Brooks, Geraldine 1995 Nine Parts of Desire,
Anchor Doubleday, New York ISBN 0-385-47576-4

A woman's heaven is under the feet of her husband.
Islamic Proverb (Goodwin)

NOTE: This extract is included as an essential reading for transforming the world. You are requested to purchase the book yourself as it is, without question, essential reading material.

As a prize-winning foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Geraldine Brooks has spent six years covering the Middle Last through wars, insurrections, and the volcanic upheaval of resurgent fundamentalism. Yet for her, headline events have been only the backdrop to a less obvious but more enduring drama: the dally life of Muslim women. Perplexed when her thoroughly modern Egyptian translator suddenly adopted Islam's restrictive veil and declined to attend Harvard, Brooks made it her mission to comprehend a culture whose constraints remain mysterious to most Westerners.

Key Readings:

  1. Hamas and Sexual Freedom
  2. Palestinian Polygamy
  3. Jihad and the Female
  4. Temporary Marriage
  5. Stoning
  6. The Prophet's Women
  7. Conclusion: Beware of the Dogma

Hamas and Sexual Freedom

Hamas considers the unveiled as collaborators of a kind.
It is our religious duty to execute collaborators.
HAMAS GRAFFITI, GAZA - Price of Honour

"There are no opinions in Islam," she responded brusquely. "Islam says that men and women can mix if it is absolutely necessary. If there is no necessity, then they mustn't do it." I'd hoped to find something different at Gaza University-perhaps the emergence of an Islamic feminism. Palestinians had always been among the most progressive on women's issues, and I thought the fusion of that spirit with militant Islam might produce something interesting. But in Gaza the militants had latched onto a brand of Islamic radicalism that threatened to do worse than set the clock back for Palestinian women. What Majida was proposing had never been part of Palestinian culture. Instead, her ideas were imports: they had "Made in Saudi Arabia" stamped all over them. Hamas devotes two articles of its thirty-six-article charter to the role of Muslim women. Women, it says, manufacture men and play a great role in guiding and educating the [new] generation. The enemies have understood that role, and therefore they realize if they can guide and educate [the women] in a way that would distance them from Islam, they would have won that war. Therefore you can see them making consistent efforts by way of publicity and movies, curriculi [sic] of education and culture, using as their intermediaries their craftsmen who are part of the various Zionist Organizations which take on all sorts of names and shapes such as: the Free Masons, Rotary Clubs, gangs of spies and the like. . . . Therefore, we must pay attention to the schools and curriculi upon which Muslim girls are educated, so as to make them righteous mothers, who are conscious of their duties in the war of liberation. They must be fully capable of being aware and of grasping the ways to manage their households. Economy and avoiding waste in household expenditures are prerequisites to our ability to pursue our cause. . . ." When I'd first visited Gaza in 1987, girls, unveiled and wearing blue jeans, had been in the streets alongside the youths, throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Mothers had been right behind them, ready with wet cloths or cut onions to counter the effects of tear gas. Women had gained stature from their role in such protests. Now, thanks to Hamas, women had been sent back home, to manufacture male babies and avoid waste in household expenditures.

Palestinian Polygamy

"Get out of here!" he cried in perfect English. "There are people in this camp who would kill you!" I stood my ground and asked to interview him. "I'm too busy now," he said, eying the license plate of a passing truck to see if it was colored yellow, for Israeli, or blue for Palestinian. "And if I start on this subject I'll never stop." As a Fiat with yellow plates approached, he wound up like a pitcher and hurled his chunk of concrete at its windshield. It fell just short. "It hasn't been a good day for me," he said. "I've hardly damaged any cars." The wail of an approaching army siren signaled that the day might be about to take a turn for the worse. Barking commands to his three accomplices, the boy turned and ran off into the camp, his kaffiyeh wound tightly around his face to prevent identification by camp informers. I turned and walked slowly down the camp's main street, hearing the commotion behind me as an Israeli jeep skidded to a stop and emptied its troops at the camp entrance. A few blocks farther, I glimpsed a flash of red in the window of a half-demolished building. It was the boy. His finger on his lips, he signaled to me to follow him. Scrambling over rubble, we made our way through back alleys to a large metal door set in a concrete-block wall. The boy rapped gently on the metal and the door flew open. Two pairs of women's hands dragged him inside by his collar, quickly stripped his T-shirt and jacket and flung him a change of clothes. "In case anybody saw me," he explained. "This is Rahme, my mother," he said, introducing the smaller of the two women as she patted down his tousled hair. "And this," he said, turning to the other woman, "is Fatin, also my mother. Well, not my mother . . . excuse me, I don't know the English word . . . but she is . . . married to my father after my mother." "Darra?" I said. Co-wife. The Arabic word comes from the root Jito harm.""Yes," he said. "Co-wife."

At fifteen, the boy, Raed, was the oldest of fourteen children. Because Israeli authorities had closed the schools, all of them were at home on that wet day, crammed inside the four-room hovel. Cold seeped up through the bare concrete floors and rain dripped through the leaky roof. Most of the toddlers had runny noses. Over the next six years I visited the family often, sometimes spending the night on a thin mattress on the floor, wedged in with Rahme and Fatin and Raed's sisters. Raed and his brothers slept beside their father, Mahmoud, in another room. Clearly, given the number of children in the house, the sleeping arrangements weren't always like that. Because it was impossible to have a private conversation in that crowded house, I couldn't raise such a sensitive subject with Rahme or Fatin. I asked a close woman friend from a similar background how people in such situations managed to have sex. What she described was depressing: "If there are three rooms, then the women take one, the boys one, and the husband and whichever wife he wants to have sex with will sleep in the third room," she said. "But in some homes in the camps there aren't three rooms, so the act is a quick, silent fumbling in a corner, hoping the children aren't awake. Of course, neither one of them would ever undress." At first I visited the camp to write about the uprising. But soon I became more involved in the story of Rahme and Fatin. There is a poignant Berber folk song about the arrival of a second wife, and I thought of it every time I visited them:

The stranger has come; she has her place in the house.
Her tattoos are not like ours,
But she's young, she's beautiful, just what my husband wanted;
The nights aren't long enough for their play. . . .

