goal seems to be to demonstrate the complexity of the role of women in Islam and begins the process of bringing to light the key idea that is it is not the religion of Islam which is oppressive to women but instead the traditions of societies which over time have accepted the faith. A secondary goal of this book is to open the opportunity for further study, since much of the history of women in the Arab world has been lost or hidden Ahmed hopes to breakdown some of the barriers to the study of women in Islam and for the world to learn more. If her book is any indication of the kind of history the world will be exposed to, we can only hope for more.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Sara-Jayne

    This is a very thoughtful book, and one I think that must be read by any person trying to gain a deeper understanding of our Muslim brothers and sisters. As an overview of the question of gender in Islam, as well as the history of gender in that region as a whole, it rightfully places women at the center of their own histories. (A novel concept, I know.) While at times Ahmed's academic style was a bit difficult to plod through, as a whole I found this book impeccably researched and utterly This is a very thoughtful book, and one I think that must be read by any person trying to gain a deeper understanding of our Muslim brothers and sisters. As an overview of the question of gender in Islam, as well as the history of gender in that region as a whole, it rightfully places women at the center of their own histories. (A novel concept, I know.) While at times Ahmed's academic style was a bit difficult to plod through, as a whole I found this book impeccably researched and utterly fascinating. Would definitely recommend to anyone interested in 1.) more background on the history of Islam, 2.) questions about feminism and Muslim women, and/or 3.) the nature of gender in the Middle-East.

  23. 4 out of 5

    KR15

    An excellent read for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Although the book is nearly 30 years old, much of the discussion is still relevant. The viewpoint expressed is surprisingly independent. The first half of the book deals with the plight of women in pre-Islamic, early Islamic, and medieval Islamic society. This is where the book feels the strongest. The latter half focuses on the effects of western colonization and how eastern and western feminism came to clash. The last few chapters focus An excellent read for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Although the book is nearly 30 years old, much of the discussion is still relevant. The viewpoint expressed is surprisingly independent. The first half of the book deals with the plight of women in pre-Islamic, early Islamic, and medieval Islamic society. This is where the book feels the strongest. The latter half focuses on the effects of western colonization and how eastern and western feminism came to clash. The last few chapters focus almost exclusively on women in Egyptian society and say little about the women in other Islamic countries. This is where it gets a little dry. Overall, the book is a fair account of how Islam has both liberated and oppressed women throughout history.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

    An absolutely fantastic read. Perhaps the best and most accessibly written scholarly work I have ever read. Ahmed brings honestly, humility and a clear voice to this complex history and these timely issues. If you want to know more about the role of women in Islamic history this is the book to read. It will educate you and challenge you to understand your own feminism (or rejection of feminism) in light of the need for intersectional understanding and dialogue. I am grateful to Ahmed for An absolutely fantastic read. Perhaps the best and most accessibly written scholarly work I have ever read. Ahmed brings honestly, humility and a clear voice to this complex history and these timely issues. If you want to know more about the role of women in Islamic history this is the book to read. It will educate you and challenge you to understand your own feminism (or rejection of feminism) in light of the need for intersectional understanding and dialogue. I am grateful to Ahmed for providing such a resource for the 21st century. I hope to read more from her in the years to come.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Angbeen

    3.5 also im just really excited to fINALLY FINISH THIS

  26. 4 out of 5

    Rahma Sofien

    Like all good books it doesn't give all the answers but it asks the right questions.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ülkü Doğan

    the first part of the book is about historical evolution of the position of women in the middle east, starting from the pre-islamic era. ahmed, here, offers 3 basic arguments: 1. about pre-islamic era and the emerge of islam: the pre-islamic customs in the arab world were in some parts misogynist but in some parts they indicate a greater power for women(especially in terms of sexual autonomy). 2. about the prophet's era and the change after abbasids: a. quran's ethical teaching is based on the the first part of the book is about historical evolution of the position of women in the middle east, starting from the pre-islamic era. ahmed, here, offers 3 basic arguments: 1. about pre-islamic era and the emerge of islam: the pre-islamic customs in the arab world were in some parts misogynist but in some parts they indicate a greater power for women(especially in terms of sexual autonomy). 2. about the prophet's era and the change after abbasids: a. quran's ethical teaching is based on the equality between sexes. b. in the prophet's era, women attended wars; joined preaches of the prophet, spoke out there and raised questions; conveyed hadiths from him and so on. thus they were active participants of the public life. c. the seclusion of women in islamic societies has its essential foundations in abbasids, it was related to the interactions with other societies after the conquests and to the concubinage practices in this era. 3. about the orthodox islam: the misogynist interpretation of islam prevailed with the thriumph of the orthodox islam over others (such as sufis, kharijis and qarmatians). ahmed suggests that these three sects have presented a more liberal attitude towards women compared to the orthodox interpretation. the second part is about relatively contemporary debates (20th century). in veil section, which seemed to me as the only interesting section on this part, she critisizes the representation of western model of dressing to muslim women as ideal and explains why this type of feminist agenda presented by western feminism does not work. this book was a good overview for the position of women in islamic history but I think, the citations shown about some of the crucial arguments were not so sufficent (or, let's say, persuasive).

