The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the world today can be interpreted in terms of world systems theory as a reaction to the dependency of peripheral and semi-peripheral Muslim states on core Western powers and as a direct challenge to modernization, westernization and their accompanying values, attacked as Eurocentric and inappropriate, such as individualism, democracy, pluralism and diversity. These Western values are interpreted as the causes of underdevelopment, poverty and the so called moral decay of society and are rejected by Islamists who call for a return to traditional values based on their interpretation Islamic law. These interpretations, however, are deeply politicized and gendered constructions which serve to maintain the legitimacy of fundamentalist governments by creating the fiction of a uniform society by negating the realities of diversity and conflict though the suppression of minorities and women. The implications of this rising tide of fundamentalism on gender relations in these countries, as well as among their expatriate and migrant communities within other countries such as Great Britain, are profound. Fundamentalism is in essence a means of protecting against nonconformity to patriarchal values and finds its ultimate target in women who are defined, as Thomas Aquinas put it, as “defective men,” especially in terms of their morals and must constantly be policed. Therefore women’s freedom and autonomy are tightly controlled and suppressed at every turn from the wearing of the veil (hijab) or the burqa, to not being allowed out of the house without a related male for an escort.
World systems theory, as elucidated by Immanuel Wallerstein, interprets the process of development in opposition to the modernization theory. Whereas modernization theory conceived of underdeveloped nations as proceeding along the same narrow track to modernization that Western nations had already supposedly progressed through and implied that internal shortcomings due to culture or tradition were responsible for failure to progress, world systems theory claims that development is in fact a systemic phenomenon in which the underdevelopment of some nations is a direct result of the development of others. In the context of predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia, policies of Western imperialism led to the rapid enrichment of the latter as well as to widespread impoverishment in the former. Impoverishment breeds resentment at those responsible for the terms of such an exploitative economic relationship, including not only Western powers but modernizing elites who are seen as corrupted by foreign influence. Such an unstable situation creates a space for opposition movements to gain a considerable amount of power and influence which they can use to spark a revolution such as in Iran, or have the final word on policy such as in Saudi Arabia. Fundamentalist Islamic movements, which are characterized by their anti-Western, anti-foreign domination and anti-world-system participation platforms present themselves as alternatives to the trap of periphery status, and by extension, underdevelopment and poverty, caused by modernization. (Gerami 1989:452) In addition, the disastrous outcomes of many developmental projects, meant to alleviate the symptoms of imperialistic thievery, included “persistent legitimacy crises and endemic economic failure,” (Kandiyoti 1996:19) and further led to the questioning of the modernization theory and a critique of development projects as “projects of colonial domination and social engineering.” (Kandiyoti 1996:19) According to Gita Sahgal and Nira Yuval-Davis, “the recent rise in fundamentalism is linked to the crisis of modernity – of social orders based on the belief in the principles of enlightenment, rationalism and progress.” (1992:5)
This Islamic fundamentalist movement is both a way out of the trap of modernization as well as a way back to an imagined “golden age” that was free from foreign intervention. Since it is the West that defines modernity and therefore “owns the future”, (Sahgal and Yuval-Davis 1992:3) the reaction of the once colonized Third World, is to look to the past, towards a strict and conservative fundamentalism and a society based on traditional Islamic principles. These principles are based on interpretations of scripture that are highly gendered and deeply embedded in patriarchal structures, not on the actual content of the Qur’an. From the perspective of the West it is often assumed that the orthodox Muslim state’s source of legitimacy is religion and scripture. Mernissi argues the opposite, stating that the cause of the deeply ingrained political suppression of dissent that characterizes Muslim states is that “because the Muslim ruler’s authority is inherently secular, he is