Since she's come, the house is not the same,
As though the doorsills and the walls were sulking;
Perhaps I'm the only one who notices it,
Like a mule before his empty manger.
But I must accept my new lot,
For my husband is happy with his new wife.
Once I, too, was beautiful, but my time is past.

To an outsider, the relationship between Rahme and Fatin seemed to have little in common with that sad song. The two women seemed more like loving sisters than bitter rivals. If Fatin cooked, Rahme sewed. If Rahme made bread, Fatin kept an eye on the toddlers. When Raed finally got caught after throwing a Molotov cocktail at Israeli soldiers, it was Fatin, not his mother Rahme, who showed up in court to support him. And when Mahmoud, too, was taken to jail in a routine security sweep, the two women relied on each other to get through the long six months until his release. In all the time I spent in their house I never heard a cross word between them. It was Raed who taught me to look deeper. Raed spent five years in jail for his part in the uprising. When he was released, in February 1993, the fiery fifteen-year-old who'd stoned my car had been replaced by a solemn twenty-year-old who celebrated his new freedom in long, long walks up and down the West Bank's stony hillsides. On one of these walks we stopped for a few minutes to chat with a woman he knew slightly. "Her life is complete misery," he said as we turned away. As we walked, he told me the story of the woman's unhappy marriage, her husband's eventual repudiation, and her return to her parents, her children, of course, left behind with their father. "It is my mother's story," Raed added unexpectedly, "except for the ending."

Rahme's story began in Jordan. In 1972, Raed's father's mother arrived there with her daughter, who had been promised in marriage to a relative in Amman. In Jordan, the mother spotted Rahme, a devout, rosy-cheeked young woman whose tiny stature made her look much younger than her seventeen years. She took the girl home to marry her fifteen-year-old son Mahmoud.

"What did he know at fifteen? Nothing," said Raed. "To him,

she was a good girl, a nice girl. But how could he love her? He didn't even know her." Within a year, Raed was born. His brother Murad came a year and a half later, and two sisters in the three years after that. Rahme was still pregnant with her fourth child when she forced herself to face the fact that had the whole camp gossiping. Mahmoud had fallen for Fatin, a stunning eighteen-year-old who had recently moved in with relatives in the camp. The two women couldn't have been more different. Where Rahme was shy and pious, Fatin was outspoken and political. Where Rahme was quiet and diffident, Fatin laughed and asserted herself. Fatin, tall and shining with confidence, seemed to eclipse the tiny Rahme. Finally, Mahmoud came home with the news that Rahme had dreaded. He had proposed to Fatin, and she had accepted him. Rahme, he said could have a divorce. Rahme knew that a divorce meant leaving the West Bank to return to her family in Jordan. In some ways, that would have been a relief. In six years the youth Mahmoud had grown into a fierce- tempered man who occasionally lashed out violently at both her and Raed, who even as a toddler was showing a streak of stubborn courage. To live with him as his only wife had been hard enough: she could barely imagine the greater humiliations and hardships that would come from being relegated to second place by a woman he really loved. But when she looked up at Mahmoud and gave her answer, it wasn't what he expected to hear. "I don't want to divorce you," she said quietly. Under Islamic law, divorce meant leaving her children to be raised by Mahmoud and his new wife. "I want to keep my family,it she said. "Will you allow me that?" Mahmoud was bad-tempered and selfish, but he wasn't cruel enough to force Rahme to leave her children. If Rahme wished to stay, he said, he would continue to support her. But she would have to be content to be his wife in name only. Although the Koran declares that a man must treat all his wives equally, Mahmoud made it clear that it was Fatin, and Fatin alone, to whom he was sexually attracted. By choosing to stay, Rahme, at twenty-three, would be choosing a life of celibacy in a crowded hovel alongside a woman for whom her husband felt a passionate erotic attraction. Mahmoud made it clear that he would blame Rahme if the relationship between the two women was anything but placid and friendly. Rahme choked back her tears and agreed to Mahmoud's conditions. A few weeks later she put on her best embroidered dress and danced to the drums at her husband's wedding. When we returned to the house, I suddenly saw everything differently. Rahme was in the corner, performing her midday prayers, as Fatin laughed boisterously with Mahmoud. Fatin was pregnant with her eleventh child, and basking in Mahmoud's obvious pride in her condition. Raed was less approving. Since his father's jobs on construction sites were irregular, Raed was working fourteen hours a day in a shoe factory to support the family. "It's stupid!" he fumed. "He can't support the babies he has, and he brings more and more." Fatin had been nursing a newborn when I first met her in 1987. While I talked to Raed about the Intifada, she'd sat in a corner of the room with the baby at her breast. She'd interrupted only once, when Raed's English stumbled over the word "peace." I'd asked him if the Palestinians in the camp were willing to accept peace with Israel. When he had trouble with the word, I tried the Arabic, salaam. "La salaam!" Fatin yelled suddenly. "No peace! The people of this camp want war!" Fatin, I reflected then, would be a formidable opponent if anyone crossed her. Fatin's many pregnancies had stripped her of her girlish bloom. She showed me the gaps in her mouth from teeth that had fallen out during the latest one. Yet it seemed to be a price she was willing to pay to retain her husband's approval, and to underline her difference in status from Rahme. "My mother is waiting only for us," Raed said. "As soon as my sisters are finished school and I can support them, she won't have to put up with this anymore." I wondered, though, if the complex bonds in the family could be so easily broken. Raed himself said he didn't differentiate between his full siblings and his half brothers and sisters. He loved all of them, and felt responsible for protecting them from his erratic father. His feelings about Fatin also were complex. "I cannot say I hate this woman," he said. "I hate her only for being the cause of my mother's suffering, not for who she is herself." In a rare private moment, when I tried to ask Rahme about her feelings, her rosy face broke into an enigmatic smile. She wrapped my hands in her two cracked and work-worn ones and whispered simply, "Insha'allah [As God wills it]." Then she went to wash and began her prayers, as the life of the household swirled unnoticed around her. In a few moments, following the prayer-time ritual, she knelt, touching her head to the floor. Her religion, after all, was Islam-the Submission. It seemed to me that its rules had required her to submit to a lot.

