“I firmly believe that women are our best hope in dealing with the Muslim world, because they have so much to gain from modernization.”
—scholar Bernard Lewis in a recent address on women and Islam
According to the blurb on the invaluable Arts and Letters Daily (where I spotted this), Lewis, author of, “What Went Wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East,” “knows Islam’s splendor and the dignity it gives to drab, impoverished lives. He also knows its darkness and its rage.”
That’s why his comments on women and Islam are so important. The speech, as with all things Lewis, is erudite and intriguing, but here’s the most relevant portion:
Islamic law permits polygamy and concubinage. The Quran is quite explicit on this. It says a man may have up to four wives and as many concubines as he wishes and can afford. Concubines are female slaves whom it is permitted to use sexually.
Polygamy and concubinage remain legal, in many Muslim countries. But some Muslim countries have actually outlawed polygamy. Some have hedged it with all kinds of restrictions, like requiring the written consent of the first wife to the acquisition of any subsequent wives, which is not impossible to get, by the way, by various means.
In many countries, although polygamy is still legal, it’s no longer socially acceptable. In others it’s no longer economically possible. I would say that, on the whole, polygamy is in decline, and concubinage has almost disappeared except in the Arabian Peninsula, where it still flourishes.
In other respects, women have made enormous progress in some countries, although by no means all, and that is in education. And here, one of the encouraging features of the situation is that one of the countries where women have done best is in Iraq. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not speaking of rights , the word “rights” has no meaning at all in that kind of society – I’m speaking of opportunity, of access. Women in Iraq – and this goes back a long way; it started under the monarchy and continued under the various succeeding regimes – had access to higher education to a degree without parallel in the Arab world, with the possible exception of Tunisia. They could go to university. They could enter the professions.
This, I feel, is a very hopeful sign for the future. Women generally do not receive the brain-deadening indoctrination that passes for education in many of these countries, because they’re not thought important enough to be given it.
This does have a beneficial result, and I would say in many respects women are the greatest hope for much of the Islamic world, notably – but by no means exclusively – in Iraq.