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Volume 22, Number 2March/April 1971

In This Issue

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The Arab Woman—A traditional view

"Outwardly there may be little change but under cover—in many cases, literally—there are the strings of significant social change."

Written by Leslie Farmer
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

In one of the traditional countries on the Arabian Gulf, a young woman from a good family is embarking on one of her regular solitary excursions out from the capital city in her chauffeur-driven car.

As the car pulls out of the most heavily-populated part of town the huge sunglasses that stand in for a veil come off. Further out past the suburbs the abaya—a full-length black cloak—follows them. And at her destination, the complex of "digs" where archeologists are uncovering some of the country's prehistory, the young woman—a member of the ruling family—steps down in the garb appropriate for a budding archeologist: pants and shirt.

This innocent stratagem, which both respects the slowly loosening bonds of tradition without sacrificing the girl's thoroughly modern interest in archeology, symbolizes the problems—and solutions—of many educated women in conservative nations of the Arab East, more particularly in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. Outwardly, there may be little change, but under cover—in many cases, literally—there are the stirrings of significant social change.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain are not at all alike. Saudi Arabia, with its 900,000 square miles, is vast and diverse. Kuwait, on the upper end of the Gulf, is smaller—6,000 square miles, 500,000 people.

And further down the Peninsula, off the coast of Saudi Arabia, there is Bahrain—one biggish island and a sprinkling of little ones, with 200,000 inhabitants and approximately 300 square miles of territory.

There are many common factors to be sure: language, dress, religion. And for women one more: the social and often physical separation of most women from most men.

Customarily, and from an early age, the Arab woman of these countries lives almost entirely with women—her only adult male contacts being her father, the relatives she cannot legally marry and, later, her husband and sons. Custom elaborates and perpetuates this separation: many Saudi houses—even poor ones—have separate entrances and reception rooms for men and women. Restaurants in Kuwait may have two sections: one for men, the other the "family" section, separated from it by a wall, a screen or by being upstairs or downstairs. One of the most impressive hospitals in Bahrain, the Salmaniyeh, is for women only. Women staffers in the Jiddah branch of the Ministry of Social Affairs, with a room to themselves, disappear at a male employe's voice and knock. The door of a Kuwait beauty salon bears the notice: "Men's Entry Forbidden." Furthermore, Saudi women's faces do not appear on passports or in Saudi publications and from at least puberty a woman lives with her face covered with a veil, her clothes by an abaya.

There are also, in many conservative families in these countries, other restrictions. As a member of what is known as an "extended family"— which includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, cousins of all degree, and in-laws—a woman must usually be prepared to consult them and listen to what all of them have to say on the way she is brought up, clothed, educated and married. Often all or most of such relatives will be living close by; in some families they all will be living in the same house and gather together for the noon meal. In one house of this kind, a huge and handsome old three-storied wood mansion in Jiddah belonging to a well-known family, there are, by one inhabitant's ca'reful reckoning, 50 people at peak periods.

Family ties like these are comforting and 'valuable but, where a woman is concerned, can also be suffocating. "When my sister and four other girls became the first Bahraini women to go away to college," recalls Bahrain architect Abdurrahman Fakhro, "they had to get the permission of all their families." And Hussein al-Amri, a middle-aged Jiddah driver, says that he would not like his daughters to work in certain jobs "because my relatives wouldn't like it." A few very conservative families in Saudi Arabia might even discourage their daughters from having woman friends outside the family circle; girls in such families would generally marry within the extended family and after marriage seldom visit women who are not related.

This segregation, however, has not blocked what to western observers in these areas is a significant improvement in the status of woman: the increase in educational opportunities. For although it is true that girls are segregated from boys at all levels, the very existence of the schools is a formal acknowledgement of the right —or at least the necessity—of girls' education. In some areas on the Peninsula, until very recently the most a girl could expect was elemental reading, writing and a brief exposure to the Koran in small, simple primary schools.

The first country in the Gulf to offer a program of primary education to girls was Bahrain, in 1927, and progress has been steady. In 1939 secondary education for both boys and girls began; three years ago a women's teacher training institute was set up. Girls now also follow courses in business and secretarial skills at the Gulf Technical College and a number of Bahraini girls have graduated from foreign universities. By the 1968-69 school year, boys still outnumbered girls in the school system, but the ratio was only four to three, and secondary schools alone enrolled 1,904 girls.

Other statistics are also encouraging. In 1959 only 37 percent of Bahraini girls between the ages of 7 and 15 (as opposed to 71 percent of the boys) were in school, but six years later the figures were 57 percent and 87 percent.

