Changes in the Social Status of Urban Jewish Women in Iraq as the Nineteenth Century Turned *
Sehayek, Shaul, Women in Judaism
 During the nineteenth century Arab countries underwent an awaking process, which included their Jewish populations. This awakening manifested itself in the imitation of western models of education, culture, literature, poetry and theatre, as well as in the modernization of everyday life. Although the process was slow, the lives of Middle Eastern women, including Jewish women, were considerably influenced by this renaissance.
 The awakening of Babylonian Jewry began with the establishment of the Alliance Israelite Schools in Baghdad, which opened for boys in 1864 and for girls in 1893. Girls' school inaugurated a series of changes and far-reaching improvements in the lifestyle of educated urban Jewish women during the first part of the twentieth century. These positive changes involved Jewish women, mainly in the large cities; however they did not transform the social status of Jewish women as a self-conscious, collective, and fully formed group. Furthermore, these women failed to translate their personal achievements into a well worked-out and significant social phenomenon, nor could they alter the attitude of male society around them, or gain recognition as a separate and equal social factor.
 The changes in the life of Babylonian Jewish women should be examined against the background of the inferior and limited social status of their non-Jewish, usually Muslim, counterparts. One must consider the elements that influenced their lives and shaped their self-image, namely the local customs and social circumstances of the Jewish and non-Jewish environment.
 Very little has been written about the lives of Iraqi Jewish women. This was due to their confinement to the home, and to lack of exposure to the outside world. Travel books and memoirs relate very little information about the women in the Middle East, and even less about Jewish women. By compiling information that lies dispersed in books, various newspapers and primary documents, we shall attempt to outline the social and cultural evolution undergone by the Iraqi Jewish female population.
A. The Influence of the Environment and Customs
 Throughout the history of the people of Israel, the image of Jewish women was shaped in accordance with biblical laws, and a long tradition of legislation, regulations and customs established by Jewish sages. In addition, in Iraq there is no doubt that the influence of the Arab-Muslim society and the social status of the Muslim woman had a great impact on the Jewish women.
The Social Status of Muslim Women
 The status of the Muslim woman was predominantly determined by the Qur'an and by its interpretations. Male superiority was based on a verse from the Qur'an: "Men have the advantage over women." (1) This phrase was interpreted to mean that men are more privileged than women, and that women's duty is to obey them, because men are to pay mahar [bride price, dowry] and other expenses upon marriage. In fact, this interpretation compares the Muslim woman to an acquired commodity. The Qur'an also determines that the advantage of men over women stems from the will of God, according to the verse: "Men's supervision over women is decided by the will of God that has favoured one over the other." (2) Commentators expanded on this definition and concluded from the rest of this verse that men rule over women, and are allowed to beat their wives: "If disobedience is suspected, distance them [your wives] from your bedrooms and whip them."
 The nature of intimate relationships with women was based on the verse: "Your women are your ploughing ground; plough them at your will," (3) which according to the commentators meant that women are a fertile ground for procreation: "plough as much as you desire, standing up, sitting down and or lying down, through the front or the rear." This argument was reasoned by the verse: "God desires to be lenient on you because a man was created weak," (4) meaning, man was created feeble and impatient towards women and lust.
