Islamic feminists in Morocco are calling for a so-called "third way": a modern approach combining universal ethics with the humanitarian ideals of Islam. Their methodology reveals weaknesses however. Martina Sabra reports
Islam and feminism are not incompatible according to the Moroccan doctor and writer Asma Lamrabet. In 2004 she founded a working group for women's issues and intercultural dialogue in Rabat. The initiative has now become well known throughout the Arab world as well as in some western countries.
Lamrabet is a diplomat's wife from a well-heeled suburb of Rabat. In theory she could simply spend her time organising garden parties, but she is not interested in the rituals of the Moroccan jet set. A qualified medic, she works in a hospital every day. When she comes home she sits at her desk and writes books about feminism and Islam as well as organizing Koran workshops on the subject.
The position of women is grim in all Islamic and Arabic countries Lamrabet says; a greater appreciation of women within Islam is needed. This means re-reading the texts and identifying previous interpretations for what they are: macho and patriarchal.
Dissatisfaction with Islamic discourse
Such provocative statements, which can be read in more detail in her three books, have won Asma Lamrabet increasing numbers of followers: women and also men. Whether engineers, school inspectors, lawyers or students, they all share the same interest. They are dissatisfied with the dominant Islamic discourse increasingly spread by the pan-Arabic media.
The main problem with the dominant Islamic discourse is that women are always reduced to some function or another, Asma Lamrabet claims; a woman is either a mother, a wife, a sister or a daughter. She is never presented as an individual, as a free, autonomous being. But the Koran portrays women as human beings, she says, and seeing women as human beings also means recognizing their right to freedom and autonomy.
In the working group for women's issues and intercultural dialogue interested women and men test the Koran for its egalitarian potential. Asma Lamrabet believes the Islamic teachings are more sympathetic to women than generally recognized. Islam does not have a creation myth portraying women simply as appendages of men. The Islamic Adam, according to Lamrabet is simply a human being; in the Koran Adam has no gender.
Secular as Islamic at the same time
The group also includes the lawyer Rachida Ait Himmich. She is a member of a secular left-wing party: secular and Muslim, for Ait Himmich not a contradiction. She says she can live out the various sides of her identity in the group. She can be a Muslim woman and at the same time feel free; she can embrace universal ethical values as well as the human values handed down by Islam, seeing it as a case of re-reading the Koran.
In their group studies Asma Lamrabet and her fellow campaigners acknowledge the traditional Islamic interpretations as well as the particular historical contexts. For her, although the Koran is indeed the word of God, the teachings are only ever in practice experienced within a specific social and political context. Many conservative scholars of Islamic law see such an approach as blasphemy.
The "third way"
Between growing religious fanaticism in the Arabic and Islamic worlds, and increasing islamophobia in the west, Asma Lamrabet and her feminist-Islamic working group are arguing the case for a so-called "third way": a modern approach combining universal, humanistic ethics with the humanitarian ideals of Islam.
To date this so-called "third way" has had no majority appeal in Arab and Islamic societies. The criticism comes from various directions. Conservative Muslims accuse Lamrabet and her group of lacking the necessary theological competence to interpret the sacred texts correctly.
More secular-orientated critics claim her approach to the Koran is not historical and that she does not speak out strongly enough against polygamy and violence towards women.
Asma Lamrabet points to the constitution of the working group for women's issues and intercultural dialogue, which has just become accepted as a registered association. The document is vague however, like much of what Asma Lamrabet says and writes. Her books are eloquent and passionate, but conceptually and in terms of methodology the treatises have many weak points.
At times they border on the kind of Islamic-fundamentalist propaganda familiar from the Moroccan Islamist Nadia Yassine. Lamrabet's treatment of her central subject, cultural identity, is based on a notion of identity now seen as antiquated in the relevant sociological debates. By clinging to a notional unambiguous Islamic identity, Asma Lamrabet is positioning herself closer to Islamicist propagandists. The catchy concept of the "third way" cannot alter this.
However the verve with which Asma Lamrabet and her fellow campaigners are fighting for a new, more humanitarian Islam is remarkable. The positive resonance amongst young Muslim women shows once more that Islamic feminism is no longer a marginal issue and this development may form the impetus for an open discourse on Islam and society.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Steph Morris