Anthropology Friday: Our Moslem Sisters pt. 3

Hausa woman, circa 1900

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, Zwemer, and the book’s other contributing authors were Christian (Calvinist) missionaries, and as such, we should keep in mind that much of the book is an explicit appeal for more funding–but they are also people who were on the ground and actually lived there, spoke the language, and befriended the locals, so their observations are not without merit.

Today’s excerpts begin with “Soudan,” which I do not think is the modern nation of “Sudan,’ but the French colony of Soudan, today Mali.

Fulani woman

“Soudan”

“The form of Islam seen in the large centres of population in the Hausa States is that of a virile, aggressive force, in no sense effete or corrupted by the surrounding paganism. It has had no rival systems such as Hinduism or Buddhism to compete with, and until now has not come into conflict with Christianity. The distinctive characteristics of the African have, however, tended to increase in it sensualism and a laxity of morals, and this has stamped, to a large extent, the attitude toward women and the character of women as developed under its system….

“It is now generally acknowledged that these people—Fulanis—originally came from Asia, or at least are Semitic.

“They are the rulers of all this great empire, and have for a hundred years exercised a tyrannical rule over the Hausas and the pagan peoples whom they had succeeded in enslaving before British rule in turn overcame them. The Fulani women are many of them olive-colored; some are beautiful and all have the small features, thin lips, straight nose, and long straight hair associated with the Asiatic. The Fulani rulers, following the Eastern fashion, have large harems and keep their women very secluded.

“The late Emir of Zaria was terribly severe to all his people, and cruel to a degree with any of his wives who transgressed in any way or were suspected of unfaithfulness. In one instance in which a female slave had assisted one of his wives to escape, both being detected, the wife was immediately decapitated and the slave given the head in an open calabash and ordered by the Emir to fan the flies off it until next night!

“I have been admitted into the home of one such family, the home of one of the highest born of all the Fulani chiefs, saw two of the wives and bowed to them, but the two little girls of seven and eight years came to call on me. On the whole I was struck with the cheerful appearance of the wife and the sweetness of the two little girls, but the husband was a particularly nice man, I should think a kind husband, and I know a kind father. …

“The ease with which all Hausa women, but specially those of the middle and lower classes, can obtain divorce for almost any reason; also the frequency with which they can obtain redress for cruelty from their husbands in the native courts, gives them power and a position in the community not to be despised. A man, for instance, in order to get a girl of sixteen years in marriage will pay her parents a sum of perhaps ten or twelve pounds.

“If at any future time she desires to leave him and marry another man, she can do so by swearing before the native courts that they have quarrelled and that she no longer wishes to live with him. But if that is all she merely gets a paper of divorce and either herself or her next husband has to refund to the aggrieved former husband the sum originally paid for her. If, however, she can prove violence or injury from her husband she has not to pay him anything, but may even in some cases get damages.

“A girl is usually given the option of refusing the man whom her parents have arranged for her to marry. This is not often done, but I have known of some cases in which the girl has availed herself of the privilege, and stated that she prefers some one else, in which case the engagement is broken and the new marriage arranged at once with the man of her choice. …

“The existence of a large class of pagan slave girls, who have been caught and brought from their own homes and carried into the Hausa country to become members of the harem of some of the Hausas, also complicates and intensifies the evil; for this mixture only tends to lower the standards and make the facilities for sin tenfold easier….

“The knowledge that a wife may leave at will, that less labor can be got out of a cruelly-treated slave wife, and that little girls can leave home and find a place elsewhere, all have tended to make women’s lives freer, and to some extent less hard in the Central Soudan than in North Africa.”

Arabia:

“The same men who themselves indulge in the grossest form of immorality become very angry and cruel if there is a breath of scandal against their women. In Bahrein, a young pearl-diver heard a rumor that his sister was not a pure woman; he returned immediately from the divings and stabbed her in a most diabolical way without even inquiring as to the truth of the matter. She died in great agony from her injuries, and the brother was acquitted by a Moslem judge …

“It is a common thing for us to be asked to prescribe poison for a rival wife who has been added to the household and for the time being is the favorite. Through jealousy some of these supplanted wives plunge into a life of sin. I do not know anything more pathetic than to have to listen to a poor soul pleading for a love-philter or potion to bring back the so-called love of a perfidious husband. Women, whether rich or poor, naturally prefer to be the only wife. … Some divorced women return to the house of their parents, while the homeless ones are most miserable and find escape from misery only in death. …

“A man may have a new wife every few months if he so desires, and in some parts of Arabia this is a common state of affairs among the rich chiefs. The result of all this looseness of morals is indescribable. Unnatural vice abounds, and so do contagious diseases which are the inheritance of poor little children.

