On the occasion of International Women’s Day of this year, I have chosen to speak about various ‘feminist’ movements in the Muslim world in general. Many Muslims do not like the term ‘feminism’. The easiest way to discredit a movement in the Muslim world is to link it to the secular West. It is amusing to observe how Muslims seem sometimes more inclined to sympathize with the ideas of the extremist Christian right than with secular movements. Not to say that the Christian right doesn’t have any acceptable ideas from an Islamic perspective, but just to highlight the tendency to distrust anything that is tagged as ‘liberal’, ‘secular’ or even ‘democratic’. This is perhaps why the Islamic feminist movement has had relatively more success than other Muslim feminist movements which did not use a religious discourse but rather a nationalist, secular one. It seems, however, that ‘feminist’ movements tend to be regarded with apprehension by many Muslim women themselves for complex socio-cultural reasons that I will not discuss here.
Movements which advocate ‘women rights’ in Muslim countries are classified by analysts into two main categories: Islamic feminism and Muslim feminism. The difference between the two is that Muslim feminism first emerged in several Muslim communities early in the 20th century and it used a composite discourse which appealed to nationalist, Islamic modernist, and humanitarian arguments, and later trans-gender human rights and democracy arguments. On the other hand, Islamic feminism appeared much later, in the late 20th century, and it used a discourse that is grounded in religious scripture (the Qur’an and the Sunnah). Secular feminism was therefore more of a nation-based social movement in contexts of various Muslim countries whereas Islamic feminism had a more global message that was directed to the entire Ummah and as such, it included converts to Islam and so-called ‘progressives’. Both categories feed each other of course, but the Islamic feminist movement is more inclined to win the approval of the predominantly-male religious establishment. ‘Progressive’ Muslims are therefore quickly discredited on grounds of wanting to ‘invent a new Islam’.
These two categories have followed different strategies to try and improve women’s lot in Muslim societies, but both are inspired by the Western feminist movement. In fact, this is the fundamental basis upon which all criticism of women movement tends to be based in the Muslim world. Secular Muslim feminism is criticized for being almost a parody of its Western counterpart as it borrows the Western worldview of equality regardless of political, economic and cultural differences between Western societies and Muslim ones and Islamic feminism is criticized for being, at its core, no more than apologetics. We often hear that Islam has given rights to women centuries before the West has decided it was a good idea and that Muslim countries are the ones who should be lecturing the West about feminism. This argument is very powerful within Muslim societies and it is generally not recognized that whatever rights Islam has given to women are only an improvement relative to what was prevalent at the time, but fall short of international standards in this day and age (at least judging by how these rights are expressed in legislation and its application in practice).
Tactics which are commonly used to sweep the question of women under the carpet are generally based on strawmen (I suppose I should say strawpersons). Whether it is genuine misunderstanding or disingenuous doesn’t matter as the end result is the same: distorting the ultimate objectives of women’s movements in Muslim countries by depicting it as a form of colonialist cultural imperialism and ‘foreign intervention’. As if Islam does not tolerate any cross-fertilization by other cultures and civilizations and has remained pure throughout the ages; there is a puritanical conception of Islam which fuses the religion with all aspects of life and makes the religion undissociable from culture, imperialistic mindset, customs which were all largely temporal. The reality is, much of the criticism directed at feminist movements are also partly inspired by those used in the West, this is to say that the feminist movement has made mistakes, is conscious of them, has evolved and is still evolving, however the issue has become so politicized to such an extent that any debate on it tends to quickly become polarized and antagonist of some dominant culture group or another. It is thus difficult to come across objective analyses, but many would argue that the point of feminism is precisely being subjective because it is a movement that is centred on women and is primarily concerned with improving their condition.
It is often overlooked that this movement was a reaction to a long accumulation of unjust treatment of women and violation of their rights as human beings, before being of female sex. Some argue that feminism is a conspiracy by capitalists to exploit women’s labour in the market place, but although there have been political, economic and cultural paradigm shifts which have certainly contributed in their own ways to the victories the feminist movement has achieved, feminism cannot be reduced to a political or economic conspiracy. To defend such a position would be either disingenuous or a reflection of the misogyny feminism proposes to combat. It is undeniable that women’s labour has always been exploited throughout the ages, and this was without material reward (slavery). Capitalism’s innovation is that it turned labour into a commercial commodity that’s all.
