Thursday, October 21, 2010

Traditionalist Conservative James Kalb on Islam and Women

"The images of imprisonment you get in the West aren't at all accurate," and even if they were, "the Muslim treatment of women is their problem" — Islam, Women, and Us. He acknowledges that "women are unquestionably at a disadvantage in Islam," going on to explain:
    Men can have several wives, and they can divorce at will. So the bond between man and woman is weaker and less balanced, and there is less mutual trust and more use of force than in traditional Western society.

    Principles like that have some effect on day-to-day life, and a big effect on the likelihood of the kind of extreme situation that makes the news. So there are a lot more honor killings and stonings for adultery in Muslim societies, just as there are more babies who get their skulls punctured and brains sucked out in liberal societies.

    General principles don't determine everything though, and in any event there are also general Islamic principles requiring fair treatment and whatnot. On the whole, people are people, life is mostly particular events, domestic ill-feeling is no fun, and women know how to get their way even if men are supposedly in charge. So I don't think the "generalized system of sexist abuse" theory holds water. How could such a system be maintained in household after household century after century over whole continents? Why would so many people go to such an effort?
Most interesting is the author's recounting of his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan:
    The women didn't have much public presence where I was, but that didn't mean what people here would expect. There's less public life in Muslim countries. The classic Middle Eastern city was a bazaar and some palaces, mosques, and barracks in the public sphere, and also walled quarters where people lived among their own and ran their own affairs.

    The family was generally a unit of production as well as consumption, so the idea of "career" was mostly irrelevant. That's still largely true, by the way. Career depends on large formal organizations, and such things don't work well in the radically divided societies you find in the Middle East and Central Asia. People are mostly farmers, artisans, or shopkeepers, and the ideal is having enough to live on so you can sit at home drinking tea.

    I remember a guy in Kashmir (another Muslim region) asking me--very tentatively, he didn't want to seem like a fool who takes everything he hears seriously--whether it was true that in the West people didn't think it was enough to have money to live on and hang with their friends but also wanted to work as a positive good thing.

    So the basic idea has always been that everything's behind walls, with extended families living together in compounds, and outsiders only admitted to the relatively small public areas. Behind the scenes, which is where everything took place, the women were much freer and certainly part of what was going on. There was also lots of to and fro through back doors into other compounds. The images of imprisonment you get in the West aren't at all accurate.

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