Islamic Feminism and the Equivocation of Political Engagement. ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ (English version)



The recent rise and fall of the Islamist rule in Egypt calls for reflection, not just on the role of Islamic feminist ideas in society, but also on the shifting political grounds and questions of ethical and principled opposition. The presentation of this subject does not take the approach of the usual secular/Islamist binary or a criticism of secular liberalism, but is rather focused on a critique of any feminist movement, be it secular or Islamic, that allows itself to be co-opted and silenced by corrupt political regimes. I attempt to conceptualize and articulate an ethical politics for the Islamic feminist trend, not necessarily or not only defined by its contrast to secular or liberal feminism in Arab context.

The Islamic feminist orientation in Egypt so far has been mainly concerned with areas of discourse and religious knowledge, critiquing patriarchal interpretations and advocating feminist justice within and through Islam. In other words, it began as a theological and knowledge project with definite potential of being a useful resource for legal reform for women, but lacked a strong activist dimension.

Therefore, I argue that if Islamic (not ‘political Islamist’) feminists wish to grow and develop into a conscientious social and activist movement – especially in this region at this historical juncture – they need to take stands vis-à-vis the politics and ethics of both the religious establishment and the ruling regime.


This chapter, in its first part, will discuss the general issue of the precarious relationship between feminists and the state, especially in the modern Egyptian context, and, in its second part, will look into the moral ambiguities associated with Islamic feminism’s political stands. A quick look at the background of modern European state feminism provides not necessarily a perfect standard to emulate, but an opportunity to think about the differentiation that democratic or non-democratic contexts create in relation to a feminist movement’s ability to voice opposition freely. A situation in which women bargain with the state, at the expense of ignoring fundamental violations and corruptions and only for limited and gender-specific gains, constitutes an ethically distorted form of state feminism.


Women’s Movements and the State


A number of studies have been recently produced to outline a theory of state feminism, perceived generally as women’s activism – in pursuit of change and reform on the ground – working in collaboration with policy makers and state agencies (Adams 2007; McBride and Mazur 2010). Women’s policy agencies are state-based institutions or councils established to promote women’s rights and gender equality.

State feminism as an overarching concept was introduced in 1987 by Helga Hermes in the course of studying the Scandinavian model of the proactive role of the welfare state, taking measures to incorporate female citizens as effective participants in public life. Hermes defines state feminism as ‘a variety of public policies and organizational measures, designed partly to solve general social and economic problems, partly to respond to women’s demands’ (Hermes 1987: 11). Since the 1990s, researching the application of this notion became increasingly focused on the specific work of these government structures and state actors and on analyzing ‘whether the structures are actually effective in making the state more inclusive of women and their interests’ (McBride and Mazur 2010: 5). These studies in general argue two main points: using the criteria of women’s inclusiveness and gender mainstreaming to measure and judge the acceptable performance of the state in this area; and, at the same time, maintaining that women’s movements can be more successful when they forge alliances in strategies and policy goals – a ‘successful agency-movement alliance’(McBride and Mazur 2010: 5).

Joyce Outshoorn (1994), who first coined the label ‘femocrats’ to describe those individuals working in bureaucratic and state agencies to promote women’s rights and improve their conditions, gives a general positive assessment in her analysis of the phenomenon by maintaining that feminist bureaucracies are on the whole equipped to transform the goals of the women’s movement to actual concrete public policies. Yet, even within the general tendency of the literature on the subject to view the state–movement alliance as useful and impactful, the issue of whether the women’s movement can be autonomous at times and in alliance with governments at other times is raised (Outshoorn 2010). Acknowledgement of the changing political contexts and specific national environments becomes an essential factor in studying the diverse state and governmental machineries in considering both the opportunities and challenges for agencies and women’s movements to co-operate and mobilize (Outshoorn and Kantola 2007).

In other words, theorizing state feminism as a successful phenomenon depends on a specific political and social context that can allow for women’s movements to maintain independence and free determination of the extent and scope of alliance with governments and regimes. Hence, we find other research that casts doubt on the traditional positive outlook of the complete success of state feminism (especially as it had originated within the Nordic welfare state model) by referring to the uneasy relationship between official femocrats and activists, one that can be characterized by confrontation and competition rather than co-operation (Valiente 1997).

This precarious relationship or tension between ‘women working from inside and outside government’ is expressed succinctly by Marian Sawer (within her general assessment of welfare public policies versus market rationalization in three specific countries): Women’s policy machinery is the daughter of the women’s movement and there is an in-built tension in this relationship. Women’s policy units are accountable to government and not just to the women’s movement, meaning that conflicts of interest and perspective are inevitable. Femocrats must demonstrate loyalty to government in order to be credible in their policy advice; policy brokering involves compromises even if this leads to accusations of co-option. (Sawer 1996: ii)

The above references are samples of empirical studies conducted to gauge the impact and success of state feminism across Europe and as part of the apparatus of diverse established Western democracies. They focus on specific measures and policies undertaken by the state within the ‘process of making democracies more democratic’ (McBride andMazur 2010: 3). Not only so, but they also suggest that such feminist government action points to a significant political and social development of making states more overtly feminist (Mazur 2002). The situation in a country like Egypt – pre and post the January 2011 Revolution is different, more complex and unstable.


State Feminism in Egypt


The relationship between women’s movements and the state in the Arab region, and in Egypt in particular, is complicated by a modern history of colonialism and national struggle for independence. Ellen Fleischmann (1999) gives a comprehensive overview of the history and political environment of the modern emergence of a women’s movement in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century. She outlines three consecutive stages: first, the ‘awakening’ period or the beginning of public and intellectuals’ attention to women’s issues around the turn of the twentieth century, also marked by the formation of women’s organizations and spread of women’s journals; second, women in the arena of the nationalist movement for independence and the struggle against British colonial power; third, the period of state policies in advancing formal gender equity in education and work in the public sector. Her analysis shows, however, that there seems to be a historical pattern that characterizes national struggle movements and the building of independent states following liberation: newly established governing regimes or states tend to sideline women’s specific demands and inclusiveness and do not automatically grant women their due rights, even as acknowledgement of their roles within the struggle for emancipation.

Indeed several scholars specializing in studying the evolution of women’s movements in the Arab region or the greater Middle East had noticed this historical irony of women serving the cause of nationalism, only to be forsaken by it later (Baron 1991: 272). Both Deniz Kandiyoti (1991) and Anne McClintock (1991) have also revealed in their writings the falseness of women’s assumptions that achieving the goal of a strong, independent and modern national state leads naturally to their emancipation and equal citizenship rights.


Further, the expectation of the state being the source of active implementation of progressive gender policies may be a misplaced trust on the part of women. Analysis of the attitude and policies of states like Turkey and Iran – at the peak of both regimes’ modernization and secularization projects in the first half of the twentieth century – shows that the state, in encouraging women’s rights and public participation, is never a disinterested party. States in this context of consolidating ideologies and regimes tend to use women’s cause as a political tool or card to demonstrate to the outside world the face of a ‘modern, democratic, inclusive’ state, while bargaining with the local women’s movement for an exchange of interests and gains.


It was Mervat Hatem (1994) who focused her analysis on this paradoxical relationship that has existed between the women’s movement and the Egyptian state since the 1950s. In this case, ‘state feminism’ has been both a blessing and a curse: overall, women may have benefitted from state policies in promoting education, work and public participation, as part of its nation-building citizenry project, but it has been at the expense of women’s autonomy.

During Nasser’s regime (1952–1970), the state adopted policies similar in some ways to the Scandinavian welfare state model in supporting women’s inclusiveness in its social, economic, political, health and educational programmes, as working citizens in the service of the state’s progress. Women were given the right to vote, to be part of the labour force, to be appointed in office and various other government positions in the public sector. However, Hatem’s (1999) comparative research has also shown that this ‘type’ of state feminism (for example, in Turkey) – when postcolonial regimes adopt a top-down totalizing, modernizing project or aim to enforce its political legitimacy – links women’s rights to the changing political interests of the state and determines the priorities and demands of women for them. Hence, in their sole reliance on the state for formal gender equity policies, especially in the public sphere, the women’s movement tends to lose its independence and control over its own agenda of more reform in other spheres.


Another drawback of this kind of state–movement association in the specific case of a country like Egypt, as it moved from Nasser’s era to that of Sadat (1970–1981) and Mubarak (1981–2011), is the price of possible co-option. Though the state’s withdrawal from welfare services and other social support through its adoption of the free economy policy since 1974 led to its encouragement of non-governmental and charity organizations to work as alternative civil institutions to official policies, it was still wary of these NGOs’ potential political confrontation. Heba Raouf (2001) monitors the developments in the relationship between the women’s movements and feminist organizations (designated by her as clearly secularist) and the state during the 1990s in particular, the decade that witnessed the two major United Nations conferences on women – the ICPD (International Conference on Population and Development) and Beijing. Raouf argues that Islamist women’s activism is more authentic and grassroots, whilst the elitist and secularist feminist activists engage in a bargaining game with the government. From this pro-Islamist perspective, her analysis shows that government crackdown on Islamists and its public hostility to their discourses created a ‘golden opportunity for the secularists to attack Islamists harshly on the issue of women, to appear as supporters of women’s rights, and to accuse the Islamists . . . of being the major threat to the women’s cause’ (Raouf 2001: 250). Anxious for the state’s approval of their agenda, major women’s associations and groups would not wish to confront or oppose the regime: ‘This automatically put the main bulk of secularists and feminist circles on the side of the government, yet the price was that they had to keep silent about the violations of human rights committed by the state in the process’ (ibid.). In this context, Raouf views the formation of the National Council of Women (NCW) by a presidential decree in the year 2000 and the appointment of well-chosen names for its members as a measure of allocation of power – a tool of bargaining and rewarding the supporters and allies of the state.


