Thursday, August 23, 2012

Women Under Oriental Civilization Algeria India

By Sarah Parker

Dancing girl of Algeria
Woman’s position in and out-side of Harems is an interesting subject for Christians to investi­gate and discuss. Different denomin­ations of our creed, both in the United States and Europe, annually spend thousands of dollars and thousands of pounds in sending missionaries to for­eign lands for the purpose of converting the so-called "heathen." The desirability of these efforts of prose­lytism is queried by the writer; while the following incident will serve to point out the amount of success at­tending at least one of these undertak­ings.

Last June the writer was returning to London from Algeria, and entered into conversation with a missionary and his wife who had spent eight years in the same country. On being asked how many converts they had made, the wife ingenuously replied that there was just one Arab of whom there was some hope of gathering into the fold. The husband was more cautious, and instead of supplying information launched off into a long harangue.

In India and Egypt under English rule the natives are more sensitive to conversion; but it is a conversion of convenience and not one bearing the true stamp. Christianity for the stomach's sake and Buddhism for the soul's sake is the principle on which the converted in Hindoostan act. In Egypt also conversion is convenient on the same principle. In California the follower of Confucius, if you gain his confidence, will tell you that he goes to Melican man's church because he gets "heap washing, heap washing." These philosophers of the labor class know well how to adjust the balance between exoteric and es­oteric principles.

Algerian woman and child
The Arab and the Arabess form the picturesque statuettes in the coup d'oeil scenes in Algeria. Men of mag­nificent form, whose light brown faces stamped with an expression of refine­ment and reflection, distinguish them from the darker-visaged Moor, attract the attention of foreign visitors. In strong contrast with these fine specimens of human phy­sique, the women strike the eye as you wander along the streets. Their appearance suggests to you the conviction that they must have left their sleeping quarters with their bed-clothes rolled around them and their feet incased in high-heeled slippers, which do not contribute to a dignified gait. Of their features only the eyes are visible, but they glisten like black diamonds in silver settings.

In the same style, but with display of richness of costume, the fair ones of the higher classes are clad. Fine soft silks constitute the material of their robes. Silk trousers confined at the ankles, and silk stock­ings just showing themselves above the pretty shoes. As elsewhere in all parts of the female world, the Arabess does not disdain to court admiration, and you can see under the thin veil­ing of diaphanous drapery the con­tours of face and figure of Arab beauties, and catch glimpses of waists enclosed in multicolored satins and velvets decked with precious stones.

There is no social prohibition in Algeria against native ladies riding in public trains or walking in the public streets; but it is a recognized rule that no lady does so alone, or after night­fall. Members of the unfortunate class of females are very few in num­ber, and those few the result of the introduction of European ideas with regard to a social problem which hitherto the civilization of the nine­teenth century has been unable to solve.

It may seem strange to the reader, who has formed an opinion of the strictly conservative principles involv­ed in the Arab's creed and his do­mestic laws that the natives of Algeria are beginning to intermarry with Europeans. But such is the case, and the writer knows of many instances of Arabs of education and high standing having taken to themselves European wives. In no case did the wife express herself discontented with her lot; on the contrary they all pro­claimed the devotion of their hus­bands. In one instance a Soudan Arab was not only supporting his wife in comfort bordering on luxury but also her old and infirm parents.

Kabyles woman
Friday, the Sabbath of Mahomet, is a day which transient visitors to Algiers should not fail to take notice of. On that sacred day a great gath­ering of harem ladies assembles at the cemetery to decorate the graves of the dead with flowers. As a rule, they take with them their luncheon, con­sisting mainly of bread, cakes and fruits, with supplies of water. Most of them speak French and will engage freely in conversation, at which they are delightful. They look upon Christian women as barbarians—the latter's dress, habits and diet, espe­cially meat and wine, being regarded by them as evidences of barbaric tastes and requirements. The writer, being invited to their homes and becoming familiar with their children, found, not perfection of life, but a life of great content, a fervent belief in Allah and invincible family love.

Twenty-five miles up country may be seen many of the lower class women attending upon the military of an encampment, their little tents being cleanly kept and frugally supplied. These workers are paid for their labor at the rate of from one to two francs a day, a different state of affairs from that which is found in India and Egypt. But be the pay large or small, when climate and simplicity of cloth­ing and living are taken into consid­eration, the condition of these women is far above that of the same class of European female workers, especially during the winter season. Another point strongly in their favor is their abstinence from intoxicating bev­erages.

Marriage, according to the Azran law, is not a contract for enjoyment in this life, protection of self, service from another, or production of prog­eny. It is a solemn union of souls, having the education of the heart as its sole end, with a view to the realiza­tion of that condition of being wherein self is merged in the All. This high principle is carried out in Algeria, as the reader will recognize by the fol­lowing incident.

