The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace organized a discussion on Islamist Movements and Women’s rights. Marina Ottaway, Director of the Middle East Program, and Omayma Abdel Latif, Projects Coordinator at the Carnegie Middle East Center, presented the findings of their joint paper Women in Islamist Movements: Toward an Islamist Model of Women’s Activism. The presentation was followed by a brief commentary by Jennifor Windsor, Executive Director of Freedom House, in which she offered a critical evaluation of the paper. Paul Salem, Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, moderated the discussion.
Ottaway remarked that women in Islamist movements have achieved substantial gains in terms of political participation and representation on the upper levels of the decision-making organs of these organizations. Ottaway attributed this development to the growing awareness within the ranks of Islamists of the importance of mobilizing women constituencies in the democratic process. She also emphasized that the role of Islamist women as agents of change in Arab societies has been largely overlooked by Western analysts and scholars. The predominant intellectual predisposition in their work has been excessively restricted to women activism within secular political orbs and public spheres. This proclivity has been largely shaped by a tendency to associate Islamist ideology with the prevalent suppression of women’s rights in the region.
A trait of the recent discourse on women’s rights in the Middle East has been the burgeoning rivalry between secular Arab women’s organizations and their Islamist counterparts. Ottaway said that secular women have been trying to suppress and undermine the prospects of Islamist women’s participation in international meetings on women’s rights. This could be attributed to the fact that Islamist women reject the Western conception of feminism. Instead they advocate an alternative ‘different but equal’ understanding of women’s rights. Overall however, Ottaway suggested that the picture is not very clear at the moment, and that a lucid speculation regarding the future of Islamist women’s intellectual trajectory is yet to be formulated.
Omaymah Abdel Latif, who interviewed many Islamist women in Lebanon and Egypt, shared some anecdotal evidence during her presentation. She suggested that these women are aware that there is room for improvement in women’s rights in the region. Abdel Latif also explained that the political environment has played a major role in shaping Islamist women’s activism and political evolution. The growing participation of women in the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt for instance, has resulted in a situation where they are constantly targeted by the authorities. Paradoxically, this development contributed to their empowerment within the movement.
Jennifer Windsor asserted that the paper fails to address the diversity that marks women’s activism across the region. While she acknowledged the ‘quantitative’ improvements in women’s status within Islamist organizations, she warned that Islamist ideology, which is based on Shari’ah law, limits the prospects of genuine gender-equality.
Windsor also criticized what she dubbed a caricature representation of Western feminist thought in the paper. She asserted that the Civil Rights experience has demonstrated that women cannot rely on any type of authoritarian movement or body to address their collective grievances, and that only an independent voice that talks on behalf of women can carry out this task meaningfully.
Ottaway and Abdel Latif responded to Windsor’s comments by reminding that the problematic caricature she refers to is not theirs but that of Islamist women interviewed in the study. This fact, Ottaway suggested, reflects a profound miscommunication between Western feminists and their Islamist counterparts. She also asserted that Islamist movements have been experiencing dramatic evolution in the past few years and that portraying them as inflexible entities ignores the dynamic internal discussions within their ranks.
During the Q&A period, interlocutors expressed curiosity about the internal dynamics within these movements and asked whether a generational divergence in attitudes is evident among Islamist women. Abdel Latif responded by noting that the young generation of Islamist women is more inclined to dissent and is generally more involved in political activism and more vocal in expressing their desire to participate in interpreting religious sources and traditions that are relevant to women’s rights and status.
Ottaway and Abdel Latif’s study can be accessed online at: http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=19423
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