not threatened by science, but by pluralism.” (1996:35) Therefore, she adds, in order to cement his authority, the ruler must create a fictional homogeneity among the population within the state, whose wishes he can be seen as serving. This fictional homogeneity masks conflicts arising from the differing interests of women, religious, racial and ethnic minorities and others, and must be upheld through authoritarian suppression of difference. This, she says is the root of Muslim states’ oppression of women (Mernissi 1996:35). In fact, it is a phenomenon that has deep historical roots in the Middle East. Economic turmoil has often led to violence against women and other minorities as well as strict and supposedly religiously-based impositions such as forcing the veil, forbidden gender mixing, and forcing Jews and Christians to wear special stigmatizing insignia or garments. The eroding effects that instability and unrest have on the legitimacy of the ruler force him to “mask difference and negate diversity at the very moment [of] economic crisis” (Mernissi 1996:42) because “minorities, women, and slaves are the groups that have historically constituted a challenge and a limitation to Islam’s claim to universality and equality. The Islamic state thus rested on a contradiction between the legal inferiority of some groups and the philosophical principle of equality of all beings, which is central to Islam as a universal religion.” (Mernissi 1996:44)
Muslim fundamentalism’s effects on gender relations reinforce the legal and supposed moral inferiority of women by subjecting them to a variety of restrictions and controls and essentially holding them to completely different standards from men. While fundamentalists insist that this is because of their religion and therefore should not be interfered with or questioned, Nazira Zin al-Din, a female Muslim scholar and Qur’anic interpreter from Lebanon writing in the 1920s who was concerned about the status of women came to a different conclusion. After close study of the Qur’an as well as the works of various interpreters and legislators, “her conclusions showed that Islam is not the reason behind the inferior status of women. The main reason is the gender-biased interpretation of the Qur’anic text by men of religion.” (Shaaban 1996:64) She proved this by showing that there were over 10 different interpretations of the Verses that had to do with the hijab “none of them in harmony or even agreement with the others as if each scholar wanted to support what he saw and none of the interpretations was based on clear evidence.” (Zin al-Din in Shaaban 1996:65) In fact, through her study, she came to the conclusion that proper Muslim women should not submit to veiling or wearing of the hijab because the specific directive to do so, coming directly from God, only concerned the wives of Mohammed. In addition, God made it clear that regular women are not to imitate the wives of the Prophet. Another interpreter, Abu Shiqa agrees, writing that “hijab was for the wives of the Prophet and that it was against Islam for women to imitate the wives of the Prophet.” (Shaaban 1996:75) This makes sense because of the actual history of the custom of veiling, which was an aristocratic habit that predated Islam and was meant to distinguish women who came from rich families. As for why the wives of the Prophet were distinguished in this way and admonished to be covered and remain quiet, it has to be understood that the home of Mohammed served as a mosque and religious center for the community as well as a place for weary travelers to rest for the night. With strangers coming in and out of the house at all hours and with the special sacred nature of the place, it does make sense that the women who lived there were told to be extra modest and extra careful. In addition, Zin al-Din finds absolutely no evidence for the covering of the face or whole body as the fundamentalist Taliban of Afghanistan demanded. There is direct evidence from the word of God, however, that contradicts this idea of full coverage. In Aya30 from Sura al-nurGod says “Say to the believing men That they should lower Their gaze and guard Their modesty…And say to the believing women That they should lower Their gaze and guard Their modesty.” If women were to be totally covered, there would have been no need to address the modesty of Muslim men or to tell them to lower their gaze. Any other interpretation is based not on religious text, but on traditions and interpretations that are clearly divergent from the spirit and the letters of the Qur’an and deeply biased against women. Zin al-Din concludes that today’s customs of veiling blatantly go against the laws of the shari’a and that the negative view of women has been inherited by Muslim societies from the pre-Islamic cultures of the Middle East. (Shaaban 1996:68-76)
