Most commentary on gender and politics in the Middle East assigns a central place to Islam, but there is little agreement about the analytic weight it carries in accounting for the subordination of women or the role it plays in relation to women’s rights. [1] Using the Qur’an, the hadith and the lives of prominent women in the early period of Muslim history as sources, conservatives confirmed that existing gender asymmetries are divinely ordained, while feminists discerned possibilities for a more progressive politics of gender based on the egalitarian ideals of early Islam. These exegetical exercises mainly showed that, for both feminists and anti-feminists, Islamic doctrine continued to provide the only legitimate discourse within which to debate women’s rights.

Contemporary analysts have renounced these treatments as essentialist, ahistorical and lacking in class perspectives. [2] These newer studies focused on the processes of socioeconomic transformation accompanying the region’s incorporation into the world economy; the concerns of Middle East scholars started mirroring those of Third World “women and development” specialists. [3] The influence of feminist theory also made itself increasingly felt. Debates about the subordination of women now occurred in a more complex theoretical field, in which the analytic primary of Islam was temporarily eclipsed.

The rise of Islamist movements has stimulated new interest in the relationship between religion and politics in the region, and the role of the state in expressing and implementing this relationship. The most immediate and visible targets in “Islamization” programs were the dress, mobility and general status of women, putting the question of Islam and women’s rights back on the agenda with a renewed urgency. For Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, Muslim fundamentalism is an assertion of identity in the face of rapid social changes threatening existing authority relations (especially between genders), and a response to the boundary problems created by the intrusions of colonialism, new technology, consumerism and economic dependency. [4] I have argued elsewhere that socioeconomic transformation has aggravated social inequalities, dislocating local communities and producing massive migratory movements and the influx of women into the labor force. All of this has dealt a severe blow to the material and normative underpinnings of patriarchy, increasing the attractions of compensatory, conservative ideologies. [5]

While such arguments may account for part of the popular appeal of Islamist ideologies, they cannot explain the differential incorporation of these ideologies into actual state policies. Significant variations in the condition of women in Muslim societies derive from, among other things, the different political projects of modem nation-states. The ways in which women are represented in political discourse, the degree of formal emancipation they have achieved, their forms of participation in economic life and the nature of the social movements through which they express their demands are closely linked to state-building processes. Studies on women in Muslim societies have not always acknowledged the extent to which aspects of state practice define and mediate the place of Islam itself.

Relationships between Islam, the state and the politics of gender comprise at least three distinct components: 1) links between Islam and cultural nationalism; 2) processes of state consolidation and the modes of control states establish over local kin-based, religious and ethnic communities; and 3) international pressures that influence priorities and policies.

Cultural Nationalism and Women’s Rights

All Muslim societies have had to grapple with the problems of establishing modem nation-states and forging new notions of citizenship. Diverse processes of nation-building have produced a spectrum of distinct, shifting and actively contested syntheses between cultural nationalism and Islam. Women’s rights were debated and legislated in the search for new ideologies to legitimize emerging forms of state power.

Turkey stands out with its early experience of secularism, as the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire dissolved in favor of an Anatolia-based nation-state. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk not only dismantled the central institutions of Ottoman Islam by abolishing the Caliphate, but took additional measures to heighten Turkey’s “Turkish” national consciousness at the expense of a wider identification with the Muslim umma. The nationalist alliance that brought Kemal to power included men of religion who resisted any changes in the position of women, but collaboration between the Ottoman Islamic establishment and Allied occupation forces after World War I had undermined their legitimacy. The abrogation of the shari‘a, the adoption of a secular Civil Code in 1926 and the enfranchisement of women in 1934 became part of a broader struggle to liquidate the institutions of the Ottoman state and establish a republican notion of citizenship. Despite the growth of Islamist political platforms in recent years, the Turkish state has not, to date, acted to reverse the legislative reforms of the early republican era.

