Women at Sea: modesty, privacy, and sexual misconduct of passengers and sailors aboard Islamic ships

Women at Sea: modesty, privacy, and sexual misconduct of passengers and sailors aboard Islamic ships

By Hassan S. Khalilieh

Al-Qanṭara: Revista de Estudios Arabes, Vol.27:1 (2006)

Abstract: The article deals with the attitude of Islamic law towards the carriage of women by water and how Muslim judicial authorities viewed their presence on ships. It discusses the conditions under which women were carried, accommodated and treated, in addition to their personal and social behavior in ships. To apply Islamic religious ethics and navigational regulations during maritime journeys, jurists instructed owners of ships, crews, and passengers how to act in the event of an immoral behavior on the part of both or either party. Women could protect themselves against temptation and sexual harassment by dressing modestly, behaving properly, and traveling with mahrams. Even though this work focuses on the Islamic Mediterranean, the article briefly describes the punishment of sexual misconduct as established in the thirteenth century C.E. in Islamic Malay. Lastly, it touches the Islamic legal position on the transportation of Muslims aboard Christian ships.

Introduction: Women constituted an inseparable part of Islamic society during the classical era. They played an integral role in the domestic economy as in the shipping business and overseas trade. The scant documentary evidence we derive from the Cairo Geniza records reveals that a few women associated with governmental circles even owned commercial vessels: the trading vessels of al-Sayyida, the aunt of Zirid governors of Ifrqiya al-Mu‘izz Ibn Bdis (406-454/1016-1062), sailed between Tunisian, Sicilian, and Egyptian seaports. On Muslim women involved in overseas trade we learn from a twelfth century maritime loan contract. An Italian moneylender named Ser Guglielmo made a short term maritime loan to Sicilian Muslim entrepreneurs —a woman called Ghafa and her brother ‘Abd Allh— on condition that they repay it at a fixed interest rate on the date specified, or bear all financial consequences.  The recent discovery of such historical evidence clearly confirms that Islamic law permitted women to play a part in the day-to-day economic life of the society so long as the religious principles and social norms were observed.

Troubles and misfortunes including sheer want, religious motives, the pursuit of learning and the need to make a living all provided incentives for travel around the Mediterranean. These motivated women as well to travel, despite the risks of water transport. An eleventh century Geniza letter describes how a vessel bound for Alexandria was wrecked off Salqaa/Salya, in the Catania province of Sicily, and twenty souls, women and men, perished. The writer’s emphasis on the women who died in this shipwreck indicates that women in those days traveled less than men. This letter does not, however, portray how women behaved and were treated onboard this particular ship. The conditions under which women were accommodated and treated remain vague, as does their personal and social behavior on river and seagoing vessels. An attempt will therefore be made throughout the following discussion to shed light on the attitude of Islamic law towards carrying women by water. It will focus on views of Muslim jurists and mutasibs (market superintendents) on the presence and transportation of female travelers in ships. How did Muslim judicial authorities instruct the owners of ships, crews, and passengers as regards immoral behavior on the part of both or either party? How could women protect themselves against temptations and sexual harassments? Where punishments were meted out, on land or aboard ship? And what was the captain’s jurisdiction?

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