Islamist and Feminists and the Arab Revolutions

9 Mar

On the Occasion of International Women’s Day: Feminist and Islamist Contentions after the Arab Spring: Speaking Frankly

No, the Arab spring is not a winter for Arab women. Arab women have played a vital role in resistance to the governments of Zayn al-Abdin bin `Ali, Husni Mubarak, Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhafi, Bashar al-Assad and Ali Abdullah Saleh. But they had not achieved their rights under these governments at the time of this regime changes, basically to transitional political and military sources of power. We must better comprehend the many challenges, old and new, which confront Arab women and that meeting them during profound shifts in power may require new tools and tactics.

For years, observers warned that Islamists would come to power in Egypt, if free elections were held. The political rise in fortunes of Islamist organizations has occurred not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. In an Assad-free Syria, it is quite likely that the long-suppressed Sunni population will support long-standing or more recently created organizations with Islamist orientations. The popularity of the moderate Islamist groups and salafists extends even beyond the Arab Spring countries and includes Morocco and Jordan. Power-sharing between Islamist parties and others is also seen in Turkey and Iraq. Women’s condition is far from elevated in those two countries, despite a more advantageous legal status in Turkey.

Yes, we should be vigilant about exposing intolerant attitudes by extreme Islamists, and even the moderate Islamists have prevented development from within their own ranks on resolutions to gender issues. Nevertheless, utilizing a binary frame of women’s rights activists and feminists versus Islamism or insisting on secularism as a precondition of new governments, will bring about no new analytical or operational space.

I do not mean to negate the culture wars (Mehrez, 2010) raging, past or present, in which salafists have demand stricter dress codes, the right to wear niqab in Tunisian universities, protested and marched against the showing of the film “Persepolis,” and insisted on taking to court those persons who arranged that screening, debated the dress and alcohol use of tourists. And there are salafists in Egypt who would not permit their parties’ women candidates to speak in public or use photos on election materials. Some feminists are furious with the En-Nahda successes in Tunisia and the capitulation of certain Ettakatol politicians to them. Likewise, there are many tensions with salafists, more so than with Freedom and Justice representatives in Egypt. Tensions have long coalesced around the rights of artists, musicians, and writers to freedom of expression and women, and religious minorities to full citizen’s rights.

What may be forgotten is the hard work achieved when women of differing political trends came together as they sometimes did in the campaigns to rescue legal reforms in Egypt in 1985, and in the reforms known for the khul` law of 2000. In these instances women agreed on the need to raise public awareness about particular issues or obtain support for legal reforms. They created some enemies – there were those who vowed to undo these legal reforms and others such as the Child Act which made parents culpable for circumcising their daughters.

In addition to the more extreme or less-flexible stances of particular conservatives or salafists, there are some new problems:

a) the identification of feminist activism with the previous ruling parties
b) the victimization of women in public spaces during the revolutions
c) the need to confront military or transitional authorities – who want to avoid blame at all costs, as Samira Ibrahim is doing by pressing charges for her violation at the hands of authorities last year (March 9, 2011) in Cairo.
d) Suspicions about foreign linkages of NGOs – and external funding has been essential to many NGOs working on women’s issues.

Among the key sites where Islamists and women’s activists may challenge each other, is first of all, in political structures. Hence, the very low showing of women in political institutions is a very real problem. Yes, women might be elected who won’t work hard for their own gender interests, but it is certain that we need to see women political leaders who will represent women’s interests in what are sure to be legislative battles over laws impacting women.

The more conservative Islamist parties and lists are opposed to women’s leadership just as much as they oppose women appearing in public without a headcovering or the face veil known as the niqab, to women’s photographs being used in campaigns and to what they call the mixing of men and women, in schools, universities, the workplace and social and political activities. The foolishness of this stance does not come from Islamic history where women have always been leaders and spoken out. Nevertheless, one cannot forget the power of socialization and the fact that many more people under the age of 35 believe in this model of supposedly Islamic behavior.

