Women in Islam

Women are faced with significant challenges in the Middle East, where most of these challenges are premised on Islamic religious doctrines. However, when women in the Middle East attempt to voice their discontent or fight for their individual and collective rights, their complaints are silenced with rhetoric quotations of Islamic religious doctrines under which they are bound. Consequently, in order to overcome these challenges and enable the liberation of women’s rights, women in the Middle East have formed Islamic feminist movements, which aim at freeing women from being subjected to patriarchy laws, which glorify men while subjecting women to servitude and insignificance. Therefore, the formation of Islamic feminist groups is premised on the realization of equality among all Muslims in private and public environments irrespective of their gender.

The advocacy for gender justice in the Middle East is through the re-evaluation of traditional interpretations of religious texts and their respective support for gender parity and women’s rights (Coleman). The Islamic societies based their social structures on religion; as such, religion is perceived to be the fundamental structure within which power and respect in the community is defined. Therefore, it is crucial for women to seek their rights on political participation, employment, legal reform, and education on the basis of Islamic principles that are defined in the Qur’an. It is evident that feminists have not only impacted social-economic and political environments in the west but have also contributed significantly to the Arab world, more so, to the Middle East. As such, the impacts of Islamic feminists in Middle Eastern states such as Egypt and Iran cannot be ignored.

History of Arab Feminism

Feminism in the Middle East is perceived to be a product of western colonialist influences on the Middle East; however, this conception is refuted by Islamic feminists who, unlike their western counterparts, do not seek absolute equality with their men, but confine their quest for women’s rights to the Islamic doctrines and teachings. As such, secular feminism in the Middle East in the early 20th and late 19th centuries included various intellectual precepts which distinguished it from western feminism (Badran).
The role of Islam in defining women’s rights is among the most critical precepts. In contrast to the western secular feminism of the time, Islamic feminist movements integrated modernist precepts, more so, the demand for equal opportunities in public environments such as politics and education. For instance, the secular Islamic feminist group, the Egyptian Feminist Group was established in 1923 by Huda Sha’rawi, an advocate who championed the reformation of Muslim personal Law on the basis of pre-existing Islamic precepts (Badran). Additionally, the secular Islamic feminist movement merged during the struggle for freedom against colonialism in the early 20th century.
In 1919, the Egyptian women were significantly involved in protesting against British colonialism; therefore, the advantage of involvement in nationalistic rhetoric afforded significant credibility to women’s progress efforts (Badran). Secular feminism was mostly perceived as a conception of meetings such as the Eastern Women’s Congress that was held in 1930 and 1932 in Damascus and Tehran respectively. These meetings discussed the establishment of equal employment opportunities and incremental wages, raising marriage age for girls, and eliminating polygamy among other issues impacting the overall feminist movement. Significantly, Islamic feminists opted to adopt the positive aspects of the arguments that were presented by the west while rejecting those that were premised on western prejudices and passions.

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Impacts of Arab Feminists on the Middle East

The extent of feminism and its impacts on social, economic, and political aspects varies among the Middle Eastern countries; however, these impacts are prevalent in the whole Middle Eastern region. The Arab feminism concept has yet to be fully accepted across the Middle Eastern region, but significant progress has been realized towards this end. For instance, in 2009, significant numbers of women congregated in Malaysia with the aim of participating in the launch of a global organization advocating for parity in the Muslim family setting.

Additionally, significant number of women’s groups has been created across the Middle East, where Cairo has more than 300 women groups (Fernea). Arab feminism has critically impacted the social-economic environment in the middle east, where there are more women working outside the confines of their homes in the modern era than before and during the colonial era. For instance, in 1973, studies indicated that a negligible 7% of women in the Middle East worked beyond the confines of their homes; however, this figure has significantly increased to an estimated 30% (Fernea).

The factors that have contributed towards the success of Arab feminism include strengthened media influence, increasing female literacy, and religious extremism. In spite of female literacy standards being extremely low in the past, the Middle East has seen significant improvements beginning in the 1970s. For instance, in 1970, literate women in Saudi Arabia constituted only 2% of the total female population, while in 1990, this number had significantly increased to 48% (Sabbagh 264).

Thus, in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, there is more women representation in higher learning education institutes in contrast to men (Coleman). Consequently, women in the Middle East gain the confidence and opportunities that they require to query the status quo prevalent in Middle Eastern social order. Therefore, as more Middle Eastern women continue to be educated and develop a more comprehensive understanding and awareness of Islamic precepts, they begin to question the denial of their rights. As a result, these women are inherently determined to reinforce their distinctiveness as autonomous persons capable of negating predefined social norms in pursuit of their rights.

