The purpose of our blog is to discuss topical issues, stories, and situations, as well as to share what we are up to and new ways for you to get involved. We are always searching for possible answers to the question: Why is a girl's worth culturally and historically relative?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Women's History Month "I": Izumo no Okuni and Women in Islam


A statue of Izumo no Okuni on the banks of the Kamo River, Kyoto, Japan.

Izumo no Okuni was born in the early 1570s somewhere near Izumo, Japan.  Her father was a blacksmith who worked for the shrine, and therefore much of his family served at the shrine as well. As she became older, Okuni too began to work for the Izumo-taisha, and was sent to Kyoto to earn money for the shrine by performing sacred songs and dances. Okuni was very good, and soon crowds began to gather to watch her performances which included nembutsu odori, originally a sacred dance to honor the Amida Buddha, though it was largely non-religious by Okuni's lifetime. Okuni's particular version was—most likely accounting for it's popularity—sexually tinged. She also performed funny skits about lovers trysts. Eventually, the shrine summoned her back to Izumo; she chose not to return, though she did continue to send money.

In her early 20s, Okuni began recruiting women involved in prostitution and other social outcasts. She taught them to sing, dance, and act, and thus founded the first kabuki troupe, consisting of all women (In 1629, women would be forbidden from performing kabuki). They played both female and male roles—as men still do in today's traditional kabuki theatres—and over time, kabuki became more dramatic and plot-driven. Okuni began working with Ujisato Sanzaburō, who not only supported her financially, but also wrote her scripts. They were lovers until his (early) death. Okuni continued on after his death, working with other writers, until she retired around 1610. After her retirement, no one is sure what happened to her.


The first rule of holes: when you're in one, stop digging.
~Molly Ivins, Journalist, Political Commentator, Author

It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.
~Dolores Ibárruri, Secretary General of the Communist Party of Spain

We are not women of color. I am a woman with skin of color. I am not an ethnicity, but a skin tone.
~Iman, Model

Happy songs are very difficult to write. How many truly great upbeat songs are there?
~Natalie Imbruglia, Singer and Songwriter

Some campaigns are not worth waging if you can't win; others have to be fought on grounds of principle regardless of the chances for success.
~Patricia Ireland, President, National Organization for Women


Muslim women are often considered by those not of the Islamic faith to be oppressed, and that Islam is a sexist religion. But is that true? Certainly devout Muslims may have practices that seem restrictive, such as the edict in the Koran that instructs women to dress modestly when in public. This edict, however, requires that men dress modestly as well. And many women choose to cover themselves, in some form or another, as a deference to their religion (in many cases, this may simply be a headscarf). And hair covering is not restricted to Islam; Jewish law also instructs married women to cover their hair and for both sexes to wear modest clothing. But Muslim women are set apart because of the burqa, which consists of the loose, enveloping outer garment (jilbāb), the headscarf (ḥijāb), and the veil (niqāb).

The reasons for wearing the burqa (or a portion thereof) are varied. Some women are forced to cover themselves by male family members. But that's a simplistic and incomplete assessment of the situation. Historically, face veils existed before Islam, and only wealthy women wore them or stayed in seclusion. Those with less money went about in public unveiled because they needed to care for themselves and their families; they didn't have the time or money to invest in conspicuous amounts of modesty. In more modern times, Muslim women who choose to dress conservatively have a myriad of reasons; faith, a desire to stay close to tradition, or a belief that they will be appreciated for their mind and personality if their body is (figuratively) taken out of the equation. This third reason is why female activists in the Muslim world are less interested in what women wear, and more interested in securing things like human rights in general, more and better education for women, or greater opportunities for work. What a woman wears is of less importance that what she is able to do.

Islamic women are not without rights; Muslim women have the right to seek divorce (khula). They also have the right to negotiate the terms of their own marriages. They have the right to education, and to work and own property. In some places these rights are infringed upon. But women's rights around the world, regardless of faith or culture, are often curbed. These are societal problems, not necessarily problems of religion.

The topic of women in Islam is much greater in scope than can be covered here. For more information, please visit the links included above.

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