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Rabab El-Mahdi, "Does Political Islam Impede Gender-Based Mobilization? The Case of Egypt"

Rabab El-Mahdi, "Does Political Islam Impede Gender-Based Mobilization? The Case of Egypt"

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Published by: M. L. Landers on Aug 05, 2013
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Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions,Vol. 11, Nos. 3–4, 379–396, September–December 2010
ISSN 1469-0764 Print/ISSN 1743-9647 Online/10/03-40379-18 © 2010 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/14690764.2010.546114
Does Political Islam Impede Gender-BasedMobilization? The Case of Egypt
The American University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt
Does political Islam impede gender-based mobilization? An affirmativeanswer to this question is held by many scholars and feminist activists alike. From theTaliban in Afghanistan to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the various political Islamistorganizations spreading throughout the South are often cited as anti-gender mobilization,if not anti-women altogether. The widespread and exponential support of political Islam-ism in the South, coupled with the decline of non-religious-based women’s movements,warrants an examination of this assumed correlation. Using Egypt as a primary site of investigation, this paper argues that this correlation is spurious, if not ideologically biasedand ahistorical. Looking at a recent initiative for building a non-religious-based women’smovement in Egypt – ‘Women for Democracy’ – as a microcosm, this article argues thatthe lack of such movements in the South should be understood through a historical– structural analysis of post-colonial state–society relations, in addition to agency-related factors of professed ‘feminists’ in these countries.
:women; gender; Egypt; feminism; movement; political Islam
During the past decade Egypt has been witnessing the budding of social move-ments and the burgeoning of collective mobilization initiatives for different causes.From the pro-Intifada movement in 2000 with its mass protests, boycott campaignsand support convoys to the anti-war movement in 2003; followed by the pro-democracy movement with the climax of Kifaya (The Egyptian Movement forChange) during 2004–2005; to finally, labour mobilization and socio-economicprotests that started in December 2006.
Many taboos were broken, includingcriticizing the President and his family, and many long-forgotten social groupssuch as workers came across as important players on the Egyptian political scene.
Email: Relmahdi@aucegypt.edu.
For a more details on these movements see: Nicola Pratt,
Democracy and Authoritarianism in the ArabWorld
(Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007); Rabab El-Mahdi, ‘Enough! Egypt’s Quest for Democracy’,
Comparative Political Studies
, 42:8 (2009), 1011–1039; and Joel Beinin, ‘Workers’ struggles under “social-ism” and neoliberalism’, in Rabab El-Mahdi and Philip Marfleet (eds)
Egypt: The Moment of Change
(London: Zed Press, 2009), pp. 77–101.
R. El-Mahdi
In all of these movements and initiatives women were key players and partici-pants, but never the focus of any of the rising initiatives, except for one short-livedinitiative named ‘Women for Democracy’- also known by its slogan (The Street isOurs) – which never transformed into a collective, broad movement.
By examin-ing this initiative, this paper tries to answer the question/paradox of: why is thereno women’s movement in Egypt, even at times of heightened mobilization, that is,a movement that caters to and is derived from the specific and multiple positionsof groups of women in their broader context?This question, however, warrants two interrelated caveats. The first is that thestarting point of this research is against gender universalism in all its differentversions – especially the liberal humanitarian project – as much as it is againstcultural relativism and essentialization, which characterizes a lot of studies onwomen of the global South. That is to say, it is against the false homogenization of a prototype ‘Arab’ or a ‘Muslim’ woman, and that it equally underscores theplurality of feminism(s) and gender-mobilization. The second is a necessarydistinction, between women-based movements and women’s movements, adistinction which has been conflated frequently to overcome some of the harmfuleffects of pseudo-hegemonic white-liberal feminism, that is to say, the work of many post-colonial and post-structuralist scholars, who rightly questioned andcritiqued the universal humanist project as it relates to feminisms of the Southpointing to elements of Euro-white centrism, condescension and patronization.
Such work was a necessary step to move beyond the hegemony of liberal-femi-nism as
feminism – the one way to women’s progress and betterment – and tolay bare the complexity and plurality of feminism(s) and feminist movements associo-historical constructs. However, later attempts to decolonize the feminism(s)of Third World women, and particularly women in the so-called Muslim world,have ended up promoting different shades of relativism, whereby any collectiveeffort in which women are key players would be characterized as a women’smovement. In contrast to this position, the starting point for this article and itsresearch question is based on an understanding that a women’s movement is notonly determined as such through the sex of its constituency and participants, butalso through its goals and declared consciousness. That is to not to say that everywomen’s movement has to be declared feminist – whatever the meaning given tothe word – but it also does not mean that any movement that is based on femalemembership is a women’s movement.This distinction and these caveats are foundational because in Egypt, as inmany countries of the global South (e.g. Morocco, Pakistan and Iran), there existdifferent forms of women’s organizations and a plurality of feminism(s), that is,individual Islamist feminists who attempt to re-read and construct women rightswithin an Islamist narrative (e.g. Heba Raouf in Egypt, Asma Lamrabet in
In this I use the broad definition of social movements, as coined by Tilly: ‘an organized, sustained, self-conscious challenge to existing authorities’; Charles Tilly, ‘Social Movements and National Politics’, inC. Bright and S. Harding (eds)
State-making and Social Movements: Essays in History and Theory
(AnnArbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1984), pp. 297–317, at 304.
Leila Ahmed,
Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate
(New Haven, CT: Yale Uni-versity Press, 1992); Lila Abu Lughod (ed.)
Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998); Lila Abu-Lughod, ‘Do Muslim Women Really needSaving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others’,
 American Anthropologist
,104:3 (2002), pp. 783–790; Chandra Mohanty, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and ColonialDiscourses’,
Feminist Review
, 30: Autumn (1988), pp. 61–88; and Chandra Mohanty,
Feminism WithoutBorders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
Does Political Islam Impede Gender-Based Mobilization? The Case of Egypt
381Morrocco, and
magazine writers in Iran).
There also exist broad women- based movements such as the Muslim Sisterhood in Egypt (the women’s branchof the Muslim Brotherhood) and
 Al Adl wa’l Ihsan
(Justice and Charity Movement)in Morocco, which includes women under the umbrella of a broader movementseeking social and political change at large. In all those countries these forms co-exist with individual non-religious-based women’s-rights NGOs and individualsecular feminists (e.g. Nawal Sadawi in Egypt, ShirinEbadi in Iran or FatimaSadiqi in Morocco, to name a few). Despite the importance and complexity of these different forms of gender-related narratives and organizations, and the vari-ation – and sometimes even overlap and linkages – of their constituencies, theyare not the focus of this research, although they definitely provide a contextual background for its focus. Rather, what this article examines and claims is missingis a collective non-religious-based movement by groups of women for what theyperceive as their rights or what they are against as injustices based specifically ontheir gender. Specifically, it asks the question whether the absence of such move-ment(s) is a result of the rise of political Islam – hence, the choice of Women forDemocracy as a failed attempt in such a direction.Despite being a short-lived experiment, the attempt of Women for Democracyreveals a lot about the meaning of a women’s movement in Egypt, as much as itilluminates much of the dynamics of non-regime politics and the political society broadly understood, in their relationship to the issue of women’s organization.The initiative is one of the few attempts in recent years seeking broader non-reli-gious-based female mobilization (as opposed to NGOs’ projects); it is also one of the few attempts in which secular and Islamist women activists were trying towork together, highlighting the complex relationship between the two. The analy-sis is based on extensive fieldwork including participant-observation of meetingsand events throughout 2005, interviews with founders and participants, andexamining primary documents issued by the initiative. As Ella Shohat points out,we should always remember, ‘(1) the importance of looking critically at activistpractices, and of theorizing them as part of feminist agendas; [and] (2) that everypractice is undergirded by some kind of theory, philosophy, worldview, ordiscursive grid – even when the practitioners claim not to have a theory’.
Thuslooking at ‘The Street is Ours’ as part of a wider context of political mobilizationand a longer history – even if fragmented – of women’s initiatives and strugglesreveals a lot about the discourse and dynamics that undergird women’s move-ments at this particular moment, and the range of continuous and longer termchallenges within the feminist praxis in Egypt. Much of this is shared with similarmovements of the post-colonial South, from Morocco to Pakistan, where reli-gious-based mobilization, including Islamist women’s organizations, imbue thepublic sphere in the face of negligible non-religious-based women movements.Hence, the study of this attempt is of broader importance, especially that, asMohanty affirms, ‘histories of Third World women’s engagement with feminism
For more details on Islamist feminism in theory and practice see Asma Barlas,
Believing Women in Islam:Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an
(Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002); AminaWadud,
Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective
(New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1999); V. Moghadam, ‘Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents: Toward a Resolution of the Debate’,
, 27:4 (2002), pp. 1135–1171; and Margot Badran,
Feminism Beyond East and West: NewGender Talk and Practice in Global Islam
(New York: Global Media Publications, 2007).
Ella Shohat, ‘Area Studies, Gender Studies, and the Cartographies of Knowledge’,
Social Text
, 72, 20:3(2002), pp. 67–78 at 71.

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