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Courtesy to Women

[1]2,984 words

If a great and powerful ruler is riding his horse, and he comes upon a woman crossing the road, should he continue riding, or should he stop? If he continues riding, his horse may knock her over. If he stops, he will be acknowledging that she has rights that he is obliged to respect, despite his power.

The answer to this question in European societies is that the powerful ruler should stop. The answer in traditional Muslim societies appears to have been that he should continue riding. 

In 1665 the Turkish writer Evliya Celebi, the author of a lengthy travelogue, noted this cultural difference during a visit to Vienna: “In this country I saw an extraordinary spectacle. Whenever the emperor meets a woman in the street, if he is riding, he brings his horse to a standstill and lets her pass.” Evliya, despite his reputation today as a cultured humanist, found the emperor’s deference to a woman perplexing. He was surprised that the emperor had stopped his horse; he would not have been surprised if the emperor had continued riding, which would have forced the woman to scurry out of his way.

Evliya’s account continues:

If the emperor is on foot and meets a woman, he stands in a posture of politeness. The woman greets the emperor, who then takes his hat off his head to show respect for the woman. After the woman has passed, the emperor continues on his way. It is indeed an extraordinary spectacle. In this country and in general in the land of the unbelievers, women have the main say. They are honored and respected out of love for Mother Mary.

Evliya’s perplexed observations are quoted by the orientalist Bernard Lewis, who comments that he “was expressing a fairly normal Middle-Eastern response to the Austrian emperor’s normal courtesy to a lady, and clearly indicates that he himself would not have believed this improbable story had he not seen it with his own eyes.”

It is common in cross-cultural encounters that an observer from a strong, confident culture not only identifies differences but also ascribes those differences to defects within the culture he is observing. Significant differences from one’s own culture are commonly marked as aberrations from enlightened normality. That we eat the flesh of cows but not the flesh of dogs means, in our eyes, that societies in which dogs are consumed as food are in that respect aberrant and inferior. In the case of Muslim observations of Europe, one important feature of European Christendom that Muslims often marked as defectively aberrant was the high status of women. As Lewis remarks, “the status of women [was] probably the most profound single difference between the two civilizations.”

Muslim observers of European societies were shocked, Lewis writes, by “the incredible freedom and absurd deference” that European men accorded to women. Evliya located the source of male courtesy in Christian reverence for the Virgin Mary, because he felt compelled to arrive at some explanation for such curious behavior. As a Muslim monotheist, he found Catholic adoration of the Virgin strange and pagan, so he guessed that Christian idolatry surrounding Mary might account for the unmanly courtesy of European men toward women.

The emperor who removed his hat to show respect to women was Leopold I. In 1665 he was one of the most powerful men in the world, and to an observer from a Muslim culture governed by sharia law, it would naturally be surprising that so powerful a man would routinely remove his hat in the presence of any lady he chanced upon.

Since we see Emperor Leopold’s courtesy from our own Western perspective, it is less surprising. Lord Chesterfield, the eighteenth-century expert on etiquette, believed that “civility is particularly due to all women.” It was important that a gentleman be polite to everyone, but there was a special obligation of politeness owed by men to women. Until the arrival of modern feminism, that duty was recognized, though not always practiced, by all white men with any pretensions to civility.


From the courteous deference of men to women that he witnessed, Evliya Celebi mistakenly inferred that women somehow ruled Europe. In the 1590s the Venetian writer Moderata Fonte, in a fictional dialogue that argued (with much humor) for the superiority of women, had one of her female speakers interpret the same evidence in a similar way. The outward deference of men to women indicated their inward awareness of women’s superiority:

[Men] cannot help revealing in their behavior a part of what they feel in their hearts. For anyone can see that when a man meets a woman in the street, or when he has some cause to talk to a woman, some hidden compulsion immediately urges him to pay homage to her and bow, humbling himself as her inferior. And similarly at church, or at banquets, women are always given the best places, and men behave with deference and respect toward women even of a much lower social status.

The formal male courtesy that Evliya and Moderata were both relying on for their respective conclusions was the result, during much of our history, of a strong social pressure that encouraged white men to treat women with deference. A man’s willingness to be kind and deferential to women was a mark of his refinement, and a place in which such male courtesy was regularly practiced was in that respect better and more civilized than a place in which male courtesy was weak or absent.

By that standard, nineteenth-century Americans were especially civilized. Ida Pfeiffer, the Austrian author of two lengthy travelogues, reported in 1856 that American men were the most courteous of the menfolk that she had observed during her many travels: “the men, one and all, showed the utmost attention and politeness to our sex. Old or young, rich or poor, well or ill dressed, every woman was treated with respect and kindness.” Although the manners of Americans were at times deficient, the courtesy of American men toward women was “greater than I have ever seen in any other country. The commonest American boy of ten years old is in this respect equal to the most refined European gentleman.”

