Focus on Muslim Feminism

What does it mean to be Muslim and feminist at the same time? Is it a legitimate and correct appellation nowadays and precisely in Muslim-Arab societies? Let’s have a look at the case of Morocco.

I found it relevant to put a light on this subject since the status of women affects everyone in an area of increasing religious obscurantism that promotes radical values segregating the voiceless, sowing intimidation among many all over the world and especially conveying an idea of religion as the nightmare of women’s issue. It’s not an easy task to answer the questions asked because while searching the solution great deals are actually at stake.

« Paradise Beneath Her Feet »… Hell above it

The concept of feminism, a priori inspired by the well known modern Western philosophy, implies an activist ethos supporting woman rights which is a lifestyle requiring a certain awareness disregarding social prejudices and even an atypical profile at the level of the customs not complying with “the standards” set by patriarchal ideologies.

In Morocco, we may afford to distinguish tree groups of women. Oppressed women, women standing against this oppression and women who actually just don’t care.

Well, oppressed women constitute the major part in the kingdom and the cliché example I’d like to begin with is deplorably the most frequent one: Violence against women and chiefly physical conjugal violence leading to their driving out from their homes. The police? They will gently advise the wife to be taken back to her gentle husband. The kids? They are traumatized. Surely, there is no psychiatric management at this level for it would be a luxury. Mothers, for most of them, end up involved in miserable living conditions, so as to deal with their kids’ needs, like laborious harsh housework or sex trade. For some, their husbands will happily remarry on their behalf, for some others their kids are being trapped in drugs and street violence while they’re absent.  Thus, when mothers dare choose divorce it is particularly for pension benefit called the Nafaka. These cases are not exceptional at all in Morocco, one has only to go and stand sometime at one of the very few existing feminist centers of listening like Anajda Center in Rabat to be able to see it. What about law? The law punishes any mediator who facilitates the escape of women from their homes for complicity in kidnapping and sequestration reasons. This means that whatever happens, a woman remains at the mercy of her husband’s goodwill such as forcing her out of her home. What a paradox!

Only the work of NGOs put in place solid structures like juridical assistance or housing for this type of victims and guess what? The government decides generously to turn a blind eye for this kind of infraction to its own law. Our government is then the embodiment of indulgence when it comfortably allows associations to do their job for them.

In addition, among thorny issues delegated to the trial judge’s discretion appears the question of pension, the renowned Nafaka. To date, pensions’ sum granted to divorced women with children is not subject to any scale and does not take into account neither the husband’s income nor the preservation of the family’s previous economic situation. The fact is, the Nafaka is insufficient and inadequate. Therefore, many Moroccan feminists wonder « why not using the fund set by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs supposed to help people in need.” Besides, we should mention that most of the people victims of violence injustice are illiterates and most of illiterate persons in Morocco are women (60%). This is not surprising, as misery education violence and poverty are all linked. We may also notice that rural women suffer higher levels of illiteracy than women in the cities. Persisting constraints are: mothers’ illiteracy, geographical remoteness, and poverty and livelihood insecurity which force children into work and early marriage of girls…

If we try to review the events that led to this juncture, we remark that thecoexistence of both archaic and modern systems in Morocco is told to create a duality and results in ambiguities at the level of the consistency of the legislation. Indeed, Moroccan legislators have been for a long time unable to overturn immutable principles conveyed by the alleged Islamic law concerning gender issues.Post-independence political tensions between the monarchy and the Nationalist Movement didn’t enable first feminists of the period such as “Akhawat Safa” to assert the priority of their claims for the question of women’s rights was considered as secondary. That’s alright!       It was several years before women’s rights associations began emerging in Morocco as well as solid Feminist movements like “Moroccan Association of Human Rights”, “The Union of Women’s Action”, “Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc”…thanks to the reactivation of the opposition political parties activity in the 70’s.  The protests turned private issues into public and political concern and denounced the alarming realities provoked by the conservative, not to say ridiculous, personal statues.On this basis, Morocco has ratified the CEDAW (Convention of Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) a kind of western bill of rights of women, adopted in 1979 in the UN general assembly, on the 21th of June 1993 and our brave government undertook some measures to harmonize its national laws with this convention, gentle legislative amendments through The Dahir of the 10th of September 1993 have been done which has conferred it a democratic attribute fronting the international community.  Even so, it took ten years to make a veritable historical and political revolution, exclusively thanks to the feminist’s campaign, that’s to say the promulgation of the new Family code on October 2003 and its entry into force on the 4th of February 2004. Numerous power relationships were raised such as polygamy, problems related to children’s custody, repudiation, men’s superiority of control over women (qiwamah), women exclusion from educative and religious fields, whether a man can beat his wife, trivialization of sexual harassment in public and work spheres, inheritance, abortion, contempt for women’s role inside the family, male-female parity, the case of single and unmarried mothers, Child labor…

Why is it that revolutionary? Because in spite of the fierce “Islamist” opposition well expressed through demonstrations, it has at last given Moroccan women some basic rights such as obtaining divorce when having been harmed (shiqaq) without giving up their rights of alimony (kholaâ), consensual divorce has been instituted and knew a large popularity, legal age of marriage became 18, girls didn’t need any more the famous tutor to marry, fortunately for it, the family was from then on under responsibility of both parents, at national level every party has to present a female candidates list for legislative elections… Pretty awesome, isn’t it?                                          It took no less than half a century of work for a Family Code reform which according to the NGO Global Rights “turns Morocco into one of the most progressive countries in the region”: A very controversial statement among human rights defenders.

On the one hand, many feminists shed light on remaining challenges. Some criticize polygamy’s lawfulness, inequality within rights to inheritance for sisters can only inherit, at best, half of the part of their brothers and the fact that mixed marriage with non-Muslims is still prohibited for women while allowed for men. Moreover, many forced and early marriages rage, there is no sexual education in Morocco because it is too taboo, abortion is also a taboo subject and forbidden while commonplace in Morocco and sexual harassment is made worse and affects all social classes in all areas of life… at least there is no segregation at this level! Further to this, feminists understood well that they are considerably more likely to take things further by making reforms than hoping changing Moroccans’ mentalities.

On the other hand, we have the feeling, from what we see, that the two laws in force in our dear kingdom are: Social law of silence and juridical law of hypocrisy. Each one feeds into the other because in spite of reformed text’s presence, their executions are always submitted to judges who actually can’t easily deal with precise situations requiring a Moroccan cultural and popular knowledge. Therefore the relegation to the past of a plenty of court cases issues from this phenomenon. For instance, the Moudawana asserts that women should be eighteen in order to marry but, in reality, she is younger in many exceptions so during the last four years an average of one tenth of weddings were implicating girls under eighteen.

The young Amina Filali went for the full monty: Violence, rape, early and forced marriage then suicide. A total disaster which have inspired many young filmmakers within associations such as Galleria Cinema ( 475 when marriage becomes punishment)  as well as  sparked off vivid reactions and virulent debates among public opinion and human rights activists and organizations.

If 475 article’s goal is to create a certain social cohesion by enabling rapists to chose between spending time in prison and spending the rest of their lives with their victims, we can say that it expresses to what extend justice in Morocco has royally failed since it is  not able to get adapted to its social realities and needs.  As a Victim, Amina has been raped by a man, a law and a society! And still, she did chose, afterwards, to rape her own existence by her very hands because, after all, the only freedom that was offered to her, in a society where there is none for young girls in her case, was to act on her life by giving it an end. May God Rest her soul.

We may take a minute in silence for the large number of young victims like her but not more than one minute for the act of compassion through silence can rapidly turn into the dramatic act of complicity.

“Islam is the Religion of the State guaranteeing the free exercise of all religions”

That being said, it’s almost for “legal religious” reasons that the worst scandals have been and are still being carried out. “This is Halal”, “This is Haram”, “This is Allah’s will”, “Subhan Allah”, “Masha Allah”…We are infinitely bombarded by pathetic parrots veiling comfortably their own irresponsibility as everywhere we are we miraculously hear the name of Allah.  Inevitably, those sacred phrases highly significant are only offended and scorned when trivially repeated in a place, in other words a kingdom and a world, where Allah’s true will is not set at all.  It should be recalled for those who tend to forget it that we are living in a slave system, exploitative, patriarchal and capitalist jungle. The law of the strong is the one which holds sway. You just have to find a phony excuse so as to invade a weaker country to be applauded and have the great pleasure to be awarded the Nobel Prize. Currently, this raises the inescapable question of whether Islam, supposed to use power and legal authorities to spread its particular morality, isn’t itself used for affaires and political purposes in the so called Islamic states. In order to go further, it is judicious to wonder if Islam is truly the source of this indignation. Is it a solution to have recourse to Moderate and Progressive Islam, an approach implicitly asserting that this religion is as a whole intrinsically intolerant and aggressive equating piety with violence?

And how is the situation in regards to Islam and democracy? Would it be two incompatible notions? “Yes” would answer most of the people following a very binary logic very fashionable and well implanted in the contemporary public opinion. Because the values of liberal modernity claim to be opposed to Islam, this is the case of: Justice, freedom of speech and of course gender issues.

Let us note two important points concerning the little revolution of the Moudawana we are so proud of.

First, this progress which has raised questions about the objectification of Muslim women leans upon the Quran, the Sunna, and especially the “Ijtihad”, a concept too often neglected in the land of Islam and sometimes completely cast aside by some “Islamic” communities and countries.  Why? because Ijtihad is a noble work confused with “Al bidaa” (innovation) calling for an interaction with a variety of other fields, a spirit of constructive criticism, a profound reflection, considerable religious knowledge and above all eagerness for establishing fair treatment in the name of Islam devoid of the least corruption… Moroccan feminists gathered a million signatures in their push by arguing in the vocabulary of Islam, rather than Western feminism.

Secondly, we may acknowledge that the majority of Moroccan woman leaders within the protesting movements were a part of the elite taking the responsibility of the ones truly enduring the irritating domination. Therefore, those feminists were definitely to be seen as the voice of the voiceless, still it’s quite unfortunate: why don’t oppressed Muslim women just demand their rights themselves? Are they a party to their situation? Without their crucial participation, the progress can only be very slow to be achieved as Human right is not necessarily convenient.  In fact, it’s a question of inner will.

Unfortunately, the renowned will is often repressed. At first by social morals considering that a woman must not raise her voice nor even have any one “it’s just a woman”, next by Moroccan educational system of which values are nearly non-existent as we are not ready to rely on it to encourage an intellectual work of discourse deconstruction, plus a dreadful state of the press for Moroccan media’s mission is to numb and anesthetize its public, ADFM knows something about this, for when it wanted to increase public awareness by means of  advertising spots on TV in 2005 no state helps were provided for its broadcasting so activists had have to get grants from a Dutch organization. Then eventually comes the manipulator totalitarian political system, for we almost all know what is likely to happen to us if we dare occupy the streets and yell too loudly our disturbing demands. Consequently, the progress may be qualified as timid because of the deadlock arising out of a longue tradition of ignorance in people’s real-lives. A tradition drowning the most but very profitable for the few ones, and each may recognize itself rapidly in the process.

To be honest, feminism in land of Islam is really perceived as an intruding thing. It is displeasing! It disconcerts as it cannot be put on any deterministic approach. Either we conform to Western advertising slogans blinded by the ready-made thinking needing the surrender of Islam for defending better one’s rights. Either we invest in inculcation of hostility towards those who don’t share a narrow-minded and mistaken understanding of a fake Islam excluding the “she-devils” and condemning values such as mercy and compassion so basic in Muslim faith so ignoring the major fact that the prophet Muhammad was at his time, to tell the truth, a fervent feminist having granted to the tradable good given during inheritance: a statute.

Frankly, in hindsight, it’s not that obvious to have an unbiased opinion on this matter.                    Anyway, does Islamic Feminism exist?

A confused protest movement is trying to emerge shyly in land of Islam as well as in the West lately. Muslim Feminism militates for Muslim women’s rights, within Islam as a religion and way of life, in an explicit religious frame for the simple reason that these women believe that Islam holds within itself a strong emancipatory message.  Their main work consists of the reinterpretation of the Quran and the Shariaa in an egalitarian vision.  It would be similar to Western feminism in terms of claiming women’s rights as formulated it the American activist writer Betty Friedan: “men are not the enemy, but the fellow victims. The real enemy is women’s denigration of themselves.” At the same time, it would be divergent ideologically speaking from the ones advocating a forced westernization of feminity that’s what’s called by Amina Wadud the Gender Jihad. That’s right, they’re not longing for bourgeois feminist warriors on their white horses at the other end of the planet to come release them from their excessively retrograde and stifling convictions. So to speak, the image of those persons is automatically in contrast to the submissive Muslim woman victim and satisfied with a passive faith barring her blossoming.

Surely, the history of the Muslim world reflects, we’re all aware of that, a tragic and cruel relapse of women’s condition. «That’s Islam»  keep repeating the most part. No need to study history to inquire about it. This being so, convinced that’s imperative to create alternative approaches suited to this present reality, Muslim feminists, if we dare say so, have committed themselves to cease making the “Religious” saying stupidities on their behalf. They work together to create a place for themselves where there is none for tolerant debate open to women in the public sphere, where “Muslim scholars’” stiffness -verging on hypocrisy- led essentially to a raging political decline, where religion is unequivocally a wonderful political instrument, where “progressive intellectuals” don’t stand actively enough against the frequent foolishness of “the Islamic extremists”, where female sex is said to be the trigger of a Fitna while the truest Fitna is the one perpetrated against her.

This is what occurs when, in a country like Morocco, the masses are too engaged in choosing the greatest sheep for celebrating Aid Al Adha, or on dancing on the national channel 2M for celebrating Saturday night, or organizing the most sparkling party for celebrating the offspring’s wedding, or on rallying the strongest troop for celebrating a football team’s victory … Our society is in constant celebration!  And in parallel, it feeds its spontaneous obsession with competitiveness, the “Matfoutnich” power and it’s so paranoid with keeping up with appearances that it only takes to call a man a woman to make him feel horribly insulted. What is so humiliating in being a woman?

This is neither schizophrenia nor multiculturalism. This is Hypocrisy. People are definitely aware of the paradox they’re living in and chose to ignore the reasons of the existing contradictions. The exclusion of women deviates absolutely from a rich tradition of altruism and a united vision of the multicultural identity of Islam ignoring royally the prophet’s recommendations. Women played an enormous role in the preservation of Islam. We should point out that without Khadija’s reception and support for Muhammad on this world, the Hereafter’s message wouldn’t have been delivered at all. This figure was the first to be told the reality of Islam and this means that the first Muslim in History is a woman. His wives used to provide him good advice because he was listening to them plus “the Sahabyats” like Oum Slama witnessing a solid political engagement of Muslim women near Muhammad.  After his death, Aisha was categorically one of the most knowledgeable persons of her time for the Caliphs themselves, symbolizing guidance and light, used to relate to her frequently for religious matters.  Many Hadith prove that women as Asma Bin Yazid could speak freely with the Prophet about important questions such as their sexuality or their participation to scholarly debates and political Jihad. Let us take the case of Zaynab Muhammad’s daughter who declared solemnly with complete ease before the « Al Fajr » prayer in Madinah’s mosque that she established the protection of her non Muslim ex-husband of which the tribe was at war with Muslims. After the prayer, the prophet accepted to let this person to circulate freely in the city and all the community respected this protection set by a woman to an unbeliever. Can you imagine a woman in a mosque defending her atheist ex-husband today in our societies? It’s the huge panic, a visible sign of the end of the world…  As the anthropologist Dounia Bouzar has said:  “God must have overestimated men because fourteen centuries later, they simply have not gotten the message yet.”

As a matter of fact, once immersed in the ignorance of the right to criticize and the freedom of thought, individuals do deny one of the most basic human rights then undoubtedly bury themselves in hasty, extreme and very dangerous generalizations. Thus, there are deeply rooted confusions and cultural taboos circulating in our society which are chiefly due to Self Repression in the psychic and social unconscious. Because this lack of free expression and communication and communion that emerges first within the Moroccan family nucleus dresses up in the so called traditions or norms created by collective imagination and compromise so ends up transfiguring in concrete terms into aggressiveness in all its forms towards the Difference perceived as menacing for being misunderstood. Let there be no mistake, behind this attractive appearance of multicultural and open minded country is hiding a heavy dullness and austerity when it comes to raise subjects of common interest as realistic as social justice and gender equity.

Since the 20th February protest movement rising up against oppression in Morocco, human rights activists feel forced to appeal to alternative means to express their discontent like the resistance through new media (Twitter, Facebook, Avaz, Global Voices…) since aside from cheering mental laziness, our press has always stated a target of camouflaging. As well as our Minister of Education El Wafa who proved to be very logical recently by recommending to a young student to find out a husband rather than to attend classes, no need to comment this recommendation. Furthermore, the question of female sexuality is rarely taken seriously while the variety of human stupidity is popularized including lustful physical harassment in public places and rapes (even among 70 year olds ladies) or institutionalized discrimination in law (like article 475 which collects young girl’s suicides)…

The point has now come when the only remedy of the rape became the wearing of the veil since a plenty, dare we say, need resort to the veil seeking some peace of mind and protection. Yet, it is a supreme irony that recently a sociological study in Morocco shows that those veiled women are in fact more and more victims of sexual harassments too.  And meanwhile, the major concern of the religious body in the Arab world is whether women should rather wear the burka than the veil…  It may be time for religious people, or not, to stop looking after “the Islam of the state” and start taking care of “the state of Islam”. A religion doesn’t belong to any one. Islam does exist only when embodied in people’s hearts (Al Iman) and behaviors (Al Ihssan). Nor a so-called “Amir el Mouminin” nor any Sheikh or modern pharaoh nor any Instance should dare judging an individual’s faith or intentions… Only God, the unique King, is supposed to do that. In Morocco, we still mix up submitting to the Creator and submitting to some people and institutions, respecting religious principles and respecting traditions and cultural principles.

Within a Ummah in which some try to murder the kids (Malala Yousufzai)  who dared asking for their rights to education and some others spend their time conferring honors and promising great rewards for those who might find the aggressors , we’re not ready to make it. It is not a national price of peace which is going to bring peace. As made it clear the Tunisian Islamic scholar Olfa Youssef « The fact of yearning to hide women’s body and preventing their presence is a way for legislators to hide their own fear of what women could bring ». That’s why we may say that this atypical Muslim women’s attempt seen as an “accidental occurrence” is respectable. Women in Morocco like Fouzia Assouli, Latifa Jbabdi, Fatima maghnaoui, Nadia Lamhaidi, Asma lamrabet, Fatima mernisi,  Khadija Errebbah, Nabia Haddouche, Aïcha Ait M’Hand … and all over the world like Sa’diyya Shaikh, Nawal saadawi  Ziba Mir Husseini, Mona Eltahawy,  Laura Rodriguez Quiroga, Ndeye Andujar, Olfa Youssef… who decide to raise public awareness by writing books, teaching in universities, organizing conferences and militating in associations crush down all the thesis on the too classical women on land of Islam.

However, it seems to me very important to mention that it’s not the content and the essence of Muslim feminism’s theories which could arouse admiration but the criticism of literal readings of founding texts as claims it the Algerian historian Mohamed Arkoun and the revision of one’s own belief from within in order to shake up mentalities in one’s society. It’s the fact of getting rid of the veil of the mind « Hijab L’aql » as asserts it Nawal El Saadawi.  It is the ability to start to work on the Self, by the Self, for the Self.


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