Arab Women…& the Walls of Injustice!
“The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and possessors of hearts, but ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals.” Rumi, Sufi Persian poet (1207-1273)
As uprisings broke out in the MENA region and people started demanding freedom, dignity and liberty in the streets many women were optimistic that their situation would change to better and they will obtain their basic rights. As Islamists came to power, most feminists lost hope in the new leaders, while others continued to struggle within the umbrella of these movements. Thus came the idea of “Islamic feminism”, though some reject this frame but I will define this concept and explain it in order to illustrate the challenges of this movement by using some historical facts and phrases from the Holy Quran. Furthermore I will argue how they can change and bring social progress from within our societies.
Current political and socio-economic challenges…
“A veil does not protect a women’s chastity. An education does.” Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi, Iraqi poet (1863-1936)
Women in the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) region face many challenges. One of the most prominent challenges is discrimination against women in education, public sphere, and gender-based domestic violence, which consequently affect women’s stability and security. While women feel threatened and insecure even under normal conditions, their current situation became more alarming due to political and economic instability in the region.
Unfortunately, during revolutions, unrest, upheaval, and war, the first victims are women. Women become the targets of sexual violence. When women come out in the streets for political protest, they are subjected to sexual violence. Lately in Cairo, women who came out into the streets to protest political conditions were subjected to sexual harassment and even rapes. Perpetrators make the street insecure for women in order to silence them. Meanwhile in Syria, some reports claimed that regime was using rape as a weapon of war to punish rebellious communities and push them to revengeful behavior and to carry arms. While some rebels, embracing the radical Islamist trends, are imposing harsh laws on women, pushing then back to the private sphere and to their traditional roles as caretakers of families and communities, and killing those who are rejecting these rules. In the Idlib town of Saraqeb, when the Jubhat al Nusra took control, the first thing they did was to force women and female journalists to wear the veil and imposed harsh Islamic laws on them. Even outside Syria, the situation of women is not secure inside the refugee camps. Dr Manal Tantamount, the director of the Institute for Family Health, in Jordanian Zaatari Syrian refugee camp, when asked about sexual violence targeting Syrian refuges, answered the following: “This is a conservative area. If you have been raped, you wouldn’t talk openly about it because you would be stigmatized for your entire life. The phenomenon is massively under-reported.” According to her only after a long process of building trust through one-on-one counseling sessions might a rape survivor talk. Of the 300 to 400 cases her clinics receive in a day, 100 are female victims of violence, mostly domestic.
While economically speaking, the economy of post-“Arab Spring” countries entered into a period of recession, thus leading to the closure of many companies and foreign regional enterprises. Women were on top of the list of employees to be fired and left without a source of income. Furthermore, many women lost their husbands during these uprisings when they were killed, displaced, or arrested. This doubled women’s burden as it became their responsibility to provide financial and emotional support to their families. Thus some of them women were subjected sexual harassment in their workplaces and have been left with no means to protect themselves due to an absence of laws to protect them.
Most Arab countries do not recognize the basic rights of women, such as the right to travel, grant citizenship to their children…Even when recognized on paper, they are rarely respected in practice. Thus on the social ground, in most Arab countries, it is practically impossible for women but quite easy for men to file for divorce. Laws, and even more clearly social values, condone so-called honor killings. With few exceptions, such as Jordan where the legal age for marriage was recently raised from 15 to 18, women can be married off by their parents at a very young age and without their consent. Moreover recently in Yemen, Human Rights Watch urged Yemen’s government to ban marriages of girls under 18. It said nearly 15% of Yemeni girls were married before the age of 15 and more than half before 18. HRW said many Yemeni child brides-to-be were being kept from school when they reached puberty. (Lately an 8 year old Yemeni girl was forced to marry a 40 year old man, and after marriage the girl died.) While in Somalia in 2008, in front of a crowd of a thousand people, a 13 year old girl was stoned to death for adultery after her family told local authorities that she had been raped. Progress in these areas is extremely slow, and there is much social resistance to the legal reforms introduced in some countries. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI’s proposal to give women greater equality, including the right to divorce, sparked large demonstrations by Islamist groups. Pro-reform demonstrations also took place, but the opponents of equality far outnumbered the supporters. Educated urban women in North Africa or Egypt encounter problems that are quite similar to those women confronted everywhere until recently, the slow breakdown of the barrier separating women’s and men’s roles, traditions that curtail the freedom of women under the guise of protecting them, and men’s resistance to the professional advancement of women.
Thus, it is not sufficient to talk about promoting the position of women in the Arab world, or increasing educational opportunities for them, there is a need of radical change in these societies and sometimes these changes must be imposed from the top.
Back to History and the misinterpretation of Quran
“I was brought up to believe that God is just. How can God be God if he is not just to women?” Zaina Anwar
In summer 2012 I have participated in the Vienna International Christian-Islamic Summer University, during the course “Islam and Gender” Dr. Nimat Hafez Barazangi told us that Quran never differentiated between male and woman, thus according to the Quran “male and female were created from a single soul”. Therefore when the first sin was committed, it was both Adam’s and Eve fault, they both were repented and then forgiven. Furthermore, the rights to own property, to get education, to work, to marry, to divorce are granted equally in the Quran and clearly practiced as such during the life of the Prophet Mohammad. Nowhere does the Quran affirm a difference based on race and gender in the endowment of intelligence, ethics, talents etc. Though in socio-economic matters Quran differentiates between genders but that was due to the cultural and tribal society and the bias towards men of the Arabs during the early ages of Islam.