  28. 5 out of 5

    Grace

    Book could probably be more aptly named "Women and Gender in the Arab Middle East." Pretty much the entire book is about women in the Middle East and North Africa - both non-Muslim and Muslim. There are only brief mentions of the status of women in Muslim countries elsewhere, and most nations are entirely excluded. Even many Arab nations are unmentioned. The second half of the book is exclusively about Egypt. For a book which is supposed to be about Islam and women, she spends remarkably little Book could probably be more aptly named "Women and Gender in the Arab Middle East." Pretty much the entire book is about women in the Middle East and North Africa - both non-Muslim and Muslim. There are only brief mentions of the status of women in Muslim countries elsewhere, and most nations are entirely excluded. Even many Arab nations are unmentioned. The second half of the book is exclusively about Egypt. For a book which is supposed to be about Islam and women, she spends remarkably little time talking about women in the Qur'an, legal tradition, or hadith. There is a very dichotomous view presented where there is the mainstream, patriarchal, misogynist Islam which Ahmed calls "establishment Islam" and an anti-establishment Islam called "ethical Islam" focusing on the spiritual egalitarianism of the Qur'an. Unfortunately, one can't really decide to just disregard problematic parts of the Islamic legal tradition because these traditions are the ones practically applied with the most deleterious effects on women's lives. There is also no focus on potentially problematic Qur'anic verses. I liked it and this book had many strong points. Great description of the sexist practices of pre-Islamic people who influenced the cultural milieu that Islam arose in. It's a classic book on women in Islam and worth reading.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Rebekka Steg

    Overall I thought that Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed was very informative, especially the historical parts of the book, though, as others have mentioned too, the contemporary part is very compact and highly favouring the conditions in Egypt. Ahmed begins with an account of the conditions women lived under in pre-Islamic societies, the changes that the prophet Muhammed (PBUH) brought in and the conditions through the first Islamic societies and up through the centuries. As the Overall I thought that Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed was very informative, especially the historical parts of the book, though, as others have mentioned too, the contemporary part is very compact and highly favouring the conditions in Egypt. Ahmed begins with an account of the conditions women lived under in pre-Islamic societies, the changes that the prophet Muhammed (PBUH) brought in and the conditions through the first Islamic societies and up through the centuries. As the historical material for this historic part is highly limited, we are able to learn about Muslim womens condition throughout the Muslim sphere, and not just in a specifical geographical location. All of this changes in the second part, where Ahmed almost solely focuses on the conditions of Muslim women in Egypt. Though this is a very interesting topic, I personally would've liked to hear more from other Muslim countries as well, though I am sure that parallels can be drawn, I do believe that there must also be some major differences. Furthermore, the second part is very compact, with so much information that she could easily have written an entire book on Muslim women's conditions in Egypt in modern times.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Rosemary

    This Yale University Press book might be more relevant now than when it was originally published in 1992. The author’s discussion of women in veils and body-covering dress goes back to historic Islamic times as well as to the time of European colonization. The author questions why European officials whose women wore corsets and long dresses were ones to judge the dress of Islamic women. Interesting to read that the very modest manner of Islamic dress enabled women to move from being in the home This Yale University Press book might be more relevant now than when it was originally published in 1992. The author’s discussion of women in veils and body-covering dress goes back to historic Islamic times as well as to the time of European colonization. The author questions why European officials whose women wore corsets and long dresses were ones to judge the dress of Islamic women. Interesting to read that the very modest manner of Islamic dress enabled women to move from being in the home to being in universities and the workplace without scandal from mingling with non-family males. Of course many of the demands for Islamic women’s dress stemmed from the authoritarian demands of men. The question is whether Islamic women can be more self-determined in all regards rather than having to bend to the dictates of males, one of the worst examples being Ayatollah Khomeini’s push to “drive women back into the sphere of domesticity” or suffer 74 lashes. This book was a bit heavy for someone not reading it for academic purposes, but worthwhile.

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