While that view is characterized by generalization and exaggerated bias against all non Islamic women feminist activists, it nevertheless directs attention to the potential trap of a close association with the regime, particularly when it is authoritarian and undemocratic. This inherently flawed dimension of a women’s movement–state collaboration (mainly in the form of the NCW operating directly under the auspices and supervision of Suzanne Mubarak) increased the public perception of this movement as an ally of a corrupt and oppressive regime, hence undermining its legitimacy, relevancy and support.

That is why this form of ‘state feminism’ proved its fragility upon the ousting of Mubarak by the January 2011 Revolution and became vulnerable, during the following transitional period, to reactionary voices calling for withdrawing some of the legal gains achieved during the previous regime.

‘Combating the shadow of the First Lady syndrome’ is how Hoda Elsadda (2011) expressed a major obstacle to be faced by women’s rights activists in the period immediately following the January Revolution.


As a result of the above-mentioned situation, what has developed throughout the past decade is ‘a prevalent public perception that associates women’s rights activists and their activities with the ex-First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, and her entourage – that is, with corrupt regime politics in collusion with imperialist agendas’ (Elsadda 2011: 86).

Yet, Elsadda rightly refutes this false assumption by carefully outlining how such legislative changes were in fact the direct outcome of a long process of women activists’ struggles, separate from the First Lady’s desire to appropriate women’s issues for her public image and from the more officially publicized activities of the NCW’s femocrats.

Though I have been posing the association and collaboration with corrupt states or regimes as problematic and as given to abuse, to discredit any reform efforts by the majority of women activists is the other side of political manipulation, which is also rejected. Elsadda documents the situation that immediately arose beginning April 2011 of calls to rescind the specific legal changes that had been passed in the preceding decade within Personal Status Law to improve some legal positions of women in marriage and divorce procedures. Such calls came from both the Islamist and non-Islamist camps at the time by politicians aiming to invalidate women’s gains and even malign the whole feminist movement under the pretext of voicing due attacks on the fallen regime and righting situations after the revolution. The article goes on to show that, despite the efforts of women’s rights activists in the complicated domain of legal reform, the visible outcome at the very end of this process would still be determined by the First Lady’s endorsement and political leverage (Elsadda 2011: 93), in effect hijacking the issue. Public antagonism and complete rejection of the NCW on the part of independent women activists may have not been possible at the time of Mubarak’s rule, yet most harboured the awareness that the Council ‘competed with existing women’s organization, sought to appropriate women’s activism and work, and tried to monopolize speaking on behalf of all women’ (ibid.).


During the transitional period of the control of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in 2011, and in the spirit of revolutionary changes, there were calls by women activists to restructure and democratize the NCW to transform it from an institution run by state-appointed officials or bureaucrats to an entity representing civil society demands. Yet despite the public debates over this and the new suggestions of reformulating the state’s relationship with women activists and NGOs, the developments of this turbulent year and a half (until mid-2012), which included the rise of criticism and outcries of women against the violent practices and aggression of SCAF’s policies towards women protestors and demonstrators, put an end to this endeavour. Nevertheless, ‘[t]his push to explore new forms of organization indicates that the state’s institutional relationship to women – one that has allowed the former to dominate the latter in exchange for some concessions – has been significantly challenged’ (Hatem 2011: 38). It is true that since the January Revolution, ‘activist Egyptian women have expressed a clear desire to distance themselves from the institutional and political legacies of state feminism’ (ibid.: 41), yet I argue that this was clearer during the time of SCAF’s governments and the one-year term of Mohammed Morsi’s rule, but not in the period following the 3 July military intervention.

Women’s groups and activists did not refrain from voicing opposition and dissent against both SCAF’s violations of human rights and use of oppressive measures and the Muslim Brotherhood’s push for policies based on a conservative, regressive gender ideology. During the latter’s rule, even the NCW of the time dissociated its campaign of women’s rights promotion from the ideas and policies of the existing government and the presidential institution’s attempts to impose its agenda.