In Iran, Reza Shah openly claimed to derive inspiration from Mustafa Kemal’s reforms. His ban on veiling in 1936 was certainly more drastic than Kemal‘s pedagogic and indirect approach. At the point of modem state-building, however, Iran was a much more fragmented polity than the Ottoman empire. Reza Shah’s regime, furthermore, was not the heir of a war of national liberation but a military-based monarchy, with a much shallower basis for legitimacy. While Reza Shah consolidated his rule by eliminating alternative sources of power, the Shi‘i clergy was able to resist cooptation into the institutions of the Pahlavi state. Unlike the Ottoman clerical establishment, the clergy in Iran remained strong enough both economically and in its mass-based networks to reenter the political arena after the 1960s. [6]

State-building projects in the Arab world have ranged from experiments with “Arab socialism” to continuing monarchic rule. Despite reforms permitting educational, juridical and state institutions greater autonomy from religious authorities, shari‘a-inspired legislation in family and personal status codes persists even where secular laws have been adopted in every other sphere. Equal citizenship rights of women guaranteed by national constitutions are circumscribed by personal laws granting men special privileges in the areas of marriage, divorce, custody, maintenance and inheritance. Does this conservatism in the areas of women and the family derive from the centrality of Islam to Arab cultural nationalism, and represent an attempt to preserve Arab cultural identity in the face of Western imperialism as many Arab commentators maintain? [7] Al-Khalil takes issue with the notion that Arab nationalism, at least in its Baathist version, could ever embody a secular project. He argues that the demarcation of Arab national identity was made possible through arguments about the primacy of the Arabs within Islam, and that a particular version of Islam, Sunnism, was made co-terminous with national identity. [8] The fact that Sunnism and Shi‘ism can be mobilized as the respective markers of Arab and Iranian national identities was made amply evident and was fully exploited during the Iran-Iraq war.

The tensions and juxtapositions between Islam and national identity are clearest in the South Asian subcontinent. Pakistan emerged from partition as a state that claimed its separate identity and sovereignty on the grounds of religion; Islam was constitutive of nationhood in itself. Although Pakistan originated as a homeland for the Muslims of India rather than as an Islamic state, Islam was increasingly evoked as the legitimizing ideology of Pakistani unity. The “Islamization” package introduced by Gen. Zia ul Haq gave legal sanction to crude forms of sexual discrimination, which Pakistani women’s organizations loudly protested.

This emphasis on control of women as a means of establishing Islamic credentials must be set in the historical context of pre-partition India. Ayesha Jalal argues that conservative entrenchment on issues pertaining to women and family life lay at the heart of Muslim cultural resistance to both Hinduism and British colonialism. [9] The Bengalis, on the other hand, favored a linguistic and cultural nationalism in order to wrest their independence from their Pakistani co-religionists; Bangladesh emerged from the conflict of 1971 as a secular People’s Republic. State secularism subsequently eroded under successive regimes until finally Gen. Ershad declared Bangladesh an Islamic state in 1988. The Islamization policies of Bangladesh, though, have remained more tentative than those of Pakistan, continuing to express the contradictions of its nationalist history, of its varied internal constituencies and of the conflicting agendas of various foreign aid donors. [10]

In India, the question of Muslim women’s rights easily turns into a confrontation of minority (Muslim) and majority (Hindu) interests. As a result, any progressive attempts to redefine or expand these rights is thwarted by the logic of communal politics. [11]

State Consolidation and Family Legislation

The fact that women represent the “inner sanctum” of diverse national collectivities and the focal point of kinship-based solidarities, as opposed to a more abstract and problematic allegiance to the state, has presented a dilemma for the “modernizing” states of the Muslim world. Modem states have had to confront and to some extent eradicate the local particularisms in order to create new forms of civic consciousness and to liberate all available forces of development, including the labor potential of their female citizens. Depending on the nature of their political projects, states have variously challenged, accommodated or abdicated to local/communal patriarchal interests, with important consequences for family legislation and more general policies affecting women.