In the West it is assumed that Islam imposes on women wearing veil but in reality it’s not. Muslim women probably began wearing the veil as a way to emulate the Prophet’s wives, who were referred as “the Mothers of the Ummah”. But the veil was neither compulsory nor widely adopted until generations after Mohammad’s death, when a large body of male scriptural and legal scholars began using their religious and political authority to regain the dominance they had lost in the society as a result of the Prophet’s egalitarian reforms. Some radical Muslim scholars claim that A’sha, the Prophet’s “rebellious” wife, went to the battlefield at the head of the army that challenged the legitimacy of the fourth orthodox Caliph, Ali, is another reason why these scholars claim women should not occupy high military or political positions. Scholars such as Sa’id al-Afghani claim that A’sha’s act was a bid’a, an act of errant behavior, thus A’sha, according to him, proves that “woman was not created for poking her nose into politics”. Many Muslim men who are aware of this issue, support this idea by claiming that “women can’t have responsibly in military or public affairs because of this historical example, which lead to the eruption of the ‘fitna’, civil war and divisions in the Muslim family”. Thus according to these scholars, women were the roots of the ‘fitna’ in Islam. Of course, this is exaggeration based on one event, and Islamic history proves that women can play important roles politics and religion in the Abbasside and Fatimid Caliphates. Even before Islam was born, the Queens of Cartage and Syria played important role in public affairs and actually were the first to introduce codes about rights of the citizens and organize elections in their kingdom.
Thus we can conclude that Islam is not the root of gender inequality. It’s the different interpretations of the Islamic scriptures that structured the society in a way where there is bias towards men over women. As Fatima Mernissi notes, behind every hadith (sayings of the Prophet) lies the entrenched power struggles and conflicting interests that one would expect in a society “in which social mobility and geographical expansion were the order of the day”. That is why interpretations of the Quranic scriptures play a big role in the private life of Muslim societies.
In her book, “The Veil and the Male Elite”, Fatima Mernissi quotes Muhammad Arafa by saying: “At the beginning of Islam, Muslim women played no role in public affairs, despite all the rights that Islam gave them, despite all the rights that Islam gave them…When the Companions of the Prophet consulted among themselves after his death to name his successor, at the meeting known as that of ‘Saqifat Bani Sai’da’, no women at all are said to have participated.”Thus during this period we can realize that Arab women lost a key opportunity and thus the exclusion of women from public affairs was not just the ignorance of men but also the fault of women. Actually Simon de Beviour, in her book , “The Second Sex” she criticized the patriarchal society but also indirectly she raised the question that why women accepted this humiliation and haven’t rebelled against this injustice, thus the passivity of women encouraged men to exclude them and occupy high positions and dominate women. Same thing happened in the Islamic history.
Many Arabs and Muslims forget or dismiss that the Prophet said “do not beat your women”, according to al-Tabari; “The Prophet never raised his hand against one of his wives, nor against a slave…The only time when the Prophet was confronted with a domestic revolt, a rebellion by some of his wives, not only did he not beat them, but he preferred to leave home and move for a month to a room adjoining the mosque.”
Unfortunately, many Muslims don’t read the words of the Prophet they prefer to take sentences from the Quran or read interpretations or read fatwas from radical preachers. Thus religious and social education plays important role in our society and one needs to take into consideration the cultural and political context in the period where the Quran was written.
“Islamic Feminism”… a solution?
“Yes we deserve all these rights and more, because Muhammad said that ‘Paradise lies beneath a mother’s feet.’ ”
For many Islamists, women’s empowerment-social, economic or political, represents nothing more than a slippery slope toward Western decadence and godless secularism, toward widespread adultery and prostitution and the end of family life. On these grounds, some religious and tribal leaders resist girl’s education, and powerful Islamists pressure groups have successfully protected unequal laws in the name of upholding shari’a, particularly in the realm of family law. Linking feminism with the heresy of the West, they try to turn patriarchy into patriotism. This is what makes Muslim feminism a potentially powerful force for women’s rights, since in undercuts the argument that feminism is an illegitimate Western influence. Given the cultural, religious, social and political sensitivities to women’s empowerment, as well as the negative connotations of secular feminism and the ascendance of political Islam in the region, Islamic feminism may very well be the most promising way to promote gender justice across the MENA region. Popular or not, women’s empowerment remains a crucial aspect of development in these countries.
So what is “Islamic feminism”, how is it evolving, and who are the players? Dr Margot Badran, a graduate of al-Azhar University and Oxford University, defines “Islamic feminism” as:
“…a concise definition of Islamic feminism gleaned from the writings and work of Muslim protagonists as a feminist discourse and practice that derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeking rights and justice within the framework of gender equality for women and men in the totality of their existence. Islamic feminism explicates the idea of gender equality as part and parcel of the Quranic notion of equality of all human beings and calls for the implementation of gender equality in the state, civil institutions, and everyday life. It rejects the notion of a public/private dichotomy (by the way, absent in early Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh) conceptualizing a holistic Umma in which Quranic ideals are operative in all space.”
