Womanhood in Western Asia: A Journey to the Past

Dr. Pamela Chrabieh
Dr. Pamela Chrabieh
2013, Lebanon

“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world” (Nicholas D. Kristof, in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide).

In times of disillusionment, people may seek a golden age in either the past or the future. Some feminists have situated such an age in the prehistoric past, a period in which they believe women were at least equal in status with men – up to the Late Neolithic, the age of the Mother Goddess, a peaceful and egalitarian era compared to later aggressive, hierarchical and patriarchal times. The idea of a golden age is attractive but did it ever exist, and if it did, what caused its demise?

Other feminists claimed that ancient religions and civilizations were oppressive; that Judaism, Christianity and Islam carry oppressive customs from their predecessors or that these monotheist religions freed – or tried to free – women from pagan oppression; and that the Western modern civilization – Europe and North America – brought hope to the rest of the world by providing a suitable space for liberty and equality. Indeed, usual academic visions of Western Asia often describe women in this region to be oppressed, weak, needing rescue.

Generalizations and misconceptions  are easily made, but reality is more mundanely complex than romantic and-or racist/imperialist visions.

Womanhood is usually defined as the state of being a woman or the composite of qualities thought to be appropriate to or representative of women. What is ‘being a woman’ or what are those qualities? The answer to this question depends on every geopolitical context, society, culture, religion, community, family and individual. Thus, defining womanhood in Western Asia for example is a difficult quest into diverse past and present collective and personal-subjective identities, perceptions and practices.

In that perspective, one of the main goals of this book is to deconstruct positivist views of Western Asian women while digging the past. Thus, it is designed to give its readers an understanding of the often forgotten foundations of many contemporary cultures and religions in Western Asia concerning womanhood, especially as they apply to the status and relationships of men and women today. Investigating the past and examining the development of gender norms, identities and roles, contribute to understanding ideas, practices, customs and trends that have shaped Asian cultures. This book summarizes a journey in the latest findings in Sciences of Religions, Cultural Studies and Gender Studies, and suggests future perspectives for research and debate. It is written in an accessible style for all kinds of public – academic and non-academic. Archaeology, text studies and ethnographic comparanda are all tools employed in this endeavor, and all chapters in this book utilize a skillful blending of these and other resources.

The study of womanhood in Ancient Western Asia has been the focus of steadily increasing interest in recent years. In large part this is due to the growing importance of Women’s Studies as an academic discipline in general, but also must owe something to the heightened awareness of social history in Asian studies. A relief when it is known that women’s history was usually neglected, due in large part to the greater interest in the public arena, i.e. the political and economic world largely dominated by men, rather than the domestic world which was primarily the realm of women. A bias towards the public sphere meant a corresponding neglect of the domestic realm of women, and thus a lack of research into the business of the household. The remains themselves bias study, in that the public world, outside the microcosm of the home, has left more textual remains (either because more was produced or by accident of survival).

Also, archaeology in this region has been dominated by biblical based research and both the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) and the New Testament are incontrovertibly ‘androcentric’ documents. Furthermore, in response to the rich textual record for all historic periods across ancient Western Asia, questions of history (conceptualized as kings and battles), religion (conceptualized as priesthoods and temples) and the lives of the elite (conceptualized as kings, palaces and luxury goods) have provided the foci for archaeological research. What this means is that domestic quarters, daily tasks, private life, personal religion and the like have found little traction among archaeologists. Indeed, even when these topics have been explored, women have rarely populated either the ancient places or the modern discussion.

Whatever the reasons, the amount of relevant published material on women in Western Asia has dramatically expanded in the past few years. Still, any historical investigation into the lives of ancient women involves individual interpretation and much speculation. One can read the ancient sources concerned with women and their place in society, but to a large degree, they are all secondary sources that were written by men about women. No ancient journals or personal diaries written by women were uncovered, so it is not known what their hopes and dreams were, or if they had any. What women felt about most political issues and the numerous wars and upheavals is also a mystery. Nor can we read about what women thought of slavery, marriage, or the fact that they had no legal rights over their children or even themselves.