Muslim modernists at the turn of the century put family reform high on their agendas. They denounced sex segregation, arranged marriages, repudiation and polygamy and argued that the subjugation of women hinders national progress. Such views remained in the realm of polemic in societies with small urban populations, weak industrial bases and vast rural or tribal hinterlands. The limited outreach of pre-modem states left many aspects of their citizens’ lives untouched; regulation of marriage and family life remained under local kin control. Attempts at greater state penetration of society under Muhammad Ali in nineteenth-century Egypt and in the late Ottoman Empire remained limited compared to the dramatic expansion of state power in this century.

The attempts of post-independence states to absorb and transform kin-based communities in order to expand their control had an important bearing on policies relating to women and the family. Mounira Charrad argues that variations in the balance of power between the national state and locally based communities in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria during accession to independence account for significant differences in family legislation. [12] In Iraq, the Baath had an interest both in recruiting women into the labor force in the context of a continuing labor shortage, and in wresting women’s allegiance away from loyalties to kin, family or ethnic group and shifting that allegiance to the state-party. Women were recruited into state-controlled agencies and put through public education as well as vocational training and political indoctrination. The 1978 personal status law, although limited in its objectives, aimed at reducing the control of extended families over women. In Lebanon, governments formally relinquished matters of family and personal status to the religious authorities of existing communities. This was part of the strategy of Lebanon’s ruling elite to maintain the balance of sectarian power in the state. [13] The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, by contrast, introduced the 1974 family law which, despite numerous concessions to Islamic laws and local customs, aimed to free women from traditional forms of kin control and create possibilities for their emergence as economic and political actors in the service of national development. [14]

Other considerations that have a bearing on state policies relating to women include the extent to which states are pressed to mobilize their internal resources. [15] Oil states, which were until recently able to recruit foreign migrant labor, were clearly less reliant on female labor than, say, Turkey or Egypt, though recent developments in the Gulf may force a partial redefinition of the existing sexual divisions of labor. Conversely, states whose foreign earnings are highly contingent on remittances from male international migrants may increasingly rely on female labor in their domestic economies. This is particularly true in countries that have shifted their industrial priorities from import-substitution to export-led strategies of development which stimulate the recruitment of low-paid female labor.

The interventionist measures of post-independence states, either through family legislation or education, employment and population control policies, were primarily geared to national development. Their record with respect to the emancipation of women is quite mixed. Typically authoritarian and dirigiste regimes did not encourage the creation of democratic civil societies in which women’s gender interests could be autonomously represented. Women’s attempts at independent organizations were considered divisive and actively discouraged. This was the case during the single-party regime in Turkey, under the Pahlavis in Iran, and under Nasser in Egypt who, immediately after granting women suffrage in 1956, outlawed all feminist organizations. [16] Instead, state-sponsored women’s organizations were set up which were generally the docile auxiliaries of the ruling state-party. Nonetheless, in regimes as diverse as those of Ataturk, Reza Shah and Nasser, an emphasis on national consolidation and unity and the creation of a modem, centralized bureaucracy were congruent with the mobilization of women to aid the expansion of new cadres and the creation of a uniform citizenry.

Some regimes have recently reversed what appeared to be the steady expansion of women’s rights in the early stages of national consolidation. Others are expecting legitimacy crises, the political outcomes of which may also encroach on women’s rights. The expansion of women’s citizenship rights coincided with the secularist thrust of nationalist state-building projects. The political and distributive failures of such projects in Pakistan and India, for example, have aggravated conflicts expressed in religious, ethnic and regional terms. States have themselves used and exploited sectional rivalries in their patronage networks and distributive systems, exposing any initial universalist pretensions as shallow and fragile. Radical Islamist discourse typically identifies these failures not as merely political ones but as “moral” failures, requiring a complete overhaul of the world views underpinning them. As religious and ethnic identities become increasingly politicized, they tend to sacrifice women’s hard-won civil rights on the altar of a politics of identity that prioritizes control of women. Governments struggling to shore up their legitimacy may choose tactically to relinquish control of women to their immediate communities and families, thus depriving female citizens of full legal protection. [17]

