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From the ban on women’s driving in Saudi Arabia, to the social stigmas which fuel honour killings, to the ever-controversial issue of the hijab (headscarf), women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa have been the subject of close scrutiny. In this, some regard the region as lagging behind the developed, Western world and calls for women’s liberation often abound. The Arab Uprisings herald a seemingly new era, one marked by resistance and hopes of true liberation from despotic regimes. A wave of optimism has spread throughout the region as aspirations for civil rights increase. In this vein, questions have emerged surrounding the effects of the respective uprisings on women in the region. Will potential liberation extend to Arab women, recognising their contributions to the various revolutions? Or will the advent of political Islam translate into a step back for women’s rights as many have argued?(2)
This two-part discussion paper (3) will touch on three points, namely: 1) the role of women in the Arab Uprisings; 2) the rise of “Islamism” in the region along with abounding paranoia; and 3) the implications of Western feminism for women in the Middle East and North Africa. The overall discussion will argue that Orientalist, neo-colonialist thought is still very much a part of contemporary discourses on Arab women and that these discourses (which do not accurately represent Arab women) need to be re-evaluated in light of changing times and circumstances.
1) The role of Muslim women in the Arab Uprisings: The case of Yemen
Muslim women in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen played active roles in the uprisings of their respective countries. Whether through active demonstrations,(4) social networking to create awareness, or even voter participation, women were as much a part of the uprisings as their male counterparts. In this were perhaps efforts which were not exclusively about breaking through political repression but about pushing against repressive social and cultural norms as well.
One of the biggest surprises was found in Yemen, a country still deeply rooted in tradition and tribalism, which lacks the liberal, progressive elements one may find in countries such as Egypt or Tunisia. Yemeni women came out in their numbers to call for the overthrow of the Saleh regime. Here, we witnessed not necessarily a liberal, educated class of women or a defiant, younger generation coming out in protest. Instead, we saw women from across the spectrum strongly vocalising their resistance.(5) When Yemeni women emerged (6) not only in hijab but niqab (full face veil) as well, several stereotypes were challenged, one of those being the general perception that such women are backward, inactive, submissive and thus removed from political life.
It is interesting to note that in carrying themselves in this manner Yemeni women showed how tradition, religion and culture may indeed be reconciled with progressive thought and action, showing the need to perhaps reshape the outdated discourse which, many a time, carries a strong Orientalist, neo-colonialist tone. This further indicated that liberation need not arrive packaged and sealed in Western form and that indigenous models may be viable possibilities for reform. During an interview, Yemeni activist and Nobel Laureate, Tawakkul Karman, was challenged with the question on whether her status and intellect was above that of the head-covering and whether her way of dressing was in sync with her political and social progress as a woman. Karman replied that in her opinion “Man in early times was almost naked, and as his intellect evolved he started wearing clothes. What I am today and what I’m wearing represents the highest level of thought and civilisation that man has achieved, and is not regressive. It’s the removal of clothes again that is regressive back to the ancient times.”(7) By defending the head-covering (and its attached religious and cultural significance) so fastidiously, Karman touched upon one of the most controversial issues (the wearing of hijab and niqab) surrounding Muslim women over the past decade which has been in focus both within and outside of the Muslim world.
2) Women and the rise of “Islamist” parties
The rise of so-called “Islamist” parties during 2011 across the Arab world seemed to deeply unnerve many, both within and outside Arab nations. A report by French news channel, France 24, went so far as to say that the Arab Spring was fast turning into an “Islamist autumn nightmare” after the Tunisian election saw Islamist party, Ennahda, rise to power. A question often posed was how such parties would impact upon the rights of women in the region. This was perhaps a valid concern seeing as other (seemingly) Islamic regimes have often fallen short of granting women basic rights.
