There is a considerable body of writing on Muslims, particularly Arabs, by Western scholars, creative writers, officials posted in the Middle East, occasional travelers and even by those who never left their country to have any first hand experience of the Muslim world. Edward Said’s monumental work, Orientalism, examines various patterns and paradigms– mostly displaying the West’s superior stance in relation to the East, its hatred of its ‘other’, its prejudices and pre-conceived notions about the Orient– in the Westerners’ representation of Muslims. What possibly distinguishes Christine A. Mallouhi’s account of the Muslim world is her sincerity in touching those points in the Arab culture which are generally misconstrued by Westerners not having any experience of a culture very different from their own. Mallouhi can be considered an insider, or nearly so, having married an Arab and spent 30 years in different Muslim countries. Her long stay among Muslims qualifies her to talk about many misconceptions that the Westerners have about Muslims. The culture of the Muslims–the customs and conventions followed in various Muslim countries –is very different from what the West considers normal. It is important for the Westerners to see this difference if they want to live in Muslim countries with honour and without being misunderstood. Students of sociology are taught about the concept of cultural relativity, still it is not easy to accept difference. The recent uproar over veils and turbans in France and the publication of offensive cartoon of the Prophet in some European countries are examples of the inability of a certain section in the West to accept difference. This is equally true of Muslims as they can also find it difficult to accept the different customs, and lifestyles of the Westerners. Muslims often consider Christians, writes the author, immoral, insensitive, irreverent, selfish, dirty and troublemakers. This is possibly due to the Westerners’ failure to understand the value Muslims attach to the issues of honour and shame. Mallouhi is also of the view that, unlike in the West, in the Muslim world ascribed status is more important than achieved status. Also, in the Muslim world, because of the stratified nature of society, having right connections makes your task very easy. The Westerners’ lack of attention to class distinctions in Muslim society often lands them in difficulties.
Mallouhi also notes that Muslims attach a great deal of importance to outward appearance. “A good public image is very important in Muslim culture (35)”, comments the author. Muslims, even those hard pressed for money, take extra care to furnish their living room, often neglecting other rooms of the house. The same care is taken in matters of clothing. Westerners are often found dressing up too informally and casually for Muslims’ liking. They think that by dressing up in this manner the Christians are expressing their lack of respect for their concepts of honour and shame. The author narrates a few stories which prove how the response of the Arabs is determined by the dress one wears. In north Africa, Muslims liked the writer for wearing a djellaba. Her wearing a headscarf “opened up many opportunities for friendships”(45).In a gesture of maturity the writer displays respect for Arab customs when she comments:” when I dress in accordance with the local standards of decency I am trying to say to local people,” I like you. I like living in your country and I respect the things that are important to you (49).”
Mallouhi also touches upon the much talked about issue of the status and place of women in Muslim society in this book. She rightly says that in practice the Quranic view about women is interpreted differently by different people. If the laws are interpreted literally, as the fundamentalist groups like the Taliban have done, the women are confined to their role of wives and mothers and no space is given to them in public life. She believes that” most Muslims are against this interpretation, claiming it is not true Islam (56)”.However, it is also true that there have been quite a few women leaders in Muslim countries, something which has not happened in the United States and Australia. Another thing that is commonly observed is the Western women’s attitude of pity towards Muslim women. Often their dress, particularly their veil, is considered suggestive of their oppressed status in society. Mallouhi records the comment of a Sydney based woman who, because she would not go to pubs and intoxication dinners, was excluded from some activities in the university.” I was excluded…not because I was unsure of myself, but because I was confident in myself (59)”.
Talking about veiling, the author comments that this custom has “its roots in the Eastern conceptions of decency, not in Islam”(69). In fact, the custom was followed by Christians long before the Muslims. Also, writes the author, there is a class angle to veiling as it was practiced by upper-class women. The writer quotes Abdullah Yusuf Ali on the Islamic view of veiling:” The object was not to restrict the liberty of women, but to protect them from harm and molestation under the conditions then existing in Arabia.”(64)
Mallouhi also dwells at length on the segregated nature of Arab society. Women will not speak about some subjects in the presence of men. Similarly men will not ask their friends and relatives about their wives. Women are not supposed to let male visitors in their house if the male members of the family are not around. They are not supposed to chat informally with strangers. Lengthy eye contact is to be avoided and the inflection of voice has to be appropriate. In fact, gossip about women can prove deadly for the women and the family concerned. Honour killings are practiced by both Christians and Muslims. Since women are the symbol of family’s honour, the “family may kill the women on the basis of a lost reputation. (106)”
Mallouhi also talks about the Christian and Muslim segregation in Arab society. Whether there is any substantial difference between Arab Christians and Muslims is a debatable question. However, both Christians and Muslims indulge in stereotyping each other. Thus a Middle Eastern Christian, in a story told by the author, considers Turks dirty because they eat on the floor. Later Mallouhi discovers that if Turks eat on the floor, it is “treated as a dining table”, and is cleaned thoroughly. The author appears very understanding of the Turkish culture when she comments:” I think my friend had imbibed attitudes from past Christian Arab generations under Muslim Turkish imperialism (109)”.The author also exhorts the Christian Arabs to preserve their Arab identity. She rightly thinks that Arab is not synonymous with Muslim.
The segregation of sexes places a lot of restrictions on the movements of women. Women will usually leave their homes accompanied by a male member of the family. One important job that they do is to take care of children Mallouhi is full of praise for the way children are raised in the Arab culture. Unlike Western women who take care of their children all day in the absence of any adult company(which makes them depressed), the Arab women would stay in the company of other women relatives and friends letting the children play with other women’s children. The author’s comment shows her appreciation of this aspect of Arab culture:” Let’s not transplant unhealthy Western patterns. Mothers don’t need to be alone and depressed. This is one area Western Christians can really celebrate in Muslim societies(122)”.The writer also believes that one mistake the Westerners make is that they try to “disciple” others without realizing that it is they who “need to learn a lot from those they came to teach(124).”Thus Mallouhi realizes that it is not a gesture of rudeness in Muslim countries if a man does not hold out his hand to greet a woman, or if, upon being introduced, a man totally ignores the woman. The different ways in which respect is expressed towards women in Muslim and Western cultures means that the motive to respect a woman in Muslim countries can be misunderstood to demean her.
Mallouhi also spells out the essence of the difference between the two cultures. She points out that the culture of the West “is focused on the personal and individualistic. It teaches that what you amass and control is more important than what sort of person you are (132).” This emphasis on the personal appears monstrous and wicked in the Muslim culture which stresses the spirit of togetherness and community living. The social network and relationships are more important in the Muslim culture than personal achievements. Arab families are well-knit, and are defined in terms of family, clan and ethnic identity. The group exercises great power over the individual in this culture. All work in society is accomplished through a community of family, friends and acquaintances.”The Western attitude of being an individual in control of your life, and not dependent on anyone, is totally foreign and seen as deviant and dangerous to the group. So to be cut off from the mutual aid of society is the greatest disaster imaginable (136)”. Mallouhi notes that this aspect of the Muslim culture is responsible for Westerners’ complaints about the intrusion of their private space.
The writer also discovers that hospitality is a very integral part of Muslim culture.” Hospitality is not just serving food; it is a lifestyle. It means offering each person we meet a generous heart”(153).Mallouhi observes that Westerners may miss some of the ways hospitality is articulated in the Arab culture. Thus there should always be a generous spread on the table, the frivolous refusals of the guests to be entertained should not be taken literally, and the host should pay attention to hierarchy for seating his guests and for serving food and beverages.
One strange aspect of hospitality is the almost oppressive system of giving and receiving of gifts in the Arab culture. If a gift is received it is imperative that it be returned in some way at some point of time. Though the writer refers to the Arab culture, it holds true for Indians too, Hindus or Muslims. The writer is right when she says that “it is actually a system of indebtedness”, though she perhaps exaggerates things a bit when she comments that “people build up’ bank account’ of debts of friendship by giving favours and objects (171)”.
Miniskirt, Mothers and Muslims is surely a very interesting read. Mallouhi argues her points with the help of real life ‘stories’ that she experienced among the Muslims. She also relies on some Arab proverbs to substantiate her point of view. Certainly her stories appear more convincing than the proverbs as the contrary can be proved by some other proverbs which she does not select.It must be said that she is not talking about weighty spiritual and theological aspects of Islam in this book. She is rather concerned with some patterns of Muslim culture, not necessarily Islamic, which one comes face to face in Muslim countries. The ‘we-they pattern’ of the book should not be taken out of context as the book is basically addressed to a “Christians wanting to be friends with Muslims”. It goes to the credit of Christine A. Mallouhi that an Indian Muslim could also enjoy this book.