Jihad and the Female

Jihad is obligatory on all Muslims but can take many forms. In the Western mind, jihad has become synonymous with acts of terrorism carried out by extremist Islamic groups. But teaching the faith, or spreading the word through an exemplary life, are also forms of jihad. Women's role in jihad was an issue even at the time of the prophet. In the first years of the faith, when the Muslim community had to fight to establish itself in the face of hostility from existing religious groups, some women clamored to contribute. Victorious soldiers were blessed by God and enriched with a share of the spoils of the defeated enemy. A hadith records this exchange between the prophet and one of his followers: "I am the delegate of women to you. This jihad was made obligatory on men. If they win, they are given worldly rewards, and if they are killed they are alive with their Lord, well provided for. But we Muslim women, we serve them; what do we get for that?" Muhammad replied: "Convey to the women you meet that obedience to their husband, and the acknowledgment of their favors, is equivalent to that jihad." The Emirates' Muslim authorities quoted that hadith in their arguments against recruiting women soldiers. But Hessa al-Khaledi countered with historical evidence showing that women did fight alongside Muhammad, and were honored for it. Nusavbah bint Kaab is perhaps the most celebrated of the many women warriors, since she helped save Muhammad's life in the battle of Uhud. When the Muslim army was dispersed in an enemy charge, she was among the ten fighters who managed to hold their ground, shielding the prophet's body with their own. She received thirteen wounds during her valiant stand; one, a near-fatal sword cut to the side of her neck, took more than a year to heal. Lying close to death the day after the battle, she heard Muhammad calling for volunteers to pursue the enemy and tried to rise to answer the call, but fainted from loss of blood. In a later battle she lost a hand. Muhammad clearly honored Nusaybah's contribution. He often visited her house and took dinner there. Some of the Muslims' most formidable opponents also were women. The notorious Hind bint Utbah, wife of the leader of Mecca, was a fearsome presence at the battle of Uhud, screaming warlike poetry to exhort her side's fighters and humiliate the enemy. One of her anti-Muhammad chants has survived, in rough translation, as:

We reject the reprobate!
His God we repudiate!
His religion we loathe and hate!

Omar, Muhammad's misogynist lieutenant, came back with this crude, and revealing, response:

May God curse Hind
Distinguished among Hinds,
She with the large clitoris,
And may he curse her husband with her!

Hind was unintimidated. When the Meccans defeated the Muslims, inflicting heavy losses, Hind searched among the Muslim dead for the man who had killed her father in an earlier battle. When she found the corpse, she cut out the man's liver, sliced off his nose and ears and strung them into bracelets which she wore, as she stood on a rock yelling verses of victory while Muhammad's wives and the other Muslim women scrambled to retrieve the bodies from the field before more could be desecrated. Stories of Muslim women's battlefield courage abound. Muhammad's aunt, Safiyah, was the first Muslim woman to kill an enemy in battle; Asma bint Yazid killed nine men of the opposing forces at the battle of Yarmouk. Khawla bint al-Azwar rode to battle with her mantle pulled close around her face. As she charged the enemy, observers asked each other if they knew the name of the brave man riding beside the prophet. After Muhammad's death, women continued to take part in campaigns. When the Muslims attacked a Persian seaport, a band of women, led by Azdah bint al-Harith, turned their mantles into banners and, marching in phalanx toward the enemy, were mistaken for fresh reinforcements.

Temporary Marriage

"You probably had your chador on the wrong way around," my friend explained. "That's one of the signals women use if they're looking for sigheh." Sigheh, or muta agreed between a man and woman and sanctioned by a cleric, can last as little as a few minutes or as long as ninety-nine years. Usually the man pays the woman an agreed sum of money in exchange for a temporary marriage. The usual motive is sex, but some temporary marriages are agreed upon for other purposes. When sex is the motive the transaction differs from prostitution in that the couple have to go before a cleric to record their contract, and in Iran, any children born of the union are legitimate. Otherwise, sigheh is free of the responsibilities of marriage: the couple can make any agreements they like regarding how much time they will spend together, how much money will be involved and what services, sexual or nonsexual, each will provide. Shiites believe Muhammad approved of sigheh. Sunnis, the majority branch of Islam, don't agree. Even in Shiite Iran, sigheh had fallen from favor until Rafsanjani encouraged it after the Iran-Iraq War which ended in 1988. In a 1990 sermon, he argued that the war had left a lot of young widows, many of them without hope of remarriage. Such women, he said, needed both material support and sexual satisfaction. At the same time, plenty of young men who couldn't afford to set up house for a bride were postponing marriage. Sexual tension needed healthy release, he said, and since sigheh existed for that purpose within Islam, why not use it? His remarks sparked a heated debate among Iranian women, some of whom bitterly opposed the practice as exploitative. They argued that the state should provide for war widows adequately, so that they didn't have to sell their bodies in sigheh. But others spoke out in its favor. Sigheh, they said, wasn't just a matter of money. Widows and divorcees had sexual needs and a desire for male company, and the sigheh "husband" was a welcome male presence for the children in their homes. Iran's satirical weekly magazine, Golagha, ran a cartoon lampooning the likely effects of Rafsanjani's argument. It showed two desks for marriage licenses, one for sigheh and one for permanent wedlock. The clerk at the permanent desk had no customers; the queue for sigheh stretched out the door. Mostly, it is poorer women who consent to sigheh. A lawyer friend told me about her cleaner, whose husband had died young and left her to support two children. "For a long time, she was a very bitter person," my friend said. "She would come to my house and see me enjoying my life with my husband and daughter, while her life was nothing but work." Then the cleaner contracted a temporary marriage. "Her personality changed overnight. It wasn't just the money. Suddenly, she had a man to spend time with, to take her out. In our culture, a man and a woman can't just go out on a date and enjoy each other's company, but with sigheh they can." Some Shiites also use sigheh to create a relationship that will allow a woman to appear unveiled in front of a man before whom it would otherwise be forbidden-for instance, a distant relative sharing the same house. These sigheh contracts are written to specify that no sexual relations are involved. In the West, some Shiite families are using sigheh as a way to make it possible for young couples to get to know each other well before marriage. A sigheh contract that bans sexual relations can allow a boy and girl to date each other for the duration of their engagement, without defying religion or tradition. Sigheh also provides an answer to the kinds of infertility problems that Westerners are now trying to solve with legal contracts for surrogate motherhood. In the Sunni branch of Islam, if a woman is infertile her husband usually divorces her or brings home a second wife. In Iran, a sigheh contract can be drawn up signifying that the object of the temporary marriage is a child that the husband and his permanent wife will raise. Sigheh is also the only way a Shiite man can marry a nonMuslim woman. Unlike the Sunnis, who allow Muslim men to marry other monotheists, Shiites demand conversion from all non-Muslim women, as well as non-Muslim men, before a permanent marriage is valid. Rafsanjani's revival of sigheh came as a boon to nonreligious Iranians whose private lives had been disrupted by revolutionary intrusions.

