is important to use the plural when speaking of fundamentalisms; significant
differences characterize the emergence of these movements, the political
conditions which encourage their growth, and the dialectical relations
which link them to national powers and international finance, as well as
their forms of expression.
are witnessing the spread and the generalisation of the fundamentalist
phenomenon in the world (1). Here we are concerned specifically with fundamentalisms
in Muslim countries and communities and the way in which women are affected
are not trying - others have done it (2)- to define fundamentalisms as
totalitarianism, facism, revivalism, traditionalism or Islamism; neither
are we analysing their links with specific political formations. Rather,
we are concerned with what, in the various geographical and historical
forms they have taken, since the second world war, fundamentalisms have
in common: their attempt to elaborate a general discourse. Within it, we
will confine ourselves to those concepts which specifically affect women,
and consider the way in which they are internalised - or called into question
- by women and women's movements, and how their responses to situations
which they must survive are shaped by this discourse.
are about 450 million women living in Muslim countries or communities.
They are spread throughout the continents, but the majority live in Asia,
with Africa next. The Arab world, where Islam has its origins and which
till today claims to represent Islamic legitimacy is already reduced to
a minority in the Muslim world.
the moment, and except in the West where a civil code generally governs
all citizens, most Muslim communities have specific laws allegedly transposed
from Shariat. These laws, as well as the influence of Muslim fundamentalists
over their evolution and application, are increasingly affecting women's
lives, their legal rights and traditional practices as well as limiting
women's organisations, defining the parameters of their struggles and their
the points common to fundamentalist discourse which directly affect women,
we will be especially concerned with the following ones:
quest for identity, for a transcultural and ahistorical 'Muslim identity',
conceived on the one hand and foremost as a threatened identity defined
in opposition to an external entity, and on the other hand, as a 'return'
to a mythical past
as repositories of this identity which legitimates women's control
delibarate confusion of the concepts of nation/community, religion, race/ethnicity
selective uses of traditions, as well as religious interpretations in order
to structure an image of women which conforms to their reconstructed identity
failure to set up a 'Muslim society' and the transferal to the private
sphere of all this society's legitimacy, expressed through Personal Laws
and Family Codes.
will first examine these points and then their effects on the situation
quest for identity
all Muslim societies today (and by this I mean both Muslim countries where
laws are inspired by interpretations of the Koran and Muslim communities
which have minority status thus benefit from "Koranic laws"), fundamentalists
stress this quest for identity.
is interesting to note the similarity in the arguments they put forwards,
despite their totally different historical and political situations.
Pakistan, for example, where the state is Muslim - specifically created
in 1947, after the partition of the Indian subcontinent under British auspices,
to protect the Muslims who today form more than 90% of the population;
but also in India, Sri Lanka or Nigeria where Muslims are in the minority
(very large minorities, for sure, in term of numbers) and enjoy minority
status and hence separate laws.
Algeria, for example, a 'socialist' country, but also in Tunisia, capitalist
and cosmopolitan, or in Saudi Arabia whose royal capital swamps the international
activities of fundamentalist groups.
Morocco under its monarchist regime, but also in theocratic Iran, and also
in the comparatively democratic Senegal, where the Muslim majority is demanding
the repeal of the civil code and the adoption of Shariat law.
the Middle East, for example, or in North Africa, long since Islamised,
but also in other African countries where the spread of Islam has been
recent and rapid, symbolising the process of decolonisation by the adoption
of a religion perceived of as more 'indigenous' than that of the colonialists,
despite the connection with Arabs and the slave trade.
all these different political regimes, in countries where Muslims are the
majority as well as in those where they are minority, Muslim identity is
described and perceived as under threat.
threat to religous and cultural integrity may have its origins in history:
in Algeria or in Egypt colonisation seems at the root of all evil.
is a good example, because it represents the extreme of cultural alienation
of a colonised people. It should be noted however, that in countries where
the effects of colonisation were far less severe, the colonial argument
was also used and still is, many decades after independences. In other
words, colonisation is mythified in order to explain, justify and bear
responsibility for current behaviour. We must then take into account the
role of the state in exploiting the discourse of threatened identity to
construct nationalism and communalism (3).
fact remains that, French colonisation in Algeria made systematic attempts
to destroy Algerian culture. This was violently resented by the population.
in French (there were only two medersa - i.e. bilingual Arab-French teaching
- in the whole of Algeria in 1960-1961) repeated Jules Ferry's linguistic
unification effort in France; to speak Arabic or Berber at school, even
during recreation, was a punishable offence. In this context, education
of Algerian girls became the spearhead of acculturation: through the French
language were transmitted the norms for the transformation of Algerian
society according to the French model. Interwiews with French primary school
teachers in Algeria show their devotion to the cause of education and training
of young Algerian girls, as well as their complete absence of critical
thought about what that training may come to represent within the colonial
situation or about the hierarchy of values implicity or explicity made
between Algerian and French culture (4).
this education project aiming at the transformation of a society through
its women, the importance ascribed to the unveiling of women takes its
full symbolic importance. Although the vast majority of Algerian women
were not veiled because they were peasants and Berbers, the veil became
the concern not only of the colonial educators but also of the colonial
army (persuasion or violence).
the 13th May 1958, the "fraternisation" organised by the putsch of the
French army generals made the public unveiling of a hundred unfortunate
women the symbol of the renouncement to a backward society and of the adoption
of the norms of civilisation (French of course).
discourse on the question of women expresses naively and brutally the importance
of the role of women as cultural repositories in the unconscious both of
the colonised and the colonisers. We will inevitably return to this role
in our discussion of the problems women face in liberating themselves,
as well as the use made of it by the states in the construction of nationalism
and communalism, and by fundamentalists (5).
experience of colonisation is not the only threat to Muslim identity. For
Ataturk's Turkey and the Shah's Iran, it was also the West and Westernisation
a a whole. However, it is interesting to note that the strategy of altering
the society through its women remains in both cases. The liberal laws concerning
women in Turkey date from 1926: the Turkish Civil Code forbids polygamy
and gives women equal rights with men in matters of divorce and child custody,
women's total independance having been enacted in 1934. The Kemalist strategies
for women's advancement are well known and form the cornerstone of Turkish
Westernisation and symbolises its separation from Islamic culture. Here
again we find the theme of unveiling of women, not as the result of their
own struggle for emancipation but as a sign of apostasy. And this strategy
is inextricably tied to that of the construction of a new political order
and a new state (7).
the case of Iran (8) the veil was forbidden in 1936 and until the fall
of the Shah, legislative measures were adopted which, although they benefited
primarily women of the elite, nevertheless constituted in the eyes of the
popular classes nothing less than state collusion with Western imperialism.
This discontent was the basis for the fundamentalists' popularity in Iran.
Similarly in Egypt laws granted some meagre rights to women (consent of
the first wife in cases of polygamous marriages, wife and children's rights
to stay in the marital home after repudiation i.e.unilateral divorce by
the husband, but this did not apply to childless wives); these laws, called
Jihan Sadate laws after the name of the President's wife, whose public
image presents some similarities with the Shah's spouse Farah Dibah, were
repealed after the death of Sadate.
if not by colonial venture, or the West in general, it is by their own
national dominant majorities that Muslim minorities feel their identity
to be threatened.
example of the case of Shah Bano in India took up lots of ink but also
blood. In 1985 the Indian Supreme Court granted a 73 year old woman, Shah
Bano symbolic maintenance, after her husband repudiated her and threw her
out of the house after 43 years of marriage (9).
intervention of the Supreme Court, representing the officially secular
Indian State into a matter falling under the juridiction of Muslim Personal
Law provoked huge demonstrations of hundred of thousands of Muslim men
(significant number even on an Indian scale). The secularity of the highest
judicial authorities in India was thrown into doubt and the affair was
promptly taken up by Hindu - as well as Muslim - fundamentalists. The former
championned the cause of a single civil code - based on their own understanding
of what it should be - (and thus the repeal of Personal Laws), while the
latter accused the Hindus of imposing their laws and values on the Moslem
minority. Liberal Muslims and Indian feminists of all religions who had
pleaded for the repealing of all minority laws and for the adoption of
a single civil code found themselves in an impossible position (10).
them, Algerian women who unveiled under colonisation or Iranian women emancipated
under the Shah's dictatorship were trapped in the same contradictions.
fact, the quest for identity is not an ideological creation of fundamentalists;
it has its origins - and its legitimacy - in national and communal demands
for independance, liberty or equality, hijacked by states and political
powers, whether in colonial situations (Algeria), under the weight of imperialism
(Iran) or among national minorities (India, Sri Lanka and numerous African
it is very difficult to call into question any aspect of this identity
- as it is made up and imposed on the people- without being accused of
joining the forces threatening the community with destruction. This inviolability
is reinforced by the deliberate confusion maintained between the concepts
of race (or ethnicity), religion, and nationality (or community).
decades before the start of the war for national liberation in Algeria,
the Ulemas (Islamic scholars) played an important role both in the training
of cadres who were responsible for starting the armed struggle and in the
elaboration of a syncretism whose effects are still being felt today. Sheikh
Ben Badis preached an identity based on difference from the colonisers
with the slogan 'Arabic is my language, Islam is my religion, Algeria is
my country'. In other words, Algerian identity was defined as: non-French.