Women's education began in Kuwait in 1937 with the opening of a primary school for 140 girls. By 1951, when the first girls' secondary school opened, Kuwait had 2,447 female students and all seven of the secondary school's first graduates went on to Cairo University. By 1966-67 there were 43,026 girl students below university level—60 times the figure for the first year of education—and primary and intermediate school, encompassing ages 6 to 14, were compulsory. In addition, Kuwait now has several special institutes for handicapped girls, a training institute which gives vocational and domestic courses, evening studies centers with anti-illiteracy classes and a nursing institute.

At higher levels, a women's teacher training institute was founded in 1953; and by 1965 a total of 38 Kuwaiti women and 365 men had graduated from foreign institutes of higher education. In the next year the University of Kuwait, including a Women's College, was inaugurated with 138 Kuwaiti girls among its students. Classes in the women's section are taught by both men and women, and the first crop of graduates is due this year.

Women's education in Saudi Arabia began later than it did in the two smaller countries but, conversely, advanced much faster. When government schools for girls were instituted in 1960 at the primary level, in a number of areas the government policy was running ahead of public opinion—and in some, directly counter to it. In a few instances, as a pamphlet handed out by the Ministry of Information notes, the schools had to be opened under military protection. Inhabitants of the localities concerned believed that education could only "corrupt" girls and weaken their religious faith.

Education in Saudi Arabia is now open to girls from kindergarten to university, including teacher training and nursing schools. At the University of Riyadh, women students take their courses by correspondence or home study, and in Jiddah nearly 100 girls, many of them married, attend classes at 'Abd al-'Aziz University in off-campus buildings from 4:30 to 8:30 in the evening, dressed in long, tailored skirts and blouses. The girls can major in English literature or business and administration.

A few figures show how quickly women's education in Saudi Arabia has grown. In 1960-61 there were 11, 754 girls in all the kingdom's government and private schools—5 percent of all the students in the country. In 1968-69 there were 115,745: 27.7 percent of the kingdom's students. In 1960 the government's budget for girls' schools was two million Saudi riyals (about 500,000 dollars); last school year it was 93,703,338 riyals.

Education has been probably the most important change in the lives of women in these three countries, opening up the possibility for other changes. The women seem to realize this: teachers and observers report that girls in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait in general study harder, and get better grades. In the 1967-68 final state examinations in Saudi Arabia, it was a Saudi girl who headed the honors list and women students captured most of the top honors at King 'Abd al-'Aziz University last year.

For some women intent on getting or completing their education there are methods besides attending regular schools—government and private adult education classes, offering academic and practical subjects. In the town of Dir'iyeh, near Riyadh, for example, a 45-year-old mother of 11 children attends a center offering instruction in reading, writing, religion, nutrition and child care four times a week. In Jiddah, a middle-class matron attended primary school with her smaller brood and took the primary certificate along with the eldest.

Women who cannot attend regular classes may also study by correspondence. One notable follower of this route is the young woman who married in her early teens and despite a constantly growing family simply kept studying. Now in her early thirties, she is halfway through a degree in absentia at a foreign Arab university and plans another degree after that.

Men and women with whom I've talked in these three countries give a variety of answers as to why they think women's education important. The most common reason is that education will make a girl a better, more efficient and more interesting wife and mother. Another is that education could qualify a girl for a lucrative job.

The idea of women working, even among families whose daughters are highly qualified by their education, is hardly widespread, but there are signs of impending change. Saudi Arabia's labor laws, although prohibiting men and women from commingling in places of work, do implicitly sanction the concept by providing generous maternity leaves to female workers and requiring employers to pay the costs of a woman's confinement. In Kuwait and Bahrain the laws are socially more liberal in that men and women may work together.

Ten years ago the number of Saudi, Kuwaiti and Bahraini girls with jobs was miniscule. But Kuwait, according to its latest figures on the subject, had at least 1,000 women working by 1965—over half of them in government ministries. Bahrain, by its last census (1965), had nearly the same number then.

At present, the largest number of women working in the three states are engaged in teaching—traditionally in the Arab world the profession first open to women. Teaching in women's schools does not require contact with men and provides a relatively restricted environment. Next in number probably, come women employed in clerical and administrative work.

There is an increasing number of girls from poorer families working as nurses, a few women medical technicians, a small number of doctors (perhaps a dozen in all three countries) and some social workers. A number of women write for magazines and newspapers on home and family affairs and sometimes on social problems, contributing to daily or weekly women's sections. There are women radio announcers in all three countries, and women in Kuwait have appeared on television. Several wealthy Kuwaiti women—including one member of the ruling family—have opened smart boutiques and dress shops selling imported clothes in the capital.

