Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

"United they stand..."

Women, Islamisms and the State, Azza Karam, London : MacMillan, 1998.pp284

Having made Egypt the focus of her study, Azza Karam classifies Egyptian feminism into three main groups, namely "secular", "Muslim" and "Islamist" feminisms. Secular feminists, Karam writes, place their activities outside of the religious domain and appeal instead to concepts such as internationally recognized standards of human rights. At the other end of the spectrum, Islamist feminists operate explicitly within a religious framework and argue that women's oppression stems from a misguided attempt to trespass on the territory of men. The just society, they argue, is the society that strives to promote "recognition and compatibility" between the sexes rather than their competition, and these feminists explicitly identify themselves as "Islamist". Somewhere between these two positions, lies that of the "Muslim" feminists. These aim to read religious texts, such as the Qu'ran and the Sunna, from a feminist angle, with the intention of demonstrating that the notion of equality between the sexes is, far from being incompatible with Islam, in fact contained within it. Their position differs from that of their Islamist sisters in that they do not see their reading of religious texts to be part of a wider religious project, such as "Islamic fundamentalism", a slippery term that Karam devotes many pages to unpacking. They do not share the desire for structural changes in society of the type promoted by the Islamists.

Having established this tripartite scheme, the author writes that the distinction between the three groups is, however, not always clear-cut. Rather, distinctions are "in a state of flux and are context and issue bound". Nevertheless, though members of these three groups may sometimes act together to address specific issues, there are important differences between them with regard to political convictions, social backgrounds, and perceptions of the causes and nature of women's oppression and the best means available to counter it.

Karam situates herself somewhere above and also within the fray, and she explicitly invokes contemporary notions of ethnographic writing in so doing. Karam has lived and worked with the feminist activists she presents in her text, and one can be forgiven for thinking that the most readable parts of it are precisely those closest to anecdote, those parts, in other words, where she stages herself as the speaking subject of her own text (the "I") and those parts where Karam explicitly draws upon her own background as an involved Egyptian woman as a reference.

She looks at how representatives from the various groups view themselves, and at how they view each other. She presents the views of leading activists, drawing her subjects from various political parties or ngos. Much space is devoted to the analysis of the views of Zaynab al-Ghazali, Safinaz Qazim and Heba Raouf, three politically active women who are presented here as the representatives of the three main groups. Space is also given to an analysis of the law as it affects women, leading Karam to consider in turn the law on personal status, that regarding nationality, those on the political rights of women and the labour laws. She does not ignore the views of prominent male thinkers on the position of women in society, on the veil, on women's work and on male-female equality, or the lack of it.

Karam's conclusion at the end of this activity is that there are certain similarities between the views of gender promoted by the state, as these are contained in law for example, and those of the Islamists. This, she says, is the area in which the Islamists and the state are currently most in agreement, and where ideological struggle, if it takes place, is least fierce. Karam's position is aptly conveyed by the following quotation: "where the two regimes agree most, feminists lose most, since this actually means that feminists have to fight both regimes."

The secular feminists, Karam argues, have discovered that their feminism has little in common with that of their Islamist sisters. In attempting to ground their ideas on internationally accepted secular norms, they have come into conflict with Islamist ideas, and, insofar as these are already enshrined in the law, with the state as well. In this area at least, they would argue, the state is Islamist, and they call for the explicit repudiation of religious ideas from the legal framework and for the separation of politics from religion and for the separation of religion from the state. Karam notes that secular feminism can have a rather embattled aspect, as it seeks to cut itself off from its immediate political and social context in its appeal to international conventions. The danger of this is that it becomes irrelevant, or at the very least lacking in subtlety, and ignores the differing ways in which religious ideas are in fact incorporated into different modes of argument.

Islamist feminists, on the other hand, always refer to religious authority in their political and social agenda. Calling upon ideas familiar from varieties of Political Islam, they argue that all are oppressed, men and women alike, since the state is run without regard to their interpretation of Islam, and has succumbed instead to dominant, secular, Western ideology. While secular and Muslim feminists argue for legal reform and the greater education of women, Islamist feminists have tended to argue for the rejection of much existing law in favour of the wholesale application of the Sharia.

Regarding the middle term in this argument, the Muslim feminists, Karam believes that they "can bridge the ideological divide between feminists, since by their very nature they combine various religious convictions coupled with an intent to shun extremism from either side."

In general, in her survey of the current situation, Karam notes much division and not very much cooperation, probably inevitably. Nevertheless, and despite the differences, she advocates alliances being made. An example would be the campaign to combat female illiteracy, and from here, Karam suggests, "resistance" could be extended to the "hegemony" of feminist discourse. There has to be more of an effort made, she says, to bring feminists together to fight common causes, since, if there is not, the status quo will continue to benefit, and women's oppression will in no way be ameliorated.

Reviewed by Niveen Wahish

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