“There is a very large per cent. of infant mortality partly on this account, and partly on account of gross ignorance in the treatment of the diseases of childhood. …

However

“Lady Ann Blunt, who has travelled among the Bedouins, says, ‘In more than one sheikh’s tent it is the women’s half of it in which the politics of the tribe are settled.'”

Yemen

“Called one day to see a Somali woman I missed the whip usually seen in a Somali’s house, and jokingly asked how her husband managed to keep her in order without a whip. She, taking her husband and me by the hand, said, “You are my father and this is my husband. Love unites us, and where love is there is no need for whips.”

“I was so pleased with her speech that I offered her husband, who was out of work, a subordinate place in our dispensary. Yet less than a month later I heard that he had divorced his wife and turned her out of doors….

“The following case will, I think, illustrate the usual attitude of the Arabs in the Yemen towards womankind:

“A man whose wife had been in labor two days came asking for medicine to make her well. My reply was that it was necessary to see the woman before I could give such a drug as he wished. “Well,” said he, “she will die before I allow you or any other man to see her,” and two days after I heard of her death.”

Lebanon:

“In Beirut, among the better classes girls are not married as young as they used to be, though occasionally you hear of instances, as in the case of a woman who had eight daughters and married two of them, twins, at the age of eight. She gained nothing by this cruel act as they were soon divorced and sent home.

“One reason for child-marriages among Mohammedans in Syria is the conscription which demands for the army every young man of eighteen. The one who cannot afford to escape conscription by paid substitutes or money may be exempt if he has a wife dependent upon him. When he is sixteen or seventeen his family send off to some distant town for a young girl who is a destitute orphan, and this child is married to the youth,—she may be ten years old, or nine, or even eight, and cases are known where a girl of seven has been married to a boy of sixteen. …

“Sad stories are told of those who are put out to service, especially when they go to Turkish families. It is not very common, fortunately, for there is always the fear that the men in the family, regarding them as lawful prey, will ill-treat them. Girls disgraced in this way have a terrible fate.

“A friend came to us one day, weeping because of a dreadful thing which had just come to her knowledge, too late, alas! for any help to be given. The daughter of a neighbor, a poor man, had been sent out to service, and the worst befell her. She was sent home in disgrace,—her father was obliged to receive her, but he would not recognize her or have anything to do with her till one day he ordered her to go out into the garden and dig in a spot he indicated. Each day he came to see what she had accomplished, till at last there was a hole deep enough for her to stand in, her full height. Her father then called his brothers, they brought lime, poured it over her, and then buried the child alive in the hole she herself had dug. She was only twelve years old! …

“I must not omit to say that in the smaller Mohammedan settlements where there is much intermarrying in families, there is almost no divorce, for even if a man wishes it, he must be very courageous to brave the united wrath of the whole circle of female relatives or of his enraged uncle or cousin, who resents bitterly having his daughter sent back to her home. …

Druze woman wearing a tantour, 1870s, Lebanon

“Among the Druzes, divorce is even more common than it is among the true Mohammedans, and the state of morals is very low. The Druzes are an interesting, even fascinating people. They live on the Lebanons and inland on the Druze mountains of the Hauran, and are a warlike independent race, of fine physique, and most polished, courteous manners. Some of their women are very beautiful and their peculiar costumes are most becoming and picturesque. … As was said before, they are classed with the Mohammedans although they have their own prophet, Hakim, and they take pride in having their own secret religion, which is little more than a brotherhood for political purposes.”

EvX: The book makes no mention of the Yazidis, but these days they post on Twitter about how matters stand between them and their neighbors, the Islamic State:

I was pregnant and taken as sex slave with my five years daughter by SuNn! Neighbors. After ISIS killed my husband and almost all members of our family I decided to suicide, I took poison but didn’t die, I lost my unborn baby. I was sold many times.

