Monthly Archives: June 2010

History of Veil – Part 2: Veil In Pre-Islamic Arabia

By: Alexandra Kinias

Surrounded by the hostile terrains of the Arabian Desert and under its blazing sun, Arabs dwelled in diverse nomadic tribal communities. Each had its own laws, language and lifestyles. As the traditions, customs, and culture varied from one tribe to the other, so did their women’s status. And unlike river banks that attracted settlers and allowed civilizations to flourish, the nomads who roamed the harsh deserts left behind no monuments for archeologists to peek at their evolution.  However, Arabs were talented poets and their poetry passed on from one generation to the other. It became a rich source that gave scholars an insight into the everyday life of their societies as the long verses described their traditions, culture, costumes, battles, leaders, women, trade, religion, love life, festivals and weather.

Because these poems were documented centuries later, the accuracy of information revealed was questionable. Scholars found it challenging to agree on certain facts, but none the less, through the poetry, a general assessment about pre-Islamic society was made.

The poems indicated that women in certain tribes held high positions where they freely chose their husbands and had the right to divorce.  Khadija, Prophet Mohamed’s first wife was an influential affluent businesswoman. As a widow, she hired the Prophet to supervise her trading convoys before he started his mission of spreading Islam.

But alongside the stories of influential women, there were those who lived in inferior state. And women who were captured in war were sold into marriage and lived in oppressive conditions.

Female infanticide was common. Families with meager resources viewed girls as a burden, and they killed them to survive. This habit ceased once they discovered that girls were profitable when sold into marriages. The poetry also shed some light on the cohabitation agreements where woman had secret lovers who often belonged to hostile tribes. Poets referred to these relations as forbidden love affairs even though they were neither secretive nor they caused shame or punishment for women; the secrecy was simply for political etiquette.

Polygamy and concubinage were widely practiced too, but polygamy was costly and concubines were more economical. Wife lending was also common where husbands allowed their wives to live with “men of distinction” to produce noble offspring. In some tribes, women were allowed to live with men with no commitments or marriage obligations.

Because of such variable conditions and laws, the status and rights of women ranged widely. And even though scholars did not quite agree on the social construction of such societies, they concluded though that they neither secluded the women nor enforced the veil on them.

Costumes always reflected the environmental needs. In the harsh deserts of Arabia, the Arab nomads lived in tents or huts with no doors and with roofs made out of palm trees. They were exposed to all kinds of severe weather conditions: from the burning sun in the summers, to sand storms, cold, and often rain in the winters. Before proper houses were built, people sought the shelter of their own clothes to protect them.  Due to that, both men and women often covered their heads and wore long garments. Covering the heads was neither a religious nor social obligation.

Because of such severe weather conditions, it doesn’t come as a surprise that even today, men of the nomadic Tuareg tribes in North African Sahara, and not the women, are veiled. It is a firmly established tradition that men begin wearing the veil that covers the entire head and face with the exception of the eyes, at the age of twenty-five. And once they reach this age, the veil is never removed even in front of their family members.

The nature of their nomadic life in Arabia made segregation impractical and women’s seclusion impossible. Contrary to their rivals in the neighboring civilizations, and even though a large number of them lived in oppressive and deplorable conditions, women in Arabia were widely active in their tribe’s public life. And because there were no social restrictions on their dress or mobility, women in pre-Islamic Arabia worked side by side with men and were productive in their communities. They traded in the markets, tended cattle and weaved baskets from palm trees, they received male guests and socialized with them and even participated in the tribal battles as nurses and often as warriors.

Considering the severe living conditions that existed in pre-Islamic Arabia, women had more freedom of mobility and less attire restrictions than women have in most Islamic countries today.

Stay tuned for Part 3:  Early years of Islam.

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History of the Veil. Part One: Veil in the Ancient World

By: Alexandra Kinias

Painting of Nineveh Women by: Paul Batou

With the passionate cries for wearing the veil,  the controversy it is causing in the West and since it only shrouds the bodies, heads and faces of Muslim women, it left no shred of doubt that it is an Islamic dress code. And how can one dare argue that when clerics, based on their interpretations of the holy scripts, left everything else behind and are condensing their efforts to preach, direct and scare Muslim women to comply with it after reaching puberty. However, researchers who have tracked the history of veil proved that it was not introduced by Islam.   But as  it became today the symbol of the most zealous fanatical regimes, Islam is wrongly blamed for that. The status of the women in Afghanistan also confirms that Islam practiced segregation and seclusion of women,   even though these practices were common in several ancient civilizations that existed in lands far away from Arabia, thousands of years prior to the rise of Islam: The Sumerian, Assyria, Babylonian and Persian.

