The ‘War against Women’ in Muslim societies

Dr. Ayla Göl*

Islam has become a more visible and dynamic force in the 21st century since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent US-led ‘War on Terror’. In contrast to these negative images, Muslim countries have also experienced an increasing rise in new economic institutions such as Islamic banking, stock exchange and insurance companies during the last three decades. Meanwhile, some key developments in the oil rich Gulf emirates and Saudi Arabia prove that Muslims can adapt to changes under the forces of global capitalism and modernisation. While this growing trend might have contributed towards creating a positive image of Muslim ‘business men’, Muslim women do not seem to be benefiting equally from this process.

Women and Islam

In contemporary politics, the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism has been associated with its perseverance in reviving religious doctrines on women’s status in a society. It was the forefathers of fundamentalism such as Hasan al Bana, the founder of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt who ex- pressed the fear of women’s liberation and equality by saying that women’s place is the home, and their primary roles are mother, wife, and housekeeper. The founder of Jamiat-I Islami in Pakistan, Abul A’la al-Mawdudi, was another Islamic fundamentalist who believed that “one of the basic human rights is respect for women’s chastity. To preserve chastity women must be kept household and in purdah.” (1) In fact, these fundamentalists including the Saudi version of Wahabism ‘strictly interpret two Surahs in the Quran that require all women cover themselves except for the eyes and hands’ (2). Consequently, Islamic fundamentalists declare what I conceive to be ‘the war against women’ that aims to prevent women’s liberation and equality.

The status of women in Islam is the most controversial and challenging issue. The use of shari’a (Islamic law) as the legal source of civic and public relations in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and other Gulf states indicate that women can be the subject of marginalization and discrimination when they are forced to veil and are not permitted to travel without a guardian, or work in public places. The stories of women in Iran, Afghanistan and Syria have occupied the headlines of international media most recently.

During the summer of 2010, the story of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani highlighted the severity of the crime against women in Iran. Ashtiani is a mother of two who faced the punishment of stoning to death on charges of adultery in 2006 (see Picture 1).

Picture 1

An Iranian woman, symbolically dressed as a victim of death by stoning, takes part in a National Council of Resistance of Iran protest outside a European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels in 2005. Photograph: Thierry Roge/Reuters (3).

As a consequence of international pressure and criticism from human rights groups, the Iranian government did not implement the sentence (4). In July 2010, Ashtiani was offered asylum by the Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but Tehran rejected it, stating that Mr. da Silva was unaware of the facts of Ashtiani’s case. Since then, it seems that the Iranian government has found another way of charging Ashtiani, this time with the ‘invented’ crime of murder. On 11 August 2010, Iranian state television broadcasted a videotaped statement that was portrayed as a murder confession by her (5). It seems that the new ‘serious’ crime of murder might lead to her being put to death by hanging instead of stoning and her case remains uncertain.

In Afghanistan, a recent report on the state of Afghan women by the former Deputy Health Minister, Faizullah Kakar, claimed that the numbers of women who are committing suicide increased within the last three decades. According to this report, an estimated 2,300 Afghan women between the ages of 15 and 40 attempt suicide, while 28 percent of the population (1.8 million women) have suffered from severe depression annually since 2000 (6).

The status of women has neither improved under the Taliban rule nor in the US-liberated Afghanistan. As these stories in Iran and Afghanistan indicate, women in Muslim societies face life threatening issues of death, injustice and poverty, which are undoubtedly more important than the ‘invented tradition’ of veiling according to religious rules and norms. Nevertheless, it is the veiling of women that attracts the international media attention.

The invented tradition of veiling: niqab or hijab?

When Syria joined the group of Muslim countries Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt that banned the face veil (niqab; burqa see picture 2 & 3) and/ or head scarf ( hijab picture 4) in public buildings and schools, attention was given once again to the (in) visibility of women in Islam.

“As a Muslim woman who was brought up in a Muslim tradition in Turkey, I personally support the ban of the niqab in Syria. The niqab gives the image of Muslim women as ‘uncivilised’ and not compatible with ‘modern’ lifestyles and it represents ‘political Islam’.”

The Syrian government’s decision to ban the ‘niqab’ in public and private universities in July 2010 was based on political and cultural reasons. In current Middle Eastern politics, Syria under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad wants to establish closer diplomatic and economic ties with secular Turkey and Lebanon, and play a more active role in the region. Politically, the ‘niqab’ is regarded as the most visible symbol of Islamic fundamentalism. This decision strengthens the government’s image of Syria as one of the most secular Arab countries. Culturally, ‘the niqab’ a full Islamic veil that reveals just a woman’s eyes, otherwise known as the billowing black robe has not been very common in Syrian society until recently. Since the 9/ 11 terrorist attacks, Muslims not only in Syria but also in the Middle East (including Turkey) have become very defensive about their faith and put emphasis on Islamic identity. To a certain extent, this new trend partly reflects opposition to the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and increasing reaction to the dehumanization and demonization of Muslims. Consequently, women in Syria and across other secular-oriented Arab countries such as Jordan and Lebanon have inclined towards wearing the ‘niqab’ or ‘burqa’ to express their Islamic identities. However, it is important to note that the ban in Syria does not include the hijab – headscarves- that are far more commonly worn by Syrian women.

As some media reports suggest, the niqab is an ‘imported’ fundamentalist form of religion that has no place in a secular society (7). For Syria, like Turkey, ‘imported’ fundamentalism represents the Salafi version of fundamentalist Islam, as implemented in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the ‘ niqab’ and/ or ‘ burka’ are used by the fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Hence, the fundamentalist version of Islam is imported from either Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. The rising numbers of women wearing the ‘ niqab’ since the US-led invasion and the imposed democratisation of Iraq and Afghanistan also support the possibility of ‘importing’ fundamentalism in secular and moderate Muslim countries.

More importantly, the majority in Syria except a few reactionary women’s civil society groups is not concerned by the consequences of this decision because ‘the niqab’ is not an integral part of Syrian culture. Like Turkey, women in Syria wear more modern and urban styles of headscarves. As a Muslim woman who was brought up in a Muslim tradition in Turkey, I personally support the ban of the niqab in Syria. The niqab gives the image of Muslim women as ‘uncivilised’ and not compatible with ‘modern’ lifestyles and it represents ‘political Islam’. Even in Saudi Arabia one can see pictures of women without the full veil. So, why should women in Syria put themselves even behind traditional Saudi women?

It would be a mistake to regard the Syrian decision as part of a current trend to embrace a West ernised version of Islamic dressing and secularism. On the contrary, this decision reflects historical and cultural roots not necessarily religious of Syrian traditions in secularism and modernisation.

Indeed, there are similar debates in France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands to ban the niqab and burqa on the grounds that it is ‘degrading to women’. But, the case of the Syrian ban is more complicated than European contexts. The idea of ‘curbing Islamic fundamentalism’ by ‘legislating what women wear’ is rather a naïve one fighting any kind of religious fundamentalism is more complex than Western decision makers and media present. It seems that the Syrian President Bashar al -Assad wants to find a balance between his father’s authoritarian implementation of secularism and the moderate interpretations of Islam. Moreover, Damascus is aware of the difficulties of playing both ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ cards given the fact that Syria’s leadership has been dominated by the minority Alawite sect, a branch of Shi’a Islam, since 1970. Therefore, the ban on the ‘ niqab’ is consistent with Syria’s tradition of moderation and secularism.

Suffice it to say that Syria is responding to the demands of a modernizing domestic society as well as those of the international society. On the one hand, ‘Islamist westernisation’ and ‘Syrian modernization’ feed each other. On the other hand, there are internal and external pressures (the US and the EU) from to change domestic and foreign policies. Under the influence of the internet and globalization in 21 st century, there is an apparent paradigm shift among Muslim women to resist traditional, cultural and religious oppression. Any government in Muslim societies -including Saudi Arabia and Iran needs to adjust to the demands of domestic society and pressures from international society.

Christian and Muslim Women in solidarity

Nevertheless, it is not possible to predict a clear trend among different generations and places. For instance, while many young Saudi women are less inclined than older generations to wear the ‘ niqab’, some, especially young Muslims in European capitals, might regard Islamic dressing as a symbol of resistance to the imposition of Western culture in general.

Religion or patriarchy?

The ‘war against women’ through the acts of discrimination and violence against women in the name of religion can be documented in many countries worldwide. The status of women is a political issue as well as a cultural and religious one.

Historically, the question of women’s rights has presented a challenge to Muslim and non-Muslim societies alike. Sociologically, patriarchal structure continues reproducing itself across monotheistic religions -i.e., Catholicism , Judaism and Islam and cultures over centuries (See picture 5: Catholic nuns whose religious dressing is similar to traditional niqab and See picture 6: a Catholic nun who is in solidarity with the Muslim women).

All religious fundamentalists tend to share a common view of women’s liberation and equality as a threat to (male) domination and authority. They can (mis)use and abuse the authority of God or the state in order to perpetuate the interests of the ruling (male) class and maintain the existing patriarchal structure. In the name of religion and/ or culture women are usually controlled, subjugated and excluded from the public sphere. All religions must be aware of changing times and the challenges of the contemporary world and also develop democratic forms of engagement with women’s issues. Islam per se is not unique in this sense but modernizing Muslim societies strongly depends on improving the status of women and giving them equal rights.  PR


* Dr. Ayla Göl is Lecturer in International Poli- tics, Aberystwyth University Email:

1) Lily Zakiyah Munir, Islam, Modernity and Justice for Women, Paper presented at the
Islam and Human Rights Fellow Lecture, October 14, 2003, organized by the Islam and Human Rights Project, School of Law, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, p.5
2) Syria Says ‘No’ to Traditional Muslim Face Veil in the Classroom, All Headline News, 3 A u g u s t 2 0 1 0 , h t t p : / / w w w . a l l h e a d l i n e n e w s . c o m / articles/ 7019477403?Syria%20Says% 20%91No%92%20to%20Traditional% 20 Muslim% 20 Face% 20 Veil% 20 in% 20the%20Classroom#ixzz0wVhU2oBg
3) Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani will not be stoned to death – for the time being, The Guardian, 12 July 2010. http:// w w w . guar di an. co. uk/ w or l d/ 2010 / jul/ 12/ iran -sakineh-mohammadi-ashtiani -stoned-death/ print

4) Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani will not be stoned to death – for the time being, The Guardian, 12 July 2010. http:// w w w . guar di an. co. uk/ w or l d/ 2010 / jul/ 12/ iran -sakineh-mohammadi-ashtiani-stoned-death/ print

5) Iran Shows What It Says Is Murder Con- fession, New York Times, 12 August 2010, http:/ / 2010/ 08/ 13/ world/ middleeast/ 13iran.html
6) Update: Suicide By Afghan Women Still on the Rise, http:// causes/ womens-rights/ blog/ update -suicide-by- a f g h a n – w o m e n – s t i l l – o n – t h e – r i s e / [Accessed 11 August 2010].
7) Syria Says ‘No’ to Traditional Muslim Face Veil in the Classroom, All Headline News, 3 A u g u s t 2 0 1 0 , h t t p : / / w w w . a l l h e a d l i n e n e w s . c o m / articles/ 7019477403?Syria%20Says% 20%91No%92%20to%20Traditional% 20 Muslim% 20 Face% 20 Veil% 20 in% 20the%20Classroom#ixzz0wVhU2oBg

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