Lawyer and women's rights activist, the late professor Tove Dahl, explores the lives of a marginal but large group, the urban poor in modern Cairo. The British equivalent would be, say, a council estate in Peckham. Dahl studies her chosen people in their slums and backstreets, not merely in relation to their attendance at clinics and welfare outlets. She studies 33 poor families over 25 years. The sample is reduced by death and relocation over time but it remains inter-generational.
Poverty is an endless curse: the stench of rotting rubbish and urine added to the smell of the family's animals living in a nearby pit. There are no street names: few visitors, no letters. The women complain endlessly about the men and the disgrace of poverty. Men are seen as two-timing scoundrels and money is the source of most marital evils.
It is tougher on the poor men: they cannot fulfil their Islamic duties without money. Habitually they shout in fading earshot of their wives, as they bang the door: "I am a man; I am free; I'll do what I want". The women are left indoors to discover their own versions of freedom. Only one man in a hundred, laments one woman, makes a good husband: an optimistic ratio, in need of revision, given Dahl's sociological data.
Things are improving. Birth control is practised; the new generation has moved into better houses. And the younger men are better husbands: more family orientated, more ambitious, more decent. Many work abroad if possible and buy luxury items for the home. A television is a magnet attracting men home in the evenings. The older men spent their time in the cafes drinking tea and chatting while their wives were under house arrest. One older man threatened to throw himself into the River Nile if his wife went out to work. The younger men welcome two pay packets.
In a case study of a love affair, a man visits the shoemaker's shop to spy on two sisters, one "white and beautiful", the other "black and ugly". He asks for the former's hand and is accepted. She reciprocated his love. Instantly, he starts supervising her every move, even dictating her wardrobe. As a good Muslim woman she accepts his right to decide, her duty to obey. "He controls me," she explains, "because he really loves me." Control is better than indifference, concurs an older woman: "Really he loves me - that's why he beats me." After the engagement, there is gossip among the extended family members. The girl is accused of being loose and flirtatious. Her fiance calls off the whole thing.
Dahl also gives a general account of the regulation of sexual behaviour in Islamic law. She notes correctly that Muslim men are struck by desire easily, anywhere, anytime. It is primarily a woman's duty to avoid being the cause of temptation. The Quran shares this view: it appoints men as supervisors of women's sexual lives. Sex is seen as a powerful drive capable of causing social chaos. "When a man and woman are together," reads one of Muhammad's sayings, "the third party is the Devil." Dahl exaggerates, however, when she writes that for Muslims "Life is sex; sex is life."
The Arabic word for woman (awra), notes Dahl, means "vulnerable". Frailty, thy name is woman. All of a woman, even the accessories of voice, scent and beauty, needs protection and concealment. Muslim women depend on their men; a woman's life is a waiting period for marriage. Muslim men readily resort to violence if their honour is impugned by a flirtatious sister or wife or daughter. The newspapers are full of crimes of honour.
Dahl dismisses polygamy as a social evil permitted by Islam. But if the argument is based on liberal grounds, it is weak. If commitment is the only requirement, then polygamous marriages are morally no more indefensible than homosexual marriages or no marriage at all. Working out a fair contract is the only issue - and we can leave that to the parties concerned.
Dahl objects: "parties" sounds too confrontational. She prefers "the couple", a term suggesting harmony. Marriage, she says, is fellowship and sacrament, not hierarchy and law. One might retort that the legal privileges for Muslim men are often formal, not always real. The public face of Islam, as of all political creeds, is a carefully created lie. The actual balance of domestic power varies from family to family, culture to culture. There is no shortage of domineering Muslim women.
As for the Christian ideal of monogamous sacramental marriage, one wonders how many spouses ever tear the veil of individual personality to attain complete intimacy. True: we cannot legislate harmony, fellowship and love in a relationship. But perhaps these virtues are simply unattainable in this life. There is, incidentally, according to Islamic tradition, no marriage in Paradise.
Shabbir Akhtar is a writer on Islamic issues.
The Muslim Family: A Study of Women's rights in Islam
Author - Tove Stang Dahl
ISBN - 82 00 22420 1
Publisher - Scandinavian University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 212