It is difficult to utter your frustrations if a veil seals your lips. Today the yashmak covers the face of Arab women only in rare cases. Yet paradoxically, the more the West comes to terms with the gains of modern feminism, and waxes indignant at the ‘humiliations’ to which Arab women are subjected, the less do women in the Arab world itself open their mouths. It was not always thus. Arab history has known women who revolted against their fate and scandalized their time. It has witnessed movements which provoked passions and polemics for years on end, pitting modernists against traditionalists on the front pages of a flourishing women’s press. But today, as the streets of Cairo and Beirut fill once again with women shrouded in black, seeking the respectability of a cloak for their corporeal existence, and fundamentalism wages a triumphant campaign to fix their identity in the mould of religious austerity, many Arab feminists and socialists defend themselves only very timidly against the tide. The principal reactions to it have been accommodation, or consolation in a past that has had its glories, but has never belonged to them.

The fate of Arab women has been set by a historical context in which Islam has been an all-encompassing, dominating reality. According to Islamic doctrine, the individual can only find peace and harmony by living the daily practices of the Muslim as a member of the Umma, the community of the faithful. The rules of conduct laid down by the Prophet—the human messenger of Allah—must be obeyed by both men and women, in bodily norms and social roles alike. In this sense Islam has always been not only a code of belief but a system of identity—perhaps the nearest thing to a ‘nationality’ before nations or nationalism existed anywhere in the world. The believer was akin to a citizen in the Umma, for to belong to the community it was not enough simply to have faith in the Messenger of God, it was necessary to defend the institutions of the state and the customs of the society which it regulated. Muslim identity meant a total adhesion to a way of life and a conception of the spirit that were indissociable from each other. Mohammed himself had welded the bond between them when he founded a state to realize a creed.

The all-encompassing nature of this belonging has never been lived as a submission by Muslims. On the contrary, its very completeness has been the token of its absolute reality and truth. The harmony of its order gave security. Opposition could only define itself as a difference within this politico-spiritual cosmos. The early conquests and later triumphs of Islam established a continuity across centuries that came to form a kind of permanent, natural substratum in the Muslim unconscious. It was only with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of new nation states in the twentieth century that the seamless fabric of Muslim identity started to unravel. Ever since, the Arab world has been torn by an obsessive tension between the claims of the Islamic Umma and the allegiances due to the various Arab states. No sooner has the Muslim component of Arab identity appeared to recede, than it has surged forth once again, more assertive and militant than ever. Modern secular politics, from Nasser to the Communist parties, have been able to do no more than play with the reality of this two-fold religio-national consciousness. It has been all too easy to conflate the imperialist and the infidel (Kufar), and to mobilize the masses to avenge the humiliations inflicted by Western civilization on Islamic identity. It is much more difficult to summon them to fight imperialism as a form of the capitalist mode of production. In this setting, what better symbol of cultural continuity than the privacy of women, refuge par excellence of traditional values that the old colonialism could not reach and the new capitalism must not touch? The rigidity of the statute of women in the family in the Arab world has been the innermost asylum of Arabo-Muslim identity.

In one sense Islam has never underestimated woman. The notion of a Weaker Sex is foreign to it: no Arabic translation exists for the expression (Gentle Sex was tried but soon abandoned). The Muslim tradition, one might say, rather reveals an anxiety about women, and the strength of their desires, demands and capacities. The Muslim man conceives woman as uncontrollable and untameable: a being who can therefore only be subdued by repression. In Arabic tradition, woman is fitnat—a term signifying at once beauty and turmoil: a terrestrial Eve whose sin has long since been forgiven (Islamic theology does not hold the descendants of Adam and Eve responsible for their guilt), and who continues to tempt man with her charms or her disorder. The origins of this idea of woman, as a sexually—but also socially—active being, go back to the nomadic tribal societies of the Arabian peninsula before Mohammed. Islam both inherited and inverted them. For on the one hand, it retained the right of women—whether or not they were married—to manage their own economic affairs, in its laws of property, and assumed the vigour of their desires, in its conception of sexuality. But on the other hand, just because of the threat to male security posed by these licences, it clamped down on women a fearful seclusion—at once physical (the imposition of the veil) and social (the creation of segregated spaces, harems or baths). Islam never held that women lacked a soul, or strength, or intelligence. Because of that, exactly because of it, the Prophet said that God preferred some of his creatures to others, a decision of the Almighty that was arbitrary yet had to be accepted as a rule, a way of governing human affairs, much like privileges that are unjustifiable but are still declared to be valid. The rule would not have had to be so rigid if the religion had taught that women were innately lesser anyway. This dual definition of the feminine by Islam is well formulated by a recent author: ‘Paradoxically, and contrary to what is commonly assumed, Islam does not advance the thesis of women’s inherent inferiority. Quite the contrary, it affirms the potential equality between the sexes. The existing inequality does not rest on an ideological or biological theory of women’s inferiority, but is the outcome of specific social institutions designed to restrain her power. . . . The belief in women’s potence is likely to give the evolution of the relationship between men and women in Muslim settings a pattern entirely different from the western one. For example, if there are any changes in the sex status and relations, they will tend to be more radical in the West and will necessarily generate more tension, more conflict, more anxiety.’ footnote1

