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Women in Culture and Context

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Tevyn Johnson

Rondo Keele

SCTT 1820


Women in Culture and Context

        The relationship between the different sexes interacts with the structure of society. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise and Qur’an express well various aspects of that relationship respective to the cultures that generated these works. Though brought about from separate cultures, Eurasian civilizations heavily intermingled with one another and therefore reflected universality that is pervasive in these writings. Major works from medieval times accredited to women of these male-dominant societies are hard to come by; however, interpretation of the personal letters and the religious text Qur’an reveals connections that brings together the domestic and religious expectations of a woman's role in these societies. Also, an understanding of what modern western culture can see as oppressive customs could be analyzed in context of the culture surrounding these texts.

        The most important thing to note is that in 12th century Europe and the 7th century Middle East, gender roles were well defined. Males were without question consensually regarded as the dominant sex, and the laws and customs of both societies reflected this. Men were expected to uphold this role as the division of each role was in fact essential to the success of these civilizations due to how each gender divided essential roles. Therefore, likewise, women were expected to fulfill their fundamental roles as caregivers and as their husbands' supporters.  Evidence of this consensus, could be found specifically in both the Letters and Qur'an. The whole story of the relationship of Abelard and Heloise narrates these standards in several ways. First of all, the controversy in the marriage of Abelard and Heloise stems from the fact that domestication would alter their lifestyles and their reputations. In Historia Calamitatum Abelard mentions that Heloise rejected their marriage due to the confinement of their roles as wife and husband. Secondly, in the sixth letter that is addressed from Heloise to Abelard, Heloise discusses establishing compensation for the weaknesses of women on several instances to Abelard. She asks for “a Rule which shall be suitable for women, and also describe fully the manner of our way of life, which was never done by the holy Fathers… the practice today for men and women alike to be received into monasteries to profess the same Rule, and the same yoke of monastic ordinance is laid on the weaker sex as on the stronger” (pg.94). Women are indeed of an overall fairer constitution, however this context reveals a contrast between today's western culture and medieval society in how it integrated this into its culture. Abelard will later answer with declarations that define the weakness of women beyond physicality, eventually even degrading it into inferiority. Therefore, the typically considered roles of working men and domesticated women could be tied down to the consensus of the female constitution. The normality of female subordination which is explicitly stated by both correspondents at some point in the letters was traditional, so its statement is no surprise. Furthermore, religious evidence of the roots of this outlook is shown by how rules considering the lives of nuns were not specifically addressed in orders to monks by the holy Fathers. This is also unsurprising considering the fact that the books of the Bible was written from and to the male perspective. Women were not ignored, but the addresses of any woman is mostly regarded in their relations to men. Therefore, the absence of a direct female address could also be attributed to established outlooks on gender. This trend is no different in Qur'an. No woman in the Qur'an except for Mary in sura 19 is mentioned by name, and many of the women that do appear are the mothers and wives of leaders and prophets, such as the governor's wife that attempted to seduce Joseph in sura 12. Even more, sura 4, traditionally named for women, addresses men in defining some guidelines for their wives. Nevertheless, women still play an important role in Qur'an as the nature of domestic relations between men and women is a crucial aspect to the function of civilization as the treatment of wives and daughters needs to be defined. Therefore, many suras take on the liberty of defining guidelines that Muslims have followed for insight into a righteous partnership of domesticity.  However, Qur'an is followed as strictly as possible, so interpretations of the directions is wide-ranging. The development of Middle Eastern and other Muslim cultures is a testament to this element of Qur'an. The way in which women are presented, just like many other aspects of Muslim life is being analyzed and debated to this day. This aspect of the outlook of culture is an important part in understanding Qur'an and its depiction of Muslim women.

Interpretations of both Qur'an and the Bible can be seen to have taken a large role in the development of gender roles and can equally be said to be a product of established ones. Overall, the sentiments that can be derived from the letters and Qur'an are a testament to the patriarchal culture prevalent throughout medieval history. The traditional submissiveness of women is the base of interpretations that reveal a highly oppressed group of people. However, being mindful of the context of medieval history clarifies why its gender roles should not be considered an extreme of civilization. Protection of more vulnerable women and children is also a product of domestic roles in the conflictive medieval society. And despite the abuses that could be seen to be open to take place, in context, a more analytical outlook on the complete nature of medieval culture can be taken from texts such as these two.

Also evident through both texts is the religious expectations of women in both societies. There is high value placed on women devoted to faithfulness as both wife and God-fearer.  First of all, there are many examples in the holy books that exemplify the venerability of a woman of these qualities and the fact that God has them in His favor. Moreover, in the 7th letter addressed from Abelard to Heloise, Abelard thoroughly describes the origin of the worship of women and their especially favorable position among the followers of Christ with examples from various Christian writings. He states, "… women are advised to be specially aware that paradise is their native homeland and that it therefore becomes them all the more to follow the celibate life of paradise... Just as sin began with a woman (Eve), so did grace begin with a woman and the privilege of virginity flowered again in her." He also states that virtue in women "is more pleasing to God and more perfect." The value placed in a spiritually virtuous woman is clearly defined by these statements, and Abelard perpetually commends Heloise for exemplifying these qualities despite the misfortunes of their relationship. Overall, an educated woman such as Heloise is seen to be in the most graceful position as a rigorous learner of Christ, and the correspondents of letters give evidence to that. Muslim outlooks are no different in this sense. Verse 35 of the 33rd sura "The Joint Forces" discusses that women that live under His will and that by doing this remember God often will have "forgiveness and a rich reward." Therefore a favorable, devoted Muslim woman follows the guidelines laid out by God in Qur'an such as of her duties as wife and mother and of her modesty in public described by both suras "Women" and "Light". Therefore, a parallel between both texts in the favorability of a pure, spiritual woman is defined.  



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