On the other hand, to be Algerian, Muslim and Arab became synonymous.
view of the fact that 85% of the Algerian population is of Berber origin,
often still Berber speaking despite an education policy which has for 25
years after independance tried and failed to will off indigenous languages
to benefit Arabic, it must be considered that it was the second part of
Ben Badis slogan which cemented national unity and identity: i.e. religion.
However, apart from Berber nationalists, an important section of the population
(at least in the towns) did not define themselves through a religious identity
and some even declared their atheism. Nonetheless, all submitted to what
was considered a tactical necessity to create national unity and to drive
out the colonial power. The founding document of Independant Algeria -
the text of the Soumam Congress drawn up by Abane Ramdane affirmed in its
first sentence "Algeria will be a democratic, secular and socialist country".
This position on secularism was to be omitted from editions of this document
printed after independance - but none of us who held copies of the clandestine
publication will ever allow it to be forgotten. The first Constitution
of the Algerian Republic passed at the end of the summer of 1962 (just
after independance) affirmed on the contrary the non-secularity of the
state and made Algeria a Muslim country officially. During the war of liberation
and after independance Ben Badis' formula triumphed. All questionning of
Arabo-Islamic identity was condemned as anti-nationalist: one could not
be Algerian without also being Arab and Muslim. What was more, Algeria
being declared socialist, to be Algerian was also to be a revolutionary
and consequently, any criticism of religious or linguistic politics was
viewed as counter-revolutionary act.
far as women are concerned, the consequences of all this have been incalculable:
all criticisms of the repressive measures which, little by little were
curtailing the rights of Algerian women, up to the final codification by
the adoption of the Family Code in 1984, were judged anti-revolutionary,
westernist and thus threatening to Arabo-Muslim identity (11).
other words, women have been caught between two sets of legitimacy: they
cannot serve their cause as women and at the same time belong to the nation
for whose very existence they have struggled.
schema can be found throughout the Middle East where, despite the existence
of several religious minorities, among whom are the Christians (an important
minority, sure of its historical legitimacy and mythical basis since it
lives in the very same place as its founder), the equation Arab-Muslim
is everywhere in force.
it is also to be found in Pakistan, where nation and religion are merged
for the later founded the former.
African countries too, Muslims seek to achieve this synthesis between religion
and nation, as soon as the Muslim minority attains the fateful 50% and
sometimes quickly exceeds it, to become the majority. Even though their
number effectively guarantees the liberty to practice their religion in
the context of secular states generally inherited from colonisation (12),
fundamentalists groups are active - in Senegal or in Nigeria - trying to
impose Islam as the state religion. Even when religion is recently imported,
it cements the process of nation building, draws on rather than antagonises
local practices (13), and gives coherence and legitimacy to the concept
of nation (6). Under these conditions, all attempts to struggle on behalf
of women's specific interests are viewed as treasonous: treason towards
the nation or the community, towards religion, towards culture, in short
towards the ever-threatened identity, and collusion with the external enemy.
fact identity is always defined as threatened by an external entity, be
it colonial power, western imperialism or a dominant national group.
external entity is perceived as monolithic and devoid of internal contradictions
- therefore of potential allies within it. The external entity is fully
Evil and Threat.
on the one hand, whatever emanates from the exterior will be bad and threatening
and is to be rejected; on the other hand, the internal contradictions of
society are minimised, their resolution deferred until after the defeat
of the external enemy. But real enemies are those within, who collude with
the external ennemy: in this classless society, potential enemies are the
westernised elites, the religious reformers and women who seek to improve
their status. Religion, understood as the symbol of the nation or community's
identity, becomes the means of protest of the popular classes and the public
demonstration of their break with the ruling classes (14).
is thus eternally accorded to issues which continually demand the temporary
sacrifice of popular demands and those of women. It is never the right
moment to raise certain questions: one must wait for the end of the liberation
struggle, for national construction to get under way and so on; any other
attempt will destroy the unity of the threatened group.
representation of society as atomised masses of interchangeable individuals
has been familiar to us since Marx's critic of classical economists; nevertheless
that representation functions effectively to prohibit women's struggles,
which are seen as premature.
then is essentially constituted as closed and defensive: to seek alliances
with other communities, nations and worst still in the West, becomes structurally
impossible. Women thus analyse their oppression by and in their internal
national/communal contexts, with all the limitations it imposes.
this context of closure, identity is defined as a 'return to origins',
a 'return to our roots', a 'return to authentic national values', a 'return
to our Arabo Islamic values', etc... according to time and place.
is particularly stricking that the vocabulary used makes such explicit
reference to the notion of going backwards, to rediscovery of a lost, mythological
past, uprooted or alienated by the external entity. One wonders how a future
can be realised which is exclusively confined in the past - and such a
past which has not grown and changed, which remains frozen at a given historical
moment, .... ahistorical, sacrosanct, unchangeable, dead.
prohibition of developping external contacts which bring destruction to
identity, imprisons in a past defined as dead. Those in power are trapped
in the following contradictions: how to breathe new life into something
which is not and should not ever be itself living?
religion and traditions are involved in this process. Drastic choices are
made among those traditions, religious practices and Koranic interpretations
best suited to controlling the population. Some are authenticised, other
completely eradicated. The importance of the control of women in the construction
of identity is so great that in many instances only those traditions most
unfavourable to women's autonomy are selected and brought up to date.
search for a transcultural and transhistorical Muslim identity which characterise
Muslim countries and communities today, completely negates the cultural
differences previously mentionned and the way in which Islam absorbs indigenous
cultures and assimilates their practices. What remains constant is the
choice of reinforcing the subordination of women and of the popular classes.
It is not surprising then to find that customs specifically associated
with wage earning or monogamous marriage in the West in the XX° century
are also incorporated into Muslim identity when required (15).
Algerian Family Code adopted in 1984 forbids adoption as contrary to Islam;
traditionally, before state intervention, adoption took place as follows:
a man would declare in front of two witnesses that he was taking responsability
for this child and that he would bring it up as his own; it goes without
saying that this was a private affair and that no legalisation was ever
sought for. Prophet Mohamed, himself an adoptive father, advised that the
adopted child should not assume the name of the adoptive father nor inherit
from him at par with the legitimate children. This traditional adoption
is quite different from the acception of adoption in use in the West nowadays.
It nevertheless existed. On the basis of these Koranic restrictions the
Algerian Family Code (amongst others) completely forbids adoption while
the Tunisian Code (based on the same Koranic texts) permits it.
Algeria, 30,000 children were officially declared abandonned in State hospitals
within ten years (1970-80) and innumerable women were repudiated on the
grounds of infertility (even when it was the husband who was infertile)
while all the time adoption could have resolved these problems as it had
done traditionally. But the state would not relinquish any of its control
over the private lives of its citizens. After independance it made further
inroads in particular in the area of sexuality and its consequences, forbidding
all contraception and adoption for more than ten years (16).
goes without saying that numerous Islamic authorities have issued fatwas
authorising contraception. Bangla Desh, another Muslim country, adopted
an agressive population policy (and trials of dangerous methods of contraception);
abortion and sterilisation of both men and women are carried out with or
more often without the consent of the individuals concerned (17).
for Sri Lanka where the minority Personal Law also forbids Sri Lankan Muslims
to adopt, the problem of abandoned children is regulated by international
adoption - a practice which is much criticised.
is Sri Lanka however which exports women on a massive scale and to a large
extent from the Muslim community, as maids and domestic servants to the
Gulf countries and Pakistan (19). The question of seclusion no longer arises:
state agencies recrut officially while the ministries of Labour and Foreign
Affairs negociate employment contracts for underpaid drudges, migrant workers
without fixed hours, no holidays or social security cover. Their contract
bounds them for two or three years while a significant proportion of their
salaries is sent straight home to their families (generally to their husbands
who in many instances eventually used it to take another wife). They are
totally - including sexually - exploited by their employers. As the crime
of zina (sex outside marriage) is punishable, in most of the Gulf countries
and in Pakistan, by death by stoning, these women fill the prisons of these
countries, while the employers who raped them go free. This state of affairs
is well known among the authorities and the public (in Sri Lanka), yet
Sri Lankan Muslim identity does not seem to suffer as a result. The theme
of honour, the family, the man's authority over his wife-and-mother of-their-children
is not weakened, but simply put aside in the specific circumstances (18).
