I desired to read a good ethnography of Middle Eastern life in the 1800s, but not happening upon one, I settled for Our Moslem Sisters: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It, edited by Annie Van Sommer and Samuel M. Zwemer. (Published in 1907.)
Sommer and Zwemer were Christian (Calvinist) missionaries–I don’t know much about Sommer, but Zwemer‘s story is interesting:
Samuel Marinus Zwemer (April 12, 1867 – April 2, 1952), nicknamed The Apostle to Islam, was an American missionary, traveler, and scholar. He was born at Vriesland, Michigan. In 1887 he received an A.B. from Hope College, Holland, Mich., and in 1890, he received an M.A. from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, N. J.. His other degrees include a D.D. from Hope College in 1904, a L.L.D. from Muskingum College in 1918, and a D.D. from Rutgers College in 1919.
After being ordained to the Reformed Church ministry by the Pella, Iowa Classis in 1890, he was a missionary at Busrah, Bahrein, and at other locations in Arabia from 1891 to 1905. He was a member of the Arabian Mission (1890–1913). Zwemer served in Egypt from 1913 to 1929. He also traveled widely in Asia Minor, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London.
In 1929 he was appointed professor of missions and professor of the history of religion at the Princeton Theological Seminary, where he taught until 1937. He had married Amy Elizabeth Wilkes on May 18, 1896. … He founded and edited the publication The Moslem World for 35 years.
The book itself is a collection of essays written by missionaries working in different countries, from Morocco to Bulgaria, Turkestan to Indonesia, on the subject of women in Islam. Much of it is an explicit appeal for more funding, since missionaries must eat and often don’t have much income. As such, the authors have a certain interest in emphasizing that “conditions here are very bad and only through more funding for our missionary work can matters be improved.”
While we must therefore be cautious of the authors’ motives, there remains a remarkable consistency between different accounts (Islamic divorce law is cited as problematic in most nations) and with more recent ethnographies I have read.
For example, some years ago I read Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, published in 1986. This is one of the saddest books I have read that is not about genocide. In it, the women, who are not supposed to publicly express notions like “I love my husband but he married a second wife and now I am heartbroken,” turn to poetry and song to give voice to their sadness.
We have, as well, the rather obvious conditions of life in Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as areas controlled by groups like ISIS and the Taliban.
On the flipside, of course, we have women like Benazir Bhuto, Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996. The US, meanwhile, has not had a female head of state. I have also known Muslims personally who were very warm and loving toward their families.
But without further ado, let’s jump into the text (as usual, quotes will be in “” for readability):
“The seclusion of the Harem is more or less rigid according to the caprice of some exacting husband or mother-in-law. As far as the younger married women’s experience goes it is mother-in-law rule literally, for seldom is a man permitted to take his wife to a home of his own. The sons and even the grandsons must bring their brides home to the father’s house and all be subject to the mother. A household of fifty is no uncommon thing. … Often she rules with a hand of iron, probably to make up for her own hard life in her younger days, intermixed with an honest desire to preserve and promote the honor and dignity of her house. For the honor, dignity, and aristocracy of a family are often estimated according to the rigor of the seclusion of its women-folk. …
“Among the strictest people a young woman is not permitted to be seen by even her father-in-law. Nor is it allowable for her to be seen by any male servants except eunuchs. Under such conditions it might be wondered how a woman could keep her domestic machinery in running order, but as one woman said, who had never seen the face of her cook although he had been employed in her house for thirteen years, when asked the question, “How do you tell him what you want for dinner?” “Oh, he knows my wants, but when I wish to give a particular order, I tell the maid servant, she tells the little boy servant, and he conveys the message to the cook!”
“It seems like the irony of fate that these women who are kept in such strict seclusion should be so extravagantly fond of society. They welcome in the most hospitable manner any visitors of their own sex. It is pitiful to see how they love to have glimpses of the outside world. A missionary lady tells of a woman whom she often visited, who had never been outside of her house since her marriage, forty years before, and who begged her to tell her something about the flowers, saying, “Ah, you are happy women, free to go here and there and enjoy life!” …
“It seems part of the nature of the Egyptian to distrust his womenfolk and to believe them capable of any misdemeanor. Therefore they must be carefully watched and kept in check. This distrust reacts upon the nature and character of the women, often making them truly unworthy of trust, but many of them are very sensitive on the subject and feel keenly this unfair position into which they are thrown.
“What has been said about the strict seclusion of Egyptian women refers chiefly to the middle and upper classes, for the poorest women, those of the peasant class, have the greatest freedom. They go about unveiled and manifest a character of marked independence and self-reliance, but they are ignorant beyond description, such a thing as books and schoolroom being unknown quantities to them, and their lot is a life of drudgery.
“Many of the village women labor in the fields from early morning to late at night, especially during the cotton season, seven or eight months of the year.
“During the cotton-ginning season many women and girls work from 4 o’clock A.M. to 9 o’clock P.M. in the cotton-ginning mills. Those in the vicinities of larger towns are vendors of fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese, and butter. On market days great troops of village women can be seen on the country roads, their wares in big baskets on their heads, their babies perched astride their shoulders, wending their way to town. Those who live in the larger towns are often employed as hodcarriers for masons. …
“Unhappy marriages are a natural result of the seclusion of women in Egypt. It would be highly improper for a man to see his bride until after he had married her. He has not even had the privilege of choosing her. His mother did that for him, and it goes without saying that the young man is not always suited. …
“Frequent divorce is a natural result of these unhappy marriages. Divorce in any land is a social evil but in Egypt it is especially so, because the divorce laws are such that in a peculiar way woman is degraded by them.
“It is difficult to obtain exact figures regarding the percentage of divorce, as all cases are not recorded. There are some who say 50 per cent. of marriages end in divorce, others say 80 per cent… An experienced missionary when asked her opinion, said, “Divorce is so common that to find a woman who lives all her life with one husband is the exception.”
“In fact it is such an exception that it is a subject for remark, and a visitor in a house where such happy conditions exist never fails to be told about it.
“Many women have been divorced several times, and a woman of twenty years of age may be living with her third husband.
“A native Bible woman who had worked among Mohammedans for fourteen years when asked, “How many men or women of twenty-five years of age she thought likely to be living with their original partners?” said, “Do you mean that they should have kept to each other and that neither has been divorced or married anybody else?”—”Yes.” She laughed and said, “Perhaps one in two thousand.” …
“The question has been asked what is the condition of the children of divorced parents. According to the law the mother is given an allowance by her former husband on which to bring up their children to a certain age; then they are his. If they are girls they often are allowed to become servants to the mother’s successor, although there are fathers who do have enough natural affection to give the daughters of a former wife the proper place in the house. The allowance given a divorced woman when she has children is most often a mere pittance and too often she never gets one at all. She marries again and the children live with grandparents or other near relations or even alternate between the houses of the remarried father and mother, thus becoming mere little street waifs who have no definite abiding place. They certainly do suffer from neglect, but seldom are they victims of deliberate cruelty, although such cases are not unheard of. …
“Yet even among Mohammedans polygamy is a dying institution. … Among the middle classes the difficulty of supporting more than one wife at a time is decreasing polygamy. But by no means is polygamy an unheard-of thing, even if it is going out of fashion. Fashion is always slow in reaching the country places, and it seems to be in the country villages that polygamy seems to be more generally practised. Two brothers, representative country-men, wealthy and conservative, were known to have very extensive harems, each one having twenty-four wives and concubines. …
“Child-marriages have always been considered one of the curses of the East. In Egypt thirteen is about the average age at which the girls are married, but one is constantly meeting with cases of marriage at a much earlier age. A woman of twenty-five, prematurely old, seemed to take great delight in telling of her marriage when she was only seven years old, about as far back as she could remember. Another often tells the story how she escaped being married when she was only eight years old. The guests were all assembled, the elaborate supper had been enjoyed by all, the dancing women had been more than usually entertaining; the time for the bridal procession came around, but where was the bride? Her father searched all through the house for her. At last he found her lying asleep in the ashes in the kitchen. His father heart was touched and he said to those who followed him, “See that baby there asleep! Is it right to marry her?” At the risk of bringing great disgrace upon himself, he then and there stopped the marriage and the next day started her off to school. …
“The evangelical community has the reputation of being the best educated class of people in Egypt. The last census of all Egypt showed that only forty-eight in one thousand could read. A special census of the native evangelical community showed that three hundred and sixty-five in one thousand could read. The census also brought out the fact that in the evangelical community female education has taken a great step in advance, showing that while in all Egypt only six women in one thousand could read, in the evangelical community two hundred in one thousand could read.”
EvX: Throughout the book, missionaries in different countries (with a few exceptions, like China,) aver that divorce is a source of greater suffering than polygamy, since only a few people could really afford to have many wives at the same time. In an area, for example, there might be very little prostitution, but a rich man could marry a poor girl, keep her for a week, then divorce her, marry another poor girl, keep her for a week, divorce her, etc. For the men, divorce appears to have no real effect on social or economic status, but for the girls it could be very problematic.