Social Roles and Responsibilities

views updated

Social Roles and Responsibilities


The Family . Education equipped men and women for the social roles and responsibilities that they assumed in their families and communities. Expectations for their behavior and their contributions to family and community life varied according to age, gender, and class. As with most other facets of life during the medieval period, scholars know most about life in urban areas, and it would be wrong to assume that the social roles and responsibilities of rural people were necessarily the same as those of the urbanized population. The family, the most basic and important social unit, first and foremost shaped social life. Husbands and wives were bound by legal rules and social expectations that defined the husband as provider and the wife as obedient keeper of the household. The power and authority of the husband and father was largely unquestioned. In the ideal Muslim family, the father provided for all members of the household and exercised absolute control over his wife and children, who owed him obedience and deference. His power was modified in principle by certain rights of his wife and children to fair treatment and independent property, but law and social custom seemed to accord the male head of household almost unlimited power. Yet, it is impossible to judge to what extent this ideal family actually existed or if there was a gap between the ideal and the reality of many families in this period. Scholars do know that high mortality rates and the ease of divorce rendered marriage unstable. Widows or divorced women might gain rights of guardianship over their children, and they were likely to remarry at some point in the future. In the elite Mamluk circles of thirteenth-fifteenth-century Egypt, for example, women often made a series of marriages, in part because their husbands tended to die in the frequent conflicts within the ruling group.

Serial Marriages . The few records relating to ordinary people suggest that multiple marriages were not uncommon among them either. The impermanence of marriage made families fluid. Both men and women might have several serial marriages, and children could move from one household to another in the wake of a death or divorce. The laws and customs that assigned the role of exclusive provider and ruler of the household to the father and husband were no doubt often modified by real-life events that might make a woman head of household and responsible for her children.

The Extended Family . Although Islamic law focused on the rights and responsibilities of members of a nuclear family (wife, husband, and children), other family relationships were important in people’s lives. In an era before the rise of state welfare systems, the extended family played a central role in the provision of material security. Siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins all shared a sense of mutual responsibility. Brothers often played a major role in the lives of their sisters. In one legal proceeding in fourteenth-century Jerusalem, a brother acted as legal executor of his sister’s late husband’s estate, ensuring that she received the inheritance portion due her. The same brother was also responsible for their late father’s property; he was the one handling the financial affairs of the family, including those of his sister. A woman’s relationship with her brother was lifelong, and she no doubt found support and shelter in his house if her marriage did not work out. Ties to aunts, uncles, and cousins were highlighted and reinforced by the practice of cousin marriage. Islamic law permitted the marriage of first cousins, and there is some evidence that it was, in fact, a frequent occurrence. The marrying of cousins helped to bind families together, to preserve family property that might be lost if a female took her inheritance outside the family, and to ensure that the bride would have a mother-in-law who would be predisposed to treat her kindly.

Career Paths . Beyond basic issues of mutual support and the sharing of resources, families also molded the career paths of their members. Most occupations tended to be passed along. Whether scholars, merchants, or butchers, many men followed in the footsteps of a father or uncle. Periods of training or apprenticeship were usually served within the family, so there was little social mobility. In the world of the scholar—the profession about which the most information is available—certain families established over time virtual monopolies on the teaching and judicial posts in different cities. The recruitment practices of the ruling elite in Mamluk times, however, represented a dramatic departure from this system of hereditary occupations. Mamluk “households” were composed of male military retinues and their female concubines and servants, all of whom were imported as slaves from outside Mamluk territory. The biological children of the Mamluk rulers tended to leave the ruling group and blend into local society while the newly imported recruits took over as the next generation of the elite. Even in this case, however, people felt the need for fictive kinship. The head of a Mamluk household referred to his retinue as “my sons,” and the women of slave origins were treated like daughters for whom suitable marriages to men of the elite class were carefully arranged. The ties of loyalty and dependence among members of a Mamluk household were invariably expressed in the terms of blood and kin so familiar to the society at large.