The role of women in the Middle Eastern societies has been debated and subjected to varied perceptions. The media have been instrumental in highlighting issues relating to Middle Eastern women. Television networks, such as Al-Arabiya, NBC, and Al-Jazeera, have sensitized the people through opinionated debates and critique on gender concerns in the Middle East and the extensive Islamic world. Interactive broadcast shows like “The View” has enabled women to voice their grievances and experiences on issues such as polygamy and child marriages in the comfort of their houses.
This serves to create normalcy in the forum while encouraging women to conceptualize and express their opinions on sensitive gender issues. Additionally, the prevalence of extremism in the Middle East on issues relating to women and modern societal changes have afforded more credibility to women groups. Therefore, women are increasingly recognized and given opportunities which they would not be given under traditional circumstances. For instance, women in Middle Eastern countries have been integrated into programs that are aimed at training them as mourchidats who are expected to perform and execute the functions of Muslim preachers (Coleman). These initiatives are premised on the need to mitigate extremism in Middle East and Islamic societies; hence, countries like Qatar and Egypt have adopted these initiatives for similar purposes.

While Arab feminism has been significantly successful, Middle Eastern women are critiqued for their abandonment of western feminism precepts. Such critique has been rebutted on the basis that Arab feminism has significant impacts in the Middle East as a result of its uniqueness and abandonment of western secular feminist ideologies. This is because Islamic societies are fundamentally defined through religion, which has been integrated with the state; thus western cultures have no impact on social issues influencing the Middle East (Fernea). The Islamic feminist’s initiative to combat gender injustices within the pre-existing social structures has proved to be valuable, since religious authority and knowledge is the basis in which power and respect are commanded. In light of this, Islamic women who attempt to adopt western secular feminism are often ridiculed and disrespected.

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The effectiveness of Arab feminism in impacting positive developments for Islamic women, as opposed to western feminism in the Middle East, is exemplified through the successful reformation of mudawana, the family code, in 2004 (Coleman). Secular feminist activists tried advocating for the formation of the discriminatory requirements of the family code, which these included the requirement for divorced women’s forfeiture of custodial rights towards their children in the event that they remarried or opted to live in a different locality. As a consequence of their protests, these women were branded as kaffirs, anti-Islamic, or unbelievers (Coleman). In order to reinforce their credibility, they opted to adopt a more conservative Islamic feminism approach that was more acceptable, leading to their eventual success in influencing the reformation of the family code.

It is evident that secular feminism has no impact on a Muslim society as such; Arab women are not attracted to the precepts of secular feminism. Middle Eastern women are critically attempting to create and develop for themselves a niche in a patriarchal Middle Eastern environment. In light of this, Middle Eastern women cannot afford the scrutiny and baggage that are associated with western secular precepts, since these might lead to their morality and integrity being questioned (Haddad and Smith 138). Therefore, secular feminism is seen as a threat to the achievements that were made throughout the development of family cohesion.

Moreover, Arab women activists are in dire need for the support of their men in influential positions, who would incidentally distance themselves from secular feminism, which is perceived as attempting to depreciate Islamic precepts. Secular feminism is believed to be encouraging Islamic women to discard the hijab. Contrary to western secular beliefs, the hijab is a symbol of modesty; therefore, it is crucial for Arab feminists to present themselves as modest while championing women’s empowerment.
As such, Islamic feminists are respected in their corresponding communities for their commitment and dedication to Islam; hence, they represent the amalgamation of Arab traditions and their quest for women empowerment. Doing so, Muslim women validate their arguments towards the enforcement of women’s rights and gender parity (Haddad and Smith 143). A woman adorning a hijab is perceived as moral and honorable; therefore, she is more likely to earn respect than being harassed in public forums such as workplaces. Hence, the hijab is symbolic towards the necessity for freedoms and rights for women, and it does not tamper with Muslim traditions and morality.

Examples of Arab feminist impacts on women’s issues in the Middle East

Iran is among the Middle Eastern countries which have benefitted significantly from Islamic feminism. The evidence towards this fact is illustrated by the significant number of Iranian women graduating from secondary and tertiary education institutions. 70% of the graduates in Iranian colleges are women; as such, women are predominant in governmental and professional capacities (Coleman). In light of this, Iranian women are provided with the opportunity to effectively champion social change in respect to women’ rights; evidently, they have influenced social change in Iranian society. For instance, Shirin Ebadi was the first Iranian woman to have become chief justice and the first Islamic woman to have been awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her contributions in championing women rights and protesting against discrimination towards women.

Her most notable achievement is one million signatures initiated in 2006. It was aimed at campaigning against legal discrimination of women through the provisions of Iranian laws (Coleman). This campaign was initiated on the basis of the Moroccan campaign for reforming the family code. Ebadi’s campaign sought to champion equal rights for women in ending polygamy, inheritance, and marriage and advocated harsher punitive measures for honor killings and various forms of violence towards women. Meanwhile, these campaigns were declared to be consistent with Islamic precepts and religious doctrines. Significantly, these campaigns influenced a critical piece of legislation that sought to impose taxes on prenuptial agreements above a defined amount in an attempt to mitigate men’s financial burden. However, after numerous protests, the proposed amendments to the legislation were excluded from the bill, which was subsequently passed in 2008 (Shirin Ebadi).

Egypt is also among the countries that have been influenced by Islamic feminist activities. A significant number of Egyptian women are educated; whereas, more than 50% of students in Egyptian universities are women. As a result, Egyptian women have added their voice in advocating for women’s rights in critical areas such as employment, marriage, and sexuality (Fernea). The impacts of Islamic feminism have been demonstrated through the recent passing of laws legalizing the implementation of khula, which is consensual divorce on the basis of Islamic precepts.

The enactment of this legislation has enabled Egyptian women to request for divorce provided they are willing and capable of returning their dowries. The intricacies of consensual divorce have been provided for in the Islamic laws sharia, where Khula is mentioned in the Sunna and Qur’an (Fernea). The fact that consensual divorce is provided for in the Qur’an demonstrates that women in Islamic religious groups have been right all along; however, in order for their requests to be granted, they have to assert themselves in proving the existence of this provision of their men. Egyptian Islamic feminists have taken the initiative of championing against sexual abuse and genital mutilations in women. As such, they have succeeded in ending genital mutilation practices in upper regions of Egypt. Additionally, Egyptian women have succeeded in championing more employment right for women, requiring factories employing over 100 women to provide childcare to female workers free of charge (Fernea).

Arab feminism across Middle Eastern countries has significantly impacted women’s social, legal, and economic status. However, the changes that were realized as a result of feminist activism are not enough; therefore, more input and new strategies are essential in the continued championing of women’s rights in the Middle East and other Islamic societies. This is critical, since in some regions, women are still subjected to oppressive interpretations of Islamic precepts. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive or vote; hence, in the event that they disobey, they are subjected to severe punishments (Coleman). This is in contrast to countries that have allowed their women have substantive legal rights, rights for employment and education. However, patriarchy systems have continued to dominate Middle Eastern societies; hence, men have continued to control their women’s personal lives. In light of this, sexual tendencies and behavior have remained to be a controversial subject that is difficult to champion without appearing to be negating Islamic precepts.

Evolution of Women in the Arab Film Industry

In spite of the fact that women played a prominent role in the Arab filmmaking, female figures have often been underestimated and marginalized in the historiography of the Arab film industry. Women directors raised different burning issues of their time, especially those related to the women’s position in the Arab countries. Therefore, the image of Arab women described in films has also been changing along with the social realities.

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The history of Arab women filmmakers began in Egypt in the 1920s, when silent films were experiencing their Golden Age. Aziza Amir, Fatima Rushdi and Bahiga Hafiz were the pioneers of the Egyptian cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. However, the problem is that there are not many evidences about the female filmmakers of that time, and another controversial subject is whether women were actually directing films on their own. It is known that the theme of the women’s position in the Arab society was a leading motif of the most films at that time. Presentations of the female victimization became prevalent in the films and common themes for both male and female directors. In 1935, the first modern film studios in the Arab world were created in Egypt, and very soon Cairo was called “Hollywood on the Nile.” It boosted the development of the film industry in North Africa. However, when the filmmaking became more professional, and the new studios were created, many women filmmakers and producers were forced out from the industry for the next thirty years (Hillauer, 2005).

In the 1970s, women returned in the industry of filmmaking. They used to have appropriate training and academic background in the field of filmmaking. Many of them considered filmmaking as their professional career, and, therefore, represented a growing competition to their male colleagues. Some of those women became pioneers of the New Arab Cinema and got later the world-wide recognition for their contribution into the African and world cinema art. It must be said that many women directors, such as Assia Djebar, Nejia Ben Mabrouk and Farida Ben Lyazid, started initially as writers (Hillauer, 2005). Such a concept came from Europe, where filmmakers were authors and scriptwriters at the same time.

