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There and Back Again

Reading, at the moment, Feminism & Islam, edited by Mai Yamani, a book that I've wanted to pick up since I was a teenager. Even back in 1998, when I first flipped through it in a bookstore, a couple of years after it was published, it was an amazingly diverse primer on women's rights in the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East. Perhaps it says something about the durability of its subjects, or perhaps, it says too much about the relative lack of progress that women have made since that time, but many of the topics raised in this book are still relevant to Islamic views on women's place in society even now. I once thought I would never be able to find this book again. This was the book I had truly wanted to buy when I was last in Malaysia, only to find out the bookstore that carried it had shut down. I myself was only able to recover the title of this book after poking around online. My sister-in-law got it for me for Christmas. It continues to be an enlightening present, for which I am deeply grateful.

One of the major issues presented by this book, from a diverse range of angles, is polygamy. Polygamy remains a highly contentious issues among Islamic women's rights activists, regardless of whether they sit on the more liberal or apologist end of the argument. I've heard fairly good arguments that polygamy represents a relatively monogamous society accommodating aberrant behaviour for the sake of social harmony or, in times of duress, survival. That biologically, polygamy is actually detrimental to men, as it creates and propagates a system where only a selected few men are allowed to breed, with the rest increasingly facing the prospect of being cast aside. A particularly extreme example of this can be noted in Mormon splinter societies where boys approaching puberty are cast out from the community to enable older, more successful men to accummulate breeding-age women. Personally, I think it's all of these factors, and all the various moments in history where aberrant behaviour, and humankind's incredible ability to adapt, have allowed us to thrive.

We build structures with loopholes, legal systems we then spend the rest of our societies' lifetimes refining, to accommodate our own adaptation and innovation. Very often, that depends on communal consensus. Where feminists, and in particular, the Islamic feminists represented in the book, come in, is at junctures in history where systems are no longer representative of social needs, or more precisely, when systems are approaching the point where they must be re-adapted or break. For most of these feminists, polygamy is a structure mired in its time, specifically in the 7th century, and take the view that polygamy is largely unviable in our present era. Women in Islamic Law, an essay by Raga' El-Nimr, makes an emphatic argument from very much within the Islamic faith that polygamy is still relevant, in fact, an honest view to take from the legal perspective, as it simply admits the fallibility of men while protecting the rights of women who may otherwise be morally, economically or spiritually adrift without the protection of husbands. She encapsulates the main portion of her thoughts in the following lines about the function of polygamy as a means of limiting adultery and its effects (ie. a problem to monogamous society due to aberrant behaviour):

"Islam cannot compromise on moral standards or tolerate hypocrisy, nor can Islam deny the existence of the problem or resort to condemnations and prohibitions. To save a man from his own self, to protect the woman involved, whether she is the wife or the secret friend, against unecessary complications, and to maintain the moral integrity of the society, Islam has allowed polygamy with restrictions."

What this entire statement fails to take into account is that polygamy may protect the husband and the "secret friend" from adulterating their moral worth in the eyes of society and its deity, but no amount of Islamic permissibility will ever truly address the individual impact of polygamy on the wife, or the family. My mother once had to make a choice to share her husband with a "secret friend", or leave that marriage. The latter option came up as a natural point of conversation, but was realistically impossible for legal reasons.

In Islam, a husband has the right to divorce his wife by stating as such to her. The wife has the right to sue for divorce in front of a judge, subject to that judge's discretion and a long, protracted process in which the court does everything in its power to encourage reconcilliation. Under Islamic law, children up to the age of seven are automatically in the custody of their mother. Sons at age seven revert to the care of their father, daughters at age nine. If sufficient proof can be brought before the court that the mother will fail to raise the children properly within the faith, the children are given to the father. My mother is a convert, a legal handicap from the perspective of the last point. My brother and I were in our teens but still of dependent age. And my mother, with good reason, believes everything they say about the Syariah Court being highly prejudiced against women who break up families, where even polygamy is more preferable.

The choice my mother made was one that many other women, not just Muslim ones, have made before her, and still do in the face of legal systems that cripple their rights. She fought a long, personal and spiritual battle for her marriage outside of the courts, re-established her position as the only wife, and won. She did this because she couldn't afford to lose her children, or her husband. I admire her choice and her determination, if not hold it as an example of willpower that I try to emulate. My parents, incidentally, have a successful marriage in old age, and are still very much in love with each other. However, I continue to be extremely frustrated that divorcing my father, or even the legal empowerment this choice would have offered, was denied to my mother for the sake of continued social harmony.

The view offered by Ms. El-Nimr represents the frustration of aiming for greater legal and social rights for women in Muslim societies, especially when one is working from within the religion itself. There is a dependence, firstly, on acknowledging that Islam grants men and women equality through difference -- because they are made physically different, they are destined for different social roles, although both are equally spiritually accountable for their deeds. Further to this, it involves complexities such as acknowledging the religiously-held view that women are more emotional creatures than men, and thus are liable to have their faculties addled by such things as menstruation, pregnancy and simply being women. This in turn justifies religious laws that stipulate the worth of a female witness is court as being half that of men, that they are unfit for the highest echelons of public office, such as becoming judges, and that when making legal decisions for themselves, they may be held accountable as valid legal entities, but that their judgment is subject to further scrutiny by men.

