Family and People
Islam stresses the idea of a public morality which is to be enforced collectively. Today, many perceive that it is the government's job to enforce this morality. In light of this, Islam has acquired a political nature, despite the original Islamic sources' rare mention of government or state. 1 Islam cannot be the sole reason for the position of women in the Muslim world since implementation of Islamic codes vary from country to coun try.2 However, the Arabs have legitimized their governments, including its relation to the status of women, by linking them to religion.1 Because of the profound effect religion has on government and culture, the position of women in the Middle East cannot be understood without reference to Islam.
A major component of the Islamic view on women concerns the concept of desire. Differing from other religions such as Christianity and Judaism, Islam does not see desire as a force that must be eliminated or systematically regulated. Rather, one must employ it in a way that coincides with what religious law dictates. For example, sexual desire, exercised according to Muslim beliefs, ensures the continuation of the human race. Sexual desires exerted outside of the scope of Islam, however, can lead to destructive acts and work to destroy the social order. Desire must be constantly steered in the right direction to ensure that it is used properly. 2
Women are believed to be endowed with a fatal sexual attraction. They are seen as sources of seduction who are responsible for man's inability to resist them. However, because they are considered the morally and intellectually inferior sex, it is their sexuality that must be strictly controlled and regulated. In a society that relies on external rather than internal moral enforcement, it is believed that women must be hidden and sepa rated from men so that the males are not overpowered by feminine sexual appeal. 3 Young females, in whose every soul lies a temptress, must be modestly dressed, which has evolved into the tradition of veiling.
The custom of veiling involves covering the entire body (including hair) except for the hands and face. Veiling has become a symbol of female virtue and obedience to Allah, as well as an integral part of the larger Islamic code stressing sexual segregation.4 Due to cultural pressures to dress "decently," even many non -traditional women who do not believe in the justification behind the veil feel compelled to wear one. 5 Veiling is a distinct example of how Islam reinforces the perception of women as purely sexual beings who need to be controlled.
Islam is used as a vehicle to assert male control and domination of women, often through the marital practices of polygamy and repudiation. The Koran states "Marry of the women who seem good to you, two, three, or four, and if ye cannot do justice [to so many] then one [only]". 6 With this religious justification, many Arab states have adopted laws legalizing polygamy. When a man takes an additional wife, an action which does not require the consent of the present wife or wives, the current wife may feel that she has failed in several ways. She may be perceived to be a failure as a sexual being, a characteristic which has previously been shown to be a vital aspect of her very existence.7 Although most Middle Easterm societies have moved away from the practice of polygamy, whether through legal or social practices, this "stronghold of male authority" continues to be a force, inasmuch as it remains a symbolic threat, in the Middle East today. 8
The policy of verbal repudiation, adopted in some Arab states, is addressed many times in the Koran. Verse 20 of Sura 4 states: "And if ye wish to exchange one wife for another and ye have given into one of them a sum of money (however great) take nothing from it." This passage exemplifies the arbitrariness of the decisionas well as the perception that it is a fundamental right of a man to divorce his wife. 9 In some cases, the husband must simply repeat the formula of repudiation known as talaq and is not required to give a reason for his decision, nor must he approach the courts with the matter. 10
The concept of honor plays a substantial role in the lives of both men and women in the Middle East. As previously explained, Middle Eastern society often revolves around the concept of public morality. Within this type of society, honor is of supreme importance. Fear of scandal is a major consideration in the daily lives of many Arabs.11 Upholding the honor of the family and protecting it from dishonor is a vital responsibility.
Many men see women as the weak link in the chain that is the family's dignity. In order to safeguard the family's honor, male kin believe they must keep a close watch on their female relatives. 12 In the past, this has been facilitated by the restricted nature of female activities. However, modern trends have led more women to work outside of the home, presenting a fundamental problem for men. A man may feel that he is dishonored and believed incapable of providing for his family. 13 Also, his wife is placed in a public atmosphere where she is more exposed and vulnerable to an attack on her honor, which is equivalent to a attack on the honor of any man in her family. Fear of this leads most men to carefully and strictly monitor their female relatives' activi ties.14
Men's perception of women
The concept of honor, as well as the Islamic thought on women, combine to formulate the male percep tion of womanhood. As previously explained, women are largely defined by virtue of their sexuality. Most men see it as their responsibility to protect feminine sexuality by strictly controlling women's actions. Men deem this as necessary due to their perception that women as easily led by their emotions and unable to manage their desires.15 Women are believed to be less astute and less capable as managers or leaders. 16 These views of woman penetrate through the "fashionable" trend of men to speak of women's rights. Many men express progressive views concerning the position of women society as long is it does not effect the woman in their family. Those who have the loudest voice when it comes to fighting for women's rights are often quite reactionary when the issue hits close to home.17 As a result women are still viewed as morally corruptible and in need of supervision.
Women's perception of women
Women's views of themselves mirrors those of men in many ways. With a fuller understanding of how Arab women view their position, it becomes easier to comprehend the dynamics of their role. Many women agree with the perception that they are highly sexual beings. In addition to the fact that wearing a veil works to sustain their family's honor,18 women also dress "modestly" because they believe it helps to liberate them. Veiling, along with the general segregation of the sexes, works to desexualize women, allowing them greater freedom and mobility.19
The time that women do have in a single sex environment is treated in a special way. When they have established a "safe" distance from men, women have relative freedom in their actions. The apparently conser vative women might adorn themselves with relatively risque coverings such as revealing blouses and make -up.20 Women often take the time to beautify themselves and to appear as elegant as possible when they know that they will only be in the company of other females. In this environment, they are able to revel in each others' attractiveness and freely express their admiration for one another. 21 Some types of situations during which women will be with one another involve times of birth, death, or marital problems. They are quick to offer support and condolence to each other when it is needed. 22 Female bonding is an important haven in a world that has not always been pleasant for women. Most women find remarkable comfort from one another in the male dominated world in which they exist.23
When it comes to female employment, the opinion varies among veiled and unveiled women. For ex ample, in a survey conducted in Egypt, 33.7 percent of veiled women stated that women should only work when there is economic need and 12.2 percent were totally opposed to women working. Sixty-eight percent of unveiled women support a woman's right to work.24 Generally, women do not define themselves through their ability to help financially support their family. Rather, they often more highly value the duties of house wives and mothers.25
Despite the fact that most Westerners would consider the position of women in the Middle East as infe rior, many women enjoy the special treatment that they are granted by society. A vast majority of women in the region would not want to completely alter their social and cultural positions. 26
WOMEN IN SOCIETY
An essential element to the understanding of women's position in Middle Eastern society is the fact that men are in control of official decision making. Men clearly dominate all facets of life in the Arab states includ ing economics, politics, and society.27 Women have a clear position in society; however, this position must always remain in the shadow of the authoritative male. Women tend to have less education as well as less experience in the public realm than a majority of men. 28 Even in the realm of the family, a sphere where females play a significant role, males continue to dominate. It is men who primarily control marriage contracts, di vorces and the acquisition of additional wives.29
While men occupy the official position of control in the Middle East, women do, nonetheless, possess their own role in Arab society. As stated in literature from the Iranian Ministry of National Guidance quoting Ayatollah Khomeini, "Women are not equal to men, but neither are men equal to women...their roles in society are complementary...each has certain distinct functions according to his or her nature and constitution." 30 Due to the belief that men are more capable leaders, their roles have primarily been in the "public sphere." Simul taneously, women's position has continually been directed into the "private" sphere which includes the do main of family and home.31
It is important to understand the rationale behind this view. Although many Western feminists would argue that separate positions are inherently unequal, many Arab woman would disagree. In fact, Islamic feminists feel that if Islam were "perfectly realized" women would attain equality with men despite these differences.32 The distinctions between the sexes have already provided women with a few types of "power" positions. One example of this is the role played by older women in marriages. Elderly women have abun dant access to information concerning young women. This knowledge provides them with tremendous influ ence in decisions involving who will be married to whom. Such influence presents them with a position of power which would not have been available to them if it were not for their principal position in the "private" realm.33
