Women in Society: Egypt; Women in Society: Israel

Women In Society; Egypt
by Angele Botros Samaan
Women in Society: Israel
by Beth Uval Marshall Cavendish, 1993, $22,95.

when I tell people I teach about women in the Middle East, I get a common response: “Oh?” (raised eyebrows), “What women”” Judge Deborah, Queen Zenobia, and Sultana Shajar ad-Durr, for a premodern start. But really, I urge: the study of women is a larger question of how women’s and men’s roles and relations shaped and were shaped by history. It’s as much a study of power that produced knowledge or silence as it is a retrieval of women in familiar events.

So it is with delight that I review these two new, informative, high-school texts, both full of attractive photographs, renderings of ancient art and watercolor sketches, and both with sections on “Milestones” (history), “Women in Society” (education, health, law, politics), “Being Woman” (unique issues of that culture), “Profiles of Women” (biographies), and “A Lifetime” (birth through old age).

Uval portrays Israeli women caught in the cross-fire of rapid development and centuries of custom. There are no “typical” Israeli women because they come from fifty different countries and because eighteen percent are Arab. The author weaves in achievements and struggles of Arabs along side those of Jews, and tackles contradictions born of society harboring legal inequalities and misogynist traditions. She celebrates individual Israeli women of unprecedented achievement — scholars, lawmakers, activists, scientists, soldiers, athletes and, of course, prime minister, while exposing often unacknowledged obstacles.

Samaan’s work is a welcome blow to blatant stereotypes still acceptable in the U.S. that turn Arabs into monolithic Muslim fanatics and represent all women as tyrannized. The photos alone form an Invaluable essay on diversity: women appear in chic or ordinary Western garb and a myriad of new veiling styles; they are farmers, artists, factory workers, journalists, housewives, ambassadors, and, of course, queens. The only woman, covered from head to toe, peering out of a slit for her eyes, is Helana Sidaros in full surgeon’s regalia at the operating table.

There are problems with these volumes which do not trivialize their worth. Paradigms of development and nationalism that bring these books into being , circumscribe them, too. The Goddess Isis, for example, is portrayed as “dedicated wife and mother and a pioneering women seeking justice and welfare of her people.” This is a twentieth-century interpretation by Egyptian women who fought for equal rights by arguing it would not interfere with wifely devotions, and took pathbreaking steps not on behalf of women, God forbid, but for their nation. It is left to teachers to prod students into contemplating the mind-boggling reality of how different everyday life might look with a female deity at its center.

The books afford only veiled glimpses of exuberant heritages where women’s military, sexual, and spiritual exploits dazzle the mind. The startling power of ancient Egyptian is “the golden age” but astounding details are omitted: full equality in law, complete freedom of movement, equal pay, all children, houses and property owned by mothers; no illegitimate children; “wife,” nebt-per, meaning ruler of the house. The first Jewish matriarch Sarah is absent perhaps because revisionist histories of her as High Priestess to an older, matrifocal religion competing with Abraham’s new Yahweh are too radical. (Read Savina Teubal’s Sarah the Priestess!)

Modernism relegates “religion” to a separate category even though Egyptian and Israeli culture defy this dichotomy (Read Islamic/erotic stories of Egyptian Alifa Rifaat, Distant View of a Minaret). Uval puts stress upon women becoming rabbis, but minimizes the tensions between secular and religious (and Orthodox and non-Orthodox) groups. In both countries, growing fundamentalism is downplayed, along with the gap between women’s rights in public and their restrictions in private due to unchanging, religiously-based personal-status laws.

Nationalism tempers the text: Uval addresses anxieties cause by continual warfare on all women’s lives in Israel, but neglects power dynamics between Jews and Arabs that exacerbate Arab women’s grievances. Samaan assumes “during the Israeli occupation…the Sinai women…[endured] great suffering.” Yet my experience working with Bedouin women of Sinai was that they critiqued all transient governments, whether Egyptian or Israeli, compared to peoples’ permanence rooted in land.

Much “knowledge” of other cultures is garnered unawarely from stereotypes of women. These books do a fine job of making entire cultures more accessible to Western students, while dispelling myths of cloistered Arab women or liberated Israeli ones. Good news: these volumes are part of a larger series by Cavendish on women in Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Mexico, and South Africa. Let’s get them into teachers’ hands!