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Islamist and feminist: A new generation stakes its claim

shift in thought

Citing the Quran and demanding their rights, devout Muslim women are asserting their status as feminists. But they face opposition from some Islamist men and secular women.

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Women marked the seventh anniversary of the toppling of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 14. Women Islamists played a leading role in Tunisia's democratic transition after the Arab Spring.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

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Alaa Khaled finds nothing unusual about being both a devout Muslim and a women’s activist, insisting she is an activist because she is a Muslim.

Wearing traditional clothing and a hijab, with a Jordanian flag draped over her shoulders, the 26-year-old says she makes sure her voice is the loudest at protests.

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“As a Muslim it is incumbent on me to fight for social justice for my country, my citizens, and my gender,” Ms. Khaled says while protesting austerity measures and taxes in Jordan in recent demonstrations that brought down the prime minister.

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“Fighting against injustice and inequality, fighting for human rights and women’s rights – these are not just my political causes,” Khaled says. “These are the pillars of my faith.”

The concept of Islamic feminism, a push for gender equality rooted in Islam, has been around for over a century.

Yet with the rise of Islamist movements since the 2011 Arab Spring, a new generation of Islamist women – parliamentarians, activists, and civil society leaders across the Arab world – are putting the theory into practice, using their faith to combat social norms and archaic laws they say have deprived them of rights enshrined in the Quran itself.

Although the concept takes many forms, at the core of Islamic feminism are explicit passages in the Quran denoting the equality of all human beings. Activists call for the implementation of gender equality, in line with the Quran, in the state, the private sector, society, the family, and in everyday life. 

Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist trained at Brandeis University, is considered the godmother of modern Islamic feminism. Her studies in the 1970s and 80s assert that it was a male-dominated interpretation of the religion, shaped and influenced by the very patriarchal cultures Islam sought to reform, that stripped Muslim women of their rights and power.

Tunisia

In the post-Arab Spring rise of Islamist parties across the Arab world, the strongest example of Islamist feminists’ new influence has been in the Arab Spring’s most dramatic success story: Tunisia.

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There, women Islamists played a leading role in the country’s democratic transition: 42 out of the 49 women elected to the 2011 National Constituent Assembly that later drafted Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution were from the Islamist Ennahda party.

While Ennahda’s rise to power stoked fears among secular Tunisians of a rollback of women’s rights, those concerns proved unfounded.

In 2011, Tunisia’s women Islamists reached across the aisle to secular and leftist feminists to pass a bill requiring gender parity in national elections, mandating that half of parties’ candidates be women. In 2016, they teamed up again to pass a second bill requiring an equal number of men and women on the ballot in municipal elections.

When the Tunisian government introduced a bill protecting women from domestic violence and gender-based discrimination, Ennahda joined feminists in championing the legislation – its representatives in parliament voted unanimously in support of the bill, ensuring its historic passage last year.

Yet their most important contribution was in the drafting of Tunisia’s constitution.

In 2014, Mehrezia Labidi, a senior Ennahda MP and head of the parliamentary women and family committee, played a key role in drafting Article 46, a constitutional article guaranteeing gender equality, equal rights, protection against gender-based violence, and gender parity in all elected bodies. It was a watershed for Arab women’s rights.

“Men and women have equal rights in Islam, it is the men’s interpretation of the religion that has led us astray,” Ms. Labidi told the Monitor in an interview from her office in Tunis early this year. The revolution was a chance, she and others say, to prove that women’s rights are not exclusive to secular Western feminism.

“Why am I obliged to only seek empowerment from outside my religion?” Labidi asked. “Instead, I want to re-appropriate my religion and re-empower myself and other women who are empowered by Islam.”

Morocco

There has also been an Islamist women’s spring in Morocco, where King Mohammed VI enacted democratic reforms amid intense protests in 2011, allowing the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) to form a government.

Women feature prominently in the Islamist movement’s electoral lists; the majority of the 81 women MPs in the Moroccan parliament belong to the PJD. Experts say the PJD and Ennahda practice what they preach, with near gender parity within their organizations.

