If it is naïve and stereotyped to label a Muslim woman ‘liberal Islamist' just because she switches from ‘full facial veil' to covering her head, it is as dangerous to expect that ‘Islamic movements' will play a positive role in liberating Arab women.October 10, 2011: When Ms Tawakkol Karman of Yemen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week, along with two Liberian women — Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and peace activist Leymah Gbowee — it was hailed as the western world's recognition of the Arab Spring, which had toppled oppressive regimes in the Islamic world. Incidentally, these are the first women to get a Nobel Peace since 2004, and the citation did great service to women's empowerment and the greater role they will have to play in the future when it said unequivocally: “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”
Among the three awardees, Mr Karman's choice was a little surprising, because she was less well known than the frontline leaders of Egypt, or even Tunisia. A prominent member of Yemen's Islamist party Islah, she's taken on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh for long years, first as a journalist, and then an activist/politician. She has braved several death threats for her role in the Yemenis' violent struggle for deliverance from the repressive Saleh regime, and has been camping for the last several months in a huge camp in Sana, far away from her home and three children.
no cakewalkSo far so good. Even when the western media, after the Nobel announcement, made her the “standard-bearer for the Arab Spring and for the role of women across the Middle East”, it was a fair assessment of her activism. Make no mistakes about it; taking to the streets with banners and slogans is no cakewalk for women from any Islamic country.
In the more liberal Muslim families, women do get equal opportunities when it comes to higher education and economic emancipation. But the lingo changes when women take on adversarial or activist roles in political or social struggles. In most Muslim communities the demarcations are well spelt out on what women can and cannot do.
But when an article in The New York Times says of Ms Karman that “as a liberal Islamist who stopped wearing the full facial veil three years ago, she appears to represent something else, too: the hope in the West that Islamic movements might some day play a positive role in rebuilding Arab societies,” you have to ask: “Huh? Come again?”
I am no admirer of the veil, full or partial; but I respect any Muslim woman's right to wear or reject it, provided she does so by choice.
the veil and liberalismSo to label a Muslim woman “liberal Islamist” just because she switches from “full facial veil” to just covering her head, is to get trapped into stereotypes.
There is already widespread criticism that the Western world judges Muslims by the veils/clothes they wear or the long beards they sport. And not without valid reason; in security checks these worthies are invariably singled out for special treatment.
Even more dangerous than the comment linking liberalism to the veil, or absence of it, is the one pertaining to “Islamic movements” playing a positive role in rebuilding Arab societies. In both Egypt and Tunisia, where the existing regimes were overthrown by the protestors, there is ample evidence that the Islamists have moved in to occupy some, if not most, of the political space vacated by dictators.
The jury is still out on whether the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, if elected to power in the November polls, will provide Egyptians with a better life and lifestyle. Under their thumb, you can be sure, for Egyptian women a “liberal life” will be a far cry, and Shariah laws will dominate.
Misplaced “re-evaluation”The same NYT article quoted Ms Nadia Mostafa, a professor of international relations at Cairo University, saying: “Giving it to a woman and an Islamist? That means a sort of re-evaluation. It means Islam is not against peace, it's not against women, and Islamists can be women activists, and they can fight for human rights, freedom and democracy.”
Isn't this a most sweeping and dangerous statement? The problem comes in equating Islam with Islamists. How will Islamists, who themselves have such rigid and dogmatic views such as ‘our religion is the best, our scriptures rule supreme, only Muslims will go to heaven and others will rot in hell,' fight for democracy and all the values that come with it?
And just because one Ms Karman makes it to an important position in an Islamist party, where, incidentally, her father and brother occupy important positions too, to expect that the lot of women in the Islamic world will certainly improve, is wishful thinking. Islamist or religious parties taking over the reins of administration, I fear, is bad news for women, who will, once again, be pushed into subservient roles.
Already, in countries such as Egypt and Libya, where the “liberation” struggles were fought as zealously by women as by men — remember the women at Cairo's Tahrir Square smuggling in food, medical supplies, digging up the pavements to collect small rocks and facing a lot of violence — women are being sidelined.
At a recent conference, Ms Hoda Badran, chairperson of the Alliance for Arab Women, was quoted by the BBC as saying that Egyptian women had planned and participated in the revolution, “they cleaned the (Tahrir) square, they nursed the wounded, they also were killed when people in the square were shot. But after the revolution we notice that decisions are being taken to exclude women. We expected this revolution will include women as much as it includes men, in terms of liberty, equality, and social justice. Apparently it is not.”
Ah, if only it was so easy to get equality, and that too in the Islamic world!