The Traditional View of Men and Women

The Traditional View of Men and Women

The social setting of the family significantly affects the circumstances of a wife. Until the discovery of petroleum--and to a lesser degree until the 1969 revolution--conservative attitudes and values about women dominated society. By the 1980s, however, modifications in the traditional relationship between the sexes were becoming evident, and important changes were appearing in the traditional role of women. These varied with the age, education, and place of residence of the women.

In traditional society, beduin women--who did not wear the veil that symbolized the inferior and secluded status of women--played a relatively open part in tribal life. Women in villages also frequently were unveiled and participated more actively in the affairs of their community than did their urban counterparts. Their relative freedom, however, did not ordinarily permit their exposure to outsiders. A sociologist visiting a large oasis village as recently as the late 1960s told of being unable to see the women of the community and of being forced to canvass their opinions by means of messages passed by their husbands. The extent to which the community was changing, however, was indicated by the considerable number of girls in secondary school and the ability of young women to find modern-sector jobs--opportunities that had come into being only during the 1960s.

Urban women tended to be more sophisticated and socially aware, but they were also more conservative in social relations and dress. For example, unlike rural women, who moved freely in the fields and villages, urban women walked in the street discreetly in veiled pairs, avoiding public gathering places as well as social contact with men. Among the upper class urban families, women fulfilled fewer and less important economic functions, and their responsibilities were often limited to the household. Greater sexual segregation was imposed in the cities than in the countryside because tribal life and life in farm villages made segregation virtually impossible.

While women remained in the home, men formed a society organized into several recognizable groupings. These consisted of such coteries as school classmates, village or family work associates, athletic clubs, or circles of friends meeting in a cafe. In earlier times, the group might have been a religious brotherhood.

Like all Arabs, Libyans valued men more highly than women. Girls' upbringing quickly impressed on them that they were inferior to men and must cater to them; boys learned that they were entitled to demand the care and concern of women. Men regarded women as creatures apart, weaker than men in mind, body, and spirit. They were considered more sensual, less disciplined, and in need of protection from both their own impulses and the excesses of strange men.

The honor of the men of the family, easily damaged and nearly irreparable, depended on the conduct of their women. Wives, sisters, and daughters were expected to be circumspect, modest, and decorous, with their virtue above reproach. The slightest implication of unavenged impropriety, especially if made public, could irreparably destroy a family's honor. Female virginity before marriage and sexual fidelity thereafter were essential to honor's maintenance, and discovery of a transgression traditionally bound men of the family to punish the offending woman.

A girl's parents were eager for her to marry at the earliest possible age in order to forestall any loss of her virginity. After marriage, the young bride went to the home of her bridegroom's family, often in a village or neighborhood where she was a stranger and into a household where she lived under the constant and sometimes critical surveillance of her mother-in-law, a circumstance that frequently led to a great deal of friction. In traditional society, girls were married in their early teens to men considerably their senior. A woman began to attain status and security in her husband's family only if she produced boys. Mothers accordingly favored sons, and in later life the relationship between mother and son often remained warm and intimate, whereas the father was a more distant figure. Throughout their years of fertility, women were assumed to retain an irrepressible sexual urge, and it was only after menopause that a supposed asexuality bestowed on them a measure of freedom and some of the respect accorded senior men. Old age was assumed to commence with menopause, and the female became an azuz, or old woman.

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