The veil and the male elite coverThe veil and the male elite:
a feminist interpretation of women's rights in Islam

Fatima Mernissi

Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

p. vii-viii
…To defend the violation of women's rights it is necessary to go back into the shadows of the past. This is what those people, East or West, who would deny Muslim women's claim to democracy are trying to do. They camouflage their self-interest by proclaiming that we can have either Islam or democracy, but never both together.
Let leave the international scene and go into the dark back streets of Medina. Why is it that we find some Muslim men saying that women in Muslim states cannot be granted full enjoyment of human rights? What grounds do they have for such a claim? None-they are simply betting on our ignorance of the past, for their argument can never convince anyone with an elementary understanding of Islam's history. Any man who believes that a Muslim woman who fights for her dignity and right to citizenship excludes herself necessarily from the umma and is brainwashed victim of Western propaganda is a man who misunderstands his own religious heritage, his own cultural identity. …We Muslim women can walk into the modern world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country, stems from no imported Western values, but is a true part of the Muslim tradition.

p. 20
…What characterizes the modern West is its success in masking its fascination with death with a fascination with the future, thus freeing its creative energies. But modern Muslims, under the spell of who knows what deep-seated pain, prefer to die before even living, be it only for a few decades. The difference between the West and us is in the way we consume death, the past. Westerns make it into a last course, and we try to make it the main dish. Westerners consume the past as a hobby, as a pastime, as a rest from the stress of the present. We persist in making it a profession, a vocation, an outlook. By invoking our ancestors at every turn we live the present as an interlude in which we are little involved. At the extreme, the present is a distressing contretemps to us.

p. 46
…Claiming to have been close to the prophet or to have been given some privilege or other by him was used to mask huge economic and political stakes. The source of the invention of Hadith-manipulation par excellence of the sacred text-is to be found in the very nature of a political system which never managed to transcend its elitist origins and seek pragmatic ways of mobilizing the whole population to participate in the choice of the head of state.

p. 54-55
…first time since the death of the Prophet that the Muslim found themselves on opposite sides in a conflict. His was situation that Muhammad had described as the worst possible for Islam: fitna, civil war, which turned the weapons of the Muslims inward instead of directing them, as Allah wished, outward, in order to conquer and dominate the world. …It was year 36 of the Hejira (AD 656), and public opinion was divided: should one obey an "unjust" caliph (who did not punish the killers of 'Uthman), or should one rebel against him and support 'A'isha, even if that rebellion led to civil disorder?
For those who held the first opinion, the gravest danger that the Muslim nation could face was not that of being ruled by an unjust leader, but rather of falling into civil war. Let us not forget that the work Islam means submission. If the leader was challenged, the fundamental principle of Islam as order was in danger. The others thought that the lack of justice in the Muslim chief od state was more serious than civil war. A Muslim must not turn his back when he sees his leader commit injustices and reprehensible acts (al-munkar): "The Prophet said: 'If people see al-munkar and they do not try to remedy it, they incur divine punishment,'"…This was the argument of the group who assassinated Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and is representative of the very prolific literature of the Muslim extremists of today.

p. 67-9
…Muhammad, who was laying the groundwork for an Arab nationalist ideology, could only assert himself in one of two ways-either with the support of the Jewish community or by combating it if it discredited and denigrated him….
What the prophet did was to "nationalize," to "Arabicize" the Judeo-Christian heritage, as if in our day there should emerge an Arab prophet who would claim Einstein, Marx, and Freud not only as ancestors of modern Arab Muslims, but as the heritage that only a Muslim society is capable of making bear fruit, the only one able to develop their scientific message.
The Jew saw the prophet as an imposter who stole their prophets and "indigenized" them to his own advantage. It was in their interest to rid of the Prophet for two reasons. Not only was he sapping the source of their prestige-access to the sacred, to Heaven, to the book revealed by God, to the prophets-but he was also using their own prophets, their own legends, their own knowledge, to constitute himself as a force that would dominate the world. ….he decided to declare total war to them. What might Islam have become if the Jews had given their support to Muhammad? It is possible that it would never have seen the light of day, that it might have become a somewhat deviant Judaism, a rather specialized sect in the vast Mediterranean area which has already seen so many.
Nevertheless, we should remember that of the prophet succeeded in his mission, it was because the Arab terrain was ripe for an ideological bouleversement. Arabia was experiencing a very serious ideological crisis which reflected a deep economic and social crisis, and which explained the foothold held by the Christians and Jews in the area. The Arabs admired them as communities that had obtained what they lacked: a sense of identity, a feeling of belonging to a superior civilization, the feeling of being a chosen people with whom God carried on a dialogue. This is the reason that in the Koran there is so much emphasis on the fact that the book revealed by God is Arab.