Men Stoning an Adulterous pair. From a popular novel. (Walther 32)
Below right: The Abyssinian is held in a crate.


Yet, for both Sunnis and Shiites, whatever license their faith allows comes walled around with ghastly penalties for sexual transgression. The limits on sexual freedom in Islam are drawn strictly around the marriage bed, be it temporary or permanent. Extramarital sex and homosexuality are prohibited, and both offenses can draw the most horrific punishments in the Islamic legal code. While the death penalty, in Islamic law, is optional for murder, it is mandatory for any convicted adulterer who could have satisfied his or her sexual urge lawfully with a spouse. The sentence is commuted to a hundred lashes if the adulterer is unmarried, or if the spouse was ill or far away when the adultery was committed. In Iran, stonings, or, as the Iranians prefer to translate the word, lapidations, are still carried out in cases of adultery. Saudi Arabia also specifies stoning as punishment for married adulterers. Some of the victorious Afghan mujahedin supported so enthusiastically by the U. S. Government during their war with the Soviet Union want to reintroduce stoning in Afghanistan.

Yet stoning is never specified as a punishment for adultery in the Koran. The Koran states that adulterous wives should be confined "to their houses until death overtakes them." During Muhammad's years in Medina, however, stonings for adultery were often carried out by the large Jewish community in the town, and several hadith have Muhammad also prescribing this punishment for Muslims - see also Women in Islamic Law. But it was after Muhammad's death, during the rule of the second caliph, Omar, a man notoriously harsh on women, that stoning became codified as the means of an adulterer's execution.

"Even the Prophet tried hard to avoid having a woman stoned when she came to him and admitted committing adultery. Twice he turned his head to one side, so he couldn't hear her confession. It was only when she told him the third time, when she insisted on her punishment, that he ordered her to be stoned." Jan Goodwin - Price of Honour - Death of a Princess.

Today, in Iran, men to be stoned are buried up to their waists, women to the chest, and the size of the stones is carefully regulated. Neither boulders nor pebbles may be used, so that death is neither mercifully quick nor endlessly prolonged. In November 1991 a thirtyyear-old woman named Zahra, who managed to scramble out of the pit in which she'd been buried, had her death sentence commuted: the judiciary felt that her escape must have been the will of God. Those who have recently witnessed stonings describe all-male crowds, different from the mixed groups who attend beheadings. The mood is commonly one of rage and bloodlust. Part of the ritual of the Hajj-the holy pilgrimage to Mecca-is the stoning of pillars meant to represent Satan. Witnesses say the woman being executed somehow becomes as dehumanized as those pillars-an outlet, perhaps, for the men's guilt at their own uncontrollable sexuality. Yet the stones in this case hit soft flesh. Because of the way she is buried, each impact snaps her neck backward in a series of excruciating whiplashes. Death often comes when her head is knocked completely off. It is hard to imagine a worse way to die. Yet the punishments set down for homosexual sodomy are designed to be even more cruel. If the partners are married men, they may be burned to death or thrown to their deaths from a height. If they are unmarried, the sodomized partner, unless he is a minor, is executed, the sodomizer lashed a hundred times. The variation in the penalty reflects the Muslim loathing of the idea of a man taking the feminine role of the penetrated partner. Lesbian sex, if the women are single, draws a hundred lashes. Married lesbians may be stoned. "Why is Islam so severe in matters of adultery, homosexuality and lesbianism?" asks Mohammed Rizvi, a cleric with the Vancouver Islamic Educational Foundation, who writes on Islam and sex. "If the Islamic system had not allowed gratification of sexual urge by lawful means without associating guilt with it, then it would be alright to say Islam is very severe. But since it has allowed fulfillment of sexual instincts by lawful means, itisnot prepared to tolerate any introverted behavior.


Presented with statistics on violence toward women, or facing the furor over the Rushdie fatwa, progressive Muslims such as Ali Allawi, Rana Kabbani and others ask us to blame a wide range of villains: colonial history, the bitterness of immigrant experience, Bedouin tradition, pre-Islamic African culture. Yet when the Koran sanctions wife beating and the execution of apostates, it can't be entirely exonerated for an epidemic of wife slayings and death sentences on authors. In the end, what Rana Kabbani and Ali Allawi are proposing is as artificial an exercise as that proposed by the Marxists who used to argue that socialism in its pure form should not be maligned and rejected because of the deficiencies of "actually existing socialism." At some point every religion, especially one that purports to encompass a complete way of life and system of government, has to be called to account for the kind of life it offers the people in the lands where it predominates. It becomes insufficient to look at Islam on paper, or Islam in history, and dwell on the inarguable improvements it brought to women's lives in the seventh century. Today, the much more urgent and relevant task is to examine the way the faith has proved such fertile ground for almost every antiwomen custom it encountered in its great march out of Arabia. When it found veils and seclusion in Persia, it absorbed them; when it found genital mutilations in Egypt, it absorbed them; when it found societies in which women had never had a voice in public affairs, its own traditions of lively women's participation withered. Yet there are exceptions. When the armies of Islam swept into India, Muslims were appalled by the practice of sati, in which widows, on a husband's death, would burn themselves alive on his funeral pyre. In 1650 the traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier wrote of Hindu widows, banned by their faith from remarriage and reduced by their husbands' deaths to penury and contempt, choosing instead to end their lives through sati. "But it should be remarked," he wrote, "that a woman cannot burn herself without having received permission from the governor of the place where she dwells, and those governors who are Musalmans [Muslims] hold this dreadful custom of selfdestruction in horror, and do not readily give permission." For those women's saved lives, at least, Islam can take the credit. But why did such a powerful and resilient faith not stand its ground more often in the face of "dreadful customs"? Once I began working on this book, I looked everywhere for examples of women trying to reclaim Islam's positive messages, trying to carry forward into the twentieth century the reformist zeal with which Muhammad had remade the lives of many women (other than his own wives and the Muslim army's war captives) in the first Muslim community at Medina. It turned out to be a frustrating search. In most places the direction of the debate seemed to be exactly the reverse. Palestinian, Egyptian, Algerian and Afghani women were seeing a curtain come down on decades of women's liberation as Islamic leaders in their countries turned to the most exclusionary and inequitable interpretations. For those women who struggled against the tide, the results were a discouraging trio of marginalization, harassment and exile. In Morocco, Fatima Mernissi's Koranic scholarship has made a formidable case for Islam as a religion of equality and human dignity, whose message has simply been buried over time by self-serving misogynists in positions of power. Yet her work is read in Western universities much more than it is in Moroccan mosques. No matter how precise her research into the hadith, the male-dominated Islamic establishment doesn't seem willing to open its ears to the scholarship of a Muslim woman who doesn't veil or otherwise flaunt her piety.


"O wives of the prophet, ye are not like any ordinary women."

She was playing on her swing when her mother called her. Noticing her dirty face, her mother took a little water and wiped the grime away. The swing had left her breathless, so the two of them paused for a few minutes at the door of the house until she recovered. Inside, her father and his friends were waiting. Her mother placed her in the lap of one of them, then everyone else rose and left the room. Aisha was nine years old, and that day, in her parents' house, she consummated her marriage to the prophet Muhammad, who was then over fifty. Ten years later, he died in her arms. Today, if you ask Sunni Muslims about Aisha, they will tell you she was the great love of Muhammad's later life, a formidable teacher of Islam, a heroine in battle. But ask Shiites, and they will describe a jealous schemer who destroyed the prophet's domestic peace, plotted against his daughter Fatima, spied on the household and fomented a tragic factional bloodletting that left the Muslim nation permanently divided. Aisha-Arabic for "life"-is one of the most popular girls' names in the Sunni Muslim world. But among Shiites it is a term of exasperation and abuse. When a Shiite girl misbehaves, her mother is likely to upbraid her with a shout of "You Aisha!" Aisha went to live with Muhammad in the year 622 by the Christian calendar-the first year of Hegira by Muslim reckoning. Thirteen hundred and sixty-six years later, an interviewer for "Hello Good Morning" a live, national radio show in Iran, stopped a woman on a Tehran street and asked her who she thought was the best woman's role model. The woman answered Oshin, the heroine of a Japanese-made TV soap opera who had overcome all kinds of adversity by flouting Japan's staid traditions. The interviewer asked the woman why she hadn't named one of the prophet's wives or daughters as her role model. The woman replied that those women belonged to a far-off era that wasn't as relevant to her modern life. Ayatollah Khomeini, listening to the radio, was furious, and demanded that the show's producers be flogged. He relented when an investigation proved that the producers hadn't acted maliciously. For once I found myself more or less agreeing with Khomeini. The lives of the prophet's wives and daughters were extremely relevant to modern Islamic women. Most of the Koran's revelations on women came to Muhammad directly following events in his own household. Like modern Muslim women, his wives had to cope with the jealousies of a polygamous household, the traumas of war, the hardships of poverty and the issues of seclusion and hijab. To me, the hadith's intimate vignettes of life in the apartments around Muhammad's mosque were better than any modern soap opera. I couldn't get enough of these stories of intrigue, argument and romance. Aisha, undoubtedly, was the star, but the seven or eight wives in the supporting cast made for lively subplots. When Muhammad's first wife Khadija died in 619, the fortynine-year-old prophet was heartbroken. The Muslim community, especially the women who cooked and cared for him, believed a new wife might soothe his grief. A few months after Khadija's death, Muhammad's aunt, Khawla, suggested to her nephew that he marry again. "Whom shall I marry, 0 Khawla?" asked Muhammad. "You women are best knowing in these matters." Khawla answered that, if he wanted a virgin, he should take Aisha, the beautiful child of his best friend, Abu Bake. If he wanted a nonvirgin, there was the widow Sawda, a matronly older woman who had been an early convert to Islam and a devoted follower. "Go," said Muhammad, "bespeak them both for me." He married Sawda and Aisha in quick succession. But since Aisha was then only six, the marriage wasn't consummated, and she remained with her family. No one told the little girl of her change in status. But when her mother suddenly began restricting her play, Aisha later recalled, "It fell into my heart that I was married." By the time she went to live with Muhammad, the Muslims had fled persecution in Mecca and set up an exile community in the town of Medina. Muhammad lived in the mosque they constructed there-a humble structure of gray mudbricks roofed with the branches of date trees. Aisha and Sawda had a room each. When Aisha moved in, she brought her toys with her. Sometimes Muhammad would find her playing with them. "What are these?" he would ask. "Solomon's horses " or "My girl dolls," she would answer. If her child playmates ran away, intimidated, when he approached, he would gently call them back and sometimes join in their games. Muhammad, according to many detailed physical descriptions, was a handsome man, of medium height with wavy black hair, a full beard, thick-lashed dark eyes and a radiant smile that revealed a gap between his front teeth. He was meticulous about his grooming, perfuming his beard and brushing his teeth at least five times a day. His only unattractive features were a tendency to bloodshot eyes and a protruding vein in his temple that is said to have become more pronounced when he became angry. In the year or two after Aisha moved in, Muhammad married three more women, all war widows: Hafsah, the twenty-year-old daughter of his close friend Omar; an older woman, Zeinab, whose generosity had earned her the name "Mother of the Poor," and who died just eight months later; and Umm Salamah, a famous beauty whose arrival caused Aisha the first pangs of the jealousy that would blight the rest of her life. When Aisha learned about the marriage to Umm Salamah, "I was exceedingly sad," she said, "having heard much of her beauty." She called on the new wife and found her lltwice as beautiful and graceful as she was reputed to be."

Muhammad tried to keep to the Koran's instruction that a man must treat all his wives equally. His practice was to see each of them, every afternoon, in a brief private meeting, but to have his dinner and spend the night with one at a time, in strict rotation. Aisha found the arrangement unsatisfying. "Tell me," she asked him one day, "if you were to come upon two camels, the one already pastured and the other not, which would you feed?" Muhammad answered that of course it would be the one not pastured. "I am not like the rest of your wives," Aisha replied. "Every one of them has been married before, except me." Occasionally, if Muhammad wanted to spend time with a wife out of her turn, he would ask permission of the wife whose "day" it was. He soon learned better than to ask Aisha to give up her day. "For my part," she said, "I always refused him" and insisted on her scheduled visit. Sensitive to the young girl's needs and, perhaps, to the prophet's desires, the aging Sawda permanently relinquished her "day" to Aisha. But soon the arrival of several more wives spread the prophet's attentions even thinner. Muslims argue that the many marriages of Muhammad's last ten years reflected the fast expansion of Islam, and his need to build alliances with diverse clans. At other times, they say, his choices reflected compassion for needy widows. Since women will always outnumber men in societies at war, they argue, surely it is better that women share a husband than have no man in their lives at all. Muhammad, they say, was setting an example by taking widows into his care. Non-Muslims, particularly Islam's hostile critics, have taken a different view. Muhammad, they say, was a sensualist, whose increasing power and prestige gave him means to indulge his lusts after the death of the first wife who had been his patron. These critics seem to overlook the austerity of the prophet's household. The mudbrick rooms of the mosque were hardly the quarters of a sensualist. Even as the Muslim community became rich on the spoils of military victories, Muhammad continued to live simply and to insist that his wives do the same. The poverty that he enforced in his own household became the source of much bickering between Muhammad and his wives.

Yet the devout view, of Muhammad as husband cum social worker for needy widows, isn't entirely convincing either. At least one hadith indicates that Muhammad knew polygamy was damaging for women. When his son-in-law Ali considered taking a second wife, the prophet expressed concern for the feelings of his daughter Fatima. "What harms her harms me," he told Ali, who abandoned the idea of a further marriage. (Shiites, who venerate Ali and Fatima, discount this hadith. They argue that Muhammad would never have criticized a practice that the Koran had declared lawful.) Not all Muhammad's wives were pathetic cases or politically expedient matches. The beautiful Umm Salamah certainly wasn't needy. She had loved her first husband and, reluctant to remarry, had rejected a slew of eligible suitors when Muhammad began his dogged pursuit. She turned the prophet down at least three times. "I am a woman of an exceedingly jealous disposition, and you, 0 Messenger of God, acquire many women," she said, as one excuse for rejecting his suit. Muhammad replied: "I shall pray God to uproot jealousy from your heart." Despite his attempts at fairness, the whole community seems to have become aware that Aisha was his favorite wife. Muslims who wanted to send him a gift of food began timing their presents for the days they knew he would be spending in Aisha's apartment. Since Muhammad lived so humbly, these gifts often provided his household's only luxuries. Umm Salamah, for one, bitterly resented the preference shown to Aisha. "I see that the rest of us are as nothing," she said when yet another basket of goodies arrived on Aisha's day. Enraged, she flounced off to complain to Fatima, Muhammad's daughter. Muhammad's marriage to a child just a year or two younger than herself must have been difficult for Fatima in the wake of her mother's death. Her own marriage, to Muhammad's nephew Ali, was arranged soon after Aisha moved in. Whether it had its seeds in unrecorded childhood squabbles, or in the rivalry between Fatima's husband Ali and Aisha's father Abu Bake for the role of Muhammad's chief lieutenant, a bitter enmity developed between Aisha and Fatima. Eventually it expressed itself in the Shiite-Sunni schism that was to sunder Islam. The temperaments of the two young women could hardly have been more different. Fatima was self-effacing and shy; Aisha was quick-witted and outspoken. In any case, Umm Salamah knew where to look for an ally against Aisha. Fatima promised Umm Salamah to speak to her father about his favoritism. Muhammad's reply must have stung. "Dear little daughter, don't you love who I love?" he asked her. "Yes, surely," she replied. When she continued to put her case, Muhammad cut her off. "Aisha," he said, "is your father's best beloved." This brought Ali into the argument, chiding Muhammad for slighting his daughter by saying he loved Aisha best. The bitterness of the argument must have lingered, because soon afterward Muhammad ordered the door sealed between his wives' apartments and the apartment of Ali and Fatima. (Shiites deny this exchange ever took place: in their version, Muhammad extolled Fatima as "a human houri," or near-divine being.) Aisha tried to undermine her complaining rivals with childish pranks. One day she noticed that Muhammad had lingered longer than usual on his evening visit with one of her rivals, enjoying a drink made with honey, his favorite delicacy. Aisha gathered some of the other wives together and concocted a practical joke. As he stopped by each woman's apartment, all of them pretended to be offended by his breath. Muhammad, fastidious about his person, was worried and confused. "All I ate was honey!" he exclaimed. The women muttered that the bees who made the honey must have fed on the nectar of a foul-smelling plant. Afterward, Muhammad refused honey when it was offered to him, until the more mature Sawda counselled Aisha that the joke had gone far enough, and that the poor prophet was depriving himself of one of his few pleasures. Once Aisha and her co-conspirators actually thwarted one of the prophet's attempts to add another wife to his growing harem. Aisha was distraught when Asma, the beautiful daughter of a prince, arrived with an elaborate escort for her marriage to Muhammad. Aisha and Hafsa, pretending to be helpful, volunteered to assist the young woman dress for her wedding. As they fussed around her, they shared /Iconfidences" about the prophet's likes and dislikes. He would be inflamed with passion, they advised, if she pretended unwillingness. When it came time to consummate the marriage, they advised her to back away from the prophet's embrace and say, "I take refuge with Allah from thee." The prophet, appalled at the thought of inflicting himself on an unwilling woman, immediately told Asma not to worry, that he would call for her escort and see her safely home. Asma went, devastated, and complaining bitterly that she had been the victim of deceit. The multiple marriages fed such petty rivalries and added to the growing feud between Ali and Abu Bake that was to threaten Islam's political future. They also began to shape the rules of the emerging faith. Muhammad's increasing number of divine revelations on women seemed more and more influenced by the need to achieve tranquillity in his own household. Aisha, for one, wasn't afraid to point out the coincidence. "It seems to me," she said tartly, "your Lord makes haste to satisfy your desires." One such coincidence was the revelation that adopted children weren't to be considered as blood kin. This followed Muhammad's glimpse of the partially unclad Zeinab, wife of Zaid, the freed slave whom Muhammad had adopted and raised as a son. The community had been shocked by Zaid's divorce and Muhammad's intention to marry Zeinab, which flouted the ban on a father's marriage to the wife of a son. Muhammad was with Aisha when he had the revelation saying that it was a mistake by Muslims to consider adoption as creating the same ties as blood kin. From that point, the Koran says, Muslims were to proclaim the true parentage of any children they raised. God, the revelation disclosed, had arranged Muhammad's marriage with Zeinab to disclose to Muslims the error of their previous beliefs. When Zeinab moved into the mosque, she was able to taunt Aisha by claiming that her marriage to the prophet had been arranged by God. The revelation on the seclusion of the prophet's wives came on Zeinab's wedding night. Sensitive to the ill feelings that the match had inspired, Muhammad had invited many guests to his wedding feast. Three of them lingered long after the meal, engrossed in conversation and seemingly oblivious to the prophet's impatience to be alone with his new bride. As Zeinab sat quietly in a corner, waiting for the guests to leave, Muhammad strode out of the room and wandered the mosque courtyard. He dropped in on Aisha, who politely inquired how he liked his new companion. Muhammad confided that he hadn't yet had a chance to enjoy her company, and wandered off to look in on each of his wives before returning to the room of the wedding feast. To his intense annoyance, the guests were still there. Irritable, he went back to Aisha's room and sat with her until finally someone came to tell him that the boorish guests had left. Anas ibn Malik, a companion who had witnessed the whole scene, accompanied Muhammad back to the nuptial chamber. Muhammad had one foot in the room when he let fall a curtain between himself and Anas, and, as he did so, began reciting in the voice he used for revelations: "O ye who believe! Enter not the dwellings of the prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time, unless permission be granted you. But if ye are invited, enter, and, when your meal is ended, then disperse. Linger not for conversation. Lo! that would cause annoyance to the Prophet, and he would be shy of asking you to go; but Allah is not shy of the truth. And when you ask his wives for anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain (hijab). That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts." These words now are inscribed in the Koran as the word of God. Obviously, such a verse is read very differently by a believing Muslim and a non-believing outsider. To a nonbeliever, it is hard to envision God troubling to micro-manage matters of etiquette, like some kind of heavenly Miss Manners. To Muslims, though, there is nothing very extraordinary in God dealing with a situation that obviously left his prophet uncomfortable and unsure of how to act. In these latter years of Muhammad's life, with the community expanding rapidly, many new issues, large and small, had to be resolved. The Medina revelations are almost always far less poetic and more specific than the elegant reflections of the earlier verses revealed in Mecca. Often they came in direct response to new dilemmas facing the community. What is so puzzling is why the revelation of seclusion, so clearly packaged here with instructions that apply only to the prophet, should ever have come to be seen as a rule that should apply to all Muslim women. In Muhammad's lifetime the rule almost certainly was limited to his wives. It completely changed their lives. Muhammad had authorized Aisha, in his absence, to give religious advice, telling Muslims to "take half your religion from this woman." But after the revelation of seclusion, she no longer mingled freely with the visitors to the mosque. Some wives, like Sawda, famed for her fine leather-craft, had worked to contribute to the household's budget. The wives had even gone into battle alongside Muhammad, tucking up their robes and carrying water, or caring for the injured. Even Fatima had attended the battlefield, once cauterizing a bleeding head wound of her father's by applying ashes, a folk remedy that signified her skill as a nurse. After the seclusion, Muhammad took one or two wives on campaign only as his sexual partners, drawing lots among them for the privilege. It was after one such battle that Aisha found herself facing the biggest trial of her married life. As camp broke before dawn, Aisha walked off into the desert to urinate before the march. Returning to camp, she realized she'd dropped an agate necklace and retraced her steps looking for it. By the time she found it the men had led off the camel carrying her curtained litter, believing her to be already inside. She sat patiently on the sand, waiting for someone to miss her. A few hours later, a young soldier named Safwan found her waiting alone and carried her back to the city on his camel. Her arrival with this young and handsome man created a scandal. Ali, Fatima's husband, took the opportunity to feed Muhammad's growing doubts of Aisha's virtue. As the scandal mounted, Aisha left her apartment at the mosque and returned in disgrace to her parents, who seemed just as ready to accuse her as everyone else. The gossip raged for over a month. Finally Muhammad had a revelation clearing her name. "Good tidings, 0 Aisha!" he cried out. "God most high has exonerated you." "Rise and come to Muhammad," her parents urged. "I shall neither come to him nor thank him," said the strong-minded young woman. "Nor will I thank both of you who listened to the slander and did not deny it. I shall rise to give thanks to God alone." What became known as "the affair of the slander" made its way into the Koran. Why, God asks the believers, when they heard the allegations about Aisha, "did not the believing men and believing women form in their minds a good opinion and say, 'This is a lie manifest'? Why have they not brought four witnesses regarding it?" Since then, Islamic law has required four witnesses to sustain a charge of adultery: "The whore, and the whore-master, shall ye scourge with an hundred stripes. . . . But as to those who accuse women of reputation of whoredom, and produce not four witnesses of the fact, scourge them with fourscore stripes, and receive not their testimony forever."

