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The Voice of Muslim Women

Question and answer details
Patrick
2012/06/22
I am an anthropologist and I know that women in traditional societies are quite strong and active in society and economy. However, we hear a lot of talks about how Muslim women are oppressed. Kindly shed some light on how women see themselves in the Muslim world, especially with Islamic fundamentalism rising on the political and social scene during the last three decades. That is to say, with its rigid and discriminative position against women. Many Thanks.
Heba Raouf Ezzat
Answer
Salam Sir,

Thank you for a very serious question and for giving me the opportunity to write about such a concern.


The role of women in contemporary Islamic resurgence has largely been analyzed within a resistance model, where they often appear as victims of reactionary male fanatics! This vision envelops the fact of heavy female participation in Islamic social and political resurgence with obscurity… (In fact, I do not prefer the use of the term fundamentalism.)


We should go beyond the use of categories of victimization and “false consciousness” in approaching the situation of Muslim women... The choice of explanatory factors and focus has tended to blur and exclude the factors, showing a general strengthening of female Muslim identity.


The popular phenomena that Western scholarly discourse is often presented under the label “religious fundamentalism” need to be re-investigated. This is in order to explore the positive variety of religious practice… Women’s commitment to religion takes place in everyday life and thereby is actively founded in the experiences of the believing women.


Attributes such as “non-modern”, “non-democratic” and “irrational” should be avoided. There should even be an attempt to analyze ways in which Muslim women develop distinct voices and participate in socio-economic, as well as political processes.


As you are an anthropologist, you surely know that analyses of ethnographic cases, instead of blind generalizations can highlight the place of religious devotion and piety in the lives of women, along with the role it has already played in many situations to empower them… There are also transformational links between women’s religious practice and dominant religious discourses.


There is a wide range of Muslim women’s involvement in current processes of Islamization. Yet, it is only the veil – that usually presents the symbol of oppression - and is discussed. This is while looking at it, as a mean of empowerment is – almost - absent.


There are women Islamists who emphasize how they use the veil pragmatically to get room to maneuver, enlarge their scope of action and increase their independent mobility. This is in the social world outside domestic boundaries, a strategy that is legitimized by religious authoritative discourse.


There are also different trends of re-interpretation of Islamic sources by men and women alike to stress the liberating and equity-sensitive texts. This is while we – here - distinguish between Muslim feminists who stand on secular grounds and emerging Islamic voices – men and women - who stress the liberating potential Islam has for women.


However, I would be very reluctant to draw lines of comparison between this process of women contribution to the understanding of the Qur’an and the Christian tradition of feminist interpretation of the Bible. This might need to be addressed separately.


Nevertheless, women in both traditions are carving out legitimate public space for themselves. I would also like to re-consider with you the labeling of Muslim societies as “traditional” societies:

Manufacturing of ‘the Modern’ & ‘the Traditional’

Muslim women live also within modernity and the multiple identities continually challenging each other. This should be taken into account in a theory of identity formation of Muslim societies. There is a multitude of religious strategies for women and numerous organizations providing different outlooks on attitudes, ritual practices, dress and so forth.


Women also have different strategies, in accordance to the culture they belong to. In Iran, for example, the religious regime encourages the participation of women in religious associations, with roots in popular tradition. It offers women formal religious education, which qualifies them for positions as religious leaders within such associations.


In fact, they are also heavily present in political circles, compared to the neighboring gulf political entities. So, things cannot be taken in a simplistic way. Personal choice and variation do indicate the development of achieved, rather than ascribed status. This also indicates how boundaries are drawn between self and other - in new ways that denote increased female agency.


Let me also confirm that women’s involvement in the Islamic public sphere, along with the civil public sphere at large, results from personal choices. This is as part of their active shaping of modes of life, which suit their needs and expectations in new modernizing realities.


Furthermore, one can notice the tendency of women’s increased engagement in religious, cultural and social life outside the private realm, along with arenas that were earlier rendered inaccessible to them. This is whether they be physical spaces, such as the mosques or intellectual arenas, such as learned theological debates. Muslim women today actively engage in public life associations in ways that were earlier unobtainable to them and on conditions they define and choose for themselves.


Women’s voices are gaining ground in the religious sphere, which is significant in a religion where God’s revealed word is the logo of belief. Their influence varies from the higher semantic domain - in cases of Egypt and Iran - to the lower grass root voices presented in other cases like Turkey and South East Asia.


Women, through their religious activities, developed over the last few decades, positions that push against fixed traditional dominant forms in different spheres.


Hence, it is recommended that we see Muslim Women cross- culturally, without remaining subject to speculation, generalization or stereotyping.


The great variations in culture, class, ethnicity, along with the difference between the Arab and Islamic countries, in the history of colonization, industrialization, urbanization, modernization and secularization, provides us with a rich scene that is worth comprehending in a complex and sophisticated way.


Thank you again and please, do keep in touch.


Salam.

Useful Links:

Muslim Women Saying Adhan

Women in Islam … Again and Again

Gender Equity in Islam

Position of Women in Islam
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