Gender: Gender and Politics

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Gender consciousness, feminist goals, and gender itself have all affected citizenship politics throughout the history of the Middle East.

Formal, or institutional, politics in the Middle East has been dominated by men. An awareness of genderthe identification and comparison of continuously changing men's and women's roles and differencesis essential to an understanding of women's political experiences in the region. By focusing on women, one sees the struggles of the sex that is otherwise invisible in Middle Eastern politics and the challenges women face in attaining full citizenship.

While literature on the Middle East often tends to relate women as a broad category, women in fact belong to diverse groups and pursue various interests. Women have habitually formed alliances across the lines of class, ethnicity, race, religion, family, or nation in their struggles against the oppressions they faced. Moreover, women live in a context of national, religious, state-sponsored, and consciously feminist political struggles. The following sections will outline the roots of gender consciousness, forms of feminist goals typical to the Middle East, and challenges to gender imbalance in their historical context.

The Roots of Gender Consciousness

Around the 1900s, the figures who facilitated the participation of women in the public sphere were mainly male Islamic scholars in Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. In Egypt, reformist thought traces back to Rifaʿa al-Rafi al-Tahtawi (18011873), an Azhari scholar educated in France who became the first major figure to call for the liberation and education of Egyptian women.

Qasim Amin (18631908) is considered the father of women's reform in the Muslim Middle East. His book Liberation of Women (1899) initiated women's liberation literature in the Arab world. He raised the issues of patriarchal oppression, polygamy, and the hijab, calling for an end to veiling and arguing for the education of women. The sections of his book that were based on Islamic law are believed to have been authored anonymously by Muhammad Abduh (18491905), the mufti of Egypt at that time. Muhammad Abduh, a disciple of the father of the modern Islamic reform, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (18381897), called for the elevation of women as a way to end foreign domination. Abdu's ideas significantly influenced the Muslim world.

Some Egyptian women had publicly challenged gender biases before these male figures appeared, including Maryam al-Nahhas (18561886), Zaynab Fawwaz (18601894), and Aʾisha al-Taymuriyya (18401902). Women feminists had campaigned for education, done charitable work, and challenged colonialism. Huda al-Shaʿrawi became the acknowledged leader of Egyptian feminism, playing an essential role against British occupation through the women's wing of the Wafd Party and forming the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923. Doria Shafik led the struggle for voting rights, which were granted in 1956.

Reformers emerged in Iran in the late nineteenth century, starting with Mirza Agha Khan Kirmani and Shaykh Ahmad Ruhi, who wrote about women's equality with men in pleasure, benefits, marriage rights, and education. Historically, however, women's education did not receive full attention in Iran until Amin's book was translated into Persian in 1900. Ahmad Kasravi, a historian, reformer, and jurist, argued for women's education in the 1940s but opposed women's involvement in politics. He emphasized, however, that women could participate for national causes.

Reza Shah Pahlavi and his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, combined enforced modernization with the crushing of any opposition. Acknowledging Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's influence, Reza Shah Pahlavi banned the veil (chador) in 1936, in an enforced program for emancipating women, and set about improving education. The veil was later chosen as a symbol of revolutionary protest by women who marched against the Pahlavi regime during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Several prominent women helped shape Iranian history. Writer, poet, teacher, and religious rebel Qurrat al-Ayn (born in 1814, executed in 1852) preached Babism (a religious sect founded in 1844 by the Bab out of Shiʿi Islam and which gave birth to the Bahaʾi faith) for women's emancipation. The doctrines forbid polygamy, concubinage, and trading in slaves, among many things. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Taj Saltaneh and Bibi Khanoum Astarabadi publicly criticized the status of women in Iran. Siddiqeh Dowlatabadi started the first girls' school, in Isfahan in 1917, and the first major woman's magazine, Zaban-i Zanan (Women's tongue), which was both feminist and nationalist, in 1919.

By the time of the Islamic Revolution, Iranian women had already experienced nearly a century of political success unparalleled in the Middle East, including participation in the Tobacco Revolt of 1890. Iranian women were active in the Constitutional Revolution in 1906 and by 1963 had gained the right to vote. Iranian women held high political positions and had gained laws that gave them priority in child custody and equal rights to divorce.

In Turkey, after the collapse of the autocratic regime in 1908, women formed organizations, participated in political demonstrations, and wrote for the press. Atatürk abrogated shariʿa (Islamic law) and secularized personal status law, which he modeled on the Swiss legal code. Turkish new-wave feminists entered the political arena in the 1980s, waging campaigns against domestic violence and sexual harassment and petitioning the government to sign the 1985 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Turkey is one of two Middle Eastern countries to have had a female head of state, Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, who took office in 1993 (Israel is the other; Golda Meir was prime minister from 1969 through 1974).

Islamic Feminism

Feminism is political action against the oppression of women. In the Middle East, both secular feminism (invoking the UN Declaration of Human Rights) and religious feminism (invoking Islamic or Jewish scripture) are active. Both categories include a wide range of ideas, beliefs, and actions.

Egypt is the epicenter of Islamist feminist activism, which has rested on the involvement of middle-class professional women. Nazira Zayn ad-Din in the 1930s and Aʾisha Abd al-Rahman (Bint alShatti) in the 1980s called for ijtihad (Islamic legal deliberation) to solve gender problems such as polygamy and the assumption of male superiority. In the 1930s, following the Institute for the Mothers of the Believers model established by Hasan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), Zaynab al-Ghazali formed the Muslim Women's Association. In 1964, when Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the Brotherhood and al-Ghazali was arrested, it had over a hundred branches in Egypt. Heba Rauf Ezzat (also Hiba Raʿuf Izzat), a political science professor, invoked al-Ghazali's discourse on women and politics through alternative interpretations of the Islamic scripture. Similarly, beginning the 1990s, Iranian women began to press for equality using the argument that religious literature is tainted by misogynist interpretations.

Islamist groups have recognized women's potential to serve Islamist interests. In Algeria, for example, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) did not object to women voting but sought to limit their employment. These groups generally encourage women activists to undertake community work through which Islamist political ideologies may infiltrate into society. Most contemporary Islamic scholars view feminism as something that originated in the West and that is a form of cultural imperialism. Islamists seek to counter by preaching veiling as a symbol of morality, authenticity, and cultural independence. Some Middle Eastern feminists also assert that much of the feminist discourse originated with and mirrors the concerns of white, middle-class Western women.

Nationalism and State Feminism

Since the 1800s, the development of women's political and social movements was intertwined with broader movements for national independence and state-building. Many Middle Eastern regimes have practiced state feminism in order to secure their legitimacy, creating programs designed to raise the levels of education, literacy, or employment; revive imagined or real traditional practices; modify personal status laws; and establish state-sponsored women's organizations.

Under regimes as diverse as those of Atatürk, Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Iraqi Baʿthists, and Nasser, women were mobilized in order to achieve national consolidation and an appearance of modernization. Any call for women's rights outside those on the state's agenda was perceived as antinationalist and thus divisive. After the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini crushed all women's protests and nullified the Family Protection Law. In North Africa, many women lost their lives fighting for independence, but once independence was gained women were told to return to their proper place in the home. Tunisian and Moroccan women have experienced some state-directed expansion of their freedoms, but the freedom of Algerian women has been severely constrained, particularly since the early 1990s.

The Israeli women's organizations that formed in the 1950s, such as Naʿamat (the women's branch of the labor union and the women's division of the Labor Party), the Women's International Zionist Organization or WIZO (the women's division of the Likud Party), and Emunah (affiliated with the National Religious Party), did not have a feminist mission and still do not. The General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW), formed in 1965, is the chief women's organization in Palestinian communities and legitimized by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, it has never challenged the male-dominated leadership of the PLO or its attitudes toward women. Held up as symbols of cultural integrity, women in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are often valorized as biological reproducers of the nation.

Women have taken advantage of their abilities as mobilizers to advance women's activism and increase their decision-making roles. Samiha al-Khalil (c. 19401999) was a member of the Palestine National Council starting in 1965; president of the Women's Federation Society, al-Bira, the Union for Voluntary Women's societies, and the GUPW; and the founder of the Inʿash al-Usra Society beginning in 1967. Hanan al-Ashrawi (1946), a human rights activist and professor of literature, became a minister in the Palestinian Authority government and since the 1990s has served as an articulate, internationally renowned spokesperson for the Palestinians.

Nationalist issues have created openings for other shared interests. After the first intifada (Palestinian uprising), many Israeli and Palestinian women demanded peace. The international movement Women in Black began in Jerusalem in 1988 when Israeli women dressed in black spoke out publicly for peace. This organization and others have included Palestinians. Shulamit Aloni (1929), a teacher and attorney, was a Knesset member for many years and headed the Meretz Party; she has spoken on behalf of peace and justice, particularly criticizing policies that endanger Israelis and Palestinians.

Governments in the rapidly developing Persian Gulf consider the integration of women into the labor force a necessity if they are to reduce their dependence on foreign labor, which they see as a security threat. This has led to the formation of state-sponsored organizations with state appointment
of members. The Arab Women's Development Society, a feminist organization campaigning for the vote in Kuwait, was disbanded after members refused to cooperate with a government-imposed director. Unlike the Princess Basma Center for Women and Development in Jordan, which is also state sponsored, AWDS does not address violence against women, such as honor killings. Even though the Women's Union of Syria operates under a republic, it follows preset national strategies.

In the Persian Gulf, women have been struggling for basic rights, as North African women were at the beginning of the twentieth century. Kuwaiti women are still fighting for their voting rights while Bahraini women won their voting rights in 2002 predominantly through informal Shiʿite Mʾtam/Husayniyya religious-social gatherings. Yet, Saudi women are demanding more civic freedoms. However, some Gulf leaders are supporting the participation of women within the framework of the development process, specifically Shaykh Zayid of United Arab Emirates and Sultan Qabus of Oman.

Challenges to the Gender Imbalance

Women have sought to improve their status through numerous campaigns. These include strategies to respond to extremist Islamist movements. In 1990, when the FIS was gaining political clout, Algerian feminists led by Khalida Toumi (Messaoudi), a founding member of the Independent Association for the Triumph of Women's Rights, were notably outspoken. Sudanese writer and speaker Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, president of the Sudanese Women's Union, has risked her life speaking out against National Islamic Front extremists in southern Sudan. Mehrangiz Kar, a former political prisoner and human rights lawyer, has published widely on the status of women in pre- and postrevolutionary Iran; her publications include a work coauthored with Shahla Lahiji, Iran's first woman publisher, who was also detained. In 2003, Shirin Ebadi received a Nobel Prize for her human rights activism. These women, along with Islamic feminist Shahla Sherkat, editor of Zanan, lead the debate on women's rights in Iran.

Tojan Faysal, the first woman to be elected to the Jordanian parliament (19931997), has been a staunch critic of human rights abuses and was detained in 2001. Asma Khader (also Khadir), a Jordanian lawyer, led the campaign to outlaw honor killings and received the 2003 Poverty Eradication Award from the UN Development Program. Laure Moghaizel, a founding member of numerous Lebanese women's organizations, worked locally, regionally, and internationally for the advancement of women's rights.

Nawwal al-Saʿdawi, an Egyptian doctor and writer and a particularly prominent feminist, formed and headed the Arab Women's Solidarity Association in 1985. Even though fervently secular, she attributes her awareness of women's rights to the teachings of Muhammad Abduh, who taught her father in al-Azhar. Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, another leading feminist in the Arab world, critiques and analyzes Islamic law from a secular perspective.

In Turkey, Women for Women's Human Rights has worked since 1993 to raise feminist consciousness and confront domestic violence, as have the Purple Roof Foundation and Altindag Women's Solidarity Foundation. In Afghanistan under the Taliban, women and girls were banished to seclusion in the home and thousands were raped, tortured, killed, or forced into prostitution. Since 1977, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan has struggled for women's human rights as an independent political and social organization, also undertaking social and relief work.

Numerous research centers have developed across the Middle East. These include the New Woman Research and Study Centre in Egypt, the Women's Library and Information Centre in Istanbul, the Lebanese American University's Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World, and the Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche et le Développement. Although some are purely research oriented, some also engage in advocacy for gender equity.

Regional organizations include the Arab Women's Federation, the Women's Committee of the Arab League, the Center for Arab Women for Training and Research, and the Arab Women's Forum (AISHA), a regional nongovernmental organization made up of fourteen Arab women's organizations. International organizations include the World Federation for Women, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Conferences, such as UN conferences on women, are important forms of global support for Middle Eastern women.


Middle Eastern women have proven resourceful and dynamic participants in the political processes that shaped recent Middle Eastern history. Feminism in the Middle East cannot be separated from nationalist and anticolonial movements, or from issues such as poverty and illiteracy that Middle Eastern women have faced. However, the interventionist measures of postindependence states have been primarily geared toward national development, treating women's rights as a secondary concern.

See also Abduh, Muhammad; Afghani, Jamal al-Din al-; Amin, Qasim; Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Recherche et le Développement (AFTURD); Çiller, Tansu; Front Islamique du Salut (FIS); Ibrahim, Fatima Ahmed; Iranian Revolution (1979); Kar, Mehrangiz; Khalil, Samiha Salama; Meir, Golda; Mernissi, Fatema; Muslim Brotherhood; Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA); Saadawi, Nawal al-; Shaʿrawi, Huda al-; Tahtawi, Rifaʿa alRafi al-; Tobacco Revolt; Toumi, Khalida; Women and Family Affairs Center; Women in Black; Women's Affairs Center (Gaza); Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling; Women's Forum for Research and Training (Yemen).


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Wanda C. Krause

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Gender: Gender and Politics

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