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Islam cannot be blamed for the Middle East women’s rights record

Egyptian women protesting in January 2015 [file photo]
Egyptian women protesting during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 [file photo]

Women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been a long standing issue of debate. According to the latest global gender-gap report by the World Economic Forum, the majority of MENA countries rank amongst the worst place for women’s rights globally. The vast majority of MENA countries rank below 120th on the table.

Because of this, as with previous years, many have attempted to use this index to wrongfully correlate Islam with the absence of women’s rights. To say that Islam is the reason behind women’s oppression is a naïve statement and offers only a shallow analysis while allowing for Western stereotypes of a religion to take precedence over substantial analysis of the domestic socio-political situation in the region.

The thesis that Islam is to blame for a lack of women’s rights ignores the many dimensions of the religion that is more than 1,400 years old. Much of the time, those who blame Islam focus on the political actions of governments that identify as Muslim. It is very common, for example, to assume the fact that women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia is a matter of religion. The debate on women driving remains heated in Saudi Arabia, and the layers of the debate surpass religion in many aspects.

Those participating in campaigns to allow women in Saudi Arabia to drive range from women’s rights activists to politicians and even Islamic scholars. One of the most prominent cases of this is when Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mutlaq, a member of the Saudi Committee of Senior Scholars in 2009, said that there is no legitimate reason to ban women from driving under Islamic law.

There are other reasons that some Saudis use to justify the ban on women driving, such as road safety. While this justification remains problematic, it is not an argument that is based on religion and to blame Islam as a whole for this controversial legislation or on other aspects of women’s rights that need to be addressed in the MENA is simplistic and lazy.

Rather than focusing on religion, there must also be focus on the regimes that these women are living under. Blaming Islam for the situation of women’s rights in the MENA region overlooks the way women were and still are systematically dominated under these regimes.

For Syrian women who participated in the Arab Spring, they were fighting the misogynistic socio-political culture that the Assad regime perpetuated. “The Syrian regime has actively encouraged sexual violence against women as a strategy to humiliate entire families and communities to tear apart the social fabric,” Syrian opposition activist Bassma Kodmani said.

Gaddafi apologists generally tend to place pride in the dystopian former Libyan regime for upholding women’s rights throughout his secular governance. Gaddafi was constantly praised for his “Amazonian Guards” who are his female bodyguards. However, it is usually forgotten that his female bodyguard personnel were often subject to sexual abuse by Gaddafi and his sons.

Similarly in Egypt, Al-Sisi apologists praise the coup government for its alleged progressive attitude towards women. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is notorious for claiming he perpetuates women’s rights through wanting to reform Islam.

To say that the Al-Sisi government is doing this is in fact whitewashing crimes against women by the coup regime. The International Federation for Human Rights also released a report in May last year highlighting the hypocrisy of the Egyptian government, which excuses the systematic abuse of women in the country. The report, desiring to show that Egypt suffers from systemic problems, included incidents of women being sexually abused in Cairo in front of high-ranking officers of the interior ministry and riot police on 25 May 2005 under the secular Mubarak regime. It also highlighted the fact that mob rapes have actually increased since the 2013 Al-Sisi coup.

Additionally, from a political theoretical perspective, many scholars within the feminist school of thought in international relations argue that the world is dominated by gender relations, in which women are systematically oppressed on a global scale.

Famous feminist scholar Professor Cynthia Enloe argued that the notion of femininity is systematically attacked on a global scale. In her book Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, she argued that the global South is significantly disadvantaged with women’s rights due to colonialism.

She claimed that colonial powers have exported the idea that women are to be dehumanised and sexualised, though what is unique when studying the global South is that women are not only subject to systematic misogyny, but also racism. In her book, she referenced James Mill, a Scottish political theorist’s defence of British colonialism. “Among rude people are the women generally degraded, among civilised people, they are exalted,” he wrote; meaning it is better for women to be ruled by white men, than men of their own background.

However, colonial powers enacted a range of laws that systematically oppressed women in their colonies, as well as subjugating them to systematic oppression. As Enloe put it, colonialism was not “a crusade to abolish the male domination of women, but a crusade to establish European male rule.” She also stated that it was not just Western men who took part in subjugating women in the colonies, but it was also women who took part in normalising the subjugation of Middle Eastern, Asian and African women.

To say Islam is the reason behind the fall of women’s rights in the MENA region is evidently ignoring the many variables that contribute to the subjection of women. Islam is a religion that has been around for over 1,400 years and is deeply layered and nuanced. Many aspects deemed to be oppressive of women such as bans on driving or forced marriages are in fact cultural rather than religious. To blame a whole religion for a region-wide problem lacks depth of understanding of the effect that dictatorships, war and colonialism has had on women’s rights not only in the MENA region, but throughout the world.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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