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.