Beyond the veil
Male-female dynamics in modern Muslim societyBeyond the veil cover

Fatima Mernissi

Second edition Indiana University press

p. 8 …It appears to me that the Muslim system is not so much opposed to women as to the heterosexual unit. What is feared is the growth of the involvement between a man and a woman into an all-encompassing love satisfying the sexual, emotional and intellectual needs of both partners. Such an involvement constitutes a direct threat to man's allegiance to Allah, which requires the unconditional investment of all his energies, thoughts and feelings in his God.

p. 19 Sexual equality violates Islam's premises, actualized in its laws, that heterosexual love is dangerous to Allah's order. Muslim marriage is based on male dominance. The desegregation of the sexes violates Islam's ideology on women's position in the social order: that women should be under the authority of fathers, brothers, or husbands. Since women are considered by Allah to be a destructive element, they are to be spatially confined and excluded from matters other than those of the family. Female access to non-domestic space is put under the control of males. 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 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: namely, segregation and legal subordination in the family structure. … In Western culture, sexual inequality is based on belief in women's biological inferiority. … In Islam there is no such belief in female inferiority. On the contrary, the whole system is based on the assumption that women are powerful and dangerous beings. All sexual institutions (polygamy, repudiation, sexual segregation, etc.) can be perceived as a strategy for containing their power.

p. 33 Like Freud, Aqqad endows women with a hearty appetite for suffering. Women enjoy surrender. More than that, for Aqqad women experience pleasure and happiness only in their subjugation, their defeat by males. The ability to experience pleasure in suffering and subjugation is the kernel of femininity, which is masochistic by its very nature. "The woman's submission to the man's conquest is one of the strongest sources of women's pleasure." The machismo theory casts the man as the hunter and the woman as his pray. This vision is widely shared and deeply ingrained in both men's and women's vision of themselves.

p. 45 According to Ghazali, the most precious gift God gave humans is reason. Its best use is the search for knowledge. To know the human environment, to know the earth and galaxies, is to know God. Knowledge (science) is the best form of prayer for a Muslim believer. But to be able to devote his energies to knowledge, man has to reduce the tensions within and without his body, avoid being distracted by external elements, and avoid indulging in earthly pleasures. Women are a dangerous distraction that must be used for the specific purpose of providing the Muslim nation with offspring and quenching the tensions of the sexual instinct. But in no way should women be an object of emotional investment or the focus of attention, which should be devoted to Allah alone in the form of knowledge-seeking, meditation, and prayer.

p. 46 Under jahiliya sexuality was promiscuous, lax, and uncontrolled, but under Islam it obeys rules. The specific, unique code of Islam's law outlaws fornication as a crime. But what is peculiar about Muslim sexuality as civilized sexuality is this fundamental discrepancy: if promiscuity and laxity are signs of barbarism, then only women's sexuality was civilized by Islam; male sexuality is promiscuous (by virtue of polygamy) and lax (by virtue of repudiation). This contradiction is evident in both seventh-century family legislation and the modern Moroccan Code.

p. 48 …Since saturation of the sexual impulse for males requires polygamy, one can speculate that fear of its inverse-one woman with four husbands-might explain the assumption of women's insatiability, which is at the core of the Muslim concept of female sexuality. Since Islam assumes that sexually frustrated individual is a very problematic believer and a troublesome citizen of the umma, the distrust of women, whose sexual frustration is organized institutionally, is even greater.

p. 55 …Hafsa, one of the prophets' wives, however, caught him having intercourse with Maria in Safiya's room on Saturday's day. "O Prophet of God, in my room and on my day!" fulminated Safiya angrily. Afraid of the anger of his other wives, and especially of his most beloved Aisha, he promised Hafsa never to touch Maria again if she would keep the incident secret. But she spoke out, and the Prophet received orders from God to retract his promise; he then resumed relations with Maria.

p. 57 …When she reported the incident to her husband, he went to his adopted father to say that he was prepared to divorce Zainab if the Prophet wanted to marry her. The Prophet refused Zaid's proposition until God revealed to Muhammad to marry Zainab.  (The full story)

p. 58 The power of women over men has dictated many of the Muslim laws concerning marriage. Men have a right to sexual satisfaction from their wives so that they will be less vulnerable to the attraction of other women. And women must be sexually satisfied so that they do not try to attempt other men to fornications.

p. 66 …Earlier historians simply noted that Islam condemned all marriage customs that contradicted the religion's principles, namely the principle of patriarchy. It is therefore of some interest to look briefly at what these customs and practices were. Exactly what was it that Islam forbade? According to my reading of the historical evidence, Islam banished all practices in which the sexual self-determination of women was asserted.

p. 68 According to Ibn Saad's biographical data, polygamy existed neither in Mecca, a sophisticated urban center with trading relations reaching deep into the Byzantine, nor in Medina, the basically agrarian community to which the Prophet emigrated.

