Anthropology Friday: Our Moslem Sisters pt 2

Roman Era Tunisian Bath

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–as such, we should keep in mind that much of the book is an explicit appeal for more funding, since missionaries must eat and often don’t have much income.

There are common themes that show up in each chapter–divorce is commented on extensively in most. I shall try to avoid repetition in my choice of quotes; if you wish a fuller picture of the countries discussed, I recommend the book.

Today we begin with Tunisia (as usual, quotes will be in “” for readability):

“When I came to this country some twelve years ago, the thing that most struck me in visiting Arab houses was the cheerfulness and even gaiety of the women. I had a preconceived picture in my mind of poor creatures sitting within prison walls, pining to get out, and in utter misery.

“Nothing of the kind! What did I find? Laughter, chatter, the distraction of periodic visits to saints’ tombs, or that centre of social intercourse—the bath. Old women, the scandal-mongers of the neighborhood, go round to retail their news. (And it will be allowed that even in England there are many who take a deeper interest in the doings of their neighbors than in more elevated topics of conversation.)

“Here Jewesses, spreading out their pretty, silken goods to tempt purchasers, or neighbors who had “dropped in” by way of the roof for a gossip, not over a dish of tea, but a cup of black coffee. There Arab women, much like children, quickly shaking off little troubles and meeting greater trials with the resignation of fatalism, which finds comfort in the magic word, “Maktoob” (It is decreed), in a manner incomprehensible to the Western mind.

“Is it surprising that I almost accused my fellow-missionaries of misrepresenting the home life of the people? But I only saw the surface and had not yet probed the deep sore of Mohammedanism nor realized the heavy burdens which its system entails.

source

“Let me tell you of three of the heaviest of these burdens: Polygamy, Divorce, and the Ignorance which results from complete lack of education and walks hand-in-hand with its twin-sister, Superstition. …

“Divorce is, however, the great curse which blights ]domestic happiness, and words fail me to describe the misery it brings.

“The Moslem population of the city of Tunis is sixty thousand. Setting aside men and children there remain, roughly speaking, about twenty-five thousand women, and comparing my own experience with that of other lady missionaries we are agreed in affirming that the majority of these women in the middle and lower classes have been divorced at least once in their lives, many of them two or three times, while some few have had a number of husbands. In the upper class and wealthy families divorce is not nearly so common, and for obvious reasons.

“I have never known a man to have thirty or forty wives in succession as one hears of in some Mohammedan lands. A man once told my brother-in-law that he had been married eighteen times, and I heard of another who had taken (the Arab expression) twelve wives, one after another; but this last was related with bated breath as being an unusual and opprobrious act.

“When a woman is divorced she returns to her father’s house and remains dependent on him until he finds her another husband, her monetary value being now greatly reduced….

“Among the upper classes a girl does not often marry till about seventeen years old, but a poorer man is glad to get his daughters off his hands at a much earlier age, especially if he can obtain a good dowry in payment. …

Photo of Dorothy and Fatimah from the book

“The history of the two little girls in the accompanying photograph, shows clearly the contrast between the life of an English and that of an Arab child. It was taken about eight years ago at the birthday party of my little niece, who had been allowed, as a treat, to invite a number of Arab girls to tea, and was photographed with one who was about the same age as herself. The one, Dorothy, is now thirteen years old and still a happy, light-hearted schoolgirl, carefully sheltered from all knowledge of evil. The other, Fatima, to-day, sits in her father’s house, divorced, desolate, and soured in temper by her hard fate. And, indeed, her story makes one’s heart ache. …”

Remedies in the case of sickness

“If there illness in the house, a message is first sent to the “degaz” (soothsayer), who writes a magic paper, encloses it in a leather case, and sends it to the sick one with directions to fasten it on the head, arm, etc., according to the part affected.

“Another favorite remedy is to pour a little water into a basin on which passages from the Koran are written, and then either drink or bathe with it as the disease may appear to require.

“These powerful remedies failing to restore health, the invalid is next taken to the tomb of some celebrated “saint.” There, offerings are made and prayers recited. A favorite resort in Tunis is the Zawia of Sidi Abdallah, situated just outside the city wall. Here a black cock is sacrificed and a little of its blood sprinkled on the neck, elbow, and knee of the sufferer on whose behalf it is offered.