In the contemporary Muslim world, fundamentalists have taken major steps towards grabbing power, from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia fundamentalists are no longer just fringe elements, and the seeming never ending war in Iraq has contributed majorly to their popularity for reasons mentioned above having to do with their strong anti-Imperialist stance. This, however comes at the price of women’s human rights which are constantly under threat in fundamentalist ruled societies. Once you begin to unpack what is behind these agendas that position women as inferior, it becomes clear that there is no actual religious imperative for this agenda and that it is purely political. According to fundamentalists, women are meant to be cared for and carefully controlled by men at all times, first by the father then the husband and finally the son. Not only does this interfere with women’s autonomy and rights as a human being but it also ignores the reality of people’s day to day lives. The consequences of this attitude manifest themselves in a variety of social problems namely poverty among women and their children as well as strain on the family, therefore it is not just women who suffer, but society in general. Women who cannot legally drive in Saudi Arabia, for example, must hire a chauffer for even the smallest tasks which places a huge burden on working families. In societies deeply affected by war, such as in Afghanistan, strict laws that forbade women from working or going to school were in essence death sentences for families that had lost most of their male members and could therefore not even “legally” feed themselves. Legal systems that are unequal but defended internationally as “equitable” such as in Egypt and Morocco, where men and women are defined by their duties and therefore have differing privileges do not take into account changed realities and seem to operate solely on a theoretical level. For example, the Egyptian law is that a man may easily divorce his wife while she needs a judge to award her a divorce. This is defended as equitable because the man must pay bridal money to his wife, maintain her fully and pay her upon divorce while she retains control over her property and does not have to spend it. Although such a system is itself deeply entrenched in patriarchal structures, it could be understood as at least nearing a kind of equilibrium of the genders but only in theory. Such laws “ignored the changed economic realities that require women to contribute their wealth and earnings to keep the family going and that resulted in households where women were the sole breadwinners – without any corresponding adjustment in their rights.” (Mayer 1996:112) This places multiple burdens on women while giving men all the privileges that are meant for the family breadwinners. Additionally, a system in which women are afforded inferior status encourages abuse because women are at a clear legal and cultural disadvantage so that men are free to do as they please and can nearly always get away with it. Although fundamentalists blame women for being promiscuous and inciting men to sin, in reality it is the disempowered position that they are forced into that encourages such behavior in men. For example, laws about rape always place the woman at a disadvantage, branding her an adulterer unless she has the testimony of two male eyewitnesses (this of course varies from state to state but some version of this rape law is applicable nearly everywhere in the Muslim world). One would logically presume that were there two additional men around at the time of the rape they would either have intervened or not, and if they did not then why would they later help defend the woman on trial? This means that men can take advantage of women however and how often as they like without having to fear any consequences since it is the woman who would take all the blame anyway, even if she had the courage to say something. This is demeaning to both women and men. Hence, it is clear that were the religious fundamentalists actually concerned about morality and what is good for society, they would support more equal relations between the genders. Obviously, this is not the case and it must therefore be understood that fundamentalism is in fact a political not religious agenda and its treatment of women has nothing to do with morals or culture and everything to do with the consolidation of power. Therefore they must hold on tightly to their interpretations of the faith because their claim to be the one true religion is a way to support their political agendas as well as deflect criticism by defining the issue as one of religion and culture (which in the politically correct Western world should not be interfered with) rather than politics.
Fundamentalist movements “claim their version of religion to be the only true one, and feel threatened by pluralist systems of thought;…they use political means to impose their version of the truth on all members of their religion.” (Sahgal and Yuval-Davis 1992:4) Fundamentalist movements are, in essence, political movements which seek to harness the modern state apparatus in order to spread and enforce their narrow interpretation of the gospel. In addition, Sahgal and Yuval-Davis write, “women, their roles, and above all their control, are at the heart of the fundamentalist agenda. That they should conform to the strict confines of womanhood within the fundamentalist religious code is a precondition for maintaining and reproducing the fundamentalist version of society.” (1992:1) This deeply troubling aspect of fundamentalist movements has had the effect of “limiting and defining their roles and activities and actively oppressing them when they step out of the preordained limits of their designated roles.” (Sahgal and Yuval-Davis 1992:9) The reason for this tight control over the lives and behavior of women is due to the male dominated interpretation of scripture in which “the ‘proper’ behaviour of women is used to signify the difference between those who belong and those who do not; women are also seen as the ‘cultural carriers’ of the grouping, who transmit group culture to the future generation; and proper control in terms of marriage and divorce ensures that children who are born to those women are within the boundaries of the collectivity, not only biologically but also symbolically.” (Yuval-Davis and Anthias, 1989 in Sahgal and Yuval-Davis 1992:8). Because of the fundamentalist denial of pluralist modes of thought, there is no space to challenge such interpretations, either by outsiders or by those most affected. Secularism and the notion of a separate non religious public sphere have been denounced as Eurocentric ideologies that are not part of a “native” understanding of the world. Muslim women’s anti-fundamentalist activism in the Third World has been characterized by fundamentalists as corruption of traditional values, inauthentic and imperialistic, even when their arguments are more based on religious scripture than the fundamentalist’s because as Zin al-Din wrote, “women are better qualified than men to interpret the Qur’anic Verses speaking of their rights and duties because everyone is better equipped to understand his or her right and duty.” (Shaaban 1996:64)
In terms of Muslim minorities in the West who bring these understandings of gender relations with them, “intolerant ideologies have been accepted [on the part of Western authorities], as long as they were perceived as applicable only to members of other specific groupings” (Sahgal and Yuval-Davis 1992:8) while “minority women’s demands for freedom and equality were seen as being outside ‘cultural traditions’ (often themselves only half understood) and were therefore not regarded as legitimate…the most conservative versions of traditional ‘womanhood’ were considered the most ‘authentic’.” (Sahgal and Yuval-Davis 1992:8)
In Britain, the consequences of the policy multiculturalism, whereby the state was to be advised by unelected community representatives on how to deal with the increasing number of minority communities and to allow them “limited autonomy over internal ‘community’ affairs, such as religious observance, dress, food, and other supposedly ‘non-political’ matters including women’s social control” (Ali 1992:103) has led to the increasing marginalization of minority women within their own communities as the majority of them were excluded from the initial decision making process. The implications of such exclusion involve issues such as girl’s education and domestic violence in the UK. The movement for private Muslim schools for girls such as the Bradford Muslim Girl’s School which “are being set up in this country [Great Britain] in an attempt to reproduce the religious and cultural values of Muslim home life” (Khanum 1992:124) is one example. Although these schools charge pupils’ families tuition, Khanum writes of the aforementioned middle school that “lack of adequate teaching staff and equipment, and a narrow range of subjects, indicate that the girls are getting less than a decent education” (1992:125) with a curricula that includes French, English, Urdu, childcare and religious studies (with Maths and Sciences to be added). In essence, schools such as this act more like the girls’ guardian, maintaining strict orthodoxy and such a low level of academic achievement that the girls will grow into women dependent on the men some of them are already arranged to marry reproducing inequalities of power within the community. “The education of Muslim girls has less to do with schooling than with the exercise of control by Muslim men over the lives of women in the family and wider community.” (Khanum 1992:130) It is easy to see why fundamentalists strongly support separate schooling for girls, especially in the Muslim community in Britain. In addition to issues of racism and intolerance that crop up within the public school system from which parents would rightly like to shield their children as much as possible, as a patriarchal culture, the Islamic community’s “cohesiveness is threatened when its female members interact with the outside world.” (Khanum 1992:133) The concept of izzator chastity, honor, central to Islamic culture, is a concept that is upheld by women, therefore their sexuality must be tightly controlled and policed for which separate Muslim schools for girls are the best solution. Khanum also points out that there is a class dimension to the schooling issue where the majority of lower-middle and working class Muslim parents prefer the orthodoxy and control of the Muslim schools while the daughters of more educated parents are more likely to be encouraged to become educated themselves, as “an educated daughter…is infinitely more marriageable.” (Khanum 1992:133) An additional effect of not challenging fundamentalist male community leadership in the UK is over the issue of domestic violence within the Muslim community which fundamentalists originally argued does not exist in their communities and therefore there was no need to set up women’s refuges for which many feminist activists were clamoring. Once the problem became widely recognized and accepted, women’s refuges were set up and religious fundamentalists in turn began to attempt to infiltrate the management committees of these refuges “as a form of ‘community control'” (Sahgal and Yuval-Davis 1992:21) that was antithetical to the very purpose of these refuges which was, ostensibly to give women a space away from male control.
The effects of fundamentalism on gender relations are clearly documented. In the Muslim world, where fundamentalism currently reigns supreme, legal, cultural and social inequalities between men and women have led to increasing burdens on society where a full half of the population cannot participate in public life. Such policies have been harmful to both men and women and therefore must be understood not as based upon sacred texts but on gender biased interpretations of those texts that serve to reinforce the status quo rather than create an equal and moral society. The religious and cultural defense of the denial of women’s human rights is meant to deflect Western criticism since the West spent so much time telling others how backward they were, now they are too embarrassed to even point out logical errors once the concept of culture is trotted out for a defense of even the most blatant political maneuvers. Of course it must also be understood how the West’s exploitation of these areas has in fact led to the dominance of fundamentalism and to the human rights abuses that are part and parcel of such regimes. This process continues today, with the United States shoring up the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and turning a bind eye to the injustices perpetuated there against women and other minorities. The oil and arms lobbies of Western democracies find that the tight control of fundamentalism and authoritarianism suits their business interests, however Lahouari Addi, an Algerian political scientist believes that fundamentalist Islam can survive only as long as its power to eliminate all dissent goes unchallenged. (Mernissi 1996:39) Additionally Mernissi, somewhat optimistically in light of the most recent events, writes that “if choking civil society and investing in fundamentalism was a profitable strategy up to the mid-1980s, recent dislocations resulting from demographic pressure, unemployment, skyrocketing debt, the closing of Europe’s immigration doors, and the IMF-induced state withdrawal from social services have made democratization in the Arab world the only feasible scenario for the twenty-first century.” (1996:45) Whether this prediction with come true is still debatable, but what is defiantly sure is that these states do no operate in a vacuum and in order to understand how to challenge and change fundamentalist Islamic perspectives, we must first look at how the West has been implicated in its rise.
1992. Muslim Women and the Politics of Ethnicity and Culture in Northern England. In Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain. Gita Sahgal and Nira Yuval-Davis, eds. Pp 101-123. London: Virago Press.
1989. Religious Fundamentalism as a Response to Foreign Dependency: the Case of the Iranian Revolution.
In Social Compass 36(4), Pp 451-467.
1996. Reflections on the Politics of Gender in Muslim Societies: From Nairobi to Beijing. In Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World. Mahnaz Afkhami, ed. Pp 19-32. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers.
1992. Education and the Muslim Girl. In Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain. Gita Sahgal and Nira Yuval-Davis, eds. Pp 124-140. London: Virago Press.
Mayer, Ann Elizabeth
1996. Rhetorical Strategies and Official Policies on Women’s Rights: The Merits and Drawbacks of the New World Hypocrisy. In Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World. Mahnaz Afkhami, ed. Pp 104-132. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers.
1996. Arab Women’s Rights and the Muslim State in the Twenty-First Century: Reflections on Islam as Religion and State. In Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World. Mahnaz Afkhami, ed. Pp 33-50. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers.
1988. Women in the Muslim Unconscious. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Sahgal, Gita and Nira Yuval-Davis
1992. Introduction: Fundamentalism, Multiculturalism and Woman in Britain. In Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain. Gita Sahgal and Nira Yuval-Davis, eds. Pp 1-25. London: Virago Press.
1996. The Muted Voices of Women Interpreters. In Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World. Mahnaz Afkhami, ed. Pp 61-77. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers.