The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Reprinted from the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, Summer 2001 (with changes in orthography to HTML standards). Copyright 2001 by the Middle East Studies Association of North America
From the advent of Middle Eastern studies, the ‘status of the Muslim woman’ was a major subject of interest, not to say fascination. Women in Middle Eastern society were depicted as invisible, downtrodden figures, whiling away their time in harems, ignorant of anything but the most frivolous matters, and prone to childlike behavior. A handful of outstanding, unique women were portrayed either as ideal paragons or as evil shrews.
In the wake of the feminist movement of the 1960s, Middle Eastern ‘women’s history’ gradually began to modify these stereotypes. During the last two decades, new research has revealed the varied roles women have played in the economic, social, and cultural life of the Middle East. Quantitative studies of economic records have produced provocative findings on the ownership and management of property by women. This data seems to belie the common thought that Middle Eastern women were ignorant of Islamic law, a legal system that provided them with relatively generous property rights. Findings from the Muslim law courts indicate that large numbers of women claimed their legal rights despite the pressures of a patriarchal society. Studies of economic and social history have also revealed women engaged in a variety of income-generating endeavors. Similarly, the education of women, as well as men, in the traditional Middle East has been documented by quantitative, in addition to anecdotal, information.
Recently, the study of Middle Eastern women is in the process of being freed from scholarly seclusion, where it was neatly located as a subdivision of the field of social history. The adoption of the concept of gender by historians of the Middle East has and will continue to mean that women and men and the relationship between them are an integral part of any history of the Middle East. At the present time, the gendering of Middle Eastern history has shed new light on certain discrete historical chapters, illuminating specific events and areas. In the future, it will undoubtedly contribute to a new approach to Middle Eastern history.
I would like to demonstrate how gender analysis has contributed to three mainstream subjects of Middle Eastern research: political structure, legitimacy, and decisionmaking; economic trends; and alternate readings of Islam. In conclusion, I will suggest a number of avenues for future consideration, and address the pitfalls, as well as the promises, of gendering Middle Eastern history.
Political Structure, Legitimacy and Decisionmaking
Throughout the history of the Islamic Middle East, as in other cultures, women have on occasion taken an active role in politics, whether as de jure rulers of Islamic polities or, more frequently, by exerting influence on a male ruler. Involvement of the wife, concubine, sister, or mother of a ruler on affairs of state has, however, been regarded by classical Muslim scholars, and modern historians in their wake, as contrary to the natural order of the world and destructive to the realm.
The highpoint of women’s informal influence on Middle Eastern politics was the ‘rule of women’ in the Ottoman Empire. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from the time of Süleyman the Lawmaker (known in the West as the Magnificent), the political influence of the sultan’s favorites and then the sultan’s mother grew to such an extent that they were virtual rulers of the Empire. This phenomenon was regarded as a symptom, if not the cause, of ‘Ottoman decline.’
In a pioneering study, Leslie Penn Peirce has shown that the high profile and influential political role of women in the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century was a function of changes in the structure and legitimacy of the Ottoman dynasty. Süleyman and his successors physically transferred the domestic, mainly female part of the imperial household to the official residence, rather than a separate palace, as had been common previously. This move placed the women of the imperial household in proximity to the center of government, strategically located in the sanctum sanctorum, the most sacred, protected inner courtyard of the palace (the harem-i hümayun or enderun-i hümayun), where the sultan himself resided. The reason for this change was the gradual transition from a warrior state, led in battle by the sultan, to a bureaucratic empire ruled by a palace-centered sultan. The outcome was an increased role for the royal women not only in behind-the-scenes politics and diplomacy but also in the manifestations of Ottoman legitimacy—public ceremonies, cultural patronage, building, and philanthropy.
Peirce’s study demonstrates that gendered analysis of the public symbols of political legitimacy may provide a vital key to pinpointing the foci of power and its organization in any Middle Eastern polity. Clearly, strategically placed women and men attained influence because of their physical proximity to the center of power, be it a family member, a childhood companion, or a spiritual advisor. When the focus of power shifted from the ruler to the person and dwelling of other functionaries, as occurred frequently in Middle Eastern history, we would expect a concomitant rise to prominence of other households. Moreover, bureaucratization of Islamic polities placed a premium on different skills than warrior states, opening avenues of mobility for men and women who exhibited managerial ability.
Not only political structure and legitimacy, but also political decisionmaking have been shown to be more comprehensible when viewed through gendered lenses. In a recent, groundbreaking study on mandatory Syria and Lebanon, Elizabeth Thompson demonstrates how French colonial authorities, along with nationalist leaders, crafted a policy of ‘paternal republicanism’ in response to the rise of subaltern movements. These groups ranged from the women’s movement to the labor movement to Islamic populism.
Taking a leaf from Thompson’s book, it would be illuminating to examine the extent to which the policy of the ruling elites in various Middle Eastern polities related to different subaltern groups. Throughout the history of the Middle East, ruling elites of states and empires could ignore popular demands and movements at their own peril. Peasants employed a variety of strategies to evade and protest unreasonable taxes. Men and women of the towns demonstrated spontaneously against the high prices of basic commodities. Most threatening of all, popular preachers mobilized disaffected subjects, channeling economic and social demands into religious outbursts or even long-lasting movements. Government authorities and the established leadership of the population had standing policies relating to ‘their flock,’ the reaya, who were regarded in political theory as one of the foundations of the body politic. These officials and establishment leaders were also called upon to respond to periodic crises and demands. To what extent can we define overall paternalistic political policies toward subaltern movements? How did these policies deal with a diversity of groups with differing and perhaps even competing political aspirations?
Economic Trends and Gender
Studies of Middle Eastern women’s economic activity initially aimed to document the extent to which women actually utilized their legal economic rights, but remained within the framework of assumptions about the restricted social and economic agency of Middle Eastern women. Some presumed gender-based differences in economic activity, however, proved misleading, masking universal economic trends and market forces that overcame gender differentiation.
Early quantitative analysis of real estate transactions, for example, revealed the prominent role of women in the sale and purchase of property. In a pioneering, massive quantitative study, Ronald C. Jennings found that women were involved in forty percent of the transactions in the Anatolian city of Kayseri during the early seventeenth century. Kayseri women tended to sell property three times more frequently than they bought it. Jennings’s explanation for these findings was that women sold parts of inherited buildings or land to their brothers, although they did receive the market price.
Later, when Abraham Marcus examined the real estate transactions of men and women in eighteenth-century Aleppo, he found an even larger proportion of women involved. The vast majority (eighty percent) of these transactions consisted of the buying and selling of houses. True, women sold houses more frequently than they bought them, similar to what Jennings found, but men also tended to sell more than they bought at only a slightly lesser rate. In other words, the real estate market of Aleppo (and perhaps other cities as well) was characterized by the concentration of many pieces of property in the hands of a small number of buyers for economic reasons unrelated to gender.
Another economic phenomenon that may be elucidated by moving from a women’s history to a gender approach is the use of an agent (wakil in Arabic, vekil in Turkish) as a representative in court and in other dealings as well. One-third of the women who appeared in seventeenth-century Anatolian courts were represented by a vekil, suggesting that this measure was taken to guard their modesty. But the majority of women personally handled their affairs in public. Moreover, some women acted as legal agents for female, or even male, family members. Evidence from other regions and periods verifies that some women employed agents such as slaves, employees, or family members to represent them in court and in other dealings as well.
If we approach this data from a gender perspective, we must ask whether employing agents to manage widespread financial interests was a strategy for women to maintain their modesty while being economically active, or was it perhaps purely a business decision? To what extent did wealthy men employ agents to represent them in court and to manage their waqf endowments and other economic interests? The interplay of class and gender has been examined by Margaret Meriwether. She concluded that the impact of economic changes on women in nineteenth-century Aleppo varied by class rather than by gender, with upper class, lower class urban, and rural women sharing the fate of the men of their class.
