Islamic world slowly, surely changing

November 8, 2004

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SANA’A, YEMEN   One of the more fascinating things here, in the cradle of Islam, is how things run on their own time. This comes to mind in the holy month of Ramadan, a time to ponder revelations that Muslims believe came to Mohammed here in the Arabian Peninsula 1,400 years ago.

Yes, things slow down this month. The moon seems to hover longer. And don’t try to do much of anything important. Folks rest during daytime when fasting, then stay up long past dark to eat. Children play in midnight streets that are abuzz.

It’s not a bad thing. The West, which drives through life so fast you see just a green blur for grass and a red blur for flowers, could learn from it.

But there are other time warps here, too. Take the work week, Saturday to Wednesday. Some western-minded countries in the region, such as Lebanon and Turkey, use Monday to Friday. But for Arab countries opting for the other, imagine their challenges in global commerce.

Then there’s the Islamic calendar. It says we’re actually living in the 15th century. To be exact, it’s 1425 A.H. This Hegira calendar, with lunar years 11 days shorter than solar years, began when Mohammed emigrated from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D. It’s not used outside traditional circles, but it is interesting how this figurative step back in time does reflect daily life here.

Especially for the women.

During Ramadan, women actually have it harder than usual. In the countryside, fasting women work in the heat of the fields, fully covered, before having to make night-time and pre-dawn meals for large families. They eat, as usual, only after the men.

In the city, things aren’t different. Upon our recent return here, a Yemeni medical colleague of my wife, Jean, harboured a young woman in his clinic. The girl feared her family would kill her because of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Women here simply have no real voice. Yemen’s 301-seat parliament has 300 men.

It really does seem like the West’s medieval era, when a universal hierarchy gave men a God-ordained control of society. The husband is king, his household his kingdom. Islamic family wealth and property also still often goes through the father to his sons. Women have few rights, even over their own children.

Like in those times of lore, women here also live in so-called modesty — and isolation. Talk about family ties that bind.

It all reminds me of gender issues raised by Shakespeare in plays like Hamlet. And a recent scene from Afghanistan in which a teacher stood in front of her female students and said, “I’m sorry if you’ve never heard of this, but today we’re going to talk about something called civil rights.”

Of course, the West hasn’t modelled perfect gender relations. Maybe this is why some folks here believe wonky things, such as that western women are terribly immoral, or at least living in their own bondage. Yes, a recent Yemeni newspaper column claimed wife-beating is “master” in Britain, and that 80 per cent of marriages of American women aged at least 15 (as if that’s legal), now end in divorce.

In truth, the West has liberties, but it didn’t develop them overnight.

So the good news in the Islamic world is that at least some change is slowly plodding along. For example, Pakistan, a nation created as the ideal Islamic state, recently began treating so-called “honour killings” as what they are: murder.

The bad news is that, by definition, Islam bases gender relations on a very different historic stream. Looking at Mohammed’s example, to his credit, he banned the killing of newborn girls, common at the time in this region.

Yet, historians also tell us he married up to 12 women, including his niece Aisha, when she was six. He consummated that marriage, considered his favourite, when Aisha was nine.

So the challenge of Islam is to move its gender relations into not only 21st-century values, but into a place that satisfies the deeper longings of the human heart.

Because living unequally doesn’t really satisfy anyone of either gender. It seems to me that those who think otherwise are only hurting the future of their own community.

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November 8, 2004 • Posted in ,
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