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Women in Iran, the Creation of Patriarchy 3000 BC 21st Century
Last Updated: October, 2009

Women & Marriage Patterns in Islam

The Islamic codes legitimized only one form of the existing marriage types, the patrilineal, patriarchal polygamous type that recognized paternity in which men controlled many aspects of their women’s lives including their sexuality. Control mechanisms such as, veiling was introduced aimed at segregation, seclusion and exclusion of Arab women from community affairs. As witnesses and at time of physical punishment and monetary compensation (ghesas and deyeh) they counted as half a man and could not become judges. Women lost their right to initiate divorce and their overwhelming power over their children was limited with new custody laws that gave them limited access for only a short period of time. They were totally eradicated from the religious hierarchies with no recognized ranks. A comparison between the marriage of the Prophet’s first wife Khadija and that of his youngest wife Aisha is revealing. It shows that how dramatically in a short period radical changes were introduced. Khadija, who was much older than the Prophet and had inherited from her deceased husbands, carried on economic activities independently, initiated marriage herself and very likely made a subject in her marriage contract that would not allow polygamy (more than one wife).

Aisha on the other hand was only 9 or 10 years old when she married the Prophet Muhammad who was in his early 50s. Her father/guardian was asked for her hand (she was underage 6 or 7 years), she lived with all the other wives, slaves and other female war captives taken by the Prophet in the same household. Inheritance rights for widows were radically reduced, as the Prophet’s wife she was denied the right to remarry as a widow and was veiled.

The age 9 as the minimum marriage age for girls is not mentioned in the Quran, however the Prophet’s marriage was taken as an example. It legitimized and institutionalized marrying off girls at such an early age. The youngest recorded age in early Rome was 13 years old. Christian canon made 16 the ideal marriage age, Byzantine married off girls as young as 12 before Justinian’s reforms in the 6th century and Zoroastrians recommended 15 in Avesta (Zoroastrian holy book). Polygamy (maximum 4 wives) became institutionalized and was (still is) practiced by men from all classes all over the Muslim world. Traditional (Sunni) Islam does not recognize temporary marriage or sigheh a common practice amongst the Shi’ites. The practice existed in Arabia before Islam in form of a temporary alliance between a woman and a man, often a stranger seeking protection amongst the women’s tribe. Any children born from such unions belonged to their mother’s tribe and adopted her lineage. In the Shiite version the children belong to the father. The practice existed in early Islam and was banned by Umar who viewed it as fornication. Iranians might have found it attractive because it resembled the Sasanian traditions of temporary marriages. The legal name for the practice is mut’a, from the root mata meaning merchandise. It applies to paying a certain amount of money for sexual favors of a woman over a set period of time. In Sunni as well as Shiite Islam slaves and war captives continued to remain the property of their male masters who had full sexual rights over them and owned any children born. The Prophet himself was given special privileges in the Quran. He could marry 9 wives with no limits on the number of slaves or war captives. The historical sources and biographers have mentioned 11 to 30 wives for the Prophet plus the slaves and captives.

Sons and daughters do not inherit equally in the Islamic Shari’a. Arab women did inherit from their parents before Islam. There are many references to women who sold or gave away their inheritance rights but it is not known how much they inherited or what was the pattern. Women also kept their inheritance and property rights once they married. Under Islam such rights were and are still guaranteed. In Islamic code a daughter is entitled to half a son’s share. This decree did not create any problems and there are no references to any opposition, this might have been a common practice already in place. Adultery became punishable by stoning to death for both the man and the woman involved; however four witnesses were required for this judgment. In the Quran no punishment is mentioned for the prostitutes.

What made the situation so bad for the Muslim women was not so much the misogynist nature of the Islamic laws. Most legal codes at the time guaranteed the superiority of men over women in one way or another. The problem was and still is the fact that they did not change with time; they were fixed as God’s commands and therefore did not grow or evolve, as all the other legal codes did. In fact this was one of the important factors that caused the downfall of the Islamic Empire and civilization, the inability of the legal institution to grow with the empire and with time. The other factor that was very detrimental to the women’s case was the introduction and institutionalization of veiling, which ultimately resulted in total expulsion of women from the public domain with little employment opportunities. What was happening in Afghanistan during the Taliban period, with respect to veiling and exclusion from public life, was the universal fate of Urban Muslim women until the early 20th century.


Veiling & Hijab in Islam

Veiling was originally applied to the Prophet’s wives and throughout his life the practice was followed by them, but not his slaves and war captives. The early texts do not distinguish between veiling and seclusion but use the term hijab interchangeably. Other verses instruct women to guard their private parts and cover their bosoms. It is not known how the new ruling was imposed to all or how it spread to other areas. It was not a common practice in Arabia. Sura 33:29-35 (verse from Quran) instructs Prophet’s wives to be completely obedient to Allah and His Messenger and also not to show themselves in the manner of the women of the days of ignorance. There are no references to any opposition in the traditional literature, which is odd, since everything else introduced by early Islam was disputed and judging by the number of wars, and violently opposed. This brings out the possibility that records of resistance could have been suppressed. Most of the newly conquered territories by the Muslims, from Ethiopia to Egypt and Syria, Jordan to Palestine were all Christians with some Jewish and other religious minorities. There were many Christian and Jewish tribes in Arabia itself. Neither Christians nor Jews practiced polygamy or veiling (nun’s orders practiced partial veiling). Earlier on, the Christians had reacted very violently to polygamy practiced and imposed by the Sasanian. Christians were banned from practicing multiple marriages and their chronicles are full of accounts of how the nuns were dragged out of the monasteries by the Persians and forced into marriage or killed and hundreds are mentioned as martyrs. Amazingly how they have reacted to such fundamental changes after Islam is not recorded!

The rapid conquest of Islam over the first two centuries enslaved tens of thousands of people and created some of the most flourishing and profitable slave markets ever in the history of slavery. The people in the conquered territories were entirely at the mercy of their Arab warlords, who could banish them, kidnap them or enslave them at any time for any reason in the name of God. It is possible that some people voluntarily chose to veil their women in order to protect them from the Arabs. It is also possible that the early Muslims like their later counterparts the Taliban and Islamic Republic’s authorities in Iran might have used brute force to impose veiling. Indeed they did use force to convert, banish alcohol and the visual and performing arts, so enforcing veil might have been done the same way. What is clear is that four hundred years after the rise of Islam, all urban women throughout the Muslim lands were fully veiled, segregated from males and excluded from public domain, as is mentioned in texts and travelers’ accounts.

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