Sri Lanka thus, a significant proportion of the female Muslim population
travels, has a passport in their own name, leaves their homes and even
their families, all things forbidden to women in other Muslim countries
last example is of the naming of women in Arab countries: traditionally,
women were born, lived and died with their fathers names. Thus Fatima bent
Mohamed (daughter of Mohamed) kept this name as a single woman and throughout
her marriages, sometimes becoming Fatima Um Mohamed (mother of Mohamed)
after the birth of her first son although this second name never took precedence
over the first.
present, with the widespread introduction of identity cards, birth and
marriage registers, the states throughout Middle East and North Africa
require that the husband's name be written on women's identity cards and
passports. Meanwhile, with the high rate of repudiation and divorces, women
may have three, four or five husbands in their life time and will accordingly
change name each time. They therefore loose even the identity that is granted
by one's own name, an identity which was till recently guaranteed by the
supremacy given to father's names.
three examples show that numerous transgressions to customs take place
in ways which are unfavourable to women of Muslim countries and communities;
both scientific litterature and novels describe this phenomenon, one should
only read them.
the same time one witnesses recent legal changes in Personal Status laws,
together with the adoption of forms of shariat which require to be carefully
these laws are identical and form the common terrain, despite the diversity
of cultures, of women living in Muslim countries and Muslim communities.
Laws deprive women of the right to marry by themselves, by submitting them
to the authority of a "marriage guardian" or "matrimonial tutor" (wali);
laws deprive them of access to divorce, which remains the priviledge of
husbands, and confirm the latter's right to several wives (polygamy) and
repudiation (talaq); laws confirm the inequalities in matters of inheritance.
Women are also deprived of the right to guardianship and child custody
in case of divorce: in these matters there are different modalities from
one country to another: mothers are granted the right to serve as nurses
and maids till their sons are between two and ten years, and their daughters
between eight years and puberty (or marriage). After which fathers reclaim
a large extent, Muslim laws submit women's mobility to their husband's
or father's permission, as well as their access to waged employment; and
finally although more seldom, certain specific activities are forbidden
to women (driving a car). In all cases, at various degrees, their sexual
life is the object of legislation: sex outside marriage is punished; some
countries punish it by death: it is the case in several Arab emirates and
in Pakistan where the Hudood Ordinance is applied - particularly in the
case of rape - entreating actions of Pakistani feminists and international
most Muslim countries, and certainly in the non-Muslim countries which
grant personal status laws to Muslim minorities, these measures contradict
the constitutions of states which recognize in principle equal rights of
what is particularly astounding is that these laws are usually the fruit
of recent amendments either by the suppression of colonially inspired laws
which were adjourned for long, (Algeria, 1984), or by the hardening of
Quranicly inspired already existing laws, in a way which restrains even
more women's freedom and increases control over their lives. Thus in 1984,
an already mentioned amendment took place in Egypt; in 1984 too, Muslim
Senegalese demanded the adoption of the Shariat and the abolition of the
Civil Code. In 1985, the Indian state promulgated the Muslim Women Protection
of the Right to Divorce Bill which entailed that women born in Muslim communities
became second class citizens to whom it is forbidden to benefit from certain
rights otherwise accorded to all citizens, - including women of other national
minorities who can still make use of the secular laws of the central state
to escape the restrictions of Personal Status Codes - (21).
1986, the Sri Lankan state named a commission to study the hardening of
the Muslim Personal Status law, which feminists managed to counter by publishing
a memorandum refuting the arguments of fundamentalists who initiated the
1987, a socialist government, in Mauritius, gave in to Muslim fundamentalist
pressure for reintroducing the Shariat for the Muslim minority, while there
was a secular civil code for all citizens. There too feminists managed
to stop the project (23).
us not forget that the legal repression of women in the name of Islam was
recent in Khomeini's Iran and Zia-ul-Haq's Pakistan? Even Tunisia, the
only example in the Muslim world to give legal rights to women, now undergoes
pressures to align with other countries.
a Commission for the uniformisation of family codes in the Arab countries
has worked for several years, gathering ministers of justice and scholars
of Islam well-versed in the interpretations of the Koran. A similar commission
exists for South Asian countries (for Muslim minorities there).
topicallity of these events, long after national independance, demonstrates
the fundamentalist power within state structures, even when they are officially
excluded and overtly combatted.
fundamentalists claim not to limit their quest for Islamic identity to
a rejection of Western values, they pretend to restore identity by an alternative
model which should innovate in all domains: economic, political and social
relations. In fact their activities directly and primarily affect women
and the private sphere. We do not know of examples of Muslim specificity
in the political or economic domains. But family codes or personal status
laws which rule personal life, in matters of marriage, divorce, guardianship
and child custody, polygamy, inheritance, standards of behaviour, clothing
and so on... constitute the sphere of fundamentalist predilection. And
their only field of action (24).
the role of women as depositories of culture and identity and as symbols
of indigeneity undergoes such a distortion, if the fundamentalist obsession
with women is that pathological (26), one should undoubtedly see it as
a compensation and the proof of states' helplessness to set up democratic
regimes and to face the fair demands of the people. Even though the recruitment
of fundamentalist groups is far from being limited to those classic extreme
right groups, fundamentalists have played the role of political counterweight
to the formation of leftist groups, and the states have let them grow to
use them, one against the other, while pretending to hold the role of a
just arbiter between the extremes. In doing so they have effectively contributed
to the creation of extreme rights nurtured under religious pretexts.
is not the nature of Islam that is in question here; all religions have
been repressively used, but it may also happen -sometimes- that they are
used to promote human and social values. What is at issue is the use of
religion as national or communal cement, and the control over women in
the name of religion, as substitutes to real power (27). It is in this
context that women and women's movements (in so far as they are allowed
to organize) will manuver.
responses of women
does the fundamentalist argument revolving around an identity threatened
by an external entity affect women's reactions ? Primarily by bounding
them to internalise the confusion between nation/religion/culture, the
myth of a threatened identity and the role of Islam as a national/communal
follows that women and women's movements express:
The need to remain within the religious frame
The fear of betraying nation or community
first group expresses itself in the fact that even secular feminists and
communist feminists feel the need to refer to the Koran in order to justify
their stands by quoting the holy text; in other words without the Church
there is no salvation (28). Nawal El Saadawi initially followed this direction,
as does still Fatima Mernissi.
from Muslim countries are often very well-versed in Koranic exegesis and
capable of challenging fundamentalists in the latter's own fields; feminists
learn the holy texts and their interpretations so that they could reestablish
the "truth of the revealed texts", while denouncing the human and historical
input (thus debatable and responsible for the discrimination against women).
thus subcribe to a long tradition of progressive interpretators of Koran
who have generally paid with their life their opposition to interests of
political powers which use religion to assert their domination (29).
attribute to Islam a cultural role and oppose this authentic identity to
the adoption of "Western values"(31).
(30) consider to be short of facts on the role of religion, and research
projects have been set up to explore this shadowy zone.
so doing women recuperate an important part of thought, until recently
in the hands of men and men only. They act as pioneers. It goes without
saying that they are tolerated as long as they cannot reach a wide audience.
this first group, there are two important currents: the believers, for
whom Islam must constitute its own theology of liberation, and the unbelievers
which operate at a strategic alliances level; between the two, all shades
of religiousity are observable.
second group expresses the difficulty, even the impossibility, to freely
choose possible alliances outside the nation/community. It goes from refusing
to communicate with other feminists from a different religion yet within
the same nation, to refusing to prospect for alliances within the region,
to even complete closure to any contact with western feminists (32).
in national liberation struggles primary allegiance goes to the group (always
threatened, we must remember, whatever the circumstances) and women implicity
accept to give up their own priority in favour of other priorities.
an example Indian and Pakistani women have just started to come together
after years of broken relations (33); hence Indian muslim women have left
interreligious feminist groups to set up their own groups; hence the false
concept of "Western feminism", and the false dichotomy Western feminism
versus Third World feminism prevent women from benefiting from each other's
experiences: even reading Western feminists' work is seen as unsuitable
and untimely, so great is the fear of contamination and so deeply rooted
the notion of external evil (34).
finds in much of feminist discourse - and in an unconscious way - the arguments
that underlie the thinking of fundamentalists.
do manage to effectively create the conditions of self censorship and of
a deadly isolation for women (35).
and the impossibility of thinking about one own's situation from an angle
other than that assigned, are two major obstacles to the development of
feminist movements in the Muslim world.
is the imprisonment in this ideological cage, or the effort to come out
of it, that determines the form of women's struggles, and their strategies,
from entryism to internationalism.
entryism we mean both feminists believers who are deeply involved in the
study of the Koran to reinvent a new theology which they think is closer
to divine truth, as well as all those who tactically, at different levels,
either religion itself or "sociological religion", (that is to say the
necessity of struggling from within the community).
latter approach is certainly that of the majority of feminists in the Muslim
world who do not want to risk being cut off from their base (36).
also include in the entryist category, women who join the fundamentalist
internationalists we mean feminists who deliberately seek information and
alliances beyond the frontiers of race, nation and religion. This tendency
is the newest and is rapidly developping. Though it is premature to judge
it, its beneficial effects have already being felt during these past few
will take examples for each category.
writings of Riffat Hassan, a Pakistani feminist theologian, analyse the
Koran, (i.e. the word of the Prophet, a sacred and intangible text), along
with the sunna, (i.e. the interpretations which were later worded and codified),
as well as the Fiq, (i.e. the corpus of legal judicial medieval texts).
