Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
14 - 20 September 2000
Issue No. 499
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Arab women going public

Reviewed by Omayma Abdel-Latif

Hermeneutics and Honor: Negotiating female public space in Islamic/ate Societies, Ed. Asma Afsaruddin, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1999. pp222


A prominent scholar in women's studies once classified the bulk of the literature written on the status of women in the Islamic world as being "misery research" focusing on the oppressive character of Muslim women's lives. This emphasis reveals that though the status of women in Islam has come under scrutiny in many studies, very few of these have made serious attempts to challenge the assumptions that often underlie discourse in the Western media and academia concerning Islam and women. However, one can safely claim that most of the essays in the present book do not fall under the heading of "misery research," but aim instead to "normalise" the Muslim world, which is to say that they attempt to put the emphasis on structural determinants other than religion. By examining changes over time and variations within societies, one can see that the condition of women in Muslim societies is neither uniform, nor unchanging, nor monolithic.

At the outset, however, one should take issue with the familiar public/private distinction with the help of which the authors of the nine essays in this book have chosen to discuss women's status in Muslim societies. If we accept the common definitions of the public sphere as being a masculine space, and of the private as being feminine, then it could be argued that such an a-priori emphasis on sexual difference, on distinctive gender roles and on separate, essentialised male and female identities carries with it the danger of reifying gender relations and decontextualising them. In other words, the distinction can preclude a proper investigation of the broader socio-political and economic order in which these relations are exercised

The editor of the volume, Asma Afsaruddin, touches upon this important point briefly when she refers to recent debates among feminists and social historians that have rendered the notion of the public/private distinction "meaningless" unless understood with reference to "specificities of gender, culture, class, race, ethnicity, sexuality and historical time." Her book, however, still focuses on the study of "female public space" in "Islamic/ate societies" -- a term coined by Marshal Hodgson in his three-volume work The Venture of Islam and used there to describe societies dominated by an Islamic value system. And this emphasis is enough to suggest that some of the contributors to the volume may not have sufficiently problematised either their understandings of how Islam is lived by those who practice it, or its historical character. Some arguments fall under the "Great Big Dichotomy theory," which ascribes a principle explanatory power to one factor -- Islam -- therefore reifying it and rendering it timeless and unchanging.

However Afsaruddin's introduction to this volume is in many ways remarkable, challenging many Western assumptions about Islam. She is keen to explain the context to which her terminology properly belongs, and draws clear boundaries between terms sometimes used rather loosely, such as "Muslim World," "Islamic," and "Islamist." By so doing, she raises important questions concerning the use of Western analytical categories in the analysis of things Islamic. She has chosen to use the term "Islamic/ate," she says, in order to designate those societies which have maintained, or which have consciously adopted, public symbols that represent traditional Islamic beliefs and practices. Perhaps Afsaruddin's reliance on the term reveals a failure on the part of Muslim and Arab scholars to establish a more appropriate analytical vocabulary themselves? It might also raise questions about the supposed universalism of theory in the social sciences.

Central to any public-private debate is the issue of veiling and feminine modesty in the Muslim world. Afsaruddin points to a need to "re-consider the Western discourse on the veil," a discourse that has seen women's veiling as a sign of submissiveness and of male domination. Such reconsideration is particularly urgent in that recent studies on the public visibility of veiled women have revealed a paradox that is otherwise rarely spoken of in the literature on women in the Muslim world. Afsaruddin expresses this by asking "How would we then explain the power of certain dynastic women in sixteenth-century Ottoman Turkey, who, despite their residence in the harem, exercised considerable influence in the court politics of their time?" What are we to make of the twentieth-century educated Muslim woman, she goes on, who enters a public profession covered from head to toe? This new social visibility -- as one Turkish sociologist has described it -- of Islamist women who are outspoken, militant, and educated defies the traditional image of subservient veiled women that has dominated discourse on the veil in the West. One can thus see a shift in the meaning of veiling in the Islamic world, Afsaruddin's observations undermining the arguments of Western scholars, and of secular segments in Muslim societies, which can be summed up by quoting the conclusion of US academician Leila Ahmed: "Islam is not compatible with feminism because Islam regards women as a weak and inferior sex."

Afsaruddin rejects this notion and quotes the scholar Juan Cole to the effect that veiling by educated women today in the urban centres of the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world may be "the farthest thing from traditional."