The practice of courtesy, as the name suggests, arose from social life in royal and aristocratic courts. Aristocratic courtesy toward women was viewed as a loving obligation that the physically stronger sex owed to the weaker. In the Middle Ages “love” and “courtesy” were so closely associated that they could be near synonyms. “One cannot be courteous unless one loves,” the poet Marie de France wrote in the late 1100s.

The model of manhood that this courtesy assumed was of a soldier/knight who was ferocious in battle but refined and deferential in the presence of women at court. The idea is just barely visible in Beowulf; it is the leading idea of the chivalric romances of the High Middle Ages; it is the explicit subject of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which tells of “courtesies and brave deeds”; it is an important rule of civilized masculinity in Castiglione’s Courtier, which teaches that the courtier must “above all . . . pay respect and reverence to women”; and it had become formalized well before Evilya observed the emperor.

One of the remarkable facts of Western social history is that aristocratic courtesy, shaped at the highest levels of European culture, was steadily democratized and exported down social hierarchies, so that by the time Ida Pfeiffer arrived in an anti-aristocratic republic, which had through revolution dispensed with courts and courtiers, she could discover that “the commonest American boy” behaved toward women as a courteous emperor behaved toward women in Europe.

In 1665, the year Evliya Celebi observed the emperor’s strange behavior, an Ottoman Turk could reasonably have supposed that he belonged to history’s winning side, since the Islamic world appeared to be more materially successful than Christendom. Two decades later, the Austro-Hungarian empire, led by the same Leopold, helped win for Europe a great victory over Islam in the Battle of Vienna, and in the years that followed it became more difficult for a Muslim to believe in his own culture’s superiority and much easier for a European to believe that the folkways of Europe were not only different from those of Islam, but also clear indications of Europe’s superiority. Since differing views of women were clear markers of distinction between Europe and Islam, the decline of Islam and the rise of the West helped make the male courtesy that characterized the latter a sign of enlightened modernity and the subjugation of women a sign of its opposite.

In the late 1830s the English journalist John Longworth came across evidence of what he saw as Islam’s backwardness during a visit to Muslim Circassia in the Caucasus, which had become a flashpoint between the Russian and British empires. A prosperous Circassian family had allowed him to stay with them, and Longworth and his male companions soon found themselves trapped in a problem of cross-cultural etiquette. In Britain courtesy dictated that men should rise when a woman entered a room; the opposite was the case in Circassia. Women were expected to rise in the presence of men, and they were obliged to remain standing until the men had sat down: “the wife and daughter of our host . . . stood up to receive us; nor could they be induced to resume their seats until I had done violence to my European ideas of convenance [social propriety] by previously sitting down myself.”

In 1922 the famous Emily Post would formalize the relevant rule: “a gentleman always rises when a lady comes into a room. In public places men do not jump up for every strange woman who happens to approach. But if any woman addresses a remark to him, a gentleman at once rises to his feet as he answers her.”

Longworth soon learned that the operative Circassian social convention, which reversed this rule, did not apply only to a Muslim woman’s contacts with distinguished visitors from afar, but to any man she encountered: “It is a mark of respect which all women in Circassia owe, in his quality of creation’s lord, to the meanest drudge in their household; nor can they on any account be seated in his presence till his pleasure to that effect be made known to them.” The wife of Longworth’s host was a high-status woman, but she was nevertheless obliged to show feminine deference to all men, regardless of their status.

Evilya Celebi saw Emperor Leopold’s courteous respect for women as an unmanly result of Europe’s Marian idolatry; John Longworth saw the lack of respect for women in Circassia as evidence of Islamic backwardness. He had wanted to visit the ladies of the household, but his host assumed that he merely wanted to look at them: “in passing from the guest-house to the tenement occupied by his ‘womankind,’ the manner in which they were spoken of by our host led me almost to believe that we were going to his stables instead of his harem.” The social position of Circassian women was low, not much higher than prized horses, whereas Longworth belonged to a culture in which the position of women was high. That was clear evidence, in his eyes, of his culture’s greater degree of civilization. Longworth admired the Circassians, but he believed that in this respect they were uncivilized and primitive.

The old rule that a man should stand up to greet a woman is, perhaps, trivial. There is no obvious reason why the Circassian reversal of the Western rule should be deemed backward. A feminist would call Emily Post’s rule an instance of “gendered courtesy”; Circassian Muslims, a cultural relativist might claim, simply gendered their courtesy differently.

