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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Islamic Period:  Diversity and Pluralism

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Framing the Issues

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Gender and Middle Eastern Women

When the first Islamic state emerged in Arabia, its legal codes offered legislation that upped the social status of women in comparison to the pre-Islamic era. It allowed women some share in the family's inheritance and limited the number of women a man was entitled to marry to four, on the condition that he could provide for all four of them. Urban women in medieval Islamic societies suffered from discriminating conditions: they were secluded in separate quarters in their homes, and polygamy and veiling were practiced. Nonetheless, we also find women in important positions as hadith transmitters, poetesses, and (if princesses or members of royal courts) patrons of projects in the urban sphere.

From the nineteenth century onward, Middle Eastern women—Muslim, Christian, and Jewish—began entering the newly established education system and demanding further rights. Women activists, like Huda Sha‘arawi in Egypt or Halide Edip in Istanbul, asked to increase women's education and to end seclusion and polygamy. Upper- and middle-class women formed societies and reading clubs, and published newspapers in such cities as Tehran, Istanbul, Cairo, and Beirut. They were aided by Muslim reformers who argued that Islamic law should be reformed so that it would enable women's inclusion in society. Such reforms, argued both female and male activists, would allow women to educate their children better and to become a more productive element in society. In the period between the 1930s and 1950s women became more vocal and specific in their demands, which included suffrage (a right denied to them by many of the nation-states under the mandate system) and equal citizenship rights. 

During the Cold War era, the region was divided between revolutionary and populist regimes, on the one hand, and conservative monarchies, on the other. The revolutionary regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq invested in women's education and promoted their inclusion in the labor market and the public sector as part of their socialist and secular agenda.

It is difficult to generalize about the conditions of women in the region today. Female writers, professionals, political activists, journalists, and public intellectuals are active in Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world. From Islamist political activists struggling for social justice to female pop singers dressed in fashionable outfits, women play a vital part in their Middle Eastern societies. In each country, the demands concerning their rights correspond to specific sociocultural and sociopolitical conditions; in the extreme case of Saudi Arabia, women fight for the expansion of their rights vis-à-vis a highly religious state code, which, for example, does not allow women to drive. In certain sections of Lebanese society, on the other hand, debates about gender and sexuality, framed in highly secular terms, take shape in the academia, the media, and the public sphere.

From 1967 onward, the region experienced the rise of organizations that call for a greater role of the Islamic faith in society and politics. Issues relating to family law and public morality, highly crucial for women's position in society, had turned into a battling arena between various Islamist and secular organizations. Nonetheless, women activists also form an important part within Islamist organizations, where they try to define their role as both Muslims and feminists.

Supporting Links:
“Huda Shaarawi.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 4, 2010).

Women in the Middle East. Columbia University Libraries. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 4, 2010).

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