Gender, Religion and Law in Muslim Societies

Project Directors: Lila Abu-Lughod, Katherine Ewing

Gender, Religion and Law in Muslim Societies was a project that studied the unique forms of women’s activism across the Muslim world, looking at how efforts by women to work within an explicitly religious framework in order to transform society and participate more fully in public debates have influenced state. The group explored the divergences and points of contact between the flourishing work of those termed “Islamic feminists” and those who might best be called “Islamist women,” and evaluated the academic research used to promote the social inclusion and wider political transformation of women in the Islamic world.

In addition to the Center for the Study of Social Difference, this project received support from the Luce Foundation through the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion’s project “Who’s Afraid of Sharia?”

The project presented three workshops:

Workshop I:  Islamic Feminists, Islamist Women, and the Women Between
Organized by Lila Abu-Lughod, Katherine Ewing, and Anupama Rao

Over the past two decades, women’s activism has taken creative new forms across the Muslim world. Working within the frame of Islamic piety and engaging fully with the Muslim tradition, many women have been distancing themselves from the largely secular feminist projects of social reform, legal rights, or empowerment-through-development that had dominated the social field of women’s activism in most post-independence nations across the Muslim world.

Yet these efforts by women to work within an explicitly religious framework in order to transform society, refashion their roles as women, redefine their authority, and participate more fully in public debates and political fields have taken radically different paths, and influenced state policy in a number of ways. The first workshop brought together experts on gender, Islam, and various Muslim communities to explore the divergences and points of contact between the flourishing work of those who could be termed “Islamic feminists” and the locally but widely appealing work of those who might best be called “Islamist women.”

Islamic feminists are cosmopolitan educated women, often based in the West, who seek to enhance women’s rights and promote gender egalitarianism through reforms of Islamic family law and through re-interpretations of the key religious texts. They are concerned to counter “conservative” ideologies. This distinguishes them from “Islamist women,” among whom would be counted the significant numbers of women affiliated with the range of Islamist political parties operating in various countries, whether oppositional or government-affiliated. 

Bringing together international scholars who work on different regions--from Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa--this project examined these activist projects in light of the everyday lives of the women in between to whom they seek to appeal, paying close attention to diverse political and social contexts. 

Workshop II:  The Power of Women’s Islamic Education
November 8-9, 2013
Columbia University

Across the Muslim world, women are attending not just mosque study groups but new institutes for Islamic studies, Islamic universities, and seminaries. In the Western media “madrasas” are presented as incubators for fundamentalism. Islamic education is associated more with indoctrination and conservatism than enlightenment. As part of poverty alleviation and the empowerment of girls and women, the UN’s Global Education First Initiative seeks to “spur a global movement to put quality, relevant and transformative education right at the heart of the social, political and development agendas.” While this initiative recognizes “a broad spectrum of actors,” does Islamic schooling fit?

This workshop brought together scholars who have done ethnographic and historical research on women’s Islamic education in various countries to think more seriously about the types and content of these forms of schooling, the reasons why women are pursuing religious education when (secular) state education is widely available alongside it, and the social and personal impacts of these forms of education. From daily life to social relations and hierarchies; from forms of authority to the paths opened up; from intellectual skills to social capital: careful assessment is needed to appreciate the popularity of Islamic education, its political and social uses, and the ways it both empowers and limits women.

Workshop III:  Debating the “Woman Question” in the New Middle East Women’s Rights, Citizenship, and Social Justice
May 3-4, 2014
Columbia Global Center \ Middle East
Organizing Committee: Lila Abu-Lughod, Hoda El Sadda, Amal Ghandour, and Safwan Masri

In light of the recent events across the Arab region, the time is opportune for a careful examination of the new opportunities and challenges facing Arab women. The Arab uprisings sought to challenge the status quo, demanding significant political and social transformation. Many women in the region hope that the “Arab Spring” will also mark a new dawn for women’s rights as well. Yet despite socio-political gains to be made by citizens in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), women’s full citizenship rights and privileges may still fall short. Debates about women’s rights and the place of women’s rights in political and economic struggles have become contentious.

What is distinctive about all these debates about women in the Arab world, as well as women’s activism on the ground in various countries in the region, is that they have occurred from the start in a context in which the international community have insistently made women’s citizenship and rights a key symbol of the success or failure of the revolutions and the value of new political orders. How does this international interest, which itself is linked to longstanding political and economic interests in the region (including alliances with the old regimes), affect the work of Arab women activists, the political projects they seek to undertake, and even the definitions of social justice with which they can work?

This workshop brought together scholars, academics, and practitioners for a collective critical evaluation of the situation, to consider how academic research on gender and rights relates to the work of practitioners in women’s organizations, and to assess conventional arguments about what is impeding women from full entitlements of citizenship. The goal was to develop the knowledge necessary for creative and effective strategies for promoting social inclusion and wider political transformation.
The workshop was organized around three broad themes:

  1. Bread and Dignity: Political Economies and Women’s Lives

  2. What’s in a Constitution? Political and Legal Strategies for Citizenship and Social Justice

  3. Who’s Afraid of Shari’a? Islamic Feminism and Islamist Governance