Something should be clear that, “Islamic feminism” is not simply a feminism that is born from Muslim cultures, but one that engages Islamic theology through the text and canonical traditions. A distinctly “Islamic” feminism, at its core, draws on the Quranic concept of equality of all human beings, and insists on the application of this theology to everyday life. Islamic feminists try to differentiate between the universal values that the Quran was trying to promote and the context that was specific to seventh-century Arabia. Instead of pointing to Islam as the inherent root of female discrimination, Islamic feminists identify state actors or elites as leaders who manipulate Islam for their own politics ends, often oppressing large segments of society, including women, in the process. In addition, they embrace their faith, culture and tradition while fiercely advocating for legislative reforms and interpretations that reflect a more modern understanding of the woman’s role in society. Thus we can say that Islamic feminism is a global movement in which women turn to the Quran and Prophetic traditions to argue that women are fully human and equal to their male counterparts.
“Feminist scholarship in Islam as in any other religious tradition has a lot to offer to both the understanding of religion and the search for justice. Women advocating Islamic feminism assert that shari’a principles like qiwama could have several different interpretations, yet throughout history male elites have used and interpreted the law in a perversion of justice for their own ends,” Ziba Mir Hosseni, one of the foremost Islamic feminist scholars, explained. Many Islamic feminists are strong proponents of “ijtihad”, the process of arriving at new interpretations of Islamic law through critical reasoning, rather than blindly following the views of past scholars. In the early centuries of Islam, the process of “ijtihad” helped shape Islamic Law. But over centuries, the literalists gained ground, leading to what some have referred to as a “closing of the gates of ijtihad” among more orthodox Sunni schools.
Today many Islamic feminists are playing an important role in questioning who has the right to interpret that religion. Some are demanding more of a say inside the mosque. Others are working with local nongovernmental organizations to promote women’s rights within Islamic societies. Activists are spreading Islamic feminists thinking across borders. Satellite television shows are forcing discussion about conventional interpretations of religion, subtly bringing Islamic feminism into people’s living rooms. Women are moving up the ranks at Cairo’s al Azhar. They are studying jurisprudence in Qom, Iran’s religious center. In Morocco, they are training murshidat, female religious leaders able to do everything that a male does except lead the prayers in the mosque. The time is changing…
Islamists taking over in Tunisia and Egypt forgot that the “Arab Spring” was first and foremost a spring of dignity equality and justice. All they can think is how to make Islam and shari’a the predominant features underlining all decisions and rhetoric, ignoring the dignity of women and their rights. Already because of their ignorant steps Islamist regimes are being shaken such as in Tunisia, and others overthrown as in Egypt.
Our youth must keep in mind that the struggle for women’s rights is the core struggle to achieve democracy and vice-versa. Democracy is not only about the ballots. When elections bring a ruler who is obsessed with putting more chains on women and their bodies, it only means one thing: democracy is incomplete and freedom is still farfetched.
Thus, if the revolutions take place at the same time as ongoing practices that disallow women to travel alone, or drive a car, and even force them to undergo virginity tests, then they are useless and counter-revolutions must be organized. Furthermore, we must go so far by saying that such revolutions need intervention and upgrade by cultures and renewal of religious faith which liberates women from their traditional unjust patriarchal socio-cultural-religious chains.
It’s about time; we must rise up and break the walls of injustice.
 Marina Ottaway, Women’s rights and democracy in Arab world, Carnegie papers, number 42, February 2004, pp. 3-7
Phoebe Greenwood, Rape and domestic violence follow Syrian women into refugee camps, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/25/rape-violence-syria-women-refugee-camp, 10/7/2013
Challenges to women’s security in MENA region, edited by Kendra Heideman and Mona Youssef, Windrow Wilson Center pp. 7-9
 Yemen child marriage: minister calls for ban after death of eight-year-old girl, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/sep/18/yemen-child-marriage-ban, 21/9/2013
 Isobel Coleman, Paradise Beneath Her Feet, How women are transforming the Middle East, 2013,p. 7
 Reza Aslan, No God But God, The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, p.67
 Reza Aslan, No God But God, The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, p.68
Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite, 1991, pp. 4-6
 Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite, 1991, pp. 156-157
 Isobel Coleman, Paradise Beneath Her Feet, How women are transforming the Middle East, 2013,pp. 12-13
 Rachelle Fawcette, The reality and the future of Islamic feminism, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/03/201332715585855781.html, 15/8/2013
 Rachelle Fawcette, The reality and the future of Islamic feminism, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/03/201332715585855781.html, 15/8/2013
Colleen Boland, Islamic Feminism; Fighting discrimination inspired by faith, http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/columns/article/islamic-feminism-fighting-discrimination-inspired-by-faith_11257, 18/8/2013
 Isobel Coleman, Paradise Beneath Her Feet, How women are transforming the Middle East, 2013,p.35