In response to the patriarchal tendencies of the Islamist cultural revolution, a small group of Islamist and other Muslim women have reclaimed Qur’anic and other textual interpretation for their own purposes. The result is a new space for women within the Islamic tradition.

Scholars of Islamism and gender have used the Islamist emphasis on women’s familial roles to strengthen the dominant discursive view that the modernizing state is the single most important progressive agent in the struggle to equalize gender roles and relations in Islamic societies. [1] Islamists and the state certainly continue to compete in the cultural and political arenas. However, state-centric representations of Islamism as a conjunctural episode in the secular history of the Middle East ignore the extent to which Islamist practices and ideas have become normalized in the new gender identities of men and women. The study of changes that Islamism has introduced in the identities of men and women — as signified in dress, group solidarity and malefemale relations — provides a broader interpretation of the relationship between Islamism and gender.

Equally important is analysis of the contradictory dynamics that Islamism has brought to the cultural arena. While patriarchal Islamist groups have sought to impose conservative gender rules on women, Islamist and other Muslim women have not passively accepted them. The streets of most cities and villages in the region show that veiled women have not heeded the call to stay at home; instead they have used their Islamic mode of dress to create their own public space where they are treated with respect. Meanwhile, Muslim women activist-scholars creatively engage the Qur’anic text and the prophetic tradition in ways that advance gender justice. All of these examples invite us to reject the presumed passivity of women under the weight of Islamic tradition and the cultural hegemony of Islamism and to examine how women are redefining their relationship to both.

Cultural Change and Gendered Identities

Because Middle East women’s studies have tended to view gender as the essential property of women rather than a relational category that explains social and historical changes in both male and female identities, men have been absent from the scholarly discussion. Interestingly enough, Zaynab al-Ghazali, the Egyptian Islamist, reports that men engaged in an extensive debate regarding their own return to an Islamic mode of dress. Islamist men debated whether their return to traditional male dress should be accompanied by changes like shortening their galabiyyas and growing beards in accordance with the prophetic tradition. [2] They wanted to distinguish their dress from peasant and urban working-class dress, giving an old form a new meaning as a marker of religious community. Male dress was also part of a new identity that sought to contest the national authority of the Westernized political elite and to legitimate Islamist local authority. [3]

Tariq al-Bishri, the Egyptian leftist jurist turned Islamist, elaborates on the changing forms of fraternal solidarity and its relationship to community. He suggests that the rise of Islamism contributed to the fracturing of the larger national and Arab fraternal communities.  A new “factionalism” (ta’ifiyya) emerged that challenged these older bases of solidarity. The result is an urgent need to build bridges between secular and Islamist national currents. The secularists need to critically reexamine their views of the Islamist “other” and their claim to have greater legitimacy in the existing community. The Islamists should enrich their fiqh (jurisprudence) by absorbing successful models for addressing contemporary imperatives, even those from other intellectual religious traditions. Al-Bishri believes that the new Islamist hegemony provides better grounds than secularism for securing the rights of Christian minorities and national unity. The goal was not just for secular and Islamist currents to coexist, but to find ground on which both could meet to achieve the independence, unity and development of the community. This task required the energy of strong and qualified men. [4]

The recent fatwa (religious opinion) issued by a panel of prominent Muslim scholars, including al-Bishri, regarding the enlistment of American Muslims in the US armed forces to fight other Muslims in the war against terrorism showed that his commitment to the preservation of fraternal national solidarity extended to situations where Muslims were a religious minority. The fatwa stated: “A Muslim is a citizen of a state and a member of its regular army. He has no choice but to follow orders; otherwise his allegiance and loyalty to his country would be in doubt. This would subject him to much harm since he would not enjoy the privileges [of citizenship] without performing its obligations.” [5]

Salwa Ismail’s study of Algerian Islamism shows the emergence of local forms of “fraternal” identity that filled the void left by the fractured national solidarities discussed by al-Bishri. She points out that, among the many supporters of the Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS), identity became focused on peripheral suburban neighborhoods where the mosque and sports teams contributed to the “reactivation of the spirit of oulad al-houma.” The mosque became a center of sociability, communication and territorialization and, along with the all-male character and fraternal values of team sports, valorized the male community. [6]

The issue of dress for second- and third-generation Islamist women has been only a small part of a conscious effort to make “faith” an organizing framework for their lives. This included observance of important religious rituals and the definition of their relations, not only with men, but also with other women, in their pursuit of education, work and a greater presence in the cultural arena. Much has been said on the hierarchical relations between men and women within the family and the reserved interaction between the sexes outside it. [7] But studies of Egyptian veiled women in the late 1980s also showed the development of new forms of sisterhood among female university students who met on campus in the girls’ lounges as part of religious study groups. Older middleclass women met in mosques or in each other’s houses for the same purpose. [8] In the 1990s, there were other examples of middle-class Islamist sisterhoods activated in the cultural arena. Islamist women consistently showed up in large numbers at state-sponsored conferences or feminist gatherings that discuss “women’s rights” to register their opposition to secularist approaches and to present their alternative. The most recent example of this exercise was the state-sponsored conference celebrating the centennial of Qasim Amin’s Tahrir al-mara’a (Liberation of the Woman) held in Cairo in 1999. These confrontations among Islamist and other women were manifestations of the fracturing of the national identities of women. [9]

Islamist and Muslim Women Engage Religious Discourses

The active segments of the different generations of Islamist women feel pride and interest in everything “Islamic,” and a commitment to advocating alternative Islamist discourses on women’s relationship to culture and politics. Outside Islamist circles, veiled and unveiled Muslim women at universities are also engaging the Islamic discourse in an attempt to expand and deepen that debate.

Zaynab al-Ghazali, a self-educated woman and the only prominent woman in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, was initially preoccupied with the challenge of Western and secular feminist writings on Islam. Her recent writings are more focused on debates within the Islamist community and how they reproduced the secularist argument regarding the subordinate status of women, which she considered to be a false issue. She deployed the prophetic tradition to deny the privileging of men over women in Islam. If “women are the sisters of men” as one hadith suggests, then both the Islamist preoccupation with the question of difference and the (secular) feminist claim that Muslim women have gender-specific concerns miss the point. When Islamist men suggest that they are better than women because only men were prophets, they ignore the fact that God gave women the equally honorable position of being mothers of all these prophets. This useless debate serves the interests of the enemies of Islam, said al-Ghazali, especially the Jews. They also distract attention from the primary concern of Muslims – the backwardness of the umma. In the struggle to restore the glory of Islamic society, a woman’s primary role is to build a healthy family. If she is able to juggle that responsibility along with others, then she should serve societal needs as well. [10]

In contrast, Heba Raouf Ezzat, an Egyptian political scientist who recently emerged as a key public voice of Islamist women of the now defunct Labor Party, offers a reading of the history of Western secularism and its enlightenment project that was inspired by the desire to “construct our own [Islamic] modernity having seen where things went wrong.” She blames Western secularism and the modern state for the crisis in social values and in important institutions like the family and religion. [11] Her emphasis on the importance of family and religion led her to strongly condemn homosexuality, which she considered to be a measure of the moral degradation of the West and the crisis of its families. She fears that the widespread desire to imitate the West and its mores made homosexuality a threat to Islamic society. [12] Feminism undermined the family in yet another way. It put emphasis on the individual rights of women and the critique of patriarchy, overlooking the fact that patriarchal cultures also bind men into families with important obligations.

Ezzat rejects the attempt to classify her as an Islamic feminist. Like al-Ghazali, she considers feminism to be a Western secular construct that is alien to the Islamic tradition that guides her. [13] While she claims to be using orthodox Islamic methodology to interpret the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition, she offered unorthodox views that applied the political principles of shura (consultation) to relations in the family, rejecting both the Islamic and the modern splits between the public and the private. She argued that women had the right to choose and reject their mates just as they had the right, as members of the Islamic community, to give and to withhold support to the caliph. [14]

Eclectic Views in Turkey

In the 1990s, Islamist women in Turkey held more eclectic views about the relationship between religion and politics. In a provocative paper discussing the election of two veiled women, Merve Kavakci and Nesrin Unal, in 1999 to the National Assembly, Fatma Muge Göçek stressed the hybridity of the Islamist experience and its political practice. Kavakci, a deputy of the Islamist Virtue Party, appeared with a headscarf at the swearing ceremony and was noisily escorted out. Unal, a deputy of the Nationalist Action Party, uncovered her hair for the session and was sworn in with the other deputies. Both women were asked to explain their roles in this event. Kavakci, a US-trained engineer, described herself “as a daughter of the republic representing a persecuted populace” who was denied access to public education, government employment and a presence in the political arena because of the veil. Unal indicated that “the state was sacred in the tradition of the Turks and one has to respect that which is sacred.” [15] By making the state sacred, Unal could reconcile two sacred sets of rules: one political and the other religious. Importantly, following the ceremony, Unal put her headscarf back on, attending party meetings at the parliament and a presidential reception and visiting Atatürk’s tomb as a veiled woman. [16]

Konca Kuris, a member of the radical Turkish Hizbollah, who did not reject being called an Islamist feminist, offered creative reinterpretations of Islamic practices and beliefs that eventually brought her into violent conflict with the party. A self-educated woman from Mersin in Southern Anatolia, her views on many Islamic issues were not published, but were articulated in televised and published interviews. While she grounded her arguments in Qur’anic verses, Kuris criticized literal readings of the text. She has expressed a concern that the Qur’an was interpreted by misogynist men who determined the status of women, and challenged the views of religious authorities on a number of important issues. While she wore a headscarf, she believed that Islam does not require women to cover their hair or to be sexually segregated from men in mosques, at funerals or in schools. Most importantly, Kuris has challenged the notion of menstrual blood as “dirty,” asking how it can be dirty if it feeds the fetus in the womb. She suggested that this notion was the creation of a patriarchal religious elite who wanted to keep women from worship and God. [17]

Critical Interpretations

The discussion of women’s interpretation of Qur’anic verses was joined by Muslim women like Farida Banani of Morocco and Zaynab Radwan of Egypt, who are unveiled, and Omaima Abou Bakr of Egypt, who is veiled. As academics with training in law, Islamic philosophy and English and comparative literature respectively, they brought new readings and discourses to the discussion. Banani critically reinterpreted most of the popular Qur’anic verses used by the Islamists to support the veiling of women and their seclusion at home. For instance, she suggested that the practices of veiling and seclusion were only designed for the wives of the Prophet. Jurists who consider veiling and seclusion applicable to all women ignore a Qur’anic verse which states that the “wives of the Prophet were unlike other women.” Other Qur’anic verses ask women believers to avert their gaze when they meet men who are not related to them. If the intent was to encourage women to stay at home, then why was there a need for women to avert their gaze? Finally, since Islam gave women a separate legal and financial standing, it must have been expected that women would oversee their financial affairs outside of the home. [18]

Zaynab Radwan contextualized the important Qur’anic verse that explicitly stipulates that the testimony of one man equals that of two women. She suggested that a fuller reading of the verse shows that this stipulation was specific to financial/commercial transactions, with which women of the time had limited familiarity. The verse explicitly states that the purpose of having two women testify in such transactions is to ensure that if one strays the other will correct her. It was clearly focused on the oral testimonies of women because very few women at that time knew how to read and write. Once women became literate and more active in the financial arena, the need for the testimony of two women to equal that of one man ended. In supporting her argument for legal equality, Radwan marshaled other verses from the Qur’an that discussed a woman’s testimony in the civil and criminal arenas as equal to that of a man. [19]

What Is Islamic Feminism?

Omaima Abou Bakr has made a significant contribution to discussions of the category of Islamic feminism then finding currency in the West and in the Middle East. She differentiated between an Islamic feminism which was part of Muslim self-definition and a new hegemonic Western concept designed to contain the “other.” She also identified several different uses of the notion. “Islamic feminism” has referred to work done by Muslim women of different generations and orientations, to a textual category/approach, to veiled women, to oppositional counterweights to secular feminism and to tactical constructs used by Arab feminist critics. Abou Bakr suggested that for the concept to be meaningful, it needed to be applied in a discriminating way to those who simultaneously critique the Islamic tradition and develop alternatives and solutions inspired by Islamic values. For Muslim feminists, this project is designed to produce an Islamic discourse that problematizes gender injustice in the context of an Islamic worldview that they believe provides “divine justice, compassion, egalitarianism and liberation from slavery or submission to any being other than God.” Their defense of women’s rights is part of the defense of Islam against the corruption of its own ideals. Another characteristic of this new enterprise is what Abou Bakr calls “turning the tables” on Muslim men, taking them to task for their failure to adhere to Islamic principles and injunctions. [20]

Abou Bakr’s definition of Islamic feminism places the works of Nawal El-Saadawi and Fatima Mernissi, which stop at the critique of Islam, outside the faith-based project. In another article, Abou Bakr asks the intriguing question: “How valid or appropriate is it for Muslims —  women and men — to adopt a so-called gender-sensitive perspective or approach to the study of religious, cultural and historical texts?” She answers by referring to three incidents documented in the prophetic tradition in which women questioned the Prophet on their roles in the community. In two of these incidents, the issues raised were significant enough to be “occasions for revelation.” This leads Abou Bakr to argue that “if God Himself and the Prophet (PBUH) gave ear to Muslim women’s queries, then why not reproduce the same situation if there is need for it at another point of our history?” [21]

The Islamist cultural revolution has contributed to women’s interest in religion and religious interpretation. It has also contributed to patriarchal religious discourses and views. In response, a small group of Islamist and other Muslim women have reclaimed the Islamic tradition for their own purposes. While Islamist women have sought to develop interpretations that serve the political agendas of their parties, other Muslim women have sought to use their intellectual skills to reinterpret the Islamic texts from a gendersensitive perspective. The result is a new space for women within the Islamic tradition.


 [1] For the dominant view, see Deniz Kandiyoti’s introduction to her edited volume, Women, Islam and the State (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), pp. 1-21. For a review of narratives of the Middle Eastern state’s relationship to the modernization of gender roles, see Mervat Hatem, “Modernization, the State and the Family in Middle East Women’s Studies” in Margaret Meriwether and Judith Tucker, eds., A Social History of Women and Gender in the Modern Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999), pp. 63-88.

 [2] Zaynab al-Ghazali, “Al-Mara’a al-muslima ila ayna?” in Ibn al-Hashimi, ed., Humum almara’a al-muslima wa al-da‘iya Zaynab al-Ghazali (Cairo: Dar al-I‘tisam, 1990).

 [3] Mamoun Fandy, “Political Science Without Clothes: The Politics of Dress or Contesting the Spatiality of the State in Egypt,” Arab Studies Quarterly (Spring 1999).

 [4] Tariq al-Bishri, Fi al-mas’ala al-islamiyya bayn al-islam wa al-‘uruba (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1998), pp. 5-6, 12.

 [5] Washington Post, October 11, 2001.

 [6] Salwa Ismail, Rethinking Islamist Politics: Culture, the State and Islamism (London: I.B. Tauris, forthcoming).

 [7] Arlene Elowe Macleod, Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling and Change (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); Mervat Hatem, “Secularist and Islamist Discourses on Modernity in Egypt and the Evolution of the Postcolonial Nation-State,” in Yvonne Haddad and John Esposito, eds., Islam, Gender and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 85-99.

 [8] Nemat Guenena, The “Jihad”: An “Islamic Alternative” in Egypt (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1986), pp. 76-82.

 [9] See Omaima Abou Bakr, Sahar Subhi, Sumayya Ramadan, ‘Abir ‘Abbas, Hala Fu’ad and Huda al-Sadda, “Harb ahliyya sahatiha qadaya al-mara’a,” Wijhat Nazar (February 2000), pp. 58-61.

 [10] Al-Ghazali, pp. 57-58, 60, 62.

 [11] Heba Raouf Ezzat, “Secularism, the State and the Social Bond: The Withering Away of the Family,” in John Esposito and Azzam Tamimi, eds., Islam and Secularism in the Middle East (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p. 134-136.

 [12] Azza Karam, Women, Islamism and the State (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 222.

 [13] Ibid., p. 224.

 [14] Interview with Ezzat, “It Is Time to Launch a New Women’s Liberation Movement—An Islamic One,” Middle East Report 191 (November-December 1994), pp. 26-27.

 [15] Fatma Muge Göçek, “To Veil or Not to Veil: The Contested Location of Gender in Contemporary Turkey,” Interventions 1/4 (2000), pp. 521-535.

 [16] Burcak Koskin, “Merve Kavakci: A Mnemonic Symbol of the (Islamic) Past or An Icon of Distinction,” paper presented to the Middle East Studies Association, November 17-20, 2000.

 [17] This summary is based on Burcak Koskin, “A Veiled Woman with Claims to Feminist Knowledge: The Case of Konca Kuris,” paper presented to the workshop on New Directions in Feminist Scholarship in the Middle East and North Africa, Florence, March 21-25, 2001. Konca Kuris was kidnapped after one of her interviews. Her body was found two years later as part of police operations against Hizbollah.

 [18] Farida Banani, “al-Nisawiya: sawt masmu‘ fi al-niqash al-dini,” in Huda al-Sadda, Sumayya Ramadan and Omaima Abou Bakr, eds., Zaman al-nisa’ wa al-dhakira al-badila (Cairo: Multaqa al-Mara’a wa al-Dhakira, 1998), pp. 175-176.

 [19] Zaynab Radwan, al-Islam wa qadaya al-mara’a (Cairo: al-Hay’a al-Misriyya al-‘Amma lil- Kitab, 1993), pp. 100-111.

 [20] Omaima Abou Bakr, “Islamic Feminism: What’s in a Name?” Middle East Women’s Studies Review (Winter/Spring 2001), pp. 1-2, 3, 7.

 [21] Abou Bakr, “A Muslim Woman’s Reflection on Gender,” electronic document accessed at on February 24, 2002.

How to cite this article:

Mervat Hatem "Gender and Islamism in the 1990s," Middle East Report 222 (Spring 2002).

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