Yesterday, I attended a conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center entitled: “Islamic Feminism and Beyond: The New Frontier.” The term Islamic feminism is a relatively new; it started to emerge about twenty years ago. Nevertheless, the issues and actors involved in the movement have expanded greatly and become more complex. The main goals of Islamic feminism are women’s rights, social justice and gender equality for Muslims in the public and private spheres. It aims to modify the patriarchal based society through means such as civic participation, employment, and literacy.
Support for Islamic feminism is drawn from many parties that include secular groups, religious groups, Muslims, and non-Muslims. Due to such a diverse background, there are differing approaches on how to achieve the goals of Islamic feminism. The panel of speakers was diverse as well, comprising of six women specializing in different areas. They were each able to highlight the dynamics of feminism in their respective countries of research, allowing for interesting discussion.
The speakers spoke of the differences between countries, how some are more progressive than others. Nayereh Tohidi of California State University spoke of Iranian women who struggled for many years in order to secure family protection laws and the right to vote in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The progression of women’s rights regressed however, under Khomeini and Ahmadinejad. In other nations such as Tunisia, Lilia Labidi of the University of Tunis of described how some women were even killed by family members after they took of their veils. Souad Eddouada of Ibn Tofail University described a much more moderate Morocco which has enacted reforms that are both effectively democratic and respectful of Islam. Turkey, as described by Binnaz Toprak of Bahcesehir University, is the most liberal when it comes to women’s rights. Turkey does not have a religious code, but rather a civil one that gives equal rights to women and acknowledges a woman’s ownership of her body.
All of the speakers seemed to reach the consensus that organized religion and politics are inextricably linked. The difficulty arises in deciding which medium is capable of advocating women’s rights. Professor Amaney Jamal of Princeton was able to describe the dynamics of each. She explained how existing regimes benefit from Islamists; authoritarian regimes argue that if there is democracy, Islamists would take over, therefore authoritarian governments need support. In this way, women are made the scapegoat, as authoritarian regimes try to legitimize their rule by portraying the image that they protect women’s rights. On the other hand, women are turning to Islam for empowerment; they see the existing laws of civil society as weak and Islam as an outlet that legitimizes participation in the public sphere. She cites this phenomenon as the reason why most people who voted for Hamas in the Palestinian elections were women.
The speakers offered their opinions on how to best achieve tangible reform as well. Amaney Jamal agreed that religious society must be engaged at a grassroots level, change cannot be achieved simply through the political elite. Margot Badran of the Woodrow Wilson Center advocates trans-communal activism at a local and national level. She also believes a specific Muslim identity does not need to be associated with Islamic feminism, but rather the movement should include all women, focusing on politics rather than theology. Binnaz Toprak also acknowledged the important role of NGO’s in pressuring governments to change policies.
Lastly, the women brought up whether or not the U.S. is the right actor to advocate women’s rights, since an increased presence of troops in Muslim nations has been tied to a lower level of women’s rights. Muslims have come to resent foreign presence, as it makes them revert back to fundamentalism, which increases instability of the Middle East. If the U.S. changes its policies in Middle East in such a way as to help solve the problems of a lack of democracy, incessant poverty, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, maybe then can women’s rights will be realized.