Excavations at the site of the ancient city of Nineveh uncovered the glories of the Assyrian civilization that flourished in the lands of Mesopotamia several millenniums BC.  Among the treasures  found  were the famous tablets of Nineveh that enabled  archeologists to unravel the mysteries of this civilization. These tablets that are currently exhibited in the London museum  described in details the lives of the people, the history, culture, sciences, literature, and religion of this civilization.

In Assyria, the status of women was deplorable.  Assyrian men were harsh, violent, and cruel people to their enemies and their women. With the conquests of the neighboring lands, Assyria was flooded with enormous numbers of slaves. The males were used for labor work, while the females were used as concubines and domestic slaves.

To be able to distinguish between their free honorable women from the slaves or concubines,  laws were issued. Respectable women were forced to wear the veil while those who were considered unrespectable were forced to go with their heads uncovered. Thus veil became an exclusive symbol of respect; a privilege that slaves, prostitutes and concubines were denied off.

And with their homes flooded with slaves to run their errands, free women had no reason to roam the streets and mingle with concubines, slaves and prostitutes. And hence, women seclusion was born.

The law for veiling the women was documented on one of the tablets that also stated the punishment for those who broke the veil code:

“If the wives of a man, or the daughters of a man go out into the street, their heads are to be veiled. The prostitute is not to be veiled. Maidservants are not to veil themselves. Veiled harlots and maidservants shall have their garments seized and 50 blows inflicted on them and bitumen poured on their heads.”

Modern Iranian women, especially the ones  opposing the Islamic revolution and the enforcement of the veil, are pointing fingers at the Arabs and  blaming them for introducing the veil and seclusion into the Persian society, even though historical evidence proves that it is the other way around.

In 539 BC, the Persians conquered Mesopotamia and it became part of the Persian state. The veil and the seclusion of women were among the social habits that the Persians adopted from the Assyrians and maintained over the years. In ancient Persia, women of noble families became also secluded and had to be covered when they went out in public.

And with the Persian conquests, the veil  spread to  neighboring Kingdoms and nations . It was introduced to the Levant region – currently known as Syria and Lebanon – and north of Arabia.

Arabs who were separated from these surrounding civilizations by sand dunes and vast uninhabited deserts were not introduced to the veil until the seventh century AD when they conquered the Persian lands.

To be continued … Part Two: Life in  Pre-Islamic Arabia

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My Deep Condolences For Your Daughter’s Wedding

By: Alexandra Kinias

Caption: A Child Bride In Afghanistan.  By:  Stephanie Sinclair,winner of UNICEF photo of the year 2007

While most eight years old girls go to bed dreaming of doll houses, ballet classes, crayons and scrapbooks, princesses in sequence dresses and tiaras, nightmares keep others awake in fear that the sunlight of the new day will rob them of their childhood; in one of the most heinous crimes that are still committed to humanity: Underage Marriages.  Unfortunately in regions where it is practiced,  communities keep a blind eye on these illegal marriages, which in reality legalize pedophilia, prostitution, rape and human trafficking.

Children forced into marriages is not a new phenomenon and neither is it an exclusive practice to one religion, culture or region. Though child weddings are illegal (almost) everywhere, none the less they are spread throughout the globe in most of the Sub-Saharan African countries, from North Africa to South Asia, from the Indian Subcontinent to the Middle East and across the ocean to North America.

This practice that is still embedded in a lot of cultures was a politically motivated practice thousands of years ago to secure ties between regions and tribes and resolve family feuds, but there is no excuse for it to be practiced today other than selfishness, greed and ignorance. Today Child Marriages are sparked by poverty, ignited by sexually sick societies and protected by religious scholars and tribal leaders. And in such regions where social customs and traditions are still powerful, law is never enforced to stop these marriages that steal away these unfortunate girls’ childhoods and leave them as human wreckage. No one is spared and no one is rescued to describe this horrific experience.

Poverty is the main reason that young girls are forced into marriage. They are regarded as financial burden. Their only use is to be traded off like a commodity than stay in the family and expect to be fed. With the money the family receives, it is able to sustain its living until another daughter is sold. The older the girl gets, her price decreases and thus marrying the daughters before puberty is more profitable.

In April 2008, the ten years old Yemeni girl Nujood Ali became famous when she obtained a divorce and her book became a bestseller. Her story flashed headlines worldwide and prompted calls to raise the legal marriage age in Yemen to 18 years old. Unlike India and Egypt where the laws restricting underage marriage are often ignored, countries like Yemen and Saudi Arabia have no minimum age for marriage.

