Arab women lift the veil from Western eyes
New York — To most Westerners, the Arab woman is a stereotype -- usually either the "Death of a Princess" type or the belly dancer. "I'm surprised you haven't asked me about the belly dancer," said Mona Mikhail.
Dr. Mikhail, an Egyptian with a doctorate in Arabic and comparative literature, claims that the TV film "Death of a Princess" exemplifies the West's blatantly distorted image of Arab life.
The movie took an isolated incident -- the execution of a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family for her adultery with a commoner -- and sensationalized it.
"I could bring a crew of filmmakers and concentrate on the aberrations in American life, do a clever montage, and sell it to the Arab world as representative of life in America," she said.
"For example, women in the United States usually don't shake hands with men. Very often I have stood with my hand hanging in midair when I meet American men because there's no harm in shaking hands in Arab countries. I could concoct a story about how women are not supposed to touch the hands of men in public in America. This is exactly what happened with 'Death of a Princess.'"
The firlm, which re-created the killing of the princess, executed on her grandfather's orders, left the impression that this was a practice supported by the Islamic religion.
"The sensational incident seen in the film is the outcome of a tribal system, not a result of Islam," Dr. Mikhail said.
There are about 600 million adherents of Islam all over the world, from as far afield as Indonesia, China, Morocco, and Nigeria. Of these 600 million, only 100 million are Arabs. Of the Arabs, only 7.7 million are Saudi Arabian, and the royal family is a tiny percentage of that. Dr. Mikhail is an Arab -- a Coptic Christian Arab claiming Islamic culture as part of her own. There are also Jewish Arabs, she points out.
"To the West, the Middle East, the East and Islam are one lump sum, a monolithic, undifferentiated mass of backwardness. Much that is written about it is confined within the walls of the ivory tower and academia. Recent interest is so skewed that the outcome is even worse. Arabs continue to be portrayed as either the gold Cadillac owner, the ignorant, hungry, tatter-clothed peasant, or the terrorist -- nothing human in between."
Arab women already have equal pay for equal work. Once the principle of women in professions is accepted, practically no restrictions or taboos prevent them from entering any field, particularly in the scientific and medical areas. Also, an Arab woman keeps her own name (her father's name) when she marries.
Most important, she has the right to control her own finances, a right protected under customary laws. It is frequently noted that 1,400 years ago one of the prophet Muhammad's wives was involved in commerce. Another wife was a Christian and no demand was made that she change her religion.
"Whenever one speaks about Islam, the issues of polygamy and divorce come up, " says Dr. Mikhail. "The Koran, the holy word of God, says a man may take a second wife or a third, or even up to four, provided that he be fair to each. Some people have interpreted a subsequent verse in the Koran to mean that no man can be totally just and fair to more than one wife. Through this interpretation Tunisia has banned polygamy."
Divorce is allowed only to a man, unless a woman is courageous enough to demand that her own right to divorce be written into her marriage contract. A man can divorce his wife simply by saying three times that he does.
"Nobody says that everything is hunk-dory," Dr. Mikhail said. "In the case of child custody, restrictions are now being built in." Traditionally, a divorced woman loses custody of a son after he is 9 years old and a girl after she is 12. "Now there is in Egypt a part of the law where women will have custody up till their children's coming of age."
The feminist movement in the Middle East was begun in Egypt by men at the truth of the century and was influenced thereafter by what was happening in Turkey under Kemal Ataturk.
"Much literature and poetry has been written urging people to reform," said Dr. Mikhail, herself author of a book on the subject, called "Images of Arab Women."
Dr. Mikhail, who has taught at Cairo University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Princeton, and is now an associate professor at New York University, contends that, on her level, Western society is more male chauvinistic than Egyptian society.
"The lot of most women in the Middle East is worse than that of Western women , but from my vantage point, I am utterly disappointed in what I see here."
Sexual harassment of women on the job is much more blatant and persistent in the US, possibly because it is such a taboo in the Middle East.
