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.
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.