“Participating in a more open democratic society has opened these movements up for women leaders and candidates who ascribe to an Islamic concept of feminism and who were previously sidelined,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, a Jordanian expert in Islamist movements.

There have been solid first steps for Moroccan Islamic feminists. When Morocco amended its constitution in 2011, women pushed for an article barring gender discrimination. This February, Morocco passed a law criminalizing “acts of harassment, aggression, sexual exploitation or ill treatment” of women.

Meanwhile, Moroccan Islamist feminists have been pushing further, backing reform of Islamic-based inheritance laws that give men twice the share of their female relatives – putting the feminists at odds with the religious establishment in Morocco.

Jordan

Islamist women, and other activist Muslim women, have also begun shaping the conversation on women’s rights in Jordan, home to both a tribal society and one of the most socially conservative Islamist groups in the Arab world.

Last August, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, voted for the historic repeal of an article in the country’s penal code allowing rapists to marry their victims to avoid punishment.

They argued that the article, along with many regressive laws on Jordan’s books concerning women, “came from a tribal and traditional culture,” not from Islam.

“In Jordan we are battling conservative tribal traditions that people try to mask as religion,” says Dima Tahboub, an IAF member of parliament. “It is up to us women, Muslim women, to tear down the misconceptions and bring back the empowerment and rights guaranteed in Islam.”

Ms. Tahboub is now campaigning to grant Jordanian women married to foreigners the right to pass on citizenship to their children – using Islamic and moral arguments that it is wrong to deny constitutional rights to women and their children.

“Women’s rights are not concessions for these Islamists groups; most of these causes can be justified by Islamist organizations within their ideology as they are less based in theology and are more pragmatic,” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert in Islamist movements.

Differing views

While Islamic feminism is seemingly flourishing in many Arab countries, experts and women activists themselves warn that it is not a unified movement and that they do not agree on all core issues.

For example, while Islamist feminists in Morocco are working to overhaul inheritance laws, others, such as Tahboub in Jordan and Labidi in Tunisia, argue that families and male citizens should have the choice to either follow Islamic teachings or set a more generous distribution for female relatives.

Then there is the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Ennahda and the Jordanian Brotherhood oppose CEDAW, which they claim imposes a Western concept of family values on Islamic societies, while other Islamic feminists see the convention as compatible with Islam.

And there are questions on how far feminists can go in Islamist movements that remain largely patriarchal and can have at times a condescending approach to women within their ranks.

“The first explicit mention of women’s rights is in Islam. What these women are doing is not new, but it is important,” says Ibrahim Hassan, a Brotherhood member from Amman who has been active in the movement for more than 20 years.

“But while we are for women’s rights, we are against ‘equality,’ ” he says.

“God made men and women different for a reason; we must respect women, listen to them, learn from them – but they cannot do all men’s work or be effective in certain leadership positions.”

“We see any attempt to tell society both genders are equal as a scheme by seculars and the regime to crack down on religion.”

Such attitudes can be reflected in the makeup of Islamist parties themselves. In Jordan’s Brotherhood, women serve in parliament and have run as mayoral candidates but hold virtually no leadership positions. In the Egyptian Brotherhood, women were scarcely visible – or even involved – with its short-lived government. Even Ennahda, the most progressive of Arab Islamist movements, has a small minority of women in its top governing councils.  

Meanwhile, Islamist feminists’ ability to find common ground with their secular counterparts remains a challenge.

Secular women activists have expressed both hope and frustration with Islamist feminists. Tunisian and Jordanian activists privately admit that they wish to cooperate further with Islamists but remain wary of their agenda – with their objection to CEDAW being a “deal breaker” for many who wish to join forces.

Yet Islamist feminists say they remain pragmatic, and insist that pushing for greater rights is both a moral and religious duty – one that can be carried out on either side of the religious-secular divide.

“Arab regimes deprived us of our rights and distanced us from our religion,” says Khaled, the Jordanian activist. “The more we march toward equality, the closer we are to Islam.”