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EWIC Reviews- Zakaria Vol. 2

Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures


Reviewed By: Rafia Zakaria
Review of Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures: Volume 1: Methodologies, Paradigms, and Sources, and Volume 2: Family, Law, and Politics
Published by: NWSA Journal (Fall 2006)

Imagine the voices of millions of Muslim women represented such that each voice is distinct without being dissonant and discrete without being solitary. Such is the accomplishment of the editors of the Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Cultures (EWIC). The voices of women through war and peace, in their efforts to claim justice and garner social change, are all encapsulated and made to cohere without acceding to the temptation of conforming them to a particular thesis regarding the status of women in Islamic cultures. From the initial pages, the editors are clear in their delineation of the project: the encyclopedia is a compilation of information about "women in Islamic cultures" rather than about"women in Islam." This distinction is important and yet necessarily ambiguous. The relationship between Islamic culture and Islam as a faith is a hotbed of controversy rife with many incongruities and particularly lethal in the prevalence of current debates regarding the necessity of reform within the faith. In giving precedence to women as the essential and primary subject of their inquiry, the editors make the original and commendable move of grounding their inquiry into Islamic culture by documenting the lives of women living in them.

The arrangement of the Encyclopedia is such that a variety of essays deal with similar topics from different perspectives1 with the laudable result that no single perspective dominates the treatment of a subject. In the case of law, the dominant proclivities to paint the advent of Islam as either a complete revolution in terms of the legal rights available to women, or a forced imposition of patriarchy on previously existing matrilineal pre- Islamic culture are both avoided. Amira Sombol's chapter on the "Rise of Islam" points out how the changes in women's lives precipitated by the rise of Islam in the sixth century cannot be painted in such broad strokes and emphasis must be placed instead on "the history of the world into which Islam expanded" as an essential denominator of the Islamic culture that consequently developed (Vol. I, 3). The essay highlights how the laws governing marriage and family in early Islam varied as did all other customs by tribe and only later evolved into a common codified core.

One of these core concerns that developed in early Islam and resonates through the history of the development of Islamic family law, as presented in various essays in the EWIC, is the moral prerogative for the "control of sexuality through prescribed dress, actions and limited mixing between the sexes" (Vol. 1, 5). Ingrid Mattson's chapter on Islamic family law as it evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries shows how this core moral prescription retained its centrality in Islamic law and was translated into the exclusion of women from the public sphere with the concomitant result that "the more scholarship became institutionalized and closely associated with the state, the less opportunity women may have had to participate in legal discourse" (Vol. II, 450). Mattson's chapter outlines how the conceptualization of gender relations within Islamic law is embedded in a culture with a highly collectivist sense of identity and belonging and where family solidarity is the fulcrum of all relations. According to Mattson, Islamic gender relations are based on a principle of "complimentarity" that justifies the "coercive authority given to husbands over their wives" (Vol. II, 451). This coercive control, which allows disciplining wives by beating them with a switch the size of the thumb, is part of a larger power dynamic that also places all legal responsibility of financial support and management for all female relatives including wives, mothers, and sisters on the males in the family. In highlighting the crucial difference between "equality" and complimentarity," Mattson sheds light on the role of women within the Islamic legal system as essentially protected (and hence inevitably dependent) beings rather than individuals entrusted with economic responsibility for the family unit.

Mattson's thesis unleashes a number of insistent questions. Does the entrenchment of collectivist doctrines in classical Islamic family law undermine its relevance in today's increasingly nuclear Muslim families? Can Islamic law's metaphysical origins be separated from the practice of Islamic law and its actual impact on the lives of women living in Muslim cultures today? Can and must the two be separated in efforts for reform? The chapter entitled "Modern Family Law, 1800-Present" presents the varied responses to these questions from Muslim cultures as diverse as Afghanistan and Sub-Saharan Africa. The common thread running through these is the reform of family law that appears rather tragically to be a site for political manipulation by Islamist and nationalist movements rather than evolving out of any authentic concern for gendered perspectives. The chapter emphasizes how "modernizing" initiatives in countries such as Iran have flown on the wings of political agendas that give greater rights to women but only as part of larger unrelated political strategies that repress rival political perspectives (e.g., religious or Marxist), with the result that the reversal of these rights have become a means of political revenge. This dynamic is illustrated, according to Mehrangiz Kar, by the reversal of the Family Protection Act when Khomeini took over after the fall of the Shah. Similarly, Lama Abu-Odeh argues that Islamist challenges to improvements in family law in Egypt can be interpreted as a disguised political challenge to the existing secular yet repressive political regime of President Hosni Mubarak. An omitted case that would have been an interesting addition to this chapter is that of Iraq, where women enjoyed greater protections under the Ba'ath party's secular laws than they are likely to enjoy under the new Iraqi Constitution, which establishes Sharia law as a governing principle.

