BOOK REVIEW / Wives of Mohamed and the veil of tears: Women and gender in Islam - Leila Ahmed: Yale, pounds 17.95

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The Independent Culture
HOW NICE to think that this book will be read not only by feminists and historians but by men, too - if they are not put off by the unattractive title, which hides the work's range and scope, and makes it sound like an academic tract. There are too few books reminding us of past and present variety inside Islam; and meanwhile our attention is always being directed to the mad murdering mullahs who distress moderate Muslims as much as they do most people in the West. It is certainly no hardship to read Leila Ahmed's book: I really did read it in a sitting, for the fascination and unexpectedness of the information.

It is planned as a bird's- or eagle's-eye swoop of history from pre-Islamic times. That was when there were religions and not nations, and they - Christianity too - made up the matrix from which Islam was born. The verse in the Koran that enjoins men to go into women who are their fields grew from the Zoroastrian 'Woman is a field and what grows in it is yours'. Babies were in short supply: the morality of early Islam was shaped by shortages of population. But Islam's severe morality has always been flexible when it comes up against this imperative: in Iran temporary liaisons are being encouraged by the men of God because of the young men slaughtered in the Iran-Iraq war. We may speculate about how a woman left holding the baby when a man moves on is treated. Abominably, if the history of Islam (and of Christianity) means anything.

Islam was partly shaped by the need to end paganism and to obliterate the power of the goddesses, and consequently of women. The first few years of Islam exemplify the wide mix of influences. The Prophet Mohamed's first wife, Khadija, was a trader, with caravans on the route between Syria and Mecca; Mohamed was employed by her, and because of her women may trade and do business in Islamic countries today. Mohamed's attitude towards women was progressive for that time: his wives, particularly 'Aisha, were regarded as authorities equal to men on the Traditions and correct Muslim practice: women have never been given this kind of respect within Judaism or Christianity.

The enigmatic Companion 'Umar, though, seems to have played the same role as Saint Paul the misogynist did in Christianity. He disliked women, in practice and in theory, and introduced repressive laws, which his successor, the Companion 'Uthman, partly revoked. And so the story goes on: gains, then losses; one step forward, one step back. After Mohamed's time things got much worse for women; for instance, the institution of harems with hundreds of women in them, even for men enlightened in other ways. Al Ma'mun, who conducted in his courtyard experiments with sticks and shadows about the rotation of the earth, had hundreds of concubines and hundreds of old women spying on them.

So bad were the lives of women that loving fathers lamented the fate of their daughters: 'We live in an age when he who weds his daughter to the grave has found the best of bridegrooms.' And it seems not a few women agreed with him, and killed themselves. Yet there were exceptions. Rabi'a, the Sufi woman saint, and other Sufi women had better lives.

The story of medieval Islam is necessarily based on material written mostly by men. Later, women visitors from the West wrote vivid pictures of life in the harem, Lady Mary Wortley Montague's luscious account of the Turkish bath being one. Many of the tantalisingly brief stories here remind us that this is the world of The Thousand and One Nights, of intrigues and adventures, contrasts of wealth and poverty, bribes and poisoned daggers, and always those shadowy figures, the eunuchs, and the go-between old women. Class determined women's lives just as it has with us. Sometimes women were educated. In 1285 a convent for learned women was set up in Egypt by a rich princess and there are glimpses of possibilities like the women's colleges in Italy and France, used as part of the plot of Love's Labour's Lost.

In the 19th century, Western influence, and the rise of states and nations as we know them, changed everything. Then began the debates about the situation of women. The chapters here about the champions of women, both female and male, show all the range of opinion familiar to us from our own 19th-century disputes.

And now that emotional business, The Veil, which is almost impossible for Western women to write or even think about calmly. We ourselves have recently emerged from the total domination of men and of religion: our comparative freedom is so new that we fear what we have escaped from. I myself watch the images and associations of The Veil arise in my mind, with the kind of dread appropriate for an ex-prisoner.

Leila Ahmed makes two important points. One, that Western feminists should not impose their ideas on Muslim women who for one reason or another support The Veil and all the ideas about modesty in dress that go with it. She outlines advantages, none likely to appeal to us, such as that within conformity is considerable freedom. To which the Western reply instantly comes: obedient prisoners always have privileges. But Leila Ahmed says Western feminists see Muslim women's development towards freedom in terms of conformity to Western notions, and that an imperialistic condescension remains in our attitudes.

Her other point is apparently more urgent: the Muslim women who support or even demand the Shari'ah - the strict religious law of Islam - for themselves know only its comparative leniency in Muslim countries such as Egypt and Syria, countries that have maintained multi-cultural experience. In despotic Islam, this same Shari'ah is being used to take away from women even the limited freedoms they have; in Saudi Arabia, women are not even allowed to drive.

We may argue that this debate does not affect us in the West. Perhaps we should not be too sure, seeing how the luck of women has fluctuated through the centuries, how often apparently secure gains have been eroded or abolished, and how often neighbouring cultures have influenced each other.