A growing body of literature views cultural politics – a process of conflict over cultural norms and symbols – as inseparable from sexual politics – women’s struggle for power and authority at domestic, community, national and international levels.1 Some scholars regard transnational advocacy networks as highly instrumental in empowering women all across the world.2 Others argue that the real fault line between the West and Islam concerns gender equality and sexual liberalization. Muslims and their Western counterparts overwhelming favor democracy, yet they are worlds apart when it comes to attitudes toward divorce, abortion, gender equality and gay rights. These divergent values, which represent a “sexual clash of civilizations” of some sort, constitute the real conflict between Muslim societies and the West.3
One theme emerging from the books under review concerns the importance of including gender analysis in the study of culture, economy and politics. The struggle between forces/agents of change and resistance to it has intensified in a globalizing context that ironically helps facilitate the formation of alliances across confessional and religious beliefs. Contrary to the Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” paradigm, the heterogeneity of cultural and religious beliefs has not precluded the emergence of cross-national alliances that challenge the course of modernity. The gender-based divisions in the world conferences on women’s issues attest to this reality. Bayes and Tohidi’s book is based on the conviction that while the European intrusion into Muslim societies has had negative consequences, the overall impact of modernity on Muslim women has been largely positive (p. 41).
The 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing was the site of competing trends between a new transnational, cross-cultural conservative and religious alliance against equal rights for women on the one hand, and the growing globalization of women and gender politics on the other. Some Muslim reformists argue that Muslims do not need mediators between them and God. Shia Islam’s clerical hierarchy is not Islamic. Rather, it is a model taken from the Catholic Church. The similarities among religious convictions in this new transnational conservative alliance are striking, however. During the 1990s, Pope John Paul II reflected on the status of women in Catholic societies: “Men and women are basically different from one another and occupy complementary places in the world” (p. 23). In the sharia (Islamic law), men and women are not regarded as equal. Likewise, the Quran says that “women shall have rights according to what is equitable” (p. 27). Bayes and Tohidi argue, however, that the societal and structural conditions, such as cross-time, cross-class and cross-cultural variability or diversity in the status of Catholic and Muslim women demonstrate that religion is not the only or even the primary variable in determining women’s rights or in shaping gender relations (p. 27).
As participants in the Beijing conference, Bayes and Tohidi were particularly intrigued by the question of “how religious Catholic and Muslim women who believe in women’s equal rights were coping with the contradictions between their own beliefs in women’s equal rights and the official positions of their religious authorities” (p. 2). More specifically, they set out to explore the strategies that women have adopted with regard to this contradiction in a variety of contexts. The book proceeds from the assumption that “while feminism and the women’s movement [have] become more global than ever before, sisterhood is not global, nor is it local. Women’s solidarity has to be negotiated within each specific context” (p. 14). This volume’s contributors provide a broad theoretical treatment of the ways women redefine religion and negotiate modernity in a variety of contexts: the United States, Ireland, Spain, Latin America, Turkey, Iran, Bangladesh and Egypt. The book focuses on three different approaches: resistance, revision and reform.
Maloney (Chapter 3) writes that different perspectives espoused by U.S. Catholic women – holistic, moderate, reconstructive or individual – remain disconnected, as there is little or no systematic communication bringing them together around a shared concern.
Increasingly, groups and individual feminist theologians are emphasizing certain aspects of traditional thought and ignoring other aspects, reinterpreting symbols, and drawing on elements of Christian thought to unmask and delegitimize the sexism in Catholic theology. Moderate Catholic feminist women are laying the groundwork for long-range systemic change by executing the Platform for Action (PFA) in several ways, including coalition building, publications and relations with the U.S. government and NGOs (p. 71). “If U.S. Catholic women,” Maloney concludes, “could collaborate on a massive scale to promote at least one of the PFA priorities within the U.S. Catholic Church, such an action would make a world of difference for many women and a different world for U.S. Catholic women” (p. 81).