While the unifying theme of the eight essays included in the book is that of women's role in public space, one essay deals fascinatingly with the lives of female entertainers in twentieth-century Egypt, focusing on Umm Kulthoum, Khedra Mohamed Khedr and Aida El-Ayoubi to show how female singers managed to carve out a niche for themselves. However perhaps Ameri's chapter on the Palestinian Women's Movement is the most interesting of all, offering valuable insights into the history of Palestinian women. The author notes that the history of the movement has gone hand-in-hand with the history of the Palestinian people, an observation that can clearly be applied with justice to other women's movements both in the Arab and in the Third World. This lends credence to the view that nationalism has provided women with a platform from which they can participate in the public and political spheres.

Ameri refers to two conflicting lines of thought in discussions of this point. One argument suggests that nationalist movements may have ridden roughshod over some parts of society, which is why some feminists have viewed them with suspicion. Another argument however has viewed nationalism as having offered women a platform in public and political life. Ameri's discussion tilts in favour of the first argument, noting that the Palestinian Women's Movement has lacked an explicit feminist agenda because "most of [its] activities did not address the needs of women as such, but were rather concerned with anti-occupation activities." She views 1987 as being a watershed in the history of the movement, since it then made the shift from being a movement with an exclusively nationalist agenda to being a truly feminist movement, though she does not satisfactorily explain how this shift came about.

An important recent development that Ameri highlights is that the nature of the Palestinian Women's Movement has altered due to the rise of Islamism in Palestine and to the setting up of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). She writes that secular sections of the movement have argued that a widespread disenchantment with Western ideology has led Palestinians to turn to religion as a "safe haven," though such an observation seems dangerously close to those Western theories that see the rise of Islamism as the consequence of a crisis of modernisation. Whatever the truth of this may be, the rise of Islamism has nevertheless not substantially affected the Palestinian consensus on fundamental national issues. While the lack of a Palestinian state structure until recently has clearly affected the development of the Palestinian Women's Movement, Ameri argues that it was only when the movement was institutionalised within such a structure that it became elitist and retreated to urban areas.

Another essay in the volume by Julie Peteet continues the discussion of Palestinian women. Peteet raises an important point when she writes that whereas official discourse and popular sentiment have located women as the transmitters of Palestinian cultural identity, neither have placed enough emphasis on their formal belonging to the nation. Peteet says that while Palestinian women are expected to reproduce the nation demographically through reproduction, and ideologically through the maternal task of socialising youth in their cultural heritage, these crucial roles are not sufficiently recognised in the spheres of law and of citizenship. Only if one's father is Palestinian can one claim Palestinian nationality, women having no claim in this regard. Such a status is not confined to Palestinian women alone, but is common to many Arab women, who cannot transmit national identity to their sons or daughters.

Margot Badran, in her study of the Egyptian feminist movement, notes that the nationalist movement led women in Egypt to assume new roles as political activists and taught them valuable organising and rhetorical skills. She also brings new insights to the study of the relationship between what she dubs "Muslim" feminist women and "Islamist" feminists. There are, Badran says, typically two kinds of relationship between the two. Either the relationship is polarised, with each viewing the other as an adversary, or it is more tolerant, acknowledging some common ground in a shared struggle. This view was contested by Heba Raouf, a lecturer at Cairo University's faculty of Political Science, who argues in a recent study on "Islam, women and politics" that while the relationship has never been "cordial," it has usually succeeded in maintaining "human interaction and intellectual engagement."

Badran's main argument is that the secular nationalist movement was dominated by men, who moved further and further down the road to secularism, abandoning religion to the ulama. Those feminists that embraced secular nationalism, however, she argues, did not reject religion in the same way as did man, but attempted to incorporate it. Raouf points out, however, that the movement for women's liberation did not start in the middle decades of this century in nationalist and secular circles; on the contrary, many of the pioneers of the movement at the turn of the century were Islamic and conservative in background.

In general, the outstanding contribution of this book to continuing debates on the status of women and feminism in the societies that it considers is to insist upon the multiple perspectives possible for such a study and the variety of conceptual tools available. The pertinence and contemporary character of such debates are such that -- as can be seen -- they are reflected too within the pages of the volume, and among its contributors.

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