Strategies of Resistance

Women contesting Islamist movements in the Arab world

By Leila Hessini
Summer 2006

Indigenous demands for political change and democratic reform are permeating the Arab world. Pictures of women climbing through voting station windows to cast their ballots in last year’s Egyptian elections were widely published as were photographs of long lines of Kuwaiti women issuing the first votes of their lives. Women have lobbied for quota systems to ensure a certain percentage of women candidates in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. In several countries, they occupy key ministerial positions and serve as judges. Another central component of democratic processes is the proliferation of independent, nongovernmental feminist and women’s organizations. (While the number of women joining Islamist groups or those who define themselves as “Islamist feminists” has also increased, this article focuses on independent women scholars and activists.) Women scholars and activists argue that democracy is not solely about elections but includes a more equitable distribution of resources and the overturning of de jure and de facto gender discrimination.

But while women’s political participation has never been greater, the Islamist winners of elections in the Arab world often seek to undermine the same democratic process that has put them in power and made women’s newly achieved gains possible. Capitalizing on widespread discontent with the ruling elite and benefiting from a deep social base in mosques and religious organizations, Islamists—of which there are many types, but all can be linked by the following traits: their call for the use of Shariah or Islamic law, their fight against “corrupt regimes” and their focus on women as repositories of an ideal Muslim identity—have built an impressive electoral track record. In late 2005, the political party Hamas secured a landslide parliamentary victory in the Occupied Territories of Palestine. In the same year, the Moroccan Islamist Party of Justice and Democracy finished third in legislative elections and the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 percent of the seats in Egyptian elections—even while its leaders were jailed and election fraud was rampant. Elsewhere, Jordan’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) captured a quarter of the seats in 2003 legislation elections. And the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front won the first round of legislative elections in 1990, touching off a civil war that killed more than 120,000.

Organizations like the Egyptian Women and Memory Forum are documenting women’s voices through an oral history project, creating new knowledge about key women figures in the past and the present and disseminating it through popular education and community outreach.

While women are a quintessential focus of Islamists, the challenges confronting Arab women—including gender inequality, violence and the political use of religion—are faced by women across the globe and have nothing inherently to do with Islam. A selective and decontextualized interpretation of history—and women’s roles therein—is used to support Islamists’ current positions toward women. Hamas’ website states that women’s roles are “looking after the family, rearing the children and imbuing them with moral values and thoughts derived from Islam.” The Muslim Brotherhood requires women to cover every part of their bodies, except for the face and hands; otherwise they are considered “naked.” Algerian Islamists attacked and killed women who held positions—such as hairdressers or writers—that were considered “un-Islamic” and women were given two choices: “Wear the hijab (veil) or face the gun.” For years, Islamists in the Gulf states blocked legislation allowing women to vote or hold elected office.

The efforts of Arab women’s organizations have evolved in the context of new global and local challenges—including the rise of Islamists. Efforts to promote gender equality in the context of the increased politicization of Islam incorporate four interrelated strategies: i) breaking the monopoly on patriarchal religious interpretation; ii) challenging legal discrimination; iii) defying taboos on issues such as violence against women and iv) working to address social and economic disparities.

Whose Islam?

Different lenses can be used to read Islamic religious texts. Muslim women scholars and activists are reclaiming the right to reread and reinterpret religious texts in light of contemporary realities and universal values. This right has traditionally been the monopoly of self appointed religious leaders and government spokespersons who often use a patriarchal and ahistoric interpretation of Islam to support their positions toward women. It is usually agreed that Islam accorded women rights that were nonexistent in pre-Islam Arabia, but after the Prophet’s death, conservative ulemas (Muslim scholars) codified patriarchal interpretations of religious verses into Shariah law.

Women scholars are taking the lead in distinguishing the values of gender equality and women’s rights in the Quran and the hadiths (the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) from patriarchal interpretations of Islam. Through archival research, scholars like Fatima Mernissi are unearthing women role models in Muslim history, including the Prophet’s third wife, Aish’a, who participated in politics and was one of the main authorities on hadiths. These endeavors situate Quranic revelations and the hadith in their historical context and show that women served as religious scholars and imams in medieval Islam and should have the right to do so today. A woman founded the first center of Islamic studies—al-Karouine university— in Fez, Morocco, in 859 and women such as Bint al-Shati have served as renowned professors of tafir—or Quranic interpretation in Islamic universities. Moroccan lawyers Zineb Miadi and Farida Bennani published a dictionary on gender equality and women’s rights in Islam. Organizations like the Egyptian Women and Memory Forum are documenting women’s voices through an oral histories project, creating new knowledge about key women figures in the past and the present and disseminating it through popular education and community outreach.

