Women's status and rights in the Middle East is a complex issue which is often reduced to a Western feminist debate marked by Orientalism and backlash. Leila Ahmed takes a unique approach to the subject in her book Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. She takes on the subject first and foremost as a scholar, but also as a woman of Egyptian descent living in the West. The book is seen as one of the authoritative texts on the subject, but has caused controversy with certain Muslim circles in the Middle East. Regardless of any biases Ahmed is perceived to have, her interpretation of the subject using the lens of historiography, social commentary, political science, and religious/cultural experience is what makes this book integral to the study of women in the Middle East.
In order to properly place her analysis of the discourse of women and gender into a historical context, Ahmed traces what Islamic texts have said about the subject throughout history. The book has three sections, "Pre-Islamic Middle East," "Founding Discourses," and "New Discourses." In the first two chapters of the book, she sets the groundwork for her analysis of the interplay between Western culture and Islamic culture in the 'creation' of history. She criticizes the production of history in order to cater to the political agenda of modern groups, as well as ethnocentric (mainly Eurocentric) and masculine-based interpretations of society. Most importantly, the first part of the book very effectively serves as a background for her later interpretation of how womens' rights have changed throughout time, and to what extent Islam may or may not have been the catalyst for the changes.
After having commented on the production of history in regards to gender, Ahmed goes on to discuss the foundation of current debates. She chooses to do so by giving examples from the classical age in Iraq. It is at this point that I believe the book takes a turn toward providing more social commentary, and therefore a more critical analysis of the way Islam has been interpreted. She makes the point that “... the Quran raises many problems as a legislative document; it by no means provides a simple and straightforward code of law.” (88) Though the statement may seem to be objective truth to many, it also hints at the fact that Ahmed does not approve of people using the Quran to justify ethical or social rules placed on a society.
Many Muslims take what the Quran says literally, or believe that their interpretation is objective fact. This raised some serious issues with some groups. Al-Ahram Weekly ran a story commenting on how Al-Wafd (a newspaper by the Waft-opposition party) was espousing a desire to have Leila Ahmed's book confiscated and banned because “The author was accused of deriding and insulting Islam and doubting and criticizing some of its basic tenets.” The Islamic Research Academy denied saying they wanted it banned even though Al-Waft said they did. Prior to that, the book had been released in Egypt years before and was presented as part of their conference on “100 Years of Women's Liberation”. While the book makes a point to comment on culture, not only religion, religious groups intend to control cultural life in certain parts of the Middle East, thus making the book a difficult sell there.
However, I do feel that Ahmed equally criticizes the West as well as certain views of Islam. If Ahmed is guilty of criticizing Islam due to its history of justifying such acts as polygamy, she is equally guilty of criticizing Western interpretations of Islam and its dictation of women's roles. She is critical of the West and says that "The peculiar practices of Islam with respect to women had always formed part of the Western narrative of the quintessential otherness and inferiority of Islam" (149) but also makes the point that “Islamic civilization, developed a construct of history that labeled the pre-Islamic period the Age of Ignorance and projected Islam as the sole source of all that was civilized" ( 36-7).
Ahmed criticizes the West for simplifying Islam and categorizing it as being almost barbaric, and yet I feel she is guilty of making broad categorizations when she talks about Islam, as well. She talks about “lay Islam” and “establishment Islam” when explaining the religion's role in gender issues. She generally says that “lay Islam” is ethical, and “establishment Islam” is oppressive to people, overall. I believe that Ahmed oversimplifies certain aspects of her argument, but over-explains other aspects of what she is trying to say. I think she should have gone into more detail when classifying schools of Islam in such a way.
Ahmed has intentionally geared parts of this book toward a primarily Western audience, but I must also make a more specific classification. She gears parts of the book toward a Western audience who is sympathetic, and specifically those who are not Muslim. Ahmed's language and tone indicate that she intends her audience to be educated, but not necessarily scholars in the field. She does not explain the general tenets of Islam, but explains what role Muhammad played for the community when he was alive, etc. She cites sources such as Ibn al-'Arabi, but also makes a point to compare him to al-Ghazali and state both of their general significance (99). The book is written in scholarly language, it does not read like a magazine article, but I do believe that she over-explains minor parts of her argument when it is not entirely necessary. Explaining who her sources are not only puts her off topic in terms of her initial argument, but it could easily be explained in a footnote or a glossary.
In a larger context, though Ahmed may waver a bit in her interpretation of Islam, she makes a number of very valid and important points when analyzing the historiography gender and Islam. What really sets Ahmed's treatment of the subject apart is the fact that she ties the theme of Orientalism into her argument in a number of ways, and in order to demonstrate a number of points. She says that Europeans “distance the oppression of women from European societies and represent it as originating among non-Europeans", which creates yet more barriers to understanding (36). By discussing Orientalism's ramifactions in a sociological context, Ahmed demonstrates how subjective history can seem if one subscribes to it. Orientalism allows for the West's history to remain untainted by wrongful treatment of women, unlike the history of the Middle East.
Ahmed demonstrates that by criticizing the Middle East's treatment of women, the “Western colonizers” are guilty of hypocrisy. Unequal treatment of women is something that the West as has assigned to the Middle East because they somehow believe Middle Easterners (specifically Muslims there) to be a part of some lesser civilization. The Orientalist mind believes that the West could never be guilty of such a thing, and only the West can lift up these uncivilized Middle Eastern Muslims and save them from their dark and sordid histories. The fact that Ahmed realizes this makes her approach to gender studies one that is markedly different than either the Western or Middle Eastern approach.
The third part of the book is the most integral for anyone to study who is Western and relatively unfamiliar with how complex society and culture in the Middle East is. It is in this third part that Ahmed is able to intertwine the issues of Islam, (post)colonialism, and feminism that had been introduced in the first two parts of the book. She covers a span of history ranging from the eighteen hundreds until the present, making note of the beginnings of Europe's influence on the Egypt's economy, the creation of nation states, and imperialism's effect on the region.
Not only does she explain influences the West has had on Egypt, she is able to demonstrate the interaction between different groups of feminists. It is apparent that there is an important interaction that has gone on between Western feminists, feminists who are from Egypt, feminists who are promoting a nationalist ideology, and feminists who are seeking to colonize. In some cases women may fall into more than one of these groups, but in either case all of said aspects of feminism come together when there is an international debate. The most influential problem that comes up is that many of the women find themselves accepting facts that are really part of someone else's political agenda.
In the conclusion of Ahmed's book, she sums up her opinion on the discourse about gender in Islam, as well as her opinion about the subject itself. She seems to make the conclusion that the discourse has been so influenced by Western thought that there is basically no way to separate it out. Though that is the case, the fight for women's equality should be based on allowing them to fulfill their potential, not based on any one culture above another, and especially not on any one religion over another.
I feel that it is important that she acknowledges how the case for women is being used as a vehicle for either supporting or rejecting the West's culture, when women's rights can quite possible be entirely defined without those boundaries. It is important that she places the case for women in a historical context when tying it into culture. She points out that every culture has given inventions and ideas to each other and therefore, trying to keep Islam mutually exclusive from any other culture is irrational. She posits, last of all, that feminists could potentially come up with a system of study that would not serve Western interests entirely, but just concentrate on fairness and a well rounded approach to historiography. While much of this book seems pessimistic and critical of past interpretations of women, the last few sentences show that Ahmed does have some optimism for the continuation of the discourse to which she has so aptly contributed.
Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978