Middle East References
May 3, 2004
Islam�s women fight for their rights
Islam�s women fight for their rights
Islam’s women fight for their rights

The position of women in Islamic countries has greatly changed in a few decades, with access to education, birth control and jobs. But each advance is resisted and attitudes are harder to change than laws. From Morocco to Iran, women - secular, liberal and Islamist, sometimes alone, sometimes together - are challenging traditions, demanding greater rights, reinterpreting the Koran and Muslim history.
by Wendy Kristianasen


SHIRIN Ebadi’s Nobel peace prize, the first for a Muslim woman, brought the demands of Iranian women for equal rights and freedoms to the attention of the world and seemed to signal an important advance. But the country’s president, Mohammad Khatami, dismissed the prize as "not very important", further disillusioning Iranians impatient with his failure to create a more democratic society. Then on 20 February 2004 parliamentary elections indicated the collapse of Iran’s seven-year attempt at reforming its theocratic Islamic revolution (1).

Earlier this year Morocco introduced a new family law (moudawana), a landmark reform since it has made equality between men and women a legal matter. Morocco is the second Arab/Muslim country to make such a breakthrough; the first was Tunisia. Yet behind Morocco’s apparent openness, its king, Mohamed VI, who succeeded to the throne in 1999, has absolute power; aside from the new family law, there has only been limited progress towards democracy.

As in Iran, there is a striking degree of alienation from politics among the people and widespread cynicism towards the ruling system. But the countries have more than that in common. Morocco, like Iran, is an Islamic state. The king is both religious and secular leader, the Commander of the Faithful (Amir al-Muminin). Islamic observance is mandatory for Muslims, though this last year’s Ramadan-breakers got away with a warning rather than a fine. Like Iran, and other countries of the Arab/Muslim world, Morocco is a deeply conserva tive country in which tradition and Islam go hand in hand. In both countries change has come within an Islamic framework: through ijtihad, independ ent investigation of religious sources, and tafsir, interpretation of the Koran.

In both countries women have played an active role. They define themselves as activists for women’s rights: few, especially in Morocco, like the term feminist, which they see as too limited, referring to a time and place that is not theirs. The women come from a broad religious spectrum, from Islamist to secular, another term with which many women in both countries are uncomfortable.

Morocco’s reform of its family law was a long process in which the king and a vigorous women’s movement played leading roles; it was conducted within the context of sharia. Under its terms women acquired equal status with men, shared family rights, the right to initiate divorce and marry without the permission of a male family member. But compromises had to be made. Polygamy, for example, could not be abolished - it is clearly present in the Koran - though it has been made close to impossible.

The passage of the reform into law was far from peaceful. An earlier plan for reform (le Plan pour l’integration des femmes dans le développement) had been promoted in 1999 by the socialist prime minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi. To demonstrate that Morocco was intent on modernising society, the plan was then presented to the World Bank. That provoked criticism by the minister of Islamic affairs, Abdelkebir Alaoui M’Dghari. The debate became public, the government backtracked and two camps formed: independent activists for women’s rights who came together to form Le Printemps de l’Egalité; and Islamists with their conservative supporters.

On 12 March 2000, close to International Women’s Day, tens of thousands, representing women’s groups, human rights movements and political parties (and at least six government ministers), marched in the capital Rabat in support of the plan. Some demanded that the plan should go further. In Casablanca an Islamist counter-demonstration, denouncing the plan as pro-Western and anti-Muslim, drew twice as many people.

The king then appointed a 15-member commission to revise the reform in accordance with Islam. One of its three women members was Nouzha Guessous, 50, a professor at Casablanca’s faculty of medicine and pharmacy, a founding member of the Organisation marocaine des droits humains who is politically non-aligned. She says she is a feminist "but in the broader sense of the word. I believe in universal rights and I don’t think that they contradict the principles of Islam."

She believes that the anti-Muslim charge "forced Morocco’s intellectuals and women’s organisations to redefine their proposals very carefully and within an Islamic frame of reference, and prove they were grounded in Arab/Muslim culture, not dictated by the West. I think this was the most important tactical change in the whole battle." The king’s speech introducing the reform was remarkable, with each reform legitimated by a Koranic reference. Just as remarkably, he then submitted the document to parliament in an unprecedented gesture to democracy.

On 16 May 2003 five suicide attacks killed 45 people in Casablanca. It was an event that deeply shocked Moroccans. The bombers belonged to the Salafist Jihad, a group linked to al-Qaida. But many Moroccans blamed the homegrown, non- violent Islamist movement led, in parliament, by the Party of Justice and Development (PJD). The PJD quickly endorsed the revised plan. Nouzha Guessous says: "The 16 May attacks alerted people to the dangers of extremism and forced everyone to position themselves, including the Moroccan state. It did this by solemnly declaring that it would not go back on the creation of a democratic, open, tolerant state . . . 16 May also made it clear that the state needed to take account of the social and economic situation and people’s sensitivities. And it reinforced the need to show that we were adhering to our Islamic principles."