p. 78 The panorama of female sexual rights in pre-Islamic culture reveals that women's sexuality was not bound by the concept of legitimacy. Children belonged to their mother's tribe. Women had sexual freedom to enter into and break off unions with more than one man, either simultaneously or successively. A woman could either reserve herself to one man at a time, on a more or less temporary basis, as in mut'a marriage, or she could be visited by many husbands at different times whenever their nomadic tribe or trade caravan came through the woman's town or camping ground. The husband would come and go; the main unit was the mother and child within an entourage of kinfolk.

p. 82 The social order created by the Prophet, a patrilineal monotheistic state, could exist only if the tribe and its allegiances gave way to the umma. The Prophet found the institution of the family a much more suitable unit of socialization than the tribe. He saw the tightly controlled patriarchal family as necessary to creation of the umma. The Prophet's religious vision, his personal experiences, and the structure of the society he was reacting against all contributed to the form Islamic society took. The assumptions behind the Muslim social structure-male dominance, the fear of fitna, the need for sexual satisfaction, the need for men to love Allah above all else-were embodied in specific laws which have regulated male-female relations in Muslim countries for fourteen centuries.

p. 100 Because of the restrictions on heterosexual encounters, the rural Moroccan male is brought to perceive women solely in terms of sexual need; both in and outside marriage women are merely a more suitable way of satisfying sexual needs than animals or other males.

p. 101 In most traditional rural society, there are no unmarried adolescent girls. A survey done by Malika Belghiti among the female rural population reveals that 50 percent of the girls are married before they reach puberty, and another 37 percent marry during the first two years following puberty. One way rural society avoids the problem of sexual love between young people seems to be to have girls marry young.

p. 107 I believe that sexual segregation, one of the main pillars of Islam's social control over sexuality, is breaking down. And it appears to me that the breakdown of sexual segregation permits the emergence of what the Muslim order condemns as a deadly enemy of civilization: love between men and women in general, and between husband and wife in particular.

p. 113 Why does Moroccan society encourage the husband to assume the role of master instead of lover? Does love between man and wife threaten something vital in the Muslim order? We have seen that sexual satisfaction is considered necessary to the moral well-being of the believer. There is no incompatibility between Islam and sexuality as long as sexuality is expressed harmoniously and is not frustrated. What Islam views as negative and anti-social is woman and her power to create fitna. Heterosexual involvement, real love between husband and wife, is the danger that must be overcome.

p. 114 The Muslim God requires a total love from his subjects; he requires all the believer's capacity for emotional attachment.

p. 115 The Muslim God is known for His jealousy, and He is especially jealous of anything that might interfere with believer's devotion to him. The conjugal unit is a real danger and is consequently weakened by two legal devices: polygamy and repudiation. Both institutions are based on psychological premises that reveal an astonishing awareness of the couple's psychology and its weaknesses. Folk wisdom preserves polygamy as a means by which men make themselves valuable, not by perfecting any quality within themselves, but simply by creating a competitive situation between many females. … Polygamy in this sense is a direct attempt to prevent emotional growth in the conjugal unit, and results in the impoverishment of the husband's and wife's investment in each other as lovers.

p. 136 A chasm has therefore been widening between the necessities imposed by modern family life and patterns that are supposed to shape relations within that institution. Although the economic and spatial foundations of the traditional family (based on sexual segregation) have suffered severe shocks with the integration of the Moroccan economy into the international market, we may none the less expect neurotic attempts to freeze traditional superstructures, to preserve the traditional patterns and concepts that govern family relations. The result is conflict, tension, and break-ups among young couples, exactly because they are trying to build something different from the stifling sexual relations idealized by tradition.

p. 139 The citizens of the domestic universe are primarily sexual beings; they are defined by their genitals and not by their faith. They are not united, but are divided into two categories: men, who have power, and women, who obey. Women-who are citizens of this domestic universe and whose existence outside that sphere is considered an anomaly, a transgression-are subordinate to men, who (unlike women) also possess a second nationality, one that grants them membership of the public sphere, the domain of religion and politics, the domain of power, of the management of the affairs of the umma. Having been identifies as primarily citizens of the domestic universe, women are then deprived of power even within the world in which they are confined, since it is the man who wields authority within the family. The duty of Muslim women is to obey (as is very clear in the Muduwana and in Malik's al-Muwatta, from which it is inspired and on which it is based). The separation of the two groups, the hierarchy that subordinates the one to the other, is expressed in institutions that discourage, and even prohibit, any communication between sexes. Men and women are supposed to collaborate in only one of the tasks required for the survival of society: procreation.

p. 140 …A society that opts for sexual segregation, and therefore for impoverishment of heterosexual relations, is a society that fosters 'homosocial' relations on the one hand and seduction as a means of communication on the other.

p. 141 In a society in which heterosexual relations are combated, emotional fulfillment is inhibited. As we are taught to fear and mistrust the other sex, and therefore to related to its members trough seduction, manipulation, and domination, we become mere puppets who extend the games of seduction, acceptable during adolescence, into our relations as mature men and women.