In the two years following his controversial marriage to Zeinab, Muhammad acquired five new women, including two Jews and a Coptic Christian. (There is a difference of opinion about whether he married all three of these women or simply kept one or two of them as concubines.) Mary, the Christian, became the focus of the harem's intense jealousy when she bore Muhammad a son. (The boy died in infancy.) Aisha, who hadn't been able to conceive, was particularly heartbroken. At one point she had complained to Muhammad about her lack of a kunya, or mother designation, since all the other widows had the kunyas of sons they'd borne to their previous husbands. Like the present-day Palestinian, Rehab, Aisha felt the lack of distinction keenly. Muhammad told her to call herself Umm Abdullah, after the son of her sister, to whom she was very close. Aisha must have perceived Mary and her son as dangerous rivals for Muhammad's attention. Certainly an uproar followed the discovery of Muhammad having intercourse with Mary in Hafsa's room on Aisha's "day." The fallout from that upset, coupled with nagging from the women about the grinding poverty of their lives, caused Muhammad to withdraw from the harem and keep to himself for almost a month. The community worried that he might divorce all his wives, throwing into turmoil the alliances he'd so carefully crafted. Finally he returned from his retreat and offered each of his wives a divinely inspired ultimatum: they could divorce him and have a rich settlement of worldly goods, or they could stay with him, on God's terms, which included never marrying again after his death. In return, they would be known forever as Mothers of the Believers, and reap a rich reward in heaven. All the women chose to stay. It would be wrong to portray Muhammad's domestic life as nothing but jealousy and scandal. The hadith also record moments of great tenderness in the little rooms around the mosque. One day, as Aisha and Muhammad sat together companionably, she at her spinning, he mending a sandal, Aisha suddenly became aware that he was gazing at her with a radiant expression on his face. Suddenly, he rose and kissed her on the forehead. "Oh, Aisha," he said, "may Allah reward you well. I am not the source of joy to you that you are to me./t Another hadith recounts an incident when several of Muhammad's wives were arguing with him over household finances. While the argument was in progress, Omar, Muhammad's stern lieutenant and the father of Hafsa, entered the room. The women, fearful of Omar's violent temper, immediately fell silent and hurried away. Omar yelled after the women that it was shameful that they should be more respectful of him than of the prophet of God. One replied, from a safe distance, that the prophet of God was known to be much gentler to women than his overbearing friend. When Muhammad became ill and was dying, he at first kept to his habit of fairness among wives, moving his sick-bed from one room to another depending on whose turn it was to have his company. But one day he began asking whose room he was to go to the next day, and the day after, and the day after that. The wives perceived that he was trying to calculate how long it would be until he was with his beloved Aisha. All decided to give up their turns to allow him to spend his last weeks with Aisha. He died in her arms and was buried in her room.

She was just nineteen years old. A lonely future stretched before her: childless, and banned from remarriage. All she had left was influence. Because she had spent so much time at Muhammad's side, she became a leading religious authority. Originally, 2,210 hadith were attributed to her: ninth-century scholars, dismissing the word of a mere woman, threw out all but 174. On Muhammad's death, Aisha became a wealthy woman. She inherited nothing from Muhammad, who left all his own property to charity. But the community paid her for the use of part of her room -where she continued to live-as the prophets tomb. The sum, 200,000 dirhams, was so vast that five camels were needed to transport it. The payment may have been extra generous because Muhammad's successor, or caliph, turned out to be Aisha's father, Abu Bake.

Muhammad's death caused the boil-over of the long-simmering power struggle between Ali and Abu Bake. Fatima, who had lived very quietly, raising four children, burst briefly into public life to fight for Alios right to be caliph. By that time all her sisters had died childless, leaving her and her sons and daughters as Muhammad's only descendants. She argued powerfully that Ali had been Muhammad's choice. It was she who proclaimed that her father's command had been that the leadership of Islam should remain with his blood relatives. The Shiat Ali, or Partisans of Ali, rallied to support her. But she failed to convince the majority of the community. While Ali was prepared to mend the rift by accepting Abu Bakr's leadership, Fatima held out with the courageous stubbornness that continues to characterize modern Shiites. Convinced that her father's will had been flouted, she refused to offer allegiance to Abu Bake. Perhaps as a result of the stress of that losing struggle, she fell ill and died just six months after her father.

Not everyone mourned the passing of Islam's prophet. In the southern Arabian region of Hadramaut, six women decorated their hands with henna, as if for a wedding, and took to the streets beating tambourines in joyful celebration of Muhammad's death. Soon, about twenty others joined the merry gathering. When word of the celebration reached Abu Bake, he sent out the cavalry to deal with "the whores of Hadramaut." When his warriors arrived, the men of the settlement came to their women's defense but were defeated. As punishment, the women had their henna-painted, tambourine-playing hands severed at the wrists.

Who knows what motivated the women to make their rousing and reckless celebration? To them, at least, it must have seemed that Muhammad's new religion had made their lives more burdensome, less free. And much worse was coming. Repression of women was about to be legislated into the religion on a large scale by Abu Bakr's successor as caliph, the violent misogynist Omar.

That Aisha supported Omar's bid for leadership shows the depth of her loathing for Fatima's husband, Ali. Her opinion of Omar was not high. Knowing his cruelty to the women of his household, she had cleverly helped foil a match between him and her sister. Omar cracked down on women in ways that he must have known flouted Muhammad's traditions. He made stoning the official punishment for adultery and pressed to extend the seclusion of women beyond the prophet's wives. He tried to prevent women from praying in the mosque, and when that failed, he ordered separate prayer leaders for men and women. He also prevented women from making the Hajj, a ban that was lifted only in the last year of his life. On Omar's death, Aisha supported Othman as his successor. When Othman was murdered by members of a rebellious faction, Ali, who had had to wait twenty-four long years since Muhammad's death, finally got his chance to lead. When he became the Muslims' fourth caliph, Aisha's well-known enmity soon made her a lightning rod for dissidents. She spoke out stridently against Ali's failure to punish Othman's killers. As opposition to Ali's rule mounted, Aisha made a brave and reckless move that might have changed forever the balance of power between Muslim men and women. She led the dissidents into battle against Ali in a red pavilion set atop a camel. Riding ahead of her troops, she loudly exhorted them to fight bravely. Ali, realizing the effect this was having on his men's morale, ordered her camel cut down under her. He then routed her forces. Hundreds of her partisans were killed, including her dearest friends and relatives. The defeat proved disastrous for Muslim women. Her opponents were able to argue that the first battle of Muslim against Muslim would never have happened if Aisha had kept out of public life as God had commanded. After the battle, one of Muhammad's freed slaves reported a hadith that has been particularly damaging to Muslim women. The man said he had been saved from joining Aisha's army by recalling Muhammad's remark on the news that the Persians had appointed a princess as ruler: "No people who place a woman over their affairs will prosper." Whether or not the former slave's convenient recollection was genuine, that hadith has been used against every Muslim woman who has achieved political influence. In Pakistan it was frequently cited by opponents of Benazir Bhutto. After the rout, Aisha finally made her peace with Ali. She retreated from politics but remained an eminent religious authority. Most accounts describe her in later life as a sad and self-effacing woman whose one wish was to be forgotten by history.

It is said that she wept whenever she recited the Koranic verses: "O wives of the prophet . . . remain in your houses."