Friday Fluff – September 17th, 2010

By Razib Khan | September 17, 2010 4:05 pm

FF3

1. First, a post from the past: Why patriarchy?


2. Weird search query of the week: “pygmy porno.”

3. Comment of the week, in response to More exercise = more I.Q.?:

but how does this explain Steven Hawkings , he has a great IQ and is on a wheelchair!

4) Poll question….

(last week’s results were 75% Dawkins, 25% Gould)

5) And finally, your weekly minimalist fluff fix:

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10546265581296919974 Rob

    Apropos “patriarchy”: a Bloggingheads diavlog between you and Baumeister on his new book would be interesting!

    http://books.google.com/books?id=qqprY-YiWY8C&dq=inauthor:%22Roy+F.+Baumeister%22&source=gbs_navlinks_s

  • http://www.cthisspace.com Claire C Smith

    Ha, ha love it (your cat)! The bullet/number points work well.

  • muffy

    Hey, I just have a question about something you wrote in your “post from the past” regarding patriarchy:

    “similarly arabian women prior to islam had more power and choice, some being renowned poets, or business women like khadija the wife of the prophet.”

    Where did you get this info from? I’ve been desperately trying to gather info about the status of Arabian women before Islam, and I’m constantly bombarded with really sketchy and contradictory claims. The pro-Islam ppl want to make it sound like the pre-Islamic Arabians were even more patriarchal while the anti-Islam ppl want us to think that pre-Islamic Arabians were less patriarchal.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i’ve read it in various places, but last was probably in hugh kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. as you know in the early years of islam women such as fatima were very powerful. the argument goes that as the arabs became ‘civilized’ and assimilated persian and byzantine aristocratic mores the women were secluded and excluded from the temporal sphere.

    The pro-Islam ppl want to make it sound like the pre-Islamic Arabians were even more patriarchal while the anti-Islam ppl want us to think that pre-Islamic Arabians were less patriarchal.

    i think the main issue is that there was more variance. on the one hand islam repudiated female infanticide. but it also “locked in” the position of women in arab societies. the same happened with christianity, which opened up opportunities for women, but also forced them more into stereotyped roles, whereas before aristocratic northern european women may have had more freedom in some ways under paganism.

    i do think it is probably likely that pre-islamic arabians were on average less patriarchal, but i think that has less to do with islam, and more to do with their less urban and “civilized” state. mongol women had more power before they got rich.

  • muffy

    Thanks for the book reference. It does seem reasonable to suspect that Arab society varied from tribe to tribe in terms of the status of women. However, I’m a bit concerned about this statement:

    “the argument goes that as the arabs became ‘civilized’ and assimilated persian and byzantine aristocratic mores the women were secluded and excluded from the temporal sphere.”

    Is he repeating the claim, made by so many others, that the Arabs/Muslims adopted Purdah-eque practices from the Byzantines and Persians? I’ve never found the evidence for this thesis compelling. Face veiling, at least, was pretty clearly a pre-Islamic Arabian custom (more so than a Persian or Byzantine one), and the Arabs often mocked the Byzantines for their “loose” women. I’m curious how Kennedy supports the thesis.
    .

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    muffy, the greek elite culture was into veiling and seclusion. this is clear in the reading i’ve done on non-islamic stuff from late antiquity. one major way that in the roman world one distinguished aristocratic women of greek vs. latin culture was that the former were veiled, while the latter were not (in constantinople the transplanted latins stood out in part because of this difference of norms). additionally, elite men and women in roman society ate together, while the greeks practiced segregation (more specifically, this had roots in the societies which modeled themselves after athens, which was most). i can’t compare to the arabs directly as honestly i know less about them, and the generalizations we can make are more supposition as the written records from early periods are so spare.

    i wouldn’t put much stock in the mockery either. that seems a human universal. the Other is dirty, they like to sodomize each other, their women are loose. none of these are ever necessarily true.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i just did a quick “mental check” and i believe from what i know that “barbaric” societies in europe, east asia (china as the reference), southeast asia, and india (the adivasis) were all less patriarchal than the civilized core of these regions. this may simply be a bias, as the literate observers from the core cast aspersions upon the barbarians, but if the arabs were more patriarchical than the greeks or persians that would go against type, as they were clearly more barbaric.

  • muffy

    Oh, I’m not denying that face veiling + seclusion was common among Greeks in the classical and Hellenistic era (and this, of course, varied between the various Greek cultures, with the Athenians being quite extreme in this practice and the Spartans being more “feminist”). It is not clear how much of this custom survived around the time of the rise of Islam or whether it filtered into Arab culture following the conquests of Byzantium. Based on the evidence I’ve read so far, I find the evidence rather scant, but I could be persuaded otherwise.

    In terms of the Islamic/Arab face veil specifically, I doubt very much that the Byzantines had anything to do with its prevalence. Writing from North Africa in the 2nd-3rd centuries, the church father Tertullian wrote in “On the Veiling of Virgins” that the pagan Arabian women veiled their faces, leaving only one eye exposed (he does not mention this practice being common elsewhere, e.g. Greece). The Babylonian Talmud mentions Arabian women in long veils and Median women in Mantillas. It does appear that veiling was known as an Arabian peculiarity in the centuries before the rise of Islam. It do not know, however, if widespread veiling necessarily meant seclusion in general or if it instead was a reflection of some other cultural phenomenon.

    The larger question of urbanization and civilization impacting the status of women is quite interesting, too. I can imagine how women would be more valued in rural societies ( low population densities + low unemployment = more opportunities for women to work and more value attached to childbearing). Even in America in the early 20th century, the states that gave women the right to vote first tended to be rural.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Oh, I’m not denying that face veiling + seclusion was common among Greeks in the classical and Hellenistic era (and this, of course, varied between the various Greek cultures, with the Athenians being quite extreme in this practice and the Spartans being more “feminist”). It is not clear how much of this custom survived around the time of the rise of Islam or whether it filtered into Arab culture following the conquests of Byzantium. Based on the evidence I’ve read so far, I find the evidence rather scant, but I could be persuaded otherwise.

    i am not well versed in the arab stuff. what you suggest sounds plausible enough to me, though in your comments below i’d weigh the babylonian talmud more than tertullian, since he was a latin westerner and a lawyer.

    but the veiling and seclusive aspects were still prominent in 6th century byzantine culture. the reason, as i implied, is that there was a contrast effect between the western (latin) and eastern (greek) roman elite cultures in this area, and the cultural division came to the fore in constantinople during that period because of a substantial culturally latin element in that city. spartan feminism was a dead-end in greek culture. athens won. you can find it in peter brown’s work.

    though all that is mostly for upper class women.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    oh, one thing re: arabs. that’s a big category with variation. i assume that anything romans or syriacs (babylonian jews would be in a east syriac milieu) would be talking about the long-standing arab groups of the fertile crescent. that might be totally different than the arabs of arabia proper in terms of culture, as the ghassanids and lakhimids were relatively civilized people by that period. of course, you know revisionists believe that the pre-islamic arabs described in the koran were those arabs….

  • Zora

    I don’t believe that there IS good evidence for pre-Islamic veiling in Arabia. No mentions of the face veil in the Qur’an; the verses usually used to justify veiling tell women to draw their garments over their chests and not to stamp their feet to jingle their ornaments and attract attention. The veil is mentioned in the hadith, which state that Muhammad put his wives behind the veil (put them into purdah) because his domestic space was increasingly invaded by men come on business. This suggests that most women were not veiled, and that the prophet’s wives were marked BY the veil. (Just as Muhammad, who may have married to make tribal alliances, was given/awarded himself the distinction of having more than four wives.)