People were taken back to Afghanistan under Taliban rule where many Muslims and non-Muslims alike mistakenly believed the regime to be the expression of a true Islamic state. Among a host of other prohibitions and impositions, female education was banned. This affected all female students from primary to tertiary level. Along with this, close to 8,000 female teachers were dismissed which led to the complete closure of over 60 schools in Kabul alone.(8) Though this had nothing to do with the Islamic faith, it was portrayed as such. In fact, the Qur’an, along with the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad,(9) encourages the seeking of knowledge and education for all, regardless of gender.(10) More recent examples include the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia(11) and the controversy surrounding female athletes from the Arab world, during the Olympic Games.(12)
If we balance these “Islamic” societies up against those of a few centuries ago, one may be very surprised at the findings. In sharp contrast to the Afghan case, one may examine Morocco during the ninth century where a woman named Fatimah al-Fihri established the world’s first actual University (Qarawiyeen University which is recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as the world’s first established University) which still stands today.(13) However, this example of women’s status, progress and participation in Moroccan society is not necessarily part of modern-day Morocco. The case of Amina Filali speaks volumes in this regard. A teenager who was allegedly raped and then coerced into marrying her alleged rapist, Filali committed suicide in March 2012.(14) The story caused a national outcry, specifically directed at Morocco’s penal code (Article 475) which holds that if a rapist marries his victim, he cannot be prosecuted or imprisoned.(15) Two distinct failures are evident here. Firstly, on the part of the state which did not afford sufficient redress for the victim and secondly, on the part of society which attached a stigma to the victim for a crime that was not hers. The latter amplified in Filali being forced to marry the alleged perpetrator. Human Rights Watch noted: “The social origins of...article 475 lie in the notion...that an unmarried girl or woman who has lost her virginity – even through rape – is no longer marriageable and has dishonoured her family. Some families believe that marrying the rapist or sexual partner addresses these problems. The prospect of avoiding prison induces the man to consent to marriage. Associated Press quoted Filali’s mother as saying, ’I had to marry her to him, because I couldn’t allow my daughter to have no future and stay unmarried.’”(16)
Reception of Islamist parties: The case of Tunisia:
Following the above, one could ask what the perception of Islamist parties is among women themselves and whether women have contributed to the rise of Islamist parties. Egyptian women showed considerable support for the Muslim Brotherhood (17) and many who opted for a less conservative stance still went the Islamist way, with support for candidates such as Aboul Fotouh who is considered to be a “liberal Islamist.”(18) The Yemeni case is similar with women being quite receptive to Islamist parties and most notably the Al-Islah party.(19)
In Tunisia, however, a great number of women came out in strong opposition to Islamist parties. Tunisia’s educated middle-class has been particularly opposed to any sort of Islamist Government. This is also the class which has been heavily involved in political activity during the revolution. The Ennahda party recently created an uproar with the way in which it defined women’s roles (in the draft Constitution) as complementary, rather than independent, to men’s roles. Many saw this as an effort to move away from the democratic pursuit of equality between the sexes and an indication of greater restrictions and impositions to come.(20)
To understand this reaction we must consider Tunisia’s background and the aggressive process of secularisation the country underwent in the late 1950s under Habib Bourguiba who was often likened to Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. A great number of Tunisian’s fiercely cling to the legacy left by Bourguiba which was marked by modernisation and liberalism. Bourguiba is often regarded as the liberator of Tunisia’s women. During his rule, great emphasis was placed on women’s rights and in a region which often appeared to lag behind the rest of the world in terms of women’s rights, there was great appreciation for many of his reforms. These included granting women greater rights in terms of divorce, custody matters and employment.(21) However, hand in hand with the admiration of some, Bourguiba was equally detested by others. Among his ‘reforms’ during the early post-colonial period, Bourguiba banned the niqab or veil and made calls for Tunisians to forego the Muslim Holy month of Ramadhaan as he saw the month as an impediment to the country’s progress. Liberal, secular elements dating back to his rule could be an explaining factor in the rise of Islamism in Tunisia today.(22) In some respects, Islamism today may be seen as a counter-reaction to years of repression by both the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes.
The Islamist threat:
From the outset it should be noted that there is no single, consistent definition of ‘Islamism’ and the concept certainly took on new meanings in the post 9/11 era. It is unfortunate that the term was so attached to the rise of parties with any inkling of Islamic thought in the wake of the Arab Spring. This is because of the negative connotations attached to the term (most notably its associations with extremism and ‘religiously-motivated’ violence) and the impact of these on the perceptions of the masses, especially in the West. The term effectively blurs the distinction between political Islam and Islamic fundamentalism, two very different concepts.