On the other hand, the gendered social rules that privileged Circassian men in their interactions with women also reflected non-trivial social realities. Circassian women were reputed to be very beautiful. They had some small claim to be the whitest of all Europeans, since Johann Blumenbach coined the racial category “Caucasian” in part on the physical basis of a Circassian woman’s finely proportioned skull. Because Circassian women were believed to be especially attractive, they were highly valuable as commodities in the Islamic world, where servile concubinage was an established institution. The Koran entitles a Muslim man to four wives and as many concubines as he can afford to purchase. For enterprising Muslim businessmen in Circassia, a profitable trade in their own countrywomen naturally followed, many of them being exported to Istanbul to adorn the harems of wealthy Ottoman Muslims.

Longworth noted how Circassian men consequently viewed their womenfolk as valuable livestock: “When you hear of their being so many hands high, and worth so many purses, you naturally conclude they are cattle that are spoken of.” In other words, the custom in Circassia that women should rise in the presence of men was not a rule of courtesy at all, but rather a symptom of the strong subordination of Circassian women. Women are less powerful than men, so women could be commodified.

Western rules of courtesy arose, and were democratized downward, in part because men and women so regularly interacted in social spaces. Hence Longworth’s expectation that he would visit the ladies of the household. Social interaction of men and women was less common in the Muslim world. The domestic rules of the Koran, as Sir William Muir noted in the 1880s, “exclude woman from her legitimate place and function in social life.” Muir, once regarded as a leading authority on Islamic history, saw the practice of exclusion and sexual segregation as the source of “the cheerless aspect of Muslim outdoor life, and the drear austerity of their social gatherings.” In any case, whether Muslim social life was drearily austere or not, the world of Islam did not offer cultural room for a Muslim Emily Post to formalize rules of courtesy that privileged women in their social interactions with men, or for a Muslim Moderata Fonte to argue for the superiority of her sex.

Moderata, though often called an early feminist, was a happily married mother of three children. She died giving birth to her fourth child the day after she completed her humorously polemical The Worth of Women. She had been encouraged in her writing by male family members, who clearly were not offended by her opinions, even though she voiced harsh criticism of men. As her uncle reported in a short biography, she valued her various writings, but valued domestic occupations, like needlework, even more. Despite her explicit misandry, she accepted as a bedrock assumption the biblical injunction that a wife should be a helpmate to her husband, and she never seriously challenged the anthropological truism that the family unit and the mother-child bond are basic organizing principles of any properly functioning society. Such challenges would arrive much later, with the advent of second-wave feminism.

Moderata’s Worth of Women was her contribution to ongoing sixteenth-century debates in Italy about what we once called “the battle of the sexes.” The recognition that a woman can have something of value to say on an important subject cannot be called a persistent Western trait, since it was far from omnipresent in our history. Lord Chesterfield believed that men should be especially courteous to women; he also believed that women’s minds are largely empty. But it was predictable that Europe, where the high status of women was often a fact of daily life, would be far more receptive to intellectual and artistic contributions from women than the Islamic world. In Western literary history the idea that a woman’s mind can be a suitable location to explore important moral issues can be found as far back as Sophocles’ Antigone; in the Norse Voluspa Odin seeks out a seeress to learn about Ragnarok, in keeping with the ancient pagan tradition that women are especially skilled at prophecy; in Western Christendom a woman could be a respected participant in an intellectual debate by at least the early 1400s. Moderata’s book, along with similar books written by women, was a natural development from a longstanding pattern.


It is common for defenders of the West to cite the high status of Western women, in contrast to the low status of Muslim women, as evidence of our civilization’s superiority. Aisha, Mohammed’s favorite wife, advised Muslim women, “if you knew the rights that your husbands have over you, every one of you would wipe the dust from her husband’s feet with her face.” John Longworth and Sir William Muir, along with everyone in the counter-jihad movement, would agree a marital system based on such a principle is primitive and inferior. It is, however, harder now than it was in the 1800s to assume reflexively that the high status of Western women is a cultural advantage and clear evidence of our enlightenment. Today any distinctively female political activity is likely to be racially and culturally destructive. That was not the case even a century ago, but it is now.

There cannot be much doubt that feminism, which aims to set half of our race against the other half, has profited from the long tradition in the West of male deference to women. Feminism has also profited, more significantly, from the association of women’s causes with enlightened modernity. The same assumptions that led John Longworth to believe that Muslim attitudes to women were evidence of backwardness also lead many in the West today to believe that feminist political victories are indications of moral and social progress. The feminist is a modern figure propelling the ascent of woman into the future; the anti-feminist, whether male or female, is a retrograde figure, attempting to hold back the inevitable movement of history. One of our best cultural features — the high status of women — has now become a dangerous liability. That will likely change, but at the moment the high status of Western women is at best a mixed blessing.