Women's motives for seeking work range from strictly financial ones through the desire to expand their own horizons to that of aiding their countries' development. In the welfare state of Kuwait, in particular, a growing number of educated girls from well-to-do families—some daughters of millionaires—are taking jobs. By their own definition it is mainly for the challenge of proving their abilities and "because Kuwait needs qualified men and women," as Shaikha al-Nisf, a darkly pretty journalism graduate in the Ministry of Guidance and Information, puts it. In less wealthy Bahrain, many girls who work do so to help their families or to finance their own higher education.

The social lives of women in these three countries are also broadening. While the majority of social events for women are still women-only, women of all milieux can at least look forward to wedding and engagement parties, teas, baby-naming ceremonies, and, for the socially conscious woman, meetings of the women's philanthropic and cultural organizations that have begun to spring up.

At these meetings women plan welfare efforts to help their less well-off countrywomen or hear lectures, sometimes by Palestinian Red Crescent fund-raisers, sometimes by khaki-clad girl commandos. Typical of these multi-purpose clubs is Riyadh's Al- Jazira Women's Club, founded by the wife of King Faisal, Princess Iffat, and currently headed by her daughter Princess Sarah. The club runs an orphanage and offers vocational and anti-illiteracy classes as well as regular lectures, facilities for putting on plays and sports facilities.

Mixed events are on the rise. Some men now go with their families on picnics or trips to the beach where, in a secluded area, women can wade in their abayas and men and children can swjan. Educated younger couples in all three countries may pay visits together to friends of their own age. And Kuwait has the waterside Ghazal Club, where some wives go with their husbands. There are also mixed professional societies such as the Medical Society, the Writers' and Journalists' Union and the Teachers' Club. Increasingly in Saudi Arabia upper-class and professional men may bring their wives along to conventional evening parties if they are sure that other Arab men there will also be bringing their wives and know who will be present. And significantly, in celebrations marking Bahrain's 50th anniversary of education in 1969, the daughters of the Ruler, along with other Bahraini girls, performed traditional dances before a large and mixed public. Later they helped serve tea to the guests of honor, male and female.

One womanly interest that neither the monotonously-concealing abaya nor the lack of male admirers has quenched is an interest in fashion. Traditional dress throughout the three countries varies considerably, but usually conservative women wear full-skirted, long-sleeved, floor length dresses, smocks that drop to the ankles or a diaphanous variant on the abaya (usually black, chiffon or net and embroidered heavily with gold thread or sometimes sequins) as a festive overgarment.

Abroad, of course, or under the abaya in their home countries, some of the younger women adopt western fashions. Many, in fact, dress up more than a western woman would in equivalent situations and, as of our visit last spring, seemed to prefer pants suits and moderate minis.

As in all societies, however, the traditional Arab woman's central role is that of wife and mother. What may be different is that she still assumes this role at a very early age—an average of 16 for most girls, slightly higher for those with an education. And even this custom is changing. Among families whose daughters are being educated there is an increasing tendency to defer marriage until the girl finishes at least high school or its equivalent. A few, girls who study abroad for instance, do not marry until their middle 20's.

Marriages are still generally arranged by the families of the bride and groom. Whether a girl's consent is legally required for marriage or not varies with the different schools of Islamic (Shari'ah) law in each country, often depending on the girl's age and whether she has been married previously or not. In practice, however, few girls still would have the assurance to oppose their families.

In the most traditional form of marriage—formerly the norm, and practiced still to some extent with uneducated or extremely conservative families—arrangements are made not between the young people, but between their fathers, with a professional matchmaker or the women of the families adding advice and recommendations.

More common now are marriages in which prospective partners are at least given some information on each other—they are often first cousins— and are in some way consulted, with perhaps the right to refuse if not the right to choose. The two may be allowed or somehow manage to get a look at each other. Some couples these days can meet and talk before making up their minds, naturally with plenty of company around.

Also common are marriages arranged after a man has somehow got a glimpse of a girl he has heard about—while on a visit to her male relatives, through a car window or fashionably thin veil or sometimes, romantically, with considerable effort and ingenuity. The man then either asks his father to approach the girl's father or goes himself; his proposal, if accepted, is relayed to the girl. One romantic story of this nature with a particular twist to it concerns a Saudi Myles Standish who, hearing great reports of a rather secluded girl's beauty, asked his younger brother to try to get a look at her. The young man bribed the girl's chauffeur to change clothes with him and found the young woman as attractive as her advance notices. So impressed was he, in fact, that when his day of driving was over he went to her father and proposed himself as a husband, successfully. When I met the girl, a few weeks before her wedding, her future brother-in-law was not speaking to her fiance.

Finally, and rarest, are matches really arranged by a man and woman who have gotten to know each other somehow—though the form of proposal through the parents is usually preserved. Frequently these marriages are made "within the family"—the two are relations who can use family proximity or family visits to meet. "I met my wife (a relative) before we were married—we knew each other for two years," says Ibrahim Ahmed, a Bahrain intermediate-school teacher. "I sent my older brother to ask her father—pur parents didn't know that we knew each other."

Although it is unlikely that the Women's Liberation movement would endorse this system, it rarely occurs to even the educated Saudi girl to enter a protest. Unlike the young Saudi male, especially those who study abroad, she has almost no chance whatsoever of meeting a marriage partner and she knows it. Opposition, therefore, is still the exception.

Once married, most Saudi women focus their lives on household routines varying basically very little from those anywhere else in the world. Women slightly better off or more educated leave housework and cooking to a servant. If they have a job, such as teaching school, they are back by lunch to eat with their families. Less educated wives of men in the wealthier classes tend to settle for visiting, travelling and either making new clothes or having them made.

A woman's relationship with her husband can range from total subordination to substantial independence. Women can, under the various schools of religious law in the three countries, insert binding conditions in the marriage contract—the right to initiate divorce or to complete her studies after marriage, for instance—but most continue to consult and defer to their husbands on every decision. Mrs. Ahmed Ibrahim and Mrs. Jasim bin Ahmed, two women living in Hajar village in Bahrain, say their husbands decide on most daily matters down to and including a choice of kitchen utensils. "I don't ask for what I want, he just brings them," says Mrs. Ibrahim, "and if I don't like them maybe he'll exchange them, maybe not." Mrs. Ahmed says she does ask for such items, but not for larger ones such as furniture. "If he wants them he brings them," she says.

How much authority the woman has can vary greatly, depending on her character and education and that of her husband. Men may be influenced by their wives on the choice of a vacation or the sort of friends they consort with, the location of a house or social behavior. Mrs. Mas'oud Dabbagh, a young married woman who is the director of inspectresses of girls' schools in Riyadh, gives an example: "On our last vacation my husband wanted to go to Beirut. But I wanted to stay home and decorate the house, so we stayed home that time and decorated the house." The idea of women in these countries having "more power than you'd think" has some truth in it; even in the older generation, an outwardly retiring wife may make most of the decisions in the family.

Concerning polygamy, one aspect of the life of Arab women that continues to intrigue the western world, I can only say, with little hope of being believed, that it is a practice that is on the way out. In the course of six weeks of research I met and heard of only a handful of men who have more than one wife. (In one Bahrain village, though, nearly all the women who had drifted into the house I was visiting said their husbands had another wife—in most cases, in a different village.)

The decline of polygamy is partially the result of a changed social climate (a "progressive" man, as opposed to a Bedouin or villager, does not marry two wives) and partially the result of economics: supporting one wife is expensive enough; more than one could be ruinous.

With exposure to modern comforts, even villagers are beginning to see that smaller families and more amenities might be more agreeable than huge families and a dirt-poor existence for all. A survey made by Riyadh's Urban Community Development Center on its immediate neighborhood recently gave the following results; 69.6 percent of the married men had only one wife, 16.4 percent two, 5.8 percent three and 2.6 percent four.

If a man has more than one wife each may have a separate house— sometimes in different villages. Even if the separate establishments must be extremely modest, a man often will prefer this arrangement for the sake of avoiding disputes and will try, in accordance with religious doctrine, to treat both women with complete equality (sometimes to the point of buying them identical dresses). If two or more wives live in one house they may divide up the household tasks —and the husband's attentions—with mathematical exactness and at least surface tranquility.

Whatever her personal difficulties, the Arab woman in traditional areas tends to put up with them rather than protest against them, since men in general have the unqualified right not only to divorce at will but, under certain circumstances, to retain custody of the children. A woman can get a divorce, legal separation or dissolution of marriage, but she must show serious cause—impotence, insanity, extreme cruelty, presumed death, desertion, lack of maintenance or dangerous, contagious or repulsive disease and, if anyone cares to risk harsh penalties, adultery. From a religious standpoint, however, divorce on either side for less than serious reasons is abhorrent. (A saying of the Prophet quoted to me on this was "Of all things lawful, divorce is the most hateful.")

As a woman grows older, her status may improve considerably. A mother can be a powerful force with her grown sons—her position to some extent depending on whether they live with or are somehow dependent on the extended family or have broken away to set up their own homes. There are still, by all accounts, cases of mothers forcing their sons to divorce an undesirable wife, insisting that they build a house in traditional rather than in modern style or sometimes even choosing their grandchildren's schools and their daughter-in-law's dresses. (Says Muhammad Ghamdi, a driver in Riyadh: " If my mother chose a wife for me, I'd marry her even if she didn't attract me.")