In those cases where the state itself sponsors religious fundamentalism, as in Iran, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, the exercise of patriarchal authority extends to the clergy, the police or even other unrelated men, who take it upon themselves to monitor the dress and conduct of women. [18] One of the deepest ironies behind this emphasis on the control of women is the fact that the ties of economic and political dependence in which most states are enmeshed restricts their autonomy quite severely in almost every other sphere. This brings us to a consideration of the international context in which state policies are formulated and implemented.

The International Context

At the regional level, the cleavages between oil-rich and resource-poor countries had an important effect on the flow of migration, aid and political influence in the Muslim world. Migrants went from poorer countries such as Egypt, Yemen, Bangladesh, Turkey and Pakistan to the oil countries of the Gulf, while a reverse flow of cash and political influence strengthened the cultural and political prominence of local Islamist tendencies. This prompted diverse accommodations with Islam in aid-dependent countries. Internal Islamist constituencies either received a measure of acceptance and favor from ruling parties or governments, or created pressures pushing governments to declare their own commitment to religious orthodoxy as a means of upstaging more radical Islamist platforms.

Meanwhile, international monitoring of local economies reached unprecedented levels with the adoption of structural adjustment packages and stabilization measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund and diverse development projects sponsored by Western donor agencies. The shift from tight state control over the economy to private sector and foreign investment initiatives, and the adoption of export-led development strategies, had significant gender effects, notably a significant increase of the female labor force in the low-paid, casual and non-unionized sectors of the economy.

Since the International Women’s Year in 1975 and the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-1985), the women-and-development lobby has exerted pressure on national governments to recognize the role of women in combating poverty, illiteracy and high birth rates and to eliminate all forms of legal discrimination based on sex. Since 1973, the Percy Amendment to the US Foreign Assistance Act has required that bilateral aid should promote projects integrating women into development efforts. Monitoring bureaucracies were set up within the US Agency for International Development, the World Bank and the foreign aid departments of the main European donor nations. Although these initiatives are still marginal to mainstream development funding, they indicate the success of international women’s movements in placing gender issues on policy agendas. The “official” feminist rhetoric of modernizing, post-independence states has now been appropriated by supra-national monitoring bodies, but with contradictory consequences at the local level.

Bangladesh, an impoverished country with a high level of dependence on foreign aid, offers interesting perspectives on the interaction between local politics and international influences. The declaration of the United Nations Decade for Women in 1975 coincided with the military coup that brought Zia ul Rahman to power. Zia accumulated considerable political capital by championing the causes of the women and development lobby. However, he also needed the support of right-wing constituencies, including the army, to counter the opposition of the Awami League.

Oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, joined the ranks of major aid donors and increased their influence considerably. Zia embarked on an Islamization program which culminated in Gen. Ershad’s declaration of Bangladesh as an Islamic state in 1988. Both Zia’s and later Ershad’s strategies strove to balance the conflicting gender ideologies implicit in different aid packages: the development projects encouraged women’s participation in the labor force and public life, while aid from wealthier Muslim countries strengthened religious education and the pro-religious parties advocating stricter controls over women. The government, which supports US-funded attempts at population control, also funds Islamic organizations condemning them. [19]

Parallels may be found in other countries, where we see local machinery channeling development funds into projects designed to empower women against a background of increasingly conservative ideologies, and sometimes policies, concerning their appropriate roles. Donor governments and funding agencies aim to harness women directly to their vision of a more effective, though not necessarily more equitable, international economic order. The very manner in which the recipients of aid are integrated into this order encourages the rise of unstable and repressive regimes.

The development policies favored by such regimes have by and large led to more visible disparities in wealth, fueling widespread popular resentment and discontent, often in the absence of adequate democratic channels of expression. Islamist tendencies and movements enter this equation in ways specific to each context, which does not invite easy generalizations. A conclusion that does seem permissible is that when they do become a factor, tighter control over women and restrictions of their rights constitute the lowest common denominator of their policies.


[1] A debate indicative of these disagreements may be found in Mai Ghoussoub, “Feminism — or the Eternal Masculine — in the Arab World,” New Left Review 161 (January-February 1987); Rema Hammami and Martina Rieker, “Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Marxism,” New Left Review 170 (July-August 1988).
[2] Nikki Keddie, “Problems in the Study of Middle Eastern Women,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 10 (1979); Judith E. Tucker, “Problems in the Historiography of Women in the Middle East: The Case of Nineteenth-Century Egypt,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 15 (1983).
[3] See the themes in: “Women and Work in the Middle East,” MERIP Reports 95 (March-April 1981); “Women and Labor Migration,” MERIP Reports 124 (June 1984); “Women and Politics,” MERIP Reports 138 (January-February 1988).
[4] Fatima Mernissi, “Muslim Women and Fundamentalism,” MERIP Reports 153 (July-August 1988).
[5] Deniz Kandiyoti, “Islam and Patriarchy: A Comparative Perspective,” in Nikki Keddie and Beth Baron, eds., Shifting Boundaries: Women and Gender in Middle Eastern History (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming 1992).
[6] Afsaneh Najmabadi, “The Hazards of Modernity and Morality: Women, State and Ideology in Contemporary Iran,” in Deniz Kandiyoti, ed., Women, Islam and the State (London: Macmillan, 1991).
[7] Nadia Hijab, Womanpower (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Nawal El Saadawi, “The Political Challenges Facing Arab Women at the End of the Twentieth Century,” in Nahid Toubia, ed., Women in the Muslim World (London: Zed Books, 1988); Leila Ahmed, “Early Feminist Movements in Turkey and Egypt,” in Farida Hussain, ed., Muslim Women (London: Croom Helm, 1984); Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil (London: Al-Saqi Books, 1985).
[8] Samir Al Khalil, The Republic of Fear (London: Hutchinson, 1989).
[9] Ayesha Jalal, “The Convenience of Subservience: Women and the State of Pakistan,” in Women, Islam and the State.
[10] Naila Kabeer, “The Quest for National Identity: Women, Islam and the State of Bangladesh,” in Women, Islam and the State.
[11] Amrita Chhachhi, “Forced Identities: The State, Communalism, Fundamentalism and Women in India,” in Women, Islam and the State.
[12] Mounira Charrad, “State and Gender in the Maghrib,” in Middle East Report 163 (March- April 1990).
[13] Suad Joseph, “Elite Strategies for State Building: Women, Family, Religion and the State in Iraq and Lebanon,” in Women, Islam and the State.
[14] Maxine Molyneux, “The Law, the State and Socialist Policies with Regard to Women: The Case of PDRY, 1967-1990,” in Women, Islam and the State.
[15] I am grateful to Suad Joseph for calling my attention to this consideration in her comments on an earlier paper.
[16] For an extensive discussion of women’s movements in Egypt, see Margot Bedran, “Competing Agenda: Feminists, Islam and the State in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Egypt,” in Women, Islam and the State.
[17] This was the case in India, where Muslim women’s access to secular law in matters of divorce was blocked by the Muslim Women’s Act of 1986. Another significant but little noticed, and subsequently denied, development was the Iraqi government’s legal exemption for Iraqi men announced in March 1990 entitling them to kill female members of their family if they suspect them of adultery.
[18] Amrita Chhachhi, op cit. See also Eleanor Abdella Doumato, “Women and the Stability of Saudi Arabia,” in Middle East Report 171 (July-August 1991).
[19] Naila Kabeer, op cit.

How to cite this article:

Deniz Kandiyoti "Women, Islam and the State," Middle East Report 173 (November/December 1991).

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