One of the refugee women I worked with was a practising Muslim. She kept her hair covered at all times by a variety of neatly, tightly folded and fixed scarves. She was a political refugee and the mother of two small boys whose father had disappeared in their country of origin. She did not know if she would ever see him again as she had not heard from him since his disappearance. She was anxious about coming to my house because she did not want to encounter my husband as it was forbidden for her to meet a man who was not related to her. She was also unable to go out alone without a chaperone, although she did agree to allow me to take her to the shops and to the local park with her sons. I was surprised, therefore, to discover that she was sharing her accommodation with a man who was neither her relative nor her husband. She explained that he was her milk brother, a term I had never encountered. Milk brothers and sisters are people who were suckled at the same breasts. She was allowed to stay with the man because he was her milk brother.
Milk brothers and sisters are one category of “Mahram”. Under Sharia law a mahram is a blood relative or other person with whom marriage or sexual intercourse would be incestuous.
Men falling within this description are a woman’s:
- father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on;
- son, grandson, great-grandson;
- uncle, parents’ uncle, grandparents’ uncle and so on;
- nephew, grandnephew, great-grandnephew and so on;
When she marries, a woman’s mahram will be extended to include her father-in-law and, when she has a daughter who marries, her son-in-law will become a mahram.
Strictly, under Sharia law a woman is not allowed to travel without a mahram. A mahram is the only permissable escort for a Muslim woman. She may be alone with him at home too. A woman is not allowed to be a mahram for another woman. In September I happened to go the Designer floor of Selfridges. The floor was a sea of women clad in black. At times I was the only woman not wearing the full length veil and gown or niqab which allows only a slit for the eyes. Each group of women was accompanied by a mahram, often a very young man. The older men waited outside in huge Mercedes limousines. I noticed a group of women giggling at a glass cabinet displaying lingerie and accessories from Agent Provocateur and wished I had my camera.
I was struck by how these categories were almost identical to the categories I had formulated in frustration in an earlier post. Even the category of ‘milk brother’ may be equated with the Western limited exception for male-female friendships which pre-date the marriage where, one assumes, any romantic attachment has already run its course if it ever existed and had certainly been supplanted by the new relationship. It strikes me, however, that Prince Charles’s friendship with Camilla Parker Bowles would be a notable and cautionary exception to the non-threatening nature of such pre-existing friendships, which might be explained by the fact that he was unable to marry Camilla because she is a Catholic, and he was forced to choose a more suitable bride against his inclination.
Western women, of course, are also allowed out without a chaperone even if most of us would prefer not to walk alone outside at night and in most cases the rules are not applied until a woman has married or entered a romantic relationship with a man.
I conclude that the unwritten rules applying in Western Christendom mirror the Sharia categories of mahram because they serve the same purpose. That is, they exist to ensure that women have no opportunity to stray from their husband and that their children are the offspring of their husband and no other man. They exist to outwit the power of eros untrammelled.
The same work exception to the rules that I identified in my earlier post applies in many Muslim countries too, as does an exemption for study. The economic imperative means that a Muslim woman may be allowed to associate with work colleagues whilst at work.
Given the restrictive nature of the mahram categories, it is little wonder that women want to work to escape the bite of the rules. In Europe, too, I suspect that women realise that their greatest freedom is when they are working and that their worlds will often shrink to become entirely feminine (except for the mahram equivalents) if they give up work to have children. Women often say that they work because of the opportunity for social interaction, not because of the money they earn. Working women are less likely to have children and particularly less likely to have more than one child. Birthrates are very low in some Western countries. I wonder if it is any accident that the birthrate is lowest in countries where women vanish almost completely from society once they become mothers until they are widowed. This 2006 article in the Guardian seems to confirm my suspicion. France has one of the highest birth rates in Europe but, perhaps significantly, also has one of the highest participation rates for women in employment with effective family-friendly policies. High rate of female participation may be excellent news for the economy but is not necessarily such good news either for the women or their children. Women who work often still have to carry most of the burden at home, resulting in increased stress and sickness. Working parents have less time to devote to their children than non-working parents.
It is hard to see any evidence that the rules achieve their goal, especially given the scope of the work exception. I speculate on the basis of my own anecdotal observations that a large percentage of affairs begin between work colleagues. Divorces in the UK ar, incidentally, now at their lowest rate ever since 1977.
I wish the rule did not exist. When I was a teenager I enjoyed sailing my boat against boys. When I was older I enjoyed studying law alongside men. When I began working as a solicitor, I enjoyed working alongside men. When I became a partner in a law firm, I enjoyed running a business with men. When I got married nothing changed because I was still working. When I had my first child the shutters came down shockingly quickly and I was forced to exist in a world that, with the exception of my husband, was entirely female. Occasionally we would meet other couples socially and, if I was lucky, I might find myself sat next to a man at dinner. I miss the mixed environment a great deal. I have no economic imperative to justify returning to work. I often wish I had – or that I could change the rules all by myself.
You could say that the rules apply equally to men and women. But they do not. Men continue to benefit from the work exemption for the whole of their working lives. Recently my husband said how sad he was that one of his work colleagues was going to be working elsewhere. Their offices had been next to each other for years and he was understandably attached to the man who was leaving. I remarked that though it was sad for my husband, it was even more sad for the man who was leaving. My husband was losing only one colleague whilst the man moving was losing all of his colleagues for a much more solitary job. I felt sad for the man who was leaving, and it was only days later connected my sadness for him to my own grief at giving up my job when my daughter was born – a grief that I was not allowed to express. Like him I had lost colleagues who were like my family.
You can read an article on the wisdom of having a mahram here. I read about the mahram first in two introductory books to Islam that I read during half term. Neither was very good.