Ancient Mideast women had more rights: Scholar


Such oddities are part and parcel of the complex system of social control maintained by clerics of Saudi Arabia’s austere version of Sunni Islamic law, often termed Wahhabism. It’s a system called into question by scholar Hatoon Al Fassi (pictured).

In her study, Women In Pre-Islamic Arabia, the outspoken rights advocate argues women in the pre-Islamic period enjoyed considerable rights in the Nabataean state, an urban Arabian kingdom centred in modern Jordan, south Syria and northwest Saudi Arabia during the Roman empire.

Most controversially, Fassi says women in Nabataea — whose capital was the famous rose-red city of Petra in south Jordan and which was at its height during the lifetime of Jesus Christ — enjoyed more freedom than in Saudi Arabia today because clerics have misunderstood the origins of Islamic law.

She also suggests some Saudi restrictions on women may have their origins in Greco-Roman traditions.

"One of the objectives of this book is to question the assumption of subordination of women in pre-Islamic Arabia," Fassi writes. "Most of the practices related to women’s status are based on some local traditional practices that are not necessarily Islamic. Nor are they essentially Arabian."

She argues women in Nabataea were free to conduct legal contracts in their own name with no male guardian, unlike in Greek and Roman law, and in Saudi Arabia where the guardian is central to the clerics’ idea of a moral public sphere.

The Wahhabi interpretation of Shariah requires a muhrim — father, husband, brother or son — to accompany women in public, allow them to travel and attest their legal contracts.

"I found that with Nabataean women the legal status and self representation was stronger and more evident than with Greek women who needed always a ‘tutor’, or representative, in order to conclude any contract," Fassi said in an interview.

"An adaptation of Greek and Roman laws was inserted in Islamic law," she said, referring to guardianship. "I would insist that it’s an ancient adaptation, that (Muslim) scholars are not aware of, and they would really be shocked."

The main schools of sharia were codified in the 9th century AD in territories where a ruling Arab elite mixed with non-Arab and non-Muslim populations in the aftermath of the Arab conquests and the rise of Islam in the seventh century.

The main body of the law is derived mainly from oral traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and viewed by Islamic scholars as divine in origin. Scholars in the West have seen, in effect, a mix of Arabian, Jewish and Roman origins.

"The argument about Greco-Roman law having influenced the sharia rules about women could have some basis if one thinks in terms of Middle Eastern adaptations —’provincial versions’ — of Greco-Roman law," said Gerald Hawting, a historian of early Islam at the School of Oriental & African Studies in London.


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