|KEY TOPICS ADDRESSED BY THE
, a historian
and director of the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin
(Germany), offered an introductory session on Muslim Women in History.
In addition to an overview of central key concepts (gender, sex
and feminism) and to a description of key periods of women’s
role in history, Prof. Freitag discussed central and problematic
issues linked to the topic, as for example: men as forgotten actors
of gender studies; the lack of sources permitting to write women’s
history; the active role of women in perpetuating social norms
or the key role of women in modern nation states.
, a Danish-Iraqi scholar
teaching and currently working in Pakistan, presented an overview
of Islamic positions on women by focusing primarily on the following
points: the evolution in time of women’s issues; the contrast
between western and Muslim views and between modernist and fundamentalist
approaches; and finally the necessity to give more attention to the
theological and philosophical underpinnings of the Islamic world
in order to adequately define women’s rights in Islam.
, a senior lecturer
(Usmanu Danfoduyo University, Sokoto), consultant and activist
from Nigeria focused more on the concrete evolution of women’s movements
in Africa by defining and describing key concepts (NGOs, activism,
associations, agendas); confronting theoretical approaches of gender
needs and activism to practical and strategic approaches and needs;
describing the historical trends in Africa from the pre-Islamic period
to contemporary developments (Islamic NGOs, role of the Diaspora);
defining the nature of the different movements (secular, Islamic,
urban based, elitist); and emphasizing the problems of these movements
(lack of focus on the practical necessities of women on the ground,
lack of ideology, lack of unity).
, director of the Institute
for Women, Gender and development Studies (IWGDS) at Ahfad
University (OmmDurman) enriched these presentations by her interventions
on the multiple interpretations of women’s positions and
rights in Islam and on examples from the specific Sudanese experience.
In addition to the above-mentioned lectures, a series of prominent
Sudanese lecturers gave presentations.
of Khartoum) presented central issues of the Sudanese women’s
movement. First, she introduced the history of the Sudanese women's
movement which was one of the first in Africa and in the Middle
East. She traced the variety of different organisations with varying
ideological backgrounds, such as the communist National Women's
Front, the Sudanese Women General Union and – more recently – the
Islamically minded International Muslim Women Centre (IMWC) and "al-Akhwat
al-Muslimat", founded by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to
counter the communist influences.
of Khartoum) lectured on the position and political rights of women
in Islam. His interpretation was based on a modernist interpretation
stressing equality and incorporating a more historical approach
to the traditions. On this basis, which was strengthened by a sociological
discussion of the development and impediments of women's participation,
he arrived at the conclusion that there existed no genuinely Islamic
arguments against political activity by women, notably in realms
which did not exist at the time of the Prophet. Rather, socio-cultural
traditions couched in Islamic terms were used to restrain their
African University discussed the concept of female sainthood by
using the example of Rabia al-‘Adawiyya. His main intent
was to highlight the tradition of female Sufis, one of the relilgious
traditions in Islam where women did play an important part. More
important perhaps than this statement which is also borne out by
the literature was the following discussion. The enthusiasm displayed
by most of the participants regarding the recovery of what was
considered a neglected tradition of female religious authority
and leadership showed the importance of history as a tool to gain
self-confidence and the strength to openly claim one's place.
of Health, Khartoum) gave a lecture on Women sexuality in the Islamic
context. First, he presented different aspects such as menstruation,
virginity and sexual fulfillment both from a psychological and
from a religious point of view. Second, he described sexual rights,
obligations as they appear in the Quran and the hadiths.
(Ahfad University for Women) lectured
on women and reproductive rights in Islam. She started by presenting
the concepts of reproductive health and reproductive rights the
way they were defined in 1994 at the International Conference on
Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. Dr Nafisa continued
by describing the role of Islamic conservatism and of personal
laws in most Muslim countries that inhibit women from exercising
their right to self-determination. Finally she presented different
(conservative and reformist) religious interpretations of issues
including family planning, sterilization, abortion and the treatment
By comparing the situation of women in different Muslim countries and by examining
the writings and arguments of different Muslim scholars, one of the main conclusions
that came out during this summer school was the fact that one cannot speak of
THE position or THE role of Women in Islam but rather of many interpretations
that differ according to different factors.
The two main factors that could be identified through the lectures and especially
through the debates between participants were the following:
The different schools of religious interpretation (fiqh): Islam is characterised
by the diversity of its schools of interpretation. The Quran and the Hadith are
interpreted according to different techniques and methods that vary from one
school to the other and from one scholar to the other. Whereas the right for
women to be political leaders is interpreted by many scholars as being against
the precepts of Islam, certain scholars, such as Dr. Eltyeb Zain al-Abidin, read
the sources as being in favour for women to be eligible for the position of head
Islam cannot be separated from culture easily: This aspect was illustrated
by the various examples given by the participants who described religious practices
and rules prevailing in their country. In each region of the Muslim world Islam
has been infiltrated by cultural traditions and today it is impossible to present
both categories as separate entities. Thus, interpretation of religious law -
and linked to it the position of women in Islam - is intimately linked to the
local culture and can differ from one country to the other.
Women’s issues and needs vary from one culture to the other and from one
region to the other. This became particularly evident when examining the contrast
between women’s issues in Western Societies and women’s issues in
non-Western - in this case Muslim - societies. This contrast led to fierce debates
between the participants and evolved around the question of the role of western
feminism in the evolution of Muslim feminism.
The negative aspects that have been emphasised evolve around the fact
that Western Feminism tends to apply its own criteria of emancipation and its
own perception of women’s needs on other societies that might not have
the same conception of emancipation at all.
Western Women trying to “positively” influence and “help” their “oppressed” counterparts
in other regions of the World is a phenomenon that has a long history. As the
lecture of Prof. Freitag showed, interesting examples can be found in times of
colonialism and imperialism. Even then, the conflict between perceived necessities
from a Western eye (eradicate polygamy for example) and the actual necessities
of local women (education) was predominant.
The debate between participants has especially evolved around the topic of the
veil that plays a central role in Western feminist vision of oppressed women
in Muslim societies but that is not perceived as a central issue by Muslim women
in Muslim societies: “What right do Western women have to tell me that
it is bad for me to wear a veil? I just don’t understand this behaviour.” (Sudanese
participant). Much more central for Muslim women is the issue of education, violence
against women and reproductive health (Dr. Nafisa Badri).
Thus, the redefinition of terms like emancipation, feminism, oppression
has to be pondered since these terms mean different things in different societies
and under different circumstances. For example, the Egyptian presentation stressed
the fact that in the case of Egypt the term “women’s activism” rather
than “feminism” should be used since many activists reject the label “feminist” for
pragmatic and ideological reasons. In their perception, the English term “feminist” evokes
antagonisms and animosity, and sometimes even anxiety, among a great number of
women activists, who seem to have internalised the way feminists are being portrayed
in prevailing Egyptian discourses: men hating, aggressive, possibly lesbian (but
most likely obsessed with sex), and certainly westernised women. In addition,
feminism is perceived as being linked to much larger issues such as imperialism,
class struggle and Zionism.
On the other hand, Western feminism had a positive impact on Muslim activism
in that as it offered instruments and means of expression that have enabled female
Muslim scholars, activists and academicians to express their grievances and make
them known on the international level. Issues of Muslim women have since become
a central point in international treaties and dialogues and entered the governmental
agenda of many Muslim countries.
This question was predominant throughout the seminars and proved
that there is a long road ahead in improving intercultural dialogue
between Western and Muslim societies.
This topic triggered a heated discussion during the German presentation on “Muslim
women in Western Media”. After a short presentation on Muslim
communities in Germany, the German group organised working groups around the
front page of 3 issues of the German “Stern” magazine. These front
pages showed pictures of Muslim Women as imagined and perceived by Western media.
The participants were asked to analyse these pictures through the eyes of a Western
|Issue 36 - 01.09.2005
|| Issue 50 - 02.12.2004
The German participants accompanied this exercise by drawing a
general and explanatory picture of European Orientalism, the lack
of knowledge on Islam in European societies, the impact of terrorism
on these societies and the role and role of media, especially
of magazines like “Stern”.
Despite the German efforts to explain the phenomenon, the main reactions of
the Muslim participants were general consternation and total incomprehension,
and could be summarized as follows:
- INCOMPREHENSION: In addition to an incomprehensible
mixture of details that have nothing to do with Islam, these
front pages give a very negative picture of Islam and show
Muslims as narrow minded, confused people who are surrounded
by obscurity. Why do Europeans perceive Islam that way?
- There is a CONSPIRACY: These selections are
made on purpose. The media are very conscious of the effect
they are producing and the general aim is to destroy the image
of Islam in the World. It is part of an orchestrated scenario
that is controlled and linked from somewhere.
- FOCUS ON WOMEN: Why do western media focus
so much on women when speaking about Islam? Why do they focus
so much on the veil? Islam and Muslim societies are not only
At the same time, and especially towards the end of the discussion,
a central idea became dominant: the NEED FOR DIALOG and INFORMATION.
In fact, the general conclusion of most participants was that these
images of Islam show that the European public doesn’t know
much about Islam and this would explain these misconceptions. On
this basis, as an Egyptian participant emphasised, a dialogue between
cultures seems to be impossible since a dialogue implies first
to understand and accept cultural differences. Some participants
concluded that Muslims are partially responsible for this image
of Islam in the West and stressed the necessity of informing more
about Islam and overcoming the problem of communication that characterises
During the Module “Women’s movements in Africa”,
each African group made a presentation on its country of origin:
describing the situation of women, the birth and evolution of women’s
movements and finally the achievements and problems of this movement.
These presentations showed how much these movements, their evolution
and challenges differ widely throughout Africa.
The cases of South Africa and Uganda were presented as success
stories and the main focus of the discussion evolved around the
lessons that can be learnt from these cases in order to apply them
on other countries that are dealing with similar problems. The
case of South Africa for example shows how the women’s movement
managed to surpass cultural, racial and religious differences inside
the society in order to create a strong unified movement. This
aspect seemed to represent a crucial issue of interest for the
Nigerian and Senegalese participants since their women’s
organisation’s work and efficiency suffer from disunity and
from cultural and religious conflicts. Another example that shed
interest was the case of Uganda that shows how, in the last years,
women managed to reach the government and have an impact on its
agenda and decisions.
Striking was also the completely different Senegalese experience.
Coming from a secularly defined state, the participants declared
that they were unfamiliar with many of the problems described by
their Sudanese, Egyptian and Ugandan colleagues, but also that
of the Nigerian participants. Apart from the different legal system,
clear cultural differences became evident. A particularly striking
example was the utterly different status of divorced women who,
in Senegal, are considered to be particularly attractive marriage
partners due to the fact that they are entitled to the household
possessions of their former marital home. The social stigma attached
to divorce in a number of other societies thus does not at all
come into play.
Two problematic issues of women’s movements identified in
most countries and recurrently discussed, touch upon the relation
elite/grassroots and State/NGOs.
First, the fact that women’s organisations are created and
led by representatives of the elite of each society is indeed problematic.
The gap between what these elites consider as being necessities
and the actual needs of women on the ground represents one of the
main problems of these movements, who consequently fail to deal
with the crucial issues of the majority of women in their society.
This aspect was especially highlighted by Dr. Adamu and illustrated
by many examples from all over Africa. However, it is precisely
these elites who usually make it possible for these grassroots
organisations to have a voice and be heard at the governmental
level. This role is central for every kind of activism and cannot
be underestimated. During the group visit at the Sudanese Women’s
Union (Khartoum), the central role of elites as agents of
change was highlighted by the Sudanese activists.
In addition the activists of the Union pointed out the necessity
for women’s organisations to work with the government and use
existing links with the centres of decision in order to change things
and put their own agenda in motion. This position was strengthened
by examples from many countries in Africa that showed that refusing
any cooperation with the state and working without involving the
government is naive and unproductive. At the same time however, this
close link between NGOs and the government leads to many problematic
aspects that have a negative impact on women’s activism. In
fact, by working with/for the state they might get instrumentalised
and controlled for the sake of other causes. Thus, these organisations
tend to be perceived as agents of the state and lose their credibility
in the society. No easy way out of this conundrum seems to exist.