Beyond the Veil & De-exocitizing Islam

Cover image of Beyond the Veil

Title: Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society

Author: Fatima Mernissi

Publication Date: 2003 (first ed. 1975)

LC Call Number: HQ 1170 .M46 2003

Late again for November’s selection for A Year of Feminist Classics.  As it winds toward the end of the year, this does sometimes happen!  But I did read Beyond the Veil and I’m glad I did.

I had some of the same concerns that Ana expresses in the introductory post;  I know little to nothing about Islam and it would definitely be a mistake for me to try to make assertions about it based on reading one book.  There is a huge amount that I don’t know.  However, Mernissi is an excellent writer who provides convincing documentation both of the documents that are most influential in the creation of Muslim nations and the experiences of individuals within those countries.  As I was reading, I kept thinking back to Friedan, whose work used lots of cultural artifacts to make her point, but who used them in very selective ways, relied heavily on anecdote, and failed to properly identify and justify the segments of society that she was actually studying. Mernissi is the opposite; she is a real sociologist who, in a much shorter book, carefully establishes the basis of her analysis, brings in evidence from both official sources and a specific dataset of letters for information on people’s lives.  Although the first edition of the book was published in 1975, Beyond the Veil seems much more like a modern sociological text.  I really appreciated Mernissi’s more scientific approach and it did a lot to make her claims more convincing.

Beyond the Veil focuses on explaining the way that the family and gender relations are understood in Muslim texts and Muslim society, from both a religious and a social/legal point of view (and one of the points that Mernissi makes is that in Islam, there is little or no separation between religion, society and law).  Although I don’t believe that her primary audience is Western readers, it’s a really good read for Westerners who, like me, have little understanding of how this dynamic really work and tend only to hear about Muslim women in terms of the specific oppressive practices that they suffer, especially those which differ from Western practices and end up being exoticized. This book is about ideology rather than practices and it gives the reasoning for some of the features of women’s lives in these societies.  This makes it a good antidote for the Orientalism that pervades many Western accounts of women in Muslim countries.

Mernissi argues that the view of women in Islam is very different from Western sexism.  She characterizes Western sexism as an ideology based on the perception of women as inferior in capability, strength, intelligence, etc.  So in the view of Western sexists, women shouldn’t be involved in politics, science, the arts or other public pursuits because they aren’t good at it.  I think Mernissi is mostly right about this; I’m thinking back to John Stuart Mill, whose On the Subjection of Women, which was part of this project way back in February 2011, seemed to be an argument against precisely this point of view.  So Western feminism has had to spend a lot of time showing that women are able to be good at things and that talented women are not anomalous.  This creates a lot of problems that aren’t really on topic here. But in Islam, at least according to Mernissi, there is no such perception of women as inferior.  Rather, women are considered to be as capable as men, but also threatening because of their sexuality.

Mernissi contrasts what is known about the life of women before rise of Islam with the rules that were imposed afterward and finds that women had a great deal of sexual freedom in many cases, especially due to uxorilocal marriage, which means that wives kept their own tents in their own tribes and were visited by their husbands.  To Muslim sensibilities as described by Mernissi, this state of things is chaotic and uncivilized.  A primary concern in Islam (again, according to Mernissi; can I just make the caveat here that everything I say about Islam is based on my understanding of her book and is not any knowledge of my own?) is social stability, and sexual freedom, especially for women, is seen as a threat to that.  The understanding of Islam as a clean break from the past strengthens this perception.  As Mernissi explains it:

Islam too has a progressive view of history. The year 622, the hijra, is the year one of civilization. Before the hijra was jahiliya, the time of barbarism, the time of ignorance. Islam maintains that one of the dimensions of society in which there was progress is human sexuality. Under jahiliya sexuality was promiscuous, lax, and uncontrolled, but under Islam it obeys rules. (46)

So for women to behave in a way that suggests sexual independence upsets this notion of a very structured society with strict rules, and for women to participate openly in society suggests some sort of apocalypse.  Mernissi introduces a few other concepts here that are really important to understanding what these rules are and how they affect society.  One is umma, which seems to be a very important concept, and I’m not going to pretend that I totally understand it. From what I understand, though, it means “community” and implies a close-knit society in which everyone is united by their shared faith. It is not hierarchical in the way that many Christian communities are.

But Mernissi argues that there is a double standard in the umma; that men are members of it and women are not, and a lot of this has to do with the way that sex is understood.  She quotes many Muslim texts to show that sex is seen as a need that should be fulfilled as efficiently as possible so that Muslims can spend less time thinking about that and devote their attention to God instead.  She makes a complicated and fascinating argument about the way that polygamy functions to fulfill this ideal for men—not only because polygamous men have more wives, but also because it formalizes sex in a way that makes it less personal and discourages attachment to a particular person. She shows that this ideology filters down to affect non-polygamous households as well. From this perspective, love is bad, because it is a distraction from religious life; arranged marriage is good because it helps to maintai  a stable society and reduces opportunities for conflict.

Which is not to say that Mernissi endorses any of this; she shows that polygamy’s goal of reducing sexual frustration can backfire for the young men who are left without any social validated sexual partners when all the young women are married to older, more prestigious men. She also shows that this is a double standard because, although the texts that approve polygamy do make mention of women’s need for sexual satisfaction, women are expected to share a husband while men may have  many wives.  She is also very interested in the transition from the traditional lifestyle to a more modern one, especially under the influence of the West. Conflicts are arising between young people who want to make their own choices about marriage and lifestyle and their parents.  There are also conflicts between women who want to participate in society and men and women who are uncomfortable with this.  It’s really useful as a Westerner to understand that the people who react so strongly against women’s participation in society in Muslim countries are not, in fact, resentful of women’s success so much as they are frightened that abandoning old practices will lead to chaos and destroy the ability of men to relate to each other as a close-knit community.  It’s really important to know that when the stories come through of men who throw acid on girls attending school, they are actually reacting out of fear.  This doesn’t make it better, but knowing why they do this matters a lot for those who try to change it, and also to defuse Western stereotypes about Muslim violence.

In the second half of the book, Mernissi analyzes data from letters written to a counseling service, and interviews with women of two different generations.  This stuff is intrinsically fascinating, and she uses it to tease out a lot of useful insights about Muslim societies, which I certainly can’t go through here in any kind of detail, but definitely worth reading.

So, yeah, I guess I don’t have a lot of interesting things to say here, but the book is really well written and researched, and I think it’s really important for Westerners to read books like this rather than relying upon an understanding filtered through more Western sensibilities.

1 Comment

Filed under Literary thoughts

One response to “Beyond the Veil & De-exocitizing Islam

  1. Thanks. I am glad that Mernissi came through with solid information. I had read an earlier one of hers and been so put off that I didn’t read this one. Too interested only in what men think. What she says here basically agrees with my favorite book on women and Islam; Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam. It is a fine historical study. Her Border Journey is shorter and more personal and has the same general theme.

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