Lou Salome and the individuation of the Islamic female
Local identity on a global stage
The wests precarious conceptions of the place of women in contemporary Islamic culture can be traced in large part to its non-consideration of Islams socio-historical context, so that the possibility that Quranic Islam could support believers transcendence of their biological gender is also conveniently and often neglected. The distinction between Islams theoretical Quranic notions concerning women and such nations as Iran, whose civil code actively sanctions numerous practices which clearly penalize women juridically, must be made, however. The ebb and flow of the deterritorializing global economy seemed to invite initial hostility and later open arms when it began with the spread of the industrial revolution through the Middle East, but todays west will expect not only ever-increasing economic transparency but western standards of equity in jurisprudence as well. And conversely, with modern anti-globalization alarmism slowly gaining credence amidst the global economys emerging implications, middle-class alarmists hegemony (however puritanical) cannot help but to undermine such a traditionalist religio-politico-social model as contemporary Islam. The fluidity of Islams existing legacy, however, with respect to validity in the changing global cultural climate via its internal objective value-codes, is defended mainly by scholarly theorists and juridical purists. Consideration of these apologetics is an attempt to clarify whether or not an Islamic purists view of the woman, even and especially when understood within its proper socio-historical context, can possibly be reconciled with todays Americanizing global economic trends, which promise to further destabilize ethnic social patterns. This paper does not pretend, however, to propose a political activism, but rather to explore (the trajectory of) a re-consideration of the Islamic female experience informed by the thoughts of a recent female who, though not a Muslim, developed in a relative ideological context.
Abdal Hakim Murads (2000) contention is poignant, that "Islams theology of gender contends with a maze, a web of connections which demand familiarity with a diverse legal code, regional heterogeneity, and with the metaphysical no less than with the physical. This complexity should warn us against offering facile generalizations about Islams attitude to women." (http://www.cyberislam.com/literature/women/gender/html) While Islams attitudes may be too broadly divergent to generalize, practices legally-sanctioned by the faith are a necessary concern in public policy and commerce as the western(ized) conscience takes on a continuously more important role in shaping both.
The Iranian Qisas (Law of Retribution) prescribes that
for the process of stoning men be buried up to their waist, while women are
buried up to their chest (Article 102), making obvious the possibility of escaping
the punishment by freeing oneself from the hole (Article 103) greater for a
man than for a woman. Haideh Moghissi (1999, 110) extends the meaning of the
blood money (dieh) payable to the family of the victim for the death
of a man being twice that for a woman (Article 258), to an official calculation
(at least in financial terms) of the value of awomans life as half that
of a mans. In her examination of current Islamic periodical literature,
she finds Chief Justice Ayatollah Yazdi admitting that it has encouraged the
murder of women under the pretext of defending family honor, so
that many women and girls live in constant fear for their lives simply because
some men murder their wives or daughter on slight suspicion and are then easily
set free by paying a very low sum of compensation (blood) money (dieh); in addition,
setting a higher price on a mans life also means that rape and womens
murder go unpunished (Said-Zadeh, 1998). Under the Iranian criminal code these
crimes are punishable by death, but under the new "Islamified" law,
the family of a murdered woman is required to pay a substantial sum of dieh
to the murderer before he can be punished (Article 209).
Needless to say, Article 209s social and cultural consequences go beyond
its impact on individuals. It (Article 209) proves that in Iran, today, full
citizenship remains a male prerogative. In fact, laws like these constitute
an assault on the dignity of women; they negatively affect social perceptions
about women and womens own sense of self-worth and confidence, forcing
them to live under constant fear (Moghissi, 111).
Elizabeth Ferneas travelogue (1998, 196) of her "Search for Islamic Feminism" recalls the observation of Dr. Bedriya Awadhi, a Kuwaiti lawyer who does not call herself a feminist: "They (Arab families) want daughters always. But they need sons According to our present laws, only a son can protect his mother and her property. Only a son has that legal standing. And I dont think the laws are going to be revolutionized very soon." It may be argued deterministically that the more egregious practices are bound to fade into oblivion with the crystallization of American worldwide material hegemony, but if a recognizable political form of Islam is to survive the washing tide of economic advancement, its foundation will certainly have to remain deeply rooted in the coherence of its philosophical system.
Islams feminist dialectic
For women believers in the fundamentals of the Islamic faith, who accept the Quran as the word of God (as Muslims do), non-acceptance of the justice of its sexual hierarchy within the family and in society is tantamount to heresy. Such a person may call herself a feminist, but by conventional western reckoning, she cannot believe in both the Islamic and feminist concepts of equalitythe two notions are incompatible (Moghissi, 1999; Fernea, 1998). The perspective of the Islamic woman believer has been widely studied, but the overwhelming majority of the studies conducted conform to types of an Orient contra Occident paradigm, with western feminism (often western-educated, middle eastern female academics) pitted against two branches of apologists: Islamic clerics and western women who embrace religious Islam. Ziba Mir-Hosseini (1999), in a contribution to the opposing scholarship (which argues for the compatibility of Islamic beliefs and feminism) describes well the tension faced by women who acquire a feminist consciousness in either a western or an indigenous form: their Muslimness is perceived as backward and oppressed, yet authentic and innate; while their feminism as progressive and emancipated, yet corrupt and alien.
