The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   3

The Veil and the Male Elite

A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam

by Fatima Mernissi

translated by Mary Jo Lakeland
Addison-Wesley, 1991
This title is certainly more descriptive than that of the French original, Le Harem Politique, but it raises expectations which simply aren't fulfilled. One hopes for an analysis of the relationship between the custom wearing veils, and all that goes with it, and the male elite in Muslim countries. Here Mernissi gives us only the obvious: the elite supports an interpretation of the Qur'an and hadith which makes Muslim women at best second-class citizens --- good believers, no doubt, but no one to entrust power to. Mernissi's goal is rather a revisionist one: showing that Islam actually invites political equality between the sexes.

To do so she first sets about undermining the scholarly foundations of the received interpretation. She has some success: she points out that there was no stable text of the Qur'an for decades after the death of the Prophet (pbuh!), that hadith were notoriously falsified and mis-remembered, and that despite all the precautions of generations of scholars, false ones are likely to be in the canon; and she shows that several hadith often quoted against political equality for women were ``remembered'' under distinctly suspicious circumstances. This is all to the good; I suspect most Muslims are as ignorant of these facts as most Christians and Jews are about the actual composition of the Bible.

She then to consider the first Muslim community at Medina, and again scores some points, contrasting the simplicity with which Muhammad lived with the ostentation of the caliphs and their current heirs, showing that Muhammad did not think womens' bodies, even menstruating womens' bodies, were polluting, and giving evidence that Islam substantially improved the position of women. But this still doesn't prove the case, and there is strong evidence against it in the Qur'an itself: women get half shares in inheritance (better than nothing, pre-Islam, but), the hijab (roughly, the veil) is required, etc. Mernissi comes perilously close to saying these were concessions wrung from Muhammad by reactionary male Muslims against his better judgement, at a time when his fortunes were at a low ebb. I think we can all appreciate with why she holds back from doing so, but it does mar her argument. It also leaves her open to the response, that those parts of the Qur'an which seem to favor equality were wrung from the Prophet by Aiysha's nagging. One may consult any history of Christianity since the Reformation to see where this sort of thing is likely to lead, i.e., ultimately, no thinking person takes the Scriptures literally.

Like all her books, this one is composed of passages in the main lucid and well-argued, separated by a very French sort of ``theoretical poetry''; for instance, into a perfectly sound discussion of power politics and how technology gives the West its strength, she inserts a bizarre little dissertation on time, from which I gathered only that time is now rather more important to Westerners than it had been (possible, but how could you tell?), so much so that the idea of time has ``swallowed'' and ``replaced'' that of space (she appears to mean that we talk about things being ``fifty minutes by car'' --- actually an ancient habit, and in any case all our figures of speech about time represent it spatially --- a length of time, that is behind us, what lies ahead, what does the future hold, etc.), that speed is connected with space and time, that Western armies and businesses can work anywhere on the planet, and that many Arabs wear Japanese watches, of which last she disapproves. There was a lot more --- say three pages of it --- but it was frankly quite incomprehensible to me. I suppose this sort of thing may be necessary to sell her books in France, and even to American academics who have caught one of several strains of the French disease (her latest book, Forgotten Queens of Islam, was published by the University of Minnesota Press), but I can't help wishing she had tried explaining them to her shoe-seller first.

Despite such stylistic flaws (features?), this is an interesting book, accessible even to readers without previous knowledge of feminist theory, Arab politics or Islamic theology, written by an able scholar in support of a just and noble cause. It is therefore worth taking a moment to consider why it fails to substantiate its main thesis, why the most favorable verdict one can return is the Scottish ``not proven.'' The key, I think, lies in the nature of revisionism. As Leszek Kolakowski said of Marxist revisionists (such as his younger self), ``ultimately, there are better arguments in favor of democracy and freedom than the fact that Marx is not quite so hostile to them as he at first appears.'' It is one thing for revisionists to say that their tradition is compatible with some reform or innovation: with a little luck and some dialectical subtlety (which Mernissi has in abundance), this can usually be accomplished. But they are naturally tempted to go further and say that the tradition favors them: and this is usually not the case, or they would be no need for revisionist books to make the point.

xi + 228 pp., bibliography, index
Feminism / Islam and the Islamic World
July 1994, last changed 22 August 1998