Western world thinks of Muslim women, it is often in terms of Muslim women as an oppressed stereotypes. This includes images of women in hijabs, Turkish women in chadors and women who must be veiled in public at all times. Distorted beliefs about Islamic beliefs regarding polygamy and the subservient role of women further contribute to the stereotype that Muslim women are more oppressed than their Christian counterparts.
However, while strict laws do present limits to the public lives of many Arab and Muslim women, these stereotypes do not present a complete picture of their lives. As ethnographer Susan Schafer Davis observed, Muslim women have and continue to exert considerable influence in the private sphere of family and women's associations. This gave them much more autonomy and power than Christian women of the same era.
This paper examines the scope of a Muslim woman's authority and power within the private sphere, drawing significantly from the primary historical account of Emily Ruete. The first part of the paper examines Muslim laws and beliefs regarding marriage, including the issues of age and consent. In the second part, the paper looks at the similarities and differences between Muslim and Christian wedding rites. In the third part, the paper examines the rights, duties and roles of married Muslim women, both during the 19th century as revealed in Ruete's memoirs and compares these duties with Muslim women today.
In the conclusion, the paper looks at the traditions and changes that have occurred regarding the rights of Islamic women regarding marriage, as Muslim women redefine their roles while struggling against stereotypes, misconceptions and prejudice.
Muslim women's position
When Western women discuss the status of women under Islam, Mahjabeen Islam-Husain observes a tendency to see Muslim women as "the most oppressed in women in the world."
Historically, however, Muslim women have enjoyed rights and benefits that were simply not available to their Christian and Catholic counterparts. Emily Ruete, a 19th century Muslim woman from Zanzibar who married a German merchant, maintains that a Muslim wife "stands in all respects on a par with her husband, and she always retains her rank, and all rights and titles emanating from it, to their full extent."
Despite this fact, various stereotypes about the oppressed Muslim woman already abounded in 19th century European society. Ruete attributes this to the Arab woman's "retired way of life (which) makes (her) appear more helpless and possessed of fewer rights."
More than a century later, Islam-Husain attributes this prevailing view to negative and mistaken views regarding Islamic western customs and incorrect interpretations of the Koran.
Indeed, ideas regarding oppression and subservient positions of women are relative. A closer examination of Muslim women's roles regarding marriage and family reveal a more nuanced understanding of women's lives under Islam.
Choice of husbands
Islamic literature has a rich tradition of poetry inspired by themes of love. However, in the 19th century and in many parts of the Middle East today, the idea of marriage as "the union of two people in love is still the exception rather than the rule."
Critics point to the wedding arrangement as an indication that Muslim women are viewed as property. However, Ruete notes that such arrangements happened in Europe as well. Debt-ridden families, for example, married their daughters off to wealthy suitors or to creditors.
Ruete lived during a time when Muslim women enjoyed considerably more rights, before their roles were later restricted by shari'ah statutes. During this period, marriages were arranged, but even young girls had a legal right to reject their relatives' choice. As an example, Ruete narrates the case of her own sister and father, who was asked for his 12-year-old daughter's hand. Though the father refused because of his daughter's young age, "he did not like to decline it altogether without having first consulted his daughter."
Arranged marriages must be viewed in the light of Muslim culture, which traditionally involves large, extended families. Thus, in addition to a union of two people, "matrimony in Islam is as much a joining of two families as it is a joining of two individuals." In this light, a family's participation in the choice of marriage partners assumes greater cultural significance.
Marriage Traditions and Ceremonies
There are many important similarities between Christian and Muslim wedding rites and rituals.
First, like Christians, Muslims regard weddings as an important religious ritual. Among Muslims, there is a belief that the marriage rite itself "presupposes a numinous or divine involvement, or as a consequence, tends to be regarded as an indissoluble commitment." Thus, though their marriage rites do not always require a member of the clergy, these Muslim rites also mirror the Christian emphasis of marriage as a sacrament, a union involving a divine God.
Second, Muslim women of the 19th century faced strong social pressure to be married. Part of the reasons stems from interpretations of the Koran, which supposedly states, "Marriage is of my ways...whoever is able to marry, should marry." In addition, marriage often resulted in economic benefits, both for individual women and their families.
Christian women from the 19th century until today face the same pressure. In the 19th century, in particular, spinsterhood was regarded as a sad fate. Similarly, Ruete notes that in 19th century Muslim society, "a single woman is an object of deserving pity. Shut out completely by precept and custom from any intercourse with men, and without any protection, her position frequently becomes a painful one."
Finally, there are also significant similarities between the Christian and Muslim wedding ceremonies and traditions.
Before the wedding, both Christian and Arab brides traditionally prepare a dowry or a trousseau. Brides in Europe, for example, typically assemble a dress and other items deemed necessary for the new bride.
Similarly, an Arab bride receives a dowry comparable to her rank. This could include dresses, jewelry, slaves, houses and money. Richer or higher-status brides receive these as presents from her parents of her in-laws.
Arab brides also don special finery on the occasion of their weddings. In Europe, such finery is defined by a white dress. Among Ruete's people, brides don new garments, although they have considerable choice regarding the style and color of their outfits. In addition, they receive special and expensive perfumes for their hair.
As with the Christian tradition, wedding ceremonies are public events. Until today, most Christian wedding ceremonies involve a religious ceremony attended by family and friends, followed by a wedding feast.
Since Muslims view marriage as a union of families, weddings are considered community events. Their marriage ceremonies, however, last longer than traditional Christian ceremonies. The bride is not presented to the groom until the third day of the ceremony, as relatives joyously escort her to her new house. Throughout this time, relatives and well-wishers partake in sumptuous feasts prepared by the community.
Perhaps no Islamic marriage practice is as widely misunderstood or stereotyped as polygamy. However, as Islam-Husain observes, the Koran neither encourages nor requires polygamy.
In fact, several passages in the Koran seem to discourage polygamy, such as "marry women of your choice, two or three or four: but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them then only one."
Again, polygamy should be viewed in light of the cultural atmosphere in which the practice was born. Widowed women and orphans suffered greatly from many strictures that forbade women from working - strictures that also existed for women in the 19th century. Some feminist scholars thus interpret polygamy as a humane way to address the needs of many women and children who would have otherwise been left in abject poverty.
Ruete further observes a form of hypocrisy when Christian critics score polygamy while being tolerant of a similar practice prevalent in Europe - adultery. She writes, "the only difference in the position of a married woman in the East and in Europe...(is) that the former knows the number as well as the character of her rivals, while the latter is kept in a state of considerable ignorance about them."
Ruete further asserts that polygamy is rarely practiced in the 19th century, especially among people with limited wealth. The practice is even more rare today, according to ethnographer Diane Schafer Davis who lived with Muslim women in a traditional, rural Moroccan village. Since multiple wives result in more families to support, most residents see polygamy as an untenable position. In fact, Schafer reports that a man who wed for a second time was regarded with a mixture of amusement and derision.
Women's social and economic rights under Islam
In the area of property and other similar economic rights, 19th century Muslim women clearly enjoyed an advantage over their Christian counterparts in Europe.
This could first be discerned in the many Koran pronouncements that mandate the equitable treatment of women. As examples, Islam-Husain cites passages such as "And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women" and "You are forbidden to inherit women against…