Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate

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Yale University Press, 1992 - History - 296 pages

“Destined to become a classic. . . . It gives [Muslim women] back our rightful place, at the center of our histories.”—Rana Kabbani, The Guardian

“[O]ne of the best studies of Islam’s discourse on gender.”—Hans Kundnani, Wall Street Journal

“This book stands out as particularly original, insightful and sensitive.”—Foreign Affairs

Are Islamic societies inherently oppressive to women? Is the trend among Islamic women to appear once again in veils and other traditional clothing a symbol of regression or an effort to return to a “pure” Islam that was just and fair to both sexes? In this book Leila Ahmed adds a new perspective to the current debate about women and Islam by exploring its historical roots, tracing the developments in Islamic discourses on women and gender from the ancient world to the present.

In order to distinguish what was distinctive about the earliest Islamic doctrine on women, Ahmed first describes the gender systems in place in the Middle East before the rise of Islam. She then focuses on those Arab societies that played a key role in elaborating the dominant Islamic discourses about women and gender: Arabia during the period in which Islam was founded; Iraq during the classical age, when the prescriptive core of legal and religious discourse on women was formulated; and Egypt during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when exposure to Western societies led to dramatic social change and to the emergence of new discourses on women. Throughout, Ahmed not only considers the Islamic texts in which central ideologies about women and gender developed or were debated but also places this discourse in its social and historical context. Her book is thus a fascinating survey of Islamic debates and ideologies about women and the historical circumstances of their position in society, the first such discussion using the analytic tools of contemporary gender studies.


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This book is an excellent source for a historical analysis on the status of Middle Eastern women from both a female and Middle Eastern perspective. There are bits that are quite dry and full of historical information, but the scholarly method by which Leila Ahmed presents her information as well as arguments make this book an excellent resource for students researching this region of the world or Islamic culture in general.  


The Mediterranean Middle East
Women and the Rise of Islam
The Transitional Age
Elaboration of the Founding Discourses
Medieval Islam
Social and Intellectual Change
The Discourse of the Veil
The First Feminists
Divergent Voices
The Struggle for the Future

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Page 13 - If a woman so hated her husband that she has declared, 'You may not have me,' her record shall be investigated at her city council, and if she was careful and was not at fault, even though her husband has been going out and disparaging her greatly, that woman without incurring any blame at all, may take her dowry and go off to her father

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