Islamism: Poison or Antidote for Women’s Rights?

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.”

Is the emergence of women as prominent supporters of, and leaders within, Islamist movements, ultimately a good thing?  And is it possible that Islamism itself may not be the hobgoblin of freedom, as it is often portrayed? Islamism and women’s rights appear to be strange bedfellows, but to be fair, Islamism is a contested term and an often poorly understood concept that is used to cover a variety of Islamic movements spanning the ideological spectrum.  To some, it signals “political Islam” on the order of 1970s Iranian-style revolutionary fervor.  To others, it is rooted in the belief that Islam should guide all aspects of life, can function as a guidepost to achieving social justice, and will bring about a more disciplined public.  Some argue that Islamism has no overt political agenda, but that since Islam is a comprehensive way of life governing all actions, it has political ramifications by implication.  Others reject the term altogether, seeing it as another tool used by Western(ized) secularist propagandists to discredit Islam and deny its potential as a force for progressive reform in the world.

For the women of Islamist movements, there is no contradiction between Islam and justice, whether gender-focused or not.  Morocco’s spokeswoman for the Justice and Charity Party (Al-Adl wa’l Ihsane), Nadia Yassine continues to make headlines both in her country and abroad for her opposition to the monarchy and her claims that Islam is much better equipped than secularism to bring about social and political equity. In Yemen, the Islah Party’s Chairwoman of the Women’s Division, and recently elected member of Yemen’s National Council, Amat as-Salam Raja has long decried the lack of formal mechanisms to ensure women’s political participation, not just as voters, but as candidates for office. In Egypt, women of the Muslim Brotherhood have begun to push for greater decision-making roles within that organization, no longer content to merely occupy “strategic” or “tactical” functions.  In Pakistan, the infamous Red Mosque Movement, which launched a series of assaults on the Musharraf regime and “un-Islamic elements” in Pakistani society until its siege by military forces in 2007, continues to draw the support of ultra-conservative and militant women.  In all of these movements, women have begun to rise through the ranks to positions of influence and leadership.

These developments are not new; the rise of women to positions beyond the auxiliary level within Islamist movements has been at least a decade in the making. In 2000, 2005, and 2007, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood fielded women candidates for parliament and municipal elections. Although none of their candidates won, this practice established an important precedent for a new generation of Sisters activists.  Along with their reform-minded Brothers, these Sisters have continually worked to ensure themselves a more centralized position within the organization.  The outcome of these kinds of struggles has been even more promising for women of al-Adl wa’l Ihsane.  After many years of campaigning for a greater share in the critical decision-making structures and processes of the organization, women won representation in its Council of Guidance, one of al-Adl wa’l Ihsane’s top two decision-making bodies.  Such developments are beginning to repeat themselves across the spectrum of Islamist movements and organizations, with the exception of most Salafi groups, who continue to see their female members only as supporters and not as potential leaders beyond the rubric of “women’s concerns”.

In Yemen, women of the Islah Party have begun their fight for decision-making influence in the post-Saleh government.  While not all Islah party supporters concur that greater representation of women in the party will bring about crucial social and political changes, many– both male and female – agree that it is up to women to claim their rights instead of waiting for them to be freely given.  In Turkey, women have mostly remained in “complementary” positions within Islamist movements.  However, a new generation of movement-“unattached” headscarved women who question Islamist stances on women are gaining some ground politically, as are some former supporters of the now-defunct Refah Party of Turkey, who have co-opted the language of feminism to express their disillusionment with a male leadership that sought to “re-marginalize” women’s voices once they had achieved power.  In Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Malaysia, India’s Kashmir, Pakistan, and other countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, women have begun to challenge arguments of “complementarity” and gender particularism as they are promoted by Islamists who have no problem co-opting women in order to win elections, mobilize masses, or acquire political or social capital, but who then seek to marginalize these same women when it comes to the question of sharing power.

Among these promising developments is another disturbing trend that cannot be ignored: as women in Islamist movements begin to move up the ranks, so do women who have chosen to embrace militant or extremist Islamist movements.  Like their counterparts in other Islamist movements, such women are not necessarily uneducated or unversed in the intricacies of Islamic theological or jurisprudential arguments; in fact, they are often able to navigate the language and symbolism of both Western discourses of democracy and Islamic arguments to “promote virtue and prevent vice”.  Several studies have viewed such women as active agents, even actors who re-imagine notions of agency and subjectivity within the constraints of male-defined parameters of ideal gender roles. Others argue that such women do not possess agency and are not the masters of their destinies.  While they may derive some social and political benefits from such support, for example becoming “iconic” figures, achieving enhanced social standing, and earning the ability to sidestep some social “norms” for behavior expected of women in their societies, they cannot operate autonomously within the boundaries of these movements.

Whatever the case, the rise of women through the ranks of Islamist movements is a growing trend that suggests a need for greater understanding and engagement.  Indeed, the current trend in US policy in the Middle East and South Asia seems to suggest a greater interest in working with these kinds of groups, at least the “moderate” elements within them.  Yet an ample dose of caution is also needed in this regard: neither uncritical attitudes of acceptance nor anti-Islamic polemics will enable us to work effectively with (or against) such groups in these rapidly transforming regions.  While we will have to wait and watch for some developments to unfold over time, we can be sure of one thing: we will all be hearing a lot more from Islamist women from now on.