On a more benign level, grown sons, even socially and financially independent of the family, hate to distress a mother. They may decide against a late or potentially perilous outing, forego moving to another town at her urging and visit her regularly. The late Umm Fahd, wife of King 'Abd 'al-'Aziz, from the powerful Sudeiri family, is supposed to have convoked her seven royal sons regularly once a week for dinner—an occasion that was never missed—and to have had much influence on them until the day she died. Less illustrious matrons alive today do exactly the same—and offer a liberal flow of advice and suggestions.

It would be presumptuous to suggest that these necessarily impressionistic views of some 105 very diverse Arab women—rich, poor? college-educated, illiterate, conservative and not so conservative, conventional and highly individualistic— shed a definite light on Arab women as a whole. Yet I think certain points do stand out.

The first is that education, "for their daughters, if not for themselves," is of intense interest, as well as importance, to traditional Arab women. In some circles it is not uncommon for a completely illiterate woman to have a daughter in college, and women who have had and probably will have little chance to get much education for themselves express hopes that their daughters can go on at least to secondary school, perhaps to college. Why? "So they can understand."

A second is that among educated women—those from families with somewhat liberal traditions—the idea that women are at least potentially equal with men is gaining ground. As Khayriyyeh Saqqaf, a Dresdenpretty young woman journalist in Jiddah just entering her first year at 'Abd al-'Aziz University says, "I think that women can do almost anything men can—even as far as physical work goes. I don't see why a woman couldn't be a soldier or, for that matter, a porter."

A third is that Arab women are generally willing to wait patiently for change—not surprisingly, since the whole idea of a woman being in any way able to determine her own life is so new. A headmistress of a school, for example, said that if Saudi men are "not ready to see us unveiled" the veils should stay for a while.

Fourth, younger women beginning to get educations and exposure to more liberal ideas are sometimes irked at restrictions on dress, behavior and participation in the life of their countries. One prominent Kuwaiti woman, quoted approvingly in a government publication, said, "In the past, men stood in our way in the name of tradition. But when society began to change men began to wonder if it was 'tradition' or rather their egoism and fear of our competition that was in our way ..." A pretty secretary with the Bahrain Petroleum Company, Homa Khoshaby, complains with a smile, "We can now see boys and even work with them. But we still can't go out with them, and that's what we'd like." An educated young teacher in Saudi Arabia, commenting after the headmistress' remark on veils exclaimed, "But if we don't start unveiling, they'll never be ready!" And some Kuwaiti women even expressed optimism about obtaining the vote in the near future, though they admit they are not "agitating" for this right.

Women in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have a long road to travel before they are accorded complete legal, social and moral equality with their brothers and husbands. But even in the West few women have yet reached the end of that road and the most advanced have still a way to go. Furthermore, in the past 10 years the women in these three traditional societies have gone forward fast, against heavy odds. And as change, once begun, seems to grow at geometrical rather than arithmetical rates, in 10 years the process may have speeded up beyond belief.

The Arab Women—In History
Written by Leslie Farmer
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

In the last part of the eighth century, in the reign of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad, the marketplaces of the Abbasid empire buzzed with rumor. The rebellious sect of the Kharijis in Iraq was up in arms and its forces under Layla—poet, beauty and rebel leader—were giving battle again and again to the troops of the Caliph.

In 1970, over a thousand years later, the suqs of the Arab world again ran with talk of a Layla. This time it was a young woman with an enigmatically lovely face and a background of teaching school and of guerrilla training with one of the most extreme Palestinian commando groups. This Layla had forced one plane to land in Damascus in 1969 and now had attempted to seize another en route to London—tough political gestures which again drew world attention—if also condemnation—to her cause.

In the more than a thousand years between the two militant Laylas, rare indeed were the Arab women who took such an active part in their people's history. Even more so than the generality of western women, from medieval times almost up to the present, Arab women have lived out their lives in the shadow of men.

From earliest recorded history human society has been patriarchal, women confined mainly to the home and the nearby fields, treated as the property of their husbands, and generally forbidden the society of men outside their families. The lands which are now part of the Arab world inherited this historical pattern, though women occasionally broke it to the extent of ruling as independent monarchs—the Queen of Sheba, Egyptian queens acting as regents, and the famous and tragic Zenobia of third-century Syria.