In short, a gendered approach to economic questions in Middle Eastern history may reveal not only women’s business activity but also overall economic trends that are valid for men and women.
Alternate Readings of Islam
Gendered studies are also an effective tool to map out and analyze alternate readings of Islam, since gender seems to be at the nexus of Islamic normative and legal principles and practices.
In an analytic survey, Leila Ahmed proposed a dichotomy between ethical and orthodox readings of Islam. She suggested that marginal and popular groups such as sufis, the khawarij, and the qaramita emphasized an egalitarian, ethical message, while the political, religious, and legal establishment (in the Abbasid period) imposed a pragmatic, hierarchical approach whose influence is apparent to this day in orthodox Islam. Clearly, this thesis may explain other ideological and practical differences that evolved from the bedrock of Islamic sources.
Similarly, gender issues are ideal case studies to examine the complex historical interplay that characterized the development of Islamic law. It has been estimated that 80 percent of the legal material in the Qur’an deals with women and gender. As a result, major chapters of hadith collections and, in their wake, fiqh works were devoted to personal status—marriage, divorce, inheritance, and so forth—and other gender issues. Despite this explicit and authoritative foundation material, the ubiquity of family relations in the lives of individuals and society as a whole, as well as the changing social reality that informed them, obligated legal experts to constantly refine and redefine relations between men and women. Jurisconsults in their fatawi and qadis in the law courts addressed unresolved and highly specific gender issues in light of the social norms of their time.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, more concerted efforts have been made to frame innovations in personal status law in Islamic legal discourse. But even the most modest and moderate changes in family law have provoked far greater resistance from legal establishments and reluctance from political decisionmakers than any other area of Islamic law. In recent decades, Islamist movements have reaffirmed the symbolic importance of the sharcia, but in practice, the ‘sharcia’ they uphold is almost exclusively related to gender issues.
In short, gender analysis of Islamic legal material, as it developed through the centuries, enlightens us not only on the status of women or gender attitudes in Islamic societies, but also on the interplay between internal mechanisms and external forces that produced Islamic norms and practices. The conclusions derived from gendered studies of this type may be applied to other areas of Islamic law—such as the status of non-Muslims or business transactions—and elucidate the way in which legal principles were developed and applied in everyday, concrete situations.
Another arena in which scriptural, scholastic Islam interacted with social and political reality was in the maintenance of public order and morality, areas with gendered implications. Although hudud limits or punishments of certain acts were anchored in the Qur’an, much as were personal status issues, they were often superceded by state regulations for raison d’état. Gendered analysis of the implementation of hudud, of state actions for the maintenance of public order, and of decrees to guard public morality are promising fields to examine the ideology and practice of Islamic polities. The center of gravity of this dialectic was in the hands of the political authorities to a greater extent than in personal status or family matters.
In Mamluk and Ottoman times, for example, decrees were periodically issued dictating that women should remain in their homes and not participate in public celebrations. These decrees verify that women did in fact participate in the public sphere, and that periodic attempts to limit this practice had a short-lived effect. Why then did political decisionmakers focus their attention on such a picayune issue as women’s public behavior?
Analysis of a similar phenomenon in modern Saudi Arabia by Eleanor Doumato has revealed that when the Saudi regime felt threatened by high-profile failings, its leaders asserted their legitimacy by taking a hard line on women’s appearance in public. If we apply Doumato’s thesis to more remote historical situations, we may discover that the Mamluk and Ottoman decrees restricting women were indicators of societal stress which rulers wished to allay—whether these were droughts, plagues, or military defeats. Thus, gendered maintenance of perceived public piety may in fact have been a reflection of political impotence, and an attempt to project an image of ability and control.
Gendering Middle Eastern history is a relatively new development, and at this point, it leads to more questions than conclusions. This exposition will close, therefore, with a few suggested avenues for future consideration, one of which relates to military history. The pitfalls as well as the promises of gendering Middle Eastern history will also be addressed.