She tends to demonstrate that the verses most often used against women
are, either remnants of ante Islamic discriminatory practices, or erroneous
interpretations which should be criticised from a historical point of view.
If one only examines the original text and puts it in the historical context
of the Prophet, one would sense the progressive orientation in his message,
read into the spirit instead of the literal of the words and adapt it to
present circumstances (37).
establishes the basis for a women's liberation movement rooted into religion,
while maintaining links with women from other religions in the hope of
developing a liberation theology in Islam.
feminist theologians are coming out; an international group or reseachers
of religious issues currently exists.
goes without saying that this approach is appealing to women, because they
are not any more afraid of betraying, but on the contrary believe that
they are helping to reestablish a lost truth; the fact that they are nonetheless
prey to repression and marginalization reinforces their conviction that
it is the men who are the lost ones of Islam. The limits on their field
of action should soon become clear to them: if they really have an impact
on the population, they will be forced to disappear and they will have
to confront the social forces acting in the name of Islam.
present these women play a very important role in raising feminist consciousness
by differentiating between God and its clergy, between theology and politics.
They are not only entryists but also internationalists, at two levels:
they are in touch with women theologians from other religions who are also
active in the historical critique of religions, and they remain permanently
in contact with the feminist activists who are not necessarily believers.
a more secular sense, other feminists reinvest the field of Islamic law
and attempt to reform it from within; let us take up again the two Indian
examples, the case of Sheenaaz Scheikh and Shah Bano; both of them questioned
the validity of Muslim Personal Law in relation to the Indian Constitution
and have thus highlighted the contradictions between these two jurisdictions;
but in either case, the use made by Hindu fundamentalists of their writ
petitions lead them to withdraw their complaint. In fact their community
threatened to exclude them totally and to punish them by "social death"
old Shah Bano, the affair thus ended with this defeat. But for Sheenaaz
the return to her community held a different meaning: if she did not want
to pay the price of her betrayal, she was preparing to further elaborate
her case, and to pass her experience to other Indian Muslim women. She
studied Muslim Law and set up a group in which lawyers who come to help
women are also Muslim scholars and activists (38 bis).
too was found a solution which avoids posing the question of betraying
the community; the fact of having set up a separate movement for Muslim
Indian women - and the contacts maintained with multireligious feminist
groups places her too at the crossroad between entryism and internationalism.
is the same strategy followed by Fatima Mernissi, who, to pass on a feminist
message (in the sense that it really questions the position of Morrocan
women), tries to get together with the progressive fraction of the clergy
and women believers, thus showing a double concern of "sticking to the
masses" and confronting fundamentalists on their own terrain, - a strategic
alliance if one refers to the evolution of the author's thought and to
the "return to traditions" which she seems to do in her latest books. Nawal
El Saadawi followed the opposite direction which took her from a critique
of the "hard" interpretations of the Koran to an essentially secular approach
of human rights.
approaches are not essentially different from those of women who enter
fundamentalist groups; they only differ in apperance and we can not ignore
the tactical aspect of their choice. This is a fact that more and more
women, in all Muslim countries and communities are joining these groups
which seems to symbolise sexual repression. This phenomenon seems frightening
and incomprehensible as long as one does not ask practical questions regarding
the real or symbolic benefits women hope or actually get from joining these
groups, and as long as one denies logic to their processes.
is slightly premature to draw conclusions, but we could formulate hypothesis
based on the accounts which come to us (mainly from African and Arab countries).
of all, one should know that fundamentalist groups benefit from funds which
one cannot even approximately evaluate.Where do these funds come from and
through where do they transit, that is a research theme which does not
go without risk, but whoever will work on it will render a real service
to the women of Muslim countries and communities.
is a fact that these groups function on an international scale, and that
certain groups have branches in countries as different as Malaysia or Australia
(39). They have in common that they provide their members clothes ("Islamic"
for women and... traditional for men), space (to work, pray, sleep in countries
where the majority of the families are cooped up in overcrowded and ever
noisy quarters), services (in particular: free hospital services provided
by competent personnel, in countries where medecine is not free, where
hospitals are private, hence far from the reach of the population; scholarships
for secondary and higher education which also benefit women, in countries
where education is not "free, secular and compulsory" but private, confessional
and dreadfully expensive), and money (Islamic banks giving loans without
interest have been set up).
who join these groups benefit from all these advantages as do their families.
Moreover they claim that they are protected from men's lust behind the
"Islamic dress"(40), that they can move freely with their families' consent
and neighbours respect, when they go out of their homes to work with the
group - a highly respectable motivation -, that they are encouraged to
study and to use their intellectual capacity, and finaly, that they have
opportunities when it comes to choosing their husbands, as long as they
choose him from within the group - for it seems that fathers hesitate to
impose their own choices while the support of the group goes to these internal
marriages. A certain number of outlets will also be acquired for the qualified
women who seek to travel, the fundamentalist groups act both as freemasonry
and as pressure groups in favour of theirs members (41).
is more than has ever been offered by either states or left parties. If
it is simplistic to see the entry of women into fundamentalist movement
merely to satisfy moral and material needs, if it is illusory to be happy
with "obvious" reasons they give as an explanation for the phenomenon,
it will be equally ridiculous not to listen at all to their discourse and
confine the research on their motivations exclusively within the ideological
of these women believe that the changes resulting from their participation
in the fundamentalist movements are irreversible and form a part of the
social advancement of women, and that above all their participation aids
in the evolution of these movements in a favourable way to women - an "entryist"
position if any (42).
any case, we cannot ignore the phenomenon for much longer, neither can
we avoid to acknowledge the scope of it (43).
new trends are coming out in women's movements in Muslim countries and
communities, trends which are distancing themselves from entryist positions
and do not bound themselves to struggling within the religious frame. These
movements draw their force from their desire to communicate beyond the
frontiers; those women's groups want to cut through the national or communal
isolation - an isolation which has for long constrained them to analyse
their oppression within an internal national political context only, while
they now discover the similarities between countries and from one community
up these types of links and of exchanges, building up information, and
support networks within the Muslim world, allows at last women to cut through
this hard core: a combination of religion, traditions and the political
use of both of them, together with the subsequent prohibition to question
any aspect of the enforced lifestyle, without betraying country, community,
religion and so on...
allows at last women to defend their rights without questioning their identity
and their belonging to their community. How could one now convince Sudanese
and Somalian women of Muslim communities that circumcision is Islamic,
if they have know and seen that it is not practiced amongst Muslims in
North Africa or South Asia ? How could one convince Iranian women that
veil and seclusion are Islamic if they have seen that numerous other African
or Asian Muslim women are nor veiled nor secluded ? How to convince Indian
Muslim women that they should give dowry to their husbands when this practice
is unknown from North African and Middle Eastern women ? And how to convince
Algerian women that contraception is anti-Islamic when Tunisian women have
a right to it and Bangladeshi women are forced into it ? Exchanging information
allows to identify cultural traditional elements incorporated into Muslim
practices and unfairly presented as part of religion in a specific region.
for Muslim law, it becomes easy to discover that it incorporates interesting
variations that women can use to their benefit: here women are secluded,
forcibly married, live as eternal minors in the shadow of a "guardian",
they can not divorce, undergo repudiation and polygamy, are punished by
death for adultery, loose their children if the husband throws them out,
can not work without permission, are unfavourably treated in matters of
inheritance, etc...There women move freely, work, can marry and divorce,
benefit from maintenance and the custody of their children, can control
their fecundity, refuse polygamy, ect... The myth of one homogeneous Muslim
world explodes, the differences appear. Although the oppression of women
is channelled through religion, if all these different countries claim
to be Muslim, why not benefit from the better conditions afforded to women
here or there?
political necessity and the eventual submission of religious authorities
to political powers clearly come out; if one takes contraception as an
example, how many Muslim countries encouraged it with the blessing of the
mullahs (Tunisia, Bangla Desh...), how many tolerate it (Egypt, Pakistan),
how many forbid it (Algeria...) depending on the demographic requirements
of the time. And how many Muslim countries will totally reverse their policies
if need be (Algeria)?
if Islam is so flexible so as to integrate such varied and contradictory
traditions, should one refer to it when one demands one's rights? - and
in this case which version of Islam to refer to ?
