Panel 5b. Gender in the Middle East and North Africa: Reform and Liberation

Chair: Aitemad Muhanna-Matar, LSE

Protesting Gender Discrimination from Within: Islamic Party Women’s Organizing in Iran and Turkey
Mona Tajali, University of Oxford

Over the past decade, Islamic political movements have been increasingly recruiting women to decision-making positions despite the fact that the ideology they espouse often opposes women from assuming positions of public leadership. My ethnographic work on religious women’s activism in Iran and Turkey helps explain this unexpected trend by shedding light onto Islamic women’s organizing efforts as they mobilize public support and strategically interact with male elites in their demands to increase women’s access to political decision-making. In particular, I highlight the role that a number of high-ranking Islamic women’s rights activists with close ties to the ruling elites played in pressuring their male party leaders to address women’s political underrepresentation. Women’s close ties to the ruling elites consist of both familial ties, such as being wives or daughters of political and religious figures, as well as more formal ties that have evolved due to women’s long-term devotion to the Islamic movement or religious learning. Through in-depth interviews with influential Islamic party women in Iran and Turkey—namely members of Iran’s Zeinab Society (Jameh Zeinab) and the Islamic Women’s Coalition (etelaf-e Islami-e zanan), and Turkey’s women activists of the pro-religious Justice and Development Party (JDP)—this paper demonstrates that given the presence of suitable opportunity structures, Islamic women are publicly challenging patriarchal party attitudes of their male party leaders. Indeed, women’s close ties to political leaders enables them to leverage a form of ‘internal criticism’ as a strategy to enhance women’s political status from within the Islamic movements.

Invisible Becoming: Masculinity, Piety, and Transformation in Turkey
Sertac Sehlikoglu, University of Cambridge

Given the over-visibility of pious Muslim women and the veil in anthropological and sociological studies, the absence of research about men and masculinity in the Muslim world reflects the intertwinement of knowledge production processes with masculinist politics in sanctifying manhood by not questioning it or making it a subject of research. This paper aims to look at the visible and invisible changes the pious men of Turkey have undergone over the last decade, following the empowerment of the neo-Islamic (pro-Sunni) right-wing ruling party, the AKP. The invisible changes refer to the physical transformation men from Islamic groups in positions of power who, in the last two decades, removed the physical indication of their religiosity: they cut their beards, removed their silver wedding rings, and put on suits and ties. In a country where dress code has been an integral part of the country’s modernization project that has been defined primarily through female bodies, such a transformation is not a surprise. It was, after all, the same project that allowed men to avoid being embodied objects of modernisation and secularisation. By looking closer to the transformation of Islamic men in power, I aim not only to bring forward the invisibility aspect of the everyday lives of pious men, but also to look at the changes surrounding contemporary masculinity and piety in the context of a secular country. How do they make sense of these everyday contestations as they navigate between their visible and invisible selves?

Liberating the Liberated: The Historical Struggle of Egypt’s Feminist Movement
Yasmin Shafei, American University of Beirut

Although much has been written about Egypt’s feminist movement during the twentieth century, the country boasts a historically rich feminist culture that began long before that. The twentieth century did witness a rise in feminism in Egypt, coinciding with it’s anti-colonial struggle and increasing nationalistic fervor. From Aisha Al-Taimuriyya to Dorreya Shafic, there is no shortage of feminist pioneers associated with the development of the movement in Egypt into the influential political force that it is today. Nevertheless, despite gains made by Egypt’s women, the feminist movement has struggled to carve its way into public space and to acquire equal legal rights for women. This study will review the historical struggle for women’s rights in Egypt, examining how the struggle for equal rights has repeatedly given way to national priorities. Throughout the movement’s history, women’s issues have been sidelined in favour of the more urgent issues of nationalism and security. We argue that whereas coopting the feminist movement under the authority of national priorities has served to strengthen the movement and bring it to the forefront, it has also caused its legitimate concerns to be cast aside in favour of more urgent priorities. The presence of women in public institutions and progress towards more equitable laws has therefore been slow and less forthcoming. There is therefore a need to review the feminist discourse, in an effort to position it as representative of truly independent female voices and to de-couple it from mainstream male-dominated ideologies.

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