Term Paper: Western World Thinks of Muslim

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[. . .] Nor should you treat them with harshness."

The European world in the 19th century placed strict restrictions on the public roles of women. Few women were allowed or encouraged to pursue higher education, aside from education in "social graces." Islam, however, equates education and knowledge to "ibdah," the worship of Allah. All believers were thus encouraged to obtain knowledge, whether they are male or female.

During this time, European women then could not legally own property. In contrast, Muslim women had the right to ownership and to inherit property. As the Koran states, "From what is left by parents and those nearest related, there is a share for men and a share for women."

This was a significant advantage over European women, who were not even allowed to inherit the property of their families. The estates of a wife's family thus often passed on to her husband.

During the 19th century, many legal and social laws restricted women's employment outside the house. In Europe, only women from lower classes generally sought employment, often in factories or in various domestic positions. Similar strictures existed for Muslim women who worked outside the home.

The Western image sees Islamic women as a voiceless, cloistered being. However, the Koran allows women to work outside the home, provided that they observe decent attire, continue to take care of the family and obtain the permission of their husbands. These conditions continue to exist in subtle forms for many women today.

Ruete is herself an example of a Muslim woman who earned money through her writing. In addition, many Muslim women in Zanzibar who assume financial duties in their households, even though her husband was the breadwinner. Ruete writes, "the latter was not even aware of the extent of his income, nor did he consider it derogatory to his dignity to ask her for money whenever he wanted any."

This Zanzibar practice contrasted sharply with European norms, where wives often received an "allowance" from their husbands for housekeeping. In contrast, Ruete writes that Muslim wives have "full liberty to dispose of their husband's funds."

Today, many Muslim women who work outside the house have the right to their own incomes.

For example, in rural Morocco, Davis observes that women were not strictly forbidden from working. In addition to their household duties, many women bred and sold livestock such as chickens, rabbits and pigeons. These animals were then bartered or sold. Many women also made extra money through sewing, weaving and embroidery. Any money made from these transactions then belonged to the woman personally and not to her family.

In addition to their own money, wives were also entrusted with their husbands' earnings, keeping the money and making spending decisions.

In many ways, the Muslim women in rural Morocco embody many of the rights enjoyed by their forebears in Zanzibar. These rights are particularly significant in light of the limitations placed on women's roles in 19th century Europe. As Ruete points out, in Europe, the father or husband still makes the final decisions regarding household matters. In Zanzibar, however, "the household stands entirely under the control of the wife, and there she is the absolute mistress."

Within the private realm of family and household, Arab women thus exercised a great deal of power that was not available to their Christian counterparts. Ruete regards the education of children as another indicator of the high status accorded to an Arab wife. In Europe, mothers often shift this responsibility to nurses and governesses and therefore are therefore not in a position to influence their children's developments. In the Arab world, however, "the education of the children is left entirely to the mother...and it constitutes her chief happiness."

Divorce and the dissolution of marriage

Divorce is another area where Muslim women enjoyed a distinct advantage. Ruete regards divorce as a painful circumstance that may arise when unacquainted people marry. In such disagreements, "it is decidedly preferable that two people completely at variance in their views and dispositions should be able to separate in peace than compelled to remain chained together."

In cases where the couple is separated, the Islamic religion makes provisions for women. First, the woman's dowry is returned. Furthermore, if the divorce was initiated by the husband, the wife also retains her marriage settlement.

More significantly, Muslim wives may also initiate divorce proceedings. These requests are generally granted "in the event of cruelty, impotence, insanity or irreconcilable differences."

In contrast, divorce was prohibited by many Christian religions in the 19th century. Catholicism continues to prohibit divorce, even in extreme cases such as spousal abuse.

Like Christianity, however, Islam abhors divorce, as the differing parties are advised to work through their differences. Since marriage is a familial affair, arbiters from both families are often invited to help the couple keep their marriage together.

In conclusion, the European tendency to view Muslim women as oppressed and cloistered does not take into account the many rights enjoyed by women under Islam. During a time when Western women did not have the right to vote, Muslim women generally had the right to property, inheritance and to work outside the home. They could also choose their husbands and exercise forms of "power" both in the informal economy and in the household. When faced with abuse or unhappiness, they also had the option of terminating a marriage, an option still not open to many Christian women.

Ruete's memoirs were written in the 1880s, chronicling how moving to Europe caused her to have less control over her financial affairs than she had enjoyed as a Muslim woman in Zanzibar. More than a century after it was first written, this book remains relevant, an important reminder that the lives and power of women encompass many roles and many spheres of influence.

Works Cited

Al Faruqi, Lamya. 1994. Women, Muslim Society and Islam. Plainfield, IN: American Trust Publishers.

Davis, Susan Schaefer. 1985. Patience and Power: Women's Lives in a Moroccan Village. Cambridge: Schenckman Books.

Harik, Ramsay M. And Marston, Elsa. 1996. Women in the Middle East: Tradition and Change. New York: Franklin Watts.

Islam-Husain, Mahjabeen. 1997. "It's Up to Muslim Women to Reclaim Our God-Given Rights," in Islam. Jennifer A. Hurley, ed. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.

Ruete, Emily. 1989. Memoirs of an Arabian Princess. Princeton: Marcus Wiener Publications.

Ramsay M. Harik and Elsa Marston, Women in the Middle East: Tradition and Change. New York: Franklin Watts, 127.

Mahjabeen Islam-Husain, "It's Up to Muslim Women to Reclaim Our God-Given Rights," in Islam. Jennifer A. Hurley, ed. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2002: 76.

Susan Schafer Davis, Patience and Power. Cambridge: Schenckman Books, 1985: 137.

Islam-Husain, p. 76.

Islam-Husain, p 76.

Emily Ruete, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar. Princeton: Marcus Wiener Publishers, 1989: 145.

Ruete, p. 145.

Islam-Husain, p. 83.

Harik and Marston, p. 70.

Ruete, p. 159.

Lamya al Faruqi, Women, Muslim Society and Islam. Plainfield, IN: American Trust Publishers, 1994: 11.

Ruete, 161.

Al Faruqi, p. 64.

Cited in Al Faruqi, p. 64.

Ruete, p. 147.

Ruete, p. 162.

Ruete, p. 164-165.

Cited in Islam-Husain, 82.

Islam-Husain, 82-83.

Ruete, 148-149.

Ruete, 147.

Davis, p. 58.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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