Public Space . Just as roles within the family were strongly gender defined in the sense that men and women were assigned distinct responsibilities, so too was life outside the family colored by views of what was appropriate for males and females. The issue of female access to public space during the medieval period is one of the most difficult to assess because of some rather contradictory evidence on the practice of female seclusion. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, only his wives were secluded in accordance with a revelation addressed to them (Qur’an, 33: 32). Other Muslim women appear to have moved about in public with considerable freedom, participating in warfare and court life. In the Umayyad

and Abbasid periods, however, practices of female veiling and seclusion, which had long been part of Middle Eastern urban culture in the pre-Islamic period, reasserted themselves. Abbasid rulers were the first to establish the harem, the separate women’s quarters where the women of the household could be completely secluded and denied all contact with unrelated males. The ideal of the woman who never left her house except to be married or buried became a powerful image of “purity” that filtered down from the ruling groups. Veiling spread as a form of portable seclusion, enabling women who had to leave the house for practical reasons to hide their bodies and faces from the eyes of strange men. Such customs became so widespread that the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta could claim that during his travels in the Muslim world, from Morocco to China, he encountered unveiled women only twice, in the Maldives and among the Tuareg in West Africa. Yet, other sources challenge the idea that public space was the exclusive domain of men, where women were present only veiled and on sufferance. Another fourteenth-century observer, Ibn al-Hajj, a religious scholar in Cairo, lamented the extent to which women could be found mingling with men in the market, at religious celebrations, and in the workplace: “Some of our worthy ancestors [al-salaf] may God be pleased with them said: ‘A woman is permitted three exits: one to the house of her husband when she is married to him; one when her parents die; and one when she is carried to her grave.’ By God, listen to this salafi advice, and observe the kind of chaos and corruption caused by women’s frequent exits nowadays.” He went on to advise that the shopkeeper

must be careful when a woman comes to buy something, to look at her behavior, for if she was one of those women dressed in delicate clothes, exposing her wrists, or some of her adornments, and speaking in a tender and soft voice, he should leave the selling transaction and give her his back until she leaves the shop peacefully.... This is a great affliction nowadays, for one rarely sees the shop of a cloth merchant without the presence of women dressed in delicate clothes which expose their adornment, and behaving as if they were with their husbands, or members of their family.

In his long treatise, al-Madkhal ila tanmiyat al-amal bi tahsin al-niyyat, Ibn al-Hajj dealt with the many ways women were violating the boundaries of private and public space in his day, describing women who routinely went out to shop and flirted with the shopkeepers or fraternized with the male peddlers who came to their houses. Religious rituals provided yet another venue for unauthorized behavior. Women were avid visitors to cemeteries, where they might camp out for a night or two and participate along with men in the Egyptian rituals of singing and talking with a dead saint or relative. At Sufi celebrations women danced unveiled in the streets of Cairo as they participated with men in spiritual dance, chant, and song. Even on ordinary days of leisure, women, along with men and children, flocked to the banks of the Nile, where they strolled, took boat rides, or swam apparently with little regard for the notions of seclusion and modesty dear to Ibn al-Hajj. Furthermore, according to Ibn al-Hajj, if a husband objected to the immodest behavior of his wife in public space, she was likely to threaten him with the withdrawal of her sexual services.

Public Women . That female seclusion was far from absolute is also demonstrated by the kinds of occupations women pursued. The women of Cairo are known to have practiced some two dozen occupations during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In many cases, middle-and lower-class women were engaged in work that met the needs of the more-secluded upper class. Female peddlers specializing in purveying goods to the upper-class harems or female bath attendants, who served as the beauticians of their day, provided services essential to the upper-class life-style. Midwives and female doctors, governesses, domestic servants, wet nurses, morticians, professional mourners, and matchmakers found employment through assisting other women with some of the most significant events of life—marriage, childbirth, child rearing, and death. Other female occupations, however, must have brought women into contact with men. Some women who worked as merchants were managers of long-distance trade. Other women labored in entertainment fields as musicians, singers, dancers, or prostitutes. Some highly educated women could acquire a reputation as teachers, and there are records of religious women of a mystical bent who rose to the status of shaykha, or adept, in Sufi orders. Women were not found in all occupations, however. There was a wide range of urban crafts and services—including metalworking, dyeing, butchering, and donkey transport—from which women appear to have been totally excluded. The ability of women to enter some public occupations despite ambivalence about their role in public space was aided by their legal status with regard to property. Unlike women in Europe, who in large part did not acquire full rights to independent property holding until the twentieth century, Muslim women in their legal majority had by law the ability to own and manage property without interference from husbands, fathers, or others. Any inherited or earned property or income belonged to a woman herself, and she could dispose of it as she wished. This legal framework enabled women to buy and sell real estate, invest in trade ventures, or endow waqf properties. Many upper-class women thus acquired behind-the-scenes power as they pursued business and philanthropic ventures by employing agents to represent them in public. Women of middle- and lower-class backgrounds, with more modest incomes, could still retain control of their property. Although there is not much information on what poor women did with their assets, they probably gave those women leverage within their families and communities. There is even less information on rural women. Travelers during the period commented on the extent to which rural women were seen doing fieldwork, so they were probably an important part of the labor force on family holdings. There seems to have been some division of farm labor according to gender: men worked with the plough to prepare the soil, and women planted seeds and participated in the harvest. In many places, women had special responsibility for herding domestic animals—such as cows, sheep, goats, or camels—and processing their milk and hair for family consumption and for the market. The demands for labor in rural areas, in light of what appears to have been a chronic under-supply of farm labor in this period, probably ensured that women worked alongside their menfolk in most rural settings.

