by Katherine Blouin
cover image: “A woman reading a magazine in the 1950s“
The 1955 special issue of LIFE magazine dedicated to Islam includes a section entitled “CUSTOMS Social status of women is changing in Islam”. I recently had the pleasure of having a one-way conversation with the anonymously-written text, and I thought you, dear readers, might enjoy the ride. Here it goes:
LIFE: As Islam spread around the globe, the customs of conquered or converted people became entwined in the social fabric with practices laid down in the Koran. A notable instance is found in attitudes towards women of the Moslem world.
KB: Feel free to replace “Islam”/”Moslem” by any other religious term and “Koran” by any relevant sacred book/writing/foundational story and you’d have pretty much the same sentence. Check this out: “As Christianity spread around the globe, the customs of conquered or converted people became entwined in the social fabric with practices laid down in the Bible. A notable instance is found in attitudes towards women of the Christian world.” Makes sense, doens’t it?
LIFE‘s May 9, 1955 cover
LIFE: A notable instance is found in the attitudes towards women of the Moslem world.
KB: You just said that. But since you insist: You mean your attitudes? As in you being the 1955 ghost-writer who is most probably white and male, as most of the staff listed in the first pages of the issue seems to be? Or those of your fellow Americans towards muslim women? No? Ah: You mean the attitudes of “muslim men” then (but which ones exactly?)!
LIFE: For many centuries and in many lands they were kept in seclusion and shrouded in heavy veils outside their homes.
KB: For a second I thought you had digressed and were talking about wealthy Athenian women from the time of Pericles. Sorry about that. Go on.
LIFE: Today, however, ancient practices are vanishing from Islam.
KB: Really? Like what? Reading the Quran? The Hajj? The Ramadan? Practicing charity towards the poor?
LIFE: The veil had disappeared almost entirely in Turkey, and to a great extent in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and Palestine.
KB: THE veil disappeared? Which one? And where did it go? Did someone search for it? Sounds like you’re summing up the part of Flaubert’s Salammbô where Mathô and Spendius steal the Veil of Carthage’s tutelary goddess Tanit. Joke aside, it’s cliché yet interesting to see that by “ancient practices” that are “vanishing” you mean “the female veil”. Can you expand on how you think this phenomenon fits within the broader, post-WWII geopolitical context of your time?
LIFE: It still persists in parts of Arabia, North Africa and, notably, in Pakistan, which remains among the most conservative of all Moslem nations in its attitude toward women. Half of urban Pakistani women – a small minority of the total population – are still in purdah (Persian for curtain or veil).
May 1955 LIFE, p.80-81 (= the whole section on the “social status of women”)
KB: Nice try at cleverly not answering my question. Now if I follow your reasoning, the veil has “disappeared almost entirely” from several countries, but remains in others, including Pakistan, which stands out as the “most conservative” country women-wise. Is it because Pakistan stands out by its conservatism that the editors of the magazine have decided to literally surround your text with three pictures of veiled Pakistani women, two of which featuring women wearing the purdah?
LIFE: Yet in some Moslem countries, including Pakistan, higher education is now open to them and a growing number have the right to vote.
KB: First, you need to stop with the “muslim country” thing. Cause most of them include a diversity of religious communities. You should know this. So stop pretending like you don’t. Second, may I ask whether you could expand on who “them” women are as far as socio-economic circumstances are concerned? Third, some handy facts: Pakistani women were officially granted the suffrage in 1947, that is the first year of the country’s independance from the British. Turkish women got it way earlier: In 1935, that is 6 years after that right was granted to American women (in some cases in theory only, since, to give an example you might well know already, many African-American women – as well as men – were not able to actually vote until way later) and 5 years before women in my native Québec could vote. As for the other countries where muslim communities exist, they allowed women to vote pretty much right after the departure of the colonial power that had been ruling ruling and occupying them. So I would like to suggest that the key word here is not so much Islam as decolonization.
LIFE: Though by Western standards some of the mores of Islam seem backward…
KB: You mean “backward” like the segregation you are enforcing in your country right now? And like lynching? I know what you think. I could have waited in order not to interrupt you, but I couldn’t help it. Go on.
“A Vespa advertisement from 1950 showing the Cairo Citadel”
LIFE: …Mohammed radically advanced the status of women.
KB: Wow: You are finally saying something positive. Though the first clause of your sentence kind of cancels your attempt at praising the Prophet.
LIFE: Condemning the practice of killing baby daughters…
KB: …which ancient Greeks did indirectly through child exposure? I mean we even have a papyrus letter from Egypt in which a guy literally instructs his sister to “cast out” her baby if it’s a girl. I know: I’ve interrupted you again!
LIFE: Mohammed taught that girls as well as boys were gifts of God. As against the unlimited polygamy of the Bedouin, he preached, “Of women who seem good in your eyes, marry two, or three, or four; and if ye still fear ye shall not act equitably, then only one.” For economic reasons the vast majority of Moslems now have only one wife – or at most two.
KB: Wow: You actually did some research, did you? I’m almost impressed. What about Mohammed’s first wife – and former boss – Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, a savy businesswoman about fifteen years his senior who was substantially wealthier than him?
LIFE: In some regions individual customs have resisted the law of Koran. In Malaya, for example, the ancient traditions of a matriarchal society have preserved the independence of women. Elsewhere many of the rigorous restrictions on women derive not from the Koran but from later interpreters of Moslem law.
KB: You’re referring here to British Malaya, which included the Malaysian peninsula as well as Singapore, and which gained independence in 1957. I don’t know why but that makes me think of my mom’s upbringing in late 1950s, super-catholic Québec. She’s 1-year old right now (in 1955, that is), and she will soon have to deal with a whole set of conservative doctrine being shoved down her throat by the priests at church, and the nuns in school. And this is nothing new. As her mom often said regarding her own upbringing: “All the clergy did was to scare the shit out of us with a bunch of lies that, being children, we believed”. And let’s not even talk about the residential schools for indigenous children, which are in full-fledge activity in your days. Talk of “rigorous restrictions”.
LIFE: Everywhere in Islam today women are rebelling against the social fetters that warped their lives.
KB: I assume that what you call “social fetters” includes European colonial powers? And the American attempts at taking the lead over from them whenever and wherever they can?
LIFE: And among liberal Moslems it is widely recognized that the retardation of women is a prime reason for the long stagnancy of Islamic life.
KB: Whaaaat? Stop here, please. Can you define all these pompous tags you’re using: “liberal Moslems”, “retardation of women”, “long stagnancy of Islamic life”? I sense a very reductive positioning in what you’re saying here. If I understand correctly, you are arguing that “liberal”, that is “westernized” muslims consider that muslim women are “retarded” compared to “western” ones, and that this is why Islamic life is stagnating. I have so many questions I don’t even know where to start: Who are the “liberal muslims” referred to here exactly? What female voices have you properly listened to and processed in order to come up with such a grand statement? What evidence do we have for an actual “long stagnancy of Islamic life” compared to other types of lives (if all of these bogus categories even mean something, which I doubt they actually do beyond testifying to our tendency to box human experiences in simplistic, and thus fundamentally flawed, categories)? I’ll tell you: We have none. n.o.n.e. Why? Because there is no such a thing as an “Islamic life”, let alone one that “stagnates” (human history is the very antithesis of stagnation). And are you actually saying that the situation of women, all women in 1955 USA, is so amazing that you are a beacon of gender equality? Like haven’t you seen Mad Men? Oh. Right. You haven’t. CAUSE YOU LIVE IN THE TIME OF MAD MEN.
LIFE: Some other Moslem customs, acquired and prescribed, are shown on the next two pages.
KB: Nice deflection. I’ll read these two pages and come back to you shortly. In the meantime, I urge you to get some info on Muslim feminist pioneers (start with Huda Sha’rawi, whose pic is to the right), and to read Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe. It was published in 1949, so you can find it now. Oh, and since we’re at it, get Frantz Fanon’s 1952 Black Skin, White Mask. It’s not about women per se, but it is still definitely worth a read and will be so for decades to come. And please try to stay alive until 1978. That way you can read Edward Said’s Orientalism. You won’t regret it, I promise.