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Women, democracy and dictatorship

The electoral success of Islamic parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, has raised worries about policy and legislation on family and gender issues, this despite re-assuring noises from leading figures. Earlier electoral successes of Islamists in Iraq had brought about a disorderly mix of family policies and rule of disparate religious authorities, accompanied by much constraint and intimidation. This may be a good time to reflect on the record of various Middle Eastern countries on these issues over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first century and their relations to political regimes.

In the early and middle decades of the twentieth century it was always dictators who embarked on policy and legislation which liberated and empowered women in both family and society. Ataturk started the process in Turkey, followed by Reza Shah in Iran, a model followed less boldly by some Arab leaders in later decades. And they did so against strong popular opposition, religious, conservative and patriarchal. It is unlikely that such reforms would have passed electoral ‘democratic’ processes.

It was in the 1950s that many of the ‘mainstream’ countries, such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Morocco, abolished the separate Shari`a courts, and integrated family law into the regular civil courts, but ruling in accordance with reformed, codified, Shari`a provisions. This step was enacted by military dictators, against the stifled displeasure of religious and conservative circles. This was most notable in Iraq, under Qasim, who came to power at the head of a military coup in 1958, and enacted some of the most liberal family provisions in 1959. These reforms, which abolished Shari`a courts, and gave women enhanced rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance, delighted the strong leftist-secularist current of the time, and angered religious conservatives. A mocking rhyme chanted in the streets was: tali al-shahar maku mahar, wul-qadi nthebba bil-nahar, ‘come the end of the month there will no longer be dowries, and we shall chuck the qadi in the river’.

The bloody CIA assisted Ba`thist coup in 1963 put an end to the relatively benevolent Qasim dictatorship, and brought in the rule of a pan-Arabist and sectarian Sunni regime under the backward Arif brothers. Sure enough, a delegation of venerable clerics, Sunni and Shi`i, prevailed on Arif to reverse all Qasim’s reforms. The second Ba`th coup in 1968 ultimately brought Saddam Hussein to dominance in the 1970s, the ‘golden age’ of prosperity and cultural revival funded by multiplication of oil revenues, which also reinforced the security state and bloody repression. This regime pursued secularism quite seriously, aimed, in part, at weakening religious and patriarchal loyalties in favour of the regime and party. The 1970s and 80s saw great strides in the empowerment of women in family and society and the curbing of religious authority over family law, albeit within the limits of the totalitarian security regime which integrated all women’s organisations within the Ba`th Party and the state.

All this came to an end in the following decades of destructive wars, against Iran in the 1980s, then the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent pulverisation of Iraqi economy and infrastructure by American and allied bombardment, followed by disastrous UN sanctions. An increasingly weakened regime resorted to tribalism and religion to shore up social controls, easily bypassing its own reforms to return to patriarchy, ‘honour’ violence and all kinds of impositions on women. By that time the class of people who would ‘chuck the qadi in the river’ had been all but eliminated. The violent repression of all politics and civil autonomies had been highly successful in killing, imprisoning and exiling the ‘citizen’ middle classes; the Ba`th Party itself had been transformed from an ideological campaign to a passive vehicle of allegiance to the ruling dynasty. Most important, individuals had been driven by the violence and collapse of the economy to seek safety and livelihood in family, clan, patron bosses and religious networks. The only political opposition facing the regime became the Shi`i parties, tied to those patrimonial networks and Iran. The fragmented electoral ‘democracy’ imposed by the Americans after the invasion inaugurated chaotic sets of legal and religious practices on family law, largely restoring the religious and patriarchal authorities’ powers over family and women. The dictators liberated women in the good days, but retreated under pressure, and it was the populists ushered in by ‘democracy’ who oppressed women.

What of the ‘Muslim feminists’ who have been so prominent on the ideological landscape, primarily in the west? Have their revisionist reading of the religious canon and empowering advocacy achieved any policy or legislative results? Not tangibly, with one possible exception. Arguably, and paradoxically, their greatest success, however modest, was Islamic Iran during its ‘liberal’ interregnum between Khomeini’s death in 1989 and Ahmadinejad’s incumbency in 2005. During these years many liberalising policy and legislative measures were achieved under pressure from elements, including women, from within the fragmented Islamic establishment, as well as from the relatively free opposition sources. These appear to have come to an end under the increasingly repressive and arbitrary rule of the closely allied executive and judiciary. Iran’s judiciary appear to be truly independent: from the law!

Women are often at the forefront of the recent dramatic and exhilarating uprisings in the Arab world. They are a vital component of the generation of ‘citizens’ who proclaimed the universal values of liberty and justice. Where they succeeded in ushering democratic reforms, however, the elections seem to have brought to power elements that are, to say the least, ambivalent about these values. Dictators, survivors and aspiring, would now judge it wise to appease backward sentiments rather than engage in the modernising thrusts of their twentieth century predecessors.

Sami Zubaida is emeritus professor of politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, London. He is the author of Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East. 

This article is a shortened version from one originally published on opendemocracy.net.

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2 Comments on “Women, democracy and dictatorship”

  1. British-Iraqi February 27, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    All this article and you fail to objectively tell us examples of women oppression by ^^^^^religious authorities^^^^^.

    Plus, when democracy brings rules such as Income Tax in Britain, Multi-Billion handouts to banks, this is not oppression as it was “democracy” and majority rules but when a grand majority have a religion and choose to follow that religion and its teachings, and choose to elect members who pass legislation according to Islam, this is oppression.

    Culture can be oppressive, Islam is NEVER oppressive (unless to ignorant people who dont understand or dont want to understand).

  2. ABS February 27, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    It’s a bit early to judge the newly-elected Islamict parties on how their attitudes to women play out (although you didn’t state it, it seems you are implying that their policies are typical of conservative oppressive ‘backward’ clerics).

    In your reference to Islamicts, Shari’ah courts, clerics and anything else of an Islamic orientation you fail to make a distinction between the ideals of Islam and the attempts by Muslims to implement these ideals in their lives (I appreciate this is not a theological/ religious article, but for the purposes of accuracy and fairness it is necessary).

    I do believe, however, that there is and has been a long battle or struggle regarding social rules in the Middle East, including family matters as well as women. But I don’t think this tension should be categorised as simply ‘backward’ versus progressive. To me this problem is the outcome of a deeper struggle: the conflict between Islam and modernism. The nature of modernism and its forced implimentation in the Islamic lands, from the invasion of Napoleon in 1798 until now, has had catastrophic impacts in the Muslim world. The continued economic and cultural colonialisation of a modernistic nature has caused a profound imbalance in a civilisation that has viewed the world around it differently to the desacralised, secularised, reductionist, excessively rationalistic view that is at the heart of modernism.

    The anthropocentric view of the relations between men and women, family values etc of the secular modern world imported into the Islamic world is one such conflict. Understanding the foundations of both modernism and Islam is essential in understanding why there is such a tension in matters such as family values and women in these lands today, and in attempting to provide solutions to these very troubling problems.

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