Islamists’ Rise Could Benefit Women’s Rights

Islamists’ Rise Could Benefit Women’s Rights

At first glance, the continued strength of Islamist movements across the Middle East does not seem to bode well for women”s rights in the region. Islamists” conservative, traditionalist values and narrow reading of religious texts often translate into policies that seek to limit women”s public role, enshrine their legal inferiority and enforce gender segregation. Indeed, Islamists groups in various countries have taken a hard stand against reforming family laws in ways more favorable for women, resisted women”s suffrage, and smeared local women”s groups as puppets of an illegitimate Western agenda.

But something strange is happening on the way to the sharia court. As Islamist movements make the transition to mainstream political parties, they are increasingly recognizing the need to appeal to women as voters. They also are beginning to understand that their views on women are being closely watched by the broader society. To gain power through the ballot box, Islamist parties have to convince secular skeptics, both male and female, that they are ready to govern and have sensible policies to offer. Islamist policies that smack of creeping “Talibanization,” or simply conflict with the reality of modern women”s lives, alienate moderates.

Unlike earlier secular reformers, whose policies mostly reached an urban-bound elite, the Islamist groups of today have the ability to touch a much broader segment of society. Their embrace of more progressive policies towards women could unleash a true grassroots women”s movement with enormous potential for change.

We are already seeing signs of this in Turkey where the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) is arguably furthest along in becoming female-friendly. Despised by hard-core secularists for its attempts to overturn the ban on the headscarf in public places, the AKP has been accused of pushing women”s rights backwards in Turkey. The AKP defends its headscarf stance on the grounds of personal freedom. It also deliberately appeals to women by prominently including women”s rights in its legislative agenda –including passing laws that impose heavier penalties for rape and honor killings.

In many ways, the AKP”s strong Islamic credentials allow the party to address culturally sensitive topics like honor killings more effectively than secular groups. In 2007, it launched a particularly controversial effort to have religious scholars reexamine hadiths – the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad – that have been harmful for women.

Not surprisingly, the AKP enjoys strong support from female voters, many of whom are secular. Without women, the AKP could not have won the 47% of the votes it did in the 2007 elections. Its Women”s Wing is active in recruiting female candidates for parliamentary and local elections. With the success of the AKP in 2007, the percentage of women in parliament more than doubled (from 4.2% to 9.1%). The number of women in its central leadership is also high. The AKP began with an informal 20 percent quota for women in its party structure, and increased this to 30 percent in 2006 on the orders of Prime Minister Erdogan. Currently, the party is trying to enlist more women to run for mayor in towns across Turkey.

The position of women in conservative Islamist movements is more complicated. Conservative Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt are more dogmatic and traditionalist in their religious views and generally less accommodating towards women. Although the MB has consistently renounced the use of violence and has committed to work through the political system to bring about change, it is still banned as a political party in Egypt. Yet, it is the most organized and popular of the opposition groups in Egypt. Taking advantage of a political opening in Egypt in 2005, it ran candidates for election as “independents” and won 22% of the seats in parliament.

From its founding, the MB has maintained an uneasy stance towards women. Hassan al Banna, the group”s founder, demanded strict segregation between the sexes. However, he also encouraged women to work (in socially appropriate fields) and to be educated. Other MB figures such as Sayyid al Qutb had much more overtly negative views of women.

Zainab al Ghazali was among the first women to actively support the MB. In the 1930s, she created a woman”s organization closely tied with the MB. Al Ghazali embodied all the contradictions of the MB”s stance towards women. She would simultaneously lecture women on the need to uphold conservative values while she herself defied all those traditions through her own activism. She even divorced her first husband when he refused to support her work.

Today, as the movement attempts to compete for the middle, it is trying to present a more modern face. An important part of this strategy is to defy its secular critics (who claim the MB will push women back to the stone age) by touting its “women-friendly” policies. They promise to promote the equality of men and women in society and allow women to take low-level positions within the party. They even ran a female candidate in 2005. On their website, the MB highlights all the rights that Islam affords women and condemns practices such as forced marriage.

Critics of the MB see such actions and words as insincere–nothing more than political window dressing. They point to the MB”s first political platform, released in September 2007, which denied women (and Copts) the right to be president in Egypt as proof of the group”s intolerance and narrow-mindedness. This clause in the platform created a wave of negative publicity for the MB and also triggered a heated debate within the movement itself. When I interviewed members of the MB several months ago in Cairo, there was an apparent break along generational lines. Younger members were upset by the exclusion of women and Copts. Not only did they feel it was an unnecessary provocation and one that tarnished the group”s image, they also questioned the religious justification for the exclusion. Young bloggers and Islamic student organizers have continued to press the issue. In a sign of political maturity, the MB has posted on its website criticisms about the status of women within the organization”s political structure, Egyptian society and Islam itself. MB members claim that if there were greater political openness in Egypt, the voice of moderates in the party would be much stronger.

At the far end of the political spectrum of Islamist movements are radical groups like Hamas and Hezbollah that have refused to renounce violence, hew to narrow religious interpretations and position themselves as stridently anti-Western. These groups have an even more complicated relationship with women. Twenty years ago, Hamas was decidedly extremist in its approach to women, forbidding displays of women”s pictures and condoning attacks on unveiled women. But in recent years, as it has competed politically, it has moderated its positions on women to appeal to more secular Palestinians and female voters. Hamas ran 13 female candidates in the 2006 elections.

As of yet, the increased presence of women in Hamas has not dulled the radical stance of the group. One of its women, Mariam Farhat – dubbed the “Mother of Martyrs” – successfully campaigned toting a gun and bragging about her three children she sent off on suicide missions. But all of the six women elected to parliament vowed to fight for women”s rights. Some, like MP Huda Naeem, are trying to put forward more progressive interpretations of Islam and disentangle oppressive cultural traditions from the religion.

Will such efforts begin to chisel away at Hamas” extremism? The answer is almost certainly not in the short-term. But over the longer term, women”s push for interpretations of Islam that accommodate an active role for them in society should encourage more moderate views on other fronts. What is clear is that important debates are taking place across the spectrum of Islamist groups about the role of women in society, and these debates hold the potential for a sea change in women”s rights in the Middle East.

Dr. Isobel Coleman is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the Council”s Women and Foreign Policy program. Her work has appeared in publications such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. Her forthcoming book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: Women and Reform in the Middle East, will be published by Random House in 2009.