How do Women’s Rights fare in Today’s Age of Turmoil?

Fatima Sadiqi

Fez - Women’s demands in North Africa are increasingly diversified and polyvocal as new actors and agents are gaining visibility in the public sphere of authority. This diversification is, in turn, being nourished by new values (such as dignity) and new approaches (such as the use of social media and transnational networking).

Women’s issues and women’s rights are at the Center of these dynamics; just as they have been before. And given the rapidity with which events are taking place we need both a diachronic and a synchronic perspective to understand what’s happening. Women’s issues are creating what I will refer to as “The Center”. A Center that holds but with diachronic and synchronic aspects that move.

I define “The Center” as an ideological middle-ground space between the increasingly antagonistic paradigms of secularism (separation of religion and politics) and Islamism (use of religion in politics) in the post-revolution North Africa. It is a space where a reconfiguration of space is taking place. This reconfiguration is based the twin dichotomies of conservative/modernist and Islamist/secular.

The conservative-modernist dichotomy in North Africa was born during the colonization period. While both trends supported nationalism they significantly differed in their reactions to the West and modernity. Conservatives opposed any influence of the West especially in family and social matters, and modernists viewed the West as progress. From the 1970s onward, and with rampant political Islamism in the background, the conservative-modernist dichotomy developed into a secularists-Islamists one. It is important to note that this new development did not supplant the initial modernist-conservative dichotomy but politicized, hence polarized, it and rendered it more complex. In politics, modernists tend to support secularists and conservatives tend to support Islamists although the latter are not necessarily against modernity and some of them may support secularists.

Theoretically speaking, the way secularism and Islamism are applied varies from country to country in North Africa (ans the Arab-Muslim world at large) because although all Arab-Muslim countries consider Islam as a state religion and legal reference (thus part and parcel of politics and religion) Islam does not play the same political role in every country.

The differences were constructed during the state-building phases when each country chose a specific madhab (Islamic school of jurispruendence) as a frame of reference that fitted its political structure. For example Morocco chose the Maliki madhab because this school acknowledges the religious authority of the ruler and hence suited a multi-ethnic and multilingual country like Morocco. In other words, the way political and religious authorities function in Muslim-majority countries, as well as the means and degrees of the application of shari’a law in their legal systems, vary. In Morocco, secularists do not in general see their stance as opposing Islam, but they see it as opposing Islamists in an overarching context where monarchy (expected to protect both trends) rules.

Indeed, the secularists and Islamists in Morocco exhibit surface commonalities and deep underlying divergences. In sum, while we all understand what secularism means theoretically, it is tailored to the specific historical and sociopolitical nature of each country. For example, within the overall Moroccan ruling system, where both the supreme religious and political authorities are prerogatives of the king, the majority of the secular and Islamist forces do not contest this reality. Of course each trend has its own moderate and extremist versions but in general both secular and Islamist forces acknowledge the position of the king as the supreme and ultimate arbiter in cases of clash between parties, as well as a source of stability.

The Center exhibits the following characteristics: it does not have a clear leadership, it transcends the boundaries of the secdularist-Islamist dichotomy, it uses conventional and social media (virtual space) and it is porous (i.e. with open boundaries that are not clearly delimited). Hence, seemingly incompatible standpoints (secularist and Islamist) may co-exist and converse without converging in this space. Subsequently, the Center is bound to be complex and multifacteous because it addresses different important facets of a complex and quickly changing reality. In parctical terms, the Center expands beyond the reform movements of the 1990s-2000s and as such, does not easily fall in the Anglo-American or Western European frameworks of what constitutes a “political center” because the base of social reform is expanded and the relations with politics is not direct.

Although the Arab Spring did not specifically target women’s issues, it is thanks to decades of women’s struggle for their rights that issues like education and health care were top on the agenda of the mass protests. Further, it was the protest culture that secular women’s activists instilled in the public sphere that opened the door to large-scale demonstrations. A number of women-related issues are now raised in the Center: Islamist rhetoric that aims at rolling back women’s achievements in terms of rights, the escalation of gender-based violence pursuant to the escalation of Jihadism in the region, domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, etc. In addressing these issues, secular feminist forces are trying to gain initiative. Women’s rights are increasingly included in “mutual accountability frameworks” between donors and aid recipients in governmental institutions with the aim of regulating political dialogue, aid, trade, gender aspects, and wider economic relations.

It seems that theoretically, in the long run the Center will allow a broadening of the support base for women’s rights movements, through engaging new youth activists and women in rural and urban slum areas. Initiatives to transform development programs to embed gender equality, women’s participation. However, there is a growing feeling that the chief obstacle to these goals is the rise of fundamentalist movements in the region and the failure of political Islam to manage politics and be inclusive (governance).

By way of conclusion, I would say that whatever the constraints, In the case of NA, the use of gender as a lens through which emerging politicized identification processes within the public field are analyzed is a promising field of inquiry which brings together various intellectual voices in the region and across the globe. This approach brings to light a plurality of identity configurations at play in the post-revolution NA —ethno-linguistic and non-ethno-linguistic, Islamist and secular, that were marginalized or elided in the process of decolonization. This in turn allows a contextualization of the dominant post-revolution narratives in the region - the public role of Islam, women’s roles; recent reforms regarding women’s legal status, etc. Gender politics is crucial in forging these narratives, and hence, exemplifies how the three axes of identity—religion, ethnicity, gender— were activated during the revolution moment and nourished in the aftermath of the revolution.

These and related issues will be addressed in more detail in the upcoming 8th edition of the Mediterranean Forum which will focus on Women’s Voices in the Mediterranean and Africa: Movements, Feminisms, and Resistance to Extremisms and which will take place on May 5, 6 and 7 at Hotel Mérinides, Fez.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity. 

© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed without permission.




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