The mixture here of contemporary rhetoric and aged Orientalist thought would, together, have one believe that the greater Muslim world is unable to foster a moderate, progressive and responsible political system. A question to be asked is why extreme examples are almost always used in this context. When talk of Islamism, Shariah law or Political Islam comes to the fore, the automatic association is with the Taliban in Afghanistan or regimes such as Saudi Arabia and the like. It is crucial to note that such exercises reduce other nations and whole populations to mere distorted stereotypes, assuming that there is only one path that such nations may follow: extreme and repressive. States and their populations are in turn viewed as the proverbial other, the other which does not yearn for progress; the other which lacks vision and passion and is caught up in medieval mentalities out of touch with our time.
There is a further reduction of Shariah law to what it prohibits but limited consideration of what it may contribute. Shariah law, like other legal systems, is vast. While hudood (punishment) is indeed a part of this, the system governs a number of other areas. Issues covered by Shariah stretch from laws governing business dealings and trade, to state duties in terms of social welfare and further to laws regulating conduct during warfare. There is no evidence to suggest that Islamist parties intend to implement these systems at all, let alone in their most conservative forms. The obsessive paranoia that has surrounded this discourse (or is it non-discourse?) from day one has hampered the opening of real debate or engagement on the topic.
The attempt to model new regime-types on old ones is illogical for it fails to take into account the distinctive histories, contexts and cultural differences which exist in the Arab world. This attempt also fails to recognise the vastly different interpretations of Islam (and thus political Islam) within the Arab world and larger global context. As Hamid Dabashi illustrates: “What these ‘ex-Muslims’ and their Euro-American counterparts share is a pathological essentialism about ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims.’ They are blind to the fact that there is a factual and existential difference between the ‘Islam’ of a rich Kuwaiti Sheikh negotiating his fat belly around the table and fearfully watching his cholesterol in a fancy restaurant on the Champs-Elysees and the ‘Islam’ of a an illegal Algerian busboy washing the dishes in the basement of the same restaurant.”(23)
The unsound judgement employed, as explained in this section, means that verdicts have been handed down on Islamist parties before they have been given an opportunity to govern! Indeed, there is a possibility that those at the helm may turn out to be repressive. Conversely, there is also a possibility for genuine reform. Until time has passed and either possibility manifests, it is unsound to make predictions on how parties such as Ennahda or the Muslim Brotherhood will govern. Again, basing such predictions or assumptions on already-existing ‘Islamic’ regimes is incorrect because the events that make up the Arab Spring, collectively, mark a unique chapter in modern history. Fair elections in places such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are unprecedented. Indeed the opportunity for Islamic parties to govern in this era is in itself a novelty (considering the years of repression faced by Islamic movements in North Africa and parts of the Middle East). At a conference dissecting the Arab Uprisings in August 2012, Wadah Khanfar made a salient point: that in reality political Islam today will connect with modern discourse. While traditional views may be maintained (specifically those taken from previous Islamic regimes throughout the ages) there will be a shift away from rigid conservatism. These shifts may be already noted in some seemingly radical parties such as Hamas for instance, which Khanfar refers to as a newer, improved version: “Hamas 2.0.”(24)
Despotic Governments may be toppled and new regimes may be born but changing the perceptions, norms and ingrained beliefs in the psyches of whole societies will prove more challenging. At the root of many women’s rights issues (in the Arab world as well as out of it) lies patriarchy. To consolidate the gains made by women during the Arab Uprisings, women need to be visualised as equals who are capable contributors in society. The key here is not necessarily enacting formal laws or procedures against the discrimination of women but rather addressing archaic, patriarchal (and sometimes misogynistic) tendencies within these societies. A question to be asked at this juncture is, how will new regimes ensure the role of women in the political sphere as actual participants and not mere tokens for public appeasement? Libyan writer and activist, Ashur Shamis, recently mentioned that 35 women were elected to Libya’s National Congress as part of the new Libyan regime.(25) However, the question to ask is whether these numbers represent genuine empowerment?
Secondly, there should be an emphasis on finding a midway in these newly ‘liberated’ states, where (by way of example) women are neither forced to adopt the niqab or hijab (especially since its links are deeply spiritual and personal) and are not banned from adopting these forms of dress either. Islam is indeed a faith of moderation.(26) The point is to tap into the tolerance and freedom which the faith allows while keeping to its core values. Newly gained freedoms should be protected and countries in transition should be given the space to develop their own identities.