"Women are daily 'assassinated' on the job in the United States. No wonder you have the EEO [federal Equal Employment Opportunity office. Commission]. Women here have to fight the insidious problems of getting a promotion. I am due a promotion which is being withheld from me. I can think of only one possible reason -- because I'm a woman. If I were in Egypt, I wouldn't be facing this. Being a woman is like being a minority -- you have to prove yourself ten times more than any man to make it in this system."
As a girl, Mona Mikhail never wore a veil; nor did her mother or grandmother. She claims the veil and the chador (heavy dark dress and head scarf) in Iran are not Islamic institutions, although they are associated with Islam now. In fact, many Arab women do not wear them.
In ancient Greece, women were covered and the custom was transferred to Christian Byzantium. When Arabs came into contact with the Byzantine empire and found that upper- class women wore the veil, they emulated them. Until the early part of the 20th century, the veil indicated a member of the upper class in Arab society.
The Muslim women in Indonesia do not wear veils, and neither do many Arab women. Dr. Mikhail called it "this big fuss about the veil," and despite her own version, stressed there are many theories about its beginnings. Perhaps it had a useful function originally, but certainly it did nt originate in Islam.
Another important issue in part of the Arab world, including Egypt, is the genital mutilation of women by surgery, with the apparent intent of assuring their physical subordination to men.
In 1979, a regional conference in Sudan of the world Health Organization called on countries to abolish the operation because of its potential damage to the mental and physical health of millions of women.
Dr. Mikhail is a feminist who would not "opt for a gun solution" against men, but would rather stress the "little wars won," such as success of the Saudi women who have persuaded their families to allow them to be educated abroad.
To win the "little wars," Dr. Mikhail has adapted the tactics of Scheherazade , the bride of the emperor of Persia in the legendary "Thousand and One Nights." Convinced that all women were unfaithful, the emperor had vowed to marry a woman every day and execute her after their wedding night. But when he married Scheherazade, she began to spin tales that so fascinated her husband that he deferred her execution night after night, until, after 3 1/2 years, he decided to let her live.
"I personally view Scheherazade as a woman who was not using her feminine wiles to save her neck, but who, through her knowledge and learning, saved herself and her Muslim sisters. In the process, she also turns a misogynic man into a human being. Maybe this is what we should attempt instead of holding a gun toward a man."
Another Egyptian woman, Ayten Heykel, is an even stronger advocate for more understanding and tolerance from the West, an attitude that may be due in part to her job with the US Arab Chamber of Commerce in New York's World Trade Center. She has to mediate disputes between US and Arab businessmen and advise Americans who are moving into the expanding markets in the Middle East. One of her colleagues describes her as patient, diplomatic, and soft-spoken (in French, English, Arabic, and Turkish).
Mrs. Heykel was shocked by the "Death of a Princess," particularly by the scene that depicts women in the Saudi royal family "cruising" in chauffeured cars looking for male companions. Mrs. Heykel insists that could not happen, because each province in Saudi Arabia has a prince-ruler who knows everything that is going on in his territory and would not allow it. When she was in Saudi Arabia in 1967 on pilgrimage to Mecca, she was not allowed to move from one place to another without permits. "The ruler would never allow those cars in the caravan," she insists.
Mrs. Heykel does not deny that the princess may have been shot on her grandfather's orders -- "to prove he was honest in applying the law to all without preference" -- but she points out that the same kind of thing happens in devoutly Catholic Sicily.
Mrs. Heykel worries that the film "will deteriorate the famous Arab hospitality and render us more suspicious of any foreigners. We like the West; we like the United States; but why should reporters intrude on the private life of the people and distort some of the facts?"
She wants Arab traditions to be respected and understood instead of misinterpreted and ridiculed. "For example, in Arab society a man will not like to mention his wifehs name because he does not want her name to be in everybody's mouth.Instead, he identifies her as the mother of his children. The affairs of the family are kept inside the family."
Marriage is between families in the Arab world, not between individuals, thus discouraging a man from abusing his wife because it would be like hurting her family.
Mrs. Heykel's own marriage was arranged when she was still at a university. Unlike many divorced Arab women, Mrs. Heykel requested separation on her own initiative. She had not had the right to divorce written into her contract, but her husband agreed to her wishes over the protests of both families. "When I visit Egypt, he invites me with my son and we have a very good friendship."