Although far from being a secular society, as Galligan and Ryan show in chapter 4, Ireland is in a transitional period in which both the growing secularization of Irish society and the waning hegemony of church and/or religious influences are linked with mammoth infusions of foreign direct investment, membership in the European Union (EU), shifts in social and cultural attitudes, and judicial findings. Since 1997, the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), an umbrella body of NGOs, has formed the community and voluntary “pillar” in national economic negotiations. This has brought the NWCI into the ambit of the quasi-corporatist decision-making structure that has been in place in Ireland since the 1970s and has played a key role in bringing a spectrum of women’s groups to write reports and lobby for women’s-rights initiatives (p. 98). Other women’s groups have sided with the state in their struggle against the church and organized conservative groups in society.
Galligan and Ryan go on to explain how the successful election of Mary Robinson to the office of president of the NWCI in 1990 has signaled a new trend in Ireland. They fail to explain, however, that Mary Robinson occupied a largely ceremonial/symbolic office and that the chances of an Irish woman becoming the next prime minister of Ireland are slim for the foreseeable future. There is a dearth of women political figures with any real power in Ireland. They act – very effectively – by influence, not with any executive authority. Galligan and Ryan acknowledge this reality, contending that the paucity of women in local politics does not accurately reflect the extent to which women participate in locally based communal activities (p. 100). The rising feminism within the church has facilitated the challenge of reclaiming the liturgy and church practices, which are in many respects compatible with the message of Vatican II that encourages the campaign against poverty, injustice and inequality. The Christian feminist movement in Ireland, they point out, is “largely confined to middle-class women and to ecumenical groups” (p. 102). Today, many active feminists see no contradiction in drawing on the insights and strength of religious feminism (p. 102). The pressure of aligning itself to the position of the European Union on reproductive rights – but not on the issue of abortion – has compelled Irish government representatives to work in conjunction with the NWCI and the regional health boards (p. 103).
In the next chapter, Valiente examines state gender policies in Spain after Franco, when a transition to democracy beginning in the mid-1970s unleashed new dynamics. Valiente writes that the “Catholic Church runs an important part of the education system but does not control the agenda of government” (p. 107). Both Spain and Ireland are similar in that both failed to “modernize” with regard to science, technology, economic production and trade, as had other European countries in the nineteenth century. In comparison with other Western countries, Valiente writes, women’s movements in Spain have had low visibility in the mass media and have failed to organize mass demonstrations or initiate many public debates (p. 113).
As the economy has liberalized, so, too, have the laws and social relations. Unlike Ireland, popular resistance to the liberalization of abortion and divorce laws does not seem to be widespread and vocal. Contraceptives are legal (since 1978), divorce is available (since 1981) and abortion is permitted on certain grounds (since 1985). With the exception of the issue of abortion, state policies are in line with those of the European Union (p. 121). Although the Catholic Church continues to dominate the educational system, Spanish society is becoming increasingly secularized, especially in the urban areas. State feminism – the implementation of women’s rights from the top down – has made some strides in Spain in four issue areas: violence against women, abortion, gender equality in employment and child care (pp. 113-120). The comparison between Spain and Ireland raises several valid questions: Why has Ireland remained so solidly patriarchal a society down to the present day? Why has Spain, symbolically imbued with male ethos and persona by custom and mythology, advanced more significantly in the less public arenas of reproductive and legal rights? Should one distinguish between traditions and religions?
These questions remain unanswered in this chapter.In the next chapter, Guzman Stein turns to the politics of implementing women’s rights in the Catholic countries of Latin America, which historically have been the Vatican’s important political stronghold. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has a strong influence among governments of Argentina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru and the Dominican Republic (p. 128). Opus Dei, a lay fundamentalist Catholic organization supported by Pope John Paul II, infiltrated the women’s movement in Latin America to control the agendas of both the regional and world conferences (p. 128). For the Vatican, the international recognition of reproductive and sexual rights was the harbinger of a paradigm shift that could profoundly alter gender policies and patriarchal structures within the Roman Catholic Church (pp. 128-129). Because of modernization in Latin America, however, the Catholic Church’s influence has been steadily decreasing (p. 136). Stein explains the success that many Latin-American feminists have had in promoting women’s health issues as a way of approaching the abortion question.
In chapter 7, Gunes-Ayata argues that the “top-down” modernization by a secular elite over a period of almost 70 years has entailed positive consequences for women in Turkey. The imposition of eight years of compulsory schooling and the enactment of the law that tries to prevent intra-family violence are two examples of such achievements.
In 1981, Turkey became the only Muslim country where abortion was legal on request (p. 159). In reaction to a secularization process in the country, the “New Muslim” women’s movement emerged, which attacked not only the Western world and Turkey, brought into being by the Kemalist reforms, but also attempted to dissociate itself from traditional Islam (p. 161). Paradoxically, the secular feminist movement, whether Kemalist or radical, by siding with the state and the army to counterbalance the influences of this “New Muslim” movement, has “lost the search for new solutions and new alliances” (p. 173).
In the following chapter, Kar takes up the issue of women’s strategies in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Her central argument revolves around a noticeable split that has occurred among traditional religious women and non-conformist Islamic feminists in favor of reform on the one hand, and the convergence of some elements of the religious and secular women on matters relating to divorce law, child custody rights and alimony on the other (pp. 198-199). She emphasizes the continuing struggle of reformist women, both religious and secular, to build consensus on at least some issues, including the prevention of domestic violence and the promotion of gender equality. Since the late 1990s, she adds, both of these groups have taken part in elections, have been active as legal staff in the Islamic courts, and have significantly contributed to the literature on women’s rights in Iran. The result has been a vibrant intellectual setting imbued with flourishing ideas about universal human rights and women’s rights.
Chowdhury shows in chapter 9 how an indigenous women’s movement in Bangladesh is working with support from many international NGOs, including the United Nations, to advance women’s rights. Given the low female literacy rate (22 percent) and poor economic conditions there, the Bangladeshi women’s movement has focused on violence and inheritance as two issues of the Beijing Conference’s “Platform for Action” that have particular relevance for women. The National Policy for the Advancement of Women rhetorically supports women’s human rights through such measures as taking necessary steps to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In reality, government practice falls far short of its rhetoric (p. 226).
In the book’s final chapter, Ezzat turns to the phenomenon of Islamic feminism in Egypt. A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and a practicing Muslim, she favors the Beijing “Platform for Action” but resents attempts by the state to impose a Western secular view of the world on Egyptian society and women. Islamist women have a public presence that has enabled them to win many votes in the elections and thus become a force in the parliament (p. 239). Islamic religious modernity, as opposed to secular Western modernity, is linked not just to legitimacy but also to considerable power in social and political spaces. Many Muslim women join Islamists to find a legitimate place for their identity, social presence and political activism. The so-called “fundamentalist” threat has put many secularists and feminists groups on the side of the government, with the price of being silent about the violations of human rights perpetrated by the state in the process (p. 250). Another fundamental problem is that the majority of women in Egypt remain excluded from the globalization process because of their lack of presence and representation in Egyptian politics (p. 253).
Given that there is no systematic principle of interpretation in Islam, and given that the Muslim world has not experienced reformation, the debate rages on regarding who actually controls modernity, rationality and progress in the Muslim world. Further, the influence of the European Union on Ireland and Spain has been positive insofar as women’s rights/movements are concerned. Such regional impact is conspicuously lacking in the case of the Muslim world. Clearly, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) lacks such a corresponding function, a point not fully discussed in this volume.
Interestingly enough, EU pressure on Iran has been constructive: as a result of its critical dialogue with Iran in January 2003, Iran has agreed to ban the practice of stoning.
In Women and Globalization in the Arab Middle East: Gender, Economy, and Society, Doumato and Posusney examine the mixed blessings of globalization by focusing on its impact on gender, jobs and activism. The book’s basic conviction is that it is necessary – even critical – to understand women’s roles in enhancing the welfare of their families. Absent such recognition, women’s rights and status will not be protected from the negative consequences of economic reforms associated with structural adjustment programs (SAPs). Regarding cultural contexts and their impact on gender issues, Doumato and Posusney point to competing aspects of the evolution of gender ideologies. They argue that the development of Islamic feminism is emblematic of “a discursive, forward-looking movement generated by women to rationalize their activism and employment outside the home – not as a product of changing economic opportunities or emulation of Western cultural models, but as the product of a true, indigenous Islamic heritage” (p. 9). Some contributors to this volume, such as Jennifer Olmsted, see the rise of Islamism in the region in part as a backlash against SAPs and globalization.
Bayes and Tohidi’s book makes few references (with the exceptions of Laura Guzman Stein, p. 149), to the concerted participation of civil society as a crucial factor to identify and sustain women’s needs and rights. It fails to give adequate attention to the SAPs in the Muslim countries (with the exception of the chapter on Egypt, p. 246; even here only a passing reference is made to SAPs). Doumato and Posusney, in contrast, demonstrate how structural-adjustment programs have had negative consequences for women’s income and social safety nets, and how women have been drawn to Islamic charitable societies, which serve as conduits for a religiously conservative agenda.
A more nuanced and indirect outcome of SAPs has been the increasingly popular articulation of political Islam that has advocated rigidly defined gender roles, including a return to domesticated womanhood in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Pfeifer and Posusney show how the Arab Gulf governments and Iran have been pressed by circumstances to adopt more market-oriented policies. But at the same time, the recent pressures on fiscal budgets, along with domestic labor-force growth, have led to efforts to generate more private-sector employment opportunities for natives. The impacts of these changes on working women’s gender-based requirements and opportunities are worth studying.
Tzannatos and Kaur examine the conditions of women in the labor market in MENA. They find that female access to the labor market and patterns of employment may be “key in breaking up the vicious circle of low productivity and poor outcomes for women” (pp. 60-61). Despite the increasing female participation in the labor force, MENA has the highest gender segregation in employment, and, unlike in the rest of the world, segregation is increasing in the region (p. 68). Cultural norms may have a larger impact on female labor force participation in MENA than in other developing areas (p. 70). This claim is not fully explained in the chapter, however.
Jennifer Olmsted’s “Reexamining the Fertility Puzzle in MENA” demonstrates the adverse impact of marketization of the economy on women and also how decreased spending on social safety nets, public-sector employment and education profoundly affect women, as they – and indirectly many families – perceive the need to have more children (pp. 76-77). Without denying the importance of religion as an institution that defines much of the cultural rhetoric surrounding fertility and family-size debate, Olmsted writes that the interaction between policy, culture and economic outcomes should be kept in mind.
Lower levels of women’s labor-force participation and literacy rates do contribute to such outcomes, but one should not underestimate “the strength of patriarchy, the ideology of Islam, and the shortsightedness, ineptitude or recalcitrance of policy” (p. 82).
Case studies (for Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Sudan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) demonstrate how economic globalization and struggles for political opening have affected women’s conditions in MENA. In a meticulous analysis of the effects of economic reform and structural adjustment programs (ERSAPs), Heba Nassar finds such reforms intensify female vulnerability in the Egyptian market. Several factors contribute to such an outcome: wage discrimination, discriminatory employment conditions, lack of childcare and transportation, the dilemma of maternity leave, women as unpaid workers, and lack of representation in trade unions. Women constitute only a small proportion of union leadership. Just one woman sits on the executive board of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), compared to 22 men (pp. 116).
Other existing studies on the Egyptian labor market, Rugi Assaad writes, show that women have limited access to wage employment in the private sector, that female unemployment rates are noticeably higher than those of their male counterparts, that women’s wages in the private sector are substantially lower than men’s wages in that sector and are also much lower than female wages in the public sector, and that female workers are mainly concentrated in a small number of industries and occupations (pp. 124-125).
The Jordanian Women’s Union (JWU) aims at changing a variety of laws to advance greater equality between the sexes, while improving family relations and curbing domestic violence. Yet this and other women’s organizations, such as the General Federation of Jordanian Women (GFJW), are unlikely to play a vanguard role in political liberalization. In 1992, Prince Hassan established the Jordanian National Committee for Women (JNCW). The Jordanian National Women’s Forum (JNWF) was created with Princess Basma as its head and with logistical and financial support coming from the governorates and ministries. With its mission the implementation of the government’s National Strategy for Women, this turned out to be a quasi-governmental organization (p. 161). This so-called embryonic Hashemite state feminism has not been without its limitations. It has marginalized authentic civil-society activity and closed a political opening initiated during the 1989-94 period (pp. 162-165). The weakness of civil-society institutions is in turn the key domestic reason for the continuation of such top-down NGOs, which undercut meaningful participation in the political system (pp. 165-166).
In Tunisia, this type of “state feminism” within the broader construct of a corporatist political system has encountered similar limitations. Caught between the regime, which offers tolerance and a modicum of secular empowerment, and Islamists, who offer the reassurance of cultural authenticity and traditionally-defined gender roles, Tunisian women face difficult choices. Emma C. Murphy aptly captures the daunting task facing the government: “However much largesse it is inclined to hand down to women from its bureaucratic heights, it has made few inroads into countering the social conservatism upon which political Islam feeds” (p. 171). The Islamic paradigm, Murphy contends, entails a message that “offers women a solution to the contradictions of a society that demands they not only be the guardians of family honor and purity, but also participate in a modern, technologically advanced, and socially liberal environment” (p. 191).
While considerable progress has been made in women’s status in the 1990s, “women do not achieve high ranks in more traditionally male-dominated ministries, such as the Ministries of the State and Interior, Justice, National Economy, Finance or Foreign Affairs” (p. 181). With regard to economic liberalization programs, Murphy writes that SAPs and economic liberalization programs are not gender neutral: women are the first to be laid off when wage cuts are implemented or when poverty rises (p. 184). The female unemployment rate has increased in the early years of economic reform. But more important, women are caught in a cultural dilemma. Economic liberalization becomes synonymous with the enforced importation of alien cultural values. In trying to “gain cultural emancipation, women lose their economic freedom” (p. 185). To prevent women from being drawn to Islamic groups, Tunisian governments have tried to incorporate women into the regime and accommodate their interests within government policy and legislation (p. 192).
The restructuring of the economy in Sudan, Sondra Hale notes, has thrown women into new or reinvented roles that directly involve them in rebuilding the Islamic nation while seeking out “authentic” Islam for their rights and emancipation (p. 195). The shift in identity construction of the woman citizen – mother, Muslim, militia woman and national service volunteer – has sharpened since the regime has come under attack militarily and in international critiques (p. 196). In reality, Hale argues, state feminism, as manifested in the “new Muslim woman,” indicates that women are active in the workforce, but only under conditions that fulfill the requirements of the party/state and of the umma – the Muslim community (p. 206).
Mary Ann Tetreault examines the politics of economic restructuring in Kuwait, arguing that women are its victims (p. 226). Women’s labor participation has risen rapidly: “In 1989, 50 percent of women aged 20-40 were working, and by 1997 their percentage increased to 60 percent” (pp. 228-229). Moreover, the visibility of women in high-status positions presents a new class of competitors for Kuwaiti men and fuels their misogyny as well as their willingness to scapegoat women as the cause of their difficulties (p. 235).
Saudi Arabia’s state feminism has led to the emergence of an elite group of women with wasta, connections in high political places (p. 254). Not surprisingly, women who break through the established gender paradigm are carefully dressed in full hijab (Islamic dress code), invoking models of liberated women from an Islamic past, while adhering closely to Islamic values. The traditional gender paradigm has beenincorporated into the mandatory religious-studies curricula to satisfy the country’s powerful and culturally defensive ulama (scholars of religion).
1 Roy Andersen, Robert F. Seibert and Jon G. Wagner, Politics and Change in the Middle East: Sources of Conflict and Accommodation, Sixth Edition (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001), p. 173.
2 Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (New York: Cornell University Press, 1998).
3 Inglehart and Norris, “The True Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Policy, March/April 2003, pp. 62-70.
4 Lucinda Joy Peach, “Are Women Human? The Promise and Perils of ‘Women’s rights as Human Rights,’” Negotiating Culture and Human Rights, eds. Lynda Schaefer Bell, Andrew Nathan and Ilan Peleg (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), p. 156.