these past few years women from the Muslim countries have organized many
meetings and conferences for the purpose of exchanging information, and
creating active forms of solidarity, for example in 1985, AWSA (Arab Women
Solidarity Association) gathered in Egypt women from the Arab world; in
1986 the Simorgh Association gathered in Lahore, Pakistan a group of 15
women from the Muslim communities in Asia and the Arab world ("Muslim Women
Speak"), also in 1986 the Women Living Under Muslim Laws network gathered
ten women from Muslim communities from the Arab world, Africa and Asia
and set down the basis of its first Plan of Action; in 1987 a conference
was held in Bombay gathering several hundreds of women from various religious
tendencies, under the theme "Women, Religion and Personal Laws"; in 1988
the network Women Living Under Muslim Laws organised an exchange program
through which 20 women from different Muslim countries or communities (Pakistan,
Bangla Desh, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Phillipines, Somalia,
Sudan, Egypt, Iran and Tunisia) went to see with their own eyes, and had
a living experience with feminist groups in another Muslim country. These
initiatives are increasing: comparative analysis of laws most unfavourable
to women, setting up of international working groups. Appeals for solidarity
are also increasing: to liberate imprisoned women, to save from death sentence
a supposed adulteress, to participate in a national campaign against the
introduction of severe forms of Shariat, etc...
a long time, solidarity came from Western feminists only and was thus double-edged
since it supplied water to the mills of our slanderers (sold to the West,
traitors of the community), now their solidarity is balanced by the internal
support coming from within Muslim countries themselves.
not only compare their situations, but also inform each others about their
struggles; they exchange support (campaings and also exchange of documentation),
and draw new inspiration from knowing each others' strategies.
still alienation emerges: in 1986 in Lahore no Iranians exiled were invited
on the ground they defamed Islam in the West by exposing the vagaries of
Khomeini regime; in 1987 in Bombay, Pakistan women did not agree to speak
freely of their situation in the presence of Indian women...
more and more groups feel the need and understand the value of these exchanges
and try to link up their struggles, (even if for one action at a time).
by little, the necessary conditions for the expansion of an internationalist
approach are defined; the structure in networks seems to insure maximum
autonomy to local groups to define their analysis, their priorities, their
strategies; no central organization exists which could dictate a policy;
associations and exchanges are made and unmade freely, helped by coordinations
which do not intend to provide more than this simple service. Fluid, may
be precarious but certainly invigorating, the network correspond to our
needs for the moment.
difficulties to be overcome as well as nationalist and fundamentalist lies
invite us to respect the rythm of the ideological liberation of each of
us. The forces we confront are so powerful and so dangerous that we must
gather all our strength and not exclude anyone who works for changes which
are favourable to us.
It goes without saying but perhaps it is better to say, in these times
of exacerbated racism, that (for what we know from exchanges carried out
between women's groups, from country to country and continent to continent)
Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus (and certainly also others
whom we do not hear from) are equally affected by the growth of their respective
See: Oliver Roy, "Fundamentalism, traditionalism and Islam", in: Telos
n° 65, 1985, pp. 122-127; also see: Hassan Hanafi, "The Origins of
Violence in Contemporary Islam" in : Developement, 1987, n°1 special
issue on Culture & Ethnicity, pp. 56-61; and also Bassam Tibi, "Neo-Islamic
Fundamentalism", in: idem, pp. 62-66.
Feminist works analysing the role of the state and national construction
projects, the use of religion in the subordination of women, are increasing.
See particularly the work of Deniz Kandiyoti (Turkey), Haleh Afshar (Iran),
Kumari Jawardena (Sri Lanka), Amrita Chhachhi (India), Naila Kabeer (Bangla
Desh), Ayesha Jalal (Pakistan), Farida Shaheed (Pakistan), Afsaneh Najmabadi
(Iran), Margot Badran (Egypt), as well as those of Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt)
and Fatima Mernissi (Morocco) even though they less directly address the
question of the state and national construction.
"French women teachers in Algeria during the colonial era", Anissa Hélie,
M. Phil. dissertation, University of Provence 1988 (History Department).
The same author, the same theme, Ph D in l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes, Paris.
A. Hélie analyses in particular the contradiction in which women
are caught who conquered autonomy by their work, opened to the promotion
of women, and participated in the enterprise of alienating other women,
within the historical context of colonisation.
Amrita Chhachhi, "Forced Identities: Communalism, Fundamentalism and Women
in India", 1989, forthcoming article in a collection edited by Deniz Kandiyoti:
Women, Religion and the State (London end of 1989): "Colonial discourse
too used the 'womans question' as a crucial tool in assering its moral
superiority over the subject population. In 1927, Katherine Mayo published
a book called 'Mother India' in which the source for India's subordination
was sought in the abuse of women by Indian men which resulted in a weakening
of the 'Indian stock'. Child marriage, widowhood, premature consumation
and pregnancy, female infanticide, purdah, sati, etc. were the cause for
Indias plight. Giving a biological basis for Indian unfitness for independence,
this book simultaneously asserted Western cultural superiority."
Farida Shaheed, "Women, Religion and Social Change in Pakistan", 1988;
carried out for a research project concerned India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
It exposed the importance of religion and the necessity of developing more
research: "A grey area of uncertainty, prejudice, and very little research,
the role of religion in determining the possible for individual actors,
particularly women, has rarely received the attention it deserves. Religion
has normally been ignored by development planners and those concerned with
women's develoment as a personal matter beyond planning, and its rituals,
beliefs and superstitions have often been dismissed as anachronisms that
"would disappear with modernization and science." Especially in the ex-colonial
states, religiously defined or religiously coloured practices and beliefs
are an everyday reality for most people and are not viewed as anachronistic.
Together, they provide an essential world view and a reference for self-identity
that is underscored by the experience of colonization and subsequent post-independence
Equally important is the need to recognize that religion
operates at different levels and, for analytical purposes, to distinguish
between religion as faith, as an embodiment of social customs, as a mobilizing
force in the political arena and, linked to all of these, religion as a
means of self-identity and identification of one's environment. In this,
we would posit that religion as faith undergoes the least changes but,
insofar as it provides its adherents with a means of self-identity, is
a starting point. This identity takes on material shape as a body of beliefs
and behavioural patterns that order community life."
Deniz Kandiyoti, "Women and Islam: what are the missing terms ?", unpublished,
20 pp., to appear in the collection of: "Women, Religion and the State",
1989. She presents here the "missing link" in the relationship of women
to Islam, the socio-political and state system: "These assorted political
projects had evolving consequences for both women and Islam, and transformed
the relationship of each to the other. The nature of legal systems, women's
degree to access, at least in formal terms, to education, paid employment
and social benefits, the extent of their political participation, - all
these flow directly from identifiable state-building projects. Each instance
reveals the politically strategic nature of the "woman question". The place
accorded to the formal emancipation of women, far from being a peripheral
attribute is defining the nature of the state, is on the contrary quite
central to it.
(In the case of Turkey), the shift from a multi-ethnic
empire to an Anatolian-based Turkish nation involved a progressive distancing
of Kemalist republican ideology from Islam, a search for alternative legitimizing
ideologies. This search crystallised around Turkish cultural identity coupled
with a Western orientation as major ingredients in the definition of the
new Turkish nationalism. This process invested the woman question with
great symbolic and strategic importance, making it one of the pawns in
the Kemalist struggle to dismantle the theocratic remnants of the Ottoman
State, particularly the abrogation of the Shariat in favor of secular legal
See the numerous writings of Haleh Afshar, in particular the chapter "Women,
marriage and the State in Iran", in her collected works: "Women, State
and Ideology", Macmillan, 1987, London.
Amrita Chhachhi thus presents the case: "In 1985 the Supreme Court passed
a judgement granting a 73 year old woman Shah Bano, the paltry sum of Rs.
179 per month as maintenance from her husband. Shah Bano had been thrown
out of her husbands' house in 1975 after forty-three years of marriage.
In 1977 he stopped paying her maintenance of Rs. 200 and she filed an application
under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code for maintenance at the
rate of Rs. 500 a month. In the meantime, her husband divorced her and
paid her Rs. 3000 as mehr as his final settlement. The judicial magistrate
however ordered him to pay Rs. 25 and this sum was later raised to Rs.
179.20 by the High Court of Madhya Pradesh. The husband appealed to the
Supreme Court against this on the grounds that under Muslim Personal Law,
he did not have the responsability to maintain his wife after divorce.
The Supreme Court dismissed his appeal and in addition to maintenance,
ordered him to pay Rs. 10.000 as the costs of the appeal. This judgement
provoked widespread reactions and led to mass demonstrations, strikes and
petitions presented by muslims calling for a reversal of the judgement
which was seen as violating Muslim Personal Law. The issue of women's rights
turned into a major confrontation of majority and minority interests and
finally in 1986 the Indian Parliament passed The Muslim Women's Protection
of the Right to Divorce Bill which withdrew the right of muslim women to
appeal for maintenance under the Criminal Procedure Code".
