The Allure of Extremist Islam

The recent disappearance of three teenage British Muslim girls, now believed to have traveled to Syria to join ISIS, has re-ignited a discussion about women’s (and girls’) involvement with extremist Islamic groups. The explanations for women’s attraction to ISIS and other like-minded groups often fluctuate between two extremes. On one hand, these women are characterized as naive victims of powerful men. On the other, the active recruitment of women is seen as a new kind of jihadi military strategy that has little to do with Islam. This post critically examines depictions of extremist Muslim women, focusing on the multiple, often conflicting reasons women may be attracted to groups like ISIS.

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New film “Madame Parliamentarian” raises important questions about the political participation of women in Lebanon

New film “Madame Parliamentarian” raises important questions about the political participation of women in Lebanon

Last week I attended the premiere screening of a new film by Lebanese documentary filmmaker Rouane Itani. Rouane is the founder of Aflama, LLC, an international video production and language services company that has created videos for a variety of clients in non-profit, corporate, educational, and broadcast organizations. “Madame Parliamentarian” is Aflama’s first independent original production.  The premiere was well-attended, and Rouane Itani herself, along with Stephanie Foster, senior policy advisor at the State Department, interacted with the audience for a panel discussion and Q&A afterwards.

I was not expecting to hear much more than I already knew: women are still poorly represented in major institutions of political power in the MENA. This is despite the fact that Turkey has had one of the two female prime ministers to date in the region: Tansu Çiller, who was in office from 1993-96 (the other was Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, in office from 1969-74). Çiller was not particularly remembered for her work on women’s issues, or for being particularly supportive of promoting the rise of more women to the heights of political power, and this is one of the questions that the film, and the Q&A session afterwards explored: why do so many women who come to power fail to push the agenda forward on issues of concern to women?

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When money is not enough: donor-sponsored gender development in the MENA and South Asia

Next month Muslims will celebrate Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, and each family is expected to divide the meat from each sacrificial animal in thirds: one share is for the family, the second for friends and neighbors, and the third for the poor. As during Eid al-Fitr, celebrated last August, Muslim charity organizations will collect funds for donation to the poor and needy. Holidays like these invite us, whether we are Muslim or not, to reflect upon the meanings of global solidarity and the responsibility of those who have more to aid those in need. It is a shared message among the three Abrahamic faiths. This message is not lost on development agencies and organizations that routinely put these words into practice, particularly in the global south and in conflict-ridden nations. Yet the message that is obscured by such outpourings of charity and apparent goodwill is this: what do you do when it becomes apparent that years of pouring money into development projects has not done nearly enough to tip the balance of power and opportunity more definitively in the direction of the habitually disenfranchised?

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MOROCCO’S “THIRD WAY” FOR GENDER, YOUTH, AND EQUITY: SMOKE AND MIRRORS?

Morocco has been held up as a brilliant example of progress for other MENA nations grappling with questions of gender equity and democracy, even before the Arab Spring Revolutions. Expanding a trend that was inaugurated by his father, King Hassan II, King Mohammad VI made it clear that in his Morocco, women’s concerns mattered. During the 12+ years of his reign, the King has taken concrete steps to demonstrate the ways in which women would be publicly visible, equal partners in the development of the country’s democratic institutions. Forgoing his legal right to 4 wives (under Islamic Shari’a law), he vowed that Salma Bennani, a computer engineer who he married in 2002, would be his only wife.  Breaking with tradition, he gave her a title, H.R.H Princess Lalla Salma, and made sure that she was publicly visible, not just to his Moroccan subjects, but to the entire world. In 2003, he gave his blessing to the reform of Morocco’s Moudawana, or Personal Status Laws, an impressive feat whose legwork was carried out by a coalition of secular feminists, religious authorities and Islamic organizations, human rights activists, and community leaders.  (After initially rejecting it, the Party of Justice and Development, PJD, accepted the new Moudawana in 2003).  Following the bombing of Casablanca in 2003 by a group believed to be affiliated with the Salafia Jihadia, he inaugurated a program to train women as religious leaders (murshidat) and install them in mosques in urban and rural towns across the country.  The stated goal of this program, profiled in the film “Class of 2006” by Charlotte Mangin (Producer) and Gini Reticker (Director), was...