In the societies of the eastern Mediterranean which were to form the roots of western culture, the patriarchal tradition also persisted. The nomadic Hebrews were strongly patriarchal, in the city-state of Athens, the "freewoman" took no part in public life and was perpetually under the guardianship of her father or husband. And the attitude of writers and theologians of the early Christian church was often inspired rather literally by the tradition of Eve created from Adam and a paradise lost. In fact, the epistles of St. Paul, who shaped the new faith, and masses of early church writings fairly breathe misogyny: woman is useful solely for procreation; outside that she functions only as a temptation to sin and had best stay at home when she is not going to church.

In the Arab world, the triumph of Islam in the seventh century basically codified the position of women with its laws of spiritual and civic conduct. It banned female infanticide, limited polygamy to four wives, forbade sexual relations outside marriage and spelled out women's rights in marriage and inheritance. But part of this codification was to place women, in unequivocal language, below men: "Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property" (in support of women). (Surah IV, v. 34). Some modern Islamic writers and thinkers believe that, taking the Koran as a whole, women are given an equal-but-different status rather than an inferior one. But most Muslim laymen and scholars, living, it should be remembered, in an already patriarchal civilization, have taken such verses the way many Christians take the story of the Creation and the Fall: literally.

Even so, up to the 10th century, veiling and seclusion were not generally practiced. During the Abbasid era, two royal princesses went off in chain-mail to fight the Byzantines, Arab women composed poetry and music and vied with men in cultural salons and competitions, Harun al-Rashid's wife Zubaydah appeared at caliphal receptions in all her jewels and brocades, and in Muslim Spain ladies danced the zambra with their suitors. But with the exception of some women in agricultural communities, Bedouins, and a few women who ruled behind the caliphs, veils, seclusion and subordination had become general by the end of the 10th century and over the next millennium would remain so.

In the western world, during the same millennium, women were not faring much better. During the Middle Ages, despite a temporary elevation in their status when chivalry was in fashion, the legal position of women—especially with regard to property rights—declined. In the Industrial Age, as princely courts disappeared, the status of women who had been appreciated and encouraged in those courts waned. The same fate was in store for working women as guilds, in which they wielded some power, were replaced by factories. Cultivated hostesses in French salons did continue to receive the intelligentsia, but in the same era working class English women were toiling long hours in unhealthy factories and some English countrymen claimed the right to sell their wives. As late as the Victorian Age, despite challenge from rebels like George Eliot and Florence Nightingale, an Englishwoman could not attend a university, and could be sure that in divorce even the most erring husband would automatically take the children. The same erring husband could legally beat his wife, keep her at home for weeks on end and spend all her money.

There were exceptions. Working women in England, unlike upperand middle class women, had a certain social freedom, not unlike that enjoyed by women in the colonies of North America. There the scarcity of women on frontier and farm and the necessity for cooperation and companionship in rough, often isolated conditions, tended to modify the patriarchal traditions of the Old World.

By mid-19th century the anti-slavery struggle in the United States had begun to awaken American and English women to their own legal and social disabilities. In 1837, Mt. Holyoke became the first American college to admit women. The women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, was only the first of many such meetings. In the United States and England women's legal disabilities gradually faded and married women's rights over their own property increased. Gradually women began in increasing numbers to enter professional life then, finally, to push for the vote. Actually, women were first given the vote in New Zealand (1893); Australia and Scandinavia followed. Russia (1917) beat both England (1918) and the United States (1920). France, Italy and West Germany didn't give the vote to their female citizens until the 1940's and Switzerland still doesn't.

Worldwide today, it is still difficult for a woman to go on to higher education, to obtain equal pay for equal work, or to reach the top in any field no matter what her ability. Legal discrimination has also been slow to recede: before 1965 a French husband could dispose of all his wife's assets as he liked unless she was gainfully employed—but she could not work without his permission. In Spain a decade ago if a man caught his wife in flagrante and killed her out of hand, the worst punishment he could expect would be a short term of exile.

On the brighter side, in 1970 the world had three women premiers (none in a western nation) and two Japanese women successfully scaled 24,857-foot Annapurna in the Himalayas; the year before America's National Council of Churches elected its first woman president, the first woman jockey raced on a recognized race track and six women scientists were scheduled, for the first time, to work out of an American base in the Antarctic. Women in the United States and Britain furthermore, have in the Women's Liberation movement forged a formidable weapon that promises even more change.

In the Arab world, the position of women saw little of such changes until the 20th century. But the relatively few decades since then have seen a positive explosion of women's education throughout the entire area, the end of the "classical" harem, a substantial decline in polygamy, the gradual recession of the veil, the granting of the vote except in the Peninsula, and, in the major cities, the easing of restrictions on social mixing of the sexes and the rise of the Arab career girl.

