The Anthropology of Islam

By Gabriele Marranci | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
The Dynamics of Gender in Islam

GENDER IN ISLAM = WOMEN IN ISLAM?

Muslim women have attracted the attention of the West for as long as Western scholars have encountered Islam. The mysterious and exotic image of the harem mixed with the fear of powerful Muslim armies reaching Vienna, the door of Europe. Today, we may think that the morbid curiosity about Muslim women, seen as different, mysterious and in particular, complacent victims of the sexualized, disproportionately virile oppression of the 'Moslem man' is confined to eroticized romantic novels and travel journals within specialized shelves of European libraries. Today, to satisfy our judgmental curiosity about Islam and its female believers, we do not have the Christian polemicist caricature of Islam that Voltaire offered in his Mahomet (1736/1905). Rather, we have a by-product of our imagined, yet still much romanticized, idea of a civilized superiority in which white Western men and women alienate themselves within the illusion of possessing secular-based rights of gender equality. The morbid curiosity is alive still, centuries after Voltaire's Mahomet and thousands more books on Islam and women; as I understood during my rambling within an airport.

A delay of my flight bestowed some unwanted time upon me. I decided to perform the usual pilgrimage among the monotonous airport gadget shops and newsagents. While scanning some shelves busy with various magazines, the cover of a National Geographic issue attracted my attention. A too-familiar picture of a young woman with deep green eyes exalted by the delicate framework of a red scarf was, on the right-hand side, compared with a prematurely aged, unhealthy face which unemotionally surfaced from a deep blue burqu'. The title on the cover emphatically announced, 'A Life Revealed'. Although I needed some time to appreciate the similarity between the two faces, it was clear that the same woman owned both, though, indeed, diachronically. The two portraits of the same woman seemingly wished to emphasize the degenerative effects that the Taliban's regime had on the young and beautiful woman whom the photographer met for the first time in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation.

'Why such a cover?' I wondered. The answer could be found in a controversial war. The American Afghan War had failed in the task of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden – the anchorman of the Hindu Kush much loved by extremists worldwide – and had also missed the infamous one-eyed Mullah Omar. Yet the US

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