Turning polygamy on its head

The early years of Islam saw women as active members of society—in the marketplace, the mosque and on the battlefield—as exemplified by the Prophet’s wives:  Khadija, his first wife, for example, was a successful businesswoman in her own right, and his favorite, Aisha, was renowned for her lively mind and bold spirit.  The female pioneers of Islam were still living the norms that prevailed before rise of the new faith in Hijaz, the western part of what we now call Saudi Arabia.

This pre-Islamic period, a time that Muslims refer to as jahiliyya, or age of ignorance, was not some proto-feminist heyday, and women had a rough ride in many respects. They did, however, have more sexual freedom than their Muslim successors.  For example, polyandry, in which a woman could marry multiple men, was permitted in pre-Islamic Arabia; if she bore a child, the woman could assign paternity to whichever father she fancied. For more on female sexual freedom in the pre-Islamic period, and the role of women in early Islamic society, see Al-Hayat al-jins ‘and al-Arab [The sexual life of the Arabs] by Salah al-Din al-Munajjid and Beyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissi.

That spirit lives on—in some quarters. In 2009, one Saudi woman journalist created a stir when she suggested a return to the good old days of polyandry, as a step forward for women’s freedom in the modern Arab world. Her intent may have been rhetorical, but some women took her very seriously, including several of my married Egyptian friends who though intrigued, were also slightly alarmed at the prospect of replicating the problems they were tackling with their current husbands, with two or three spouses.

Islam turned these matrilineal customs on their head, enforcing instead polygyny (multiple wives for men), patriliny (in which a child’s legitimacy is connected to the father, not the mother), and other customs that clipped women’s wings. While the Prophet himself was a strong advocate of female participation in the emerging Islamic community, restrictions on women began to pile up after his death, a process which gathered momentum as the Islamic empire grew out of its cradle in Hijaz, and came in contact with much older and more sophisticated civilizations—Byzantine and Persian, in particular—with a distinctly misogynistic take on the world. For more on the changing status of women throughout the history of the Arab world, see Women and Gender in Islam, by Leila Ahmed.