The Times has an interesting article on stirrings of debate within Islam as its adherence grapple with the violence that has torn apart the Middle East for so long. Islam is now in its 15th century — about as old as Christianity when Martin Luther was born. One wonders whether the fractures in Islam will lead to a similar reformation.
On a roughly related note, I was recently reading Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and was struck by a description of Spartan women, who, according to Russell, mixed with men and went uncloistered — unlike the women of most Greek cities. Until that moment, I’d always thought of the veiling and cloistering of women in Islamic culture as something either indigenous to Arabs or inherent in Mohammed’s teachings. But the tradition of veiling, as I understand it, is much stronger in the Arab and Persian heartland of Islam than in the communities of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. One explanation I’ve heard for this difference is that these more far-flung Muslim populations are less fully Muslim — still in the process of being Islamicized, as it were — but the observation about Greek treatment of women suggests another possibility. Veiling and cloistering may be remnants of Greek culture, which was dominant, or at least highly influential, from Afghanistan to the Levant and Asia Minor prior to the arrival of Islam.
In other words, purdah may be a pagan custom.
I’m not sure if this is true. It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and I’d be very interested in any additional insights. But it strikes me that if the Muslim world could be convinced that purdah and the oppression of women are actually Greek pagan cultural artifacts, that might go a long way toward justifying a rethinking of the role of women in Islam.