In the Western political science literature of the late 20th and early 21st century, the Middle East has often been described, not only as authoritarian, but also as impervious to democracy. Institutional, structural, and cultural explanations were advanced to explain this democracy deficit. This article will debunk the notion that democratization in the Middle East is limited by entrenched Muslim and/or Islamist views on social and sexual mores, and on women’s political and social rights. Indeed, the events of the so-called “Arab Spring” have shown that the desire for democracy is the reason for the overthrow of several regimes in the Arab world. These popular-led regime changes were triggered by a desire for political and social reform. The main actors behind the Arab uprisings have been Arab youths and women, with women actively participating in anti-regime demonstrations and sometimes paying the price for that participation with their bodies. Using examples mainly from North Africa, the article will show three trends that have emerged in the region since the 1990s: changes in the law proposed by grassroots secular activists, the work of Muslim feminists, and that of Islamist female activists in the transformation of women’s roles in the Middle East that counter the claim that Islamic views on gender equality limit the emergence of democracy.
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The notion that the Middle East is resistant to democracy has been prevalent since the early 1990s. It was addressed by Ghassan Salamé in the introduction of his 1994 edited volume Democracy without Democrats. The book questions the presumed exceptionalism of this region, but does not “refute exceptionalism out of hand [and] its existence as much as its causes are widely discussed.” (p.2) In December 2008, Volker Perthes, one of the contributors to Salamé’s volume, published a piece titled “Is the Arab World Immune to Democracy?”
For an analysis of the relationship between authoritarianism and Islamism, see Haklai 2009.
Marina Ottaway uses the term “semi-authoritarian” to describe most countries in the MENA region. She explains that such systems have adopted some of the superficial elements of liberal democracy without changing their basic political culture: “Semi-authoritarian systems are not imperfect democracies struggling toward improvement and consolidation but regimes determined to maintain the appearance of democracy without exposing themselves to the political risks that free competition entails. . . . They allow little real competition for power, thus reducing government accountability. However, they leave enough political space for political parties and organizations of civil society to form, for an independent press to function to some extent, and for some political debate to take place (Ottaway 2003, p. 3).”
Literacy rates in the Middle East are among the lowest in the world. Some countries are exceptional, such as Jordan, which has an overall literacy rate of 91 %. Most, however, are closer to Iraq’s overall rate of 40 %. Female literacy rates also vary: these are as high as 85 % in Jordan but remain below 50 % in many other countries (UNDP, 2006, p. 80).
For example Lisa Anderson examines and confutes linguistic and biological theories that see Arabs as fundamentally different from Westerners, as well as the notions that tribal politics are undemocratic by nature (Anderson 1995). Anderson also tackles the notion that Islam is inimical to democracy. She shows that Bernard Lewis was largely responsible for the spread of this idea due to his argument that in Islam there is no distinction between religion and politics (Islam, deen wa dawla) and his view that political participation in Islamic countries was “historically an alien concept.”
Women’s importance stems from the fact that mothers are considered to be the nucleus of the family and therefore the foundation upon which Muslim societies are based. A hadith, “al-Janna tahta aqdam al-ummahat” (Paradise is under the feet of mothers) is often cited in this context.
The modern discussion of women’s rights in Islam was initiated as part of a larger cultural renaissance, or Nahda, in the wake of Napoleon’s expedition to and brief occupation of Egypt (1798–1801). This encounter with the West triggered a reconsideration of the contours of Islamic society, developed by thinkers such as Jamal Al-Din al-Afghani, Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi, and Mohamed Abdu. The publication of two works by Qasim Amin, The Liberation of Women (1899) and The New Woman (1901) heralded the spirit of this renaissance. As the results of al-Nahda continued to flower in the early 20th century, women took a greater role in arguing for female empowerment, education, and unveiling. From the 1950s through the 1970s, women’s issues took a backseat role in relation to liberation from colonialism and nation-building efforts.
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Islamist feminism is to be distinguished from Islamic or Muslim feminism. According to Halverson and Way, “prominent female Islamists have articulated interpretative methodologies and engaged in public activities that parallel those of Muslim feminists, such as Amina Wadud or Fatima Mernissi …. while simultaneously advocating the establishment of an “Islamic state” and the implementation of Islamic law (shariah) in the societies in which they operate” while “The Muslim feminist movement (i.e., “Islamic feminism”)… staunchly opposes the politicization of Islam and its intermarriage with the modern nation- state, known as “Islamism.” Halverson & Way (2011), p. 505
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el-Husseini, R. Is gender the barrier to democracy? Women, Islamism, and the “Arab spring”. Cont Islam 10, 53–66 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11562-015-0324-4
- Muslim brotherhood
- Islamic feminism
- Islamist activism