This confrontation was clear during the 57th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March 2013. Though the head of the NCW, Ambassador Dr Mervat Al-Tellawi, would traditionally represent the Egyptian government in this international forum, President Morsi dispatched his appointed presidential assistant for political affairs, Dr Pakinam Al-Sharqawi, to head that year’s delegation and deliver an official speech on women’s issues from the new regime’s perspective, in a move that was clearly meant to pull the rug from under the CSW delegate and to undermine its representational status. Dr Al-Tellawi did not attend the talk so as not to be considered in automatic agreement with Al-Sharqawi’s views. However, Al-Sharqawi went ahead to announce that Egypt was joining a cross-regional coalition of seventeen countries protesting the unconditioned passing of the UN declaration on violence against women on account of respecting and preserving cultural and religious specificities. Al-Tellawi’s position was unambiguously defiant, as she ignored this intended official policy by the Egyptian government and announced that the CSW delegate would nevertheless join international consensus on the UN document that sets global standards for action to prevent violence against women. That year’s theme of violence against women was particularly relevant to the growing problem of violence and sexual assaults on women demonstrators, which had developed during thereign of SCAF and continued under Morsi’s rule. Women activists andinitiatives were very outspoken in exposing this phenomenon as a systematic state policy (perpetrated by the police and security forces in control of the streets and public spaces) to intimidate women and end their participation in street protest movements (Abd Al-Hamid and Ahmad 2014; Langohr 2014). Al-Tellawi even included in her paper that she presented at a panel in the CSW a clear condemnation of these violent practices, calling them ‘a new political weapon . . . to assault them and frighten them from taking part in demonstrations’(Al-Tellawi 2013: 3).1 When the Muslim Brotherhood and the International Union for Muslim Scholars released a very strong statement denouncing the UN declaration for going against Egyptian cultural and religious values, the NCW responded promptly to refute these claims and women activists were also public in criticizing and rejecting this path of the Egyptian state’s official policy in undermining women’s activism towards more equal rights.


The purpose of the above account is to highlight the difference between the actions of the NCW and the women’s movement during SCAF’s rule and the MB’s regime, which manifested resistance to state control over the women’s cause in both periods, and after. A shift took place following the 3 July 2013 military intervention. In a wellpublicized and widely covered international press conference held by the NCW, headed by Al-Tellawi, Sakina Fouad (the newly appointed president’s councillor on women’s affairs), and Tahani al-Gibali (ex-vice president of the constitutional court, known for her support of SCAF’s policies, hence previously criticized by various women groups and activists), the main objective of the event was clearly political. Held less than a week after the government’s 14 August 2013 violent disbanding of the Rabia sit-in camp, the conference, in a very hasty and premature move, presented the speakers as the sole representatives of the women’s movement’s position, speaking in the name of all Egyptian women (Ramadan 2013). They expressed total support and approval of the regime, especially justifying the actions of the armed forces and the ‘national’ police in the latest Rabia mass killings. Ironically, Al-Tellawi is quoted commenting on the just-ousted Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime that ‘women were treated brutally [emphasis added] by the MB’. The speakers also lambasted the West for their criticism of the Egyptian government’s violent acts and measures against a huge sector of the Egyptian people. An official NCW statement was issued and read by Al-Tellawi, entitled ‘Women Against Violence and Terrorism’, in which full support of the armed forces and police was emphasized and a demand was made in the name of ‘the Egyptian woman’ to put the MB on the international list of terrorist organizations.

This early press conference would initiate a new stage in the relationship between various women activists and groups and the new military-backed Egyptian government/regime. With the exception of a few opposition feminist and human rights groups, as well as a small number of conscientious women activist figures, I am claiming that there is a noticeable shift, or rather a turning back, to the previous pre-January Revolution situation of the NCW and its associates and collaborators keeping silent about the state’s violations of human rights and participating in its ‘illiberal democracy’. In a position paper produced recently by three independent NGOs (The Women and Memory Forum, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Nazra for Feminist Studies) for a joint presentation at the 58th United Nations CSW of March 2014, this issue of the independence of women’s and civil society’s NGOs vis-à-vis the state was briefly but succinctly raised. It was noted, as an example, how, despite the increase in reports of sexual assaults and torture perpetrated by members of the police and security forces and in the police detainment centres, the NCW completely ignored the outcries of the few activist groups about it and refrained from issuing any statements that might implicate the deliberate practices and policies of the Ministry of the Interior. This raises questions about the political biases of the NCW, its association with the state’s 3 July regime and its dissociation from the urgent concerns of the women’s movement. During an official signing of a protocol of co-operation between the NCW and the Ministry of the Interior in September 2013, in which the latter announced intent to set up a special unit of human rights to combat violence against women, Al-Tellawi thanked both the current and previous interior ministers, refusing to put the responsibility of returning security only on the police’s shoulders. She went on to praise the police, saying that it ‘came back to the people; the gap between the police and the people ended after the revolution of 30 June’ (Al-‘Issawi 2013). This affirmation was not based on evidence on the ground, rather on a pre-intent to declare unconditional and unjustified support for the authority and practices of the security forces.