    I wouldn’t regard remarks by Tertullian or found in the Talmud as definitive. A lot would depend on translation. Does veil necessarily mean cloth covering the face? Or is it only cloth covering the head? Women, or married women, cover their heads in many cultures, but I don’t think that this is regarded as veiling. If that were so, early 20th century American women, who wore hats, could be regarded as veiled.

  • Katharine

    Whither, I wonder, the increased treatment of women as property or whatever – at the very least, they appear to have been treated as less than the humans that they are – by civilizations that were more urbanized?

    I still haven’t found, as well, any good material on why sexism originated in the first place.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    can you define sexism? re: urbanization. women could own property and had considerable rights in sumer and ancient egypt (there was a matrilineal implicit aspect to ancient egyptian culture). the situation got worse as civilizations matured.

  • muffy

    Zora, the Tertullian comment is very clear that the face is covered in Arabia:

    “Arabia’s heathen females will be your judges, who cover not only the head, but the face also, so entirely, that they are content, with one eye free, to enjoy rather half the light than to prostitute the entire face.”

    My high school Latin is rusty, but the translation looks about right.

    Just to give some background, Tertullian is upset that only married women are following Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians to cover their hair in church while virgins are uncovered. He thinks that women of all ages should cover their hair. He is contrasting the extremely veiled Arabian women with the skimpily covered women elsewhere.

    While it’s true that he’s a Latin church father rather than a Greek, he singled out Arabian women (and nobody else) as known for their face veils. Greek culture would probably have been known to his Christian audience more so than Arabian culture; if the Greeks were known for their face veiling, it’s strange Tertullian would not have mentioned it as an example. For what it matters, Byzantine artwork shows women with their hair covered (varying in extent), but not their faces. I don’t know how much that says about the practices of upper-class women in public, though.

    The Babylonian Talmud says: “Arabian women may go out in their long veils and Median women in their mantillas”

    This is less clear. It could be a reference to an Abaya without a face veil. In any case, this does not support the notion that Arabs picked up the veil from the Medians/Persians, as a mantilla does not typically refer to a face covering, but a head and shoulder covering.

    Another nugget: just doing a google book search, I found a reference from “Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 2, Part 2″ by Irfan Shahîd and “Holy women of the Syrian Orient” by Sebastian P. Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey. They mention the story of the Christian martyr Ruhm of Najran (in Southern Arabia, near Yemen) as desribed by Simeon Beth Arsham in the early 6th century. The story indicates that Ruhm, who generally secluded herself, caused scandal by condemning the persecution of Christians in public with her head and face uncovered (which was unusual, apparently).

    In short, based on this evidence, I’m going to conclude that face veiling was an Arabian custom that predates Islam. It may have been practiced to some extent in the surrounding areas, e.g. in Byzantium, but probably less so; it does appear that the Arabians in particular was famous for this custom. I’d assume that the early Muslims adopted this practice from their pagan predecessors and spread it around the Islamic world. I’m not an expert on the Koran, Hadith or biographies of the Prophet Mohammed, so I’m not sure why/how/when the Muslims picked up the practice. If what Zora says is true, and only the wives veiled initially, perhaps veiling practices varied from region to region. It could also be that it was originally a status symbol, which is why only the wives wore it.

    cheers,
    Muffy

  • Zora

    I don’t see a comment by Tertullian (who lived in North Africa) as definitively confirming face veiling for all of the Arabian peninsula. It may well be true that there were some Arab polities (the Nabateans? kingdoms of Arabia Felix?) where the women (upper class only? all women?) wore veils that were drawn to cover the face in public. Those were the groups who would have been in contact, commercial or diplomatic, with the Romans.

    Comments from the Talmud also ambiguous.

    If you want to see an cautionary example of uncritical trust in statements by outsiders, see _Hagarism_, by Crone and Cook (1977). They wrote an alternate history of Islam based on comments by non-Islamic writers of the time. The book was savaged by other scholars. Crone and Cook no longer stand behind the book, will not let it be reprinted, and draw a veil over their youthful indiscretion.

