Women face off with police in a protest in Cairo, Egypt.
Women face off with police in a protest in Cairo, Egypt.

Credit: Sarah Carr on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–The new Middle East is still taking shape, but clearly, the Arab uprisings have brought Islamism–the belief that Islam should instruct social, political and legal affairs, not just one’s personal life–into the political mainstream.

Although the early instigators of Tunisia’s and Egypt’s protest movements counted many secularists, it is not at all surprising that the momentum of change has been captured by Islamists. Islamic organizations are better organized and better financed than liberal ones, and have well-established mosque-based networks through which they have long delivered social services to broad swaths of the population. Moreover, Islam is the cultural touchstone for most people, and polls consistently show large majorities across the Arab world support Sharia (Islamic law) as the basis of legislation.

In Egypt’s first post-Hosni Mubarak parliamentary election, Islamists won more than 70 percent of the seats, and then in 2012, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Mursi captured Egypt’s presidency. Islamists have also come to power through the ballot box in Tunisia and have gained greater influence in Yemen.

Islamists’ participation in politics has demonstrated that far from being monolithic, there is a broad spectrum of Islamist positions on such critical issues as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and women’s rights. For example, conservative Islamists would deny women most legal and family rights and believe that they should play little role in the public sphere. More progressive Islamists support broad rights for women and also encourage an active public role–including political leadership–for women. This range of perspectives helps explain how, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, Arab women are as likely as men to favor Sharia as a source of law. Many believe that Islam will in fact protect their rights.

As the political landscape of the Middle East is reconfigured, how effectively women’s rights are incorporated into broader demands for social, economic and political change is in many ways a bellwether for the future of the region. With the rise of long-suppressed religious parties, the need to reconcile demands for Sharia with women’s rights, and more broadly human rights, is already emerging as a fault line. The top-down, heavy-fisted approach of the region’s discredited secular dictators, who simply pushed through legal changes that benefited women (in no small part to “appear” modern and to curry favor with Western benefactors) must now be replaced with a more inclusive, broad-based approach that will require the support, or at least the acquiescence, of moderate religious leaders and Islamist parties.

An Impossible Task

Many fear this is an impossible task–that Islam and women’s rights cannot be reconciled, that the Arab upheavals will spread theocracy. But this book describes how that reconciliation has been happening for years across the Islamic world–in a growing movement of “Islamic feminism.” Muslim women want to practice their faith, but not at the expense of their economic, political and social rights. Increasingly, they look to their faith as a source of those rights.

The fact is that young Arab women today are more overtly religious than their mother’s generation, but they are also significantly better educated, they are marrying later, having fewer children and more likely to work outside the home. Their demands for greater freedom have been building for years. The uprisings have played a role in mobilizing these women, who since the earliest days of upheaval have been on the frontlines of change. They have been protesting alongside men, blogging passionately and prolifically, covering the demonstrations as journalists and newscasters, launching social media campaigns, smuggling munitions and caring for the wounded.

And they have been taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers. One big demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square at the end of 2011 was the largest demonstration of women in Egypt since 1919, when women mobilized under the leadership of feminist Hoda Shaarawi in anti-colonial demonstrations against the British. From Tunisia to Yemen, veiled and unveiled female protesters have become the iconic image of the Arab revolutions. When Tawakkul Karman of Yemen became the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, she acknowledged the millions of women across the region who have joined her in the fight for greater freedom.

The defiance of these brave activists has surprised many in the West who have long viewed Arab women only as oppressed victims of conservative patriarchy and religion. Patriarchy and religious conservatism have conspired against women around the world and throughout the ages, and it runs particularly deep in the modern Middle East. But women are more determined than ever to change that reality, and given the strength of Islamism today, progressive interpretations of Islam will have to be part of the solution.

Difficult Changes

Change, however, is rarely easy, and Arab women are already finding it was easier to overthrow dictators than to attain greater gender equality. Their task today is made harder by that fact that for decades in the Middle East, the women’s rights agenda was closely associated with the now-discredited authoritarian regimes: Egypt‘s Suzanne Mubarak ran a state-affiliated women’s nongovernmental organization; Leila Ben Ali, Tunisia‘s much-hated hairdresser-cum-first lady, was president of the Arab Women Organization, an intergovernmental body sponsored by the Arab League; and both Syria‘s Asma al-Assad and Jordan‘s Queen Rania have been closely identified with women’s issues.

The rise of politically empowered conservative Islamists who contest existing laws for women on religious grounds also poses serious complications for women’s rights. Libya is a case in point. At the ceremony marking Libya’s official liberation in October 2011, after the death of Moammar Gadhafi, one of the first announcements from the National Transitional Council was that any laws contradicting Sharia would be annulled. Specifically, the Council declared that going forward polygamy would be legal, drawing cheers and celebratory gunfire from the mostly male crowd as Libyan women stood by in stony-faced silence.

Later, the women expressed surprise and disappointment at the announcement and wondered why, with all of Libya’s pressing issues, reinstating polygamy should be on the front burner. (NATO leaders, who were instrumental in overthrowing Gadhafi, wondered the same.) Libyan women, who largely describe themselves as pious, vow to fight this regression. They fought for preferential placement on party lists in the first post-Gadhafi national election in July 2012, and captured nearly 17 percent of the seats in parliament. They also voted in large numbers for moderate candidates.

The political convulsions across the Arab world could very well energize Islamic feminism. Over the past several years, I have been contacted by numerous activists across the region who–inspired by the stories in this book of women and men using progressive interpretations of Islam to push for change–are similarly incorporating religious arguments into their work. They recognize that in the new political landscape of the Middle East, the contentious struggle for women’s rights has become even more complicated as Islamist parties move to political center stage.

No longer is the primary cleavage between secularists and Islamists. Today, the most important and meaningful debates are within Islam. The extent to which moderate Islamists will support such critical building blocks of democracy as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and women’s rights will be a key determinant of the region’s future.

Excerpted from the paperback edition of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet” by . Copyright 2013 by Isobel Coleman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

For More Information:

Buy the Book, “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East“:

Democracy in Development Blog, Council on Foreign Relations:

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