The seclusion of women has been considered a defining factor of Middle Eastern society. A growing body of evidence, however, challenges this axiom. The documented scope of women’s public social and economic activities has raised the question of how the seclusion and modesty of Middle Eastern women were maintained. Some measures taken to guard women’s privacy or modesty in public were wearing the hijab and a face-veil, being accompanied by a male family member, and maintaining a formal or informal division of public space by gender. But, to what extent was seclusion a function of gender rather than social status? To what extent did upper middle class and upper class men ‘seclude’ themselves from the general population as a perquisite of their status?
Finally, I would like to bring gender analysis into the most male-oriented field of Middle Eastern history, into a domain that for a long time was considered synonymous with history and still is by too many Middle East experts, that is, military history. Anecdotal information indicates that women took part in warfare through the centuries when combat was less institutionalized and more informal, such as military clashes among bedouin tribes, between villagers, or in built-up urban areas. The ecological venue of armed conflict, as well as the informal, even popular, character of military activities resulted in the mobilization not only of women, but also of other noncombatants, such as children and elderly people. Or to put it more strongly, the participation of women in Middle Eastern military history was a function of strategic and tactical decisions, not gender policy.
Whether or not the specific ideas I have raised here prove tenable, there is little doubt that mainstreaming Middle East gender research is a promising avenue to enhancing our understanding not only of relations between men and women but also of Middle Eastern polities, economies, societies, and cultures through the centuries. This approach does embody, however, intellectual and practical dangers. On the analytic level, there is the possibility that gender will become more or less prevalent in scholarly research (in accordance with current social and political developments) as has occurred with class, ethnicity, and so forth. Women, of course, have always been and will continue to be roughly half of the population of the Middle East, so it is difficult to imagine how gender analysis can fall prey to changing intellectual trends. Moreover, explicit comparison of women to men, as well as linking women with other subaltern groups will undoubtedly continue to illuminate Middle East studies.
In practical terms, there is a danger that Middle Eastern women’s studies will be weakened, and that the resources allocated to gender will be diluted. Middle Eastern women's or gender issues often engage new audiences, recruit additional academic interest, and evoke added financial support. Mainstreaming Middle East gender research embodies the potential to enrich both women's studies and Middle Eastern studies. This association is also a precaution against the danger that the study of gender in the Middle East will again be dwarfed by subjects deemed ‘important’ by the academic and policymaking establishment that influence Middle Eastern studies. At the end of the day, however, the quality and quantity of gendered research in Middle Eastern studies is the most effective safeguard against this pitfall.
*An earlier version of this paper was presented at a panel on “Mainstreaming Gender” at the German Middle East Studies Association (DAVO) annual conference, Mainz, 12 October 2000. It was also discussed at the workshop on “Defining Middle Eastern Gendered Identities” at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Jerusalem, 10 January 2001. I wish to thank the workshop participants and in particular Noga Efrati, the principle discussant, for their trenchant comments. The anonymous MESA Bulletin reader helped me clarify and hone my thesis.
