Women and Islamist Movements: Emancipation or Subjugation?

By: Ayesha Khorasani

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Islamic world bore witness to the emergence of various political approaches, movements, and groupings. During this time, religiously-oriented movements began to gain prominence among Muslims, with some significantly influenced by figures such as Seyyed Jamal al-Din, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab. While the formation and rise of Islamist movements were influenced by historical, political, and social factors, as articulated by Hamid Ahmadi, it is crucial to seek their roots within the Islamic ideological system and the historical traditions of Muslims. Given the prominent role of religion and religious symbols in Islamic societies, political Islamists have harnessed religion as both a political ideology and a significant source of socio-political power. Starting in the 1930s, Islamism was defined as both a means to gain power and a discourse for consolidating and exerting dominance over socio-political affairs. Women, as a social group in general and concerning gender issues in particular, are not exempt from these dynamics, and an exploration of their role is essential to understanding the current state of affairs.

The issue of women within the realm of Muslim intellectuals did not garner significant attention until the advent of modernity in the Islamic world. Consequently, throughout Islamic history, the intellectual discourse seldom delved into women’s concerns as a topic of discussion. Essentially, women were not a focal point of their deliberations. However, with the emergence of women’s movements and new concepts rooted in the Western world, the status of women became a pressing issue for Islamists. In addition to their steadfast commitment to preserving their distinct identity, these movements justified and, in some instances, revised their views on women out of concern for women potentially transgressing Sharia boundaries.

In tandem with the development of political theories and the definition of Islamic identity within the framework of Islamic movements, the question of women’s rights and their redefinition also assumed central importance. As Islamism aspires to construct a “Utopia” based on religious and moral teachings, gender and sexual relations naturally became focal points of Islamist discourse. Consequently, the ideologues and writers of Islamist movements endeavored from the outset to delineate women’s rights, the identity of Muslim women, and their status within society, utilizing Islamic sources to shield against what they perceived as a “cultural invasion” and to preserve the identity of Muslim women distinct from “Western women.”

With this introduction, this article will first discuss the perspectives of early Islamic movement pioneers toward women and then delve into the attitudes of these movements concerning women’s involvement through membership, political participation, and their standing within the movement, thereby elucidating their approach to women’s issues. Finally, a brief overview of the status of women under the governance of Islamist regimes will be provided.

Women from the Perspective of Ideologues of Political Islam Movements

The definition of Muslim women’s unique attributes, their Islamic identity, and their responsibilities has been a crucial topic of discussion among Islamists. It is important to note that there exist varying opinions among Islamists concerning women, but a common thread unites them: the defense of Muslim women against Western counterparts, with both groups advocating a “return” to Islam. This article primarily focuses on the perspective of those influenced by the majority of political Islamist movements.

The Islamist viewpoint on women can be discerned through their anthropological perspective. Their outlook on human beings entails defining their societal roles based on their inherent functions. In this context, women’s societal roles are not considered products of societal or historical evolution but are deemed products shaped by their biological destiny. Moreover, Islamists uphold the hierarchical relationship between men and women and the division between the private and public domains as natural. Figures such as Abul A’la Maududi, Sayyid Qutb, Morteza Motahhari, Mohammad Mahmoud Al-Sawaf, and other Islamists adhere to a functionalist perspective that inherently results in the subordination of women.

In his book “Al-Hijab,” Maududi, after critiquing the Western view of women, delves into the position of women within the Islamic system. He distinguishes between men’s and women’s roles, designating the private sphere as the domain of women. Maududi asserts that men and women have distinct roles in society, with men as breadwinners and women as caretakers of the family. In the economic sphere, Maududi posits that women possess only the right to ownership, emphasizing their economic dependence on men.

Political participation is equally devoid of a place for women in Maududi’s viewpoint. In his treatise “Constitutional Law in Islam,” he contends that the verse “…and consult them in the affairs” applies solely to men. Referring to the verse “Men are guardians of women,” he asserts that men hold guardianship over women across all aspects of life, citing the era of the Rashidin Caliphs as a historical example of male rule.

Seyyid Qutb, on the other hand, justifies women’s current status by attributing legal inequalities to differences in emotions and societal roles. In his book “Social Justice in Islam,” while acknowledging intellectual and religious equality between men and women, he writes, “A great privilege offered by Islam is that it guarantees religious equality, equality in possession and acquisition for a woman, and making marriage contingent upon women’s permission and consent.”

In contrast to the perspectives of individuals like Seyyid Qutb, Maududi, and Al-Sawaf, several other Islamists, including Muhammad al-Ghazali, Qarzawi, Motahhari, and others, grant women varying degrees of participation in social, political, economic, and cultural spheres. Their approach involves defining women’s roles based on their societal functions, justifying existing gender inequalities by citing scriptural verses and hadiths, referencing historical precedents, and drawing parallels with the city of “Madinah” from 1400 years ago. Furthermore, their ultimate value for women is often placed on their roles as mothers.

The Presence and Involvement of Women in Islamist Movements

Contemporary Islamic political movements initially paid significant attention to women. However, this attention predominantly revolved around the role of women as mothers. Consequently, contemporary Islamic political movements have rallied behind educating women as integral “family members,” a consensus shared across these movements. Prominent groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Islamic Dawa Party, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the Akhwanin within Afghanistan have underscored the importance of educating women to raise well-prepared offspring for Islamic society. The Taliban, too, have granted partial rights to women for religious education, with the goal of shaping the next generation in accordance with their ideology. Nevertheless, the issue that sets these movements apart is women’s political participation. Their differing viewpoints on women’s participation in the Shura, their eligibility to assume leadership roles, and their inclusion in parliamentary processes highlight these distinctions.

The focal point of this discussion is the imperative recognition of women’s socio-political rights by Islamic political movements. These movements acknowledge that their existence in society is inseparable from the inclusion of women. Most Islamic organizations have established a women’s section known as “sisters.” The inception of this practice can be traced back to Egypt in 1944 under the banner of “Al-Akhawat al-Muslimat.” Prior to this, in 1933, Hassan al-Banna founded a school to educate dedicated and devout mothers. These movements have incorporated women into their structures and have granted them various rights. The Turkish Justice and Development Party, for example, adopts a more lenient stance towards women compared to other Islamic movements. In addition to defending the right of women to wear the hijab, the party has welcomed women without the Islamic hijab into its ranks.

On the other hand, the Al-Nour Party, Egypt’s most prominent Salafi group, nominated several female candidates in the first parliamentary elections following Hosni Mubarak’s era, but peculiarly replaced their photographs with flowers, in line with the election regulations. Although the Islamic Revolution in Iran initially included women in the process of attaining power, it subsequently restricted their rights after consolidating its position, a policy still in effect. In Afghanistan, the Mujahideen government, as an Islamist movement, lacked a coherent stance on women and their political involvement. Subsequently, the Taliban denied women even the right to education. However, these movements have utilized women in various capacities to advance their agendas.

The participation of women in Islamic movements is influenced by factors beyond changes in the foundational beliefs of these groups. Researchers Marina Ottaway and Omayma Abdel-Latif, former Research and Program Associate at the Middle East Center, in their article titled “Women in Islamist Movements: Toward an Islamist Model of Women’s Activism,” argue that the presence of women in Islamic movements stems from multifaceted reasons. Firstly, Islamist movements recognize the need for women’s involvement to reach all segments of society. Secondly, the increasing education among women over the past two decades has heightened their awareness of the importance of their participation in these movements, with many aspiring to play key roles. Thirdly, some women have found these movements to be a safe space where they can advocate for their rights without jeopardizing their social standing or being labeled as “westernized,” “agents of the West,” or “outcasts of society.”

It’s important to note that despite sharing common origins, Islamic political movements operate in countries with different political structures, histories, and social contexts, such as national, tribal, ethnic, kinship, and economic structures. These diverse backgrounds have led to variations in how Islamic political movements approach women.

Despite the fact that women have been active within Islamic political movements, their roles have predominantly been subordinate. Initially, the leaders of these movements adhered to prevailing social and cultural norms and the dominant interpretations of Islam, which hindered full political and social participation by women. However, they recognized the necessity of supporting women’s rights, even if only rhetorically, to attain domestic and international recognition. In the case of the Taliban, they severely restricted women’s activities, confining them to their homes while establishing religious schools for girls to recruit members and secure women’s support and cooperation in various capacities. This effort is aimed at mitigating their image as anti-women in the eyes of the public.

Islamist Movements and the Subjugation of Women

Islamic political movements have effectively rationalized the subordinate status of women in society by promoting and emphasizing the “identity of Muslim women.” While these movements do advocate women’s rights to some extent, such as supporting women’s education and espousing benevolent sexist rhetoric, they have fundamentally created structural issues for Muslim women from the outset. They have reinforced discrimination by invoking hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) to justify inequalities.

In her book “Woman in the Muslim Unconscious,” Fatna Aït Sabbah eloquently illustrates that Islamic jurisprudence absolves women of any responsibilities except fulfilling men’s sexual needs, reducing them to objects of male pleasure. This aspect of Islamic jurisprudence, deeply rooted in the minds of Islamists, has materialized through the actions of Islamic political movements. Fatemeh Sadeghi challenges the claim of creating a just society for all classes by post-revolutionary Islamists in Iran by providing clear examples that demonstrate how Islamism has perpetuated violence and subjugated women. While Islamic political movements are striving to acknowledge women’s political rights today, they encounter theoretical obstacles. The gender ideal of Islamists is inherently unequal and fails to address the cultural challenges faced by women.

The Taliban serve as a stark example of how Islamist currents persistently endeavor to implement their original beliefs. They establish religious justifications for every prohibition they impose, striving to epitomize their ideal Islamic society—an approach that “moderate” Islamists adopt in a more flexible form. However, in conclusion, it must be recognized that, for Islamist movements, other priorities such as “Islamic society,” “Islamic law,” or “Islamic government” take precedence, with women’s issues being relegated to secondary importance. Consequently, these movements have been unable to create an emancipatory horizon for women.