Lastly, despite massive speculation, there can be no certainty on what the coming years will bring for Arab Spring nations. Current discourses lack clarity with lines between reality, myth and propaganda often blurred. An ominous tone has been attached to the rise of Islamist parties, specifically with regard to their impact on women. It would be fair to give new regimes an opportunity to actually act before making any assumptions. Thus, the foreboding pushed forward by the media is perhaps misplaced. It is unlikely that states in transition will adopt radical changes incompatible with democratic values. If only for economic reasons, these countries (well aware of the effects of globalisation and the need for integration) will not seek to isolate themselves. To assume that these nations will automatically be repressive would be giving into tired, outdated Orientalist thought. Such thinking, furthermore, downplays the gains made by women, their ability to struggle against oppression within their own borders and their potential for the future.
Written by Raeesah Cassim Cachalia (1)
(1) Contact Raeesah Cassim Cachalia through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in an unfortunate piece carried by Newsweek, asserted that: “The Governments will begin to fail as soon as they set about implementing their philosophy: strip women of their rights; murder homosexuals; constrain the freedoms of conscience and religion of non-Muslims; hunt down dissidents; persecute religious minorities; pick fights with foreign powers, even powers, such as the U.S., that offered them friendship.” Ali, A., ‘Muslim rage and the last gasp of Islamic hate’, The Daily Beast, 17 September 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com.
(3) The second part of this discussion paper will be released in CAI’s next newsletter.
(4) ‘Women protest in Cairo – in pictures’, The Guardian, 20 December 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(5) Finn, T., ‘Saleh is gone, but Yemen women's struggle goes on’, Reuters, 11 April 2012, http://www.reuters.com.
(6) Al Yacoub, I., ‘Women protest in Yemen’, Al Arabiya, 27 September 2011, http://english.alarabiya.net.
(7) ‘Answer by a Laureate from Yemen about her Hijab’, HopeITW, 16 February 2012, http://www.hopeitw.com.
(8) Griffin, M., 2001. Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban movement in Afghanistan. Pluto Press, London.
(9) Peace be upon him.
(10) On the narration of Anas bin Malik, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim”, Sunan ibn Majah, Narration number 225.
(11) ‘Saudi women renew calls to lift driving ban’, Reuters, 19 June 2012, http://www.reuters.com.
(12) Al Nafjan, E., ‘The Olympic triumph of Saudi Arabian women’, The Guardian, 31 July 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(13) Qarawiyeen University was the first actual University to confer degrees on graduates and as such is recognised by UNESCO as the world’s oldest University. This piece of history and a host of others like it effectively rebut assumptions on women’s education in Islam. An example of the lack of knowledge in this regard can be found in assertions such as: ‘Female education, for instance, was once virtually unknown’; ‘Arab women's rights: Some say they don't want them’, The Economist, 25 March 2012, http://www.economist.com.
(14) Maghri, A., ‘In Morocco, the rape and death of an adolescent girl prompts calls for changes to the penal code’, UNICEF, 28 March 2012, http://www.unicef.org.
(16) ‘Morocco: Girl’s death highlights flawed laws’, Human Rights Watch, 23 March 2012, http://www.hrw.org.
(17) This was perhaps not surprising seeing as the Brotherhood carries the legacy of an “oppressed party” with a history of opposing a tyrannical regime (similar, perhaps, to the legacy carried by South Africa’s African National Congress [ANC]).
(18) Woods, J.D., ‘Egypt’s Muslim Sisterhood: What roles do Islamist women play?’, Time, 15 June 2012, http://world.time.com.
(19) Basu, M., ‘Religion is not the biggest enemy for Arab women, poll finds’, CNN, 26 June 2012, http://edition.cnn.com.
(20) McNeil, S.T., ‘Wording on women sparks protest in Tunisia’, Al Jazeera, 19 August 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(21) ‘12 Years after his death, Bourguiba remains a controversial figure’, Tunisia Live, 24 April 2012, http://www.tunisia-live.net.
(22) Lamloum, O. and Toscane, L., ‘The two faces of the Tunisian regime: Women’s rights, but only for some’, Le Monde Diplomatique, http://mondediplo.com.
(23) Dabashi, H., ‘Merci, Monsieur Badiou’, Al Jazeera, 22 May 2012, http://mondediplo.com.
(24) International Conference hosted by the Afro-Middle East Centre: Mena uprisings and transformations and their impact on Africa, 28 August 2012, Pretoria.
(26) “Let there be no compulsion in religion”, Qur’an 2:256.