Seated by the blue waters of the Mediterranean I saw, day by day, stalwart Arabs cut out their children's clothes and sew them. Surprised at this humble occupation, engaged in by men who might make a " horrid battle-front," if so inclined, one morning I summoned up courage to make the remark to one of them that with our race that was woman's work.

"That may be," was the reply, "but we think that, when our wives go through the pain and danger of child-bearing for us, our duty is to save them all the trouble possible thereafter."

Near the military camp, Algiers
Domestic life among the Arabs is truly one of love and contentment. The husband never tyrannizes his wife. Parents and children form a happy family whose domestic peace is not interrupted even by want and hardships. I have been much among the working classes, and have wit­nessed the deep affection of husband for wife, wife for husband, parents for children, and children for parents. Divorce is rare.

I accompanied the Arab to his home and we halted in front of the entrance, the door to which was a curtain. The chatter of female voices, ripples of laughter, and the sound of dancing feet were heard. The Arab clapped his hands three times, where­upon followed the hurried scattering of women and children. Then the one wife presented herself at the en­trance and was about to embrace her husband when, seeing me, she de­sisted and cordially invited me to enter and partake of their hospitality.

An Arab husband, as well as all Oriental husbands, does not intrude into the presence of his comrades' wives, and in all classes the rule is that, if the wife desires quiet and pri­vacy, she expresses her wish by plac­ing her slippers outside the curtain of her apartment; however humble it may be, no husband will intrude. Slip­pers also are used in divorce cases. They are turned upside down at the entrance to the law court and indicate the wife's grievance. All the sicken­ing details of connubial infelicity, as given in the journals of civilized coun­tries, are absent and not published broadcast. But, as before remarked, divorces are of rare occurrence, one of the reasons for which is that the man purchases his wife, and the principle that what costs is valuable is a vincu­lum seldom parted.

On one occasion I was witness to an interesting scene.

"You are my property, my slave," cried an Arab chief to his pretty, beautifully-dressed wife. "I bought you from you father." Thereupon she called her three children around her, and binding the husband with silken cords forced him to his knees and made him sue for pardon and acknowledge himself her slave. This feat accomplished, the merry creature turned to me with the inquiry —"Do not the men in your world also buy their wives?"

Street dress of common class women
"Oh, no," I replied, "we have hosts of disconsolate females who would willingly buy a husband if they could, some of whom succeed in doing so."

These discussions, practical and lit­eral, were carried on while I was being served with coffee, cake and sweet­meats. I had no introduction to the family, and yet this is the unrestrained and hospitable manner in which a stranger is received by the Arab peo­ple of Algeria.

In one tribe in Algeria the women are endowed with the material prop­erty, and the descent is in the female line. The women are well-educated and learned, and though plurality of wives is admissible in law, the rule is one wife to one husband.

Let us now visit Egypt and India, and consider the status of woman in those countries.

In the streets of the principal cities of Egypt, the women wear a half Euro­pean dress which consists of a long, gored garment worn over trousers; not white like that of the Arabess, but made of colored cotton. This cheap material has one advantage, that of never shrinking and the first owner of such overskirt can confidently wear it without fear of longitudinal dimin­ishment after innumerable baptisms in the Nile or other lava­tories. Egyptian women of the lower order for the most part go barefoot, like their children, in city, town or country. The little ones give little trouble, and as soon as they can take care of them­selves are left to rear each other while the parents labor. The progeny of twenty mud-hut families physically develop mus­cular growth by scram­bling up and down sand hills all day long. The climate is dry and fine, and the necessities of life are easily satisfied, which is fortunate for the chil­dren, as the male parent receives but four piastres a day for field work, and the female, who often la­bors with her infant riding on her shoulders and rest­ing its head on hers, only two.

The Khedevial ladies in their palaces are in want of nothing except the liberty to enjoy, though English nineteenth - cen­tury Christians are in full possession of the country.

In Alexandria there may be seen at an early hour in the morning from thirty to fifty native women carrying on great tin trenchers the quartered carcasses of cattle from the slaughter­house (three miles distant) to the mar­ket, and for this laborious service their pay is fabulously small. Both men and women are of much darker com­plexion than those of Algeria or India, and do not bear the race stamp of a refined and cultured ancestry. No city have I ever seen so thronged with halt and lame and blind—women as well as men—begging, all begging and whining in the public streets. And this under English Government. Since the bombardment there is not a public library where one can borrow a book or write a letter.