Even these changes have touched the lives—and consciousness—of relatively few. The most important improvements in the status of women are just now beginning, and the most difficult to effect will not be in government-provided facilities or in legal provisions, but in attitudes—attitudes that are the more stubborn because they are rooted not only in Arab civilization but in civilization itself. To obtain full equality for women in the Arab world as in the western world, the change that must still be made is in the minds and hearts of men.

The Harem: image and reality
Written by Leslie Farmer

During the six weeks in which I was traveling through the Arab world for this study of Arab women I devoted a rather disproportionate amount of time to the subject of the harem—in Arabic, "harem"—in hopes of dispelling some of the mystery—and misinformation—has clouded the West’s view of this now nearly extinct system of polygamy,

This did not involve, as some might imagine, bypassing ferocious retainers and double-locked doors to meet groups of secluded beauties; to uncover any remnants of the classical harem system would have required travels longer and further than mine. Today, in fact, the word "harem" simply means "women" not, as it once did, "inviolable" or "forbidden," the sense which was beloved by story tellers and which still lingers, hardly less vividly, in Western imagination.

The origin of polygamy of polygamy have been variously ascribed to a superfluity of marriageable women and to the assumption that men must acquire as many women as possible for labor and for producing children—primitive society’s basic form of capital. Whatever its origins, polygamy existed well before Islam—in some cases, by thousands of years—in such diverse areas as India, China, Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula and Europe. But it was during the rule of the Ottoman sultans in Istanbul that the institution reached its greatest extension in Islam. Historians report top figures of up to 1,200 women, each with a certain rank in a formal hierarchy. The head of the harem was the sultan valideh, the mother of the ruling sultan. Next in importance after the sultan valideh were the four kadines (few sultans ever took legal wives) ranked in order of arrival, the first highest. A women of any grade could be promoted to a higher one, with its accompanying benefits of more luxurious accommodations and cloths and more servants, if she won the favor of the sultan.

Besides waiting hopefully for the sultan’s summons, the women of the harem acted as servants in various capacities if in the lower ranks, and took instruction in whichever fields they showed aptitude – cooking, accounting, music or other subjects. Sometimes laying their rivalries aside, they all danced or played music for the sultan. Occasionally they were allowed out of the palace for a carefully chaperoned boat trip on the Bosporus. That the harem became a byword for intrigue of all kinds is not precisely unfair. All of the women yearned to rise in wealth and prestige within the hierarchy, and some had a taste for politics as well. One, not at all atypical, who combined both interest—and started the so-called "Reign of Women" in the middle 16th century—was a Russian girl called Roxelana. Second kadine, and a great favorite of the sultan. She managed to have her two main rivals for power—the first kadine and the grand vizier—respectively demoted and exiled and herself soon became, next to the sultan, the strongest power in the empire. The following succession of weak and often degenerate sultans provided a vacuum of power—and the women moved to fill it For a century and a half the harem ruled the empire, making and unmaking sultans, the power shuttling between the sultan valideh, the first kadine and occasionally the chief black eunuch, and intrigue, bribery, extortion and sometimes murder the order of the day.

The great harems in Turkey ended with the deposition and exile of the Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1909, but polygamy lived on. As late as the 1930’s about 10 percent of families in the older generation in Beirut and Cairo, still accepted it, with the percentage somewhat higher in the countryside. Today, although it survives in isolated areas it is increasingly rare.

Seclusion is another matter. Up to five years ago there were women in Arab countries who literally never left their houses. They also disappeared when male visitors arrived and others never sat beside their husbands when driving.

Many older women, I must point out, are well content with this arrangement. As one women said, "They don’t want to give up being pampered." But some educated younger women are beginning to show signs of discontent. As a young married women in Bahrain put it, "I want to know men’s ideas, and not just from books. I think sometimes we have the wrong ideas about men, and they about us."

The image of the large and rigidly secluded harem—an institution which fascinated western imagination—was formed largely in the West by highly romanticized travel books and colored writings of not-too-objective missionaries. Burton’s English translation of the Arabian Nights, which appeared in the 19th century and circulated widely in America, was taken to present an accurate picture of current conditions. Even today an advertisement for one major airline features an Oriental potentate of some sort, complete with turban, whip-wielding slave—and some three dozen white veiled women trailing behind him.

Such concepts, as they become further and further divorced from present reality, are a sore point among educated Arabs. Characteristics, perhaps, of both the amusement and the annoyance they awake, is the remark of one peninsular amir (not apocryphal) recently planning an official visit to a western community. "Please don’t let the ladies start asking me about how many wives I have," he begged an American friend. "If I tell them one, they won’t believe me; if I tell them two or three, they’ll wonder why I don’t have all I’m allowed; and if I tell them four they’ll think it’s too many!" – L.F.

