Islam and the Liberation of Women in the Middle East

November 10, 2018

The following was adapted from a speech by Azam Kamguian delivered at the Council for Secular Humanism’s three-day conference, “One Nation without God?” April 11–13, 2003 in Washington, D.C.


I intend to contribute to the debate about Islam and the liberation of women in the Middle East as an activist and writer engaged in issues affecting women in the Middle East.

I shall examine Islam’s resistance to women’s rights in the economic and social contexts in the region and will discuss the impact of the Islamic Sharia law and political Islamic movement on women’s citizen rights, their civil liberties and individual freedom. I will conclude my talk with my analysis of what needs to be done.

The position of women in the Middle East has aroused much recent interest. What are the facts about the subordination of Middle Eastern women? What role does Islamic ideology and practice play in the oppression of women in the region and other societies where Islam holds sway?

Muslim Women
Muslim Women © [samuha] / Adobe Stock
Few would argue that the status of women in the Middle East can be understood without reference to Islam. Although the legal-religious systems of no two Middle Eastern countries are identical, women are second-class citizens in all of them. But the position of women in the region cannot be understood without a thorough appreciation of the economic and political contexts in which they live and of the age-old influence of Islam.

There are many schools of thought in the debate about the status of Middle Eastern women. One group denies that the great majority of women in the Middle East are any more oppressed than non-Middle Eastern women. A second group says that oppression is real but extrinsic to Islam and the Qur’an, which they say, intended gender equality, but which has been undermined by Arabic patriarchy and foreign importation.

Among the intellectuals and the academic world, any attempt to point at Islam and the Islamic oppression of women is stamped as orientalism. The defense of Islam in the face of Western challenges took many forms, but ultimately aimed to prove the “progressive” nature of the Qur’an, Hadith, and the Sharia, either by denying the low status of women in Middle Eastern societies or by attributing it to pre-Islamic traditions and to the contemporary political Islamic movement.

Many feminists and academic intellectuals apologize for Islam by saying that veiling, female genital mutilation, and the savage oppression of women are not restricted to Middle Eastern societies. Some say that women who wear makeup in the West are just as oppressed as those in the East wearing the veil, but it is a post-modernist kind of oppression, a neo-colonialist one. They say that women are inferior in all religions and it is not specific to Islam. They fail to compare the position of Islam to that of Christianity with regard to secularism and secular states, which in the West have restricted the power of Christianity over women’s lives. This attitude is obvious in the following words of Nawal El Saadawi:

I’ve noticed that many people including professors of religion and Islamic studies, pick up one verse and say that in the Koran, God allowed men to beat women. They don’t compare it to other verses. They also don’t compare the Koran to the Bible. If you do, you will find the Bible more oppressive to women.

In the words of Nawal El Saadawi, women in the Middle East are oppressed not because they live under the rule of Islam or belong to the East, but as a result of the patriarchal class system that has dominated the world for thousands of years. In her view, the struggle for women’s civil liberties, individual freedom, and secularism have no significance. In this discourse, patriarchy as a blanket term is used to disguise the role of Islam in the oppression of women. Any and every aspect of women’s subordination in the Middle East is inaccurately labelled as patriarchy. Of course, the economic system and political oppression play their part in the subordination of women. But if Islam has no effect on women’s status, why is the position of women in the Middle East worse than in any other part of the world?

Islamic Resistance to Women’s Rights  

Historically, Islam has resisted women’s rights, secularism, modernism, and human values. Dramatic differences between Eastern and non-Muslims Western emerged in the nineteenth

and twentieth centuries. Economic and social changes along with the impact of Western culture brought about forces within Middle Eastern societies favoring changes in the condition of women. From the early nineteenth century, in crucial ways, the outcome of the process of change that Western influence set in motion was broadly positive, as the social institutions and mechanisms for the control and seclusion of women and for their exclusion from the major domains of activity in their society were gradually dismantled. At first this didn’t involve legal changes but rather such things as women’s education. Western economic penetration of the Middle East and the exposure of Middle Eastern societies to Western political thought and ideas, however, did little to dismantle Islamic law and its backward social institutions oppressive to women. Changes in Islamic law pertaining to women have met with considerable resistance. Laws on women have great prominence in the Qur’an. Furthermore, changes concerning women were felt by the nationalist, Islamic forces to be a final invasion in the last sphere they could control against the aggressive infidels, once sovereignty and much of the economy had been taken over by the West. When the French came to Egypt with Napoleon, the wearing of the veil increased as a reaction to their presence. Islamists saw modern values such as women’s rights as a Western conspiracy accompanying the political and economic offensive, and turned to their own tradition as a cultural reaction.

In the struggle to improve the condition of women, the first names associated with those struggles were male, but from the beginning women too were involved. In this period, women’s rights, particularly the issue of veil, emerged as a central subject for national debate. For the first time in the whole history of Islam, issues such as veil, polygamy, divorce, and segregation were openly discussed in Middle Eastern society. Public and independent activity for women’s rights became widespread in the twentieth century. Modernization has improved women’s position generally. Although the success of reform was tied to economic and social changes, its immediate problems were often ideological, mainly what attitude to take to the holy Islamic law.

But economic and social reality brought women in the Middle East more and more into the public sphere, and this was largely positive for women, particularly during the historical periods of nation building, secularisation and economic modernization in Turkey and Tunisia.

The main thrust of legal reforms where the law is not egalitarian is to place restrictions on divorce; polygamy and age of marriage, often by means of Islamic precedents and often by making men justify divorce or polygamy to the courts. These changes are called Islamic and Islamic courts generally retain some power. Family law as the cornerstone of the Islamic oppression of women was and is maintained by establishment Islam and governments in the Middle East. That it is still preserved almost intact signals the existence of enormously powerful Islamic and traditional forces within Middle Eastern societies. Call to reformist interpretations such as stressing the “egalitarian spirit of the Koran,” and reshaping the Sharia by reinterpreting the Qur’an, were arguments that arose mainly because of a rapidly changing economy and society that was experiencing the influence of the West.  

Political Islam

Political Islam is a major force that has imposed serious setbacks on women’s lives in the region, in recent decades. Political Islam is a political movement that came to the fore against the secular and progressive movements for liberation and egalitarianism, against cultural and intellectual advances, and against the oppressed who are fighting for justice, freedom, and equality in the region. In the 1970s, the political Islamic movement grew stronger and became more widespread. In the 1980s, the movement was supported and nurtured by Western governments to be used in the conflicts and tensions of the Cold War and in the fight against progressive movements in the region. Key features of political Islam include opposition to the freedom of women and to women’s civil liberties, and to freedom of expression in the cultural and personal domains, the enforcement of brutal laws and traditions, not to mention killing, beheading, and genocide. In Iran, the Sudan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan under the Taliban, Islamic regimes proceeded to transform the countries and particularly women’s homes into prison houses, where the confinement of women, their exclusion from many fields of work and education, and their brutal treatment became the law of the land. In addition, the misogynist rhetoric they have let loose in the social sphere implicitly sanctions male violence toward women.

Women Are Second-Class Citizens  

At present, women throughout the region are second-class citizens, being denied their full legal identities by being excluded from the rights, privileges, and security that all citizens of a country should enjoy. Unjust laws, discriminatory constitutions, and biased mentalities that do not recognize women as equal citizens, violate women’s rights. A “national,” a citizen, is defined as someone who is a native or naturalized member of a state. A national is entitled to the rights and a privilege allotted to a free individual and is also entitled to protection from the state. However, in no country in the Middle East or Northern Africa are women granted full citizenship; in every country they are second-class citizens. In many cases, the laws and codes of the state work to reinforce gender inequality and exclusion from nationality. The state is used to strengthen Islamic and tribal/familial control over women, making them even more dependant on these institutions. Unlike in the West, where the individual is the basic unit of the state, it is the family that is the basis of Arab states. This means that the state is primarily concerned with the protection of the family rather than the protection of the family’s members. Within this framework, the rights of women are expressed solely in their roles as wives and mothers. State discrimination against women in the family is expressed through unjust family laws that deny women equal access to divorce and child custody.

Throughout the region, Arab women, should they choose to marry a foreigner, are denied the right to extend their citizenship to their husbands. Furthermore, only fathers, not mothers, can independently pass citizenship to their children. In many cases, where a woman has been widowed, divorced, or abandoned or if her husband is not a national in the country where they reside, her children have no access to citizenship and are thus excluded from the rights of a citizen. These rights include access to education and healthcare and to land ownership and inheritance. There is no obstacle to men extending their nationality to their wives and children, but women cannot. This inequality not only denies women their right as citizens; it also denies children their basic rights as human beings.

If the law is designed to protect women only within their role in the family, it will fail to protect women who are in need of protection from their families. By failing to protect women from violence such as domestic abuse, rape, marital rape, and honor killings, the state fails to provide the protection available to a full citizen. In fact, by ignoring issues of gender-based violence and by granting lenient punishments to the perpetrators of violence against women, the state actually reinforces women’s exclusion from the rights of citizens.

Family laws based on the Islamic Sharia frequently require women to obtain a male relative’s permission to undertake activities that should be theirs by right. This increases the dependency women have on their male family members in economic, social, and legal matters. For example, in many Arab countries adult women must obtain the permission of their father, brothers, or husband in order to attain a passport, travel outside of their country, start a business, receive a bank loan, open a bank account, or get married.

What Is To Be Done?  

So, given the intrinsic animosity of Islam to equality between the sexes and to women’s rights and their role in society, how can the condition of women in these societies be improved? The answer must be to get rid of political Islam as a precondition to any improvements in the status of women in the Middle East. The social system is based on Islamic misogyny and backwardness, and Middle Eastern women will have no cause to regret its passing. The twenty-first century must be the century that rids itself of political Islam. I believe that this will begin in Iran. The most hopeful signs and the most remarkable stimulus for change continue to come directly from Iranian women both in Iran and in exile. In Iran, women presented the first and the most effective challenge to the Islamic regime by courageously questioning the right of Islamic authority to define the conditions of their lives.

And yes, as ever, the answer to the question of Middle Eastern women’s liberation is secularism and the establishment of egalitarian political systems in the region. Secularism has been and continues to be a prerequisite for women’s liberation in the Middle East. Our objectives must be:

  • The complete separation of religion from the state.
  • The elimination of all religious and religiously inspired notions from laws.
  • Religion to be declared the private affair of individuals.
  • The removal of any reference to a person’s religion in laws, on identity cards, and in official papers.
  • A ban on ascribing any religion to people, whether individually or collectively, in official documents and the media.
  • The elimination of religion from education.
  • A ban on teaching religious subjects and dogma or to the religious interpretation of subjects in schools.

Finally, I’d like to add a few words about the objective of reforming and modernizing Islam. Is this a worthwhile objective? Why should Islam be modernized? If someone says that slavery, fascism, or patriarchy can become humane and be modernized, I will ask them why they should not be abandoned altogether. In their view, if Islam allowed women to go to school with a knee-length skirt or to become a judge as long as she does not speak of her sexuality, then Islam has been modernized. The objectives of those who want to modernize Islam are far more limited than mine. This is not the modernism that we deserve. Attempting to modernize or reform Islam will only prolong the age-old oppression and subordination of women in Islam-stricken societies. Rather than modernizing Islam, it must be caged, just as humanity caged Christianity two centuries ago. Islam must become subordinate to secularism and the secular state.