 Massive evidence of female property-ownership derives primarily from quantitative data on women’s Islamic endowments (awqaf, evkaf). See Ruth Roded, “The Waqf in Ottoman Aleppo: A Quantitative Analysis,” and Abraham Marcus, “Piety and Profit: The Waqf in the Society and Economy of Eighteenth Century Aleppo,” unpublished papers presented at The International Conference on Social and Economic Aspects of the Muslim Waqf, Jerusalem, June, 1979; Ömer Lutfi Barkan and Ekrem Hakki Ayverdi, Istanbul vakıfları tahrir defterleri: 953 (1546) tarihli (Istanbul: Baha Matbaası, 1970); Bahaeddin Yediyıldız, Institution du vakf au XVIII siècle en Turquie: étude socio-historique (Ankara: Société d’Histoire Turque, 1985); Daniel Crecelius, “Incidences of Waqf Cases in Three Cairo Courts: 1640-1802,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 29 (1986): 176-89; Gabriel Baer, “Women and Waqf: An Analysis of the Istanbul Tahrir of 1546,” Studies in Islamic Society: Contributions in Memory of Gabriel Baer, eds. Gabriel R. Warburg and Gad G. Gilbar (Haifa, Israel: Haifa University Press, 1984); Roded, “Quantitative Analysis of Waqf Endowment Deeds,” Osmanlı Araştırmaları 9 (1989): 51-76; Judith E. Tucker, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Margaret L. Meriwether, “Women and Economic Change in Nineteenth-Century Syria: The Case of Aleppo,” in Arab Women: Old Boundaries, New Frontiers, ed. Judith E. Tucker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), pp. 65-83; Yitzhak Reiter, Islamic Endowments in Jerusalem Under the British Mandate (London: Frank Cass, 1996); Reiter, Islam in Jerusalem (Kluwer Law, 1997); Beshara Doumani, “Endowing Family: Waqf, Property Devolution, and Gender in Greater Syria: 1800-1860,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 40 (1998): 3-41. The extent to which women managed waqf endowments is still open to debate, see: Baer and Meriwether cited above and Meriwether’s “Women and Waqf Revisited: The Case of Aleppo, 1770-1840,” in Women in the Ottoman Empire: Middle Eastern Women in the Early Modern Era, ed. Madeline C. Zilfi (Brill: Leiden, New York, Köln, 1997), pp. 128-152. The prominent role of women in the sale and purchase of real estate, their financial activity providing loans and credit, and in particular their rental of immovable property all point to some degree of property management. See Ronald C. Jennings, “Women in Early Seventeenth Century Ottoman Judicial Records—The Sharia Court of Anatolian Kayseri,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 18 (1975): 51-114; Abraham Marcus, “Men, Women and Property: Dealers in Real Estate in Eighteenth-Century Aleppo,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 26 (1983): 137-63; Tucker, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt; A.-K. Rafeq, “City and Countryside in a Traditional Setting: The Case of Damascus in the First Quarter of the Eighteenth Century,” in The Syrian Land in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, ed. Thomas Philipp (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1992), pp. 295-321; Haim Gerber, “Social and Economic Position of Women in an Ottoman City: Bursa, 1600-1700,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 12 (1980): 231-44; Bruce Masters, The Origins of Western Economic Dominance in the Middle East: Mercantilism and the Islamic Economy in Aleppo, 1600-1750 (New York: New York University Press, 1988); Miriam Hoexter, “The Participation of Women in Economic Activities in Turkish Algiers,” (unpublished paper).
 Women appeared regularly in the law courts as litigants in 17 to 68 percent of the cases, depending on time and venue. Quantitative data may be found in Jennings, “Women in Early Seventeenth Century Ottoman Judicial Records,” Marcus, “Men, Women and Property,” and Tucker, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt. Innumerable studies of women's claims in the Muslim law courts have been published in the last decades adding human dimensions to the statistics and raising a multitude of questions for further research.
 Maya Shatzmiller, “Women and Wage Labour in the Medieval Islamic West,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 40 (1997): 174-206; Arlette Nègre, “Les Femmes Savantes Chez Dahabi,” Bulletin d'Études Orientales 30 (1978): 119-126; Ahmad cAbd ar-Raziq, La femme au temps des mamlouks en Égypte (Cairo: Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 1973); Huda Lutfi, “Al-Sakhawi's Kitab al-Nisa' as a Source for the Social and Economic History of Muslim Women During the Fifteenth Century A.D.,” Muslim World 21 (1981): 104-124; Miriam Hoexter, “La shurta ou la répression des crimes à Alger a l’époque turque,” Studia Islamica, LVI (1982), pp. 120-22; Abdelhamid Larguèche, “Anthropologie de la prostitution dans la ville arabe,” in Marginales en terre d’Islam, Dalenda and Abdelhamid Larguéche, eds. (Tunis: Cérès Productions, 1992), pp. 13-83; Gabriel Baer, Egyptian Guilds in Modern Times (Jerusalem: The Israel Oriental Society, 1964); Amnon Cohen, The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem (Leiden, Boston, Köln: Brill, 2001); Ian C. Dengler, “Turkish Women in the Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age,” in Women in the Muslim World, eds. Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978); Jennings, “Women in Early Seventeenth Century Ottoman Judicial Records;” Gerber, “Social and Economic Position of Women in an Ottoman City;” and Tucker, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt.