…turn away from Jerusalem and instead pray in the direction of Mecca. Jerusalem had to be abandoned as a symbol; it represented a greater danger than Mecca. And this choice of the Ka'ba as the direction that organizes the sacred and structures space made Islam what it has become: both a religion that is embedded in the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition and a separate religion which poses itself as a rival power and contends for universal dominion…

p. 81
…All the monotheistic religions are shot trough by the conflict between the divine and the feminine, but none more so than Islam, which has opted for the occultation of the feminine, at least symbolically, by trying to veil it, to hide it, to mask it. … This almost phobic attitude toward women is all the more surprising since we have seen that the prophet has encouraged his adherents to renounce it as representative of the jahiliyya and its superstitions. …Is it possible that jihab, the attempt to veil women, that is claimed today to be basic to Muslim identity, is nothing but the expression of the persistence of the pre-Islamic mentality, the jihiliyya mentality that islam was supposed to annihilate?
What does the jihab really represent in the early Muslim context?...When was it inaugurated, for whom, and why?

p. 97
For some theologians the jihab is a punishment. … 'God, if Thou must torture me with something, don't torture me with the humiliation of the jihab.'
So it is strange indeed to observe the modern course of this concept, which from the beginning had such a strongly negative connotation in the Koran. …
Many new editions of books on women, Islam, and the veil have recently been published by religious authorities who are "concerned for the future of Islam," books that explain in their introductions that their aim is to "save Muslim society from the danger represented by change."

p. 99
This look back into history, this necessity for us to investigate the jihab from its beginnings through its interpretation in the centuries that followed, will help us to understand its resurgence at the end of the twentieth century, when Muslims in search of identity put the accent on the confinement of women as a solution for a pressing crisis. Protecting women from change by veiling them and shutting them out of the world has echoes of closing the community to protect it from the west.

p. 119-121
…the women apparently hoped to see things change with the new God. They were so successful that a sura bears their name, sura 4, An-Nisa ("Women"), containing the new laws on inheritance, which deprived men of their privileges. Not only would a woman no longer be "inhered" like camels and palm trees, but she would herself inherit. She would enter into competition with men for the sharing of fortunes….This little verse had the effect of a bombshell among the male population of Medina, who found themselves for the first time in direct, personal conflict with the Muslim God. Before this verse, only men were assured the right of inheritance in Arabia, and women were usually part of the inherited goods….
As far as men were concerned, the new regulations on inheritance tampered with matters in which Islam should not intervene-their relations with women. Accoding to many of the Companions, Islam ought to change everything except their privileges with regard to women…
In pre-Islamic tradition women had no assured right to inheritance, which in any case was a matter between men…..A wife, at a time of inheritance, seemed to be nothing but an object to be claimed by male heirs…
The new laws threw all this into question. Islam affirmed the idea of the individual as a subject, a free will always present in the world...The men opposed these laws, understanding that if they let them come into effect, Muhammad and his God would soon support other demands by women, especially the right to make war and the right to booty.

p. 125
…The conflict between God and the Muslim Companions was coming into the open…
The Prophet was not intimidated by them. He maintained his position: God had informed them of His decision on this subject. They had only to comply. However, confronted with laws they did not like, they tried to distort them through the device of interpretation. They tried to manipulate the texts in such a way as to maintain their privileges.

…men continued to try to suppress the egalitarian dimension of Islam. These men, who came to Islam to enrich themselves and have a better life, were caught by surprise by this dimension of the new religion. They suddenly found themselves stripped of their most personal privileges. And, unlike slavery that affected only the wealthy, the change of the status of women affected them all. No man was spared, whatever his calss or means. However, a verse that uses a somewhat ambiguous word, al-sufaha (the foolish), was going to serve them as a springboard for nullifying the new laws.
This verse says: "Give not unto the foolish (what is in) your (keeping of their) wealth, which Allah hath given you to maintain." This was the verse they were waiting for: since the foolish are excluded, then women are the foolish-it was very simple. "The sufaha are women and children, some people say, and both of them must be excluded from inheritance." …If they insisted strongly enough that the concept of sufaha included women, then all males would be happy, and the Muslim God and his prophet could keep their harebrained laws about inheritance. Men came to a happy understanding among themselves.

