By Faisal al Yafai
The parameters have shifted: the rise of political Islam means feminism must now use the language of religion. Can it survive?
…Shaaban, better known to western audiences as a regular voice for the Assad government on English television networks, is one of the Arab world's most prominent feminists. She will be one of the keynote speakers at this year's International Congress on Islamic Feminism in Barcelona, along with Britain's Baroness Uddin and the American professor Amina Wadud, who gained notoriety when she led a mixed gender prayer group in New York.
Even in this one conference, one can see the threads of dissent among feminists in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Some, like Shaaban, come from a secular perspective, whereas Wadud looks to Islamic principles for her feminism. Both, however, use the language and example of Islam – and that has been their downfall.
Those feminists who come out of a more secular tradition tend to emphasise individual empowerment as a societal good. Thus traditional routes to gender equality – education, work and laws – are acclaimed because they allow societies to progress. In her speech, Shaaban quoted Syria's former president Hafez Al Assad saying: "A society must not work with half its members, but must rather work with full power and all its members."
…That reality is Islam. The rise of political Islam has affected even feminism. The Islamic feminists have a more individualistic model. For them, gender equality and empowerment is more a factor of being a good Muslim, of living an ideal Islamic life.
Wadud – like two other feminists, the US academic Margot Badran and the Moroccan doctor and writer Asma Lamrabet, both of whom will be at the conference – argue that the codification of Islamic law that took place during the 9th century drew heavily on patriarchal traditions of the day and thus, perhaps unwittingly, watered down the clear principles of equality they believe are found in the Qur'an. They aim their efforts at reinterpreting the religious texts.
Secular feminists, conscious of the way the language of Islam has permeated the Middle East, have tended to try and articulate their ideas of gender equality in Islamic terms (by, for instance, pointing out the wives of Islam's founder were businesswomen and army commanders). The problem, however, is that that language of Islam, or religious reform, has been so totally appropriated by political Islam, that even when feminists who begin from a secular point of view use it, it sounds religious. When Islamic feminists use it, they are playing on the Islamists pitch, with an immediate disadvantage.
Take the burning of women's schools in Pakistan (and Afghanistan). The now-resurgent Taliban say they are doing this because Islamic law forbids women's education; the Islamic feminists reply that in fact education is a religious duty. It becomes a theological argument. Remember who wins theological arguments? The side with the most guns.
There is a way back. Feminism in the Arab and Islamic worlds, like feminism in the west, is struggling to find ways to remain relevant to a new generation. In the west, feminism's trajectory was derailed from its early successes by increased freedom, legislation and materialism. There is a strong sense among women that feminism – as it is usually understood – no longer provides answers. It doesn't even provide the right questions.
…Feminism seems like a luxury, and a decadent one at that, unable to provide answers to pressing questions such as political reform, the end of foreign occupations, and the rise of political Islam. Worse, much feminism, in its haste to show how its ideas have Arab and Muslim roots – and are not just western imports, as their detractors charge – has looked too much to the past: to Islamic history, to Arab writers, to more open times. But feminists, of whatever stripe, need to show how their ideas can solve the problems that Jordanian and Indonesian and African and European women experience today. The problems of poverty, of education, of discriminatory laws. They need to show, for example, how better laws, and not more religion, can provide a solution to sexual harassment and violence in the region…
Source. More to come on this topic later.