Jewish Women's Lives in the Muslim World

Part II: More Marriage, Divorce, Work and Education

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Reprinted from Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, edited by Judith Baskin, 1991, with permission of the Wayne State University Press.

Work and Money: Who Was in Charge?

Although the husband promised to support his wife, it was not unusual for her to earn money on her own, most often through needlepoint work, especially embroidery. Usually, a wife was permitted to keep her earning for her own private use, although clauses in some marriage agreements stipulate that she provide her own clothing out of her earnings. It seems clear, however that these earnings were often a source of marital friction. In a petition to a rabbinical court in the twelfth century, a wife of a miller—also described as the daughter of a cantor—requests that her husband not have the right to tell her to do embroidery in the houses of other people and bring him her earnings, and if she does chose to work, she requests that she be permitted to retain her wages.


While the poorest women might find it necessary to sell wares or produce in the marketplace, a wealthy wife’s economic worth would probably be based on her property, including gifts and inheritances she received during her married life. There are many records of quite substantial women of property who handled their own financial affairs and represented themselves in court.

Marriages were far from being purely financial arrangements. Although brides were typically considerably younger than the husbands, through the passage of years and the development of shared concerns a marriage could grow into a warm and meaningful bond

Divorce, When and Why

Still, divorce was by no means uncommon in this time and place of Jewish history. Not only did Islamic social custom accept divorce, but arranged marriages, geographic mobility, and the “greater attentiveness to a wife’s sufferings to be expected in a cosmopolitan bourgeois society” all contributed to marital strife. Some women emerged unscathed, particularly if they had favored the divorce and been supported by prosperous families, and remarriage was very common. Less fortunate divorcees were left in want and joined society’s other outcast females, the widowed and the deserted who were dependent on public charity.

A series of responsa [questions] to Maimonides tell of one deserted wife who was able to make herself independent by running a school, assisted by her elder son. Suddenly her husband reappeared and demanded that she give up the school, because it injured his dignity for his wife to be a teacher; and besides, he had no one to serve him. He insisted that she give up her teaching and stay with him, otherwise he demanded permission to take a second wife. The suggested solution is a divorce, after which, Maimonides says, “She will have disposition over herself, she may teach what she likes, and do what she likes”; but he rules that “if she stays with her husband, he has the right to forbid her to teach.”

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Judith Baskin

Judith Baskin is the Director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies and a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon.