Why are modern, educated Muslim women turning to fundamentalist Islam? Geraldine Brooks, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and now a freelance writer, explored this question at a recent event in the Morris Sidewater Lecture Series.
Perceptions of Muslim women. Arriving in Egypt in 1987 for her first assignment in the Middle East, Ms Brooks believed women to have a secondary and subservient role in Middle Eastern society. She especially pitied the women under the black shroud, "the uniform of orthodox Islam." But, learning more about the women in the "uniform," she realized that a surprising number of them are professionals, including doctors, lawyers, engineers, and diplomats.
Why would a woman wear the Islamic dress, signifying acceptance of a legal code that "values her testimony at half the worth of a man's, an inheritance system that allotted her half the legacy of her brother, a future domestic life in which her husband could beat her if she disobeyed him, make her share his attentions with three more wives, divorce her at whim, and get absolute custody of her children"?
Explanations. Ms Brooks found three explanations for women's adopting fundamentalist Islam.
(1) Pragmatics: The Middle East is a society where women at work are not readily accepted as peers. Veiling permits a woman to be more accepted in the workplace because, as a colleague of Ms Brooks explained, "men have to deal with my mind and not my body." In addition, an Islamic women's sisterhood exists, a sort of "old-chador network" that furthers the careers of fundamentalist women.
(2) Politics: Past experimentation with socialism and capitalism in the Middle East had failed. Socialism under Gamal Abdel Nasser and the free market under Anwar as-Sadat each created a large and disenfranchised lower class. Many now sought to achieve order and prosperity by abandoning these imported ideologies and adopting one with indigenous roots--namely, Islam.
(3) Women's rights: In its early days, Islam's messages about women were uniformly positive. But as Islam moved out of Arabia and came in contact with other cultures, it adopted the anti-female customs of those societies (such as seclusion and genital mutilation). Strict adherence to Muslim law provides women with a "high ground" from which they can argue their case for reclaiming the rights and safeguards of women provided under the original teachings of Muhammad.
Conflicts within Islam. The task before educated Muslim women remains daunting, for Islamic laws concerning their role and rights are ambiguous. Examining the Qur'an, Ms Brooks notes that statements concerning women are enigmatic. One verse reads, "respect women who had borne you," while another passage asserts that "the good wives are the obedient, as for those from whom you fear disobedient--admonish them--send them to their depart and scourge them." Laws based on these textual interpretations are also contradictory. Women are forbidden to divorce under Islamic law; however, a woman can procure the right to dissolve her marriage if she stipulates this prerogative in a prenuptial agreement.
To Western women, "it is easy to see these grim figures in their heavy shrouds as symbols of what's wrong rather than what's right with women and Islam." But, as an integral part of Muslim culture, these women are in a position to challenge old precepts and encourage reform. The voice of change for women in an Islamic society, therefore, may lie under the dark veil previously thought to silence their aspirations.
This summary was prepared by Erika Triscari, an intern at the Middle East Forum.