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Home arrow Religion arrow Muslim Women at Work: Religious Discourses in Arab Society


While some Islamic societies have developed institutional arrangements that secluded women and silenced them, most Muslim investigators would assert that this is not related to an aspect of Islam itself. Muslim societies have passed through various historical experiences that shaped, in some cases, extreme interpretations of what Islam tells. The examples of the various interpretations ofQur’anic verses outlined above illustrate this point. Those interpretations, as extreme or odd as they may seem to many, are still part of Muslim history and still reflect what happens in parts of the Arab and Islamic world. Yet, it becomes increasingly clear that some Muslim and Arab localities only provide an extreme version of what Islam is. Unfortunately, this version is the one that gets the most attention. There are various geopolitical reasons, in addition to the fact that such regions are rich with oil resources, which put those countries under the constant gaze of the curious outsider. The social functioning ofthose societies is a mesh between deeply rooted cultural practices and understandings of Islam. They do represent one way to speak for Islam. Yet this neither is the only way, nor it is the most representative.

This acute way of representing what Islam requires has implications on the participation of women. When arguments to seclude women are based on the sacred text, the opposing views lose legitimacy. Yet, it is clear that there are other voices, as will be explained in a later chapter, which offer alternative explanations and interpretations. Basing their arguments on the very same texts that the other side uses, those voices call for understandings that include, rather than exclude, women. Voices for women empowerment and emancipation in Arab societies are not only coming from feminist discourse based on an areligious standpoint. Many such initiatives are increasingly coming from totally unexpected places. Change often requires indigenous efforts rooted in genuine local discourse rather than foreign- imposed standards that do not resonate well with local populations, male or female.

In the next chapter, I tackle the main arguments put forward by opponents ofveiling. Drawing from the works ofseveral Arab feminists, activists, and academics, I reflect a discourse that attributes much of the lack of female participation to the boundaries imposed on women. Those restrictions, such a perspective asserts, draw their legitimacy from misguided religious interpretations made by societal forces that have no intention to move in any direction that empowers women.

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