Thursday, February 09, 2017

The ancient Greek roots of the confinement of women to the home in Islam

When reading Ibn Warraq’s analysis of women in Islam, I was struck by this statement:

The veil was adopted by the Arabs from the Persians, and the woman’s obligation to stay closed in at home was a tradition copied from the Byzantines, who in turn had adopted an ancient Greek custom (Why I am Not a Muslim, p. 315).

What I found intriguing is the idea that the Muslim practice of primarily confining women to the home has its roots in the ancient Greek practice. Classicist William Stearns Davis in a work on daily life in ancient Athens observes:

An Athenian never allows his wife to visit the Agora. She cannot indeed go outside the house without his express permission, and only then attended by one or two serving maids; public opinion will likewise frown upon the man who allows his wife to appear in public too freely; nevertheless there are compensations. Within the home the Athenian woman is within her kingdom (A Day in Old Athens, p. 39).

In Roman society, though women had considerably more freedom than in ancient Greece, including the general freedom to leave the home and to appear in public, there were still significant limitations.  William Stearns Davis describes the status of women in Rome in the early second century A.D.:

Roman women are, indeed, excluded from seats in the Senate and from the long-defunct right to vote in the public assemblies. They cannot command armies nor receive governorships, although every now and then an angry senator vainly proposes a resolution that governors shall not take their wives along with them to the provinces, lest the latter constitute themselves the real rulers of the district. Women do not act as judges or jurors. Nay more: legally, they are under legal disabilities calculated to stir the rage of their “equal suffrage” sisters of a later day. They have always the status of minors, and are subject to the legal control of either father, guardian, or husband to their dying hour (A Day in Old Rome, p. 60).

One of the ironies of modern times is the fact that Christianity is often depicted by its critics as patriarchal and misogynistic, when, in fact, the spread of Christianity, especially in the West, gave women unprecedented dignity and liberty.


1 comment:

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Thanks for your comment and insights. I understand the rationale within Islam for women dressing modestly, including wearing a head covering.

This overlooks, however, the two main points made here:

First, this practice in Islam has its roots in ancient Greek practices that were also promoted in the Byzantine East, which predate the rise of Islam. There is a cultural influence.

Second, and more controversially, I suggested that it is in the West, under the influence of Christianity, where women have made the greatest gains in basic human rights.