Mohamed Tozy, a Moroccan political analyst, calls the reform revolutionary. He also points out that it requires education and social change. Will that happen? Leila Rhiwi, a professor of communication at the University of Rabat and a coordinator of Printemps de l’Egalité, expresses a widespread concern: " The law is hugely important; it replaces submission with equality. But I’m afraid that in courts up and down Morocco it won’t be put into practice. We’re leaving too much scope to magistrates. We still have a lot of work to do." She adds: "I’m Muslim in terms of culture but I don’t mind being called a secular feminist: we’ve begun to talk openly about secularism in our discussions on democracy since 16 May."

Khadija Rouissi, 40, is an avowedly secular feminist, a management consultant and secretary general of the human rights organisation Forum verité et justice. She too worries that "our judges and magistrates won’t apply the new reform: they are all men and all they know about is discrimination".

What do the Islamists say? Nadia Yassine is the spokesperson of the Jama’a al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Charity Association) and daughter of its 76-year-old founder, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, who famously wrote, in his book La Révolution à l’heure de l’Islam, that the need was to "Islamise modernity, not to modernise Islam". She describes herself as a "militant, social neo-Sufi" and rejects the term feminist: "It sounds too full of revenge." She admits the decision to demonstrate in 2000 against the reform was a "tactical mistake. It was a political move to show the strength of the Islamists. But we also opposed the reform because it emerged after the Beijing conference (2), imposed on us by the outside world. Our society may be sick but we have to find our own remedies. Western women had no rights until they fought for them: it’s the opposite for us - we lost ours over the years."

She sees another dimension: "It’s a spiritual world. For us, women’s rights have three poles: men, women and God. We need that spiritual component to smooth the rough edges. And yes, we reread and study the sacred texts: things went wrong for women in our society at the time of Mu’awiya (3); that was when women became slaves. We want more rights, but we want them in order to increase harmony within the entire family. Women’s rights are a vicious circle because we need to avoid the fragmentation of the family that could easily occur."

Now she criticises the reform for not doing enough: "The new law should go much further in giving a woman the right to state her conditions for accepting polygamy and repudiation. And it has completely failed to address the question of women’s inheritance."

Al-Adl wal-Ihsan is popular, particularly in cities and universities (4), and populist: it has a holistic feel, spreading hope for change at every level: spiritual, political and cultural. It contests the status quo presided over by the monarch and claims its legitimacy through its support among the people. Unwilling to compromise its principles, it remains outside the political system. Most of its supporters vote for the PJD, a conservative, religious party that appeals to tradition-minded Moroccans. As Hakima Muktary, an al-Adl wal-Ihsan official in Rabat, puts it: "We have very different ideas from the PJD. They accept the political game; we don’t."

Many women who suffered under the old moudawana are drawn to al-Adl wal-Ihsan. Najia Rahman, 44, is from Oujda in eastern Morocco. She was a rebel: she did not cover her head or pray. But she did marry, unhappily. After years of abuse, children and work, she came across Abdessalam Yassine’s writings: "I thought, that’s new; it’s not like Hassan al-Banna or Sayyid al-Qutb (5). Something clicked inside me. I joined. I’ve been a member now for 18 years. They encouraged me to seek a divorce, relaunch my career, but above all to think. Now I’m doing a PhD in psychology." What does she say about the new family law? "It won’t help me with my alimony. It’s not the law that’s the trouble: it’s the attitude, the corruption, the fact that people like local magistrates aren’t educated."

At a meeting of al-Adl’s Nur (Light) committee in a Casablanca home, members talk openly and informally on any subject. One or two women are present (al-Adl supports mixing of the sexes) and Nadia Yassine conducts the proceedings. What do they want? "To desanctify Muslim history, reinterpret it, change people through education." They say: "We’re ready to play the political game but only if it’s fairly played and the palace isn’t capable of that. And we don’t just want electoral reform but proper constitutional reform. The palace knows we are challenging its legitimacy. We are also challenging the privileges of the secular women’s movement: they’re a francophone elite." There is no love lost and almost no contact between Morocco’s two monolithic camps of women.

Things could hardly be more different in Iran (6) where activist women define themselves in a bewildering number of ways: from traditional to modern, Islamist to secular, conservative to left through liberal centre, in any combination. Predictably, many women activists identified with the reformist movement under Khatami, with his rhetoric of civil society, freedom of expression and rule of law, in the face of intense, even violent, opposition from theocratic conservative hardliners. Women and their demands for equality are a key part of the movement for democratic reform, demonstrated in a vigorous women’s press and an active presence in the professions and parliament.

Their advances, in a political climate marked by uncertainty, and without active support from Iranian men, are considerable. Yet their success in terms of changes to the law can be measured only in tiny increments. Not least because parliament ary bills can be thrown out by the Council of Guardians, which has the power of veto. They may then be referred to the Expediency Council, which may arbitrate between parliament and the Council of Guardians. On 29 November 2003 divorced mothers won the right to the custody of their sons until the age of seven (previously they had it only until the age of two). They already had custody of daughters up to seven, thanks to the tireless work of Shirin Ebadi who brought the issue to public attention in 1997, when she acted on behalf of the divorced mother of Aryan, aged six, who died after abuse by her stepmother and brother in her father’s house. After two decades of resistance, this modest gain was seen as a considerable advance.

In June 2002, after a similar lengthy process, the minimum age for marriage was raised to 13 for girls and 15 for boys. This was a compromise; the original parliamentary bill in August 2000 had proposed 15 for girls and 18 for boys. Since 2001 girls over 18 have been allowed to travel abroad without permission, though married women still need their husbands’ consent (7).

Other laws passed by parliament since 2000 (in the Sixth Majlis) were thrown out: reform of press laws and divorce, banning torture in prisons, joining the UN Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (Cedaw). Crucially, women’s worth remains less than men’s: "blood money" (compensation for injury or death) for women is half that of men’s; religious minorities are worth half that of Muslims.

There is the issue of the hijab, the compulsory Islamic dress code, whose non-observance could earn up to 74 lashes. After years of silence the issue was raised under Khatami by reformist clerics in different journals, most famously by the former interior minister, Abdollah Nouri. He argued in his trial that the entire hijab policy of the Islamic Republic had proved to be mistaken, like some other policies. He was sent to prison for five years (8).

The new debates were published by Shahla Sherkat in Zanan (Women), the monthly magazine she founded in 1992. It became famous for its staunch feminist voice, which managed not to stray too far from Islam. Zanan has the biggest circulation of any Iranian women’s magazine: up to 40,000 (the nearest competitor sells about 5,000). Sherkat says: "When I started Zanan I just wanted to use my 10 years’ experience of women’s issues. It took courage. The word feminism was used as a swearword. I didn’t want to become known as a defender of feminism, I just wanted to talk about it. Feminism is still a new phenomenon here: we need to use it to create unity, to encourage women to protest together against gender inequality. That’s why I refuse to attach any adjective to the word, such as Islamic or secular. I haven’t got much time for labels. I am quite simply a feminist."

Sherkat publicly questioned the enforcement of the dress code at a Berlin conference in 2000. Other well-known reformists took part; all were punished. Sherkat got a six-month suspended sentence. Shahla Lahiji, human rights activist and publisher for 20 years of the Roshangaran press (which won the PEN International in the United States and the Pandora prize in the United Kingdom, both in 2001), got four years, reduced to six months. She had been talking about censorship.

Lahiji says: "Women’s issues are still really sensitive here. The term Islamic feminist is a problem: people think of it as meaning you’re superior to men and yet a sex symbol. The problem here is that religion has got into daily life: we need to separate religion and state. They [the mullahs] want more segregation, parks just for women, buses for women: what we need actually is to educate the men." Lahiji is banned from speaking in public. Like everyone in Iran, she plays by the rules. She wears the hijab "because it’s the law. Even though I don’t like what’s behind it: ’You women are the very heart of sin’."

She isn’t bitter. In fact she is surprisingly hopeful. She talks about the effect of Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s: "Women became heads of fam il ies and that gave them self-confidence. That was the start. And now the new younger generation is doing amazing things. There’s so much talent. Look at our cinema. There aren’t many roles women actors can play, and no touching of men allowed, but look at how many top directors are women. And look at how many female graduates we have: girls are at technical universities doing things like maths and IT. Last year over 62% of those who got into university were women. With all the limitations we have, that’s pure magic."

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, 35, is another openly secular figure. She is the editor of Fasl Zanan (Women’s Season), now banned, and an active campaigner for human rights. With Parvin Ardalan, she runs a women’s cultural centre. They have been organising events since 1999, notably rallies to mark International Women’s Day, despite continuing harassment by the authorities. They set up an NGO, although it took them two years: they get none of the facilities or funding that less secular associations receive. Ahmadi Khorasani and Ardalan openly call themselves feminists: "And we are secular. But we don’t need to say so. That’s implicit in Iran just through the term human rights, which implies separation of religion and state. In fact, a couple of years ago, the word feminist was taken to mean secular. Even Shirin Ebadi didn’t call herself a feminist in those days."

Azam Taleqani, the editor of the reformist Payam-e Hajer (Hajer’s Message), currently banned, is one of the old school of women activists, part of the National-Religious tendency. She is daughter of a famous ayatollah, is ageing and in poor health but greatly respected. She says: "Men should reevaluate women’s situation, but I’m concerned by the whole of society, not just women."

Despite her health she registered as a presidential candidate as the last elections "to test the constitution: there’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t stand". In summer 2003 she staged a daylong personal protest in the heat to protest against the death in custody of Canadian/ Iranian journalist Zahra Kazami, arrested for photo graphing Evin prison. How does the indomitable Taleqani define herself? She grins: "If I knew, I’d be better at what I’m doing. I hope I’ll find out before I die."

Mahboubeh Abbasqolizadeh, 44, is the editor of the quarterly Farzaneh (Wise), the first women’s studies paper in Iran, launched in 1993, and she runs both NGOs and governmental associations. She is successful because she has not strayed too far from the Islamic establishment. She describes her journey: "I was an Islamist at the time of the Revolution. Then, in the 1980s, I studied in Egypt where I did gender studies. That turned me into an Islamic feminist: it meant demanding far greater change through what we call dynamic ijtihad, identifying those parts of the Koran that are historical and therefore open to change. This evolution signified an important change in thinking, from the old notion of duty (taklif) to that of right (haqq), under a more tolerant, pluralistic Islam. Now I’ve changed yet again and today I call myself a Muslim feminist, basing myself on the religious intellectuals’ movement."

One of that movement’s stars is Hamidreza Jalaeipour (9), a sociology professor at Tehran university. He explains their thinking. "I’m a Muslim, but not an Islamist," he says. "I don’t believe in Islam as an ideology. Religious intellectuals believe in objective secularism: that is, the separation of religion and state in terms of institutions, but not in terms of culture." He adds: "Iran has passed through fundamentalism: many of us are now post-fundamentalists and we favour minimal Islam." Can he give an example of objective secularism? "Perhaps the nearest is Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (Ak Parti)."

Abbasqolizadeh comments: "Since we don’t have secularism here, we see it as standing for democracy. I think you can put Islam and democracy together. The difficulty is applying it when it comes to women. It’s something very new."

This is where women like Shirin Ebadi come in. In her Tehran home the 56 year-old lawyer and campaigner for the rights of women and children said she still thinks reform is compatible with Islam: "In any case the constitution has provided for its own revision if needed: there are provisions for a referendum and a change in the laws. So reforms are not impossible." About women, she says: "The women’s movement is growing stronger and more organised and cohesive by the day. Iranian women have enough knowledge; they don’t need leaders. They are united, courageous, aware. They will continue to fight for equal rights."

Shirin Ebadi describes herself as a Muslim. She, like Nouzha Guessous in Morocco, and the others, understands the need to find a common ground in which Islam can coexist with universal rights and democracy.


* Wendy Kristianasen is a journalist

See : Morocco’s new family law: the main reforms

(1) In contrast with the poll of 2000 when reformists won 70% of the seats, the hardline Council of Guardians disqualified 2,500 reformist candidates. Other reformists withdrew. The reformists won only 43 seats out of 289, with 64 seats yet to be decided by runoffs between 128 candidates. In Tehran just 28% of the electorate voted. Nationwide the turnout was 50.57%. See Bernard Hourcade, "Iran: a spring of change", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, February 2004.

(2) The United Nations-sponsored international conference on women’s rights held in Beijing in 1995.

(3) The first caliph of the Ummayyid dynasty (657-680).

(4) Nadia Yassine estimates the movement’s numbers in the hundreds of thousands. The Moroccan Islamic analyst Mohamed Tozy estimates between 10,000 and 20,000.

(5) Founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 and a leading Brotherhood theoretician, executed by Nasser in 1965.

(6) See Azadeh Kian, "Iranian women take on the mullahs ", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, November 1996.

(7) Some reforms were introduced in the 1980-90s: restrictions were lifted on subjects a woman could study, family planning and contraception were made freely available, divorce laws amended and women were appointed as advisory judges (Ebadi lost her judgeship in 1979).

(8) Read Ziba Mir-Hosseini, "The Conservative-Reformist Conflict over Women’s Rights in Islam", International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, N° 16 (1), Boston, autumn 2002; "Debating Women: Gender and the Public Sphere in Post-Revolutionary Iran", in Amyn Sajoo, ed, Civil Society in Comparative Muslim Contexts, I B Tauris/ Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2002; Islam and Gender: the Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran, Princeton University Press, 1999/ I B Tauris, London, 2000.

(9) Other leading religious intellectuals include Abdol Karim Soroush and Alireza Alavitabar.

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