The seventh century found Arab women dispossessed of spiritual, material, and domestic freedoms of almost any sort; primitive local codes intertwined discursively with parvenu Christian politics and morality to confuse the nomadic shepherd and merchant tribes who traced their lineage to Ishmael. The universes order as revealed to Mohammed, however, proclaimed cosmic equanimity for women, who became responsible for educating themselves and day-to-day domestic administration; child rearing was aggrandized with Mohammeds declaration that "Paradise is under the feet of the mothers." " O ye who believe!" says the Quran, "Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will." While civil administration and material maintenance belonged to men, these rights were commonly accepted to be earthly ones, which significant mundane responsibility was equated with womens celestial.
"Islamic theology confronts us with the spectacular absence of a gendered Godhead. A theology which reveals the divine through incarnation in a body also locates it in a gender, and inescapably passes judgment on the other sex. A theology which locates it in a book makes no judgment, since books are unsexed. The divine remains divine, that is, genderless, even when expressed in a fully saving way on earth." (http://www.cyberislam.com/literature/women/gender/html)
though "the divine is referred to by the masculine pronoun, grammarians and exegetes concur that this is not even allegoric: Arabic has no neuter, and the use of the masculine is normal in Arabic for genderless nouns. No male preponderance is implied, any more than femininity is implied by the grammatically female gender of neuter plurals." (ibid.)
For Murad, a gender-neutral image of the divine suggests a God who is simply above gender. One logical conclusion that may be drawn connects the infinite and eternal transcendence of gender to its right fulfillment on earth by each individual believer.
Even the most sophisticated apologists of Islam and feminisms reconcilability concede soberly the ideological monopoly exercised, for instance, by Iranian clerics and jurists in the Islamic Republic of Iran (many such apologists are themselves clerics/jurists). Womens subordinate legal position is firmly upheld by these civil and religious leaders, who maintain their own right vis-à-vis western criticism to cultivate oppressive regimes informed by divine justice as pre-modern social models, and an antidote to the moral and social crises currently experienced by western society, (which they identify as) resulting directly from womens insubordinate, de-regulated legal status and public participation. Their defense of the right to choose to limit others choice fits neatly under the umbrella of cultural relativism, which is an ironic benchmark of intellectual post-modernity, the star to which feminism in modernity has had necessarily to hitch itself. A re-evaluation of the Islamic females ideological currency must be undertaken if she is to make a sound platform of the rights feminism has already helped establish for women in the western world. The Islamic female experience can be actuated by a perspective beyond post-modern cultural relativism, but also beyond feminisms heretofore necessary overreaction to modernist constructs. An attempt to enhance the position of the Muslim female believer must begin with the woman herself; the specifically Islamic feminist/antifeminist discourse is in many ways a shared experience with women in recent periods of western history. As I will explore in the next section, the changing cultural climate in which a contemporary Muslim female finds herself, overlaps in many ways with the experience of an inspirational woman at a corresponding point in European modernitys cultural paradigm shift.
Historical transitions: evolution of the ego
The nineteenth centurys latter half saw the industrial revolution catalyze the release of imperial Europes increasingly tenuous codified and ideological solipsism. Its thriving intellectual communities, however, represented this phenomenon paradoxically: the experience of the self was the subject of deeper rational scientific study than ever before. Education as a cultural imperative sailed on the winds of class de-stratification to an enriched and enhanced view of the individual per se, and women no less than men profited from the benign side of the empowerment of the individual. Modernitys stabilization from revolution into historical moment balanced on this very fulcrumthe status, position, prominence of the individual in meta-narrativejust as the place of the personal narrative in post-modernity vacillates toward an enriched perception of the individual in current re-evaluations of the meta-narrative. It is suggested that a specifically empirical approach to the rational model of Islamic fundamentalism can inform believing woman in daily as well as socially implied dimensions: the multidimensional empowerment exemplified by western feminism can share a trajectory with the empowerment of Islamic women, starting at the level of individual experience.
Lou Salome, the intellectually beguiling, emotional and spiritual muse to Freud, Rilke, and Nietzsche, concludes in Jesus the Jew "that it is always only the individual, the great individual who attains the peaks of religion, its genuine blissfulness and its full tragedy." What he experiences up there, the crowd below does not learn. Likewise the Islamic female, as on a trajectory of individuation via a speculative individualized experience of her faith can evolve in moment to transcendence of her current functional context. Indeed to Salome isolation in vacuo of a trait resultant from votive spirituality is impossible, for "the actual religious phenomenon really only emerges in the back-effect of a god on the human beings who believe in it, no matter how that god originated (ibid., 342-3). Salome viewed beingthat is, being in the worldas a cause for rejoicing, and passion after the wholeness of existence as characteristically female: "She celebrated the feminine desire and capacity for self-dissolution over masculine oedipal renunciations only if the feminine tendency to remain locked in a childhood misperception of the other as the locus of the self and the consequent lack of ego boundaries were countered by an equally strong passion for knowledge and or being in the world (Martin, 36)."
