Women and the Rise of The Religious Conservatives

Fascinating and thought-provoking essay on Josh Landis’ Syria Comment:

Women and the Rise of The Religious Conservatives
By Anonymous
For Syria Comment
Sept 28, 2010

The following essay examines religious and cultural practices in Syria and the impact of religious conservatism on women. The essay is presented without authorship so as to not prejudice the reader by the author’s sex, religion, or nationality. The essay is intended to stand on it own ideas, to provoke thoughtful reflections.

Women and the Rise of The Religious Conservatives

In Damascus women are increasingly falling under the conservative trend that is sweeping the region. Today, the percentage of women wearing the hijab on the streets of Damascus is on the rise.

Many reasons have been proposed for the increasing number of women wearing the hijab: assertion of self-identify in the face of a perceived Western attack on Islam, a direct response to the Bush administration’s perceived “evangelical” invasion and occupation of Iraq (this is analogous to Americans wearing the yellow ribbon in the aftermath of the September 11 attack on New York City). Piety is another reason; some women in Syria make a vow to wear the hijab in response to their family’s misfortune, as a promise to God to heal a loved one or lift a misfortune. And failure of the secular governments to close the gap with the developed countries is yet another reason given by some analysts.

In Syria the particular influence of the Qubaysiyat cannot be overlooked as a substantial driving force behind the rise toward religious conservatism. The Qubaysiyat is a conservative religious order run by women. Similar to the evangelical Christian conservatives in the U.S., this group aims to gain as many converts as possible, demanding conformity, and wishing to impose their conservative values on society at large. The Qubaysiyat are active and relentless in attracting women, using peer pressure and often offering economic incentives as well.

This rise in conservatism in the Middle East has its parallel rise of the Christian right in the U.S. Many of these conservatives both in the US and the Middle East are targeting the gains achieved by women for equality and independence within society.

All religious conservative movements are patriarchal in nature. Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. is accused of being an anti-feminist, regressive movement. I was recently struck to hear from an American nun from the conservative Dominican order of St. Cecelia that women cannot lead a congregation in prayer since “it is God’s will that man shall do so”. She also contended that in a marriage the man is the head of the household but should love his wife and care for her. This view is contrary to the modern view of marriage as a partnership of equals. In Syria, a conservative woman by the name of Mayssa Hammamy recently published an op-ed on the popular Syria-News website shaming the men of Syria for, among other things, allowing a woman to conduct business negotiation in their presence. And for the first time in Syria’s history, conservatives are planning to segregate women in public by proposing to build women-only shopping centers. This is a painful attack on women’s freedom after the many strides made over the past century in their struggle to earn their place in society as equal to men.

Today, Women have broken many barriers and are leading in fields that not too long ago were men-centric. Women like Lisa Randall is a leading theoretical physicist searching for extra dimensions other than the three spatial and one time dimensions we already know; Danica Patrick raced her Indy car at an average speed of 246 km/h to win the Indy Japan car race against the best male drivers in the world; and Paula Radcliff ran a marathon at a blistering pace of 5 minute and 10 seconds per mile for a mind-numbing 26.2 miles.

This patriarchal revival is particularly odd for a country like Syria where women are known for their intelligence and accomplishment. In 1910 a pioneering women journalist by the name of Mary Ajamy started the first women’s organization in Syria, and in 1930, Lorice Maher was the first women to graduate from medical school paving the way for countless other female medical students who followed through to become some of the best physicians Syria has ever known. Syria today has three women government ministers and the only woman vice president in the Arab world,

Syria is home to traditionally strong and independent women. A Syrian woman who resisted the pressure of the Qubaysiyat recently told me that she would rather see her husband wearing the hijab before she does. Yet these accomplished Syrian women are increasingly finding themselves on the defensive against a growing conservative movement that claims to speak for God.

Not too far from Syria in Gaza, women have been banned from smoking the narghila in public by the conservative government of Hamas. This ban, which has nothing to do with public health, since it does not include men nor does it ban women from smoking in private. This ban is another strike at women’s independence and is anti-feminism in action.