This case was picked up by the media, by hindu fundamentalists as well
as the liberal intelligentsia as an illustration of the unchanging oppression
of muslim women, inherent in their muslimness rather than the particular
socio-economic conditions of muslims in India and the role of the state
in fostering communal identities. Newspaper headlines focussed on muslim
women as victims of muslim law with headlines like 'Legion of the Maimed
and the Damned' (Indian Express, April 1986), 'Bill will throw muslim women
to the wolves' (Sunday Observer, February 1986), with gruesome stories
of divorced and deserted women. Hindu fundamentalists 'picked up the burkha,
talaq and other discriminatory aspects of muslim personal law and practise
to prove how barbaric muslims and Islam is
'. Many feminists inadvertently
also fell into the same discourse and found themselves side by side with
the hindu fundamentalists in demanding a uniform civil code without a clear
elaboration of the content of this demand to distinguish it from the fundamentalists.
The government disregarded the views of many muslim politicians, intellectuals,
and womens groups who opposed the Bill, thus according legitimacy to a
small muslim fundamentalist section as the representative leaders of the
muslim community." Also see: Rohini Hensman: "Oppression within oppression,
the dilemma of Muslim women in India", in Women Living Under Muslim Laws,
October 1987, Working Papers n°1. And : Ammu Krishnaswamy: "Shah Bano
and after", University of Punjab, Chandigar, 1986, 3rd National Conference
on Women's Studies, 22 pp. As well as: Amrita Chhachhi: "A recent report
shows that the RRS has adopted an increasingly militant posture, issuing
pamphlets titled: "Warning: India is in Danger" which attacked muslims
and christians. The organisation sells inland letter cards which show India,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh under an saffron
flag. While earlier hindu fundamentalist organisations had excluded dalits
and tribals, now there are well organised campaigns to draw them into the
hindu fold. They are however rapidly anti-muslim. In a recent by-election
in Maharashtra, Bal Thackeray, the leader of Shiv Sena, called the muslims
and sikhs 'cobras' and stated: 'The population of muslims was 2 1/2 crore
at the time of independence but has now crossed 14 crore. We (Hindus) were
practising family planning but they (Muslims) kept on producing children.
Those children were being ungrateful.'
The writings of Fadela M'Rabet remain indisputably realistic. Read: "Algerian
Women" fortunately republished by Maspéro, Cahiers Libres 141-142,
Paris 1983. This edition holds in a single volume M'Rabet's writings previously
published by Maspéro in 1965, 67 and 69.
It is clear that we are facing a double contradiction: on one hand the
concept of secularism is part and parcel of the colonial frame thus perceived
as alien; therefore rejected; in any case it would be a mistake to consider
colonial "secular" laws as culturally neutral; for example monogamous marriage
is obviously perceived as of "Christian" origin by Algerian Muslims and
as of "British" (then "Hindu") origin, by Muslim Indians; we have already
mentionned the project of a unique civil code in India and the way in which
it was perceived as an attempt to introduce the dominant majority Hindu
way of live; the official "secularism" of the Indian state is questionned.
In 1987, Le Monde published articles of migrant Algerian readers who demanded
a separate Personal Status Code and questioned the secularism of the laws
of the French state, considering the historical heritage of the "elder
daughter of the Church". The controversy was held essentially over monogamy.
This explains the extreme diversity of customary practices incorporated
into religious practice, even if theologians point at their anti-Islamic
character. Hence, the sexual mutilation of women takes place in Sudan,
Egypt or Somalia, within Muslim communities, while they are unknown elsewhere;
adoption is banned in Algeria or in Sri Lanka, but allowed elsewhere; Muslim
Indians are subjected to the caste system, unknown outside the subcontinent;
veiling or seclusion is imposed on women here but not there... The cultures
which Islam has absorbed still remain and their traditions have become
a part of the religio-customary ground on which the political power builds
national or communal identity. Therefore it is irrelevant to look into
the Koran to check whether the caste system does or does not contradict
the Islamic ideal of justice and equity, or whether the sexual mutilations
of women are anti-Islamic. Deniz Kandiyoti reminds us that: "We should
thus not assume that the action of modern state necessarily results in
greater secularization of the personal status sphere or undercuts the power
of religious authorities. This clearly depends on the nature of the state
and the representation of clerical and other sectoral interests within
According to Deniz Kandiyoti, "Imperialist meddling frequently generates
a deep xenophobia. This finds expression in a radical populism which turns
its hostile attentions to the various internal collaborators with Western
infiltration. Islam has been a consistent vehicle for popular classes to
express their alienation from "Westernized" elites. It marks the big cultural
divide between the beneficiaries and losers of changing socio-economic
orders, of the traditional middle-classes vis-à-vis comprador or
bureaucratic interests. In the populist discourse of the Khomeini regime,
Islam represents the ideology of the "people" confronting the corrupt,
"Western-struck" (gharbzadegi) elite of the Shah era. The deportment and
dress of the women became laden with great symbolic significance. The new
regime explicitly singles out women as the most dangerous bearers of moral
decay ("the painted dolls of the shah"). This opened up, among other things,
the possibility of expressing class antagonisms in moral and cultural terms
while diverting attention from inequalities and cleavages in a society
deeply riven along regional, ethnic and class lines." (Kandiyoti, 1989).
According to Farida Shaheed, "Religion provides a useful vehicle through
which the losers can express their alienation and antagonism vis-a-vis
the ruling elites who, in the ex-colonial states, are condemned not for
being exploiters but for being Westernized. Alternatively, religion can
be the vehicle adopted by an emerging class that, having gained economic
status, is making a bid for political power." According to Amrita Chhachhi
a commonly accepted definition of communalism sees it as an ideology which
projects the 'belief that because a group of people follow a particular
religion, they have as a result, common social, political and economic
interests'. Given differences of class and caste which divide the 'community',
communalism is seen as a form of 'false consciousness' and is posed in
opposition to nationalism which is seen as necessarily progressive. While
it is valid to state that people following a particular religion do not
necessarily have common interests, this definition has been criticised
recently for its emphasis on false consciousness and its simple counterposition
to class consciousness and nationalism as representing 'true' interests.
(Randhir Singh, 1988). Today there is an attempt to look again at the phenomena
of communalism and to a search for the material basis of communalism in
contemporary India, the interconnections of this with the economy, culture
and political structures and the need to problematise nationalism itself.
There is recognition that notwithstanding class/caste cleavages, communal
identities can become objective forces resulting in a common articulation
. The process of identity creation involves the downplaying
of internal divisions like caste and class differences and the construction
of a common communal identity
. The myth of the homogeneity of Indian
muslims has been countered through the evidence not only of class and caste
differences but also of considerable regional differences among muslims
in the practice of marriage, kinship structures, inheritance and the custom
of veiling in India. Others have pointed out that the muslims form a community
only in an emotional sense and that only when there is a perceived threat
to them. 'If one is talking about the bond of Islam, then one should remember
that the bond is quite tenuous, like all religious bonds, it accquires
salience only when threatened; otherwise, it operates more at a sentimental
rather than substantive level, and for real life issues, it gets weak if
not cancelled, once it comes into contact with other more basic bonds of
socio economic cohesion.' (Rasheeduddin Khan, 1978: 1512). In this chapter,
rather than taking the muslims as a self evident community, I examine the
processes arising out of the minority status of muslims in India which
have led to periodic attempts to constitute the muslims as a distinct community
and draw out the implications of this for the status of muslim women in
India. In addition, I argue that processes affecting muslim women in India
cannot be understood without looking at women in other communities and
the general context of communalism." (Chhacchi, 1989)
Deniz Kandiyoti: "In both the capitalist West and in socialist states,
the state has intervened in family legislation as a part of the process
of subordinating the family to the state, expanding the control of the
state over the socialization of its citizens and, especially in revolutionary
situations, freeing citizens from the shackles "backward" social customs
and practices. Amrita Chhachhi: "While the state has always actively defined
and constructed the realm of the family, the welfare state has made this
intervention even more explicit. In post-colonial societies, this relationship
becomes even more problematic".
M.A Hélie Lucas, "The veiled Production: A political and Feminist
Approach to Women and Reproduction in Algeria after Independance", 1961982.
In: Women and Reproduction, by Sarec and Sida, Stockholm, October 1983,
Farida Akhter, "Depopulating Bangladesh", a brief history of the external
intervention over the behaviour of society towards reproduction, Ubinig
Occasional Paper, Dhaka, 1986.
Deniz Kandiyoti: "Cleavages between oil-rich and resource-poor states have
had an important effect on migration, aid and political influence in the
region, prompting diverse accomodations with Islam in countries as varied
as NATO-member Turkey, the Marxist-Leninist People's Democratic Republic
of Yemen and impoverished Bangladesh. This has served to strengthen the
cultural and political prominent local forces and parties representing
an Islamist platform.