The Muslim attitude to sexuality is consequently a far cry from the Christian. Christian piety traditionally enjoined sexual abstinence—matrimony itself being no more than a pis-aller for the Pauline tradition. For Islam, on the contrary, sexuality must be satisfied if the social harmony of the Umma is to be realized. Muslim culture lacks any notion that women prefer to sublimate their sexuality, or merely undergo it in the interests of procreation. Precisely for that reason Islam confines their movements to spaces that men can control. If both man and woman are positively sexed (the Muslim paradise is a purlieu of eternal carnal pleasure), women must be subdued so that man can exercise his promiscuity within a legal framework sanctioned by the state. Unlike the Western tradition in which patriarchy and puritanism fused in an oppressive synthesis at the expense of women, here patriarchy was contradictorily hedonist in its basic convictions. An Arab proverb expresses its underlying outlook: ‘Wherever a man and a woman find themselves together, the devil is the chaperon.’ But the contradiction, of course, only intensified the final fanaticism of the patriarchical code that became consolidated after the Conquests. Men now no longer tolerated their wives even to be in the presence of other men; women were banished from every public space; their formal economic rights lost all meaning; they could be repudiated in the law at will.

At a time when Islamic fundamentalism continually exalts the glories of the earliest Arab past, it is worth recalling the evidence that women were not so universally oppressed in that epoch. Aisha, the favourite wife of the Prophet himself, a woman of great intelligence and capacity for intrigue, could allow herself robust protests at the multiplication of his menage, and the divine approval supposedly conferred on it in the audiences of God with his Messenger. On learning of Surah 33–49 of the Koran—‘O Prophet, we have made allowable for thee thy wives to whom thou hast granted their heirs, those whom thou hast taken into their possession from the spoil which Allah has given thee as property, the daughters of thy uncles or thy aunts either on the father’s side or the mother’s side who have emigrated with thee, and any believing woman, if she offers herself to the Prophet, and the Prophet wish to take her in marriage’—she is reported to have observed sarcastically: ‘Verily, thy Lord hastens to do thy pleasures.’ footnote2 It is to her that tradition attributes the significant change in the form of interpellation of the Koran, a book which is initially addressed to the Believers (in the grammatical masculine), and then mid-way through the text alters to the Believers (gender-neutral): she is supposed to have told the Prophet he was discriminating against women in using the first form; he agreed and changed to the second in transmitting the message of God.

A few generations later, it was still possible for Sukaina, a granddaughter of the Caliph Ali, to reply—when asked why she was always so gay when her sister was so solemn—that she had been named after her pre-Islamic great-grandmother, but her sister after her Muslim grandmother. Famous for her jokes and wit, ‘she once assembled poets around her, had them declaim their latest works, and then judged and rewarded them according to the way the poets described their beloved or their relationship in the poems; she was known for her elegance too. She wore her magnificent hair in a special style that was named after her when it became fashionable. However, when men also began to imitate her, the pious Khalif Omar Ibn Abd al-Aziz had them whipped and their heads shorn.’ Her contemporary Aisha Bint Talha never veiled her face, rejecting the remonstrations of her husband with the words: ‘The Almighty has honoured me with beauty. I want the people to see this and understand what rank I enjoy before them. I will not veil myself. Nobody can reproach me with a fault.’ footnote3 Examples such as these all come from the social and dynastic elite of the early Islamic world, since the literary tradition is largely confined to the ruling stratum of the time. But it is unlikely that the resistance they record to the full subjugation of women which later became de rigueur was confined to the privileged alone. Popular life may have taken even longer to be transformed, especially in areas of recent conversion from above. But by the end of the Abbasid epoch a regime of comprehensive discrimination and repression was in force across the Muslim world that was to last for a millennium.