In the Muslim world, it is often the case that feminism is criticized based on stereotypes or, as I said earlier, strawpersons. A typical example: “Oh look at the terrible plight of Western women, what sort of life is that, having to slave away to earn a living! Western women wanted to become men and they have managed neither to become men nor to remain women! What an aberration of nature!” This simplistic argument, although not devoid of truth, ignores the fact that it applies to Western men too. This has more to do with capitalism, which caught both men and women in its webs of market-dictated exploitation. But it is more dangerous and deceptive when you realize that it is in fact another way of vindicating an illusory ideal supposedly ‘Islamic’ model whereby women are destined to be treated like Queens in their castles, only the males slave away (or should slave away) for their females’ beautiful eyes when the latter sit at home, and just generally enjoy life, smile and say sweet things to reward their hard-working males. This not only produces a harmonious society, but also solves the problem of unemployment in one miraculous go.
It is quite astonishing how popular this discourse is still is and it is still propagated in numerous Islamic channels to this day. I remember that this was the line of argument of the FIS for example and thousands of people, especially women, fell for it. The FIS even went as far as proposing the abolition of the Police Force to save on public expenditure, because as all women would become housewives according to the Islamic model and take care of their children, crime will disappear from our society (here is a video of Abassi Madani saying just this, along with countless other wooly ‘arguments’ to defend his party’s program which was described into minute detail in these four words: “Islam is the solution”).
As I said before, I don’t know whether people who defend (and those who accept) such views are disingenuous, ignorant or simply a product of the misogynist societies that have dominated in much of human history. This example illustrates quite clearly that much of the discourse about women’s rights and roles in Muslim societies are terribly gender-skewed. It doesn’t only affect women, it affects men too who are constantly told they must comply with a fixed and ‘biologically’ defined model of Manhood. Fundamentally, and whilst accusing (an already out-dated version of) Western feminism of being focussed on dressing women against men, the solutions proposed are still seen as men versus women, two different entities whom the most politically correct would hasten to proclaim are ‘complementary’ rather than basically coming from two separate planets (i.e. being both human but, how to say it, you know just not human in the same way, different).
The reality is, most serious and conscientious feminist movements have moved beyond this flawed way of addressing the problem of women’s rights. The discourse is now more inclusive of both genders and aims to correct excesses by fostering mutual understanding and collaboration between the sexes. It is grounded in what is described as ‘universal human rights standards’ and ‘democratic principles’. But, funnily enough, that proves even harder to achieve than, as the folklore goes, trying to convert women into men. It is helpful to consider that feminism isn’t an ideology or shouldn’t be viewed as a rigid ideology, it is rather a number of movements which have arisen in various socio-economic, political and cultural contexts as a response to (institutionally-, culturally- or religiously-validated) injustice and violence towards women. Looking at feminist movements from a praxis rather than an ideological viewpoint helps appreciate the diversity and richness of what various movements have adopted as strategies for combatting injustice and violence, but also gain a deeper understanding of the shortcomings of many cultural stereotypes in our modern world.
It is great to ponder on how various feminist movements (including in non-Muslim parts of the world) have spontaneously sought to differentiate themselves from the Western model, which was historically initiated by White, upper class women within the Euro-American context of the early 20th century, but which nonetheless was motivated by the same basic objective: give women more bargaining power in society in order to make them more immune to exploitation and abuse rather than leave it all to the arbitrary good naturedness of their male relatives. The sexual bargaining power which is often directly or indirectly presented as the ultimate and ‘real’ power women dispose of is a double edged sword which has too often turned against women and in the end only perpetuates cultural dogmas. A horrible illustration of this is the current discourse of the entertainment industry and how it purports to give women the choice to empower themselves through their sexuality (it has even found success in Arab countries, just look at how women are used and represented in movies or in the tourism industry for example).
I shall note here the position of the prominent Islamic thinker Malek Bennabi, who argues that the case of women (قضية المرأة) should be considered within the whole civilizational framework, of which it is an integral part. Any approach which considers the case of women as a separate entity is doomed to failure as it would necessarily overlook interconnected parts and hence propose erroneous solutions. Bennabi thus advocated a more holistic approach which looks at the individual person, whether male or female, within a perspective of social justice and wellbeing. It is the good of society which should prime over any individual considerations because, ultimately, individuals are all members of the same society. Bennabi didn’t go on to describe how this holistic approach will look, what decides what ‘ultimate good of society’ is and how or how different the women’s case would be from the Western feminist model or the repressive traditional one, but he proposed to hold seminars and debates to consider these issues. There have been thousands of seminars and workshops dedicated to this single issue since and everytime, the same issues seem to be brought up relentlessly: the veil/ burqa, marriage and divorce, polygyny, wife beating, genital mutilation, women’s sexual duty towards their husbands (in response to accusations of marital rape) and women’s representation in public life.
Looking at the problem in binary terms (Western secular model which equates to decadence and some ideal Islamic model which is yet to be defined) has a lot to do with how slowly these issues seem to be dealt with. Not to deny or denigrate the significant victories which have been achieved, but I personally think much of the change we see today stem from changes in the economic and demographic situations more than from a real intellectual or cultural evolution – we are still quite behind in the ideological battle and we do still tend to take on externally-induced change and then respond to it by bringing up shining examples from the distant glorious and perfect past rather than internally-motivated change.
