Reformist Women Thinkers in Islamic Societies

Cover story, Centerpoint, July-August 2009

Jul 01, 2009

For more than five decades, women activists in the Islamic world have sought to elevate the status of women. Changes in family law occurred as some societies moved toward secularism, as happened in Tunisia in 1956 and as introduced in Iran in 1967 within the framework of the shar'iah (Islamic law).

Discussion of gender issues has evolved into what is permissible within an Islamic context. What place does reform have in modern Islamic societies? Would incremental steps toward reform satisfy the demands of women activists?

Some reformist women consider themselves feminists. Some say they are human rights or scholar activists. Some prefer no label at all. Reformist women work in both secular and Islamic states. They span the spectrum from urban professionals to grassroots workers throughout the countryside.

A Middle East Program conference in May took a fresh look at reformist women and their efforts to improve women's rights and status in a number of countries. Female scholars and practitioners from around the world participated in panel discussions to examine Islamic feminism.

New Ideas for the 21st Century
Introducing the meeting, Middle East Program Director Haleh Esfandiari said violations of women's rights in the Middle East and North Africa have yet to be fully examined. They only get attention when they happen to coincide with political interests. She called for a consistent approach. Women are at the forefront of reformulating traditional Islamic views regarding women, she said, and "what these women think, write, and say matters." Their ideas can and do reshape their status and rights and how women are perceived in the Islamic world.

Offering a historical perspective, Margot Badran, senior fellow at Georgetown University and a 2008-09 Wilson Center fellow, said Muslim reformists appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Asia and Africa. They were most successful in pushing for gender equality in education, work, and political rights and least successful in gaining reforms in family law.

In the later decades of the 20th century, Badran said, with the rising forces of political Islam, Islamists branded feminism as western and an assault on religion, culture, and Islam. In recent decades, a new paradigm and a range of questions emerged, as Muslim feminists reinterpreted the Qur'an, finding gender equality embedded in the scripture and in other religious texts. Secular and Islamic feminisms recently have blurred, she said, which is having transformational effects.

The last bastions of inequality in Muslim societies are found in the family and in religious ritual, said Amina Wadud of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism in Jakarta, Indonesia. "The Qur'an emphasizes that as humans, we have a choice," she said, and there is a "moral, spiritual mandate" to change women's status. "Reform of gender relations in their social and cultural context…requires reform in the ways we think about God, or Allah," which she said has been based on the male experience. By including a gender equal understanding of Islam, she said reform in Islamic law is likely to follow.

Some women activists in the Middle East have come to the movement in the wake of personal adversity. Others have spoken out about injustices around them, and a few have broken barriers by becoming active in professions previously forbidden to women, said Robin Wright, a Wilson Center public policy scholar. She emphasized education as a tool in encouraging women's participation in the workforce and throughout society.

Reformist Women
Several conference panelists discussed the contributions of specific reformist activists in Muslim-majority countries. Lilia Labidi, a professor at the University of Tunis and a former Wilson Center fellow, compared two women of different generations whose discourse and writings have shaped the reform movement. "Both women are currently active in the cultural and political spheres," she said, "and will help us understand reform thinking among contemporary Tunisians."

One of these women, Jalila Baccar, is an actress and playwright born in the 1950s who uses theater and the arts to advance political issues. "In her work, women are not taken in isolation or objectified, but rather seen as historical and political actors," Labidi said. And, Ulfa Youssef, born in the 1970s, is a linguist and professor of Arabic literature, who uses psychoanalysis to focus on issues of family, sexuality, and individual rights.

In Niger, Malama A'ishatu, a Sufi Muslim woman (1924-2008), used radio, and later television, as platforms to question the place of women in Islam. Ousseina Alidou, director of African Languages and Literature at Rutgers University, said, "Her story illustrates her intervention as a religious thinker advocating for both religious and secular education for girls and women as a right within Islam." Malama A'ishatu, a poet, teacher, and then broadcaster, advocated gender equal education as a conduit toward gender equality.

Gadis Arivia, from the University of Indonesia, recounted the efforts of an Indonesian religious scholar, Musda Mulia, who advocates family reform and took a lead in proposing a counter draft family law. More generally, she counters gender biases and fights violence against women.

The Philosophy of Reform
Ann Elizabeth Mayer, from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said women are demanding that discriminatory laws get thrown out. Reformist women are pushing for equality in justice which, Mayer said, is at the heart of the Qur'an and must be reflected in Islamic law.

Kecia Ali, from Boston University, contrasted the work of male and female reformists, contending that reformist men tend not to recognize women's religious interpretation. "By strategic appeal to specific verses of Qur'an and basic principles of fairness upon which many people can agree, [women] campaign for better laws," she said. While men engage in more intellectual reform, Ali said, women focus more upon pragmatic endeavors such as reforms to custody laws and divorce regulations. She underscored the importance of developing reformist methodologies that are grounded in the women's experience.

Mahnaz Afkhami president of Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace, which has played a role in helping reform family laws in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, underscored that, "It is not Islam that holds us back. Rather it is the path the history of patriarchy in Muslim-majority societies has taken that limits our freedom."

During the past two decades, reformist women have sought to combine secular and Islamic feminism, which she and others call "holistic feminism," to advance a more egalitarian model of Islam that counteracts patriarchal forces. As societies advance and become more interconnected, she said, women have become more interconnected. In many parts of the Middle East, women outnumber men in universities and are working in technical fields formerly dominated by men. Modern influences have enabled women to become more active in promoting change.

The presentations showed how women, as agents of new thinking and change in far-flung parts of the Islamic world, have taken, and continue to take, reform to new heights.

The speakers' presentations will appear as part of the Middle East Program's Occasional Paper series this summer.


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