p. 128-9
There are no theoretical schemas that define the principles of Islam as a philosophy, as a vision of civilization. Because of their wish to master their subjectivity, the fuqaha (religious scholars) were reduced to simply accumulating various cases and opinions concerning them. Since they gave to each person the right to have an opinion, the end result is a literature of juxtapositions of opinions. The religious literature wanted to be scientific, and it was. But it was an empirical science, in which each author limited himself to a work of collation without drawing any synthesis that would aid us in "distinguishing" the essential from the secondary. The imam humbly effaces himself before the facts. And in doing this, he opens the way to manipulation through interpretations, as the debate around the word sufaha clearly shows. When it is a controversial verse that is at stake, everyone is going to choose and support the opinion that suits him best among the multiplicity of those that the fiqh accumulates.
We can imagine, or dream, that an elaboration of a system of fundamental principles would probably have allowed Islam as a civilization of the written word, to come logically to a sort of declaration of human rights, similar to the grand principles of the Universal declaration of Human Rights, a universal declaration that still today is challenged as being alien to our culture and imported from the West. The position of modern Islam as a society on the questions of women and slavery is a good illustration of that utter neglect of principles, that inability of political Islam as a practice (as opposed to an ideal) to enforce equality in daily social life as an endogenous highly valued characteristic. The paradoxical result is that, despite Islam's opposition to slavery in principle, it only disappeared from the Muslim countries under pressure from and intervention by the colonial powers.
It is in order to evaluate the depth of the contemporary Muslims' amnesia, which sees equality of the sexes as an alien phenomenon, that we must return to Medina, to its narrow streets where the debate on equality of the sexes raged and where the men were obliged to discuss it, but refused to accept it although Allah and His Prophet demanded it. As today, the men professed Islam, but openly rejected it when it supported equality between the sexes.

p. 134
...over and above the equality craved by women, there were crucial economic interests at stake.
Confronted with this problem of survival for the community, most of the women did not take the necessary political stand. The only one who did was Umm Salama, who defended the right to go to war, not to gain wealth, but to have the privilege of "sacrificing oneself fro God" and the Prophet's cause. The others declared: "It is too bad that we are not men; if we were, we could go to war and gain wealth like them." Lacking Umm Salama's political sagacity, they were not able to hide their material interests under the trappings of holy war, and this false step was fatal to them.

p. 138-9
…Without military success there would be no Islam. The Prophet's margin for maneuver in a city dominated by a war economy was very limited.
Applying the principle of social equality added the risk of even more trouble. It destabilized the family by giving women the right as believers to claim equality, since henceforth piety would be the only criterion for ranking in the hierarchy…Giving women the right to paradise posed fewer problems than giving them the right to inheritance and booty, which greatly increased the sacrifices that the male believer had to make to Allah. If men had need of God, God also had need of men.
Faced with this difficult choice-equality of the sexes or the survival of Islam-the genius of Muhammad and the greatness of his God shows in the fact that at least at the beginning of the seventh century the question was posed and the community was pushed to reflect about it. It is a debate that fifteen centuries later politicians are calling alien to the culture, alien to the Sunna, the prophet's tradition.

p. 142
Although 'Umar had many marvelous qualities, the Muslim chronicles, who recorded everything about a historical personality, including faults, also depicted his fiery, violent character with women…
So it was not just by chance that he became the spokesman for the men's resistance to the prophet's egalitarian project. A man of exceptional charisma, he supported the maintenance of the status quo in the domain of the family. For him, as for the many Companions that he represented, the changes that Islam was introducing should be limited to public life and spiritual life. Private life should remain under the rule of pre-Islamic customs, customs that Muhammad and his God rejected and condemned henceforth as out of step with the new system of Muslim values, which emphasized the equality of all, including equality of the sexes. The men were prepared to accept Islam as a revolution in relations in public life, an overturning of political and economic hierarchies, but they did not want Islam to change anything concerning relations between sexes. In family matters and relations with women, they felt at ease with the pre-Islamic traditions.

p. 146-7
…it was no longer women who initiated the debate, but men. While chatting with each other and exchanging confidences about different sexual positions, they stumbled onto the subject of sodomy…
The particularly revealing debate concerning this verse allows us to grasp the depth of the problem that this book seeks to make clear: the use of the sacred by men to legitimize certain privileges, whether they be of a political or a sexual nature...Three centuries later….the debate was still going! And still today they are arguing bout whether a Muslim does or does not have the right to sodomize his wife! What seems important to me is that a debate in Islamic religious literature is never closed. Each generation takes it up where the previous one left it to discuss it again, although there has been no useful progress. Why? In brief, because a civilization that rules the life of millions of individuals must evolve general principles without letting itself be sucked into casuistry and empiricism. Al-Tabari, as brilliant as he was, did not help his contemporaries…He did not try to evolve principles that codified what is permitted and what is forbidden in the heterosexual sex act by recalling the equality of the partners as believers. He did not go beyond the incident to arrive at the principle that the sex act depends on two distinct free wills; that it is a relationship between two believers with needs and desires that do not necessarily coincide. It was this timidity on the part of the imam toward the necessity to evolve principles that makes the verses so malleable, and makes opportunism in their interpretation a structural, almost institutional, feature of Islam.

p. 15 0
During the prophet's lifetime, the opposition to his egalitarian project-that all people be free-was strong and persistent. After a generation, the son of a freedman did not seem worthy of military command. Asserting the equality of slaves, as in the case of women, threatened enormous economic interests…The new religion sought to intervene in both these instances….However, despite all the declarations of principle clearly defined in the revealed verses and despite the example set by the prophet, Muslim society remained a slave society for centuries and only renounced it under pressure from the colonial powers in the twentieth century. It is important to follow this history of slavery in order to understand the attitude toward women that has persisted right up until the present day.