Heba Ra’uf ‘Izzat, 29, is a teaching assistant in the Political Science Department at Cairo University. Active in the Islamist movement, she is known for her academic research on women’s political role from the perspective of political Islam and its theory. She edits the women’s page in al-Sha‘b, a weekly opposition newspaper published by a coalition of the Muslim Brothers and the Labor Party.
As a young Islamist intellectual, she is evoking a new discourse on women, politics and political sociology which is seen as rather “liberal” inside the Islamist movement. “I don’t believe that God wants to humiliate me as a woman,” she has said elsewhere, explaining that, in her view of orthodox Islam, prescriptions which hold a women’s testimony to be worth only half of that of a male apply only in very special cases.
‘Izzat contests any separation between the public and private spheres; rules which apply in the political arena should be also valid for the family. Within this framework, she calls for a kind of “democratization of the man-woman relationship inside a family structure.” She does not cooperate with secular women’s groups in Egypt, although she was one of the most active participants in a youth dialogue between Islamists and secularists organized by the Muslim Brothers in April 1994.
Afterward, some people expressed disappointment at the lack of interest on the part of secular women’s groups for such a dialogue. ‘Izzat is married to an Islamist student leader and has a two-year old daughter.
Your research deals with the role of women from an Islamic point of view. How do you approach this issue?
I declare myself an Islamist, but this doesn’t mean that I accept the dominant discourse about women inside the Islamist movement. My studies focus on the need for a new interpretation of Qur’an and sunna [the tradition of the Prophet]. We should benefit from the fiqh [Islamic legal theory] and the contributions of previous generations of Islamic scholars. This doesn’t mean that we have to stick to their interpretations of Islamic sources while we ignore the sociology of knowledge.
There is a parallel effort in the West to restructure different academic disciplines with a feminist approach. Is this discussion relevant to your work?
Feminists are secularists who are fighting male domination. Many regard religion as an obstacle to women’s rights and they concentrate on women’s superior or special nature. Conflict is the main concept of their theory, a theory that they even want to turn into a paradigm.
My effort is quite different and even opposes such ideas. I am not an Islamic feminist. I do believe in Islam as a world view, and I think that women’s liberation in our society should rely on Islam. This necessitates a revival of Islamic thought and a renewal within Islamic jurisprudence.
Would you say that orthodox Islamic jurisprudence is a patriarchal construct?
I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse the whole fiqh of being patriarchal. I believe we need to differentiate between what is absolute and what is relative to shari‘a. I am not aiming to deconstruct Islamic law and thought, but rather to reconstruct it. I am actually defending Islam from stagnation and bias.
What do male Islamic scholars say about your reinterpretations?
I am using the same orthodox methodology to interpret the Qur’an and sunna. I say: ‘Respected ‘ulama’: I use the same tools of interpretation and reach different conclusions.’ The aim is to change the paradigm from within. My discourse seems to be confusing on both sides. The secularists realize that I am still standing on Islamic ground yet using a different language than the dominant Islamic one. The Islamists on the other hand see that my language is Islamic but filled with new ideas and different conclusions.
Can you synthesize your central ideas?
I am mainly refusing the public-private dichotomy that is dominant in Western and Islamic thought. This dichotomy gives either privacy — for example, family life — the priority, or the contrary. In my opinion, Islam doesn’t embody such a polaristic perception. Private is political, not in the feminist aggressive sense but rather in the Islamic sense of solidarity and the importance of social infrastructure and grassroots politics. Social movements cannot be understood in an Islamic social system without analyzing the extended family as a political and economic unit. The Palestinian intifada is an example.
In my study of religious sources, I found a lot of analogy between public and private. For example, the main Islamic dynamic within the political process is shura, which means consulting people. We have shura like the West has democracy. The same value is dominant in family relations. You can’t have a totalitarian patriarchal system in a family in Islam. The family should be run by shura. The same values and laws count in the public and the private arenas. Marriage is like voting for or choosing the khalifa [the successor of the Prophet]. We do have a family head, but he is like the khalifa and should be chosen freely. If he is unfair, he should be denied the right to be the head of the family. As people can withdraw their homage to their khalifa, women can divorce their husbands.
Doesn’t your emphasis on the family reinforce the call for the return of the working women to the home, which is widely supported by the Islamists?
The issue is not black and white. Women differ according to their education, social class, age, talents and creativity. Every woman at every moment of her life should have the freedom of choice between different roles. Circumstances should be changed to help her contribute in all spheres of her life to fulfill her economic and political duties. The family should be regarded as the basic unit of society and protected and developed. Women’s role and society’s respect should focus on women’s active participation within and outside of their homes. Breaking the dichotomy would give housewives more social esteem and would encourage working women to fulfill their psychological need to be good mothers and wives.
Isn’t it a paradox for you that historically women’s liberation movements were secular?
We should not only study the romantic start of these movements, but the results, too. Did women really obtain their rights in Islamic societies? We are still facing many problems. The Islamists always considered women’s liberation a Western idea. This prevented them from making their own interpretations about women’s problems.
It is time to launch a new women’s liberation movement — an Islamic one, not only for the benefit of Muslim women and Muslim societies but for all women everywhere. If Islam is a universal religion and a way of life, then this movement too should aim at universal goals. It should parallel a struggle for economic and political liberation from the colonialism of the new capitalist world order.