International Summer School
September 18th to 29th, 2005






Prof. Ulrike Freitag, 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.

Muna Bilgrami, 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.

Dr. Fatima Adamu, 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).

Prof. Balghis Badri, 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.

Dr. Nagwa M. El Bashir (University 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.

Dr. Eltyeb Zain El-Abidin (University 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 activities.

Dr. Masoudi - International 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.

Dr. Sayedgotb Mustafa Elrashied Ahmed (Ministry 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.

Dr. Nafisa Badri (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 of infertility.  



There is no such thing as THE role of Women in Islam:
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 of state.
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.

Western feminism versus Muslim feminism: “Why are you Westerners focusing so much on the veil issue?
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.

The perception of the other: how do Westerners perceive Muslim women?
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 public.

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 about that!

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 Muslim societies.

The diversity of women’s activism: learning from success stories
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.

Between the elite and grassroots: elitism and state interventionism as asset/problem of women’s activism
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.

Ahfad University for Women,
Umm Durman (Sudan)




Ahfad University for Women

Zentrum Moderner Orient




Last updated: February 28, 2006   Website hosted by the courtesy of the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin