Inheriting the norms of conquered lands – a short essay Islamic feminism

By the 5th and 6th C.E societies of the Mediterranean Middle East essentially comprised of Christian and Jewish populations. Like the societies of the Mesopotamian region, the societies of the Mediterranean Middle East have a history long predating the rise of Christianity. In fact, Christianity, like Islam, inherited the diversity of cultures and practices that existed prior to its coming.

Greek society, the most direct antecedent of the Christian Byzantine society had a well-developed system of male dominance. For instance, free women in Athens during the Classical Period (500-323 B.C.E) were ‘secluded so they could not be seen by men who were not close relatives. Men and women led separate lives, men spending most of their days in public areas like the marketplace and gymnasium, while respectable women stayed at home. Sexes were segregated in separate quarters with women inhabiting the rooms away from the street and public area of the house’. The qualities admired in girls were silence and submissiveness. Aristotle also conceptualised women not merely as subordinate by social necessity but also innately and biologically inferior in both mental and physical capacities; ‘women being as it were an impotent male, for it is through a certain incapacity that the female is female.’ Aristotle’s influence was widespread and enduring. His theories in effect codified and systematized the social values and practises of that society. They were presented as objective scientific observations and were receiving by both Arab and Europe civilisations as the articulation of scientific verities.

There are parallels between Byzantium and Islamic legal thought. For instance, both laws limited a woman’s right to testify on even matters relating directly to women, such as childbirth. The laws that took shape under Islam in the centuries immediately after the Muslim conquest, far from bringing an improvement for women it constituted a lamentable regression for women. In effect, Islam continued a restrictive trend already established by societies that existed before conquest. At the time politically dominant Christianity continued patriarchal ideas of its originary Judaism. Judaism in the period preceding and around the time of the rise of Christianity permitted polygamy, concubinage, and unrestricted divorce for men. They did not allow women to inherit or to play a role in religion. Some of these mores were accepted by Christianity whilst others like polygamy were not.

Islamic reforms apparently consolidated a trend toward patriliny in 6th Century Arabia and particularly in Mecca, where as a result of commercial expansion, the entire fabric of old nomadic order was undergoing change. In addition to internal economic change, external influences no doubt played some part in transforming the culture. The infiltration of Iranian influences among the tribes of northern Arabia along with Meccan trade linking Syria and the Byzantine Empire to the north with Yemen and Ethiopia to the south, meant increasing contact with and exposure to the social organisation of gender in these neighbouring societies.


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