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.

 

Anthropology Friday: Our Moslem Sisters pt 1

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 Lila Abu-Lughod‘s 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):

Egypt:

“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.