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Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed (thoughts)

July 30, 2012


After adoring Ahmed’s more personal look at Egyptian feminism in her memoir A Border Passage, I knew I’d eventually get around to her more traditionally academic book, Women and Gender in Islam. In fact, I’d actually put in an ILL request (it wasn’t available at my own library) not long after reading A Border Passage. Sadly, it arrived during one of my flare-ups, and I wasn’t able to read it before having to return it. Back in March, Marilyn blogged about it, which together with my library’s recent swap in ILL systems, inspired me to request it again (I’m unsure about whether I’m normally allowed to re-request titles). Anyway, this time I knew I’d have to get to it before returning it, and I’m happy to say it’s actually the book that helped me break through my recent reading slump!

I’ve now managed to type over one hundred words without telling you anything about the book. Clearly I’m out of practice! Anyway, this was written in 1992, when research on the lives of historical Arab women was scant, and as the subtitle explains, Ahmed set out to explore the historical roots of a modern debate. That debate is of course whether Islam is inherently, uniquely sexist, an issue I would argue is just as, if not more, prominent two decades on. This book is a delicious amalgamation of women-centered historical details (ever been curious about what day-to-day life might have been like for women in Mesopotamia?) and meta-analysis of Western scholarship’s tendency to treat Islam and women as some type of special, culturally destined case of sexism. The early parts focus on the history, with an exploration of the treatment of women in the various ancient cultures that eventually influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (spoiler alert: the Greeks were embarrassingly misogynistic) followed by a more specific look at Islam’s relationship with women from Muhammad’s marriages through to later interpretations of the Koran. In the latter section, Ahmed clearly lays out the connections between a colonial mindset that hid cultural imperialism behind a professed concern for Muslim women (and their veils) and many modern Western discussions of gender relations in the Islamic world. What I deeply respected was her ability to both value and respect Muslim culture as well as firmly laying out the sexism, and unacceptable treatment of women, found in both historical and modern Muslim societies. All too often, the lines between cultural relativism and feminism (or anti-racism or many other -isms) are portrayed as black and white, with no allowances on either side. Ahmed bridges that divide, and makes it clear why others need to follow in her footsteps. I’m also in awe of her ability to disprove and challenge so many commonly held Western stereotypes about Islam without sounding strident or putting the Western reader on the defensive. We need more authors like her, and she needs a larger audience!

While Ahhed is clearly an academic, and this is a book with an impressive amount of research that engages on both factual and theoretical levels, her writing is always engaging. There’s not a dry page to be found, and in a time when I’d begun and abandoned half a dozen books from sheer crankiness, and begun to despair of ever finishing a book again, Women and Gender in Islam caught my attention and held it. I imagine any reader who enjoys intelligent, popular nonfiction will have the same experience, and I highly recommend it. Of course, to anyone with even a passing interest in women’s history, feminism, the Middle East, or world culture, this is a must read! I only wish she had more books for me to explore. As it is, I’m about due for a reread of A Border Passage. ;) (P.S.: Squee! A bit of googling has turned up another book, published last year, called A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America. Guess what my next ILL request shall be?) (P.P.S.: Let’s look upon July as part of the last few month’s sabbatical, shall we? I’m back and hopefully better than ever.)

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Words Not Swords by Farzaneh Milani (Another wonderful book exploring Orientalism, feminism, and Muslim culture, in this case that of Iran.)
  • Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (Set during a time when Egypt saw many changes, I think this would be an interesting fictional exploration of the societal shifting Ahmed describes.)
  • Women of Algiers in Their Apartments by Assia Djebar (I didn’t manage to review this linked short story collection by a noted feminism Algerian author, but Djebar vividly engages with the effects of social isolation on women, as well as Orientalism. Yes, it’s experimental, but especially as an accompaniment to Ahmed’s book, I think it’d be very enriching for any reader willing to engage with it.)
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13 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2012 11:11 am

    I recommend Palace Walk as an excellent read and a look inside male-female relationships within an Egyptian family at that time. What I most strongly recall — besides the many restrictions of women — was their acceptance of the situation. Individual sought small freedoms for themselves, but did not seem to rebel against the social system.

  2. July 30, 2012 11:32 am

    Where is your page where you map out all the books you’ve read set in other countries?

    • July 31, 2012 8:40 am

      I actually only did that for one year’s worth of reading. But here it is: http://astripedarmchair.wordpress.com/2010/01/22/travel-by-books-2009-wrap-up/

      I want to eventually have a geographical review directory, but that’s going to be some work!

      • July 31, 2012 8:59 am

        Thanks. That’s an unbelievably cool way to read books. I want to use this page as a jumping off place for my own reading. I’m not much of a traveler, but I can at least travel the world by books.

      • July 31, 2012 5:00 pm

        Thanks! Travelling via books is great fun, and you don’t have to deal w bad showers and crazy taxi drivers. ;) Anyway, I went ahead and finished the review directory I’d been working on of reviews by author nationality. I still need to do one for books with international settings/topics, but this might help you get a good start: http://astripedarmchair.wordpress.com/about/book-review-directories/reviews-by-author-nationality/

    • July 31, 2012 4:39 pm

      Lisa Hill @ANZLITLOVERS has a large section of her CATEGORIES organized by the nationality of the authors. I am going to mine it for my own future reading. She has done a great deal of international reading.

  3. Vipula permalink
    July 30, 2012 1:13 pm

    Hi ! This is a well written blog post and though I don’t read a lot of non-fiction I am quite intrigued by your review. I am very interested in the role of woman in different societies and its evolution or lack of. I will definitely pick it up

  4. boardinginmyforties permalink
    July 30, 2012 5:01 pm

    Welcome back Eva. I’ve been missing your blog posts lately. I can always count on you to give me another book or two or three or…for my TBR pile! :)

  5. July 31, 2012 12:18 am

    Eva! So glad to see you. :-)

  6. July 31, 2012 4:33 pm

    Excellent review and I’m so glad you’re back. And thanks for mentioning me. This is such a wonderful book with so many good points to talk about.

    I am picking up blogging again, too, but perhaps a bit less energetically than you. How well I know what you mean about the difficulty finding the right book to read when you are down and feeling cranky!!! I want to blog about my ‘down’ reading when I get caught up again on pre-July conversations.

  7. August 1, 2012 3:30 am

    It sounds like a fantastic read and definitely one that needs to be more out there. You’re right that it’s a topic that is as relevant (or more) than it was 10 years ago – kept thinking about the French veil-ban and the recent debate about the Saudi judo Olympic athlete.

  8. aartichapati permalink
    August 1, 2012 7:35 pm

    There was a POV documentary about this woman in Syria (pre-revolution) who was very conservative religiously but used the Quran to help women get educations and be more independent. It’s available to watch online on PBS. You might like it!

  9. August 2, 2012 6:28 am

    This sounds so fantastic! And my library has it :) Yeay.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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