The mark of power is often presented in the form of the helping hand. Amid invasions and occupation, focus has fallen, too, on more subtle means of advancing the agendas of foreign powers. One such means is targeting the generative essence of societies, wherein women stand at the centre. What role do women in Islamist movements play in defending the cultural particularity and sovereignty of the Arab and Muslim world?
'Justice not equality'
Omayma Abdel-Latif looks at empowering women the Islamic way
Ghazwa Farahat is a charismatic 30-year-old engineer. She is a member of the social unit of Al-Ghobeiry municipality in southern Beirut. Farahat was elected to the post on Hizbullah's ticket two years ago. She was the first female candidate the Islamic resistance movement nominated on its electoral list. Indeed, the party fought hard to convince Farahat's family of her nomination. "My family was divided," said Farahat at her office in Al-Ghobeiry. "They asked Hizbullah officials why they wanted to nominate a woman when there were men in the family," she explained.
If anything, Farahat's story reflects how the Islamic movement has frequently proven more progressive in its stand on the role of women in society than the society it operates within. That Hizbullah stood by its nomination and overcame social and cultural pressures suggests that the movement has been paying serious attention to the role women can play in expanding its social and political base.
Farahat's case and that of others also sheds light on one of the most striking features in Islamist politics today. Farahat along with hundreds of women activists represent the core of Hizbullah's women's organisations, or Al-Hayat Al-Nisaaya, the framework through which women activists advance their social and political agenda within the party. As more and more educated women joined the ranks of Islamist movements during the past two decades, they also found in those movements a space where they could press to better the status of women without risking being stigmatised as Western stooges or rendered social outcasts.
This opportunity confounds the long-held view that the rise of Islamist movements across the Middle East is responsible both for socially restrictive climates for women and a rolling back of past gains made by women. Engaging in social services, in particular, has put women in touch with the masses, thus allowing them to establish grassroots networks. And the impressive participation of Hizbullah's women supporters during the sit-in of the Lebanese opposition in downtown Beirut served as yet further proof that women were not sidelined. Al-Hayat Al-Nisaaya set up a booth during the sit-in; one that fast became a meeting point for journalists. The sit-in also served as a meeting ground for the women cadres of Lebanon's secular parties that are in alliance with Hizbullah.
In Egypt, something similar has been happening. Women are increasingly becoming visible in the different political activities of the 80-year-old Muslim Brotherhood. In 2000, the movement nominated its first female candidate for its electoral list in Alexandria. By the time of the 2005 parliamentary elections, women were at the heart of the movement's electoral machine, participating through all stages of the elections, from nomination to campaigning, vote counting and monitoring.
Western commentators have generally projected a negative view of the relationship between Islamism as a political ideology, Islam as a religion, and women. Although some writings have taken into consideration the variations and shades of difference among various Islamist groups, the dominant and more influential view treats Islamism and Islam as monoliths. It has depicted women as languishing under oppressive patriarchal societies, enchained by a long list of cultural and religious codes of conduct that oppress them.
In reality, the status of women in Islamist movements is neither uniform nor unchanging. What comes across in conversation with Islamist women is often a mix of both pre-modern and modern discourse. On the one hand, they are not immune to the discourse on women's rights permeating debate on women's status in today's Arab world. Yet many make their own choices regarding what model of politics and society they favour as activists. They don't perceive themselves to be lagging behind Western women because the yardstick with which they measure their progress and achievements is different.
"We don't have the eternal complex of having to be equal with men," said Um Mahdi, head of the women's branch of Hayeet Daam Al-Muqawama, the Organisation for Supporting the Resistance, the financial arm of Hizbullah. "We seek justice not equality," she added. A similar view is often voiced by women activists in the Muslim Brotherhood. There is emphasis on "the complementarity of roles" between the sexes. But they are also aware that in practice the status of women varies between Islamist movements. And the given social, political and cultural setting is also an important factor shaping that status.
Women activists make no secret of the pressures they exert over their respective movements' leaderships in order to expand their role and participation. Jihan Al-Halafawy, the first female candidate on the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral list in 2000, disclosed that she had spoken with the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood on several occasions about the need to have women members in the movement's politburo. Islamist women activists argue that defending women's rights is part of defending Islam against corruption. They argue that Islamic precepts have never aimed at subjugating women, but that those principles have sometimes been distorted by social and cultural norms that antedated Islam and persist despite the spread of Islam. The struggle for women's rights is thus also a struggle to restore Islam to its original form.
While Islamist activists believe that Islam provides the basis for the recognition of women's rights, placing feminist demands within the wider context of a religious discussion has an additional advantage for them: it helps counter accusations that they are pursuing a narrow feminist agenda to the detriment of the good of the community. Indeed, the important role women play in Islamist organisations is additionally understandable in light of the attention Islamist movements pay to building strong organisations, reaching out to the population, and providing services. Women's organising plays an important role in the outreach of Islamist movements.
Given the natural social base Islamist movements claims, the ever-increasing mobilisation of women Islamist activists may herald the development of an Islamist paradigm for addressing women's issues and social regeneration. If such paradigm were to become widely accepted, it could be enormously influential in the Arab and Muslim world, much more so indeed than efforts to promote women's rights by Western and Western-supported feminist organisations.
The article is part of a longer study on Woman in Islamist Movement: Towards an Islamist Model of Women's Activism by Omayma Abdel-Latif, Marina S.Ottaway.