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Is it really religion’s fault?

· ​A question of method ·

One of the most deeply rooted convictions of our time is that religions are at the origin of the oppression of women and that the Islamic religion in particular humiliates them and penalizes their freedom. Until a few years ago, when the presence of Islam in Europe was not yet so widespread and did not seem to pose a specific problem, the bête-noire of feminism was the Catholic Church because of her closure to abortion and contraception and her refusal to allow women priests; today, however, the Catholic Church has without any doubt been replaced by the Islamic tradition. The imposed wearing of veils, burkinis, and wives and daughters segregated on the outskirts of European cities have laid before the eyes of all a far stronger example of the lack of respect for the personal freedom of women that by contrast has been won in our societies. The reaction is violent and immediate, and some persecuted Islamic women, who even appoint themselves spokespersons for this view, point to secularization as the only possible pathway to female freedom.

Muslim veils in a Parisien shop window

But is this really the case? As happens in the Christian tradition, in which many women academics are rediscovering the feminine roots of the Gospels, so some scholars who study the Muslim tradition are enabling a more varied and complex reality to emerge. However, the first woman who began to look with a critical eye at this stereotype was Germaine Tillion, a French anthropologist and historian, whose gaze encompasses the whole of the Mediterranean region, in a book published in 1966 after almost 20 years of field research about the family in the Maghreb area: L’harem et les cousins [the harem and the cousins].

Tillion’s studies focus on the gradual degradation of the female condition in the Mediterranean area but without seeking easy scapegoats in religions. She connects this situation to the existence of a relatively homogenous culture on both the southern and northern coasts of the Mediterranean, thereby distinguishing religious faith from social practices, in which she traces the prehistoric origin of a Mediterranean endogamy which survived the great religious revolutions such as Christianity and Islam. “The ‘historical’ society [our own in the past] [...] venerates the paternal side of the family and abandons that intense socialization (known as exogamy) which saved ‘primitive’ societies and which above all is fanatical about development in all fields: economic, demographic and territorial”. What we are still experiencing today is an expansionist and conquering social model.

The long span of time in which the author sets her discourse also involves Europe and serves to stress that the great religions – Christianity and Islam – have failed in their attempt to promote women. Indeed Tillion reveals that the Qur’anic norm which makes it obligatory to endow daughters with a part of the inheritance (even though this is half the amount of that given to males) and with the freedom to administer it for married women, has never been implemented by the endogamic nomadic tribes because this would have meant the tribe’s disintegration. Thus “prescriptions which, at the time when the Qur’an was written, represented the most ‘feminist’ legislation of the civilized world” came to nothing. In this way populations characterized by fervent Muslim religious feeling had no difficulty in ignoring a Qu’ranic norm which would have given women greater individual autonomy. But, Tillion reminds us, the same thing happened in Christian society: the honour killings which have blighted certain parts of the Italian peninsula, even unfortunately until recent times, can certainly not be considered consistent with Christian teaching. This scholar therefore concludes that social traditions have been more resilient than the new religious forces superimposed on them, which have for centuries dominated the Mediterranean cultures only in appearance.

Algerian women in an illustration by Jean Launois (1898-1942)

From Tillion’s accurate research it emerges that the control of women becomes stricter in the phases of transition from one cultural system to another: “thus the degradation of women does not accompany endogamy, but rather an incomplete evolution of endogamic society”, which is produced in the contact between urban and tribal societies as a protective reaction against the open space of city life. Populations react to the degradation of their living conditions by controlling their women, that is, their own affairs. Thus it is a question of withstanding a change which has not succeeded and is a cause of a cause of social malaise. “In short, Islam by itself has almost ‘reabsorbed’ a social phenomenon whose relationship with it essentially concerns geography and not theology”, Tillion writes.

The novelty of Germaine Tillion’s analysis also lies in her identification as problematic of the concept of Mediterranean masculinity too, which sets a boundless value on virility, causing anguish to the individual.

So it is that women and men, both victims of the same ancient and pervasive social structure, are oppressed not by religious tradition but rather by their own resistance to change. 

 Lucetta Scaraffia




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 24, 2019