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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