Skip to main content

Is gender the barrier to democracy? Women, Islamism, and the “Arab spring”


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    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?”

  2. 2.

    For an analysis of the relationship between authoritarianism and Islamism, see Haklai 2009.

  3. 3.

    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).”

  4. 4.

    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).

  5. 5.

    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.”

  6. 6.

    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.

  7. 7.

    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.

  8. 8. accessed October 1, 2014

  9. 9.

    For more on Muslim feminists, see Karam (1998); Latte Abdallah (2010). Mir-Hosseini (2011); Mir-Hosseini (2006); Moghadam (2008); Moghadam (2002b); Moghadam (2001); Salime (2005); Winter (2001).

  10. 10.

    Mervat Hatem has called these attempts at modernization from the top “state feminism.”

  11. 11. accessed October 1, 2014

  12. 12. accessed October 1, 2014

  13. 13. accessed October 1, 2014

    For the text of the constitution see

    accessed October 1, 2014

  14. 14.’s-movement accessed October 1, 2014

  15. 15. = TREATY&mtdsg_no = IV-8&chapter = 4&lang = en#72 accessed October 1, 2014

  16. 16. October 1, 2014

    and accessed October 1, 2014

  17. 17.

    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

  18. 18.

    Yassine died in December 2012 at age 84.

  19. 19. accessed October 1, 2014

  20. 20. accessed October 1, 2014

  21. 21. accessed October 1, 2014

  22. 22. accessed October 1, 2014

  23. 23. accessed October 1, 2014

  24. 24. accessed October 1, 2014

  25. 25. = 21985 accessed October 1, 2014

  26. 26. = 24241 accessed October 1, 2014

  27. 27. = 28247 accessed October 1, 2014

  28. 28. = 29544 accessed October 1, 2014

  29. 29. = 29390 accessed October 1, 2014

  30. 30. accessed October 1, 2014

  31. 31. = 0 accessed October 1, 2014

  32. 32. October 1, 2014

  33. 33. October 1, 2014


  1. Abdel-Latif, O. (2008). In the shadow of the brothers. Washington: Carnegie Endowment.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Abdullatif, A. (2013). Voices of women in the Arab spring. Journal of Social Science Education, 12(1), 14–30.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Abou-Bakr, O. (2001). Islamic feminism? What’s in a name? preliminary reflections. Middle East Women’s Studies Review, 15/16, 1–4.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Anderson, L. (1995). Democracy in the Arab world: a critique of the political culture approach. In R. Brynen, B. Korany, & P. Noble (Eds.), Political liberalization and democratization in the Arab world (pp. 77–92). Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Badran, M. (2005). Between secular and Islamic feminism/s: reflections on the Middle East and beyond. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 1(1), 6–28.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bellin, E. (2004). The robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East: exceptionalism in comparative perspective. Comparative Politics, 36(2), 139–157.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Berg-Scholsser, D. (2008). Neighborhood effects’ of democratization in Europe. Taiwan Journal of Democracy, 4(2), 29–45.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Çavdar, G. (2012). Islamist rationality: an assessment of the rational choice approach. Politics and Religion, 5, 584–608.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Clark, J., & Young, A. (2008). Islamism and family law reform in morocco and Jordan. Mediterranean Politics, 13(3), 333–352.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Eddouada, S., & Pepicelli, R. (2010). Maroc: Vers un féminisme Islamique d’état. Critique Internationale, 46(1), 87–100.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. El-Husseini, R. (2008). Women, work, and political participation in Lebanese Shia contemporary thought: the writings of Ayatollahs Fadlallah and Shams al-Din. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 28(2), 273–282.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Farag, M. (2012). The Muslim sisters and the January 25th revolution. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 13(5), 228–237.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Feliu, L. (2012). Feminism, gender inequality and the reform of the Mudawana in Morocco. The Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies, 4(6), 101–111.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Haklai, O. (2009). Authoritarianism and Islamic movements in the Middle East: research and theory-building in the twenty-first century. International Studies Review, 11(1), 27–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Halverson, J., & Way, A. K. (2011). Islamist feminism: constructing gender identities in postcolonial Muslim societies. Politics and Religion, 4, 503–525.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Hatem, M. (1992). Economic and political liberation in Egypt and the demise of state feminism. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 24(2), 231–251.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Hatem, M. (2006). In the eye of the storm: Islamic societies and Muslim women in globalization discourses. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 26(1), 22.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Jawad, H. (2009). Islamic feminism: leadership roles and public representation. Hawwa: Journal of the Women of the Middle East and the Islamic world., 7(1), 1–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Karam, A. (1998). Women, Islamism and the state; contemporary feminisms in Egypt. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Kedourie, E. (1992). Democracy and Arab political culture. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

  21. Khamis, S. (2010). Islamic feminism in the new Arab media. Journal of Arab and Muslim Media Research, 3(3), 237–255.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Latte Abdallah, S. (2010). Le féminisme islamique, vingt ans après: économie d’un débat et nouveaux chantiers de recherché. Critique Internationale, 46, 9–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Mernissi, F. (1992). The veil and the male elite: a feminist interpretation of women’s rights in Islam. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Mir-Hosseini, Z. (2006). Muslim women’s quest for equality: between Islamic law and feminism. Critical Inquiry, 32, 629–645.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Mir-Hosseini, Z. (2007). How the door of Ijtihad was opened and closed: a comparative analysis of recent family law reforms in Iran and Morocco. Washington & Lee Law Review, 64, 1499.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Mir-Hosseini, Z. (2011). Beyond ‘Islam’ vs. ‘Feminism’. International Development Bulletin, 42(1), 67–77.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Moghadam, V. M. (2001). Feminism and Islamic fundamentalism: a secularist interpretation. Journal of Women’s History, 13(1), 42–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Moghadam, V. (2002). Islamic feminism and its discontents: toward a resolution of the debate. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 27(4), 1135–1171.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Moghadam, V. (2008). Feminism, legal reform and women’s empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa. International Social Science Journal, 59(191), 9–16.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Mojab, S. (2001). Theorizing the politics of Islamic feminism. Feminist Review (on-Line), 69(1), 124–146.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2002). Islamic culture and democracy: testing the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis. Comparative Sociology, 1(3), 235–263.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Norton, A. (2001). Civil society in the Middle East. Leiden: Brill Academic Pub.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Ottaway, M. (2003). Democracy challenged: the rise of semi-authoritarianism. Washington: Carnegie Endowment.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Perthes, V. (2008). Is the Arab world immune to democracy? Survival, 50(6), 151–160.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Pruzan-Jørgensen, J. (2010). New female voices within the Islamist movement in Morocco. IPRIS Maghreb Review, 6, 5–8.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Rhouni, R. (2009). Secular and Islamic feminist critiques in the work of Fatima Mernissi. Leiden: Brill.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  37. Said, E. (1978). Orientalism: Western conceptions of the Orient. London: Pantheon.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Salamé, G. (1994). Democracy without democrats. London: I.B. Tauris.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Salime, Z. (2005). Between Islamism and feminism. New political transformations and movements in Morocco, PhD Dissertation. Urbana Illinois Uni.

  40. Winter, B. (2001). Fundamental misunderstandings: issues in feminist approaches to Islamism. Journal of Women’s History, 13(1), 9–41.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rola el-Husseini.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

el-Husseini, R. Is gender the barrier to democracy? Women, Islamism, and the “Arab spring”. Cont Islam 10, 53–66 (2016).

Download citation


  • Islam
  • Women
  • Democracy
  • Muslim brotherhood
  • Islamic feminism
  • Islamist activism