While family law is an essential thread in the intricate fabric of women's lives in Islamic cultures, it is only one strand of the complex narrative of their history. EWIC also pays due attention to women's involvement in the social and political movements based on the fact that they have shaped the history of Muslim lands. Seteney Shami's chapter on the role of Kurdish women in the struggle for Kurdish independence and Paul A. Silverstein's chapter on the role of Berber women in North Africa both point out the strong magnetism exerted by ethnic identity on self-conceptualization in many Muslim cultures, as well as the inevitable costs such identification poses on developing a gender identity poised toward reform (Vol. II, 575). In tracing the impact of women in Islamist movements, Fatmagul Berktay describes the role of Ladies Commissions in the Turkish Refah party that were instrumental in bringing the party electoral victories on the local and national level (Vol. II, 615). Ghazala Hassan points out the prominence and popularity of the Islamist Dr. Farhat Hashmi, who enjoys wide support among modern educated and elite women in Pakistan (Vol. II, 610).

The cross-currents of Islamist versus secular discourse and the role of religion as a vehicle for change have been and continue to be crucial concerns in Islamic cultures today. The tension between the metaphysics of Islam and the normative dictates of its practice against the representative actuality of Muslim practice in Islamic cultures runs through many of the essays in the Encyclopedia and represents the essential questioning of the path that must be taken to change the lives of women in Islamic culture. Azza Karam's essay on feminist social movements in Arab states identifies three contentious perspectives each of which prescribes starkly different routes toward gender-centered reform: "Islamists" who seek to absolve religion and point accusingly to the deficient practice of Islam as the root of gender inequality in the Muslim world-if only true Islam were practiced, such inequality would not exist; secular feminists who are suspicious of all political rhetoric tinged with religious discourse and advocate an extra-religious path toward reform eschewing all religious frameworks; and religious feminists, who can be situated somewhere between the other two, wish to acknowledge the role of Islam in the lives of Muslim women and mediate the tension between secularists and Islamists by finding routes for reform within the Islamic paradigm (Vol. II, 584). Karam's typology and the ensuing chapter devoted to the articulations of each within other Muslim countries presents the intense complexity of the debate. Essentially, Karam's thesis points also to the strength of this compilation under review since it illustrates the feat accomplished by the editors in presenting such highly contentious perspectives without endorsing one in particular.

The Encyclopedia documents the vagaries of legal, political, and social change that have swept Islamic cultures through historical epochs ranging from the early Muslims in Arabia to the Ottoman Empire to current nationalist and ethnic struggles. The contributors are careful to point out gaps in research or documentation, but cumulatively, the essays in EWIC showcase how women in Islamic cultures have ridden the waves of change with an impressive and varied array of involvement that bespeaks their incredible resilience and the complex layers through which gendered discourse begs to be understood. Chapters on peace keeping and conflict management present how women, who make up more than 60 percent of the population of many war-torn areas in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East have, since the passage UN Resolution 1325, been invaluable in promoting peace in conflict ridden regions (Vol. II, 545). The chapter on political prisoners documents cases of women leaders suffering torture and imprisonment for their political activities as early as the 1800s and into the present day (Vol. II, 566). Yet another chapter, "Women as Witnesses," points out how under Sharia law, as practiced in many Muslim countries, women's testimony is either not admitted or constitutes half that of a man (Vol. II, 477).

The invigorating originality of the work lies in its historic accomplishment of presenting the osmotic relationship between religion and culture as revealed through the lives of women. The novelty of the venture is not the only testament to its intellectual and scholarly value but an addition to the compendium's success in giving gendered discourse a primacy over contesting markers of identity, one heretofore absent in works on women in Islamic culture. The ontological questions regarding the precedence of either culture or religion as the more powerful are thus presented through a third perspective, one that acknowledges both the moral and metaphysical force of religion and the actualizing powers of culture. Thus presented, the quests of women in Islamic cultures for justice, peace, and political voice are given their due as essential emblems of both Islam and Islamic culture.-Rafia Zakaria

1. The first volume is devoted to outlining the methodologies, paradigms, and sources available for studying women and presents generalized overviews divided into historical periods. The second volume is devoted to Family Law and Politics. Volumes III-VI are forthcoming.

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