Another example mentioned in the report is the role played by the NCW in campaigning and mobilizing women across the country to vote in support of the new 2014 constitution, thus influencing and directing them towards a set political goal, instead of undertaking the responsibility of raising awareness on the importance of political participation and free choice based on understanding and analysis. Hence, the fact that the NCW continues to be a state-sponsored institution under the direct auspices of the presidency seriously undermines its independence, especially in the area of political engagement and decisions. A negative result seems to be the NCW functioning mainly as a propaganda tool for the regime, rather than supporting women in their lived realities and crises, as well as protecting them against any form of abuse – domestic, public, institutional or state. During a conference held by the NCW on 24 May 2014 to publicize the success of the presidential elections and women’s participation, Al-Tellawi created an overly dramatic scene when she dismissed two attending members of the EU Election Observation Mission, rejecting their report as reflecting animosity towards Egypt, accusing them of falsifying and interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs – ‘You are out of the Middle East’ (El-Banna 2014). The audience cheered this demonstration of a patriotic act against ‘Western conspirators’, in accordance with the dominant political climate.

As breaches of human rights, violent practices by the police, reported torture, random arrests and illegal measures by the prosecution authorities continued in 2014, there were no references to this situation by the NCW during the 58th United Nations CSW in March 2014. The defiance and independence that characterized the NCW’s position during the previous year – going against the Egyptian state government at the time – was considerably softened to a general campaign against conservatism everywhere, in a noticeable evasion of the more relevant and pressing issues (Lederer 2014). While the council is indeed pursuing goals that will benefit women and help promote their rights and is duly participating in international policymaking to implement reform, it has also reverted to its old comfortable position of a state-loyal institution that will not criticize oppressive practices, even if they are against women’s and men’s human rights as well as democratic and political freedoms. In a newspaper article, Dr Neveen Mos’ad, a political science academic, column writer and a prominent member of the NCW, records and comments favourably on Sisi’s symbolic meeting with the Council during his short presidential campaign. After presenting what she describes as an objective summary of the dialogue – which did not touch on any of the reports at that time of random arrests, collective mistreatment in police stations and sexual violence in police custody – she ends the article by a brief recommendation directed at the candidate ‘to invest in education, then you’ll find every mother standing behind you’ (Mos’ad 2014).

If such deliberate overlooking of defective discourses and policy malfunctions can be justified as a political necessity at this stage, an ethically empowered Islamic feminist position should take a different approach. The principles of both feminism and Qur’anic moral imperatives require an honest critical outlook on forms of injustice, based on achieving a high level of moral conscientiousness and practice. In this regard, the Qur’an states: ‘O you who believe, stand firmly for justice, as witnesses for God, even if it means testifying against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it is against the rich or poor, for God prevails upon all. Follow not the lusts of your hearts, lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily God knows what you do’ (Q 4: 135) (Quoted in Abou El Fadl 2002: 14).2 Rejection of injustice and political hypocrisy and deception is important, even if it means at the least refraining from directly aiding and participating in these ‘silent’ state institutions.


Islamic Feminism and the Changing Political Context


During Mubarak’s reign, especially in the last ten years before the January 2011 Revolution, the state-adopted public political campaign was a call for ‘the renewal of religious discourse’, with the implied message that it was the Islamist ideology that prevented a complete enlightened modernization of civil society. This meant that the authorities did not see a threat in views that adopted a ‘moderate’, non-resistant and nonpoliticized Islamic discourse, as they were focused on restraining MB aggressive ideology of Islamic polity and governance.

Hence, feminist researchers working in the field could, and did, present apolitical treatments of women’s issues in Islam, and so were perceived and categorized as conveniently ‘enlightened’ and ‘safe’. However, the situation was always ambiguous and uncomfortably vague: security and state authorities kept a close watch on human rights and women’s NGOs –in addition to journalists, academics, writers and public figures – to monitor the religious component in their activities and ideas that could potentially cross the line from moderate and tamed to open criticism of state policies.

Hence, the state cautiously tolerated views calling for the reform of women’s conditions based on ‘enlightened’ religious arguments, as long as they played a part in undermining political Islam. The trend that self-identifies as ‘Islamic feminism’, working for the production of an alternative gendered Islamic knowledge that can play a part in the reform of religious discourses and cultural practices, found itself in an equivocal situation following the rise of political Islamism to power and rule. From the beginning, this project of criticizing theological patriarchy, contesting religious justifications of gender hierarchy and developing gender justice and equality values within Islam’s worldview has been about carving an oppositional, intermediate space between fundamentalist secular rejection of religious referencing altogether and religious conservatism.