Spiritual Equality . The division of social roles by gender was also modified by an ideological commitment to the spiritual equality of men and women. The Qur’an was abundantly clear that men and women had the same religious duties and religious rewards. Men and women are addressed in equal terms and called on to be believing, devout, truthful, humble, charitable, and chaste, and to pray and keep the fast. The rewards for such virtue are promised to both men and women (Qur’an 33: 35–36). The social roles of men and women were perhaps the most similar in the areas of religious ritual and spiritual quest. Women, like men, were supposed to pray five times a day whether at home or in the masjid. Most masjids were reserved for men, although some masjids of the period were constructed with special sections designated for women. Women and men alike were required to make the pilgrimage to Makkah if they had the ability and resources to do so. Many women of the Mamluk elite, for example, made the pilgrimage from Cairo at least once in their lifetimes, and their departure for the journey to Makkah was the occasion for much pomp and circumstance. They rode in procession in huge palanquins mounted on the backs of camels, accompanied by lesser princes, eunuchs, servants, slaves, and drummers. Their departures and returns were public spectacles: the women and their entourages, dressed in the finest of silks and brocades, paraded through Cairo, much to the chagrin of the conservative ulama’. In addition to prayer and pilgrimage, both men and women were also expected to keep the Ramadan fast and to give alms. The distinctions in male and female roles were least marked in the realm of spiritual quest. The mystical, or Sufi, path was an important element of religious practice of the time, and women were well ensconced in Sufi orders. Women had a strong precedent for following the Sufi way in the person of Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya, an eighth-century Sufi saint who became among the most revered of all time. In her utter devotion to union with God, Rabi’a transcended the notion of maleness and femaleness and achieved spiritual purity. Her legacy no doubt helped to make Sufi orders receptive to the idea of female adepts, and, indeed, many women were active in Sufi orders during the medieval period, participating fully in public rituals and even assuming leadership roles.

Women as Rulers . Royal wives could play a significant role in governance of Muslim states and sometimes, though rarely, even attain power in their own right. In two of these cases, when male observers were confronted by women who were playing the male role of ruler, they mused about what made a man a man and a woman a woman, rather than criticizing this reversal of the usual order of things. Their comments reveal much about how people of the time thought about social roles and the question of male and female. In the first case, a Muslim scholar reflected with irony on Radiyya bint Iltutmish, who reigned as Sultan of Delhi for three years in the thirteenth century: “Sultan Radiyya—may she rest in peace—was a great sovereign, and wise, just, and beneficent, the patron of the learned, a dispenser of justice, the cherisher of her subjects, and of warlike skills, and was endowed with all the admirable attributes and qualities required of kings; but, as she did not attain her destiny, in her creation, of being computed among men, of what advantage were all these excellent qualifications unto her?” In the second case, a fourteenth-century Ottoman poet wrote a eulogy of the Ilkhanid princess Sati Beg:

Although she was a woman, she was wise,
She was experienced and she had good judgment.
Whatever task she undertook, she accomplished,
She succeeded at the exercise of sovereignty.
There are many women who are greater than men,
There are many men who are baser than women.
What is manhood? Ii ts generosity, intelligence, and
piety, Whoever possesses these three things is surely a man.


Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

Maulana Muhammad Ali, trans., A Manual of Hadith (Guilford, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1983).

Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325–1354, 3 volumes, translated by H. A. R. Gibb (London: Routledge, 1929).

Gavin Hambly, ed., Women in the Medieval Muslim World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron, eds., Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).

Guity Nashat and Judith Tucker, Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Restoring Women to History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).

Leslie Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Margaret Smith, Rabia the Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928).

About this article

Social Roles and Responsibilities

Updated About content Print Article