To understand this ban by Hamas it is helpful to review the history of women and smoking. In most of the western world, it was extremely rare to see women smoking in public before the 1940s and 1950s. But as women fought for their rights and gained more independence, smoking in public became a common sight and a signal from women to assert their newfound emancipation. Capitalizing on this sentiment the Tobacco company Philip Morris launched the highly successful slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby” to advertise its Virginia Slims brand of tobacco. A brand manager for Virginia Slims described the success of the campaign as a as liberationist, in the sense that slogan really meant, “You’ve got a lot of options now.” Later as the danger of tobacco became apparent, Western governments banned smoking in most public spaces, equally, for both men and women.

Smoking in public is no longer a form of expression for women, but on the streets of Paris, New York, London, and Milan women are strong, stylish, and assertive. These women are dressed in the latest casual, athletic and business attire, reflecting the status they have achieved in their societies.

While women should be free to express their religious piety in any form they chose, the rise of the hijab can be a slippery slope, it begins with what women can and cannot wear, to whether they can drive; go to school, or work.

Tradition versus religion

Religious fundamentalist Jews, Christians and Muslims alike have a tendency to view the religious text in its literal origin. Unfortunately, women are often the victims of such interpretations.

Contrary to the fundamentalists, the prophet Muhammad encouraged critical thinking and according to the hadith said “To question is half of learning.”  It is thought that through questions a believer can explore his or her faith and the meaning of religion.

One question is: Whether God intended for religion to be codified into a written law?

Examining the history of the Bible and the Quran, offer some clues: To start, neither Jesus nor the Prophet Muhammad ever wrote any religious texts. There are no records of that, nor are there accounts of either one ever having done so. In fact even Abu Baker, the man who succeeded Muhammad as the leader of the Muslim community, is said to have been ambivalent about collecting all of Muhammad’s revelations in writing, in one book. The most credible Islamic tradition states that it was the third Muslim Khalifa, Uthman (644-655), who commissioned Zayed bin Thabit to undertake the task of compiling a standard text. Likewise, Jesus did not write the New Testament of the Christian bible nor was it complied into a single text by his direct disciples. The New Testament was written over a span of many years. Three of its authors, Paul, Luke and Mark, were not of the original 12 disciple of Jesus; the other two authors, John and Mathew allegedly were, but even the portion attributed to John is now believed to have been written by some of John’s students around 95 AD. The Church’s fathers later collected all this work into a standard text that we know today as the Bible.

None of the above argues against the authenticity or truth of either religious text. In both the case of the Quran and the Bible, people made a faithful effort to record the words of Jesus and Muhammad and create a singular religious text, but in neither case were these people commanded by Jesus or Muhammad to do so.

Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad could not read or write, and Muslim scholars consider the revelation of the majestic words of the Quran though Muhammad as a miracle, and liken it to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. This again could be interpreted as an indication of God’s intention. God chose Muhammad as his prophet, a man who could not write and appeared to him though the angel Gabriel; he told him to recite not to write: “Recite: in the name of thy lord who created, created the human being of a blood clot”. Had God intended for the prophet Muhammad to write, it certainly was within God’s mean to bestow this ability on the prophet, but God chose not to.

Also God’s choice of language is another indication of this aversion to the literal religious text. Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language that was to become practically extinct. Today Aramaic is only spoken by the inhabitants of one village in Syria and in the liturgy of a couple of Christian churches in Syria and Lebanon.

Arabic on the other hand was primarily an oral language and did not develop into a written language until much later than its Aramaic predecessor. The earliest written form of Arabic appeared in 512 AD, a few years before the birth of the prophet Muhammad and at the time had only 22 letters, the use of the dots was latter added to the Arabic alphabet to make up today’s Arabic 28 letters. The earliest surviving document that definitely uses these dots dates back to 643 (11 years after the death of the prophet Muhammad) and did not become obligatory until much later. According to the traditionalist Muslim historical account, the original Quran was written using the earlier version of the Arabic alphabet, the text was later given vowel pointing and punctuation in the seventh and eighth centuries. So While God chose for Jesus a language destined to become extinct, in the case of Muhammad, God chose a fluid language that was not yet fixed in its final written form.

If a lawyer today were to write a legally binding document, a law, he or she would refer to the dictionary several times to examine the spelling and exact meaning of the word used, whether it is being used in the right way and the proper place. A legal document often includes defined term in it as an addendum to the text. One can only imagine how contentious a legal battle can be over any vagueness or double meaning of words.