In Egypt, this brand of feminist work, though based on religious arguments and study, has never been a part of political Islamism or the MB’s project. Its researchers did not participate in the ideological activism or subscribe to the gender ideas of the Sisters – that is, the active women of the Muslim Brotherhood. As an example, while a pro-MB organization like the International Islamic Committee of Women and Children (Al-Lagnah al-islamiyah al-‘alamiyah lil-mar’ah wa-l-tifl), headed by Camilia Helmy, promoted the typical conservative views of gender hierarchy, male leadership and anti-feminist sentiments, another group – Women and Civilization – conducted research on women’s issues in Islam with the goal of exploring an Islamic, feminist epistemology and a discourse that is critical of both patriarchal interpretations of Islam and secular perspectives.

I expressed this newly developed ambiguity of Islamic feminism at the time: Today it finds itself in a slightly shifting situation with the IslamicFreedom and Justice party in power. Using ‘Islamic-based’ arguments and emancipative concepts may have qualified as a form of resistance in the previous context, but now this orientation can be easily perceived as in alignment with the new ‘state feminism’ or rather the conservative Islamist gender ideology that has characterized MB thought. (Abou-Bakr 2013: 1) The concern was for this trend of Islamic feminist thought to be falsely perceived as identified with MB Islamist discourses, not as independent feminists with a distinct political and an intellectual stance.

The question raised was how they could maintain this independence so as not to enforce the hegemonic claims of the new ruling regime or beused by competing political camps in a game of power struggle. It was a dilemma that necessitated clarifying and stressing a unified oppositional and resistant position: To be an Islamic feminist researcher is not to subscribe to rightwing political projects, or to gender-biased interpretations of Islam, or to ‘superficializing’ shari‘ah, or to the neo-orientalist and ‘modernist’ discourses, or to the Enlightenment-Dark Ages paradigm, or to the Islamic-civil polarization, or the ‘righteous Salaf’ versus the corrupt present. Perhaps more than ever, this is the time for an alternative self-conscious movement that bridges the gap between research and knowledge building, on one side, and activism and public engagement, on the other. (Abou-Bakr 2013: 2)

The statement was meant to combine research and knowledge production interests with a rejection of political opportunism and a compromise of values. With yet another drastic shifting of political situation and environment, Mohammed Morsi was ousted and MB rule abruptly ended. It is true that conservative gender views of the MB and outrageous literalist Salafist discourses (such as condoning female circumcision and underage marriage of girls, undermining feminist demands for equality and combating domestic violence, and blaming women demonstrators for street and police harassment) have greatly offended and incensed women – including Islamic feminists – necessitating resistance.

However, with the increase in popularity and adulation of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, leader of the ousting, he began to be cast in the public media as a super-male saviour of Egypt – in turn, cast as a damsel in distress – carrying her off either on his knight’s white horse or as a flying Superman. These cartoon images were furthered by a number of newspaper columns and panegyric poems foregrounding this aspect of masculinity with unmistakable sexualized insinuations, such as references to Egypt’s pregnancy by the ‘star’ of his heroism and Egyptian women’s offering themselves in marriage – or even as concubines – to him. It is interesting how this constructed ‘masculine’ image by the politically biased mainstream media has served also to reinforce a form of militarized patriarchy. In the 15 January 2014 issue of Al- Watan – a pro-army, widely circulated newspaper – a headline of the major story covering the constitutional referendum the previous day described the long lines of women for the ballots (with special army forces securing voting centres) as ‘Queues of Women in the “Shadow” of Army Men’. The use of the colloquial Egyptian dill directly alludes to the much-criticized folk saying: ‘[living in] the shadow of a man is better than the shadow of a wall’. The saying is understood in popular culture as an endorsement of patriarchal protection, needed under any circumstances for naturally helpless women.


Mistaking this elision of patriarchy and militarism for an interpreted expression of female agency’ is an example of feminist analysis gone awry. In a related article, the phenomenon of women ‘ululating, clapping and challenging the red lines of female propriety by dancing in broad daylight in public’ is read as displays of agency, ‘uninhibited and unrestrained by patriarchal mores’ (Tadros 2014).

However, these actions have always been part of very traditional cultural expressions of communal celebrating among large sectors of society. This problematic reading does not consider that women dancing and singing to the tune of the notorious song produced immediately after 3 July to glorify the military for its ousting of President Morsi and the MB rule is also a reflection of anti-feminist personality cult revolving around a super-male military hero. A feminist consciousness and perspective should not sacrifice an ethically consistent outlook on political engagement for superficial or temporary outcomes. To avoid a double-standard position, its critique ought to extend to religious and military patriarchy alike. Interestingly, no feminist analysis came forward on Sisi’s remarks in media interviews before his presidency regarding the traditional image of women as mainly the mothers and homemakers, whose contribution is signalled by ‘turning the lights off ’ after their kids and not being bothered by the serious public issues of their husbands’ work, which of course reinforces the belonging of women to the domestic domain rather than their being equal citizens.


The Politics and Ethics of Islamic Feminism


Does ethics have a place in the political engagement of feminists? I think it should. If feminism’s primary mission has always been resisting patriarchal authoritarianism and gender injustice, it is also quite pertinent and even more fitting to maintain its opposition to state dictatorship and injustices by ruling regimes. If feminism developed out of exposing and rejecting exclusionary practices, it ought not to yield to a moral complacency that justifies concern for women’s conditions only and ignores the larger frameworks of monopoly, state violence and despotism. As a conscionable movement, it can thus be distinguished from a history of institutional patriarchal practices of political opportunism and authoritarianism. Furthermore, ethical feminism in that sense should also consider class issues and the needs of poor, marginalized and disempowered women.

Islamic feminist thought is equipped with a holistic worldview of ‘lived ethics’ that can potentially enrich it to be a principled, consistent oppositional movement against all forms of zulm (injustice). In his study of the tradition and system of ethics in Islam, Amyn Sajoo demonstrates that the ethical perspective is not an abstraction or a purely philosophical reflection, but ‘the practical unfolding of moral principles: ideals and their implications are set forth within the bounds of the relationship among the individual, society, and the divine’ (2004: 2).


Sajoo presents a reading of Muslim ethics as a model in which religious or faith-based ethics is grounded in the lived experiences of the community (ummah) and the moral choices of its individuals and groups. The ‘reasoned accounts of right and wrong’ (Sajoo 2004: 4) are played out on the social canvas and the public. He discusses the corpus of the leading ethical texts in the classical age of Islam, which envisioned an integration of personal moral traits (akhlaq) and social refinement (adab) for a social purpose and a moral critique of politics.

This kind of social ethics that has a role in public life and polity is what distinguishes Muslim understanding from the liberal approach to the public sphere. While the first transcends ‘normative rule-making and compliance’ as well as ‘instrumental reason that denies the sacred on the basis of an ideological construction of rationality’ (ibid.: 43), the latter ‘privileged an amoral rationality in which ethical norms function as surrogates either for ‘appropriate conduct’ (denying any judgment on the basis of the good), or ‘rational conduct’ (denying any role for the sacred)’ (ibid.: 44). Sajoo’s critique and analysis of liberal praxis is that, in effect, it reduces the moral content of ethics to mere ‘professionalism’, polite manners and formal law-abiding conduct. On the other hand, a religious grounding of social ethics in the public domain is ‘not only the handmaiden of the rule of law, but the underlying ethos which gave birth to those entitlements that privilege human dignity and which we now cherish as human rights’ (Sajoo 2004: 85).


Both Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind, each through the examining of different social phenomena in Egypt during the 1990s, had argued that the ethical is also political in many ways and that Islamic ethos or sensibility as a motivation does not necessarily mean militant political action or that it is defective from the liberal-progressive perspective towards the notion of free agency. Hirschkind’s active ‘ethical listening’ constitutes the goal of seeking a transformation of the moral being, towards a more perfect moral character as a Muslim. He maintained that cassette sermons are meant to cultivate a certain religious sensibility embedded in ethical and social considerations and that the phenomenon is ‘part of a complex ethical and political project whose scope and importance cannot be contained within the neat figure of the militant or terrorist’ (Hirschkind 2006: 6). Mahmood has also argued that a proper grasp of the mosque movement’s ethical agency and pedagogical nature yields a different interpretation of political agency as well: The political efficacy of these movements is . . . a function of the work they perform in the ethical realm – those strategies of cultivation through which embodied attachments to historically specific forms of truth come to be forged. Their political project, therefore, can only be understood through an exploration of their ethical practices. (Mahmood 2005: 35)


While I agree with the above views of valorizing the ethical dimension and its role in a newly conceived ‘political’ domain, their emphasis is more on private, individual piety and the improvement of moral behaviour/religious conduct that do not necessarily inform public stands or voice objection to public corruptions and injustices. The above discussion means to link an operational level of ethical principles and the political engagement of feminist activism. It is hoped that Islamic feminism, in particular, sees itself as currently positioned to face the ‘unethical’ patriarchy and political compromises of religious institutions as well as the state’s undemocratic policies and constant attempts at the co-option of both the women’s movement and the religious establishment.