    It would be interesting to see the current exhibit of pre-Islamic Arabian art at the Louvre … I wonder if any veiled women are depicted.

    http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100917/REVIEW/709169966/1008

    Review, BTW, is untrustworthy — contains a real historical howler, or perhaps an editor’s cockup. The Abbasid capital was NOT in Andalusia :)

  • muffy

    “I don’t see a comment by Tertullian (who lived in North Africa) as definitively confirming face veiling for all of the Arabian peninsula. It may well be true that there were some Arab polities (the Nabateans? kingdoms of Arabia Felix?) where the women (upper class only? all women?) wore veils that were drawn to cover the face in public. Those were the groups who would have been in contact, commercial or diplomatic, with the Romans.”

    Yes, it could very well be that Arabian veiling practices varied from region to region or was popular only among certain classes. I don’t think there is enough information one way or another. In any case — and this is my main point — I do not think the evidence supports the theory, repeated ad nauseam in various sources, that the Muslims adopted the practice from the Byzantines/Persians during the conquests after the Prophet Mohammed. I suspect the spread of veiling in the Islamic world was from Arabia outwards rather than vice versa. Of course, this does cast doubt on the notion that the pre-Islamic Arabian women were relatively “liberated” only to later become suppressed due to either to Mohammed (for those who want to make Islam seem like as negative as an influence as possible) or the Byzantines/Persians (for those who want to distance veiling as much as possible from Mohammed and earliest decades of Islam).

  • onur

    though all that is mostly for upper class women.

    What was the situation for non-upper class (including slaves) Greek and Latin women during the Antiquity and Byzantine era?

  • Zora

    I recall vaguely some references in extremely early Mesopotamian sources to women of good family wearing veils in public — not face-covering veils, but head-covering veils. I’m wondering now if this isn’t a custom that spread far and wide across the Middle East – Greece – Iran. Perhaps it was just part of the cultural toolkit of many communities in the area: high status females wearing a veil, covering head and sometimes face.

    The veil may also have denoted affluence: being able to afford long lengths of cloth. Cloth was a labor-intensive product, and precious in a way that we might find it hard to understand now. Clothing was designed for re-use (large seam margins, tucks) and cut to make maximum use of every scrap (if indeed it was cut at all; saris, dhotis, lungis, sarongs, kilts etc. don’t have to be cut and can be used by anyone).

  • toto

    It would be interesting to see the current exhibit of pre-Islamic Arabian art at the Louvre … I wonder if any veiled women are depicted.

    Yesterday on French radio, the organizers were discussing the sensitivity of certain subjects.

    In particular, the 4th millenium BC anthropomorphic stelaes were originally cause for concern for the Arabs, because they were thought to be much younger (from historic times), which would have made them pre-Islamic idols. The new dating has apparently made things easier.

    They were also discussing how this exhibition plays a role in the politics of Saudi Arabia. Apparently King Abdallah dallied with Arab Nationalism in his youth, and is now trying to assert a nation-building programme against the opposition of the Wahhabi establishment (for whom Wahhabi Islam is the only “nation” worth supporting). The Louvre exhibition is a step in this strategy, as it stresses the history of Arabia outside the periods of early Islam and Wahhabi revival.

    Re: patriarchy, another example of this strategy is the decision to impose mixed campuses in the new western-style universities. When some high-ranking ulema protested publicly, he was basically put under house arrest. Apparently the King is serious about his modernizing policies.

  • John Emerson

    Semi-relevant, I rode the train yesterday with a lovely young woman, a Hutterite I think, who was wearing a headscarf, an ankle-length dress, and long sleeves. She was actually quite friendly in a shy kind of way way. There was really nothing about her to make me sure she wasn’t Muslim, but in Montana probably not. (On the other hand, on this same trip I passed by the town where the first mosque in the US was built, Ross, ND (1929).

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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