Vroue, work, and Islam in Arab societies

Yusuf Sidani

Arab societies are currently in a state of confusion. Problems of underdevelopment,inequity, institutional deficiencies, and illiteracy are rampant (Arab HumanDevelopment Report, 2002). Arabs seem to be in a futile search for a new identity ina world that is transforming: power structures are shifting, societal expectations arechanging, and male-female relations are developing. The Arabs seem to yearn for anew identity that does not displace them from their roots, and at the same timeconnects them to the future; the search seems incessantly fruitless. Even non-Arabsseem to be confused about the issue. Vivid movie images mostly portray the Arab maleas a primitive, fanatic, brutal, lunatic, vicious, and splendidly prosperous individualwhile the Arab woman is portrayed as a belly dancer or whore, a veiled submissivemember of a luxurious harem, or a speechless oppressed character with no identity(Boullata, 1990). The political developments of the past few years did not help bringabout a better image. The rise of Islamic activism, end of the cold war, Huntington’s“clash of civilizations” supposition, and the events of 11th September only reinforcedthe bewilderment and confusion.In addressing the notion of women’s participation in the business and politicalarenas in Arab societies, conflicting remarks are brought forward. Some refer to therole of culture and the prevailing religion in the area – Islam and interpretations ofIslam – as possible reasons for such lack of participation (El-Saadawi, 1997; Mernissi,1991). Islam, it is asserted, is not merely a set of beliefs and rituals but is also a socialorder that has an all-pervading influence on its followers (Weir, 2000). This essayattempts to present varying discourses pertaining to women’s work and how it isimpacted by interpretations of Islam. We present current discourses from variousviewpoints including Muslim scholars on the one hand and active feminists on theother hand. We address the disagreements that exist in the camps of the religiousscholars in their interpretations of religious texts impacting women and their work. Inaddition, we tackle the feminist discourse pertaining to the role of Islam, orunderstandings of Islam, in their participation and development.

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