I think that ultimately, the fundamental problem in Muslim countries is a political one. It is impossible to talk seriously about women’s rights in Muslim countries when we have not yet decided what type of State we should have in Muslim countries, what its roles are, the basis of legislation, the status of the population (subjects or citizens?), the constitution and its fundamentals. The current mish mash of secular-nationalist-religious State is just unsustainable and leads to all sorts of inconsistencies. This is the fundamental question which needs to be resolved and for good before we can move on to address the particularities of such or such class or category of the population. The other question is the role of the individual with respect to the State and powerful institutions within the State (including the religious establishment), civil liberties and what belongs to the individual and what belongs to the public domains.
To me it seems all pointless to talk about an ‘Islamic feminism’ when, ultimately, it is an established and unquestionable principle that Islam is the religion of the State and as such, despite the potential of resorting to religious discourse to alleviate injustice towards women, it makes no sense ultimately to seek a reinterpretation of sacred texts just to support a vision of the World that is fundamentally irreligious and relegates religion to just a part of civil society, not the foundation of the entire State. Either we accept that human rights (as in decide that a set of rights is applicable to all humans anywhere, men or women) are universal, or we subscribe to cultural relativism and accept that discrimination, violence and/ or injustice against women or men or children (whatever) may be culturally-validated. There is no ‘Yeah, but…’. The position which states that the Islamic version is the true universal one is an oxymoron because clearly, Islam as it is practiced today has evolved within a particular socio-cultural, economic and political context.
And as there is no easier way of scoring a point in this chapter than checking out what is going on in Afghanistan, this is exactly what I did. And as expected, there was a news story about how the Afghani President is supporting a ruling by Afghanistan’s highest religious authority, which states: “Men are fundamental and women are secondary.” This illustrates quite well how the question of ‘women rights’ becomes a cheap tool at the hands of politicians in the ‘wrong’ political environments. It is the case in all Muslim countries, with items on the agenda varying according to the psychological fantasies of the various societies. I think it’s fair to say that they are all about reducing women to a sexual object which is the lawful property of the husband. I cite the justifications for the hijab/ burqa as a typical example, because the question of the veil has turned into an obsession in the Muslim world. It is uncomfortable to consider the roots of this obsession, but suffice to say that in itself, this obsession speaks volumes of the relation of Muslims to women. It is not that the veil is not an important question from an Islamic viewpoint, it is that the way it has been dealt with for decades is deeply symptomatic of the general cultural and political situation in Muslim countries.
The justification goes thus: a woman who doesn’t wear the veil is inviting rape. I’ve heard this countless times in Islamic media. These are endorsed by Muslim women themselves, either explicitely or tacitly, including female scholars who are known for their dedicated defense of women rights under Islamic law (such as Souad Saleh). I once was told by a female colleague that she knows a girl who was assaulted “even though she was wearing the veil”. She seemed more shocked by the fact that the veil doesn’t discourage sexual assault than that a girl was assaulted in the first place. The converse of course is that you hear arguments such as “Well, it’s her fault isn’t it, walking around like that without veil. She was asking for it or why else did she not veil herself?” A sickening analogy (of both men and women) which was deemed quite efficient in Muslim media was to compare an unveiled woman to uncovered meat which will then, naturally, be devoured by carnivores, or an exposed lollypop which will, naturally, be licked by flies.The whole thing is presented as inevitable because this is the nature of the world as was intended by its Creator. In short, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another horrendous argument that was used when the Egyptian security forces assaulted a veiled woman protestor and stripped her naked went along the following lines: “What veil? Have you noticed how she was wearing a blue bra? Clearly she did so because she knew the little number she was going to play to the cameras”. Meaning she planned for her bra to be exposed as this is what women protestors do to score political points, when really their place should be at home. This was distateful at best and quite despicable at worst (the Washington Post covered this in an article entitled “The blue bra revolution“).
The point of this is that many women-related very serious, genuine and endemic problems in our societies tend to be swept under the carpet by presenting the strawperson that Islamic law commands this or that. It is not about the law (or at least not exclusively); it is about the reasoning behind enforcing these supposed laws. The problem, to borrow the words of Bennabi, is one of ideas not one of objects (eg. scarf, burqa, blue bras, segregated public spaces…etc.). So it is perfectly conceivable that the veil, even though it is an Islamic garment, becomes in cultural essence, a tool of subjugation and degradation of women, just like the miniskirt, the bikini and the fashion industry. The same argument may be applied to the whole approach Islamic countries have and are still adopting with respect to the ‘question of women’. Way to go ladies (and gentlemen). I suppose I should say: “Way to go people!”.