To her, the roles of men and women must e spelled out and adhered to.
"Because the Koran gives men more responsibilities, maybe it puts men above women," she concedes. If a man fails in his duties to take care of his wife, daughter, son, sister, and parents, then she feels that he can have no rights. This is the view frequently taken by the feminist movement in Arab countries.
Concomitantly, what disturbs Mrs. Heykel about the US is the lack of a code for living.
"I cannot understand what is happening here. You find so many types of people, some conservative family men and others who are gay, or couples living together who don't care about public opinion. There is no code of performance so one can know how to behave.
"In Egypt, if I walk in the street and I scream, ten men will run to my rescue. Here they will run away. In Egypt, the men know you are more sensitive than a man. When I arrived here, I noticed that many women would say, 'I don't want any favors from anybody.' I didn't understand that attitude."
When Mrs. Heykel stayed in Saudi Arabia with her cousin's family, she found the girls in the family wore veils, because "they have to follow the customs." As a pilgrim, she wore a white dress and covered her head, but not her face. It came as a surprise to her that not all women in Mecca were in white, but many, such as the Sudanese and Moroccans, were in colorful national dress. And in the commercial cities of Jiddah, Mecca, and Medina women shopped freely in the streets and bazaars, she says.
"The Saudi women are not so closed as the movie showed," Mrs. Heykel insisted. "It's very hot there; you need a cover against the burning and the dust. If you go there, you prefer to be covered.
"You have to understand those people and see the good in them, their hospitality. This reporter in the film was welcomed everywhere. Westerners, by their freedom, shock other people and this creates problems."
Dr. Amal Rassam is an Iraqi who was raised in an atmosphere much like that of an American middle-class family, except that girls in Iraq were not allowed to date. When she was 16, she attended the American University in Beirut and then came to the US. When her marriage to a White Russian ended in divorce, she continued her education and now is head of the department of anthropology at Queens College in the City University of New york. She returns regularly to the Middle East to carry out research. She is not aware of any personal discrimination against her because she is an Arab, although she has overheard Westerners make pejorativve remarks against Arabs. She is much more conscious of discrimination as a woman, although she does not like to dwell on it, because "it would paralyze me."
An experience she had in Morocco is often duplicated in the US. She was forced to hire a young man to talk to the old men in a Berber village where she was conducting a survey, because the men would not treat her questions seriously , even though she spoke the local language.
"It was like magic; I would throw my voice through some dummy male. I find this also in my work as chairman of a fairly large department of 22 people and at conferences. At panels I have fed what I wanted to say to a man. All of a sudden it becomes important, and everybody accepts it because a man is saying it. I have done the experiments many times. If you try to explain this to men, they say it's in your head, that you're paranoid. I can say it to you and you understand, but most men would not accept it.
"American women who are in their 40s have received so many contradictory messages in their lifetimes that they are burdened psychologically, whereas in the Middle East the messages tend to be mre consistent all the way through. When you fight, you know what you're fighting against, and it's easier."
One of the messages American women hav "received" is that their identity is their job -- a message men have been receiving for generations. In the Middle East, job identity is not that important even for men, and certainly not for women.
"It's more your personality, your family, your dress, your cooking. I think women have a lot more fun there than they do here. They have made up a nicer life for themselves, maybe because they are cut off from the life of the men. Women there are more independent of the men in many ways. The whole career concept has not caught on yet; the most important part of life is the domestic life cycle, not the office or career.
"The public role is very much separated from the personal in the Middle East. A job is considered something you do outside and does not form one's self-image. A woman does not bring her job into the house."
Dr. Rassam thinks Arab women may be able to skip some of the stages American women have had to go through, "because psychologically there are less encrustments." She cites the long tradition in the West of male domination in such fields as engineering and medicine. Because this tradition does nt exist in the developing states of the Middle East, equal pay is an accepted fact.
