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Feminist Action Is Not Closing the Gap

Ever since Qasim Amin and Huda Sha’arawi raised their voices in support of women's emancipation, Arab activists have been struggling, each in their own way, to advance women’s rights. Those feminists included secular feminists, Marxist feminists, Islamic feminists, or just feminists without any qualifier.18 Feminist action involved both men and women, both intellectuals and laypersons, and both educated and non-educated, from various religious, areligious, and anti-religious perspectives. Their collective efforts have led to some successes and some disappointments at several fronts. It is important to gauge the efforts that have started more than one hundred years ago. How far have the accomplishments contributed to the elevation of Arab societies and the cause of women in the Arab world? What are the successes? Where are the shortcomings?

Attempting to evaluate more than a century of activism by diverse forces and stakeholders is a grandiose task, and I am not attempting an evaluation here. Yet, compared to the successes of women in other parts of the world, Arab women’s progress has been partial and slow. Questions that need to be addressed in any evaluation: who is responsible for the lack of significant progress in terms of participation of women in many Arab localities? Have the internal rifts within the feminist movements led to problems in realizing the desired outcomes? What explains the resilience of patriarchy, if patriarchy is indeed the culprit? To what extent has the discourse of some feminist movements been considerate of the cultures in which they operate? What was the role of Western-inspired agendas in that regard?

As discussed earlier, the problems facing the early feminist movements included forces of resilient patriarchy and a strict religious reading that, while not embraced by many Muslims, was not welcoming of the changes. Some feminists have argued against certain prevalent practices, legitimized by a certain religious interpretation, that disadvantage women. The religious establishment, dominated by men, has not been helpful in advancing the cause of women. In many ways, according to this perspective, the current institutional structures have fed from a regressive understanding that led to female disempowerment and lack of participation. As noted in an earlier chapter, there are indeed extreme readings of the religious texts that reinforce strict gender segregation and women detachment from public and economic affairs.

On the other hand, however, are positions—stemming from a religious starting point—that argue for a departure of current practices. Practices hindering women’s access to the public life have become increasingly challenged, not only from secular feminists, but also from religious circles.19 New discourses within Arab feminism started to look for answers within the faith itself for how best to approach women’s issues. Islamic feminists have embarked on uncovering arguments within the Muslim tradition, texts, and history, for evidence why women’ s emancipation is not contrary to religious teachings. Through looking inside, they hope to fix the situation outside. While some20 fear that an undue attention given to reinterpretation of religious texts and history may distract from the real problems associated with female underdevelopment and lack of participation, the benefits from such an exercise are myriad.

Within the discourse of Islamic groups, as discussed in an earlier chapter, there are lots of arguments regarding the importance of inclusion of women based on a rereading of Islamic texts and history. Such reexaminations have been translated into real action on the ground. There are indeed cases, for example, of women who ran for elections and won parliamentary seats on the election lists of Islamic groups. Annahda Islamic party in Tunisia is a good example where, in 2014, 28 out of 69 seats were won by female members of this party.21 Yet even in Tunisia, which fares extremely well compared to other countries, there are concerns that female participation does not translate into real involvement in decision-making.22 All in all, participation remains low, and even when the numbers tell stories about improvement, the question remains whether such improvements are really substantive.

One of the problems associated with feminist movements in the Arab world is the apparent discord between Islamic feminists and secular feminists. Both aim at improving the status of women, but there are often sharp differences in their assumptions and approaches. An extreme version of secular feminism would discount Islamic feminists as individuals who “don’t know what they’re doing,” pointing fingers at them for hiding political agendas. An extreme version of Islamic feminism labels secular feminists as being aligned with colonial powers based on Western agendas that do not take the real priorities of Middle Eastern women into consideration.

While the efforts of all feminist groups have materialized into notable changes for women, the process is still far from over. The rift within Arab feminism is clear. Some feminist movements are aligned with Western feminism, others are aligned with Islamic feminism, and many are in between.

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