The scope is truly limited, but many questions can still be asked and considered, such as: what was the role of women in their society? Were they considered citizens who had personal freedoms, or were they sequestered away and given little or no education? Was individuality and personal choice a part of women’s lives, or were they overshadowed by the patriarchal society of which they were a part? The answers may be difficult to uncover, but they are important questions to ask when one realizes that so much of ancient civilizations went on to lay the foundation of many contemporary societies. Understanding the past makes the present that much clearer and hopefully provides insight into the future, thereby helping society not to make the same mistakes again.

Womanhood’s story in Ancient Western Asia is surprising and quite diverse. There are examples of strong and independent women at times when the entire area had become patriarchal. Still, there are also practices of oppression and discrimination. One way to understand these changing systems is to look at the status of women through what one sees echoed in ancient mythology and religious rituals that favored or not the position of goddesses. Curiously, it seemed that in a society where mythology centers on a male god who is dominant, status of women is lower than others. Also, when females had more involvement in the rites and decisions of the group as reflected in the actions of the goddesses, they had fewer roles under male-dominating deities. In addition to mythology, this book focuses on religious, cultural and social practices, marriage customs and legislation. From Ancient Mesopotamia, to Arabia, Egypt, Persia and Canaan, this exciting journey to the past concludes with an insight into the present and the identification of future creative theoretical/practical paths to follow.

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This is the introduction of my upcoming book ‘Womanhood in Western Asia’, to be published in Arabic in 2013 by Dar el-Machreq, Beirut, Lebanon.

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  1. Je viens de découvrir votre blog et je le trouve éclairant et hyper-intéressant. J’ai parcouru plusieurs articles. Bravo aux auteurs-es!

  2. A journey to the past is a must to understand our cultures, customs, laws, stereotypes… Interesting ! I hope you will continue on publishing parts of your book in English, especially for those who don’t understand Arabic.

  3. Thank you all ! I will publish parts from time to time. This journey to the past taught me many lessons and deconstructed many stereotypes I had about our Middle Eastern/ Western Asian past. Building our identity is based on how we write our history…

  4. Hello, I must admit this is a nice work. I always follow news concerning women’s rights around the world and especially in the Arab world.

  5. J’adore votre blog! Des articles intéressants et un mélange entre réflexions de fond et histoires personnelles, venant du contexte et y répondant! Il faut dire que la plupart des campagnes pour les droits des femmes dans le monde arabe qui se font en ligne sont bonnes et attirent une foule de personnes mais manquent de fond. Bravo pour cette initiative et je vous souhaite une bonne suite. En tous cas, je vous suis de près!

  6. A most promising book indeed.
    It is very difficult to go through all those myths and figure out what was a true image of social relationships and family organisation, and what may be considered a projection and/or idealisation of how things ought to be. How society was organised offers indeed a glimpse of what it became or may have become, but the very foundation of such organisation escapes us in large part, as, and herein lies a great challenge, we seek to reconstruct a whole network of power exchange from scanty materials, if we consider writing as at best an incomplete image of how things used to be, and artefact as imperfect indices, riddled as they are with our own worldviews and expectations and detached from the immediacy of their use in various configurations.
    This effort is laudable then, and I hope you may be able to dig in very deeply using the relevant and efficient means of analysis.
    All the best
    Frank Darwiche, PhD in philosophy

  7. Thank you Dr. Darwiche! It is indeed an incomplete journey to the past, offering just a glimpse… Digging in the past is like dealing with grey zones, but the process in itself is rewarding… it helps deconstruct certain stereotypes and rebuild our identities/memories/history

  8. Dr, Chrabieh, this is a valuable input, very much appreciated. Congratulations to all other authors too. I am surely waiting for the publication of your upcoming book.

  9. Excellent initiative. Looking forward. Writing in arabic enables to reach a wider audience inbtge Arab world.

  10. Love all your posts Dr. Chrabieh! Wishing you all the best for 2013 and also best wishes for the success of your blogs 🙂

  11. Love this blog! Thank you Dr. Chrabieh for all your efforts and contributions. You give us hope!

  12. And waiting for your upcoming book. It would be an opportunity for me to read about women in ancient religions and cultures in the Middle East, and in Arabic.

  13. Hello Dr.! I am waiting for your book 🙂 sounds interesting! Nice blog and Facebook Page!

  14. And, of course revisiting the past is a must in order to understand our present and better manage our societies.

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