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January 16, 2003

Transgressing Burqas

This City Journal article titled Why Feminism Is AWOL on Islam is important. One thing though that those of the West-PoMo-types and defenders of the tradition-might forget is that sometimes women want to be "oppressed." Check out this article relating the far greater number of Islamists, many women, protesting equalization of the medieval Muslim divorce laws in Morocco (this is a moment where Robert Kaplan’s enlightened despot shines above the froth of anarchy).

Why would women oppose their own liberation? With rights come responsibilities (so goes the theory), and I suspect many of these women have been socialized to exist in an almost quasi-infantile state without a conception of self-determination and delude themselves that they are "protected" (at least to western eyes) [1]. Of course, there are different roles that men and women traditionally have. But the problem is that behavior between the genders overlaps, and absolute dictates do not take into account personal choice and autonomy.

[check out this related article in Beliefnet about Muslim-Christian custody disputes, I don't know where I stand on this, but it raises confusing questions. They should raise them atheists and allow them to pick gods when their grow up I say!]

[1] All my liberal friends seem to have heard or encountered traditional Muslim women telling them that they feel "protected" and "respected" by Islam. There might be something to this, but children are also protected and respected. While to a westerner an educated Muslim woman wearing a head-scarf might say that "she is a pearl to be cherished," in my personal experience as a child, the prime justification that Muslims of South Asian origins made for purdah was that a woman was for the eyes of her man only (perhaps Muslims of other nationalities are more noble in inclination, I have no knowledge of that…). A far less edifying reason, but logical insofar as I believe that most Muslim men view their women-folk as property owned by the extended family which they are head. This explains the story recounted in the article of a father beheading his seven year old daughter because she was raped by her uncle, she was damaged property that blemished the appraisal value (social standing) of the clan. There's a reason I think the terms "civlization" and "barbarism" should make a comeback....

Posted by razib at 09:55 PM

Admittedly, I do not know much about the female condition in Morocco, but the difference in the desire for feminist liberation among women in the Western world and women in Morocco (and some other Arab states) is probably partly due to their social cultures. In the United States, for example, young women who are raising children may not be able to draw on a ready supply of close and supportive neighborhood networks or friends. While young Arab mothers may more often be surrounded by other young Arab mothers, many of whom are readily availabe to help each other out when times are tough, thereby creating a social safety net. In other words, feminism is not that necessary in an Arab country where most young women are having loads of kids and collectively sharing in the community's responsiblity for its young.

Birthrates in the Arab world are similar to birthrates in the West 100 years ago, when feminism was far from mainstream.

Posted by: Mega at January 17, 2003 12:14 AM

did american feminism arise as a result of family break-down and the unwinding of community bonds? or did it precipitate these events? or are the two related in a correlative manner with mass industrialized economies?

also-i do not believe that close-knit families always imply male domination. the african-african diaspora model of female-centered homes illustrates that you can have lots of children and young ages and distribute the care between generations and amongst relatives and still be a "strong woman."

also-the case in morocco is interesting, because these women were agitating against freedoms that they themselves would no doubt never use. it's not like their own husbands had restricted rights, it simply equalized the theoretical ability to divorce....

(on a humorous aside-a few months ago, i was listening to an interview with a somali muslim feminist who was declaring that islam was the most pro-woman religion out there. the sympathetic NPR interview seemed pleased with the direction of the conversation, when the somali woman stated, "islam is a religion of the mind," and the NPR interviewer said, "but isn't islam a religion of the heart as well?"

i'll be honest, nonesense fluffy statements about religion irritate me. so i declared that yes, "islam is a religion of the mind & heart, and the ass, and the foot, and the tongue and buttock...."

now, that was fatwa-worthy :)

Posted by: razib at January 17, 2003 12:42 AM

And Judaism is a religion of the guts, the mouth and the phallus.

This is kind of interesting.....

Posted by: Diana at January 17, 2003 06:59 AM

Interesting related note: there are some in the field of neoclassical economics who claim that polygamy benefits women. Here's David Friedman's exposition on the topic: http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Price_Theory/PThy_Chapter_21/PThy_Chap_21.html

Personally I think that this is false, because it ignores the other cultural effects of permitting polygamy. Still he makes some good points.

Posted by: bbartlog at January 17, 2003 09:30 AM

In How The Mind Works, Pinker also made an economic argument for why polygamy would benefit women. It does rely on women freely choosing that arrangement as opposed to being coerced. Would a woman rather be the second wife of a kind and wealthy man or the first wife of a drunken bum. It seems, with a free marriage market, the biggest losers would be the biggest losers.

Posted by: Steve at January 17, 2003 10:24 AM

more properly, polygamy benifits a few men and screws over many other men. women are just units of exchange and tokens of status.

Posted by: razib at January 17, 2003 11:05 AM

Razib, I second that emotion.

As an FYI, several of my school friends are Middle Eastern women who were sent here to be educated, and "defected" from their families.

Posted by: j.c. at January 17, 2003 12:03 PM

Sure, in practice it ends up like Razi says. In fact I think that David Friedman's writeup ultimately says more about the blinkered worldview of neoclassical economics than it does about polygamy per se. I am curious though - has there been a society that both had relative freedom for women and openly accepted polygamy? There have been post-war interludes in lots of places were polygamy had de facto acceptance for a few years due to the extreme shortage of men, but I can't think of a society that I would call free that openly sanctioned the practice...

Posted by: bbartlog at January 17, 2003 12:21 PM

Polygamy was part of Judaism until about the 10th century and most western nations have de facto serial polygamy.

Posted by: Steve at January 17, 2003 12:35 PM

polygamy is still part of sephardic and mizhrai judaism-they just need to get married in morocco or yemen, they can't marry-up in israel (i know this from a yemeni jewish guy trolling around for a second wife [on top of his primary]-his plan was take her to morocco, get married, then go to israel)

Posted by: razib at January 17, 2003 01:02 PM

Friedman himself says: "Another reason why you may regard the result as implausible is that in many historical societies, including some of the polygynous ones, women did not belong to themselves. In such a situation, a woman's father, or whoever else was in a position to control whom she married, could have ended up receiving a large part of the price implicit in the marriage contract. If so, the demonstration that women are benefited by the legalization of polygyny no longer holds. That is why, at the beginning of the discussion, I explicitly assumed a society in which men and women belonged to themselves."

It's true that most or all advanced societies have abolished polygamy. So what? Most advanced societies also have socialized healthcare, but that doesn't mean freedom is synonymous with single-payer.

Anyway, it does no good to simply say that an economist is wrong, because no sensible economist will claim to be able to predict what specifically is going to happen in the world. One needs to explain why he's wrong, in order to draw any kind of conclusions about how the world works.

Posted by: Otto Kerner at January 18, 2003 01:29 PM