‘Islamic Feminism’ in Lebanon: Portraying a counter-discourse

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All women, whether or not they are living in religious societies exist in patriarchal realities. Patriarchy comes in various shapes and affects women as they grow up in varying degrees in every context (Ahmed-Ghosh 2008: 100). The same applies to women of color from countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) where multiple discourses have teamed up to restrict women. On the one hand there are oppressive discourses that stem from inside society and there are also others that originate in remote parts of the world.

Nayereh Tohidi argues that Muslim women mainly have to fight against two sets of pressures: “One stemming from the internal patriarchal system and the other emitted by those forces seen as external, threatening people’s national and cultural boundaries”, whereby she means the capitalist system (Tohidi 1998: 283). Others like Huma Ahmed-Ghosh emphasize the impact of orientalist discourse which has been making political use of women’s bodies since European colonization (2008: 100). Picturing the “femme orientale” as enslaved by Islam and oppressed by the oriental frau* und mann* served the agenda of western states in discrediting Muslim societies as reactionary and creating a vision of a dark Other (Moghissi 1999: 14). The racist hypocrisy of this discourse becomes very obvious when looking at the patriarchal values prevailing in Europe that promoted female domesticity and sexual purity whereas the same values “were presented for Muslim women as ‘evidence’ of sexual slavery and signs of a peculiar moral and religious deficiency of the Other” (Moghissi 1999: 15).

This orientalist discourse fails women in many ways but it fails especially in representing the diversity of their realities. The women are portrayed to be equally oppressed with the attribute ‘arabic’ being equated with ‘islamic’ and thereby silencing not only the diversity within ‘Islamic societies’ but also Christian, Druze etc. women (Ahmed-Ghosh 2008: 113). Or as Haideh Moghissi puts it “The idea of Islam as a kind of meta-culture obscures the reality that […] there are as many Islams as the conditions that sustain them – as many ‘Islamic cultures’ as different geographical, social conditions, size of wealth and educational levels can produce” (Moghissi 2002: 17).

The colonial construction of the oriental woman is still very much present in international politics for example in the news coverage of sexual abuses by fighters of Daesh where the women are called sex-slaves living in harems or more obviously in the course of the war in Iraq where the liberation of the Muslim woman was used to justify the military intervention (The Telegraph 2016; The Huffington Post 2015).

Of course one should not forget the internal oppressive discourses that women in the MENA region face and that differ depending on the historical negotiation processes that shaped the specific region, the political tradition and economics. But as different as the political circumstances in the MENA region are especially regarding women’s legal rights Islamic societies “disclose greater similarities than differences in their rigidity in the treatment of women” (Moghissi 2002: 19). Moghissi goes on:

“The point is that colonial or home-grown, externally imposed or locally generated (…) [the] ‘Muslim woman’, her sexuality and her moral conduct, has remained a central preoccupation of Muslim men over many centuries. This preoccupation has been translated into institutions, policies, legal practices and personal status codes which determine women’s life options and the extent of women’s particpation in public life” (Moghissi 2002: 19).

What do we take away from this? Women in the Middle East and North Africa are squeezed in between multiple oppressive discourses. This layering of patriarchal discourses is a manifestation of the “contestation of global masculinities, and power games [that] are played out through control over women’s bodies” (Ahmad-Ghosh 2008: 100). Of course these narratives are not left unanswered. Instead there are many women trying to make their own voices and agendas heard. To make women visible who do exactly that is the idea of this research paper.

I am therefore investigating the counter-discourse of 'Islamic Feminism' that has gained quite some fame in academic and activist circles over the past decades. It is important to note that empirically I am concentrating on the variant discourse of ‘Islamic Feminism’ as it develops in Lebanon. My aim is to make women visible who develop ideas on how to harmonize Islam with women’s rights and to shape society. By showing their tools and strategies this paper is not only taking part in the visualization of the discourse but also the paper itself becomes a mean of discourse production. At this point my main goal is to let the women speak for themselves, open a space for their ideas and showcase their diverse positions towards Islam and society.

First of all I am going to provide an overview of the general ideas of ‘Islamic Feminism’, whereby I will present some authors, their concepts and ideas as well as the criticism they face. The core of the paper is the empirical research consisting of interviews with Lebanese women that I conducted in Beirut between May and July 2016. After explaining the developed research design I will focus on the specific context of Lebanon and present the content the women that I interviewed provide along four coordinates. The paper is completed with a conclusion. 

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Date of Publication
Heirich Boell Foundation - Middle East
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All rights reserved.
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Table of contents

1. Introduction: Women’s bodies as “discursive battlegrounds”

2. Object of Research: Islamic Feminism

2.1 Context: Locating Islamic Feminism

2.2 Feminism and Islam

3.3 Criticism

3. ‘Islamic Feminism’ in Lebanon: Portraying a counter discourse

3.1 Research Design

3.2 Sketching the Lebanese Background

3.3 Outlining ‘Islamic Feminism’ in Lebanon

3.3.1 Coordinate I: How do the women define themselves?

3.3.2 Coordinate II: How do the women approach Islam and its scriptures?

3.3.3 Coordinate III: Which tools do they use?

3.3.4 Coordinate IV: How do the women position themselves towards white feminism?

4. Conclusion

5. Literature



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