Khaled Abou El Fadl expresses this intricate relationship succinctly: I eschew politics when it is unlawful and eschew law when itis not moral. To the extent that politics is not subject to law, it is reprehensible, and to the extent that law is not subject to morality, it is reprehensible. Reason and compassion, disciplined and guided by the search for the Divine Will, must constitute the essential unity which forms the backbone of politics, law, and morality . . . Politics without law is nothing but opportunism, and law without morality is nothing but despotism, and morality unless guided by the Divine Will risks becoming nothing more than a concession to whim. (Abou El Fadl 2006: 84)


Just as Islamic feminists refused to align themselves with the previous MB regime and gender ideology, they should continue their resistance in linking the struggle for gender justice against patriarchal monopoly with opposition to state persecution and violence. Criticism of MB conservative and self-righteous paternalism must continue with criticism of a militarized, masculinist despotism. An Islamic feminist vision is able to underline the convergence of both theological and political authoritarian patriarchy through conceptualizing and invoking specific, relevant ethical tenets: resisting all forms of zulm (injustice), istikbar (pride) and baghy/tughian (transgression) for the pursuit of a holistic ‘adl (justice). These are more than simply the equivalent Arabic words for these meanings, as the systematic recurring of each in specific moral contexts throughout the Qur’an forms together a thematic and conceptual cluster of an Islamic ethos and imperative. The major Qur’anic (favourable) narrative of Queen Sheba’s success, cited often by Islamic feminist interpreters to legitimize women’s political rule, can also be used in juxtaposition to the Pharaoh’s despotic rule to craft a model for an Islamic feminist stance that rejects this male form of political autocracy – from a Qur’anic point of view – while validating women’s leadership.

A full analysis of the political nuances of these two narratives is beyond the scope of this chapter, but one can find embedded the above-mentioned Qur’anic concepts and themes that can be applied to both political tyranny and patriarchal injustice directed at women. Amina Wadud, for example, in developing the ‘Tawhidic paradigm’ (oneness/unicity of God in Islam) as a governing, foundational principle in undoing gender hierarchy, reconstructing gender justice and gender relations within Islam, has already referred to its extension to other realms: ‘Thus, the overarching concept tawhid, or the unicity of Allah, forms a trajectory organizing Islamic social, economic, moral, spiritual, and political systems’ (Wadud 2006: 29).




This chapter has presented a critique of the strategy of an unconditional alignment of the women’s movement with the state, particularly in the present equivocal Egyptian context of questionable politics. More than just a reservation about the general idea of the state as itself a patriarchal institution either marginalizing or instrumentalizing women, feminists should be wary of the ethical deficit in their activism. If, as presented at the beginning of the chapter, Nordic state feminism is ultimately about the ‘process of making democracies more democratic’ – enhancing established democracies by increasing women’s inclusion and gender mainstreaming, a state feminism that results in legitimizing ‘illiberal democracy’, hence making an oppressive state more oppressive, ought to be rejected. In its turn, an Islamic feminist current can adopt an ethically informed politics through taking stands that do not condone either state despotism or the religious establishment’s hypocrisy and co-option by that state. In the current Egyptian context, those who voice open criticism of some of the state’s policies or Al-Azhar, for example, can be easily accused of treason, agency to Western conspiracies, MB membership or terrorism.


In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which the themes of moral vagueness and personal choices complicated by deception and self-deception run through the play, wrong can be easily mistaken for right, and deliberate equivocation can be the means to detract from a fixed ethical criterion. The Witches’ evil trap is mainly based on a web of moral confusion, where appearance and reality do not correspond (hence the telling utterance ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’). Thus, the Porter admits through his imaginary Hell’s gate the ‘equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale’ (Macbeth, Act II, iii), one who evades a moral commitment. And, in the Qur’an, a major characteristic of the unethical, double-dealing munafiqin (hypocrites) is the fact that they waver (mudhab-dhabin) between two positions, not making a sincere, principled commitment to either (la ila ha’ula’ wa-la ha’ula’: belonging to neither one group nor the other) (Q 4: 143).


« Islamic Feminism and the Equivocation of Political Engagement » is published in Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance Lessons from the Arab World.Edited by Maha El Said, Lena Meari and Nicola Pratt. ZedBooks publisher, 2015)







1. Al-Tellawi’s paper was entitled ‘Prevention of Violence Against Women in Constitution and Nation-Building Processes’ (2013). For press reports on these events, see: ‘Egyptian Delegation to UN Status of Women Commission Criticized’ (; ‘NCW Responds to Muslim Brotherhood Statement’ (; ‘NCW Reflects on the UN Declaration on ViolenceAgainst Women’ (

2. For a simplified presentation of the Qur’an’s basic ethical obligations and general moral thrust, see Abou El Fadl (2002), especially pp. 13–23.

3. For a very useful discussion of the traditional debate over this story and its significance to contemporary Islamic feminist issues, see Reda (2013).




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Abou-Bakr Omaima

Professeur de littérature anglaise et comparée à l’université du Caire, spécialisée dans la poésie médiévale, la tradition soufie, le mysticisme, la théologie féministe et les questions de genre au sein de l’islam. Elle a publié récemment Feminist and Islamic Perspectives: New Horizons of Knowledge and Reform (2013). Son article « Le féminisme islamique et la production de la connaissance : perspectives dans l’Égypte postrévolutionnaire » a paru dans le recueil Féminismes islamiques, dirigé par Zahra Ali, La fabrique, 2012.