February 22, 2004

2 Qutb 7d

I've come to the conclusion that the answer to the question I posed in the last post of this series is a qualified "I'm not sure." I don't think sex, or more broadly, the status of women, was necessarily the driving animus of Qutb's theories. But there's grounds for raising the question, which I'll deal with here.

To begin with, as Nazih Ayubi points out in Political Islam, in some Islamist discourse, "the obsession with sex, women and the human body is so strong that it borders on the pathological." Ayubi considers this to be a fringe phenomenon among Islamists, and quotes a fatwa (the issuer is not named) that says it is "religiously prohibited for a woman to look at the thigh of her daughter, sister, mother, neighbor or friend, in a bathroom or anywhere." Ayubi also quotes a Hasan Hanafi, described as an Islamist by Ayubi but as espousing a blend of Nasserism and Islam here (it's possible they're both right -- Hanafi might have changed his views since Ayubi's work was published in 1989), as saying that the Islamism is primarily,

...a sexual perception of the world: they start with the veil, with segregation and turning the eye away and turning the voice down. [Yet] the larger the veil, the greater the desire to recognize what it hides! There is more to social and political life than such a sexual perception of social relations that classifies a citizen [only] into man and woman, male and female ... Such a classification might not signify a virtue, but may indicate a repressed sexual desire and a sublimated sexual deprivation.

The Qutb passage from the seventh chapter of Milestones bears repeating:

If the family is the basis of the society, and the basis of the family is the division of labor between husband and wife, and the upbringing of children is the most important function of the family, then such a society is indeed civilized. In the Islamic system of life, this kind of a family provides the environment under which human values and morals develop and grow in the new generation; these values and morals cannot exist apart from the family unit. If, on the other hand, 97 free sexual relationships and illegitimate children become the basis of a society, and if the relationship between man and woman is based on lust, passion and impulse, and the division of work is not based on family responsibility and natural gifts; if woman's role is merely to be attractive, sexy and flirtatious, and if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children; and if, on her own or under social demand, she prefers to become a hostess or a stewardess in a hotel or ship or air company, thus spending her ability for material productivity rather than in the training of human beings, because material production is considered to be more important, more valuable and more honorable than the development of human character, then such a civilization is 'backward' from the human point of view, or 'jahili' in the Islamic terminology.

Note: I assume the "97" in the above passage is superfluous -- perhaps a page number that inadvertently got included in the text -- but I thought I'd reproduce the text exactly as it appears, and "97 free sexual relationships" does have a certain ring to it. In any case, compare Qutb's rhetoric to this passage from Ayubi's work:

Recent migrations to the cities usually force the family to change its habitat from the cosy, enclosed courtyard life of the extended family in the rural village and the traditional country town, to the 'exposed' environment of apartments or rooms in larger buildings, where main facilities are frequently shared, and where female contact with the outside world is required for shopping and other necessary activities. The daughters eventually go to school, which means that they have to walk or use public transport; indeed the wife or the daughters may have to go to work to enable the family to cope with the burdens of urban life and its higher consumerism. The patriarchal head of the family would thus feel his dignity eroded for being unable fully to support his family and for having to allow them to work for or with other males. The verbal semi-sexual abuse that these women may receive on the way to or from work, and the fondling of their bodies that may occur on public transport and in other crowded areas, will most probably injure his masculine dignity and impart the feeling that he has turned into a cuckold or a pimp...

The urban experience is not necessarily more attractive for the female, who has to go through all these undignified happenings, who now has to compete with all the other working women in looking 'presentable' (which means higher expenditure on clothes and cosmetics, in crushing financial circumstances), and who very often has to hand over her earnings to her husband at the end of the day/month -- for he often regards this as his right in return for allowing her to go to work in the first place!

I think the juxtaposition is revealing, and also a bit mundane. I vaguely recall reading about the pre-industrial revolution history of Europe, various laws and economic realities reducing the ability of the peasantry to engage in small-scale above-subsistence farming (because elsewhere, large scale for-profit farming was going on), movement to towns and cities, later marriages for both men and women, a literature of cuckoldry developing, and social unrest, sometimes exploding into violence. There is nothing unique to the Arab world about the phenomena that either Qutb or Ayubi describes, in other words. Not even the failure of Arab social institutions (governments, civil society, etc.) to cope with such difficulties is unheard of. It's not even unusual for a would-be social reformer to look at such difficulties and assume a new ideology for all mankind is required. That way, of course, is the path to madness, but that discussion can wait for another day.

Posted by Ideofact at February 22, 2004 11:59 PM
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