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What Things I Read

My neighbours see our shared backyard garden as a kind of unkempt, leaf-strewn green land, slowly growing feral. I still see it as a rambling Victorian courtyard, a place where the sun mottles the concrete and a wild little Dorian can play in the mornings, chasing bugs under bushes and watching birds in the overgrown trees. It needs some sweeping, and more than a generous helping of mulch -- more than my daily ration of used tea leaves can provide. But it is a beautiful place, at least to me.

The next thing I have to say does not really have to do with the other, but, I am in a somewhat distracted state. Please forgive the lack of a proper segue.

I recently read and completed Nabia Abbot's Two Queens of Baghdad, which left me in a somewhat pensive mood. Perhaps, what caught my imagination most about this book was not the grandeur of Baghdad as it was first built, or the ludicrous wealth of its denizens, or even the sheer size and complexity of families where cousins were often also uncles and aunts of each other, but a particular custom described by Abbot as quite fittingly, the acid test of a Muslim wife. In the time when slaves and concubinage was common, a true sign of a wife's loyalty was her willingness to part with choice handmaidens, making gifts of them to her husband. The implied motive would be that these handmaidens would then often serve as sexual partners to the husband, in effect becoming his concubines. The social ramifications of this are twofold. Apart from the obvious competition for affection and resources the new relationships would pose to any legal wives, the free children of these concubines in turn were often legal heirs and in competition with the children born of said legal wives for property upon the death of their mutual benefactor, the husband. As a side note, it soon became more popular for wealthier men, from the caliph downwards, to keep concubines instead of legal wives, as there was no limit to the number of concubines a man could have, often no formal written contract behind the relationship (which legal wives or their families could demand prior to marriage; also, concubines were often purchased slaves) and more importantly, no familial or political fallout involved in releasing a concubine from service (legal wives often being married to strengthen clan or political relationships).

The precedence for a wife to offer her handmaiden as a sexual partner to her husband runs to the root of the Abrahamic faiths. When the barren Sarah offered Hagar to Abraham so that he may have an heir, it was more than likely already a well-established custom of the times for a wife to offer a slave, that is, her property, to her husband, with the implied idea that sexual functions were part of the deal. In modern times, though slavery and concubinage are in many places no longer a barrier to human dignity, Muslim wives still face the acid test of sharing their husbands as proof of spousal devotion, albeit with other legal wives - one, two or three. We hear this in the undertone of hushed conversations, when a first wife is blamed for lacking the skill to keep her husband happy; when a man seeks a younger companion, and though the public consensus may be that this is a tragedy for his previous famil(ies) -- it is simply a matter of fact that this occurs. The first wi(ves) should chin up. The faith offers every member of the family a role, and the promises of the afterlife are never unjust.

It is telling that Abbot slyly notes, when during the early Abbasid period, Shia factions attempted to slander the Sunni Caliph as the son of a mere concubine, whereas their imam was a descendent of Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad, the Sunnis retaliated by stating that Fatimah being a daughter meant she was removed from having any hereditary claim to power. Free Muslim women of the Abbasid period, particularly wealthy free women, often controlled their own property (albeit through male intermediaries), spent freely of their own fortunes and were even well-educated. Free Muslim women of present day Malaysia often control their own property and reach the very highest echelons of academia and careers, spend freely of their own fortunes and may be very much socially aware. It's chilling to me that the basic dearth in personal power remains the same over the centuries when it comes to matters of marriage and family. In both ages, Muslim women are beholden to the pleasure of their husbands for personal happiness, whether it's to retain a marriage or gain a marriage.

The common sense of the matter, nay, in many cases, the legal sense of the matter even, has not caught up with the times. Had it done so, divorce would not have to be a shameful idea, because the betrayal of a marriage that leads to divorce would not even be a culturally accepted norm. Had it done so, the honourable separation of two people because they have grown basically incompatible would not drag on to such an extent, as both parties to the relationship would have equal right and equal say to end it honourably.

Strange, strange things you find to think about in old books.


Aug. 5th, 2012 03:40 pm (UTC)
All very good
As I said to you in person, that first paragraph is beautiful, but also very jarringly different from the rest of this post.

The rest was very good but... felt like the start of a journey, or the middle of one. Like you are moving to a conclusion that might be larger than what's mentioned, but you're not sure what. Like this is only a piece of a bigger framework that's not yet finished in your mind.
Aug. 5th, 2012 10:03 pm (UTC)
Re: All very good
I think you quite accurately captured where I am with this. I'm still very much processing what I read. It's such a dense historical narrative. The emotional impact of reading about women working with a deeply patriarchal system was definitely surprising. I'd known bits of this before, and certainly, the concept itself isn't new to me, but the level of individual manipulation within the Caliphates -- reading about that from a historical rather than fictional perspective -- was incredibly intense, incredibly familiar because I'd seen similar manipulation in much more normal, middle-class modern families between wives and husbands. Just realizing that these essential human relationships hadn't changed was a big thing.