p. 144 A woman is always trespassing in a male space because she is, by definition, foe. A woman has no right to use male spaces. If she enters them, she is upsetting the male's order and his peace of mind. She is actually committing an act of aggression against him merely by being present where she should not be. A woman in a traditionally male space upsets Allah's order by inciting men to commit zina. The man has everything to lose in this encounter: peace of mind, self-determination, allegiance to Allah, and social prestige. If the woman is unveiled the situation is aggravated. The Moroccan term for a woman who is not veiled is aryana ('nude'), and most women who frequent schools or hold jobs outside the home today are unveiled. The two elements together-trespassing and trespassing in the 'nude'-constitutes an open act of exhibitionism.

p. 161-3 Male frustration is likely to be aggravated by the differences in the ways men and women are socialized to handle sexual drives. Men are encouraged to expect full satisfaction of their sexual desires, and to perceive their masculine identity as closely linked to that satisfaction. From an early age women are taught to curb their sexual drives. … The male child is introduced to sex differently….The child's phallic pride is enhanced systematically, beginning in the first years of life. And as a boy matures, the fact that men have privileges such as polygamy and repudiation, which allow them not only to have multiple sexual partners but also to change partners at will, gives him the impression that society is organized to satisfy his sexual wishes. The young man is then confronted with the hard reality of adolescence, when sexual deprivation is systematically organized. He finds that he cannot have a woman if he does not pay the bride-price, a sum he often cannot afford until his mid-twenties, if he's lucky. If he wants to satisfy his sexual needs, he must break the law and have illicit intercourse. He is likely to be very upset by sexual restrictions he was not told about early enough. In fact, the sexual tragedy, often seen as a female problem, is an equally destructive masculine tragedy… The unexpected frustration that society imposes on the sexual desires of its young men is allowed no outward expression…. A man who is both economically and sexually oppressed by his society is likely to find it less traumatizing to express his rage and resentment against his family than against his boss. And society encourages him to do so.

p. 167 ….Muslim marriage is based on the premises that social order can be maintained only if women's dangerous potential for chaos is restrained by a dominating non-loving husband who has, besides his wife, other females (concubines, co-wives, and prostitutes) available for his sexual pleasure under equally degrading conditions. A new sexual order based on the absence of dehumanizing limitations of women's potential means the destruction of the traditional Muslim family. In this respect, fears associated with changes in the family and the conditions of women are justified. These fears, embedded in the culture trough centuries of women's oppression, are echoed and nourished by the vivid, equally degrading images of Western sexuality and its disintegrating family patterns portrayed on every imported television set.

p. 168 …The fears awakened by the Westernization of women can be interpreted as simply another instance of Muslim society believing that males are able to select what is good in Western civilization and discard bad elements, while women are unable to choose correctly. This is concordant with the classical Muslim view of women as being unable to judge what is good and what is bad.

p. 175-7 At a deeper level than laws and official policy, The Muslim social order view the female as a potent aggressive individual whose power can, if not tamed and curbed, corrode the social order. It is very likely that in the long run such a view will facilitate women's integration into the networks of decision-making and power. One of the main obstacles Western women have been dealing with is their society's view of women as passive inferior beings. The fact that generations of university-educated women in both Europe and America failed to win access to decision-making posts is due in part to this deeply ingrained image of women as inferior. The Muslim image of women as a source of power is likely to make Muslim women set higher and broader goals than just equality with men. The most recent studies on the aspirations of both men and women seem to come to the same conclusion: the goal is not to achieve equality with men. Women have seen that what men have is not worth getting. Women's goals are already being phrased in terms of a global rejection of established sexual patterns, frustrating to males and degrading to females. This implies a revolutionary reorganization of the entire society, starting from its economic structure and ending with its grammar. … The holders of power in Arab countries, regardless of their political make-up, are condemned to promote change, and they are aware of this, no matter how loud their claim to uphold the "prestigious past", as the path to modernity. Historians have interpreted the somewhat cyclical resurgence of traditional rhetoric as a reflex of ruling groups threatened by acute and deep processes of change. The problem Arab societies face is not whether or not to change, but how fast to change.

p. 177 One may speculate that women's liberation in an Arab context is likely to take a faster and more radical path than in Western countries. Women in Western liberal democracies are organizing themselves to claim their rights, but their oppressors are strong, wealthy, and reformist regimes. The dialogue takes place within the reformist framework characteristic of bourgeois democracies. In such situations, serious changes are likely to take a long time. American women will get the right to abortion but it will be a long time before they can prevent the female's body from being exploited as a marketable product. Muslim women, on the contrary, engage in a silent but explosive dialogue with a fragile ruling class whose major task is to secure economic growth and plan a future without exploitation and deprivation. The Arab ruling classes are beginning to realize that they are charged with building a sovereign future, which necessarily revolves around the location and adequate utilization of all human and natural resources for the benefit of the entire population. An Arab woman is a central element of any sovereign future. Those who have not realized this fact are misleading themselves and their countries.