MIDDLE EAST/NORTH AFRICA: Arab women, after the revolutions

Thursday, November 17, 2011
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Northern Africa
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PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

While there is no reason to panic, concern about the rise of Islamists in post-dictatorship Arab societies is warranted, especially as the rights of women are particularly and immediately open to attack.

No sooner had the Islamist Al-Nahda party secured its status as the largest group in Tunisia's new Constituent Assembly, than we saw a misogynist agenda rearing its ugly, familiar head. The party's iconic spokeswoman, Souad Abderrahim, called single mothers a “disgrace” and declared that they “do not have the right to exist.”

It is irrelevant that many Arab Christians, or other religious fanatics of whatever faith, might have agreed with her. And it's not reassuring that Al-Nahda leaders, in what was clearly a tactical measure, rushed to contradict Abderrahim in order to quell the uproar. What's important is that Abderrahim's comments demonstrate where Al-Nahda, one of the least extreme among Arab Islamist parties, is coming from on the issue of women's rights. Abderrahim, of course, had no comment about the role of men in creating single motherhood.

The head of Libya's transitional authority, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, added to the alarm by proclaiming that Islamic law, or Sharia, would be the principal source of legislation in post-Qaddafi Libya. He implied that polygamy, a practice almost entirely suppressed under the deposed dictator, Moammar Qaddafi, might be reintroduced.

Abdul-Jalil was no doubt seeking to distance himself from the former regime, demonstrate that he is independent from the West, and placate Islamist elements in the Transitional National Council. It is heartening that in recent council meetings, large majorities have apparently coalesced around secular candidates, as opposed to Islamists, for key transitional leadership positions.

Several Libyan officials have also denounced Qatari support for Islamist groups. Rather than dictating the post-revolution agenda, Libyan Islamists may be feeling sidelined enough to require a nod to their conservative social agenda from the rest of the Transitional National Council, in order to keep them on board.

Abdul-Jalil's comments were so vague as to be practically meaningless. However, they do reinforce the fact that Islamism generally promotes misogynist attitudes, since his efforts to placate Islamists implied restrictions on women's rights. Indeed, wherever Islamists have seized power, whether in Iran, northern Nigeria, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, and Gaza, their exercise of power has immediately and intently focused on restricting such rights.

This behavior ranges from the unspeakable, and thankfully rare, practice of stoning women, largely in rural Iran, to the sexually paranoid restrictions by Hamas on women smoking water pipes (cigarettes are fine) or riding on the back of motorcycles. It takes a hyperactive pornographic imagination to read impropriety into those latter acts.

Another serious concern is that some of the Arab world's deposed secular dictatorships held up their purported advocacy of women's issues as a false sign of progress, thereby tainting such concerns.

In Egypt, for example, the Mubarak regime was associated with efforts to strongly discourage female genital mutilation. While this practice has absolutely nothing to do with Islam, and is enforced as enthusiastically by Egyptian Coptic Christians and some African animists as by Muslims, the Muslim Brotherhood was always in practice opposed to official efforts to suppress it.

The Brotherhood's official position is that female genital mutilation is neither “halal” (required) nor “haram” (forbidden). Therefore, it should be religiously permissible, and, indeed unobjectionable.

During the Mubarak era, the Muslim Brotherhood objected to the distribution of leaflets calling female genital mutilation “un-Islamic.” This suggests that the Brotherhood is more sympathetic to genital mutilation than it cares to admit, or is more socially conservative than its theological analyses requires. Efforts to suppress this unspeakable atrocity will be difficult to resurrect in the near future, as opposition to female genital mutilation is now closely associated with the hated former regime, especially the former first lady.

Conservatism instinctively holds that tradition contains wisdom. Even some American neoconservatives who originated on the left like Irving Kristol eventually came to champion tradition for its own sake.

Among contemporary Islamists, this impulse is compounded by the tendency to privilege anything that has a chronological proximity to the era of Revelation. This suggests that anything that happened in or around the time of the Prophet Mohammed is, by definition, closer to authentic religious practice than anything that emerged later. This, of course, derogates the overwhelming bulk of Islamic civilization, not to mention much of contemporary Arab culture.

Religious conservatism invariably focuses on social and sexual control. Women are the most immediate targets and primary focus of the authoritarianism of the religious right, wherever they may be. As Islamists seem to be finally getting their chance at gaining a share of power in the Arab world, the greatest and most immediate danger they pose is to women's rights. That is why it is up to everyone else, including both secularists and religious moderates, to insist on the introduction of inviolable constitutional principles protecting the rights of individuals, women and minorities.

Socially conservative Arab parties have a right to participate in government, but not to reduce women to second-class citizenship.