Women in the Islamic World from Earliest Times to the Arab Spring
by Irene Schneider, translated from the German by Steven Rendall
(Markus Wiener Publishers Princeton, 2014) 279 pp.

Reviewed by Miyase Yavuz, PhD Candidate, SOAS, University of London

Women in the Islamic World from Earliest Times to the Arab Spring is a welcome contribution to the field of women in Islam and various fields of study tied to women and gender in the Muslim world. Schneider’s work challenges the widespread stereotypical and monolithic portrayal of the Muslim women in the West by drawing attention to the multiplicity and complexity of discourses on women’s role in the Muslim world. She focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on legal history and developments in modern times. Schneider examines different theological, legal, and literary discourses and approaches to gender and sexuality in Muslim societies of the Near East and North Africa, as well as Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan. She presents a variety of women’s voices and socio-political involvement of women in public sphere, particularly comparing recent legal developments in Egypt, Iran, and Morocco. The author argues that there is no single answer to the role of Muslim women due to the vast diversity of regions, societies, classes, traditions, and historical backgrounds in the past and present of the Islamic world.

The book consists of a preface, six major chapters and a glossary of commonly referenced terms, a good bibliography, and an index of names. The chapters are thematically designed to look at specific discourses surrounding women’s role in various fields, such as theology and law, sexuality and love, literature, women in power, and education and professions. The organization of the chapters supports the main argument of the author by a series of examples regarding different perceptions and approaches from pre-modern and modern Muslim societies. The topics are dealt with meticulous attention to details and with adequate consideration of the relevant literature.

The core of the study lies in the second chapter, “Theology and Law,” focusing on normative bases of women’s role in family, society, and state. Schneider discusses representation of women figures in the Qur’an and shows how the Qur’anic religious equality had changed to the detriment of women through exegesis in later periods. She presents alternative exegesis of contemporary women scholars. The second part of the chapter is allocated to the discussion of modern legislations of different Muslim-majority states. She draws attention to the role of customary law and socio-cultural factors that can also be contradictory to Islamic law, such as bride price and forced levirate marriages. Schneider adopts Shaheen Sardar Ali’s approach “operative Islamic law” pointing out the relation between legislative process and social context (88).

One of the central issues of the book is the perception of women as fitna in established male centered legal-religious discourse. Schneider begins by arguing that a classical legal expression fitna which means “civil war” and “political upheaval” was linked to “female” for the first time during the Battle of the Camel, which was the first civil war within the Muslim community, led by the Prophet’s wife ‘Ā’isha (21). In the third chapter, Schneider shows how the meaning of fitna was shifted from “civil war” to “sensuality and sexuality, evoking ‘temptation’ in the sense of confusion and chaos” (99), and how this perception was resulted in “misogynist views” in legal and religious texts (106-7). Although Schneider successfully demonstrates the socio-economic dimension of the hierarchical gender roles, emphasizing the relation between power and masculinity, she fails to discuss the origins of the perception of women as fitna in the hadith literature. Her argument could have been stronger if she could have sufficiently engaged with the misogynistic hadith reports.

The fourth chapter pertains to women characters being established as “cunning figures” as well as described with reference to their “corporeality and sexuality” in classical literary works (130). In the fifth chapter, Schneider adopts the broad conception of feminism which refers to women’s movement for greater rights. Azza Karam’s “three ideal types of feminists,” namely, Islamist feminists, Muslim feminists and secular feminists, is used to classify activists of women’s greater rights movement in Muslim states (174). In the sixth chapter, Schneider calls attention to the relationship between power and female sexuality demonstrating how the female body was politicized by the authoritarian state to deal with both men and women citizens during the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011.

This study is an insightful addition to the growing literature on women in Islam. Schneider avoids clichés and sheds light into the inner dynamics of women’s role in the Islamic world. The book can be considered as a comprehensive study for readers interested in gender roles in Islam, Muslim family law and feminism in Muslim societies; however, it will be serving as an introductory book for specialists.