Contemporary research relies on a foundation left by earlier women activists, writers and scholars. By the mid-1920s, more than 30 women’s journals existed in Lebanon and Egypt, and the first women’s independent and feminist organization, the Egyptian Feminist Union, was created. The Women and Memory Forum has republished the memoirs and writings of pioneer Egyptian women to demonstrate that women have been active publicly, have written from their vantage points and have been feminists. Such research and advocacy efforts show that feminist perspectives and demands were integral to Arab history.

The creation of women’s studies programs in national universities in the Arab world is part of attempts to institutionalize alternative knowledge and gender sensitive approaches. Beginning in the mid-1990s, programs were launched in Palestine (the University of Birzeit); Morocco (the University of Rabat); and Egypt (the Gender and Women’s Studies Institute in Cairo).

Challenging Legal Discrimination

While most countries in the Arab world have predominantly secular laws, the personal status codes (or family codes) are derived from Shariah. These laws are based on antiquated notions of the family and women’s and men’s roles therein. Due to advocacy initiatives of women’s organizations, governments in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco have made important reforms to discriminatory legislation, and men and women are increasingly being recognized as equals in many aspects of family law.

Women scholars and activists are questioning key religious arguments that are being used to support discrimination, including unequal rights to divorce and inheritance. Men have traditionally benefited from a unilateral right to divorce even though there is no Quranic justification for this practice. Women’s groups have fought this injustice by showing that what are considered traditional laws are, in fact, modern approaches to codifying legal status between men and women.

Likewise, women have studied the historic texts and point out that women were allowed to inherit half of that of men in the seventh century—a notion that would have seemed revolutionary at the time in Europe. The rationale for unequal inheritance was that men, unlike women, had legal financial obligations. Given the likelihood that today’s women earn incomes, scholars have urged reinterpretation of the appropriate Quranic verse to ensure inheritance is equally shared between men and women.

Polygamy is another focus of women’s groups. While the Quran allows a man to take up to four wives, it stipulates that he can only do so if he can treat them equally. Islamic jurists are therefore divided over whether to ban polygamy, allow it with certain restrictions or allow it without restriction. Women’s groups have argued that since no one is able to treat all wives equally, polygamy should be abolished. This strategy was used in Tunisia, which banned the practice in 1956; studies show that this decision has strengthened conjugal ties, reinforced women’s rights and provided a context of increased security for children.

The Moroccan case bears mentioning. In 2004, it enacted sweeping changes to its personal status code due to revised interpretations of Islam and support for gender equality. The revisions include:

  • increasing the age of marriage for women from 15 to 18
  • establishing the right to divorce by mutual consent
  • mandating that husband and wife carry responsibility for family matters
  • placing polygamy and unilateral divorce by men in judicial hands
  • repealing a wife’s duty to obey her husband
  • abolishing the requirement of a marital guardian for women to marry and
  • acknowledging children’s right to paternity in cases where marriage has not been officially registered

Several key elements contributed to these changes. Women scholars and activists created issue-specific coalitions to research the discriminatory aspects of the previous code and their impact on women’s lives. This process engaged multiple stakeholders including policy makers, politicians, media representatives, human rights experts and women’s leaders. Building pragmatic alliances was critical; in the words of Moroccan activist Rabea Naciri, in October 2005, “we were radical in our demands and pragmatic during moments of debate.” Key to reform efforts was the political support of Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who also carries the religious title of Commander of the Faithful. Religious, social and legal justifications for reforms were developed; public discussions were encouraged and the media was used strategically through radio shows, talk shows and symbolic courts. Comic strips were used to raise community awareness and promote popular education.

Defying Taboos

As few reliable statistics exist on gender based violence in the Arab world, women’s groups have documented harmful practices toward women. One in three women have been victims of violence in Egypt; 51 percent and 43 percent of Moroccan women believe that violence is justified if a woman argues with her husband or refuses to have sexual relations with him. These studies demonstrate that violence is deeply rooted in societal norms—including gender roles and expectations—and codified in legal systems that discriminate against women. Violence is often sanctioned by patriarchal interpretations of the Quran, including the belief in male authority over women. In addition to researching and analyzing the types, magnitude and consequences of domestic violence, advocates and programs are assisting women through legal aid projects; providing shelters and employment for survivors of violence and training law enforcement agents, health professionals and educators to recognize the signs of violence.

The paradox of the US simultaneously encouraging democracy in the Arab world while illegally invading one country and supporting the illegal occupation of another is lost on no one — and certainly not the Islamists whose social and financial base is only strengthened as a result.

Creating programs that do not treat “women” as a homogenous category but seek to respond to their different realities and needs is critical. In the occupied territories of Palestine, the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling addresses both gender-based violence and the effects of increased militarization and occupation on women’s lives. Groups working in Sudan have documented the systematic and deliberate abuse of women, including the use of rape, during times of war. Algerian organizations link the atrocities that were committed during the civil war to the general culture of violence that makes gender-based violence so endemic in that country. In Egypt, the organization Shumuu (meaning candles) has launched a campaign against sexual violence and discrimination of women with mental and physical disabilities.

Several innovative projects are being conducted in Morocco. Women’s groups work together with a woman headed publishing house to research and disseminate landmark studies on violence against women. Jargon-free and easy-to-read books and guides have been written by groups such as the Moroccan Association of Democratic Women and the Centre fama on sexual harassment in schools and universities, legal discrimination and women’s testimonies of violence. Building on these efforts is Anaruz, a Moroccan national network of 20 legal aid and counseling centers for women.

Addressing Social and Economic Inequities

Islamists have been successful in the political arena because they present utopian visions of societal cohesion and provide services in marginalized and underdeveloped areas where the government is absent. Women’s groups counter Islamists’ conservative vision by developing programs to alleviate poverty, improve maternal and preventative health and increase access to education and labor-saving technologies. The Palestinian Development Society is developing innovative programs to address women’s economic, social and psychological conditions in refugee camps. In Egypt, the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW) supports women’s empowerment programs, including microcredit and women’s equality in financial matters. And the Zakoura foundation has developed a network of home-based classrooms as a solution to the school drop-out rates among Moroccan girls.

Women’s groups have also advocated for the protection of female workers; as a result, labor codes have been introduced that are often more progressive than those in the United States. Laws mandate the provision of maternity leave in the public sector (two months in Tunisia, three in Algeria and Egypt) and on-site day care and nursing rooms are required if a company hires more than 50 employees. Sexual harassment in the workplace is a criminal offense in Morocco.

Global Influences

While demands for democratization and gender equality in the Arab world are indigenous, they are also influenced by global politics. The region has been at the epicenter of recent geopolitical changes that have affected the world: the fall of communism, the entrenched Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 9/11 and its aftermath and the invasion of Iraq. In this context, the success of the Islamists is no surprise. Seeds were planted during the Cold War when the US colluded with ruling Arab elites to support Islamists to counter communist and socialist opposition. It is the logical result of post-Cold War politics where the absence of an overarching “enemy” has resulted in incoherent policies that create “otherness” where it doesn’t exist and where we wage wars today against our allies of yesterday. The inversion of reality is indispensable for US strategies: war is peace, occupation is liberation and Islam is oppression. The war on terrorism is framed in language of support for “democratic reform.” The paradox of the US simultaneously encouraging democracy in the Arab world while illegally invading one country and supporting the illegal occupation of another is lost on no one—and certainly not the Islamists whose social and financial base is only strengthened as a result.

The resilience of women scholars and activists and their ability to continually adapt homegrown models of feminism and activism to new global and local challenges is admirable. Women’s organizations are situating their demands in a historic, cultural and religious framework that presents an alternative to the Islamists’ model of what it means to be a Muslim woman. They are holding their governments accountable to universal standards and working to oppose global policies— ranging from neoliberal models of development to US interventionism—that undermine human rights. Recognition and support for independent women’s groups as the bearers of some of the most progressive changes in the region could go a long way toward building true democracy—a democracy built on gender equality, redistribution of resources and a more just future for all.

Leila Hessini is an American of Algerian origin. She works for Ipas, a global reproductive rights organization. She is currently based in Rabat, Morocco.

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