 

Notes on Timbuktu

Medieval trade routes through the Sahara and Timbuktu
Medieval trade routes through the Sahara and Timbuktu

“Much has been written on the Fondo Ka’ti, the huge collection of old manuscripts in Arabic now preserved in a library in Timbuktu with considerable aid from the government of Andalucia. The collection’s founder seems to have been a ‘Goth’ (al-Quti) from Grenada, who left Spain circa 1468 AD.”

Timbuktu is an ancient, famous town in modern-day Mali. Today it is a tiny, super-dry, and far from the beaten track, but in previous centuries it was an important crossroads for cross-Sahara trade, famed for its gold, scholars, and university.

(I am, finally, trying to read through some of the many ancient PDFs cluttering up my desktop. Today’s is The Meanings of Timbuktu, though I must admit that at nearly 400 pages, I’m mostly skimming and reading the conclusions of chapters. Note: many of the contributors to this book cannot write and I can’t recommend it unless you are A. dying to know more about Timbuktu and B. willing to wade through Marxist academic bullshit.)

Centuries ago, the area was much wetter–about 8.5 thousand years ago, there were some major lakes nearby, perhaps because the climate was different or the river had taken a course through some low-lying areas. Even just a few centuries ago the area was wetter than it is today (the river has shifted, making Timbuktu much less important than it used to be. Archaeological surveys show a bunch of old, abandoned settlements (including possibly cities) in nearby areas that are now uninhabited desert, but Mali doesn’t exactly have money for archaeology. (And the security situation isn’t great, either.)

In other words, there appears to have been a massive reduction in the number of people in the area and the scale of organization in the past 500-1,000 years, with possibly greatly shifting population levels over the millenia.

Today, people in Timbuktu write with erasable ink (eg, charcoal,) on wooden slates, much like people using chalk on slate or carving into beeswax and then smoothing the beeswax. The art of paper-making typically spread alongside the spread of Islam (for the production of Qurans and the like,) but paper-making never took off in Timbuktu, even during eras when suitable materials were more abundant.

The lack of paper-making makes me think the book is over-rating Timbuktu’s role as an historical mecca for sub-Saharan scholars. It may have been relatively important, compared to the rest of the area, but probably small on the global scale.

Nonetheless, there are about 20,000 old books/scrolls in Timbuktu’s archives, most probably in need of preservation. Another survey mentioned in the book estimates 100,000+ books/scrolls in the area. (Mali doesn’t have a lot of money to devote to preserving fragile old manuscripts.) Most of these are probably religious documents (eg, Qurans, hadiths, legal opinions on the application of Islamic law, etc.) but some are philosophy, poetry, history, etc.

Due to age and degradation, the book I am reading deals primarily with more recent, less fragile texts.

Around 1750, a genre of historical writing emerged and then disappeared.

Muslim preference for hand-written Qu’rans appears to have retarded the development of printing in Islamic areas (at least around Timbuktu.) Source cited on page 151 claims first printed book arrived in Mauritania in 1861, though printed books were probably imported before then.

Note the importance of printed Bibles in the development of European literacy. Even today, so many Bibles are printed that cheap copies are practically disposable.

Estimate of a quarter to half a million books owned in northern Nigeria in 1900, most of them religious texts, many (religious) school texts.

There clearly were boom periods [in books]–first the sixteenth and then the nineteenth centuries–with different books coming to hand … but I think overall the book trade did not ‘work’ in West Africa. For example, in 1900 there were few if any ‘modern’ books either available to buy or in circulation in Kano… There was no waaf-financed library buying books systematically, no bookseller importing contentious texts for an avid reading public. … Did the shortage of local books lead to a pre-colonial ‘brain drain’?

The author concludes that the local scholars were highly dependent on private collections (as are modern scholars in the area.) These private collections were hidden during the colonial period (their owners were concerned about colonialist authorities stealing their books,) leading to a mis-perception that they did not exist. Since the end of colonialism, folks have been trying to gather up and properly preserve the manuscripts, but being buried and otherwise hidden for years has not been kind to them.

Timbuktu conjures a string of fond memories of my own youth. For the sake of the people of Mali, I hope Timbuktu (or any other city, perhaps one situated closer to the Niger’s modern course,) rises once again to its former glory.

Kalamazoo, Timbuktu, Katmandu, Machu Picchu…