The idea of the back-effect of religion becomes particularly relevant when it is observed that the force driving the Islamic consciousness in its conception of unity is its social facet, self-perceived as a cosmic meta-narrative. Institutional constraints at a given historical moment may be expressed oppressively, but if the sunnah purports to be a constructive moral scheme it is bound to reckon with contextual evolution which by western measures of constructiveness may be progressing at an indistinguishably varying pace from, but not necessarily after a pattern incongruous with, constructive social goals. Martin (78) describes the religious experience according to Salome, as an involuntary blending and exchanging of the most intimate with the most loftythis conception of the intimate as the lofty the characteristic basic element of the religious. In a socio-cultural moment which appears to conspire to divest the individual (woman) of her right to subjective individuation, what sounder recourse could she have than to the development of personal intimacy with her faith? However limited her external locus may prove itself, the means of self-becoming under an oppressive political regime will always be at her fingertips if it be a Muslim one, for what are the revealed religions if not the organized infusion of purpose into sufferings chaos?
Most oustanding in Lou Salome was her devotion exclusively to the culture of her time, complete immersion in that culture, by which her life could be characterized by Rudolph Binion (491) as "outwardly and inwardly both among the richest on record." An "interest in religious experience," though, "was at the center of her particular model of reading and interpretation, and religious effect served as the foundation for her conception of modernity as renewal, growth, and transformation" (Martin, 27). The only obstacle to these variants on the theme of religious devotion as a few bars to the ear of an Islamic femaleand stimulus toward a life-enriching, gender-affirming patternwould be her material access: clearly at the center of the need to adapt to shifting global perceptions, though, is democratized access to knowledge tools, and this point quickly grows moot where it is not already. Binions expansion upon Lou Salomes legacy helps us to identify precisely where the potential for a gender-transcendent Islamic experience can be informed by this woman whose own consciousness was raised by the cultivation of intimacy with an individual religious back-effect: "A microchemistry of history could lead into a new macrophysics of history in ways unforeseeablenot excluding some simple transpositions, as from how we singly to how we collectively reformulate our past."
According to Moghissi (38), literature by Islamic women (e.g., Nawal el-Saadawi) emphasizes womens irrepressible strength and struggles rather than their victimization, de-mystifying their experiences under patriarchal traditions and institutions. This is in fact a shared tradition in western and "Oriental" literature by women, a demonstration of mutuality of purpose and grounds for re-consideration of the compatibility of the Islamic religious experience with multidimensional feminine empowerment and enrichment.
Despite regional development further outside of normatively
rational loci and the ostensible consensus among Islamic females (and males
alike) that the western paradigm is unable to process the elementary symbols
of their faiths coherence (Kahf, 179; Fernea, 29, 87-88, 246-47), the
oppressed juridical position of the contemporary Islamic female deposits itself
immediately in a culturally repressive social experience. Criticism of the
Western narrative of the Muslim woman has not attended to the historical genealogy
of this narrative (Kahf, 177), though, and fundamentally Quranic conceptions
of woman in Islam are not incompatible with an empowering itinerary
in a similar vein to that traveled by constructs of the western woman, albeit
requiring sensitivity to ethnic developmental paces and moral context. An
analysis of the character of this necessary sensitivity shows it to be sustained
effectively externally and internally in the united moral context and cultural
moment of which Lou Salomes thought was a product.
Attempts to disentangle cultural conceptualizations of self from their social or ideological context are infinitely less realistic than simple cognizance of self, which is the springboard to enacting meaningful changes in ones environment. Tradition quotes a Russian ascetic of the middle 19th century (Seraphim of Sarov) as having said that "one who saves his own soul saves a thousand with him." The cultivation and defense of legal equanimity (and all its social implications) may be outpaced by ones spiritual development, but civil advancement can only be stabilized, indeed catalyzed, by the noetic experience of emancipation. Social justice figures centrally in Quranic Islam, and Salomes idea of religious back-effect engages in a unique and essential discourse with Islams basically holistic premise.
Uniformity is no more possible among Islamic political boundaries than globally for at least the foreseeable future (if it were even desirable). But just as the humanist search for a unity of knowledge fueled the political syncretism which has been the linchpin of progress for the west, coherence in ones self-narrative is essential to the preservation of ones place in a necessarily united global scene. The western experience is itself immeasurably enriched, en route to the recognition of universal commonalitiesand the avoidance of self-destructive militarismfrom reminders (such as Islam nurtures) of the transcendent potential in the nature of ones place cosmically, of human identity. It would be hopelessly myopic to imagine that either Judaeo-Christian modernity or todays Islamic world can serve one another as only economic stimuli.
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