Saturday, July 13, 2013

The women are at fault

Bernard  Lewis offers an hypothesis about Muslim cultural development.

Just before 9/11, Bernard Lewis published a provocative book about the Islamic world titled "What went wrong? The clash between Islam and modernity in the Middle East." There is very little discussion about the causes, but a great deal of historical detail showing that the muslim world has indeed fallen behind the West, (or North, or however one wants to term it), and is bitter and has long been perplexed about the situation.

To recap a bit from his conclusion:
In the course of the twentieth century, it became abundantly clear in the Middle East and indeed all over the lands of Islam thta things had indeed gone badly wrong. Compared with its millennial rival, Christendom, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the primacy and therefore the cominance of the West was clear for all to see, invading the Muslim in every aspect of his public and-more painfully- even his private life. 
Modernizers- by reform or revolution- concentrated their efforts on three main areas: military, economic, and political. the results achieved were, to say the least, disappointing. The quest for victory by updated armies brought a serious of humiliating defeats. The quest for prosperity through development brought, in some countries, impoverished and corrupt economies in recurring need of external aid, in others an unhealthy dependence on a single resource- fossil fuels. And even these were discovered, extracted, and put to use by Western ingenuity and industry, and doomed, sooner or later, to be exhausted or superdeded ... Worst of all is the political result: the long quest for freedome has left a string of shabby tyrannies, ranging from traditional autocracies to new-style dictatorships,  modern only in their apparatus of repression and indoctrination.

He makes the additional point that even while the Muslim world has been so bitterly conscious of falling behind, other countries, especially in Asia, such as Korea and China, have zoomed past them into modernity. What is the problem?

Lewis offers only the most off-hand comments to this question in his conclusion, but one of them caught my attention in the most riveting way:
"For others, the main culprit is Muslim sexism, and the relegation of women to an inferior position in society, thus depriving the Islamic world of the talents and energies of half its people, and entrusting the crucial early years of the upbringing of the other half to illiterate and downtrodden mothers."

This knits up so many threads that one's head spins. For instance, one issue is that Islam was once the most advanced culture, at least in the hemisphere, if not the world- open to Greek and Roman learning, building on it, and passing it on to others. For its time, Islam gave high regard to women, with rights to inherit and have their own property. Even polygamy was not originally formulated as an excercise in male dominance and competition, but of caring for widows and other isolated women (of whom there were many after the wars of Muhammed) who might otherwise become beggars or prostitutes.

So one might say that Islam was at one time in a leading position with regard to women's rights, and as long as that held, it also held relative cultural leadership in the broadest sense. One can well imagine the influence that educated and civically engaged women have on their children, and the converse effect that a relentless confinement to family, clan, and tradition have. As previously noted, our parents give us meaning, and they also provide us with horizons and ambitions, whether small or large minded.

Another issue is the relative development of different countries, especially within the Islamic world. Why is Afghanistan saddled with the Taliban, while Egypt has the more moderate, though still a bit crazy, Muslim Brotherhood? Could the relative oppressiveness of the burkha and the veil (and all that they signify about the position of women) have something to do with it?

The fight for women's rights in the Islamic world is not just a matter of goo-goo feelings and Western domination, but addresses the very core of cultural development in the long term. One can hypothesize that every gain that women make in education, cultural engagement, and rights, yields, a generation down the road, a society less prone to blood feuds and more engaged in further education and higher cultural development, built by men and women inculcated with the ideals of their mothers.


  1. " to Greek and Roman learning"

    and especially that of the Aryan civilisations in what is now India

    btw, don't find this idea particularly compelling, as women in the West were marginalised and discriminated against up until recently in the 20thC. It didn't seem to hold back England and the USA during the Industrial Revolution, for example.

  2. Thanks, CC!

    You make a good point. I can only suggest that the degree of marginalization is significantly greater in the Muslim world, particularly Afghanistan, than the European formative eras. One might even ask why different regions of the US have such different degrees of development, and whether that might partly track with attitudes toward women. I may delve into the research more deeply if I have time, but on its face, the hypothesis of women's culture and its early/formative influence on the rest of the culture is intriguing enough to change my thinking a bit. Hopefully there is some deeper work on it out there somewhere.