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Beyond the secularist vs. Islamist divide: gender justice before and after the Spring

Today’s political debates on the changes happening in the post-Arab SpringMENA, continue to employ polarizing language. Casting the major sociopolitical players of the region solely in terms of “secularist” and “Islamist” is guaranteed to obfuscate rather than illuminate shared interests and possibilities for working together to address some of the persistent challenges in the region that bear upon US interests. This is only one example of the use of divisive language, but it is among the most trenchant.  One of the reasons why it is counterproductive to understanding, and building effective alliances with, the parties that have come into power within the post-Arab spring regimes of the MENA can be illustrated by looking at how past and current ruling authorities, and the civil society organizations (CSOs) that operate within these countries, have tapped the power of women.

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Is strategic coalition-building the ticket to securing women’s interests in the post-Arab Spring world?

(post originally published June 19, 2012)

The UN declaration that Syria is engaged in a civil war.  Ongoing tensions between the US and Iran. This weekend’s Egyptian presidential elections (tentatively won by Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi). Last week’s decision by SCAF to dissolve the Egyptian Parliament, which was dominated by Muslim Brotherhood members.  The decision by SCAF to greatly limit the new president’s power, vesting part of it (legislation, budget) in their own hands.  These stories of life in the MENA have been the focus of major news outlets in recent weeks.  And who in the mainstream media is talking about where women fit into all of this (aside from being the victims of the Assad regime’s atrocities, the losers in Egyptian politics, and – well – virtually invisible in the current debates over what to do about Iran)?  Well no one, really, at least not in any sustained manner.  If past precedent is any indication of success, strategic coalition –building will be key to women’s particular concerns remaining front and center in the dialogues and debates about the shape of the post-Arab Spring MENA landscape.

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Islamism: Poison or Antidote for Women’s Rights?

(post originally published May 30, 2012)

Are women’s rights and Islamism (here, “political Islam”) diametrically opposed?  That is the common consensus, at least among policymakers and pundits in the West.  But all over the world, women are embracing Islamism as the source – not the antithesis—of their power and authority.  Why would women support Islamist movements that have historically opposed women’s political participation and public visibility and have only recently, sometimes reluctantly, embraced the idea of women’s mobilization?  Explanations of women’s attraction to Islamism have ranged from seeing women as victims of “false consciousness” to enumerating the ways in which they benefit from such “patriarchal bargains” (to borrow Deniz Kandiyoti’s well-known phrase), to seeing women’s activism through Islamist channels as a way for them to claim their rights as women through more widely acceptable paradigms, while simultaneously avoiding the charge of being “Western style-feminists.”

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Where are the women leaders of the Arab Spring?

(Original post published April 22, 2012)

I’ve been speaking a lot with students in my Women in Islam and Gender andIslamic Activism classes about the ways in which women living in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle EastNorth Africa, and South Asia have become a lot more visible as social actors in the public sphere.  And I tell them that this is not a new phenomenon: women have been important social actors in the MENA, Africa and Asia for a long time.  There are a lot more women judges, activists, politicians and religious leaders out there today who are recognized — within their own communities and nations and beyond — as leaders in their respective fields than perhaps at any other time in history.  But for every Shirin Ebadi, Zainah Anwar,Benazir Bhutto or Su’ad Saleh, there are a lot more women out there that are largely unknown by the wider world, and largely ignored by the mainstream Western media.

With all of the media attention focused on the transformations in the MENA since the Arab spring began in 2011, I have to wonder why so little of it has focused on the role that women have played in bringing about these changes.  And this goes to the heart of the question that is most on my mind these days: where are all the women leaders of the Arab Spring?

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