Islam, Gender and Modernity


Beliefs and behaviours are far from being monolithic in Muslim and non-Muslim societies, so it appears that we are rather witnessing an implosion of civilisations, than a clash between them. An observer of our time is thus taken by simultaneous and contradictory feelings: Their defiance towards modernity does not extend to the point of negating all its benefits, but they generally remain reluctant to give up on a general aversion for the protection of the individual, and instead of emphasizing on the spiritual content of Islam, they rather assimilate it with a mere list of prohibitions.

Recent political developments, including the development of erratic Jihadism worldwide, have put conservative theologians under pressure. Radicalism is meeting a particularly fertile ground today. A first example lies in the fact that the crises the developed industrial world is facing are not only economic, but also spiritual and metaphysical.

Islamic Traditions of Modernity

It is very unfortunate, given that these initiatives are utterly needed, and are probably the first way to encourage individuals to find peace within themselves, with the others, and as a result, at a macro level, between civilisations. In developing and emerging countries, which constitutes most of our world, ancient cultural forms are threatened by a world that is more and more connected, and challenged by the combined forces of mass alphabetisation and demographic transition.

Tensions are also exacerbated by the fact that globalisation sometimes degrade further the conditions of existence of the most fragile populations in these countries, and they often see a rigorist conception of religion, Islam or others, as a form of moral support. There is another difficulty in trying to define the relations between Islam and modernity, and this one is not about the context, it is about the terms in which the debate is usually conducted.

If their intent is generally positive, it seems nevertheless problematic to define the debate in these terms. This proposal contains both right and wrong assertions. Adapting Islamic law to present times is an urgent task, but we should not reduce Islam to the law that it has inspired centuries ago.

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Before being a set of legal principles, that were enacted in a specific historical and anthropological context, Islam is a spiritual inspiration. In reality, numerous progressive theologians, including M. Tareq Oubrou have shown that the sacred texts have attempted to push for equality between human beings, but that this attempt has necessarily been limited by the need to take into consideration the cultural context in which the revelation has happened [2].

Gender equality has been a major topic and objective of the revelation, but the legal norms that have been enacted appear to be a compromise between this aim and the cultural norms that were predominant in the Bedouin Arab society at that time.

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In other words, saying that there is a need to reform Islam is self-defeating in the sense that it does not recognize that Islam is in itself a reformist impulse, and a spiritual process that is expected to unfold in history. Instead of defining the problem as the need to reform, it might be preferable to say that a process has been started, and that it would be a betrayal to replicate the cultural context of the revelation instead of continuing and perpetuating the liberating spiritual impulse of the origins.

It is obviously impossible to exhaustively sum up and to adequately define what are the main elements of political modernity. However, and for the purpose of this article, we can emphasize that modernity necessarily includes the protection of individual rights through principles of freedom, equality, and dignity.

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The Conflict Within Islam. How to write a great review Do Say what you liked best and least Describe the author's style Explain the rating you gave Don't Use rude and profane language Include any personal information Mention spoilers or the book's price Recap the plot. Would you like to report poor quality or formatting in this book? Women living under Muslim law , December 20 , , http: Secondly, gendered rationales such as the Imperilled Women, Islamic Men and the Civilised Europeans and the Third World Sisters to be Saved , purport a monolithic vision of the Islamic world, contributing to the logic of the two opposing blocs.

In this regard, gender equality is a central indicator. An illustration of it is that gender equality and social and economic development seem to be strongly correlated. However, one needs to acknowledge that gender equality is a very contentious subject, and it is difficult to have an appeased debate on this question. There might be a reason for that taboo.

Talking about gender equality and the status of women leads most participants to talk about issues that have an intimate component, and the difficulty to have this conversation is especially acute in societies that are majority Muslims.

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Talking about family law, leads one, notwithstanding all the assurances of objectivity given to the public, to feel that he or she talks about HIS or HER family. And in most cases, in theocratic countries, which conditions their material and physical safety. It is therefore a domain in which mechanisms of denial and defence are particularly important, because behind a model of civilisation, it is often the narcissism, and the social mask, of the intellectual himself or herself that is defended.

It explains why many conservative authors can be prolific on a wide diversity of subjects, ranging from economics, political models, and ecology, while being careful when it comes to questions of personal status. On this last category of topics, they generally limit themselves to a reminder that the legal norms that have constituted the legal consensus for centuries still ought to be respected. But by avoiding these questions, they are depriving themselves from the ability of actually helping out people who are rightfully dissatisfied with medieval legal norms that are not adapted to their life and their time.

It is probably not realistic to expect everyone to have a thorough understanding of the Arab Bedouin society, including myself I am not a historian nor an anthropologist. But a superficial description of it is necessary to understand the philosophy behind the medieval legal status applicable to women. The right to work, for instance, has always been depicted as an inconvenience. In fact, a woman working was considered to be doing it as an economic necessity rather than as a free conscious choice.

Again, the choice for autonomous political agendas was denied in the name of a special relationship between the women groups and the state [20]. Then, it becomes easy to understand how the question of women is strictly related to specific backgrounds.

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In particular, significant variations in the conditions of Muslim women rely on single political projects for the construction of a modern liberal and secular state. It has been argued though, that it is highly likely that state capitalism negatively affected the condition of nineteenth century Muslim women. Thus, the conditions which the twenty-first century feminist movements protest against, partially find their roots in the outcome of the process towards the Western modernisation model, rather than in Islamic conservative values.

As a consequence, this perspective undermines all the thinking of the struggle between a modern West against a pre modern Orient [22]. Though, it may appear that the whole mythology of the time of the Prophet as a golden age for Islamic women, when they had an active role in education, commerce, and politics, is not only part of the Islamic fundamentalist propaganda [23] , but rather may contain some kind of truth.

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PDF | On Aug 18, , D. Kandiyoti and others published Islam, modernity and the politics of gender. Muslim Women Between Tradition and Modernity: The Islamic Perspective. HAIFA R. JAMAL AL-LAIL. Introduction. Over the years, there have been a number of.

Nevertheless, it is certain that although new and modern rights have been acquired by women, social habits persist to dominate, making those rights still unattainable [24]. However, some attempts made by Western feminist movements in order to try to overcome this situation, have had the contrary effect of strengthening the logic of the clash, instead of positively affecting the status of Muslim women. These counter-productive feminist campaigns are observable on three different levels of practice: The argument occurred in Ontario about the religious-faith-based interpretation of the Arbitration Act [25] , is an example of a feminist campaign aiming to affect the legislative process.

Feminist groups, Muslim as well as non-Muslim, opposed to the possibility given by the law to solve problems of family law privately, according to Sharia law. It has been argued that this protest was based on the dangerous framework of secular versus religious, which is nothing but another facet of the modern West versus the pre modern Orient dichotomy [26].

The main argument of the protest was the image of the Imperilled Muslim Women. The handbook published in by the Norwegian Human Rights Service foundation about the problem of Human Visas , represents the combination of social practices and legislative aims. The issue was raised in opposition to the practice of forced marriages.

Human Rights Service based its entire campaign on the clash between the West versus non Western societies, in which the individual is dependent on religion, clan, caste or class. The practice of forced, pre-arranged marriages is used to underline the patriarchal features of those societies where the status of women is low. Along this line of argument, such a practice is then compared to the West that in contrast, has been able to free itself from such a feudal past. On the contrary this did not happen in the Muslim world.

Therefore, the only solution to achieve modernity against this background, seems to be by the imposition of law by the secular state [28]. This campaign achieved a great success, even amongst those people who are usually sceptical towards the feminist movement. Later on, the first lady Laura Bush seized that kind of approach saying on a radio show that all the civilised people [29] are speaking out in horror for the women and the children of Afghanistan [30].

In addition, the increasing importance of Islamic fundamentalism reinforced the Imperilled Women logic, giving a universal and ready made explanation for every kind of violence that was inflicted on Muslim women in the Muslim world. Therefore, the message to public opinion was clear: However, the previous examples illustrated that the feminist approach itself can influence policy, social and discursive practices, that may lead to the unwanted outcome of strengthening the logic of the clash of modernity based on the gender issue.

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Such an approach would depart from the Habermasian idea of modernity. Indeed, as it is the sense of modernity of the agency that creates the self-enclosed canons of being classic, overcoming the traditional difference between classic and modern, modernity can be seen as an unfinished process, centring the spotlight on the role of the agency [34].

Thus, applying this methodology to the gender issue in Muslim societies, it undermines some core assumptions of the orientalist bias. Firstly, the necessity of having models of modernity, namely the Western one. Secondly and most importantly, by pointing out the importance of agency, it undermines the orientalist view that the social structure of non-Western societies is characterised by the absence of a civil society: In that way, according to the orientalist view, individuals, women in particular, would be easier subjected to the arbitrary rule of the despotic state [35].

In fact, contemporary Islamic women are not only the subject of discussed controversy, but they also are active political actors in the public debate. They can exploit the uniqueness of their educational power, which is both religious and secular, thereby being able to criticise Western modernity without falling in the trap of religious backwardness. Through this process that stands at the frontier of political ideology and social practices, women represent a challenge at the same time both for the development of a different notion of modernity as well as for the shape of a new identity [36].

Islam, Modernity, and Gender Equality

Women have also the means to break another key assumption of the orientalist logic. Orientalism has always portrayed Islam as a monolithic religion, with no differences all over the world.

Keys assumptions of this thinking should be: In this way women would be able to appropriate their own modernity, breaking the vicious circle that departs from the aim of freeing women, leading to the reinforcement of the logic of the clash of civilisations, completely opposed to the feminist cause. This paper argues for the importance of revisiting the feminist approach to the problem of the gender issue in Muslim societies; in particular through the acquisition of a more critical stance to the notion of modernity and to the gender issue itself.

In fact, as has been shown, the gender issue represents the very essence of the entire logic of Orientalism. Therefore to gain a solution, or at least a serious attempt in tackling it, it is fundamental to undermine all the foundations of the orientalist bias and the thinking behind the clash of civilisations and of modernities. This is due mainly to two reasons. Firstly, the general understanding that secular-liberal regimes, typical of the so-called West, have generally a better standpoint regarding the gender issue. Secondly, gendered rationales such as the Imperilled Women, Islamic Men and the Civilised Europeans and the Third World Sisters to be Saved , purport a monolithic vision of the Islamic world, contributing to the logic of the two opposing blocs.

Therefore, in order to escape this dangerous vicious circle, a critical stance suggests a different method to face this issue. Starting from the idea that modernity is an incomplete project, without some models that are better than others, but rather stressing the importance of human agency to achieve an overall better modernity.

This modus operandi consequently leads to a deeper understanding of the importance of the settings in which the gender issue is located. However, such a background analysis should not remain within national borders themselves. This new process would be enforced by the fundamental agency of women themselves, that should be able to transcend national borders through global social movement activism, regardless of gender, ethnicity, class or religion [40].

This would probably be the best attempt to go beyond the rationale of women and modernity itself, introducing the question of gender issues into a universal modernity.