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Gender and Islam Books

The war in Iraq has shone attention on the plight of women in the Middle East. For many scholars, the issue of the rights of women as mandated in Islamic texts and the role of Muslim women in the contemporary Islamic world is one of the most pressing issues.

This paper examines two works that shed light in this regard -- Islam, Gender, and Social Change edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Esposito and Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate.

Both books provide a rich background of the history and modern-day context women living under the Islamic religion. The first part of this paper gives a summary of selected readings from Islam, Gender, and Social Change and of Ahmed's work. The second part then gives a critique of the works. In the final section, the paper relates the readings to the topics of gender and communications, and makes suggestions for areas of further inquiry.

Summary of Islam, Gender, and Social Change

In this collection of essays, two noted scholarly experts on Muslim-Christian relations edit the 11 case studies of Muslim women in various countries. These case studies include the issues facing women outside the Middle East, in Muslim areas such as Pakistan and the Philippines. The articles discuss the history of women's rights in Islamic society. Some of the essays look into how activists, women's organizations and media groups are working to challenge current interpretations of Islamic law. Other essays further discuss the continuing relevance of practices such as the veiling and the purdah.

In addition to the individual country studies, the first three overview essays in this volume set the tone for the book. In the opening essay, Haddad chronicles the impact of the changing Arab world on the modern-day Muslim women. The second essay by Barbara Stowasser continues the contemporary approach by examining relevant passages from the Koran. Nadia Hijab's article, the final one in the first half of the book, is a comprehensive discussion of how international women's organizations work within and against the strictures of Islamic law. Through the overview essays and the individual case studies, Islam, Gender, and Social Change provides good analysis and glimpses into how women are striving to both live under and challenge the prevailing interpretations of Islam.

Summary of Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate

Like the previous work, Leila Ahmed approaches the issue of women in Islamic countries by examining how gender issues are expressed "socially, institutionally and verbally" (2) in Muslim society.

However, unlike the earlier volume of essays, Ahmed's takes a more historical approach, discerning the connection between the practices of Islam in different Muslim societies.

In contrast to historians who argue that fundamentalist re-interpretations of the Koran are to blame for the repressive nature of Islam in many countries, Ahmed argues that the repression of women dates back to the expansion of Mesopotamian law. The author makes the startling argument that the erosion of women's rights under Islam date back to around 12 BC, at roughly the same time when the participation of women in religious and public life was being curtailed. Despite these constraints, however, Ahmed points out that Muslim women have always used informal channels to obtain education and property. It is also through informal channels that many Muslim women have managed to obtain positions of power within their families and communities.

Critique of Islam, Gender, and Social Change number of the individual essays in Islam, Gender, and Social Change can be analyzed from the viewpoint of gender and communications.

In "Feminism in an Islamic Republic," for example, Afsaneh Najmabadi conducts a textual analysis of Zanan, a women's magazine in Iran that is also a vocal critic of the government. In Najmabadi's description, Zanan provides feminist activists with a venue to reinterpret traditional Islamic discourse in a way that addresses women's rights. The most important of these texts is the Koran, which has often been used to justify the privileged position of men.

The fact that Zanan also publishes works from Muslim, non-Muslim and secular writers also allows for challenges and diverse viewpoints from a variety of sources. On the whole, Najmabadi argues that Zanan has been successful in challenging and redefining key issues pertaining to women's rights that have been discussed in the Koran.

Thus, concepts such as a wife's supposed "rebellion" for not submitting to her husband and the notion that a wife could lose rights and community standing due to her disobedience are continually challenged. The contributors to Zanan take Koranic passages that reconceptualize these principles by arguing that the Koran espouses not oppression but love and egalitarianism. In Najmabadi's analysis, the pages of Zanan become a venue for envisioning a more equitable distribution of power and responsibilities in marriage. By extension, this magazine acts as a beacon to usher in the improved status of women in society.

One limitation of Najmabadi's study is the lack of any mention of Zanan's readership, or the audience to whom the magazine is geared. If available, a survey of the letters to the editor or reader response information would show what kind of effect the magazine in having on Iranian society. By including a discussion of how the information is received, the article could present a more complete picture of how gendered communication is both presented and interpreted.

In the essay "Beyond Beijing," Deniz Kandiyoti explores other attempts to challenge prevailing extremist Islamic laws. To begin, Kandiyoti studies how many conservative Islamic regimes have responded to women's movements with repression and social control. However, while Najmabadi sees potential in media such as Zanan, Kandivoti believes that the answers lie in changing the system from within. This is because in societies wherein religion forms the sole framework for social interaction, it would be virtually impossible for activists to initiate change by working outside a religious framework.

Kandiyoti is thus pessimistic that Islamic governments would voluntarily open communication channels and participate in dialog regarding social change. However, this does not mean that she is pessimistic about the possibility of change altogether, particularly in countries where religious and political authorities are one and the same. Instead, she offers women and other activists another route for achieving change, by opening communication and dialogue within the already-existing religious frameworks. The author believes that framing ideas of gender equality in religious terms gives the notion of equality a more familiar and therefore more acceptable tone. In this way, Kandiyoti presents a specific and realistic way for many activists -- particularly Islamic feminists -- to introduce new ideas regarding women.

In the article "Claiming our Rights: A Manual for Women's Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies," author Afkhami proposes other ways for activists to impart their message of change to their fellow women and to other citizens against the "fundamentalist demands" (113) of its conservative religious and political leaders. Like Najmabadi, Afkhami argues that women could conceptualize human rights in ways that resonate in their personal lives. More importantly, this conceptualization of human rights can also be interpreted in ways that are compatible with local cultural and religious traditions. Similar to Zanan, Afkhami argues that women could challenge the patriarchy and agitate for their rights to education and to decisions within the family. Afkhami should also be commended for creating strategies not only for the educated elite, but also for the less affluent women who reside in the cities and the rural areas.

The thrust of this excellent collection of essays is that Islam, like all religions, has fluid ideas. Its strictures regarding the rights of women are born not out of religious mandate but of the interpretation of prevailing authorities. There is thus much room to challenge the prevailing repression by working within the same framework that they were created.

Because of this, the book would have benefited from the inclusion of essays discussing Islam and women in other areas outside the Middle East.

This includes women in growing hotspots such as Indonesia, for example. In addition, it would be interesting to see the input of traditional and more reform-oriented women from the Muslim Diaspora, as Islamic communities continue to grow in Western nations with the growing influx of immigrants into the United States and Western Europe.

The challenge for activists is forming lines of dialogue and communication. Kandiyoti suggests that this could best be done by utilizing religious frameworks.

Corollary to this, Najmabadi and Afkhami look into ways that prevailing concepts like disobedience and male privilege could be recast, by a redefinition of relevant Koranic passages. Though they differ slightly in approach, all three authors stress the decisive role the communication process could play in ushering in new ideas regarding gender equality under Islam.

Critique of Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate

Ahmed's approach differs markedly from the essay writers of the previous volume. Instead of looking at current ideas regarding gender and Islam as the result…[continue]

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