These 33 essays contain an enormous amount of information about women in the Middle East and North Africa, with occasional forays into other geographical areas - including one piece on women of the Muslim minority in China. The reader emerges with a greatly enhanced understanding of each religion's culture and a rather depressing appreciation of the problems its female members face. The introduction prepares us for this, saying that "Muslim women can be shown to be behind the rest of the world by most of the indexes generally used for advance in human rights."
The strictures under which Muslim women operate are laid out in detail and with little sense of outrage: veiling and seclusion, the ever-present threat of divorce or polygamy, limited schooling, social control by their elders or male kin. The women are portrayed in their symbolic role as embodiments of a family's honor and in their functional role as workers and childbearers. The interaction of these two roles accounts for many of the distinguishing features of women's lives under Islam.
The authors included in this collection do not blame Muslim men for the oppression of Muslim women. The social, religious, and legal system described leaves both men and women with very little freedom of choice in the major decisions that affect their lives. But the women are much more severely restricted in their movements and their choices than men are. This emerges clearly through the considerable variations in law and custom according to region, social class, and economic level. The book succeeds in emphasizing the diversity that makes it dangerous to generalize about Muslim women while at the same time making plain the common threads that bind them. It undercuts the assertions of apologists for Islam that Islamic law has always given married women legal and property rights that Western women acquired only recently. This is an historical truth but a contemporary irrelevance. The essays demonstrate how limited these rights are, how often they are violated with institutional sanction, and how commonly women's property rights are appropriated by their kinsmen.
The weaknesses of the book lie in two areas. One is the unbalanced geographical coverage. It is not realistic to expect all Islamic areas to be covered in a single volume, but it is jarring to find eight out of 33 chapters dealing with Iran, while none is devoted to India, Indonesia or Malaysia, for example. A second weakness is the lack of a framework for the mass of information that is presented. The essays range from "Women as Patrons of Architecture in Turkey" to "Women Among Qashqa'i Nomadic Pastoralists in Iran." It is difficult to decide what it all adds up to. Women are presented as accessories or victims of change, but one only gets glimpses of any direct impulse for social action originating with women.
There is little here that helps to place on context the recent women's demonstrations in Iran, for example. But for those willing to forego interpretation, the collection of essays is a rich source of raw material. (Harvard, $30)