On the bank of the Nile, half-way between Alexandria and Cairo, is sit­uated the grandest of Egyptian harems where one day I presented myself, my washerwoman, who could speak French, being my escort and in­terpreter. In this harem there was only one wife, neither young nor beautiful, but so good, so loving and genial that her husband was fond and proud of her. After my peculiar intro­duction she received me twice a week, always placed me on a divan to rest, spreading over me a gorgeous covering, and when it was time for me to meet another pupil residing in the neigh­borhood, roused me from my pleasant slumber and refreshed me with steam­ing coffee and delicious fruit. In Egypt as in India, the meals are taken on the floor upon which one sits tailor ­fashion—an attitude picturesque, per­haps, but very uncomfortable.

Women of Good Saada
Each harem vies with the other in style and the inmates visit each other, all being in the same social scale. Work and games of various kinds occupy their time, while theatrical performances and exhibitions of danc­ing girls frequently serve to fill up the days, and boating on the Nile is a recreation much indulged in. The baths are great resorts both for diver­sion and business. There most marri­ages are planned, the mothers selecting suitable brides for their sons, and the fathers, in their turn, choose bride­grooms for their daughters, duly consid­ering the physical perfections or defects of young aspirants to matrimony. It is inculcated by their religion that mar­riage is a duty, and as in France the parents decide the partners for their children. The high class Oriental husband never sees his intended un­veiled until the nuptial knot is tied.

Mohammedan marriage is a simple ceremony requiring only a mutual promise in the presence of two wit­nesses. The occasion is celebrated by a feast, great or small according to the wealth of the bride's and bride­groom's families.

In Calcutta I witnessed a marriage procession at which the noise of drums, tambourines and native instruments of music was deafening. The attendant crowd was carrying furniture to the bride's new home, every article of which was supplied by the bridegroom. In all cases these marriage gifts be­come the wife's property absolutely whether divorced or not.

In the same land I also witnessed the manner in which burials are conducted. In our civilized countries we drape ourselves in black, follow to the grave the remains of the deceased with expressions of grief—sometimes assumed by those classed as his friends —and then hurry off to our usual occupations and routine of life. Nothing of the kind can be charged against the people of the land, I am writ­ing about. The corpse, extended on a draped plank, was covered with a bright red cloth. A band was play­ing not such a solemn dirge as the "Dead March from Saul," but a tri­umphal pean, and the mourners, I should say followers, were indulging in demonstrations of joy.

"How is it?" I exclaimed, "that so sad a ceremony as the burial of a human being should be made an occa­sion of rejoicing? Was the deceased a dreadful malefactor, or a scourge to his fellowmen?"

"Ah, no!" was the reply. "The cause of our rejoicing is the release of our friend's spirit from its earthly prison, and its flight to its heavenly home in Great Spirit's realm."

According to our views these hum­ble philosophers are heathens. Will not the consciences of many who read these lines tell them that our mourn­ing is but a mourning for our own loss, or a cloak donned for the occasion and cast off with indifference?

On an altar erected by these "heathens" outside of Calcutta, I once saw a sheep sacrificed, and when the cer­emony was ended, moved away with a feeling of re­spect for the religious rite, for all the meat was given to the poor and needy, and many a half-starved woman and many a famished child had the wherewith to allay the pangs of hunger that day.

While in Calcutta I estab­lished a Hypnotic Institute, and among my patrons was a "Maharaga" chief who had an Italian wife. They with their two sons spent much of their time with me, and owing to the friendship of the lady I was enabled to realize much of the true in­wardness and realities of harem life in that city. Tak­ing into consideration the European marriage and di­vorce laws in their true light, and the excess of female over male pop­ulation in old countries, the comparison of the condition of harem women with that of European women is in favor of the former.

Never can I forget the charm and simplicity of harem life, the unbounded hospitality and sweetness of the in­mates. Petted and attended upon with indulgent care, as are the ladies of the harems, their lives afford a favorable contrast with the lives of even wealthy European wives who often have no more of the society of their husbands than those of the harem have.

Kabyle water carriers
It is stated by one authority that in India the males are more dependent on the females than the reverse al­though the husband is declared to be the master and teacher of the wife.

She, in turn, is pronounced to be the god and object of reverence, not only of the husband but of the whole family. "The whole question of right is thus presented in a nutshell. The relation of sex is physically, and therefore men­tally and morally settled already by nature. Nature has sought only to write the positive and negative sides of her harmonious action into a com­plete whole. Love and all that be­longs to the heart make up the wom­an, while physical strength and all that belongs to the head are embodied in the male."

Religion is philosophy in India and permeates and regulates all questions social and political. All the religions teach that the female is the light of the family, the fountain of love, joy and happiness, and inculcate the prin­ciple that "where females are wor­shipped and respected, all happiness attends; where they are ill-treated or despised, calamities are immi­nent."

From The Californian Magazine, February 1894.