The magazine Foreign Policy recently had a “sex” issue out. This issue is particularly famous for Mona Eltahaway’s jeremiad against Arab male culture, and their attitudes toward women. Over at bloggingheads.tv Charli Carpenter expresses some concern that the issue seemed so singularly focused on Arabs, as if women’s rights is a problem with particular salience for Arab Muslims. As it is, she admits that as a matter of truth it may be so, but still has qualms about essentialization.
Now, I like to think in terms of distributions, and don’t find essentialization particularly useful on a fundamental level. But, my personal observation is that the term ‘essentialization’ tends to be used when there are phenomena brought to light which make people uncomfortable. For example, I rarely hear essentialization being nearly a great a problem when talking about Republicans or Western Christian conservatives.
But it does make to wonder: how bad are Arab countries when it comes to women’s rights? Let’s look at the World Values Survey. There are two questions in the survey which have a lot of normative baggage:
- If jobs are scarce: men should have more right to a job than women
- It is an essential characteristic of democracy that women have the same rights as men
As a matter of pedantic accuracy obviously it is not an essential characteristic of democracy that women and men have the same rights. Ancient Athens and America before the 1920s are generally considered democracies. But, the question is a rough gauge of attitudes toward male and female legal equality. I relabeled these questions as “economic” and “legal” equality. They are given as percentages, so I converted the categories into numbers, and then took the weighted average. These two indices measure the two dimensions of equality, with higher values favoring more equality. Below I generated a scatterplot showing the relationship between the two (naturally positively correlated). I’ve also attached table data after the figure.
I picked up The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization on the run, as I was about go traveling somewhere. I didn’t look at the contents or even the jacket summary very closely. My interest specifically was to get to know a little more about the Abbassid House of Wisdom, which like the Academy of Athens was more defined by a bustle of intellectual activity rather than a physical space. In particular I wanted to know more about Thābit ibn Qurra, arguably the most renowned translator of ancient works for the House of Wisdom, and the last pagan intellectual of note in western Eurasia before Plethon. Thābit ibn Qurra was a Sabian, a religious sect in Haran which had convinced the Islamic authorities that they were a People of the Book, but who clearly descended from the pagan tradition of that city which persisted down to late antiquity thanks to the protection given by the nearby Persian rulers (during the period when Justinian was eliminating all traces of institutional paganism from the Byzantine Empire, from the Academy in Athens, the Sun Temple in Balbek, to the Temple in Philae, Haran was spared because the proximity of the Persian Empire meant that the Byzantines did not have a free hand in disrupting the local social equilibrium without cost to their domination of the region). But The House of Wisdom is not that book at all, only a few pages are given over to the Abbassid House of Wisdom. Rather, the title refers to the interaction between the civilization of Islam and Western Christendom between late antiquity to the high medieval period, and is a metaphor for Arab Islamic civilization. If you want to know about Adelard of Bath, Roger of Sicily, and Frederick II, this is the book for you! These are some of the novel bit players in the rather well worn story of “How X Saved Western Civilization,” with X being the Arabs in this narration (the other figures, such as Averroes, are well known to you from other works).