However, she cautions that although there is "blind competition" for places in Iraq's medical schools, the country has socialized medicine, and the job of a doctor is nt considered as pretigious or financially rewarding as in the West. The social science theory may apply here that when jobs become open to women en masse, the jobs tend to become devalued, as in the Soviet Union, where 70 percent of the doctors are women.
Dr. Rassam suggests that the relative positions of women in Arab societies can be gauged by studying three areas: their economic status, the society's concept of honor, and the "Shari'a," or customary laws based on interpretations of the holy book of Islam, the Koran. Never having undergone a technological revolution, the Middle East is still essentialy an agrarian society, a fact confusing to outsiders who focus on the "freakish" oil economies of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia can afford to keep all its women off the labor force by hiring migrant male labor -- a half a million Yemenis and 400,000 other males.
Women cannot drive cars or be seen on the streets in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Rassam said. "It's a very restrictive society for women."
But in other Arab countries, they work in factories and on construction sites. in Egypt, peasant women carry cement on their backs. "This isn't liberation; the women are not working by choice."
The concept of "honor" affects Arab women, since the values and customs that restrict them are based partly on a sense of "honor" or "shame," which the Arabs share with Greek, Spanish, Sicilian, and Latin American cultures. When men's "honor" is based on the sexual behavior of women, a cult of virginity and chastity is inevitable and a man can kill to protect his "honor."
"This is where veiling comes in, because it is a way to control the woman and make her anonymous," Dr. Rassam said. In Iraq, women wear the "abba," an outfit like the Iranian "chador" with the face uncovered. In Afghanistan and in the Gulf, complete coverage in mandatory.
"The covering of the face indicates the degree of the conservatism of the husband or the father. This is not religion, but custom," she explains.
The third area of restrictions on women, the "Shari'a," or the "divine law," entails interpretations of the Koran dealing with personal relationships -- marriage, divorce, child custody, and so on. The Shari'a is regarded ad law, although only in Turkey has it been incorporated into a national code and called civil law.
In Islam, marriage is a contract, not a sacrament, and the contract is written out. The lower status of women comes from the fact that women do not have an equivalent of the man's right to more than one wife. Polygamy is not widespread, but where it exists at all it is usually among the very wealthy who can afford it, or among the very poor, who need the extra labor on the farm another wife can provide. "Like divorce, the important of polygamy is not statistical, however, but psychological, in that a man can always use it to threaten the wife," Dr. Rassam said. "Divorce is a real scare to women who are illiterate or not trained to any job. It's like a divorced woman in the US who has been at home for 30 years and has no skills."
These customary laws, not the Koran itself, are the main target of feminists in the Middle East. Dr. Rassam says she knows of no woman who claims that the Koran is wrong, even though she says that the book explicitly prefers men to women.
"Men are charged with the protection of women, being nice to them and teaching them well. Obviously, whenever somebody is charged, he has the upper hand, right? When people try to explain this or apologize for it, they say there are two spheres, male and female, that are basically different and cannot be measured. No society lives by the Koran, not even Saudi Arabia."
although most marriages in the Middle East are still arranged, romantic love does exist. "In fact, the idea of romantic love was invented by the Arabs. Nevertheless, marriage is viewed as an institutional arrangement between two fammilies. What you see is a growth of mutual dependence and concern with the household and children. It's a comfortable sort of care. This doen't mean you don't have women forced to marry against their will who lead very miserable liveS.
"Becausr the society is skewed toward giving the men more rights, Arab women are psychologically stronger than the men. This has to do with the fact that their expectation level is lower and they are continually tested. At six years, a little girl in a village is already taking the responsibility of her little sister or brother, fetching water and firewood. she's helping her mother with the bread. She develops discipline while her brother is indulged and spoiled. He is always running on the loose; his ego is fed, fed, and it's unrealistic. Later, when he grows up and faces challenges, he disintegrates faster than a woman.
"An Arab woman is tougher because she knows exactly who and what she is. Her problem as a woman is political, not psychological."
Dr. Rassam hopes that the right-wing, fundamentalist swing in some parts of the Middle East, such as in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iran, will be short-lived.
"I think it's antihistorical. This is a very exciting time in many ways for Arab women. I think in the long run their status is going to open up altogether."