Different documentaries and experimental films were made in order to reflect the real conditions. However, a woman standing in the Arab society remained a leading motif in the Arab filmmaking industry. Numerous films from the revolutionary Algerian Cinema and Egyptian realism were devoted to the theme of women’s discrimination. For example, such films as The Open Door and A Wife for My Son dealt with an issue of the arranged marriage that was common for the Arab countries; Egyptian I Am Free and Algerian Layla and Her Sisters films raised a question about disadvantaging of women at the workplace; finally, a theme of women’s oppression in the family surrounding is highly criticized in the Tunisian films Aziza, South Wind and Sahara Blues (Shafik, 2007). Overall, women were mostly described as helpless victims until the late 1970s, when the European concept of cinema d’auteur penetrated into the Arab film industry and caused the transformation of traditional concepts of filmmaking.

At that time, Arab women directors were trying to show the women’s emancipation from another perspective as it was done by male directors. Although many Arab male directors supported the idea of the women’s emancipation, they often regarded it only as the means for achieving political independence, as well as a technical and cultural progress. By this, they meant that women may fight for the national independence together with men, but as soon as this goal is reached, women should come back to their usual lifestyle of housewives. Female directors, on the contrary, tried to change this tendency and present the Arab women’s emancipation as an independent phenomenon. This theme is presented in the Algerian films The South Wind and The Open Door directed by the Egyptian Henri Barakat.

It is essential to note that freedom and modernization contributed substantially to the development of the Arab film industry, especially in North Africa. The 1970s were the best time for the Algerian cinema, and in the 1980s and 1990s, Tunisian films have got the most prizes all over the world. However, the general situation was unfavorable for the Arab filmmakers due to insufficient opportunities for training and funding, as well as the inadequate cultural infrastructure. The position of women filmmakers in the Arab film industry was especially unstable. It was hard for women directors to find funding sources and co-producers for their films. Along with their male colleagues, women experienced numerous obstacles. State subsidies were not sufficient to produce films that would be competitive and would attract local and world audience. Besides, the national censorship often opposed director’s ideas, especially those related to politics and religion. Thus, many Arab filmmakers, including women directors, often immigrated abroad.

In 1971, the Egyptian documentary filmmaker, Ateyyat El Abnoudy, has elaborated her own style called the “poetic realism”. It was called in such a way as she was trying to denote the real atmosphere, while giving a considerable attention to the aesthetics. Abnoudy has often been referred to as “the poor people’s filmmaker”, because she tried to depict the harsh reality of that time. In her films, she documented real representatives of peasants, day laborers and habitants of the Upper Egypt and their life stories. In the film Permissible Dreams, she depicted an image of an old woman, who was illiterate, but wise enough to make the major decisions for her family (Hillauer). Abnoudy was the first female filmmaker in the Arab industry to establish her own production base, which later became the accepted standard. Establishing their own production bases raised the women’s chances of finding funding and co-producers for their films.

The 1980s were marked with searching for the new narrative and cinematic forms. As it was mentioned, North African cinema was influenced by the European concept of cinema d’auteur. Therefore, many experimental films were made by women directors at that time. Trying to bring more stylistic originality into their films, women directors used such techniques as mosaic and renascent of the oriental history. Besides, they tended to opt for new and unusual subjects for their films. At that time, some of the most interesting feature films of the New Arab Cinema were created.

The New Arab Cinema films, made by women directors, dealt with completely new issues. The Algerian writer-filmmaker Assia Djebar raised a question about the women’s role in the history, while depicting the stories of Arab women on a background of the history of the colonial period of North Africa. The theme of the women’s position in the Arab society is raised again in the film The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua, where traditional social roles were reversed. In the film, a woman was the one, who performed the leading role in her family, while a man, her husband, was totally dependent on her. The issue of liberation on a personal level was raised in the film of the Tunisian director Neija Ben Madrouk The Trace, which later became a classic example of the Arab emancipatory cinema.

In 1988, another women director, Benlyazid, directed a film A Door to the Sky, which presents a totally different version of a woman’s search for meaning in the context of Islam. The film gained the world-wide fame and caused a resonance in the United States. The film deals with an issue of the “double culture”. The thing is that the Europeans knew really little about the North African and the Islam society; therefore, they were prone to come up with numerous prejudices and preconceptions. Such films as A Door to the Sky aimed at overcoming those preconceptions and showing foreigners the genuine nature of the Islam society.