Faizun Zackariya: "The situation of Muslim Women in Sri Lanka", Minutes
of the Aramon Meeting, special dossier on Women Living Under Muslim Laws,
Farida Shaheed: "Situation of Women in Pakistan", Minutes of the Aramon
Meeting, special dossier of Women Under Muslim Laws, 1986. Also see Sabiha
Sumar and Khalid Nadvi: "Zina: the Hudood Ordinance and its Implications
for Women", Dossier 3 of Women Under Muslim Laws, 1988.
Thus, a civil marriage may allow to escape from a marriage personal law,
under minority; but all marriages contracted under Muslim codes must be
dissolved under the same law.
Muslim Women's Research and Action Front (MWRAF), "Memorandum submitted
to the Committee on Proposed Reforms to Muslim Personal Law", Colombo,
Sri Lanka, 1987. Published in Dossier 3 of Women Living Under Muslim Laws,
"Muvman Liberasyon Fam campaign for one law for all women" and "Muvman
Liberasyon Fam Women's Minimum Programme, published in Dossier 3 of Women
Living Under Muslim Laws, 1988.
It is stricking that many of the fundamentalists' publications are obviously
addressed to a Western audience: "They have as an aim, writes Yvonne Yazbeck
Haddad, to explain Islam to the Western public as a system of values and
laws, as civilisation (...): politics, economy, law, epistemology, the
position of women, mysticism, art, music, Islamic or Muslim, the meaning
of being Muslim" etc...Cf. "The critic of The Islamic Impact", by Yvonne
Yazbeck Haddad, Byron, Haines and Ellison Findlay, N.Y., Syracuse University
Press, 1984. As shown by Charles Issawi, cited by Anwar H. Syed: Race and
Class n°3, 1987 vol XXVIII, "Revitalising the Muslim community": "Islam
does not identify preferred modes for organising production, but its injunctions
regarding property have implications relevant to economic organisation.
First, it secures the right to property for individuals, groups and the
community. The economies of many Muslim countries are actually mixed. Their
governments have taken over banking, insurance, transport, communications,
mining and some largescale manufacturing. This has happened partly from
nationalising enterprises once in foreign or domestic ownership. In addition,
these govenments regulate industry and commerce in the private sector.
Considering Islam's disapproval of unearned income, exploitation and excess
in all matters, ceilings on profits in both public and private sectors
would also be appropriate." Syed concludes that, "there is general agreement
that since 661 no Muslim government has qualified as Islamic."
Deniz Kandiyoti: "...It is very hard to escape the notion that the control
of women and the representation of this control at the level of state ideology
is a more pressing and enduring concern in Muslim societies than elsewhere.
What accords this sphere such prominence? Is this how the specificity of
Islam manifests itself accross a multiplicity of settings and situations?
Part of the answer, I think, resides not in Islam per se but in the relationship
in which Islamic societies have found themselves vis-à-vis the West.
Amrita Chhachhi: "It is clear that fundamentalism is gender selective and
that it constructs particular notions of femininity and masculinity as
symbolic of the community." See also Fatima Mernissi, "The obsession of
fundamentalists with women", Pakistan, Simorgh Publications, Lahore, 1986.
Whoever needs to be convinced of the pathological character of such a control
over private life (especially lives of women) should just read Khomeini's
writings. Each circumstance in life and each incident of a day are envisaged
in his writings, with an exemplary maniac attitude. The incredible thing
is that this can rule not only a group of nuns, but an entire nation. And
that it aims at ruling other countries too.
Kandiyoti (op.cit. 1989): "Women's subordination in Muslim societies occurs
in a multiplicity of locations: in kinship structures; in policies that
harness women to state-building projects; in anti-imperialist and populist
ideologies which fetishize women; in national and international development
policies that instrumentalize them. Although some may argue that it ultimately
represent different facets of patriarchal domination, it is quite clear
that their operations may be antagonistic as well as collaborative.
This conjuncture has left us without sufficiently sophisticated grounded
treatments of Islam's place in determining women's subordination in existing
Muslim societies. Kinship systems, class structures and state apparatuses
mediate the dictates of Islam, and their effects on women, in both law
and practice, but thus far there have been few systematic treatments of
these social structures and their evolving roles. These have become the
missing terms of a potentially fruitful but currently impoverished debate".
Deniz Kandiyoti: "Current writings on women in the Middle East exhibits
two equally vigorous, but so far divergent trends. One proliferating effort
attempts to establish Islam's compatibility or otherwise the emancipation
of women, using the Quran, the hadith and the lives of prominent women
in the early period of Islam as sources.
Some feminists are strategically
to recuperate Islamic dogma and reclaim history for their own purposes.
Their own project for liberation requires an indigenous language and role
models. The fact that feminists and traditionalists alike seem obsessed
with the "true" meaning of Islam with respect to women simply acknowledges
that it is the only available ideological terrain on which to debate the
Thus Tahar Haddad, in Tunisia, and very recently Nour Mohamed Tahir killed
in Sudan in 1984; his books were publicly burned, his body burried in a
place to avoid making it an area of pilgrimage; the possession of a copy
of his works is punishable. Nawal El Saadawi spent several months in prison
in 1981 for having written feminist works; she owes her freedom to the
fact that she is a well-known writer in the Arab world as well as the rest
of world; her books are banned in her own country, Egypt. Finally, for
years, her life has been threatned by Egyptian fundamentalists and the
Egyptian government which would be embarrassed with such a martyr guards
her door in Cairo.
In the course of these last years, lecturers as well as activists have
organised important meetings where theoretical questions and intercultural
comparisons were discussed. Cited for example are the conferences: "Muslim
Women Speak", Lahore, Pakistan, 1986. Women Living Under Muslim Laws' meeting,
Aramon, 1986. "Challenges facing Arab women in the next decade", Cairo,
1986. "Women, Islam and the State", London 1987. "Women, Religion and Family
Laws", Bombay, 1987. "Challenge for change: a workshop on the state of
Muslim society",Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1987. Women Living Under Muslim Laws'
exchange program, 1988. "Women and Fundamentalism", India, 1989. The International
Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences devoted a full workshop
of its last congress in June 1988 to religious fundamentalist movements
and to the situation of women, with themes such as: "Revivalism and Fundamentalism:
religious, ethnic and national movements", "The plural meanings of feminism:
cross-cultural perspectives" and "Religious Movements in Social Contexts".
This proliferation shows the importance given to these themes by feminists.
We can also mention the research project in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka
for 1988-89. "Women, Religion and Social Change." An international group
of researchers is conducting a research on "The Feminist Interpretations
of the Koran"; another international group starts a research on "Women
fundamentalists". The results of the researches of these two groups will
be published in the Dossiers of Women Living Under Muslim Laws.
Mernissi's work (1983,1986) are a good example, but also all the works
which trace the history of early feminists, as if it allowed to root the
present demands into a past in which the idendity was not yet threatened,
thus defending this demand against the accusations of adhering to imported
ideologies. This attempt is similar to that of recovering our history during
national liberation struggles: see Margot Badran's writings (1985) on feminists
in Egypt. This type of research is welcome and praised by feminists which
use them as a protection.
One recalls the poignant attempt of Kate Millet to speak to Iranian women
upon Khomeiny's coming into power; some feminists in the Muslim world ridiculed
her, and even more in the West. Her intervention was seen as meddling in
foreign affairs, as disrespect for the particularities of non-Western cultures,
of western self conceit etc
All this reminds us of the fearful attitude
and the colonial guilt complex of those women who today do not dare condemn
circumcision under the pretext that this forms part of the African culture,
even though African groups are fighting these customs from within. It is
difficult in the western world too to freely choose one's alliances! We
salute Kate Millet's courage and her internationalist concern.
We already mention, the superb and moving "Feminist Declaration on South
Asia" which overstepped frontiers and religious cleavages to enter the
heart of the problem and propose a common front to be published in Dossier
7 of Women Under Muslim Laws.
Similarities with the Rushdie affair are stricking. His book was burned
not only by immigrants in London, New York, Paris but also in India and
Pakistan, by people who had never read it (especially in countries which
had already banned the book) but who were told that he was sold out to
the West. The progressive Indian Muslim Ashgar Ali Engineer (Engineer,
1987) analysed this process in courageous articles.
