To consider the position of women in any society is to consider all aspects of that society’s structure: its politics, economics, religion. In the Middle East, there are further complications as well. Women in the Arab countries not only face all the problems generally associated with underdeveloped social formations, but must confront the difficulties posed by the application, more or less strictly in the various states, of the tenets of Islam regarding family life. In Israel, the lives of women, like just about everything else, are affected directly and indirectly by the peculiar character of Israeli state, which is simultaneously a product of Zionism and an instrument for its further advancement.
Articles about women in the Middle East will therefore inevitably touch on many facets of social, political, and economic life in the countries concerned, and will tell us as much about the nature of Zionism and the Arab societies as they do about women themselves. Most of those collected here were first published in Khamsin 6, whose theme was ‘Women in the Arab World’. The aim of that issue was to open a discussion of women in the region that would not confine itself to ‘women’s problems’, but would begin to correct the often unintentionally fostered impression that all the social struggles of the Middle East are waged by ‘men who happen to have mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters in tow’. The contributions in that issue covered a range of subjects, and others have appeared in various numbers of Khamsin since then.
‘Arab Women’ (Khamsin 6) by Magida Salman, a Lebanese member of the Khamsin editorial group, is a synoptic survey of the influence of Islam on the position of women in Arab countries. It was written at a time, in the late seventies, when many people denied that the ideology and institutions of Islam were decisive in sustaining the oppression of women. Although that misconception has lost a good deal of its currency in recent years, especially since the Iranian revolution, another notion has meanwhile arisen: that although in practice women suffer oppression in Islamic societies, Islam itself manifests deep concern for the rights of women, who collectively would have much to gain from an ‘enlightened’ application of Islamic practices. This article lays both these illusions to rest. It demonstrates, on the one hand, that under Islam the social position of women is inferior to that of men as a matter of principle, and on the other that those portions of Islamic ideology relating to women are exactly the ones on which the contemporary rulers of Arab society have been most unyielding, even when they have updated and adapted other aspects of Islamic theory that conflict with modern conditions. Since Islam in the Arab world increasingly came to be fused with Arab nationalism, even militant social struggles against foreign domination have often sanctified the inferior social position of women.
‘The Rise of Islam: What Happened to Women?’ (Khamsin 10) is an examination of the changes introduced in the Arabian peninsula by the early Muslim state, which succeeded, for the first time, in overcoming tribal rule and preparing the world-wide expansion of Islam. It is widely accepted, by Muslims and opponents of Islam alike, that however retrograde towards women Islam may be in the societies in which it now holds sway, it originally represented a major improvement of their status, abolishing barbaric practices like the murder of female infants and guaranteeing women certain rights previously denied them. Azar Tabari, an Iranian journalist and member of the Khamsin editorial group, argues that the reality was more complex. In some respects, the early Muslim state merely countenanced practices that were already becoming prevalent and are nowadays regarded as specifically Islamic innovations. In others, the undermining of the tribe, while it entailed some advantages for women, actually eroded rights they had formerly enjoyed.
The other articles collected here deal with more contemporary themes. In ‘Women and Politics in Lebanon’ (Khamsin 6) Yolla Polity Sharara offers a personal account of the experiences of a generation of Lebanese women activists. They came to political consciousness under the influence of the new feminist movement of Western Europe, during the post-1968 ferment that saw so many facets of social relations challenged. The country in which they were active had special historical and intellectual ties with Europe, especiaIly with France, but was also Arab, and dominated by other issues and concerns. How was the problem of the emancipation of women viewed in such a context – by women themselves, and by political organizations – and what was the effect of the civil war? These are the questions Sharara treats. ‘Changes in Palestinian Society’ (Khamsin 6) looks at the traditional social structures of the Palestinian Arabs and examines how they have been warped and inflected by the Israeli state. The authors, members of the Socialist Organization in Israel (Matzpen), in whose Hebrew [and Arabic] journal the article was originally published, describe the connection between the traditionalism of indigenous Palestinian social relations and the success of the state apparatus in abridging the rights of all Palestinians.
‘Ideology Without Revolution: Jewish Women in Israel’ (Khamsin 6) dismantles the myth of the liberated Israeli woman, soldier and pioneer. The authors – Dina Hecht is a writer, Nira Yuval-Davis a sociologist; both are Israelis and members of the Khamsin editorial group – argue that, on the contrary, the Zionist colonization of Palestine actually forced women into the most traditional subodinate positions as the helpers of men, keeping the home fires burning while the men set out to build the brave new world. That status has remained more or less unchanged since the establishment of the Israeli state, and the requisites of the survival of Zionism actually place Israeli women under burdens more onerous than those faced by women in Western Europe or North America.
In ‘Zionism. Demography, and Women’s Work’ (Khamsin 7), Avishai Ehrlich, an Israeli sociologist and member of the Khamsin editorial group, concentrates more specifically on the way Zionism’s demographic needs have affected both the sexual division of labour and the structure of the Israeli work-force. He considers not only the pre-1948 period of colonization of Palestine, but also the development of the labour force since statehood, and concludes that women are still adversely affected by the vicissitudes of Jewish immigration to Israel and by the continuing Zionist mission or the state.