In the 1990s, the Arab film industry was oriented mainly on the audience abroad, rather than on the domestic spectators. The coproduction with western companies became a common practice at that time. It gave Arab directors more opportunities in filmmaking; however, this trend led to the western dominance in financial and ideological aspects. Still, only several female directors managed to make more than one film for movie theaters. In 1990, the association called Egyptian Women in Film was created by women in Cairo in order to support the interests of female filmmakers (Shafik, 2007). The association provided workshops and different training courses for women interested in filmmaking. Still, due to the lack of job opportunities in the film industry, many graduates were employed in other related industries such as advertising or television. In the mid to late 1990s, Fanta Regina Nacro along with other female directors became more active in developing the Arab film industry. The activists also included Haydee Tanzali, a daughter and a collaborator of the African pioneer, Albert Samam Chikly, who organized the first film screenings in Tunisia in 1897 (Armes, 2007).

Regarding the modern Arab cinema, many women are involved in writing screenplays, directing for television and realizing documentaries. However, women are still underrepresented in the feature films production. Besides, many of them work abroad in the cooperation with western companies. They include the Algerian writer Assia Djebar, who has directed two semi-documentaries for televisions, and another Algerian woman Hafsa Zinat-Koudil, who created the first conventional fiction film called Female Demon in 1993. Recently, the Egyptian film industry features only a few women directors, including Nadia Hamza and Asma’ al-Bakri. Their works are seen as dramatically different when compared to those created by male directors. The main reason why the modern Arab film industry lacks women representatives in the film producing and directing is moral. Acting or other forms of involvement in the film industry are not regarded as an honorable occupation in the Arab countries (Shafik, 2007).

The Tunisian woman director Moufida Tlatli is another prominent figure in the Arab film industry. She is the first Arab woman, who has directed a full-length feature film in the Arabic-speaking world. In 1994, she made a film The Silences of the Palace, which was set in Tunisia at the end of colonialism. It was a complex work that featured a struggle for the independence and the slavery position of women at the same time. Later, the film was marked with the awards at the film festivals in Toronto and San Francisco. Moufida Tlatli was internationally recognized as a talented director, and in 2011, she was appointed to a government post as the Minister of Culture in the Tunisian Provisional Government in 2011.

Tlatli’s feature film The Silences of the Palace is a clear example of transportation of the real life into the film. The thing is that main characters made by Arab women filmmakers were often semi-autobiographical (Harrow, 1997). Likewise, the story in the Tlatli’s film was based on the real family tragedy of her mother’s illness. Women directors tried to create an alternative women model and remove it from the western clichés. In their works, they reflect issues of gender, religion and politics, which are closely interlacing with their everyday life. These films give an opportunity to take a deep insight in the Arab societies.

Another issue depicted in the Arab Cinema is the gender separation, which has always been a common feature of the Islam culture. The theme of a traditional division of social roles has widely been used by the Arab female directors, while creating their films. According to this division, the domestic sphere was considered to be exclusively female, while males dominated in the sphere of public relations and social life. A symbol of a veil was widely used as a stylistic device in the films in order to denote such controversial notions as the women’s oppression and emancipation. A strike for the sense of self-determination is a driving force of all the films made by female filmmakers. Such films often outline the issue of the real and imagined freedom and courage to overstep traditional boundaries (Hillauer, 2005).

With the spread of westernization, an image of the “new African woman” has evolved. The traditional notions about the African womanhood were substantially influenced by the European aesthetic impositions, which later led to double-faced standards of the African femininity. The image of the “modern African woman” found its reflection in the filmmaking. A female body was used by filmmakers as a metaphor for a change. The contrast between the “westernized” and “traditional” African woman was often depicted in the films made by Arab directors. Such an opposition of two standards of femininity is reflected in the films Mandabi, Ta Dona, Visages de Femmes and Diankha-bi. The representatives of the “traditional” and “westernized” African women were opposed not only by their appearance, but also by their status, language, occupation, and even by their gestures (Ellerson, 1997).

It is evident that Arab feminists have achieved significant progress without the influence of western feminism; therefore, it is essential for western feminists to acknowledge and respect the effectiveness of Islamic feminism in championing women’s rights in the Middle East. However, western feminist can make their contributions through discussing issues facing women in the Middle East in open forums and demonstrating solidarity with Middle Eastern women organizations. It is evident that Middle Eastern women have engaged in a critical quest for women’s rights; therefore, they have formed a formidable movement championing gender issues that impact women in Middle Eastern societies.

To conclude, women played a significant role in the history of the Arab film industry, which features many outstanding North African women directors, who raised different burning issues of their time. Their films predominantly dealt with the women’s position in the Arab countries, as well as their emancipation and gender division of social roles. The African film industry was influenced by the western culture to a considerable degree. Therefore, traditional notions of the African femininity changed substantially under the European impositions regarding beauty, fashion and other markers of womanhood.

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