How relations between men and women have been 'modernized'

May 25, 2004 12:00 AM

ARAB HISTORY AND IDENTITY

It is almost taken for granted among Arabs and foreigners alike that the Arab Islamic culture is one of the most conservative and forbidding in the world when it comes to relations between men and women. Such conservatism, it is often argued, results in a schizophrenic society that lusts for the things it condemns, and condemns the things it lusts for.

In the Western, Orientalist imagination, Muslim women are either ghosts covered from head to toe in black gowns or half naked belly-dancers in the harems of princes and sultans. Joseph-Marie Moiret, a Captain in Napoleon's Egyptian and Palestinian expeditions, described Arab women as ugly, not of the type that would attract a Frenchman's attention, as they walked around in their veils; however, he devoted a few pages of his memoirs to tell the story of a Georgian concubine, well guarded and kept in the palace of a Muslim merchant. Not only does the concubine attract the Frenchman's attention, she becomes his obsession about how woman should look like. Of course, according to Captain Moiret, the woman falls in love, and asks him to take her to France.

The story is most probably a fantasy, added to the book so that it could have a wider readership among the newly born citizens of romantic French nationalism. The Captain wrote that he used to meet the gorgeous concubine every day because her master contracted him to teach her French. In a time when only blind old men were allowed to teach concubines, and only little boys were allowed to serve them, the Captain's story becomes less than credible. Yet it is still very telling. The exotic belly dancer that the European invader invents is crying to be liberated. Just as the Egyptian nation, as opposed to the Islamic Umma, was a Napoleonic invention to make the Turks and Mamlouks look like invaders and the French as liberators. And just like the early liberal nationalisms in the Middle East, what was a European image of the 18th and 19th centuries became a historical reality in the 20th.

The economic realities of the so-called modernization process in the Arab world achieved little more than establishing long-term dependencies and institutionalized poverty. This economic change created its own socio-ethical superstructure. Unlike what many people think, the forbidding nature of the relations between men and women in modern Arab societies, and the consequent schizophrenic phenomenon of condemning what we long for, is not the product of Islam; rather, it is the product of modernization. In Islam, the act of marriage has been as simple as making and breaking relationships between boyfriends and girlfriends; the only difference is that it is documented and announced. Since marriage in the Christian tradition is a holy bond - and in most sects, unbreakable - having relations outside marriage was seen in Europe as just another triumph of the secular over the ecclesiastical. Such a differentiation did not exist in pre-colonial Arab Islamic societies.

Islamic marriage is not a holy bond, rather, it is contract. It only requires the acceptance of the bride and the groom, and the presence of two witnesses. Any number of conditions could be added to the contract. The woman, for example, can set any condition from stating that her husband will not have the right to marry another woman, to stating that he cannot wear certain clothes and vice versa. The man has to pay a certain amount of money to the woman in case of divorce, but that amount, as is the case with any contract, is negotiated. Once that issue is settled, divorce becomes as easy as saying the word. Throughout the pre-colonial era, men and woman used to get married, divorced and remarried frequently; relations between men and women were a social reality rather than an obsession.

With modernization, Islamic marriage started to look more and more like Catholic marriage. While modernity presented Arab societies with a lot of needs, it provided them with very few means to meet them. As in Europe, large families could not be sustained anymore. But unlike Europe, which was wealthy enough to sustain extra-marital relations, the Arab world could not. The institution of the single-parent family could not be economically sustained by the society, where it took at least two people working - indoors or outdoors - to raise a child. Marriage became a set of rituals intended to make it the most difficult step in a youth's life, and one almost impossible to repeat.

As the economic consequences of dependency - namely poverty - grew harsher, men and women had to wait more before they were able to have enough money to get married. And, since the society could not, as mentioned above, bear the cost of pre- or extra-marital relations, delaying marriage meant delaying any form of physical interaction with the other sex. This of course, created all kinds of schizophrenic views of women among men, and vice versa. Again, like the nation-state and other products of the colonial era, Arabs had no choice but to retain the form, rather than the essence. Just as some  Arab states are hollow of any meaning of independence, many Arab marriages are hollow of the meaning of love and compassion. Even in the most intimate area of human life, the colonial legacy left its fingerprints.

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