However, in Tunisia and in Egypt, electoral rules required that all parties include women on the ballots, and a proportion of women on party lists. The intent of these rules was circumvented when parties chose their candidates, and banking on the greater popularity of men they placed women candidates in a lower position in the list system. The outcome was only 11 women (9 elected and 2 appointed ) representatives out of 508 in Egypt. 49 women out of 217 were elected in Tunisia, despite the gender parity rule. And, of those 49, 42 represent En-Nahda Party while only 7 are non-Islamist women. In Libya, only 2 women were on the National Transitional Council and one woman is now in a cabinet position as Minister of Social Affairs, Mabrouka Jibril.

Yemen represents further challenges to women’s visibility and leadership. Yemen is far behind Tunisia and Egypt in its treatment and view of women as leaders. But it is similar in that a leading political party had dominated in the past. In the 301-strong Assembly of Representatives only one woman served. Houria Mashhoor was first named speaker of the National Transitional Council and then Minister of Human Rights. Only two women were named in the National Unity government. At this point there are three women out of 35 ministers.

The recognition of Tawakol Karmon on the basis of her work on behalf of women’s rights, (when actually she is a political activist for citizens rights, [Yadav, 2011]) with the Nobel Peace prize of 2011 will doubtless enhance women’s ability to aspire to political leadership, and hopefully open up activism on gender issues within Islah. The Islah Party had refused to support women for national political office and has not pushed various gender issues. Some women, including Karma rose instead, inside the party; Karman being one of 13 women voted onto the Shura Council in 2007. This points to the need for the well-organized Islamist parties to turn their attention to gender issues, and to promote their female leaders. Without women in positions of leadership, Yemeni women will face a lot of opposition in their efforts to end child marriage and accomplish other goals.

Syria’s future leadership may well come from the ranks of its opposition which is headed by an Executive Committee which includes secret members inside of Syria. One of the 7 member external Executive Committee is a woman, Basma Kodmani, a member of the National Bloc. The organization has 301 members of these only 22 are women. (5 out of 72 representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood Alliance of Syria are women. 8 (including Kodmani) of the 69 National Bloc members are women; 4 of 16 Independents are women; 4 of 28 Grassroots are women; 1 of 21 Kurdish Bloc; 0 of 6 Assyrian Bloc: 0 of 2 Damascus Spring; 0 of 6 national figures; 0 of 7 Damascus Declaration)

Overall, what needs to occur so that progress is seen on gender issues to be discussed exclusively in the public political eye, is for feminists and Islamists to agree on establishing quotas for women in national assemblies and a fair representation in appointed positions. I realize this is controversial and that it has been discussed and rejected (primarily for partisan reasons)

The next important area concerns women’s and feminists’ safety, physical integrity and therefore self-esteem and dignity. Sadly, we return to women’s bodies at this point – the rapes and unjustifiable attacks on women including journalists, like Mona Eltahawy, women victims in Libya and Syria. But this violence has no exclusive province amongst Islamists. But there is one area where they are concerned — let’s consider the weapon of takfir. This must be defused by political leadership, presumably moderate Islamist parties. For example, socialist women in Yemen have been attacked by Islamists as being immoral – there was a takfir campaign against Bushra al-Maktary, the novelist and activist who lead a peace march.

Perhaps, ideological security and promotion of freedom of expression could be linked to a campaign of respecting women in public space. The tricky part of the Islamist role here is to convince the reluctant to discuss sexual matters and violations of women in informational formats. There is no reason this cannot occur, as it was already up there on the agenda of feminist activists in Egypt prior to the revolution. Harassment is one end of the scale, rape and assault at a different decibel point.

This however, collides with another Islamist preoccupation – the segregation of women, or their protection. For example, there were demands that Yemeni women not demonstrate or if they did, they must occupy their own delineated segregated space as in the area behind a blue oilcloth in Yemen in Change Square. The question was aggravated by Saleh’s attack on women protesters who burned their veils in response in October of 2011.

The perennial reduction of women to the value and physicality of their own bodes is a feature of pre-revolutionary life. It seems to be exacerbated in periods of insecurity and therefore during war and revolution. It is more difficult to address under a temporary leadership of military power – really made up of a triplicate of police, secret security and military.

Could it really be true that any female detained by the Egyptian military must be graded as a virgin or a non-virgin? Nonsense! Yet this is the current legal defense of those who punished demonstrators with virginity tests and detention in Egypt on March 9 2011. That security personnel and military persons charged with the sacred defense of their own nation would countenance this behavior – shows how ingrained the mauling of women in public has become – as was seen on International Women’s Day of 2011, and so many Eid holidays in Egypt prior to that. The violations were finally broadcast by cell-phone footage. The only effective response is punitive legislation along with public education – ideally over television. – The problem with the conservative and salafist position is that they proffer traditionalist restrictions on women as if this will protect them. Well, when the Tawargha were raping the women of Misurata, those traditional ideals were unhelpful. Political messages sent through women’s bodies have become a norm, a terrible norm of regulation. When the shabiha rape women or threaten to do so, their aim is to terrify people into compliance with the Syrian regime. At bottom, the problem of women’ vulnerability is linked, whether in the emergency or ordinary circumstance to the underlying code of honor that is upheld in society.

The next thorny point of contest between Islamists and feminists concerns the law and any legal reforms to further women’s rights, or restrict them.
In Tunisia, the personal status code – unlike that of any other Arab country – disallows polygamy, and is part of a legal system based on pre-1975 French law. Tunisians are Muslim; some areas of the country are extremely conservative. On the other hand, others, including the intellectuals may very liberated and accept a philosophical separation of religion from public regulation. The prior government’s campaign against Islamism, from Bourguiba through Ben Ali’s time, presented the state as the supporter of women’s rights particularly in contrast to that of the various unfair interpretations of shari’ah. There were many problems that were unresolved even under the previous regime, such as the harassment of women, the non-status of single mothers, rulings that prevent couples from living together if they are unmarried, and allow the police to argue on behalf of public order to invade private homes to enforce sexual modesty and “non co-habitation.” Under this regime, the wearing of the hijab was initially outlawed and later on, it was the niqab or face mask that was not allowed.

Some anticipate the En-Nahda legislators to support the shari’ah as a source of law in Tunisia. At present, it is not – however there are many ways in which Tunisian civil law is interpreted by judges in accordance with shar`i norms. Also the Tunisian scivil code is very patriarchal – giving much power to a man as a husband, rather than head of a clan. However, judges do not really admit or discuss their use of shar`i principles in their current arguments. One must be acutely familiar with their format to undertand where they are implicitly being applied.

Currently, one common reason and method of divorce, declaring a woman nushuz (nashaz) or disobedient had actually been eliminated from the law in Tunisia– and yet, it still persists in the accusations that husbands bring regarding grounds for divorce. Judges instead refer to Article 23 CSP, which ‘provides for the duty of ‘good cohabitation’’ (hasan al-mu‘ashara).

Not only could it become more difficult for women to obtain divorces, and easier for men to simply declare divorces, people fear the legal reintroduction of polygamy, and restrictions on women’s custody of their children.

Thus there is significant and justifiable anticipation and fear that the civil code could be restricted by use of the “other” source of law – the shari`ah, or that reforms could be made to family law – which is not the only area of law in which women are discriminated. Or shari`ah courts might begin to operate as they do in Iraq. Speed forward, I predict that shari`ah will be named as a source of law, but that not too much will differ in the legal norms to be applied, if feminists can appeal to Islamists in the name of justice – for social justice is supposed to be the sina qua non of the Islamist ideal world view.

