Women living in Muslim countries, secular and nonsecular, spread over fifty-seven countries in four continents. These Muslim countries are referred to as Islamic nations, meaning the majority of their population is Muslim, although many of these countries have substantial non-Muslim minority populations of varying sizes. Political, economic, legal, and sociocultural dimensions of women’s status and rights greatly vary within and among these countries. This is partly due to a range of interpretations of the Quran and the lack of a single authoritative reading of religious principles and law(s), and partly due to variations in cultural practices.
This area of study is of great importance but also highly controversial, due to tensions between Eurocentric, antiimperialist, and anti-Western viewpoints. On the one hand, religious practices regarding marriage, adultery, and divorce are often explicitly discriminatory toward women. For instance, men are permitted multiple wives while women are not. Men can divorce their wives while women need their husband’s consent. These examples, and many others, lead to the conclusion that patriarchal fundamentalism or fundamentalist patriarchy institutionalizes unequal division of gendered roles in Muslim societies. Furthermore, women from Islamic nations are presented, especially in the Western media, as powerless and exploited individuals, and are explicitly and intentionally contrasted with their liberated sisters from the West. Both of these approaches disregard women’s agency and the growth of Islamic feminism, as well as what Huma Ahmed-Ghosh (2008) calls “hybrid feminism,” which brings together different forms of Islamic, secular, and other discourses in a hybridized form to serve women and their lives better. Both approaches also fail to acknowledge the drastic change of the positions of women and lively debate taking place during the final decades of the twentieth century and into the new millennium.
The “women question” has in many ways been central to resistance to the Western political, economic, and cultural dominance in Islamic countries, as well as among Euro-Muslims in the West. As documented by Anne Phillips (2007), this resistance has been significantly strengthened after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 and the Iraq war. Religious extremisms, fuelled by global events, empowered the family, tribe, and the community to dictate Islamic norms, led to an invigorated discussion of women’s human rights. Increases in honor killings, blood money, forced marriages, forced veiling, and polygyny are all means of controlling women’s sexuality that have been documented in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
To some degree, higher numbers stem from a more regular reporting of the incidents, mainly thanks to the strengthening role of the women’s movement in many Islamic countries. Even so, these activities do seem to be on the rise, and the increases are by and large perceived as a backlash to Western Islam phobia. For instance, Euro-Turks tend to be targeted by racism and xenophobia in Europe. These migrant populations respond by engaging in the politics of identity, ethnicity, and religiosity, all of which include at their core traditional notions of women’s honor. Their reaction is shared by many in Islamic countries who hear of their mistreatment in and by the West. The resurgence of these traditional notions of honor affects the actualization of women’s rights in a very negative way.
Heterogeneity Among Islamic Women
However, although both fundamentalists and Islamophobes present Islam as a homogenous belief system and way of life, especially regarding the rights of women, legal experts and sociologists extensively demonstrate the heterogeneity of women’s experience in Islamic countries. Organizations like Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML) contend the fact that the more repressive situations in Islamic nations have a cultural rather than religious grounding, thus paving the way for modification and negotiation. Such organizations aim to dispel the notion that religiously based movements are inherently less open to negotiation, modification, or compromise, and internal reforms movements as a possible avenue for egalitarian change.
Similarly, some scholars argue that it is possible for religiously inspired Islamic political movements to become agents of democratization and even of liberalization, especially Islamic and hybrid feminist scholars who insist that secular ideas and institutions must be adapted through a process of internal reform necessary to establish a liberal and democratic system in Muslim societies. On the other hand, secular feminist scholars focus on universal ideas of women’s human rights and propose subjecting to open public debate and to political contestation any religious discourses that legitimate patriarchal customs or discriminatory gender practices. The latter group of scholars wishes to establish systematic limits to the autonomy conferred on religious communities based on equality of rights, and to discover what constraints can be legitimately imposed on religions to prevent gender-based discrimination.
Nevertheless, even in countries where strong secular reforms have been implemented, Islam’s informal power and its unofficial impact on people are far reaching and complicated. Many people may still opt to settle their disputes on gender relations, such as marriage and divorce, with the aid of religious leaders. In Turkey, for instance, a secular country with a strong women’s movement, although it is illegal to conduct a religious marriage before the civil one, some people still avoid the civil ceremony altogether.
- Ahmed-Ghosh, Huma. “Dilemmas of Islamic and Secular Feminists and Feminisms.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 9 (2008): 99–116.
- Casanova, José. “Religion, Politics, and Gender Equality Public Religions Revisited.” Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 2009, www.unrisd.org.
- Kaya, Ayhan. Islam, Migration, and Integration. Hampshire, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
- Organization of the Islamic Conference, 2010, www.oic-oci.org. Phillips, Anne. “Religion: Ally,Threat, or Just Religion?” Geneva: United
- Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 2009, www.unrisd.org.
- Multiculturalism without Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007.
- Saktanber, Ayse. Living Islam: Women, Religion, and the Politicization of Culture in Turkey. London: I.B.Tauris, 2002.
- Women Living under Muslim Laws, 2010, www.wluml.org.
- Yavuz, Hakan, ed. The Emergence of a New Turkey. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2006.
- Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
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