Gender and Islamization
The evolution of Islam in Bengal illustrates the complex relationship between economic base and ideological superstructure, a perennial issue amongst theorists of social change. It is evident that the incorporation of indigenous peoples of the eastern delta into an expanding peasant society paved the way for their gradual Islamization, and in this respect a changing economic base did indeed shape the resultant ideological superstructure, or Islam. Yet it is also true that the Islamic vision of the proper society as sustained by “the Book,” together with the corpus of Perso-Islamic popular lore that swept over premodern Bengal, served to pattern the subsequent evolution of Muslim culture in the delta. Nowhere is this more visible than in the changing status of women in Bengali Muslim communities.
In moral terms, the Qur’an, which refers repeatedly to “believing men,” “believing women,” and to “Muslim men and Muslim women,” places the two sexes in a position of absolute equality before God (Qur’an 33:35). But in social terms, women are subordinate to men. In the context of seventh-century Arabia, it is true, Qur’anic injunctions respecting women doubtless constituted a progressive force: the Qur’an emphasizes the just treatment of women, it prohibits female infanticide and the inheritance offemale slaves, and it provides legal protection for women in matters like inheritance or divorce. But women inherit only half of what men do, and they are generally understood as requiring male supervision, as indicated in the following Qur’anic verse:
Underlying the content of this passage is a structural hierarchy of authority connecting Allah, men, and women. Whereas God and men are grammatical subjects and actors, women are objects of action; indeed, much of the chapter entitled “Women” (Sura 4:1–43) consists of God’s instructions to men as to what they should do in respect to women.
Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them.
These scriptural norms were gradually translated into social reality in most societies that became formally Islamic—including, eventually, in Bengal. They also seem to have merged with social practices current among non-Arab civilizations with which early Muslims came into contact. Thus, in the seventh century, when pastoral Arabs conquered the agrarian societies of Iraq and Syria, Muslim conquerors absorbed a wide spectrum of Greek and, especially, Iranian culture. This included what became known as the purdah system, or the seclusion of a woman from all men but her own—in private apartments at home, and behind a veil if she walked abroad—which had long been a mark of privilege in upper-class Byzantine and Sasanian society. By the second half of the eighth century, the seclusion of women and the wearing of the veil had become official policy at the Abbasid court in Baghdad. Soon urban Muslims of all social classes followed the court’s example, with the result that by the fourteenth century, women had effectively disappeared from public life throughout the Arab Muslim world. But this was not yet the case beyond the Arab world, among Turkish, Indian, and West African peoples who had been only recently Islamized. Thus the great Arab traveler Ibn Battuta (d. 1377) expressed shock at seeing unveiled Muslim women in southern Anatolia, Central Asia, the Maldive Islands, and the western Sudan. The Moroccan was especially astonished by the unrestrained social movement of Turkish women in Central Asia.
In Bengal, both before and during the rise of Islam, outsiders made similar observations. In 1415, before Islam had become a force in the countryside, the Ming Chinese ambassador to Bengal noted with apparent reference to wet rice field operations that “men and women work in the fields or weave according to the season.” Toward the end of the following century, around 1595, Abu’l-fazl recorded in his entry for Chittagong that “it is the custom when a chief holds a court, for the wives of the military to be present, the men themselves not attending to make their obeisance.” Referring to Bengal generally, he remarked that “men and women for the most part go naked wearing only a cloth (lungi) about the loins. The chief public transactions fall to the lot of the women.” Although Muslim communities were just beginning to appear in the Bengal countryside when Abu’l-fazl wrote these lines, his remarks suggest that neither the veiling nor the seclusion of women had yet taken hold.
Still, the normative vision of a segregated society undeniably formed part of scriptural Islam, and pressure to realize that vision increased to the extent that Islamic literary authority sank roots in Bengali popular culture. The earliest reference to a normative gendered division of labor is found in a Bengali version of the story of Adam and Eve dating from the late sixteenth century. In Saiyid Sultan’s epic poem Nabī-Baṃśa, the angel Gabriel gives Adam a plow, a yoke, seed, and two bulls, advising him that “Niraṇjan has commanded that agriculture will be your destiny.” Adam then planted the seed and harvested the crop. At the same time, Eve is given fire, with which she learns the art of cooking. In short, a domestic life would be Eve’s destiny, just as Adam’s vocation would be farming.
By around 1700 the process of Islamization had proceeded to the point where romantic literature set in the Bengali countryside now included Muslim peasants as central characters. Yet the gendered division of labor and female seclusion, long entrenched in the Islamic heartlands, had still not appeared in the Bengali Muslim countryside. The Dewana Madina, a ballad composed by Mansur Baiyeoti around 1700 and set in the town of Baniyachong in southern Sylhet, tells of a Muslim peasant woman’s lament for her deceased husband. “Oh Allah,” she sobbed,
what is this that you have written in my forehead?…In the good month of November, favoured by the harvest-goddess, we both used to reap the autumnal paddy in a hurry lest it should be spoilt by flood or hail-storm. My dear husband used to bring home the paddy and I spread them in the sun. Then we both sat down to husk the rice.…In December when our fields would be covered with green crops, my duty was to keep watch over them with care. I used to fill his hooka with water and prepare tobacco;—with this in hand I lay waiting, looking towards the path, expecting him!…When my dear husband made the fields soft and muddy with water for transplanting of the new rice-plants, I used to cook rice and await his return home. When he busied himself in the fields for this purpose, I handed the green plants over to him for replanting.…In December the biting cold made us tremble in our limbs; my husband used to rise early at cock-crow and water the fields of shali crops. I carried fire to the fields and when the cold became unbearable, we both sat near the fire and warmed ourselves. We reaped the shali crops together in great haste and with great care. How happy we were when after the day’s work we retired to rest in our home.
If one compares today’s Bengali Muslim society with that depicted in this early ballad, one sees how far the purdah system has become a reality. Whereas the ballad depicts men and women both reaping the rice paddy, spreading it for drying, and transplanting young seedlings, today only men perform these operations, while women’s work is confined to post-harvest operations—winnowing, soaking, parboiling, husking—all of which are done within the confines of the farmyard. In the eastern delta the principal drive behind the domestication of female labor, according to recent studies, has been the popular association of proper Islamic behavior with the purdah system—that is, the very system of female seclusion that became normative in Muslim Arab societies from the eighth century on. In the predominantly Hindu western delta, by contrast, rural women do participate in pre-harvest field operations. Similarly, among jhūm cultivating populations of the Chittagong Hill Tracts to the immediate east of the delta, where Mughal administration, Muslim pioneers, and wet rice agriculture did not penetrate, women are also active in field operations—planting, weeding, harvesting, winnowing—and are in general socially unconstrained.
This suggests that among communities that had become nominally Muslim from the sixteenth century on, there was a time lag between the appearance of a normative vision that separated male and female labor and the eventual realization of that vision. As with the increasing attention given to Islamic superhuman agencies, this seems to have resulted from the gradual diffusion of men or institutions associated with religious literacy—that is, the idea that the written word exerts a compelling authority over one’s everyday life.