The Veil: a darkness at noon
Written by Leslie Farmer
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

It comes in smoke-thin chiffon or opaque black, crepe, gaily printed cotton or heavy blood-red linen, stiff with gold embroidery and silver ornaments that flash a shield-shape in the sun. It obscures all the face from forehead to neck, shadows it no more than a breath of dark air or covers brow and nose like a mask. A hundred forms, one function: it separates the women who wear it from the outside world as surely as a wall.

The veil—always associated in the West with Islam—actually preceded Islam in Arabia, but until the 10th century was not the rule, even among the aristocracy. More typical was the learned and witty Aisha bint Talha, an aristocratic beauty who, when her husband suggested that she veil herself, returned a reply that seems, historically, to have gone unanswered. "Since God, may He be exalted, has put upon me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that all view this beauty and reorganize His grace to them. On no account, therefore, will I veil myself."

Off all aspects of women’s subordinate status in the Arab world, the veil—to both west and educated East—seemed the most glaring, a symbol of all the others. Some of the more self-righteous of the 19th century western missionaries, in denigrating their sister faith, chose the veil as a symbol of woman’s operation (ignoring the indisputable fact that to girls with little knowledge of the world the veil did provide at least psychological protection).

The more educated men and women in countries where veiling is still common exhibit a similar attitude today. A popular opinion on the Arabian Peninsula is that the veil is something foreign-introduced to the Arabs by either the Persians or the Turks. Many men and women equally point out that in the time of the Prophet, that is when Islam was at its strongest as a religious force, there was little ceiling. One foreign journalist taking pictures of Bahrain’s 50th anniversary of education celebrations a few years ago provoked an unexpected reaction when he trained his camera on a group of veiled women onlookers: they immediately took the veils off.

Some premature efforts to lift the veil were indeed met by repression. When in 1911 the noted poet Jamil Khawi, in Iraq, made a frontal attack on the custom with a speech urging that the veil be "torn away," he was imprisoned for sedition. Some 10 years later when one woman in Beirut attempted, not to unveil, but to modify the color and form of the covering, she had vitriol thrown at her. Even in the mid 30’s when a group of Syrian women appeared unveiled in Damascus they found no safety in numbers: Opposition bordering on violence forced them to resume their veils.

Reformers in Muslim countries have often taken first aim at the veil, none more strongly than Turkey’s Kemal Ataturktwo years after he became president. "I see women throwing a cloth or a towel or something of the sort over their heads covering their faces and their eyes…" he said… "it makes the nation look rectified immediately!" Shortly after, Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlevi ordered schoolteachers and schoolgirls to unveil, then progressively forbade veiled women to use public conveyances or be treated at a government clinic. In the Arab countries, women themselves, took the initiative. By the 1930’s a few upper class women in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq had begun to unveil, and the practice had thoroughly taken hold in these countries among the young and in the cities by the 1950’s. Few women now veil in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain and the veil is being discarded slowly in Kuwait. In Saudi Arabia, the veil is legally mandatory but is often of fine chiffon, sometimes totally nonfunctional as far as concealment goes, and is often dropped in cars inside shops. Veiling also decreased progressively as one enters the countryside—since it hampers peasant and Bedouin women in their chores—and women in southwest Arabia do not veil at all.

Somewhat surprisingly, the custom of veiling also remains strong in the Mediterranean countries of North Africa where unveiling didn’t begin until independence in the 50’s and 60’s and is still confined to the young and the educated in the cities. Arab Tunisia’s Bourguiba echoed Ataturk’s remark of four decades earlier when he comented. "It is intolerable…" The former king of Morocco, Muhammad V, encouraged the just beginning trend by making a point of sending his reform-minded daughter Princess Lalla Aicha—unveiled—to public meetings.

The women of the conservation countries who have totally unveiled seem to accept it as a matter of course; those who have not unveiled, accept it as a convention. Women’s feelings towards the veil, in other words, are not at a reforming pitch. Among the men, the more educated seem anxious to have the veil disappear; the slightly less educated agree, with the provision that their own female relatives not be the first to discard it.

Today, however—even in the countries where it has long lain heaviest—the veil like a dark storm cloud, is lifting. When the last vestings of the veil have disappeared, those who regret its passing will, I think, be few, symbolizing, as it does, the shadow of a time when women from the lowest to the highest, the most educated to the illiterate, were begrudged not only freedom of marriage, of association, of movement, but even the light of day.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the March/April 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1971 images.