A vital feature of the position of women in the public domain is veiling. Already mentioned in relation to its significance in Islam, veiling plays a crucial part in sustaining the separation of the distinct positions between men and women. Expanding on the ideal of separate realms for the sexes comes the notion of separate space. Many women veil themselves when they are outside of the home in streets or shops. This is because they have entered the "male sphere." They use the veil to express their understanding that although they are in man's domain, they are "invisible" and therefore are not violating the separation of the sexes. 34 Further, a women risks social sanctions if she rebels against the wearing of the veil. 35
The family is at the core of women's position in Middle Eastern society. Furthermore, the family is the centerpiece of society in Arab states. It is the basic unit from which all other establishments revolve; it has shown great resilience and proven to be especially successful in the Middle East. 36 As is made apparent through the Arab proverb, "To forfeit one's family is to forfeit one's dignity," the family is held in very high regard, 37 and is even considered "sacrosanct" by men. 38 The contemporary Muslim view sees the family as responsible for the rearing of dedicate Muslims instilled with the "proper" cultural values. This responsibility rests on the shoulders of women. 39
Although women have the principal roles in the family, it is nevertheless a sphere officially dominated by men. When a female marries, she leaves her home to live with her husband. The family is patriarchal; it is based around the father, his sons, their wives, and their children. 40 Despite the physical separation of the bride from her natal family, ties between females and their blood relatives are hardly ever broken. Because of this, women often have a place to turn if severe problems - such as divorce, death, or overall marital difficulties - arise.41
As was previously mentioned, women hold a central position in the family. The role of the wife in the family is multi-faceted. It is the wife's responsibility to act as a sexual partner to her husband, 42 and to maintain the household, i.e. prepare meals, clean, wash clothes, etc. 43 Also, women, in their own way, work towards sustaining the social status and position of their family. For example, women may use social visits to other women to maintain this status.44
Perhaps the most crucial duty required of women is that of bearing and raising children. The mother's job is not simply to feed and protect her children - it goes much further than that. Mothers are left with the imperative responsibility of rearing her family's next generation. It is their duty to educate them in the culture and religion that is the rock upon which their society stands. 45 Mothers must produce the legacies of their family, the children who (if male) will carry out the family name as well as help provide for her in years to come.
With this great responsibility comes a degree of power. As stated by Andrea Rugh in her book Family in Contemporary Egypt, women are "The central figures in the central institution of the society; they control the organization of the domestic domain and financial dispersals a good part if not all of the day, they are potent forces in the communication between households, they control those things that are most valued by the men- sex, honor, children, a happy well-organized household." 46 Their position in this "central institution" grants them specific powers. Some of these power allotments involve marriages. 47
As previously mentioned, women hold a position of power through their role in marriages. Mothers are the ones with access to potential brides for their sons. The conversations between the two women, not to mention the information gained by the mother about the bride's looks, are as, if not more, important than the monetary negotiations handled by the fathers.48 Although the responsibility officially falls on the father, it is the son's mother who makes decisions about the marriage and future family of her son. 49
Another more abstract aspect of women's power concerns the control she holds over her husband. This power manifests itself through obligations that a husband maintains with his wife. The wife constructs these "dependency structures" which allow her to impact her husband's activities. Many women work very hard on these "structures," through which they gain a type of access to the control that is otherwise dominated by men.50
Some women will take extensive measures to ensure that they acquire a husband. Because virginity is a necessity to a large majority of potential brides, some females who are not virgins have doctors sew their hymens in order to appear "pure."51 Additionally, many women do not have the luxury of focusing on love or sex when marrying. In an attempt to acquire a husband, some women will overlook the fact that their mar riage will lack love and/or sex.52
Women are imparted with many significant duties in the private realm of the family. The fact that they have been placed in charge of such important responsibilities has influenced many peoples' ideas regarding women's possible activities outside of the home. Iranian writer Fereshteh Hashemt summarizes one view on the subject when she writes, "Women have the heavy responsibility of procreation and rearing a generation. God, therefore, absolves the woman from all economic responsibilities so that she can engage herself in this prophetic and divine act with peace in mind." 53 Women's role with regard to these "economic responsibilities" is yet another element in understanding the position of women in Middle Eastern society.