With arguments that rest on istislah (a method of jurisprudence which foregrounds the public good), feminists and Islamists can agree to address other social ills such as child marriage which do not appeal to modernist Islamist leaders any more than they do to feminist spokespersons. This issue, is actually quite sticky for it touches on the definition of adulthood (at puberty, or ideally, we would hope, not until age 18 and the completion of secondary education) and the practice of permitting engagements of minors by their guardians.

There are so many other legal abuses of women to address and no space to do it here, (I would love to discuss polygamy and the various informal forms of marriage) but my point is that intelligent people of various political and religious perspectives could work together toward the goal of eliminating discrimination and the abuses of women.

Sources (more will be added)

Bakr, Dina. Dossier. “11 députées … et 40 millions de citoyennes.” Al-Ahram Hebdo. 7 – 13 Mars, 2012.

Hackman, Alice. “A Woman Leading Change in Yemen.” Common Ground News Service. March 01, 2011

Al-Mahdi, Rabab Abou “Arab Spring Fails to Allay Women’s Anxieties.” New York March 7, 2012.

Mehrez, Samia. Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010.

Mikdashi, Maya. “The Uprisings will be Gendered.” al-Jadaliyya. Feb. 28, 2012.

Pickhard, Duncan. “How Well Did Women Really Fare in Tunisia?” Power and Policy. December 6, 2011.

Al-Sakhaf, Nadia. “Carving Out a Place for Yemen’s Women.” Yemen Times. January 10, 2012.
Yadav, Stacey Philbrick. “Tawakul Karman as Cause and Effect.” Middle East Research and Information Project. October 21, 2011.

Zuhur, Sherifa. Gender, Sexuality and the Criminal Laws in the Middle East and North Africa. Istanbul: WWHR, 2005.

3 Responses to “Islamist and Feminists and the Arab Revolutions”

  1. jhshannon March 9, 2012 at 3:26 am #

    This is an excellent analysis. I like your comment that “we should be vigilant about exposing intolerant attitudes by extreme Islamists, and even the moderate Islamists have prevented development from within their own ranks on resolutions to gender issues. Nevertheless, utilizing a binary frame of women’s rights activists and feminists versus Islamism or insisting on secularism as a precondition of new governments, will bring about no new analytical or operational space.” It’s hard for many to break through binary oppositions. I liked Mona el-Tahawy’s remark on the CNN interview today (yesterday?) that a key demand is that the constitutional councils in “liberated” states like Egypt have at least 50% representation by women. I doubt that could ever happen, but the numbers you mention are pathetic (about as pathetic as American number, actually). I’m under no illusion that everything would change rapidly were more women to be involved, but I have to believe that the end result would be better.
    Keep the posts a comin’!

    • Sherifa Zuhur March 9, 2012 at 4:26 am #

      Have been too preoccupied to post, but it is not a bad way to work up a talk (or two, the second is on “what is to be done” [by the feminists]). Honestly, there is no way to improve these numbers without a quota — which is why it was enacted in Morocco and why, women just haven’t been able to make it without one. The antediluvian public stance to women is the problem and so the Islamist parties, like Islah were actually being pragmatic in not allowing women to run — for the good of their party. With a quota, that calculation would not work, instead, they (or F & J) would demand their share & I think women could make a case for having a much larger share of independents. Oh, and to add, the proportion here in the US is still pathetic, but it got better when women created a system of working across parties on certain issues. Thank you for your feedback!

  2. Ruth Roded March 9, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    Very good article. The first issue – political participation of women is problematic because a cursory review of attempts to impose a quota – Palestine, post-Saddam Iraq – show that there are many patriarchal techniques to exclude women from the most important decision-making positions.

    It seems to me (as an outsider) that anti-violence campaigns are important issues that feminists and Islamists can rally around particularly since women’s votes are now important. I have anecdotal evidence that Hamas used this technique of describing violence against women as against Islam successfully in the last elections.

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