WOMEN IN ISLAM: Tradition and Transition in the Middle East by Naila Minai
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WOMEN IN ISLAM: Tradition and Transition in the Middle East

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In seventh century Arabia, Khadija, an attractive 40-year-old widow, proposed to the young Mohammed and supported him as he founded the religion of Islam, ""a religion that concerned itself heavily with women's rights in a surprisingly contemporary manner."" This view of women's status in Islam may not be the one with which most Westerners are familiar, but it is with just such paradoxes and complexities that journalist Minai is concerned: how a religion that originally sought to assure women's position came to confine it, how these restrictions and the ""harem mentality"" nonetheless present certain opportunities for enterprising women today. The result is more wide-ranging than most other books on the subject and a highly accessible mix of history and analysis with biographies of famous and not-so-famous Muslim women. Thus we start with Khadija and soon move on to one of the leading wives of Mohammed's harem, Aysha, who was actively involved in politics even after his death. Forced into the first civil war in Islamic history, Aysha lost and was made to repent of having gone to battle (""If I had to do it over again I would have chosen to remain in my house""). Thereafter the tradition of Khadija and Aysha declined and the Middle East of the Arabian Nights emerged, making the secluded, idle harem life the ideal to which all women aspired. This being the case, ""Early rebellion [could] emerge only among the secluded but superbly educated aristocratic women. . . ."" And so it did. In relatively liberal turn-of-the-century Turkey, it was the few wealthy women raised with European governesses who first struck out against the traditional precepts and practices. Zeyneb Hanoum, a diplomat's daughter-turned-writer, said of her countrywomen: ""To these Oriental women were given more jewels than liberty, more sensual love than pure affection."" But, after a stay in Paris, Zeyneb was none too impressed with the Frenchwomen either, who seemed to her totally obsessed with sex and marriage; and many contemporary Muslim women also feel the need to temper Westernization with Islamic tradition. Minai tells of Yasmin who, after studying in Europe, preceded her marriage with an operation to reconstruct her hymen, thereby both pleasing her husband and maintaining family honor. Equally caught between two worlds but expressing the tension politically is Peri, a university student who found living in an American dorm ""no better than a harem"" and assumed the veil as ""a useful first aid in undoing some of the damage done to woman's dignity."" Along with such revealing portraits, Minai also includes her own reactions and impressions: as a little girl identifying with Aysha and resenting her return to the harem; as an independent journalist unable to travel alone but still appreciative of harem life in its most traditional setting. She concludes that what is needed is a return to ""the early Islam of Khadija and Aysha and the best of Muslim scholarship""--not to recreate the past but to seek out fresh solutions. Sympathetic, intelligent, and timely.

Pub Date: July 31st, 1981
Publisher: Seaview--dist. by Harper & Row