 Roded, Women in Islamic Biographical Collections: From Ibn Sacd to Who’s Who (Boulder & London: Lynne Rienner, 1994), pp. 63-89; Jonathan P. Berkey, “Women and Islamic Education in the Mamluk Period,” in Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender, eds. Keddie and Beth Baron (New Haven: Yale University, 1991), pp. 143-157; H. Edib, The Memoirs of Halide Edib (London: John Murray, 1926), pp. 85-89; Lucy M. J. Garnett, The Women of Turkey and Their Folk-lore (London: David Nutt, 1893), pp. 382-417.
 Afaf Lutfi Marsot has argued persuasively that upper and upper middle class women would require considerable organizational ability to run a household that fed hundreds daily and provided lodging for dozens of relatives, retainers, and guests. The managerial skills demonstrated by women in a domestic framework could be transferred into other realms. Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, “Revolutionary Gentlewomen in Egypt,” in Women in the Muslim World, eds. Lois Beck and Keddie (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).
 Marcus, “Men, Women and Property.” Marcus found women involved in 63 percent of the real estate transactions in Aleppo compared to the 40 percent in seventeenth-century Kayseri found by Jennings, but this disparity should be treated with caution since there are methodological differences between the two studies.
 The quantitative data is from Jennings, “Women in Early Seventeenth Century Ottoman Judicial Records.” Some other evidence on the use of agents may be found in Shlomo Dov Goitein, A Mediterranean Society (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967), v. 1, p. 129; Amnon Cohen and Elisheva Simon-Piqali, eds. Jews in the Moslem Court: Society, Economy and Communal Organizations in Sixteenth Century Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Yad Itzhak Ben-Zvi, 1993); Gerber, “Social and Economic Position of Women in an Ottoman City;” Margaret L. Meriwether, The Kin Who Count: Family and Society in Ottoman Aleppo, 1770-1840 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999); Madeline C. Zilfi, “‘We Don't Get Along:’ Women and Hul Divorce in the Eighteenth Century,” Women in the Ottoman Empire, pp. 264-96.
 The classic monograph on women’s roles in bedouin clashes is Ilse Lichtenstadter, Women in the Aiyam al-cArab: A Study of Female Life During Warfare in Pre-Islamic Arabia (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1935). The image of women in descriptions of the battles led by the Prophet Muhammad is almost identical to that described by Lichtenstadter. An indication of the contribution of women and other non-combatants in urban fighting was explicated by a follower of the Prophet Muhammad before the battle of Uhud. Describing what would transpire if the Muslims waited in Medina for the enemy to enter the city, he said: “if they come in, the men will fight them and the women and children will throw stones on them from the walls” (Al-Sira al-nabawiyya li-Ibn Hisham, eds. M. al-Saqa’ et. al. [Beirut: Dar al-Khayr, 1990], v. 3, p. 52; A. Guillaume, trans. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955], p. 372). By contrast, with the establishment of an Islamic empire with more institutionalized military forces, women are depicted as remaining at home and sending their men off to battle. See, for example: `Ali b. al-Hasan Ibn `Asakir, Tarikh madinat Dimashq: Tarajim al-nis’'. ed. Sukayna al-Shihabi (Damascus, 1982), p. 204. Over a thousand years later, women of Baghdad quarters trilled with their voices to spur residents to combat against opposition neighborhoods in Mamluk conflicts (cAli al-Wardi, Lamahat ijtimaciyya min tarikh al-ciraq al-hadith [Baghdad, 1969], v. 1, pp. 150-52).