M.A. Hélie Lucas, "Women's struggle in Algeria during the war for
independance and after", in the papers of the Symposium: " Images of Third
World women", Amsterdam, Transnational Institute, 1984: "
in anger to my own alienation, I recall how we thought this discipline
was necessary to unity in the struggle, how we were prepared to justify
any decisions that already strangled us as women, as citizens, as potential
power." Also see Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Plan of Action (Aramon,
1986): "Women living under Muslim laws invariably lack information regarding
their official, legal rights, both in terms of Muslim personal laws and/or
civil codes. They remain ignorant about the differences that may exist
between customary laws applied to them and Muslim laws. They also have
no access to information that might enable them to challenge the validity
of either type of law. Furthermore, this situation is reinforced by a delibarate
policy of misinformation. Given the existing monopoly and control over
matters relating to Islam, we feel the need to evolve a network for information,
solidarity and support amongst women living under Muslim laws
is often presumed that there exists one homogeneous Muslim world. Interaction
and discussion between women from different Muslim societies have shown
us that while some similarities exist, the notion of a uniform Muslim world
is a misconception imposed on us. We have erroneously been led to believe
that the only possible way of "being" is the one we currently live in each
of our contexts. Depriving us of even dreaming of a different reality is
one of the most debilitating forms of oppression which we suffer."
A well known theory of the vanguard staying far behind the masses, for
fear of behing to ahead of its bases!
Riffat Hassan, expressed thus in "Feminist Theology and Women in the Muslim
World", an interview published in the Bulletin of the Committee over the
women in the South of Asia, vol 4 (4), 1986: "I would like for the feminist
movement in Islam to be religiously rooted and for it to be religiously
rooted we have to present the positive content of the Quran which has been
lost because of centuries of male chauvinist interpretation of it."
"All in all, it's a very difficult time for Muslim women because Muslims
on the one hand want things that are modern, such as technology, science,
industry; on the other hand, they're very jealous of their own traditions
and are very conservative in many ways. So that there is tremendous tension
between this desire to be modern and the desire to be traditional. And
women are caught up in the struggle in all kinds of ways because the Muslim
home is really the last citadel for the Muslim man and they are very reluctant
to permit any changes in the home. That's where I believe the main struggle
is in the situation of the Muslim woman, in the home."
"I think that
Islam tried to liberate them (the women) and the Quran if properly interpreted
is a very humane document; but the intent of the Quran was subverted by
the fact that there were all these inherited traditions and that Muslims
don't even know what is Islamic and what is pre-Islamic. So that when you
want to know what the traditional role of women is, you have to talk about
the period. And the role is affected by a lot of other factors - political,
sociological, cultural - plus the role that religion plays at any particular
moment in history."
"Despite the fact that there is a lot of religious
oppression in the Islamic world and women are being oppressed in the name
of God (...), the very fact that religious arguments are being stated publicly
is raising the consciousness of the people with regards to these statements.
For instance, a new law was recently passed in Pakistan called the Law
of Evidence (according to which a man's testimony is equivalent to that
of two women. Moreover, if four testimonies are needed, they can not come
from four women but only from one man and two women, or two men), and that
is based on a particular verse of the Quran and a particular reading of
that verse. It was amazing to see how many people in the country had come
to know about thay verse and in how many different ways it could be interpreted."
"So, whenever there is repression there is rebellion and this rebellion
can be creative. Of course the traditionalists would say the rebellion
is destructive because it is aimed at destroying what are seen as traditional
roles and values, but I think every tradition needs to be reviewed from
time to time; we have to constantly sift and sort out what is of value
and what is not of value. Islam is rigidly monotheistic and says nothing
other than God is to be deified. So what happens if we deify tradition
Both were threatned by physical death if they did not detrect their complaint
from the Supreme Court and accepted to return to the exclusively Muslim
juridiction. Amrita Chhachhi explains: "Shehnaz Sheikh's case brings out
poignantly the dilemma of muslim women in the context of communalism and
fundamentalism. After the petition was filed, she faced death threats and
had to go into hiding. Muslim fundamentalist organisations put up posters
against her and accused her of being sponsored by Hindus. Subsequently,
she discovered that in fact her lawyer was a member of the RRS (Hindu fundamentalist
party) and was pushing her to go ahead, after she began to rethink future
action. Similarly Shah Bano, was not only threatned but also made to feel
reponsible for the communal riots the judgement on her case had generated,
and she herself asked for the judgement to be withdrawn."
bis) "Awaaz e Niswaan", Bombay, India.
For example, the Arkam group. It is not unimportant to mention Australia;
in fact, this country of immigration (due to the colonial extinction of
its indigenous people) which one basically imagine as a "melting-pot",
has a Syrio-Lebanese minority which shows the same defense behaviour as
Arab migrants in Europe; though the latter are under racist pressure which
do not affect migrants in Australia.
That is to say "the Iranian way"; this dress is completely different from
the Algerian veil. It is through free distribution of this clothing by
fundamentalists that it was introduced in the Maghreb.
See "Both Right and Left Handed", by Bouthaina Shaaban, the Women's Press,
London 1988, and the book revue by M.A. Hélie-Lucas in Trouble and
Strife, March 1989, London.
Farida Shaheed, in 1988, wrote: "Inspired by other communities, Muslim
Indians slowly started mobilizing Muslim women in the nationalist struggles.
Though mobilization was not intended to promote female emancipation as
such, the fact that women left their homes, addressed meetings and carried
out political and social work did break the taboos constraining "respectable"
Muslim women (i.e. the non-working class minority) to remain strictly within
the confines of the household's zenana section. The legitimation of this
type of work later facilitated women leaving their homes for other purposes."
"It is clear that, on the whole, smaller changes have been allowed
in order to maintain more basic institutions. This is most obvious in the
case of allopathic medicine and education on the one hand, and the institution
of purdah on the other. As an essential pillar of the Muslim patriarchal
system in South Asia, purdah had to be maintained. (See Shaheed: 85 &
88). However, once 'modern' education and allopathic medicine were accepted
by Muslim Indians, they faced a dilemma. Without allowing women access
to medical and other education, the benefits of these could only be made
available to Muslim women through the intermediary of men. To rectify this
situation, purdah schools and hospitals were created giving an empetus
to female employment, firstly of non-Muslim and later of Muslim women.
As a result, women in India became doctors and gained positions of eminence
in education at a time when this was still rare elsewhere. An unplanned
consequence was that the acceptance of women's employment as doctors and
in education paved the way for women entering other professions." This
is the same logic that has given South Africa more intellectuals than any
other African state, an unintended consequence of the "separate" education
of Apartheid policy. Similarly, many North-African women students owed
to the "Islamic dress" the chance to continue their studies; it was the
price to pay so that father would allow them to go to university; this
dress "the iranian fashion" was popularly called for many years in Algeria
"the dress of the women students". All young women wearing it were taken
to be a "student". Farida Shaheed refered to it as "portable seclusion"
and asked an essential question. "The question that needs to be answered
is whether the adoption of a physical veil enhances or reduces the scope
for social change for women and the circumstances leading to one or the
other." A question to which women who join fundamentalist groups respond
yes - the next decade will tell us whether they have won their bet- a dangerous
bet indeed. "Fundamentalist" women walk on the tight line between discourse
and practice: "While calling for strict gender segregation, fundamentalist
women have steadily moved away from supporting female seclusion. In the
last ten years the fundamentalist call for women to stay in the home except
for emergencies has given way to demending segregated work place to allow
millions of women to get employment in 'Islamic' conditions. This radical
change has taken place so gradually that it has been completely over-looked
until now." (Mumtaz and Shaheed: 88) Shaheed and Kandiyoti insist on the
fact that women are not merely passive victims but full social actors,
that women and women's movements may prefer strategic alliances with some
factions in order to try and achieve their gender interests by playing
one against the other various national and international structures of
domination. Fundamentalist groups also gain in the emigration, as one could
very well see during the Rushdie affair. What is less known is that in
England (which is generally six years ahead of France in these matters),
migrant women groups reclaim the "Islamic dress" (they even have fashion
shows, I witnessed one in 1987) and muslim confessional schools are set
up on a large scale: in those, sex segregation is of course, the rule;
girls curriculum is quite different from boy's: boys have religious education
added to the normal cursus, while girls concentrate on domestic work and
religious studies. In this context, one could hardly see the practical
benefits for women but rather the moral benefit from being protected from
general racism. The work of Swasti Miller shows that migrant women would
rather work in sweatshops where they are over exploited and segregated,
than face the streets and racist attacks. Nevertheless the fact that the
"Islamic veil" is now worn in some old muslim communitites of Europe forces
us to once more question the simplistic explanation of this phenomenon
by the defense of the threatened identity - or even of life threat. In
January 1987, I could witness the same thing happening in Helsinki, Finland;
Finish muslims are not recent migrants from third world countries but long
time Muslims from the USSR who migrated centuries ago; nothing in their
appearance makes them different from other Finns. Nevertheless, recently
women have taken the initiative to set up a Koranic school and teach not
only religion but arabic langage - the sacred language - to these young
Finns. They also promoted the head scarf for women. These women hold tremendous
power over their community; they even hired, then fired an Imam from the
Middle East who did not meet their expectations; they behave with just
as much or as less freedom than their non Muslim fellow women citizens.
And they would not dream of preaching inequality between boys and girls.
A working group has been set up to study this question at international
level; it will later publish its reports in Women Living under Muslim Laws'