As earlier mentioned, women and men are divided into private and public realms respectively. Thus, the economy of the Arab states is characterized by a gender-specific division of labor. This idea asserts that males are in charge of providing for the family while women's labor is performed at home. This division is derived from the ideas that men are superior leaders and managers. Although it is the prevalent belief in the Middle East today, some woman have crossed over into what is often considered the man's realm. 54 Popular support for the sexual division of labor limits the type of work that is available to them. 55 A large majority of the jobs women acquire are in the fields of medicine, teaching, and the social sciences. 56
When females enter the economic sphere and step outside of their "isolation" in the private sphere, they are effected in many ways. Along with working outside of the home comes a social stigma. This causes many working women to have less self-confidence than women who are unemployed. 57 Also, unfamiliarity with the work force often causes new female workers to be quite self-conscious. This self-consciousness can many times be seen in a worker's skirt which is a little too short or long, or in an awkward headpiece, all of which she employs in an attempt to "fit-in" and alleviate any discomfort she feels. 58 Another effect of society's disapproval of female employment is a heightened level of sexual harassment towards working women. 59 Some women are made to endure groping of their bodies and other such semi-sexual abuse. 60
The positive aspects of working, including the earning of salaries, are not always enjoyed by employed women. For example, some husbands may take complete control over their wife's paychecks, not allowing them to enjoy the benefits of their labor.61 Another disadvantage which working women experience deals with the dual nature of their labor. After finishing a full day's work, women arrive home where their "real jobs" await them. A woman's household responsibilities do not disappear when she gains employment outside of the home. On the contrary, she must clean, prepare meals, supervise the children, and perform all of her other household duties, in addition to her outside employment. 62
Despite these drawbacks, some women favor finding employment outside of the home. One of the reasons for this is the rising economic need for women to work. 63 However, another justification may be the fact that some women are beginning to view employment as a path towards independence, freedom, self -actualization, equality, participation in society and responsible enfranchisement. Many women from the younger generation tend to stress the social and political rewards that may be acquired from employment, in addition to the benefits of the economic freedoms working provides. 64
On the other side of this argument are women who do not support females working outside of the home. In a society which respects women for their positions as mothers and wives, most women do not recognize outside employment as important or as a goal they wish to accomplish. 65 On the contrary, many of these women see formal employment as below their social position and degrading. 66 They believe women should work only in response to economic necessity. Some circumstances which would constitute necessities are a husband's illness, absence in war, or inability to support the family. 67
Whereas the opinions regarding women in the work force is somewhat divided among women, a vast majority of men are against women working outside of the home. Most men feel they will lose some of their dignity if their female kin are employed.68 There is immense cultural pressure for a man to keep women from working. Men are reared under the belief that a "real man" can provide for his family without financial assis tance from his wife or children.69 If females work, even if it is by their own choice, it relays the impression that the family is strapped for money which the husband is unable to provide. 70
There are further reasons why women are encouraged to stay at home. Rising unemployment and tightening economic conditions have helped to push the "back to home" bandwagon, encouraging women to give up their jobs so that these opportunities for employment can become available to men. 71 Also, the blame for crowded transportation and low productivity has been placed upon women. Proponents of a single-sex workplace also convey concerns that employed women will undermine child raising and the family unit as a whole.