This chapter will deal with issues of women and family, gender, and gender roles in the Middle East and North Africa (the Ottoman, Turkish, Arab, and Iranian regions). In other Islamic societies, such as sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, the status of women, and their legal and cultural situations, are often very different. Yet it should be noted that many nineteenth-century trans-formations in women’s status were global phenomena, and much of what is discussed in this chapter can be more broadly applied to women’s global history.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought significant changes in the position of women throughout the world. Middle Eastern women were profoundly affected by the impact of European imperialism, by domestic political and economic reforms, by the entrance of the Middle East into new economic orbits, and by the introduction and circulation of new ideas about gender roles. The impact of these changes differed for women from different socioeconomic classes and different regions, but everywhere colonialism generated a crisis of confidence, a crisis of culture, and a crisis of daily practice in women’s lives. This chapter will emphasize certain key themes including legal reforms, education, labor, and social and political activism. While we look primarily at legal and political institutions, neither Islamic law nor state law fully defines family relations or the norms that govern women’s roles in society. Whatever state or religious law has to say about marriage, divorce, custody, inheritance, and other issues, custom, tradition, and communities profoundly shape the feelings and behaviors of individuals. In the real world, women also have to cope with the realities of financial resources, social status, educational background, the social authority of men and family matriarchs, the strength of personalities, and other daily considerations.