The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito. A few things are worth noting:
- I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material. You can do that on The Great Courses website. My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
- These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course. As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
- There is no third thing. I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.
Lecture 10: Women and Change in Islam
The West judges Islam’s treatment of women in terms of the extremes we see in the news. In reality, the conditions are widely varied from country to country (Note that this lecture is somewhat dated and some of these may no longer be strictly true):
- Egypt – Women can serve in parliament, but can’t be judges
- Morocco – 20% of the judges in the country are women
- Saudi Arabia – Can own land, but are restricted to feminine professions and cannot drive
- Kuwait – Could not vote until 2005 (after this lecture was recorded)
- Iran – Wear chadore or hijab, but are professionals and serve in parliament
- Pakistan – A woman served as prime minister
- Afghanistan – Cannot attend school; must be accompanied by a male outside the home at all times
The veil or hijab, burqa or chadore is seen as a sign of repression by the west. The practice varies widely from a simple head scarf to full body covering. When the tradition started in early Islam it was seen as a sign of high rank within the community.
While the west sees it as a sign of submission, Muslim women for the most part view it as an act that allows them to be free from exploitation as sex objects. Western women in short skirts and makeup are seen as the ones who are victims of a male society. In fact, some modern Muslim women have taken up the burqa again despite the fact that their mother’s eschewed them just a generation before. To the modern Muslim woman, wearing of the veil means that they are valued for who they are and what they have to contribute, not there mere physical characteristics.
Early in its history, Islam gave women rights they’d not had under previous systems. The Quran is emphatic that men and women are equal in the eyes of Allah and both are equally responsible for upholding the five pillars of Islam. It gave women the right to own property and restricted divorce and polygamy. Even more importantly it ended the practice of child marriage.
If this is so, then why the inequality we see today? It must be understood that even with the Quranic edicts in place to establish equality, the larger Muslim society was still largely patriarchal. In the very earliest days of Islam many women leaders arose and were held up as examples to be emulated. In fact, it was typical for women to be the first within a household to convert to Islam. Over centuries, however, the older and more traditional patriarchal tendencies eroded this foundation to the more erratic one we have today.
Much disagreement about this continues even today as old rules are brought under scrutiny. The law, for example, that in a trial the testimony of two women counts the same as one man still holds sway in over a dozen countries including Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The reasoning for this being that women, it is judged, are not of the proper “temperament” to make these judgments.
View back-to-back on the YouTube Playlist
Lecture 1– Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Lecture 2 – The Five Pillars of Islam
Lecture 3 – Muhammad-Prophet and Statesman
Lecture 4 – God’s Word-The Quranic Worldview
Lecture 5 – The Muslim Community-Faith and Politics
Lecture 6 – Paths to God-Islamic Law and Mysticism
Lecture 7 – Islamic Revivalism-Renewal and Reform
Lecture 8 – The Contemporary Resurgence of Islam
Lecture 9 – Islam at the Crossroads
Lecture 10 – Women and Change in Islam
Lecture 11 – Islam in the West
Lecture 12 – The Future of Islam