Nujood’s was also sold into marriage because of her family’s poverty. After she ran away and wrote her book, her brothers criticized her for shaming the family, but after her book started generating income, the shame was forgotten and she is treated like a queen, by the same brothers.

Girls as young as eight years old are snatched from the safety of their family home and forced to quit schools. In many cases their groom’s house is located in other villages and they are uprooted from their community and live in isolation. Once they are married, they become a domestic aid to their in-laws where they spend their days cooking and cleaning, often subjected to abuse and violence. Those who don’t expire because of sexual intercourse at this young age are traumatized by the experience. If they refuse, they are raped by their husbands.  As they reach puberty and before their bodies are fully developed, they would go through a cycle of repeated pregnancies, as contraceptives are uncommon in their communities. Early pregnancies and child birth are the main cause of fatalities of young mothers and their babies in underdeveloped countries. The babies who make it into the world are malnourished and underdeveloped. By the age of twenty, most of these girls have severe feminine problems that often lead to hysterectomies, and their bodies eventually give up. Unable to fulfill their martial obligations, their husbands simply discard them like old rags and seek new wives, and the cycle starts over again.

These abandoned girls who are forced into marriages are victims of illiteracy, slavery, sexual abuse and domestic violence.  They are left alone to face the perils of their disgusting cultures. Yet with all the social damage they experience, on their shoulders lay the burden of upbringing the future generation of children who were breast fed their misery, agony and exploitation.

Child brides are yet another aspect of how degrading women are looked upon in certain societies where they are viewed only as sex objects and breeding machines. It is not a coincidence that such illegal marriages thrive in societies with low respect for women. These societies that are still struggling to survive  are unaware that they will never advance while their women are deprived from their rights and their daughters’ rights are being violated.

Someone has to be held accountable for these stolen lives. The road to combating this crime is long and paved with thousands of years’ old traditions that will not be easily eradicated. But we can no longer sit in the bleachers and watch in silence as more virgins are sacrificed and their innocent blood is spilled on the matrimonial alter.

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When Divorce Is Unattainable, Murder May Be the Answer

By: Alexandra Kinias

Caption: Irene and Rizk’s wedding.

I often question divine laws when lives are wasted in their names. These Holy Scriptures that are still rigorously practiced  were certainly useful 2000 years ago. But in today’s time and age when they contribute to man’s misery, their credibility should be questioned. It is no longer a matter of faith, but a human right. We should not just watch when a life of a young woman violently ends because the church refuses to grant her a divorce. We should stop and think, evaluate and object.

Another beautiful life was wasted when Irene’s body was found in a hotel room in Alexandria – Egypt, in a pool of blood. She was brutally murdered by her husband who reported her death one day later from the airport as he was boarding the plane to the United States where he lives and works. Rizk Kondos, the 38 years old Egyptian American, planned his crime on the basis that there is no extraditing agreement between the USA and Egypt. In the phone call he made to the hotel to report his wife’s murder, he joyfully announced that he was a widow and sent his best regards to the Egyptian laws that don’t  grants Copts a divorce.

Irene’s body was found in a pool of blood. Her body was battered; she was severely beaten and her neck broken. The death was caused by a severe blow to the head with a heavy object. The victim’s hair was cut and thrown all over the room.

The couple was married in November 2008 and they left shortly after the wedding to America where Rizk lived and worked.

Irene returned back to Egypt and complained to her family that her husband was violently attacking her and raping her. Last April, a month after he was nationalized as an American citizen, Rizk followed her to Egypt. Irene refused to go back with him and the fighting escalated. But since divorce was not an option, as the Coptic Orthodox church does not allow her followers to divorce, the priest who wed them intervened and they reconciled with the priest’s personal guarantee that Rizk will not mistreat her again. To celebrate the return, Rizk booked a hotel room for three days, but murdered her soon after they checked in. From America sent his in-laws a letter rejoicing his freedom.

Irene’s life was wasted because she trusted the priest who promised her safety and peace, but he betrayed her. He betrayed her by making her believe that he knew what’s best for her, without even walking in her shoes. We gave the religious scholars the right to control us by believing that they know what’s best for us. It is about time to strip them this right when their decisions are not in our favor.

Our needs and expectations have evolved so why laws that govern a major part of our lives should remain stagnant? Laws that were issued 2000 years ago were needed then, but their values are not necessarily valid for today.

Religion came with the message to spread fairness, justice, love, freedom and equality. But in Irene’s case, none of the above describes how she lived and why she died. When she walked down the isle and exchanged her wedding vows with Rizk, she was simply signing her death certificate.

To read Irene’s story in Arabic click here

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