It represents, in the larger view, a system that has many fracture points, and brave intellectual men and women who are slowly trying to rework that system to reflect current social needs, for which apologists like Ms. El-Nimr are a conservative, reactionary middle ground. I say reactionary because Ms. El-Nimr's stance on women's right is a reaction to the changing face of women's roles in contemporary Islamic society. It represents cleaving to older, traditional ideals, of which religion is a part, as a form of self-protection in a situation where more women need to be outside the home for sheer economic reasons, and while outside the home, change the status quo to enable them to better serve the development of society at large. It helps explain how the world works, offering structure in uncertain territory, and it's one way of dealing with the changes, but not the only one. That, I think, is what I have gained most from this book, the sheer gratitude that feminism in Islam is a diverse landscape, that it is a patchwork of different minds discussing jurisprudence, not just the loud, conservative and frankly frightened voices that have so dominated the conversation on women's rights in places like my country within the last decade.

In that regard, even the anger I feel over one essay's justification of polygamy is a good thing. It means asking more questions, not less.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 11th, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
I would just like to point out that you write out very thoughtful and intelligent essays on your lj while I'm just "bad cello, hate homework, sew, sew, sew" on mine. ^_~

Having said that, Feminism & Islam sounds like a fascinating read. I wonder if I can get my hands on it somewhere. I probably could at work. I've never used the library here. It... kind of scares me. XD
Feb. 11th, 2010 11:05 pm (UTC)
All of which indicates you have more of a life to live than I do. Hence all this time I have on my hands twiddling and thinking. :P

It's a fascinating book, and it is available on Amazon. I would support your local uni library if they have it though. Big libraries aren't scary. They might have an online book searching system. *encourages*
Feb. 12th, 2010 02:06 am (UTC)
That was a very thoughtful post, and it evoked a lot of emotions in me. I read an evolutionary psychology book awhile back that stated, and I paraphrase, that in some situations, women, not men, prefer polygamy. Only a very small subset of men would prefer polygamy, because as you say, the rich monopolise the women and the other men can't compete at all. However, given the choice, women may prefer to be a rich man's 3rd wife rather than a poor man's only one. In a world short on resources, this is the best child-rearing strategy for the woman.

The same book also stated that a large part of Judaism's appeal and spread over the continent came from their banning polygamy. Suddenly young men were able to compete in a world that mostly operated on polygamy.

What I find problematic is to reduce the woman down to her biology. Sure, she has children, but that's not the only thing she does. In our society, where there is plenty and most men have opportunities to make something of themselves, women aren't just child-bearing vessels either. Women have proven to be capable of everything that men are capable of in social roles, and yet an outdated set of laws would still have us believe that she's only half as intelligent thanks to her emotional faculties? If we're going to talk about emotional needs at all, how is it fair to ask a woman to share a husband with 3 other women while he can add any new woman he wants to his household without deferring to his first wife? It just boggles my mind.
Feb. 12th, 2010 02:57 am (UTC)
The point you raised from the evolutionary psychology book is similar to what I've heard/read on the subject. It's not necessarily the most comforting theory to listen to as a woman, but I certainly agree with it. Not just human females, but a large number of animals depend on social structures based around many females to one male for their survival. In that sense, a mate who already has the resources to care for a number of females, as opposed to an untried single male, is more appealing.

It is dependent on the environment a society lives in though. As you've said, in modern societies where standards of living are higher, and men have a better chance of succeeding in life, the field has evened out. This may also imply a more expensive cost of living -- something that has helped push women out of the home and into the marketplace. Women who work, who have more perspective than just the family, are also more inclined to make other choices for themselves, like picking their own mate. When they see that the world offers more possibilities for them than before, they will try to work towards achieving greater things, pushing as far as they can go, and it soon becomes obvious this theory that they're intellectually impaired due to their emotions is really no more than how men are subject to their emotions affecting their judgment.

The same book I'm reading has put forth the idea that choosing a mate out of love, rather than rank, money, politics or ethnicity, breaks down traditional social bonds. It's literally evolving societies, and I think that's awesome.

I've not heard about this theory on Judaism's appeal partly being fueled by monogamy before, but it definitely sounds interesting. Do you recall the title of the book you read?
Feb. 12th, 2010 03:53 am (UTC)
(Sorry, reposted to add some stuff and correct embarrassing typos!)

It is dependent on the environment a society lives in though.

Yes, I completely agree with this. I think it's dangerous to argue that evolutionary strategies for success we have evolved in the past should predetermine our social structures now and in the future. Societies and our ethical concepts evolve, as do people. In fact, biology should have no impact on the moral/ethical "correctness" of certain concepts like human rights-- it explains how things are in nature, but it leaves a wide margin in between for human free will to navigate. What is "natural" is not necessarily "right". E.g. Rape is rampant in the natural world. That does not mean it is right. E.g., most people would agree that despite Down's Syndrome being caused biologically by incomplete meiosis, people who have Down's Syndrome should be afforded the same basic human rights as all other people. They're not lesser human beings. So then, why is 50% of the world's population, according to Islam, entitled to fewer rights-- literally, legally, and systemically made lesser beings, on the basis of biology-- a biology that has no meaning without social context?

Also, I like the point that mating for love is a radical idea. It certainly is, and not all modern societies have accepted this yet.

I can't be too sure which title it was, but the author was Steven Pinker, a biologist/linguist. His writings are very engaging and smart, though he approaches linguistics from a very Chomskyan perspective. I think the book that I am referencing is "How the Mind Works", but it was a small part of a very much larger chapter on either mating practices or religion.
Feb. 16th, 2010 03:27 am (UTC)
I agree with pretty much everything you've said. The laws and social customs that define our behaviour are an equal mix of biology and social context. However, while I do agree that what is natural is not necessarily right, I believe what is 'right' is a very subjective debate. It's part of the beauty of human reasoning -- our ideas are that diverse, and often, that contentious.

I found "How the Mind Works" on Amazon -- will be putting that book on my "to read" list. Thanks!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )