August 16, 2012
The advent of the Arab Spring threw on its head traditional American assumptions about Muslim women. The West has overwhelmingly seen the Islamic world as silencing and caging its women, who, in this narrative, are helpless creatures with very little political involvement. With the Arab Spring, however, American news inundated viewers with pictures and videos of hijaabi women with their fists in the air and nationalist rhetoric on their lips. Yet rather than correcting old misconceptions, such images only invited troubling new narratives. The heavy media coverage of women in the Arab Spring emphasized the sense that such activity was a rare and astonishing phenomenon. These “newly” empowered women were surely evidence to the fact that globalization and modernization had finally exerted enough influence on the Muslim world.
Of course, this type of conclusion is sorely misguided. It implies that Muslim women were neither afforded nor did they ever fight for equal political rights previous to this. Moreover, it unjustly makes uniform a set of people who in reality are extremely diverse. Muslim women live in immensely different regions of the world, have various religious interpretations, and have drastically different levels of education and representation in their respective governments. What is missing from the type of narrative presented in the wake of the Arab Spring, and in much political discourse concerning women’s rights in Islamic countries, is a sense of this diversity. This article aims to paint a nuanced picture of the status of Muslim women by examining female political participation across the Islamic world. It will focus on four states that have varying degrees of female representation in their governments: Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
Women’s political participation in Saudi Arabia, in accordance with the general presumption, is dismal. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that the women’s share in parliament in Saudi Arabia (female to male ratio) is .001. Women could not vote in the municipal elections of 2005. Under Saudi Sharia Law, women are legal minors of their “mahrams” or “male guardians.” This restricts their mobility and in turn, their ability to participate in politics. Women’s rights are also heavily hampered by strict laws of gender segregation that are arbitrarily interpreted by law enforcement officials. In 2006, six women were appointed to the Shura (or upper chamber) but were only allowed to advise on “women’s issues.” The influence of women in elected positions in Saudi Arabia is dubious.
But does this story ring true across the Islamic world? In another Islamic state lining the West coast of Africa, the picture is grim, but not completely without hope. Sierra Leone’s women have occupied a larger sphere in public life and politics since the civil war of 1991-2002. Their unprecedented role in peace-building during the war carved out a place for women in public life that is predicted to significantly increase their political participation. According to the UNDP, the share of parliament (female to male ratio) that Sierra Leonean women hold is .152, which is 152 times the female political participation in Saudi Arabia. This is not to say that women’s access to politics in Sierra Leone is a paved road. Female candidates for election often face harassment, lack financing to campaign, and do not have the same access to patronage networks that men do. Limited access to education and conduction of assemblies in English exclude women, as do customary local governments and chiefdoms. Yet, it is safe to say that the political picture of Sierra Leone is distinctly brighter than that of Saudi Arabia.
Not only are there Islamic states that fare better than their counterparts, but also ones that are comparable to Europe and the U.S. In Bangladesh, women hold (female to male ratio) a .228 share of parliament, which exceeds the .202 that women hold in the U.S.. Bangladesh has also had two female prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. There is significant influence of women at the national level, although this is often due to family political ties. Along with familial patronage, women are undermined by the little influence of their positions in political parties. They are often assigned to “women’s issues” and are not elected by direct election. Nonetheless, their presence in the political sphere, whether symbolic or meaningful, is inspiring to the women of Bangladesh. It assures that their concerns are represented in the government. Furthermore, it motivates the political mobilization of Bangladeshi women.
The situation is similar in another Southeast Asian country, Pakistan. The UNDP estimates that in Pakistan, the female to male ratio of shares in parliament is .266. “By law 33 percent of seats in the local elected bodies and 17 percent of seats in the National Assembly, provincial assemblies, and the Senate are reserved for women.” Sixteen of the 76 women appointed to the National Assembly in 2010 were elected freely and not through the national quota, which is a positive sign for an Islamic state with reserved seats for women. There are five women in the cabinet and the Speaker of the National Assembly is a woman for the first time. According to Mona Lena Krook’s Quotas for Women in Politics: Gender and Candidate Selection Reform Worldwide, women held more than double the parliament seats in Pakistan than they did in India in 2009. Benazir Bhutto, a female, served as prime minister of Pakistan twice, once in the 80’s and once in the 90’s. According to Masuma Hasan, previous Federal Secretary of Pakistan and President of the Aurat Foundation, by competing directly for seats in general election, Pakistani women have proven that “they can defeat a man in a relatively conservative constituency.” Again, this is not to say that women do not face opposition in Pakistan. Like in Sierra Leone and Bangladesh, their influence is often undermined in political positions. Yet, their mere presence in the political sphere is a sign of significant progress and advancement for the status of Pakistani women.
Often, Muslim countries are grouped together as states that disregard women in the political sphere. In light of the evidence highlighted by this paper, it no longer seems practical to study Muslim women’s rights in one cluster. In order to advance the status of women in the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia, it is much more feasible to study each state in accordance with its own history and political motives. Studies will have to detach themselves from religion and instead focus on particular governments.
It is obvious that Islam is not practiced uniformly across the world. The severity of Sharia Law in Islamic countries largely varies by local religious interpretation. Furthermore, it is influenced by surrounding cultures and religions. For example, both Pakistan and Bangladesh were previously part of India, which was a Hindu state until conquered by the Mughals in the 16th century. There is also evidence that before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1914, the Muslim region was quite secular. Ottoman Sultans promoted the education of women and decriminalized homosexuality.The status of women changed with the collapse of the empire, when some states chose to revert to a conservative interpretation of Sharia Law. All of these things considered, it does not seem that the oppression of women is linked to Islam, but rather that it is linked to culture and politics.
It is important that when studying women in the Islamic world, preconceived notions toward Islam be removed, and that all states be viewed objectively, in the light of their own unique histories and respect for women’s political abilities. The sight of a Muslim woman protesting her government, then, ought not be assumed to be a stunning aberration outside a typical norm. We must recognize that there is no universal norm. We must recognize that there are states where Muslim women have been as politically active (if not more) than Western women. It is only then that we will be able to create an accurate picture of what a woman’s life is like in different parts of the Islamic world. It is then that we will be able to have meaningful discussions about the status of Muslim women.
Faria Mardhani is a sophomore at New York University. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.