Muslim Women 101

A Nevada anthropologist discusses her experiences with Muslim women in the Middle East

Jill Derby, anthropologist and Nevada university system regent, talked about her Middle East experiences at UNR Friday.

Jill Derby, anthropologist and Nevada university system regent, talked about her Middle East experiences at UNR Friday.

Photo By David Robert

Describing Muslim women in a 45-minute talk would be about as easy as taking up the subject of women and Christianity and expecting to get somewhere with the topic in less than an hour.

“The category is so broad that it has no meaning at all,” anthropologist Jill Derby said. The Muslim religion has about as many sects as Christianity, she said. Believers range from the extreme fundamentalists, like the Taliban, to the more progressive contingents.

Three women whom Derby befriended while working in the Middle East illustrate the range of Muslim women.

Derby lived in Saudi Arabia for three years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She later made the Middle East the focus of her graduate studies in anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Derby, now a University and Community College System of Nevada regent, spoke Friday on Muslim women in the Middle East as part of the continuing Muslim 101 series sponsored by the Jot Travis Student Union and the Campus Christian Association.

Derby met Soha al Kayal, a demure 16-year-old bride, on the day of the girl’s wedding. As women in the family flitted around her, Soha sat quietly, eyes down, in her white bridal dress. The rest of the women danced and had a good time, telling jokes, laughing and preparing the bridal chamber, where the marriage would be consummated, in the middle of the room.

“She was shy, but I found out that this is the proper way to be, not effervescent or out-going,” Derby said. “The virginity of a bride is very important.”

Derby attended the wedding about three decades ago as a guest of Soha’s brother, with whom Derby worked at an American-owned oil company. Women were just starting to be educated in Saudi Arabia then. Derby said the country seemed more open at that time to Western women living and working among them without veils. After oil companies were purchased from the Americans, though, the dress code began to change.

Soha’s family was a conservative one. As the wedding progressed, Derby heard drums and the sound of the men coming to collect the bride. As the bride and groom went into the bridal chamber, Derby wondered if the tradition of displaying blood on the sheets as a proof of virginity would be observed. She was told that only the groom’s family would have access to the sheet’s condition.

“They would not be publicly displayed,” she said.

Over the years, Derby has kept track of Soha and her family. Soha has lived a secluded life, traveling from her home to the market—veiled. Soha’s children, though, including her daughters, all became educated at universities and went on to be doctors and teachers. Because of the separation of the male and female spheres in Arab countries, it’s increasingly important that women become doctors and teachers for other women, Derby said.

Derby later met Maha Kassem, a Lebanese girl in her 20s from the trendy fashion capital of Beirut.

“She was darling and fun-loving,” Derby said. “She could go just about anywhere, but her brother had to come along as a chaperone. She dressed in Western clothes and drove the car. Really fast, as a matter of fact. We had some interesting rides.”

In Cairo, Derby became friends with a teacher, Alia Alami, who had married an Egyptian general much older than herself. Alia’s family had once owned orange orchards in Palestine, in which the education of boys and girls through college was made a priority. Alia’s marriage to the Egyptian was an arranged strategic move to secure her family’s position in Cairo, after the Palestinian family lost their land.

“Often, marriage has a strategic component in the Middle East,” Derby said.

Alia, Maha and Soha each lived as a Muslim woman with dignity and poise, Derby said. Their differences in lifestyles didn’t surprise Derby.

“That’s Muslim women for you,” she said. “They are all over the place.”

Westerners may have a negative image of the Middle East, she said, especially of the Arab people as a whole. American media often contribute to that.

“Hollywood’s choice is to portray a villain that looks different from us,” Derby said. “Arabs are too often a source for that.”

After the attacks of Sept. 11, Derby said it became terribly clear that Americans had immersed themselves in economic success and a geographical separation from troubled parts of the world.

“We became aware of how insular we are,” she said. “Most people in American don’t have an idea of what [life in the Middle East] is about. That the Muslims pursued science, math, astronomy … throughout the Dark Ages.”

Derby called herself a “foe of ethnocentrism,” that is, the tendency of a society to see their own way as “the right way and all others as wrong.”

“People who do things differently just do things differently,” Derby said. “As the planet shrinks, it’s important that we reach out and understand each other.”

Feminism, Derby said, is a Western concept. Many Muslim women she’s met say they wouldn’t trade the security, safety and respect they receive as women in a Muslim culture for the freedom of choice and individualism of women in Western society.

“True, in our system, we have more freedom of choice,” Derby said. “But the flipside of that is the freedom to be poor, to be abused, left alone.”

Those negative aspects of individualism aren’t dangers in a family-oriented culture in the Middle East.

“You’d never be left to be poor or become a bag lady,” Derby said. “You could go to any family member and say, ‘I need help,’ and it would be their responsibility to help you.”

For Muslims, the Koran (or Qur’an) is the infallible word of God. Parts of the Koran give women the right to be supported by their husbands but also to maintain ownership of their own property, much as, centuries earlier in Judaism, a respected woman could buy and sell land and be employed in other industrious profitable activities while also caring for her family.

But the Koran also has its passages that prove uncomfortable for many women, especially in less conservative sects of the religion.

“Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other and because they spend their wealth to maintain them,” reads one passage in the chapter Women 4:34. “Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart, and beat them. Then if they obey you take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme.”

Derby said that the Koran does seem to give a husband the right to lightly beat his wife to keep her in line. But if domestic abuse gets out of hand, a woman in an Arab country might leave her husband and go back to her family for protection. Then the husband would have to confront the woman’s brothers and father before she would go back to him.

Responding to a question from the audience, Derby said she didn’t have any statistics to compare domestic abuse in Arab countries with that in American countries.

“The husband is in charge of disciplining his wife,” she says. “If she gets out of hand, he may beat her ‘very lightly.’ …It’s important for you to know that none of the women I knew were wilting flowers. You learn how to make the most of where you are; you work the system.”

In her book, American Muslims, Asma Gull Hasan, a self-described Muslim feminist cowgirl, delves into the uncomfortable passage, citing male scholars who traditionally translate the word “beating” as “light beating” and those who’d say that the beating applies to men and women. But the passage has been used by Muslim men to justify much more abusive behavior.

Now, as Muslim women study the Koran themselves, some are looking at this book for the first time from a female perspective.

“Their work is controversial because they are trying to prove that the Qur’an does not support the oppression of women without undermining or questioning the validity of the Qur’an itself, only certain interpretations,” Hasan wrote.

The problem is similar to that faced by Christian and Jewish women or any “feminists of faith,” as Derby called them.

“All these religions emerged in the Middle East," Derby noted, "in a pastoral system, which has traditionally been a very patriarchal system. So it’s no accident that all three religions developed in the context of patriarchy."