The Role of Women in Islamism

The Need for Equal Footing

Islamist movements across the board are speaking out in favour of involving women more strongly in politics and the working world. Yet women remain marginalised. The Kuwaiti author Ahmad Chehab is still waiting for signs of change in the role of women in modern Islamism

A veiled Palestinian woman stands in front of a Hamas flag as she attends a Hamas pre-election in 2006 (photo: AP)
A Palestinian woman at a Hamas election rally. Women still don't play a central role in politics, Ahmad Chehab criticises

​​A Palestinian woman at a Hamas election rally. Women still don't play a central role in politics, Ahmad Chehab criticises

Studies on democracy and political development have shown that the position of women in society is one of the key indicators of a state's development and innovation.

International organisations therefore place great importance on political programmes aiming to improve women's value in society. The idea is to enable women to participate actively in state and societal institutions, at the same time fulfilling their role in the family.

In the past, Muslim women have often enough been pushed to the margins of public life by men. But the new media, more open societies and policies, and increasing access to education for women have had two key effects over the past few years. Firstly, Muslim women's own ideas on their role have shifted, with many women now refusing to take all-out male dominance lying down. And secondly, today's Islamic societies have a much more positive attitude towards women's participation in public life.

Missed opportunity for Islamist intellectuals

Looking at the development of the women's movement in the Islamic countries over the past few decades, one clear factor is that Muslim intellectuals turned to women's issues at a very late point. For many years, they failed to adopt innovative approaches to the issue, for example from a perspective of Islamic law.

The most likely reason for this failure is that the discourse within the Muslim world was mainly concerned with defending Islamist standpoints against western and western-assimilated movements. What went unnoticed was that religious texts and reformist ideas are not necessarily poles apart, but can in fact complement each other ideally.

Yet this very realisation could have meant a great improvement in women's position in society. The more vehemently laicist movements demanded the abolition of the headscarf, the more energetically the Islamists defended it; and the more the laicists insisted on women's emancipation from their traditional role in the home and family, the more the Islamists stuck fast to that role.

Women of the Jaamat-e-Islami party are praying in 2001 in Islamabad, Pakistan (photo: AP)
Islamic movements are dominated by men although they have many female adherents, like these women members of the Pakistani Jamat-e-Islami party

​​The Islamists' belated interest in women's issues does not mean that women have been categorically excluded from Islamist movements. Over the past few years, Islamists have been gradually becoming aware that there is no way forward without actively involving women.

Nevertheless, women are still a long way from where they should be in the movement. The women's rights activist Dr. Mona Jakin calls for a long-overdue admission: "Women in the Islamist movement have not achieved what they could and should have done by a long shot, even though many women are now part of the movement. Leadership positions are still firmly in male hands."

Men and women have equal rights in Islam

For example, few female academics have succeeded in gaining high-ranking positions in the Islamist movement. It is difficult for women to assert themselves over less educated men, as male dominance is still the rule.

"Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them," a Qur'an verse reads. Yet this authority can be understood merely as dominance within the family. Another Qur'an verse sees men and women on equal terms outside the family: "The true believers, both men and women, are friends to one another. They enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil."

Veiled woman are taking part in the parliamentary election in Kuwait in 2006 (photo: AP)
Women have had the right to vote and stand for election in Kuwait since 2005, and participated in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Yet reforms of this type are often only cosmetic in nature rather than achieving far-reaching change, says Ahmad Chehab

​​Islamist movements of all types may have championed the cause of women's integration into the workplace, but in practice they do very little indeed to enable women to take on key positions within the movement. There is no discernible effort towards a proactive role for women in politics, culture or the social sector. Women remain strictly excluded from the decision-making process. All the fine words about promoting women serve merely to optically enhance the image of Islamism for outsiders.

The clearest example: particularly in the Islamist movements of the Middle East, women's role is restricted to supporting men's careers in religion, society and politics. Many women even willingly accept this role, as they have no other experience from the culture in the societies around them.

Escaping the constraints of tradition

Even the women who have literally fought their way to the top of Islamist groups are all too familiar with a feeling of powerlessness. They can only achieve their ideas if they have influential men behind them – even if these men are far less educated than the women themselves.

Giving women a more active role in Islamist movements would entail a frank and serious discussion on how to end misogynist traditions. Islamist ideas and goals would have to integrate new role models, placing women on an equal footing with men. Increasing women's standing within the movement would put the ubiquitous imbalance to rights, freeing up energies that would benefit the movement and the whole of society.

According to the statistics, women have a major lead over men in terms of education in the Arabic world. So it makes good sense to win women over for the cause and give them an active role in the decision-making process. It is high time the Islamists stopped talking about the new image of women and started acting on it.

Ahmad Chehab

© Qantara 2008

Ahmad Chehab is a Kuwaiti author and journalist. He is particularly interested in research on globalization and woman in the Arab world.

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