On the Potential for Education

“To begin with, the first glance will show their intelligence. Get an average ignorant Englishwoman of the peasant class to repeat a Bible story that she has never heard before. She will dully remember one or two salient facts. Go up to a mountain village here and get a group of women and talk to them, and choose one of them to repeat to the others what you have said. You will feel after a sentence or two that your Arabic was only English put into Arabic words; hers is sparkling with racy idiom. More than that, she is making the story live before her hearers: a touch of local color here—a quaint addition there. It is all aglow. And this a woman who has sat year after year in her one garment of red woollen drapery, cooking meals and nursing children, with nothing to stimulate any thoughts beyond the day’s need.

“And their powers of feeling: do their faces look as if these have been crushed out by a life of servitude? Not a bit of it. No European who has not lived among them can have any idea of their intensity: love, hate, grief, reign by turns. Anger and grief can take such possession of them as to bring real illness of a strange and undiagnosable kind. We have known such cases to last for months; not unfrequently they end fatally; and more than one whom we have met has gone stone-blind with crying for a dead husband who probably made things none too easy while he lived.

“And then their will power: the faces tell of that too. …

“The dark side lies in untrueness born of constant fear of the consequence of every trifling act, moral impurity that steeps even the children—wild jealousy that will make them pine away and die if a rival baby comes. Their minds are rife with superstition and fertile in intrigue.”

“The Pretender” Bou Hmara, 1903, Morocco

Morocco:

“The families in which daughters are allowed to read are few and far between: just an occasional one among high-class government officials, or a favorite daughter here and there who is destined to support herself and relatives by teaching the few privileged to learn among the rising generation. The little girl is seldom welcomed at birth. It is a calamity she was not a boy. A few years of half-freedom for the town-child and hasty neglect for the village maiden. Many a better-class woman enters her home as a bride, in the carriage which so carefully conceals her, and sees but four white washed walls for the remainder of her days, nor leaves their monotony until carried out in her coffin. …

“Divorce is fearfully common and easy. Plurality of wives is an awful curse. The chief features of home-life are quarrels, intrigues, attempted poisonings, and rankling bitternesses.

“Slavery is more common than in other countries so near the borders of civilization, and the possession of these human chattels denotes the measure of worldly prosperity. Occasionally they find a kindly master, but, more often, are inhumanly treated and regarded as so much property. We are frequently urged to treat the slave for illness and so increase her market value, while the wife, or wives, may suffer unnoticed and unassisted. …

“Some of the women figure in the weird orgies of religious sects of a private and public character. Their wild, dishevelled, and torn hair is prominent in the Satanic dance of the Aisowia Derwishes, and they vie with the men in its frenzied freaks, falling finally exhausted to the ground, unable to rise. But this class fortunately is not numerous.

“I was visiting in one of these houses last year in Fez. The occupants were strangers and had come pleading me to relieve one in very acute pain. The atmosphere of the room hung heavily over me, I knew not why. … Such uncanny sense of the immediate presence of the evil one, I have never experienced, as when under their roof, nor would wish to again. …

Sultan AbdulAziz, 1904

“We have found medical work a powerful handmaid to awaken interest in the Gospel story. To our great grief, however, the continued political unrest, due largely to the presence of the Pretender and rising of the tribes from time to time, during the past four years, has almost closed up this highly useful evangelistic and Christ-like work.

“The Northern rebellion would have ceased long ago had the present Sultan honest and energetic soldiers and leaders. Few, however, are impervious to foreign gold; and no one trusts another, unless he pay well for the interest in his affairs. The Sultan is a pleasant and enlightened person, but unable to cope with the surrounding lawlessness single-handed. Many a tale of bribery and wrong reaches us. The wild tribes know no other fear than that of seeing turbulent skulls and rebellious heads hanging upon the city gates.

“We went down to Fez four years ago, a few weeks after the violent and sad death of our dear friend and brother, Mr. Cooper. His only crime in the eyes of the violent tribesman, his murderer, was that of being a foreigner. Two weeks after our arrival in the city, Consuls ordered foreigners to the coast. We had to obey. Six weeks were spent in Tangier and then again we returned to our scene of labor, the large out-patient dispensary which treated over eleven thousand cases last year …”

EvX: Note that most of these missions are connected with medical care of some kind, which would otherwise have been unavailable for many people. It is not unlike Doctors without Borders.

“Two years ago orders again came to pack up and prepare for emergencies. The storm blew over and since then the main roads have been practically safe for ordinary traffic and merchandise. Even the foreigner can securely take his place in any caravan without fear of ill.

Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni aka Raisuli, Morocco, 1871-1925

“Raisuli’s capture of European and American citizens for hostages alarmed many, but he had sought the Government’s recognition of his lawful Kaidship, and when refused, wrongly determined to claim the same by force. The strong hand with which he now controls those wild tribes under his jurisdiction, proves his ability to govern. His justice, if semi-barbarous, is certainly ahead of that of most of his fellow Kaids. He reversed the decision of a Moorish tribunal which had wrung from a poor widow her lawful property, restoring that which had been unlawfully taken. A few such men in the highest circles would soon bring order out of chaos and strength to the throne.”

EvX: The Raisuli incident is interesting. According to Wikipedia:

Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni was born in the village of Zinat sometime in 1871.[citation needed] … He was the son of a prominent Caid, and began following in his father’s footsteps. However, Raisuni eventually drifted into crime, stealing cattle and sheep and earning the ire of Moroccan authorities.

By most accounts, the formative event in Raisuni’s life was his arrest and imprisonment by Abd-el-Rahman Abd el-Saduk, the Pasha of Tangier, who was Raisuli’s cousin and foster brother.[citation needed] … He was sent to the dungeon of Mogador and chained to a wall for four years; … Raisuni was released from prison as part of a general clemency early in the reign of Sultan Abdelaziz ..

Raisuni was hardened by his imprisonment, and returned to criminality after his release. … With a small but devoted band of followers, Raisuni embarked on a second career: kidnapping prominent officials and holding them for ransoms.

Raisuni’s first victim was Walter Burton Harris, an Englishman and correspondent for The Times who already knew Raisuni. Raisuni demanded not money, but the release of several of Raisuni’s men held in prison; Harris was released after only three weeks captivity.

Many of Raisuni’s other victims of this time were Moroccan military and political officials; his men only rarely kidnapped Europeans. In between kidnappings, Raisuni extorted ‘tribute’ from villagers in territories controlled by his followers, executing those who refused to pay. He also periodically maintained a small fleet of boats for seagoing piracy;  …

Raisuni had a mixed reputation. He became known for his chivalry and respectful attitude towards his hostages; he pledged Ion Perdicaris that he would defend him from any harm …

However, towards those who were not worthy of ransom, emissaries of the Pasha and the Sultan, or those disloyal to him, he was known for cruelty. …

In 1904, Raisuni was propelled onto the international stage when he kidnapped the Greek-American expatriate Ion Perdicaris and his stepson Cromwell Varley and held them for a ransom of $70,000.[citation needed] American President Theodore Roosevelt, then running for re-election, made political capital out of the incident, sending a squadron of warships to Morocco to force Abdelaziz’s compliance with Raisuni’s demands, famously proclaiming “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead!”[citation needed]

After a near-confrontation between the government of Morocco and troops of the United States of America, Raisuni received his ransom money and concessions; he was appointed Pasha of Tangier and Governor of Jibala province, and all of his imprisoned followers were released. However, Raisuni was ousted from the post in 1906 due to corruption and cruelty to his subjects; a year later he was again declared an outlaw by the Moroccan government.[citation needed]

For years, Raisuni continued to antagonize the Moroccan government, even after Abdelaziz’s forced abdication.[citation needed] He briefly regained favor with the Moroccan government, by siding with Mulay Hafid‘s overthrow of Abdelaziz, and was restored again as Pasha of Tangier. However, at the instigation of the Spanish government, the Sultan removed Raisuni from his post in 1912.[citation needed]

In 1913, Raisuni led several Rif tribes in a bloody revolt against the Spanish, and continued a sanguine guerilla conflict against them for almost eight years.

In September 1922,[8] and after an interview with Colonel José Villalba Riquelme he submitted to the Spanish authorities and subsequently joined forces with the Spanish army in the Rif War of the 1920s. …

In January 1925, Krim’s followers attacked Raisuni’s palace, killing most of his guards and capturing Raisuni.[citation needed] He was jailed in Tamasint (near Al Hoceima), where he died by the end of April 1925, … He is still regarded as a folk hero by many in Morocco, although his reputation is mixed at best.[citation needed]

Back to the book:

“The English missionary has had the great advantage of being favorably received by the people on account of his or her nationality. It stood, to them, for integrity, strength, and honor. Whatever changes may have taken place during the last four years to lessen this trust in her, England has still much favor with the majority. Hers were the pioneer-missionaries, for where no man would have been trusted or allowed to reside, her lady workers penetrated.”

EvX: It is a common complaint in Anthropology that older anthropologists had neglected the female side of humanity, due to themselves being primarily male, and thus not really allowed into women’s spaces and confidences even when they remembered to think of them, but the missionary literature contains plenty of accounts from female missionaries, who were quite thoughtful and allowed into female spaces. Today, though, this missionary literature seems to be all but forgotten.

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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.