 Establishing man's status and superiority in the Muslim society was not sufficient for the Qur'an; it also constrained women in many areas. For example, the Prophet of Islam demanded that Muslim women separate themselves from the customs of the pre-Islamic Jihalia period, and commanded them: "Remain in your homes and do not make yourselves up as in the Jihalia days." (5) The commentators expanded their interpretation to read that women should not reveal their faces, and must veil themselves in front of strangers. The proof text for this custom was taken from Marium 19:17: "She took the veil and hid her face from the stranger." (6)
 From the above, several duties and obligations of the Muslim woman are made clear: she must offer absolute obedience to her husband; she should be confined to the home and cannot leave home without his consent; and is forbidden to speak to other men unless through a divider. Worst is the ease with which a man can divorce his wife. In various Muslim countries, such as Shi'ite Iran, women are considered to be of utmost defilement, next to a corpse. (7)
 In 1872, an Arab writer protested against the inferior status of Muslim women by urging that the derogatory attitude towards women has ruined them. They became their husbands' branded slaves; husbands battered, cursed and humiliated them. Nonetheless, the author's suggestions for improving women's lot were not very extreme. He suggested advancing women's education rapidly, yet recommended providing only limited instruction, which would enhance their reasoning, but not to a degree that would give rise to added freedom, and cause them to neglect their duties to home and family, lest they would cease to obey their benefactors. (8) In 1910 another writer, Jamil al-Zahawee, was dismissed from his position as a law professor in Baghdad because he protested against the Islamic divorce laws and the custom of wearing a veil.
 During the first half of the twentieth century there were only a few major changes in the status of women despite the increasing number of schools for girls and the advancement in women's education. The Muslim Arab woman remained materially and socially inferior, and discrimination against her was evident in all areas. For instance, if a wife disobeyed her husband and left him, the husband was allowed to get her back with the help of the police and even imprison her in bait al-ta'a (house of obedience). Only in 1960 was the elimination of this law discussed in Egypt. The custom of confining Muslim women and segregating them from the company of men who were not family members continued despite minor changes that occurred as women became better educated. (9) Social life centered on the men. Women remained outside the social and public realm. This situation had growing implications on the family life of the Jews.
2. The Influence of Local Customs and Lifestyle on the Jews
 The majority of Iraqi Jews lived in a Muslim community, which also supported an Arab Christian minority. They were primarily influenced by the Muslim Sunnis. Close to 90% of Iraqi Jews lived in the big cities, mainly in Baghdad, and they adopted the customs of the urban Islamic population, particularly the customs of confining the woman to the home without any contact to the outside "kingdom of males." (10)
 Though Jewish women were isolated from the company of men like their Muslim counterparts, within their home and families they were more independent and they enjoyed a more elevated status than the Muslim women. Due to the contact with tourists, merchants and other visitors from the west who arrived in Iraq in the beginning of the nineteenth century, as well as with teachers of the Alliance Schools, the Iraqi Jewish community felt the influence of western culture, and made a conscious effort to imitate it. Moreover, contact with the young Iraqi Jews who immigrated to the west, specifically to United States, at the turn of the nineteenth century also brought liberal attitudes towards women.
 Due to these factors and many others, Jewish women's emancipation began earlier than that of the Muslim women. The Jewish women of Baghdad were the forerunners of modernization in Iraqi Jewish society, and their sisters in the other big cities soon learned from them.
 The fact that Muslim women lagged behind Jewish women hindered the general process of modernisation. Therefore, young Jewish women found it difficult to bring about changes in their social life and status. This situation started to change by the end of World War I and the British invasion of Iraq. During that period, the process of advancement accelerated and modernization began, along with the beginning of secularization among young Jews, particularly the educated classes. Although, the attitude towards women remained outwardly conservative, Jewish women were already enjoying some freedom within their family realm, much like European women. (11)
3. The Jewish Woman within Her Family
 The status of the Jewish woman within her home and family was higher than that of Muslim women. Beside the above factors of increased western contact and better education, another significant factor which strengthened her status was the dowry. In the Muslim society the groom paid a mahr [bride price] to his bride's parents and treated his wife as his possession and part of his property. Among the Jews however it was customary for the bride's parents to pay a dowry to the groom. These conditions reinforced her status and increased the value of the Jewish woman within her family. In most …
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Publication information: Article title: Changes in the Social Status of Urban Jewish Women in Iraq as the Nineteenth Century Turned *. Contributors: Sehayek, Shaul - Author. Journal title: Women in Judaism. Volume: 3. Issue: 2 Publication date: Annual 2003. Page number: Not available. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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