Gender Studies

Islamists and Women in the Arab World: From Reaction to Reform?

Broadly speaking, contemporary discourse assumes that Islamists are bad for women. Any gain in Islamist political influence is considered a disastrous regression in women’s human rights. At a time when the movement to put women’s rights on the international human rights agenda - a valuable movement indeed - seems on the brink of joining the group of world and regional powers targeting Islamists as the next great threat to humanity, it is urgent that Islamists formulate a strong and just analysis of the gender issue.

While the stereotypical view of Islamists, like most stereotypes, has some basis, it is, as are all stereotypes, completely inadequate for understanding the issue. The fact that one can locate a Saudi shaykh, an Egyptian imam, or a young Algerian militiaman who is unmistakably misogynistic does not provide the key to understanding the entire range of Islamist views on gender roles or the implications for women of rising Islamist influence. The indictment of Islamists as oppressive to women emerges from the context of western hegemonic power in the world and deploys the language of women’s liberation to justify political and economic assaults against contemporary Islamist states and political forces. The problem is that women do face oppressive conditions in the Muslim world, as do their counterparts in the West, but these are different from the oppressive conditions imagined and constructed for Muslim women from a western frame of reference.

The political co-optation of feminist discourse on Muslim women has created a formidable obstacle to addressing those conditions. A first step, for Islamists, toward addressing gender relations must be the shifting of the frame of reference from one that considers secularism the norm and Islamic reconstruction an aberration to one that looks to Islamic sources for ways of acknowledging Muslim women’s oppression and developing alternatives. Real alternatives must consist of more than a fear of change, protective reactions, traditional formulas, and a reassignment of blame. Before undertaking the development of alternatives, Islamist positions on women and gender must be examined. This article will outline a framework for this task as a beginning.

I propose three points toward a more accurate evaluation of Islamists and their implications for women. First, contemporary Islamist views of gender roles need to be contextualized in their local and regional settings. Islamists should be evaluated on the basis of traditional local conditions, which they often challenge, rather than to a Greenwich Village ideal of feminism. Against the traditionalism that makes up much of their backdrop in Middle Eastern societies, Islamists emerged as the bearers of reformative agendas regarding women: for example, their belief in the importance of education for women and their attack on the customary attitude of dismay at the birth of a girl. Second, any model of evaluation must be able to acknowledge the diversity among Islamists and the development of their ideas over time. It is important to listen to Islamist men and women as they debate these issues in their own voices and with their own vocabulary, and to account for their practices in the area of gender relations and gender roles. Finally, if any one issue can be considered a litmus test for the direction of the Islamists’ agendas for women, I suggest that their stand on women’s political empowerment be considered as such an issue. Any evaluation of Islamists and their implications for women’s lives must survey the degree to which they include women in decision making
and policy-making.

Islamist Views of Gender in the Local Context
The ideological context of gender in which Islamists emerged in the Middle East is made up of two contesting elements: traditionalism and secular women’s liberation movements. Oppressive conditions for women in the Arab world have accumulated over centuries, beginning from pre-Islamic times and then reinforced by certain Islamic interpretations, and eventually assumed the mantle of Islamic authority. Traditional culture gave the patriarch authoritarian control over the family. Although this could be mitigated by the informal influence of individual strong women, incidental mechanisms that gave women negotiating power in certain circumstances,’ and by the educational and economic privileges of upper class women,’ women in the Arab world have had a distinctly limited access to resources and autonomy (sometimes almost as limited as that of western women).

Dependency and subordination has been the de facto condition of the vast majority of Muslim women, just as it has been for western women, only not as abject. At a later date, western colonial powers entered the picture and manipulated the issue of women’s oppression to their own ideological ends. Patriarchal European men who bitterly opposed feminists at home became extremely benevolent in their concern for women in the colonized lands and regarded “civilizing” her as the most pressing part of the white man’s burden. The condition of women was considered a sign of the intrinsic worthlessness of Islam and Arabic culture, an attitude that was a staple of western ideology and repeated over and over at all levels of culture until it seemed true by virtue of sheer repetition. As Leila Ahmed points out, it has never been argued that because male domination and injustice to women have existed throughout the West’s recorded history, the only recourse for western women is to abandon western culture and find themselves some other culture. The idea seems absurd, and yet this is routinely how the matter of improving the status of women is posed with respect to women in Arab and other nonwestern societies? By espousing a program in which women’s liberation was equated with westernization and with the abandonment of an Arabic and Islamic cultural identity, the colonial powers afflicted the Arab women’s movement with a handicap that it has never been able to unload completely.

Arab feminism, which emerged hand-in-hand with Arab nationalism, was perceived as having been learned at the feet of the western colonizer, taking Qasim Amin as its model. In fact, many advocates of feminism, both bourgeois and leftist, did and still do consider secularization along a European model as intrinsic to their struggle and agree with the western dismissal of Islam in toto as inherently misogynistic. To make matters worse for those who were genuinely concerned with the betterment of women, the authoritarian nationalist regimes of the postcolonial era also played “the woman’s card” for their own aims. In such states as Syria and Tunisia, dictatorial regimes affected “reforms” from above that purported to improve women’s lot but, in reality, served to increase the gap between the bourgeois elite of educated women, who benefitted most from them, and the masses of women, who continued to live in traditional conditions.

There is no question that these reforms did produce some positive changes, for example, in raising literacy rates and legally enfranchising women. But they had all the moral persuasion and transformative impact of a snub-nosed weapon. Rather than change deep-seated attitudes, they changed surface appearances through intimidation, the crudity of which reached its utmost height in the Asad regime’s 1982 paramilitary attack on muhajjabat in Damascus: Women in the street were forced at gunpoint to strip off their Islamic garb.

Thus twentieth-century Muslim and Arab women have had to choose between a suffocating traditionalism and an alienating feminism. Arab feminism has been unable to shake off the suspicion of an alliance with imperialism and to attain any semblance of cultural legitimacy or any grounding in a wide popular base, despite its occasional conciliatory gesture toward Islam. Consider the following example: to an Egyptian population, the majority of which retains the belief in God at a very basic level, the English title of one of Nawal el Saadawi’s novels - God Dies by the Nile - points to a cognitive gap between her discourse and the grass roots of Egyptian society. She disguised the book in Arabic under the title The Death of the Last Man on Earth, but its secularist content remains as alien as ever from those whose oppressive practices against women she would change.

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