It has hitherto been assumed, at least by western development practitioners, that women’s rights are best attained through secularist liberal interpretations of equality, of the sort reflected in conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Yet what does increasing use of the veil and greater religious observances across the Islamic world signify in this context? Does it reflect a rejection of these standards? And if understanding this move to greater religiosity requires a different paradigm of rights then how does this ‘Islamic’ paradigm sit with the ‘western’ one?
This report from Social Development Direct argues that it is no longer possible to explain either women’s various dress codes, nor their wider interest in understanding Islam, in terms of patriarchal norms and values because a large number of educated women are choosing to veil, immerse themselves in religious study and find other ways to be ‘a true Muslim’. The social, political and economic contexts within which women live in muslim majority countries (MMCs) are in a constant process of change. Their increased literacy, access to information and communication technologies, as well as to wage-earning work, and their appropriation of religious knowledge from previously closed, male-dominated circles means that Muslim women are constructing their own modernity. This symbolises a break from many traditional practices as well as from Western conceptions of progress and equality.
The paper argues that it is important for development policy makers and practitioners to take an interest in this upsurge in religiosity because it raises questions that are relevant to three key areas of their work: women’s rights and gender equality; women as political actors (including in Islamist parties); and women’s involvement in civil society (including religious movements). The annotated bibliography is written for those who want a more in-depth understanding of the issues introduced in the main paper; it nuances the debates around particular topics and includes more country examples.
The key findings of the main report and the annotated bibliography are below.
On gender equality:
- The secularist approach to gender equality does exist within MMCs. However, it does not necessarily have wide appeal in MMCs; it is often seen as a foreign imposition;
- Women throughout the Islamic world want social justice for themselves and others; the majority fervently believe that Islam can deliver this;
- It is often difficult for women to unite as a political lobby for women’s rights in MMCs; due to major divisions between a) those that believe that patriarchal and cultural interpretations of Islamic texts must be revisited and reinterpreted, and b) those that believe that these interpretations imply women are different not inferior so religious texts are not in need of reinterpretation.
- The greatly increased propensity of women to veil today is a new phenomenon; its significance must be understood in terms of their Muslim identity but also their aspirations as modern women who want to work and travel safely, and be treated with respect not approbation.
On Islamist parties:
- Islamist parties are evolving their democratic credentials and their positions on women. They have moved from a ‘purdah’ position to one that supports women as economic and political actors. But they are dragging their feet on women’s personal and family rights – the power base of the religious establishment;
- Islamist parties are out for votes; women are a critical constituency; evolving policies in line with what the majority of ordinary women feel comfortable with (Muslim identity plus social justice) makes electoral sense. Having entered the democratic process Islamist parties have an incentive to come over as politically and socially ‘moderate’, not as hard liners;
- For donors: understanding the internal dynamics of Islamist parties is important as they may form future governments. Understanding their stand on gender issues is also critical. Donors can give non-interfering support (e.g. supporting opportunities for Islamist and non-Islamist women to build alliances; funding projects that interpret religious texts in ways that uphold women’s rights; supporting women’s struggles to become elected political representatives).
On religious civil society:
- Millions of women in MMCs now attend religious study circles. This is a new experience for most women – in previous generations women had very little access to religious training;
- Study circles need to be seen first and foremost as a piety movement; their adherents’ main purpose is to get beyond formulaic manifestations of Islam and let religion guide their everyday actions and thoughts; but it is important to note that they do not encourage women to critique patriarchal readings of the texts;
- There is little evidence to suggest study circles are politicised – although they may provide a link to Islamist parties in the longer term;
- Religious instruction through study circles can be enormously empowering for women in a personal and familial sense rather than a political one. They give women an alternative means of gaining respect and authority within their households and immediate communities – an empowerment route most have not had before.