The words "feminism" and "Middle East" are not often used in the same sentence. But, increasingly, women in the Arab world are beginning to demand greater authority for themselves in their societies. Interestingly, it"s not secular or liberal groups that are effectively leading the way in pushing forward on women"s rights issues; instead, it is Muslim women, involved in conservative Islamist organizations like Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are starting to raise their voices and question their status in society.
The failure of secular groups to take the lead in pushing for women"s rights has to do, in large part, with the popular perception that they espouse elitist and condescending views. Wafa Sultan, for instance, one of the most prominent Arab secularists, is a darling of West, but is poorly received in the Arab world. A liberal and an atheist, Sultan blames Islam -- and not just isolated extremists -- for terrorism, a view that undoubtedly doesn"t sit well with her largely-Muslim audience. It"s no surprise, therefore, that calls by Sultan and other secular activists for greater women"s rights have not been well received.
Indeed, rather than being propelled by secular and liberal groups, this new interest in feminism is actually occurring within more conservative circles; namely, Islamist groups. There"s a reason for this: as Islamist organizations like Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood have been given a greater role in democratic politics over the past few decades, they"ve had to pitch to a broader constituency. The result has been that more women have been given leadership roles in these organizations in order that they might reach out to other female voters, provide input on political strategy, and even run for office themselves. Imbued with newfound authority, many Muslim women have begun to raise broader questions about their role in society. (For more on this, check out my earlier post or, for a much more in-depth look at this phenomenon, take a look at this Carnegie report.)
I"ve written about this subject before, so I wasn"t planning on just re-writing my earlier post, but a recent Al Ahram article caught my attention. Omayma Abdel-Latif, the author, discusses an interesting case of Muslim female empowerment: that of Ghazwa Farahat, a Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese woman who won a position in the Al-Ghobeiry municipality in southern Beirut.
She was the first female candidate the Islamic resistance movement nominated on its electoral list. Indeed, the party fought hard to convince Farahat"s family of her nomination. "My family was divided," said Farahat at her office in Al-Ghobeiry. "They asked Hizbullah officials why they wanted to nominate a woman when there were men in the family," she explained.
If anything, Farahat"s story reflects how the Islamic movement has frequently proven more progressive in its stand on the role of women in society than the society it operates within. That Hizbullah stood by its nomination and overcame social and cultural pressures suggests that the movement has been paying serious attention to the role women can play in expanding its social and political base.
Farahat"s case and that of others also sheds light on one of the most striking features in Islamist politics today. Farahat along with hundreds of women activists represent the core of Hizbullah"s women"s organisations, or Al-Hayat Al-Nisaaya, the framework through which women activists advance their social and political agenda within the party. As more and more educated women joined the ranks of Islamist movements during the past two decades, they also found in those movements a space where they could press to better the status of women without risking being stigmatised as Western stooges or rendered social outcasts.
Farahat"s situation is not an anomaly. As the Al Ahram article notes, women are playing a greater role in Egypt"s Muslim Brotherhood as well.
In 2000, the movement nominated its first female candidate for its electoral list in Alexandria. By the time of the 2005 parliamentary elections, women were at the heart of the movement"s electoral machine, participating through all stages of the elections, from nomination to campaigning, vote counting and monitoring.
As Abdel-Latif notes, examples such as these confound "the long-held view that the rise of Islamist movements across the Middle East is responsible both for socially restrictive climates for women and a rolling back of past gains made by women." The full Al Ahram article is here, for those who are interested.