While there is no reason to panic, concern about the rise of Islamists
in post-dictatorship Arab societies is warranted, especially as the
rights of women are particularly and immediately open to attack.
No sooner had the Islamist Al-Nahda party secured its status as the
largest group in Tunisia’s new Constituent Assembly, than we saw a
misogynist agenda rearing its ugly, familiar head. The party’s iconic
spokeswoman, Souad Abderrahim, called single mothers a “disgrace” and
declared that they “do not have the right to exist.”
It is irrelevant that many Arab Christians, or other religious
fanatics of whatever faith, might have agreed with her. And it’s not
reassuring that Al-Nahda leaders, in what was clearly a tactical
measure, rushed to contradict Abderrahim in order to quell the uproar.
What’s important is that Abderrahim’s comments demonstrate where
Al-Nahda, one of the least extreme among Arab Islamist parties, is
coming from on the issue of women’s rights. Abderrahim, of course, had
no comment about the role of men in creating single motherhood.
The head of Libya’s transitional authority, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, added
to the alarm by proclaiming that Islamic law, or Sharia, would be the
principal source of legislation in post-Qaddafi Libya. He implied that
polygamy, a practice almost entirely suppressed under the deposed
dictator, Moammar Qaddafi, might be reintroduced.
Abdul-Jalil was no doubt seeking to distance himself from the former
regime, demonstrate that he is independent from the West, and placate
Islamist elements in the Transitional National Council. It is
heartening that in recent council meetings, large majorities have
apparently coalesced around secular candidates, as opposed to
Islamists, for key transitional leadership positions.
Several Libyan officials have also denounced Qatari support for
Islamist groups. Rather than dictating the post-revolution agenda,
Libyan Islamists may be feeling sidelined enough to require a nod to
their conservative social agenda from the rest of the Transitional
National Council, in order to keep them on board.
Abdul-Jalil’s comments were so vague as to be practically meaningless.
However, they do reinforce the fact that Islamism generally promotes
misogynist attitudes, since his efforts to placate Islamists implied
restrictions on women’s rights. Indeed, wherever Islamists have seized
power, whether in Iran, northern Nigeria, Afghanistan, parts of
Pakistan, and Gaza, their exercise of power has immediately and
intently focused on restricting women’s rights.
This behavior ranges from the unspeakable, and thankfully rare,
practice of stoning women, largely in rural Iran, to the sexually
paranoid restrictions by Hamas on women smoking water pipes
(cigarettes are fine) or riding on the back of motorcycles. It really
does take a hyperactive pornographic imagination to read impropriety
into those latter acts.
Another serious concern is that some of the Arab world’s deposed
secular dictatorships held up their purported advocacy of women’s
issues as a false sign of progress, thereby tainting the agenda.
In Egypt, for example, the Mubarak regime was associated with efforts
to strongly discourage female genital mutilation. While this practice
has absolutely nothing to do with Islam, and is enforced as
enthusiastically by Egyptian Coptic Christians and some African
animists as by some Muslims, the Muslim Brotherhood was always in
practice opposed to official efforts to suppress it.
The Brotherhood’s official position is that female genital mutilation
is neither “halal” (required) nor “haram” (forbidden). Therefore, it
should be religiously permissible, and, indeed unobjectionable, from
their point of view for a government to outlaw it.
During the Mubarak era, the Muslim Brotherhood objected to the
distribution of leaflets calling female genital mutilation
“un-Islamic.” This suggests that the Brotherhood is more sympathetic
to genital mutilation than it cares to admit, or is more socially
conservative than its theological positions require. Efforts to
suppress this unspeakable atrocity will be difficult to resurrect in
the near future, as opposition to female genital mutilation is now
closely associated with the hated former regime, especially the former
Conservatism the world over instinctively holds that tradition
contains wisdom. Even some American neoconservatives who originated on
the left like Irving Kristol eventually came to champion tradition for
its own sake.
Among contemporary Islamists, this impulse is compounded by the
tendency to privilege anything that has a chronological proximity to
the era of Revelation. This suggests that anything that happened in or
around the time of the Prophet Mohammed is, by definition, closer to
authentic and proper religious and social practice than anything that
emerged later. This, of course, derogates the overwhelming bulk of
Islamic civilization, not to mention much of contemporary Arab
Religious conservatism invariably focuses on social and sexual
control. Women are the most immediate targets and primary focus of the
authoritarianism of the religious right, wherever they may be. As
Islamists seem to be finally getting their chance at gaining a share
of power in the Arab world, the greatest and most immediate danger
they pose is to women’s rights. That is why it is up to everyone else,
including both secularists and religious moderates, to insist on the
introduction of inviolable constitutional principles protecting the
rights of individuals, women and minorities.
Socially conservative Arab parties have a right to participate in
government, but not to reduce women to second-class citizenship.