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Women in Islam

Changing gender roles

by Martina Sabra

In depth

Girls want to have a say too: school girls in Afghanistan.

Girls want to have a say too: school girls in Afghanistan.

Ideas about women and Islam have been changing in view of the active and visible participation of women in the revolts that spread throughout the Arab world region in 2011, the increasing importance of Islamic political movements and the recent recruitment of women by the terror network ISIS. New questions arise about Islam, gender and politics.

Mona Eltahawy’s book “Headscarves and hymens: Why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution” appeared simultaneously in English and German in April 2015. Since the early 2000s, this Egyptian-American journalist, activist and feminist has been well-known in Arabic- and English-speaking countries thanks to her blog and her work as a TV commentator. In November 2011, she made international headlines when she was seriously injured and sexually assaulted by Egyptian police in the context of a protest rally in Cairo.

Her new book is partly a pamphlet, partly a historical survey and partly an autobiographical essay. It gives readers a vivid impression of the developments that enabled so many women to take part in the Arab uprisings. Eltahawy was born in 1967 in the Egyptian city of Port Said. Her parents are medical doctors who moved with her to England when she was seven and later to Saudi Arabia, where she had to wear a veil as an adolescent. Eltahawy was appalled by the simplistic Islamic sermons she watched on TV. She writes that she will never forget being told that if you are urinated on by a male baby, it is fine to go to prayers wearing the same clothes; but if the same thing happens with a little girl, you have to change.

Ironically, it was in Saudi Arabia that Eltahawy first discovered global and Arab feminist thought in her early twenties. During her studies, she came across works by Arab and Western women’s rights activ­ists, including Huda Shaarawi, Doria Shafik, Nawal El Saadawi, Fatima Mernissi and Simone de Beauvoir. Eltahawy admits she does not know who put feminist texts on the bookshelves of the university library in Jeddah, but that’s where she found them. They filled her with outrage, tugging at a thread that would unravel everything.

Back in Cairo, the student experienced an identity crisis. She began questioning the purpose of the veil because she was recurrently subjected to sexual harassment even though she was wearing one. At 24, Eltahawy put away her headscarf for good. Her depiction of her personal experience of slow but enduring transformation is one of the book’s strengths. The author sees herself as member of a global feminist movement. She positions herself among the anti-colonialist feminist discourses of Latin American and black women.

Eltahawy belongs to the tradition of great Arab feminists of the 20th century, but unlike many of her predecessors, she has no reservations about the notion of feminism and does not shy away from controversy. Her book has all the makings of a milestone in Arab feminist literature.

The book “In the skin of a jihadist” by French journalist Anna Erelle (pseudonym) enjoyed a broad positive reception following its publication in the spring of 2015. Why are young women joining ISIS? How does recruitment work? Hoping to answer these questions, the author assumed the role of a French convert and in the hope of being recruited. She apparently succeeded in becoming close with a leading ISIS militant through months of communication over Facebook. But shortly before achieving her goal, the journalist made a mistake and her recruiters discov­ered her real identity. She had to abandon her project.

It is hard to understand why this book got such good reviews. Long stretches are boring, the content is thin and full of factual errors. For instance, the Turkish city of Urfa is not an ISIS stronghold. Erelle only superficially discusses ISIS recruiting methods, which have been very well documented by many other sources, and she does not critically assess the role of social media. In mounting undercover research that has been marketed as “sensational”, the supposedly professional reporter was remarkably naive. Key questions that a journalist should consider before starting such a project do not seem to have occurred to her.

For instance, she should have been aware of the fact that radical Islamic and terrorist networks have long been ­moni­tored by intelligence agencies, so a journalist‘s open online research was likely to attract „followers“. Erelle’s claim that she didn’t realise the French intelligence agency was using her before she ended her research is hard to believe.

Long-term transformation

The public presence of women in the Arab spring demonstrations surprised observers in the western media. But profound social changes have been taking place in many Islamic societies for years, leading women to question traditional gender roles and demand reforms. In German, a very interesting collection of essays was published in 2013 (edited by Fuchs et al.). It offers a treasure trove of fascinating approaches and insights. Some of the analyses and portraits that make up the volume are based on presentations from a 2012 conference. Others were written specifically for this book.

A similarly exiting collection of essays in German was also published in 2013 (edited by Wunn and Selcuk). The international contributors show that the events of 2011/2012 were not a spontaneous erup­tion, but must understood as part of a social and political transformation that began long before 2011 and likely will continue for decades to come. Prime examples include the chapters by Hanna Wettig and Johanna Block, who describe how Egyptian women are fighting for their right of self-determination beyond the confines of debates about headscarves and religious identity.

In the same book, the late Birgit Rommelspacher tackles the issue of Muslim women and gender from a western perspective in her essay “Feminismus, Säkularität und Islam” (feminism, secularism and Islam), which should be required reading for development experts who work in Arab-Islamic contexts. Rommelspacher analyses the sometimes misleading western self-images and mythologisations. She also examines the ambiguity of concepts like “equality” and “egality”. These ambiguities may very well turn out to be productive, since contradictions and conceptual vagueness often drive progress.

Muslim women activists are working ever more frequently through transnational networks. The global network “Musawah for equality in the family”, which was started by women in Malaysia, stands out thanks to conceptual strength and continuous work. For Wunn and Selcuk’s essay collection, Claudia Derichs (2013) has written a good assessment of the organisation. By the way, “musawah” means “equality” in Arabic. Family law is an important field of action because in many predominantly Muslim countries it is the only area of law that is still dominated by religion.

One of Musawah’s main activities is to organise transnationally-conceived publications on Islamic family law and gender-related legal traditions. In the latest book (edited by Mir-Hosseini et al., 2015), female Islam scholars, academics and activists examine the central concepts that underlie the legal authority of men over women in various Muslim societies.

An earlier Musawah publication (Mir-Hosseini, 2013), was entitled “Gender and equality in Muslim family law: Justice and ethics in the Islamic legal tradition”. This book examines the tension between notions of gender and understandings of human rights and justice in Islamic legal traditions against the background of the emergence of modern nation-states and legal systems. Using examples from Morocco to Malaysia, the authors analyse the complex and often contradictory attitudes of modern government elites to Islamic law.


Martina Sabra is a freelance journalist and development consultant.

The network “Musawah for equality in the family”:

Eltahawy, M.: Headscarves and hymens – Why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution. London: Orion. German edition : Warum hasst ihr uns so? Für die sexuelle Revolution der Frauen in der arabischen Welt. München: Piper.
Erelle, A., 2015: In the skin of a jihadist. London: Harper Collins.
Fuchs, E., Filter, D., and Reich, J., (eds), 2013: Arabischer Frühling? Alte und neue Geschlechterpolitiken in einer Region im Umbruch (Arab spring? Old and new gender policies in a changing world region). Hamburg: Centaurus.
Mir-Hosseini, Z., Larsen, L., Moe, C.,  and Vogt, K., (eds.), 2013: Gender and equality in Muslim family law: Justice and ethics in the Islamic legal tradition. London: I.B. Tauris.
Mir-Hosseini, Z., Al-Shermani M., and Rummiger, J., 2015: Men in charge – Rethinking legal authority in Muslim legal tradition. London: Oneworld.
Wunn, I., and Selcuk, M., (eds.), 2013: Islam, Frauen und Europa (Islam, women and Europe). Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.