Before dictionaries codify a language, it is written and spoken but it is not really defined, not fixed. Language, by its very nature, evolves. Words evolve and their meanings change depending on the context in which they are used, and also with time. The first Arabic Language dictionaries were compiled between the 8th and 14th century, that is when the meaning of the Arabic word was beginning to get fixed and well defined. So it is humans many years after the death of the prophet Muhammad that fixed the meaning of the words God chose for Quran. Again this does not argue against the authenticity of the text, rather that it was not the intention of god to codify religion into text, otherwise God would have chosen in the case of Christianity an enduring language and in the case of Islam a well established one.

The Religious Law

God’s aversion to the written religious law seems to date to the days of Moses. According to the Jewish Torah, the Ten Commandments were spoken by God and written by Moses on two stone tablets during his 40 days atop mount Sinai. The Stone however later broke, as the aging Moses came down from the mountain and threw these tablets to the ground, angry at the site of the Israelite worshiping idols. All three monotheistic religions report a similar version of the event, and all three religions hold that God is supreme, creator of everything seen and unseen, God they hold is all-knowing. So one has to wonder: if God wanted a religious law written in his name and in stone, why would God not have made available to Moses a more durable stone?

Inspired by the Quran and the Hadith, Muslim jurists later developed the Shariaa, or Islamic law that conservatives use to enforce their values on Arab society. This law however was also deeply rooted in the traditions of Arabia and the ancient Near Eastern legal culture. These cultures are traditional and strongly patriarchal and link the image of women and the virginity of unmarried women to family honor.  Despite the prophet Muhammad’s groundbreaking efforts, at that time, to grant women new rights in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance, the law today continues to be patriarchal, influenced by the traditional culture in which it developed. By and large the Arab societies today are still deeply patriarchal.

One outrageous example of this patriarchal hold on these societies in Syria today is the so-called honor killings of women who have an affair or who have premarital relationships. This heinous killing is still reported regularly predominantly in rural Christian as well as Muslim communities. Although honor killings are prohibited by religion, it is primarily the religious conservatives who oppose to strengthening of the law and punishments against it.

In another telling example of how religious law is intertwined with the conservative values of traditional societies, the Syrian government recently allowed for each religious community to develop its own civil law in accordance to its rules. This gesture by the Syrian government is in the tradition of early Islam. When Abu Bakr deployed his army to conquer Syria, he commanded his generals to establish a covenant with the conquered people and “to let them live according to their own law.” Prior to this ruling by the Syrian government, the Shariaa law governed all civil matters of all Syrians. And since the Shariaa law is an Islamic religious law, one would have expected the Christians in Syria to take advantage of this new ruling. What happened instead was surprising and telling at the same time. The Melkite Catholics of Syria, who are predominantly city dwellers, quickly seized this opportunity and established their own civil law that gave women equal rights to men in among other things matters of inheritance. The Melkite Orthodox on the other hand resisted, preferring to remain under the Syrian civil law that adopted the Shariaa law in matters of inheritance. The Melkite Orthodox are the majority of the Christians in Syria and have large congregations living in rural and more traditional parts of Syria. These traditional communities are still deeply patriarchal and did not want their family wealth to pass with the married daughters to their new families.

It was very interesting to recently read in the archives of the NY Times that at the turn of the 20th century in what was little Syria in lower Manhattan, men and women were separated during service at the Maronite church according to traditional custom, with men occupying the front of the church and women the back. While Christians in Syria no longer segregate worshipers according to their sex, Muslims still do. All of this is a strong indication that today religion and tradition are intertwined and that religious conservatives are holding on to old cultural traditions that are outdated and that discriminate against women.

Knowing what we know today about law and language, one has to wonder why God did not clearly define a religious text and law. Why did none of his chosen disciples, Jesus or Muhammad oversee the creation of a singular religious text, in a well-defined, well-established language? Perhaps because there are two ways human typically deal with laws: one group fetishizes the law and the other tries to find loophole. Perhaps also because the religious text divides us, taken away, we are left with one God and the notion that we are all created equal. The only consistent message in all the religions is to do good and to help those less fortunate, the poor and the sick. Without the law we are free to grow, free to develop, and free to try to find the divine in our everyday and the beauty that surrounds us.

Today it has been reported that the Syrian government is asserting its secular principles in response to the rising religious orthodoxy. One good place for both the government and the civil society in Syria to start is strengthening women’s rights. As a starting point it should be emphasized without any qualification or exception that women are equal to men; That they are human beings, with all the rights, responsibilities and privileges of men

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