Peace X Peace Forums: Political and Religious Reform Needed
Peace X Peace Forums: Women and the Arab Spring
Welcome to the first Peace X Peace Forum! These forums, which we hope to host regularly, will take on pressing issues in the world of peacebuilding and gender. This time, we have gathered women from around the Middle East – from Egypt to Tunisia and beyond – to discuss how women have influenced the Arab Spring, and the impact it has had on them. We hope you enjoy this discussion and add your own thoughts in the comments!
To Reconcile Arab Women: Activate Two Key Institutions: Religious and Political
By Roua Seghaier
Growing up, as many other females, I did not make any gender distinctions apart from those physically obvious. When I first came to the realization that I am a woman in my cultural background, it was with an acknowledgement of difference from men, but a difference that comes paired with an inferiority stigma. It took quite a bit of education and personal experiences to overcome that sentiment.
My fellow women, who have not yet been unbound from this invented identity flaw, are the ones more likely to oppose female roles in government. Starting a partnership between them and pro-change women, could take more than, or a step prior to, the open dialogue, as Mrs. Taman suggested in her response article “Pro-change Women of the Arab Spring need to be the First to reach out to Traditional Women”. In order for two people or groups to converse, there needs to be a willingness not only to hear, but to listen. Unfortunately, in extreme reactionary cases, this disposition tends to be absent. So to bring all women of the Arab Spring under one umbrella of female political involvement, we need first to tackle the roots of the reluctance to listen.
Many reasons have contributed to belittling the female role in government. One least important is the short-term national memory: The first ladies of the failed regimes of the Arab Spring region have not left much reputation to their input in government or care about social demands, and were hard to relate to. Women in power positions, hence, are not taken seriously due to this constructed image (think of Bashar Al Assad’s spouse buying shoes online during the massacres in Syria). But the second and most important is the upbringing of some reactionary women.
In the coincidental chauvinistic society I mentioned in the previous article “A step to implement democracy: Transforming women from political tools to political actors”, many of the religious practices were shaped accordingly to the personal interest of men. As many women as they excluded from the political life, as much more chances they acquire for themselves. Imam Ghazali insightfully stated that “the apparent religiousness and politicization of religion is more dangerous to the belief than is atheism.” This manipulation is the strongest in kind, since it appeals to the system of beliefs and sacred sentiments. It charges men and women religiously, and lets them to their quarrels, while associating difference with blasphemy. Consequentially, many valuable political opinions are discarded prior to hearing, due to this negative association of the opinion with its holder’s character or difference. The most recent Egyptian example is Aliaa Al Mahdi forced to flee the country, after her controversial blog posts, or the Tunisian Khaoula Rchidi who defended the Tunisian flag that a Salafi replaced with an Islamist. This behavior was considered an attack on Islam, and national identity.
Hence these reactionary women would engage in what they believe is the safeguard of the faith, by the refusal of communication with the pro-change women. And mutually, the latter group would feel exempt from the traditional women’s private circle, and therefore powerlessness in reaching a common ground.
To clear the platform for the open discussion, reforms need to happen to both the political and religious levels towards the same direction, but without enforcing one field on the other.
First, Religious institutions need to seize the politicization of Islam, and focus on their initial purpose: reinforcing faith, raising awareness and building knowledge about religion. For instance, it is unlikely that a woman that knows how politically important A’ishah (RA), Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) wife, would deny herself or her fellow female the right to political activism. Many notions have simply evolved and might have not been phrased in the way we know them today, but the history of Islam is full of female leaders. Active religious institutions are crucially important components of a democracy, and a great means of socialization of the more traditionally conservative side of the society, that overpassing its necessary constructive role in this transitional period is irrational, let alone, hypocritical. When people ask for democracy, this democracy should encompass all streams. For that reason, we need to bargain on and invest in the moderate religious leaders, as it will help, when done correctly, bring closer the different poles of society, by bringing closer the religious community itself. When some protocol of this community is circumvented, the distinction between the individual’s persona, and his opinion would be easily made, and therefore not rejected on the basis of “who he is”, or “to whom he prays”.
The second equally important criteria, is the development of a political culture in the Arab region, a culture we were long denied and cannot be expected to have a grasp of simply due to the success in overthrowing rulers, and not yet a regime. As I mentioned before, the rule of law, or a legal government that respects its purpose in assuring rights and freedoms while organizing social interactions, is there to treat every citizen equally to the other. That said, the state should absolutely provide an equal opportunity and equal access to administrative and power positions to its citizens, regardless of the many coincidences of their background, ethnicity, religion, and most obviously gender. Gender equality and the participation of women is in theory something already granted, as female citizens we are born with our political rights, and should not ask or wait to have them approved. Yet in the practical world, it is not the case, so we need to increase the political culture of our men and especially politically deprived women. This will help decrease the labeling of women and their classification into reactionary and risk-taking, to gather them under a consciousness of common history and current affairs. Traditional women will learn that it is acceptable to challenge social norms, since the world would have never evolved if not for the resourcefulness of new policies: Slavery was once a socially accepted matter, when now we live in a much better world.
Thus women from different backgrounds, pro-change and pro-tradition, will have the ground to meet intellectually, and have the open discussion once both sides are genuinely interested in the exchange of skills and knowledge. It will build up the social accountability of the government towards them, and serve as watchdog in the violations it may commit. Women also need to organize themselves politically by joining parties, since experience shows that independent women, or simply non-governmental female interest groups, take a longer time in accessing the government than a political entity would. When this happens, numbers of females in the government will be less important, because their involvement will be merit based, and we will not need a quota, be it 30 or 60% per cent, as long as we are accurately and legitimately represented, and with a meaningful shot at influencing governmental decisions, and shaping up a systems worthy of our efforts.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.