As Islamist political groups continue to make gains in Middle East elections, women activists are evaluating their strategy to improve their roles to help form new governments and to strive for equality. The minefield facing Muslim women is whether to embrace a secular or Islamic feminist approach to achieve their goals and to gain a foothold in Arab politics. Observing from the sidelines are women in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain hoping for answers to forge their own feminist path. But the 400-pound gorilla in the room that gives women pause is the Egyptian military’s organized campaign of sexual violence and the sexual harassment in the Saudi media of outspoken feminists.
Women in other Arab countries are experiencing varying levels of violence and harassment to crush their own rights campaigns. The emerging role of women – and the physical and rhetorical violence that color that role – has highlighted the gulf between secular feminists who embrace the Western ideal of a liberal democracy and Islamic feminists seeking to shape their future within the context of religion. However, the secular approach to women’s rights is a luxury few Muslim women in the Middle East care to indulge in.
Secular feminism has never held much attraction for Muslim women forging a place in the Middle East’s patriarchal society. For one, the baggage of secular feminism is too great. It is perceived among Muslims as loosening morals and threatening family cohesion. Justified or not, it is also seen as encouraging women to abandon the hijab and modest dress. At a time when Muslim women activists need the support of men in powerful positions, a secular movement not only would fail, but also roll back progress.
The reemergence of the Egyptian Feminist Union following a 60-year ban is encouraging, but there are worrying signs from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom Party. The Brotherhood’s Azza Al-Garf, who is among only five women elected to the new 500-member Egyptian Parliament, has taken a regressive position on women’s rights. She argues that women should marry, procreate and remain separated from men. Reforming divorce laws is not her priority. The Salafists’ Al-Nour Party has given similar indications.
It is this environment where women activists tread carefully. More palatable to Muslim women is an Islamic feminist movement that seeks to marginalize cultural and tribal influence and grant women rights guaranteed in the Qur’an. Islamic feminism is not a new or novel concept. Iranian scholars Afsaneh Najmabadeh and Ziba Mir-Hosseini pioneered Islamic feminism in the early 1990s. Saudi scholar Mai Yamani popularized the concept in her 1996 book, Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives.
However, Islamic feminism has stalled since 9/11. It has gained little traction in the Western media that often confuses Islam with cultural and tribal oppression of women. The Arabic press conflates Islamic feminism with the secular women’s movement. In Saudi Arabia, for example, feminism is deemed a threat to society. It doesn’t help that the influential Islamic scholar and women’s rights ally Mohammad Akram Nadwi implied in his recent book, Al-Muhaddithat: the Women Scholars in Islam, that secular and Islamic feminism are a single movement with a common goal to give women all that men have.
To tamp down the burgeoning movement, government-controlled Arab media and shadow military forces in some countries attempt to intimidate activists. Egypt continues to wage a brutal war against women challenging the patriarchal order. Under Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government waged a systemic campaign of sexual violence against women activists in 2005. The military then initiated so-called virginity tests for female protesters in 2011. Secular feminist Egyptian-American Mona Eltahawy says the tests are nothing more than rape with a foreign object. Egyptian women responded by developing HarassMap, an initiative that helps women report sexual assaults and harassment through text messaging. The organization reports that more than 80% of the Egyptian women have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted since the overthrow of Mubarak.
Systemic sexual violence is absent in Saudi Arabia, but organized media campaigns have targeted Saudi women challenging conservative clerics, male abuse of power and draconian guardianship laws. A judge recently demanded the government revoke Saudi journalist Nadine Albodair’s citizenship when she complained in a television interview about Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban and abuses by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The Arabic language daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat responded to her interview not to address her concerns, but evaluate her body and sexual appeal.
In 2009, 13 Saudi women journalists filed libel complaints with the Ministry of Interior following a report by the online newspaper Kul Al-Watan that “women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.” Male readers almost daily write obscene comments about high-profile Muslim women in the sensationalistic online Saudi newspapers Al-Weeam and Sabq. Attacking the morality of women and bringing shame to their families have proven a useful tool to quiet advocacy for Saudi women’s rights. Leading women activists who were vocal last June during the women driving ban demonstration have toned down their advocacy after the Saudi government implemented tougher media and speech laws and journalists waged ad hominem attacks, including doubts about their religious faith.
Yet the greater weapon to silence critics who say that Arab feminists seek to destroy the moral fabric of the Ummah is the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations described at a recent Arab women’s rights conference in New York that Islam is the “cultural touchstone” that allows women to argue for rights that address child marriage, polygamy and education. By using the Qur’an to counter patriarchal interpretations, Islamic feminists have the ability to introduce discussions about rights without the secular revolutionary rhetoric that threatens government institutions. It has also helped that the literacy rate has improved dramatically for young Saudi women, who once relied on the men in their family to interpret the Qur’an. The literacy rate for Saudi females between the ages of 15 and 24 has risen from 81.7% in 1992 to 96.5% in 2009. Coleman points out that this grassroots movement challenges conservative traditions and provides the necessary steppingstone to gain rights.
Muslim women living in conservative cultures that have marginal contact with the West recognize that the mere label of being a feminist spells trouble. Adopting secular feminist language that eschews religion and promotes a woman’s personal goals above the family is likely to leave a woman’s reputation in tatters and shaming her family, which is no small thing in Arab culture. Although the label of Islamic feminist carries the similar dangers, Saudi women avoid the discussion of feminism and frame women’s rights as an Islamic obligation while at the same time appealing to the better nature of men.
Since the fall of 2011, the Saudi Ministry of Education has tightened its rules that require female university students to have a male guardian living with them while studying in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Many young Saudi women send their guardians home, and live and study independently. The enforcement of the rules has stricken these women with the fear of losing their government scholarships. It forced them to beg to have their guardians return. The issue received considerable attention in the Saudi press.
Although Islam requires women to have a guardian during travel, there are no other mandates once the woman arrives at her destination. Almost to a man, male journalists endorse the Saudi interpretation of guardianship as vital to protect Saudi society. And with few exceptions, Saudi female university students see it as simply male control. Yet the guardianship issue opens a window for Saudi women to loosen patriarchal dominance by arguing there is no religious justification for infantilizing women. By appealing to institutions to replace patriarchal interpretations of Islam with a more gender-neutral approach, women secure a foothold that leads to greater participation in society.