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Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco

Publication Date: 
November, 2011

Interview by Jadaliyya with Zakia Salime, author of Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?

Zakia Salime: In this critical time of sweeping revolts and political changes in the Middle East, it is very useful to revisit the spaces of contentions that have been opened by women’s rights groups. My book shows how two decades of struggles over broadening the spheres of expression and rights have led to dramatic changes in both Moroccan feminism and Moroccan Islamism.

My interest in documenting these shifts began with my own involvement in the feminist movement during the 1990s. I wanted to write on Moroccan feminism, noticing the scarcity of studies on this movement, despite its significant impact on feminism in North Africa and the Middle East and the major breakthroughs it had made at the level of the state gender policy.

But very soon I came to realize that writing the history of this movement entails revisiting not only its relationship with the state and its transnational alliances, but also its trajectory in light of the growing impact of Islamist women on public representations of feminism and definitions of women’s rights. Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco challenges binary approaches that stress the polarization of the women’s movements along religious and secular lines. Instead, my book explores what I call the interdependent trajectories of these movements. This means to investigate how the feminist movement has been both enabled and circumscribed by Islamist women’s activism, on the one hand, and the arenas in which feminism has shaped this activism, on the other.

How to understand the interdependent trajectories of these movements in the shifting conjunctures of the past two decades? I coined the concept “movement moment” to analyze the historical contingencies that constituted these movements’ encounters. I showed how the women’s mobilization has shaped the structural adjustment decade (the 1980s), the state liberalization decade (the 1990s), and the post-9-11 neoliberal reforms, enabled by the “war on terror.”

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

ZS: The core chapters of my book are structured around three “movement moments.” The first is the 1992 One Million Signature Campaign launched by feminist groups to pressure the state to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Kinds of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and to reform the sharia-based family law. The second is the March 2000 Islamist rally in Casablanca to oppose a governmental plan for the secularization of family law, and the third is the May 2003 bombing of Casablanca by a group of Islamist radicals. By depicting these three movement moments, I made both a methodological and theoretical contribution to several scholarly fields, including feminist theory, gender studies, social movement theory, and political sociology and globalization studies.

My major contribution to feminist and social movement theory consists of challenging stable categories of Islamism versus feminism by showing the entanglement of these movements and the ways in which they have constituted one another, and how they have changed in the course of their interactions. I called these changes the “feminization” of Islamist groups and “Islamization” of feminist groups. I also contribute to theories of state transition to neoliberalism by showing the centrality of gender and the women’s movements to these transitions. The post-9/11 discourse of war and terror broadened the scope of my interests to include the gendered dynamics of international relations. I read against the grain of representations of women as main targets and victims of wars to show how Moroccan women have appropriated the “war on terror” as a site for political gains.

Locating my analysis at the intersection of feminism and Islam also enables me to critically reassess fissures in liberal feminist theory, which has primarily looked at Muslim women as objects of a discourse of liberation rather than as agents shaping the state policies and public debate about women’s rights. Mainstream feminist theory, I have argued, must come to terms with modernist assumptions in order to view the women’s movements in the Middle East beyond a binary of feminism as progress and Islamism as backlash. Equally, social movement theory conceptualizes women’s movements in terms of a binary of progressive feminist groups versus conservative or right-wing women’s groups. Hence, locating my analysis in the zones of frictions and tensions between universalist categories of development and rights and alternatives grounded in the political and cultural dynamics of particular localities, I have contributed to demonstrating how the global and the local are mutually constitutive.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

ZS: Most research on women’s activism in the Middle East has looked at feminist and Islamist organizations separately, comparatively, or along with a spectrum of voices. My book departs from this assumption of stability to show the dynamics of interactions and changes that have constituted these movements. Locating my analysis at these contingent zones of intersections and frictions necessitates a methodological shift as well, in order to find a way in which these intersections become accessible to intellectual inquiry. By depicting three movement moments, I made both a theoretical and a methodological intervention in the study of gender and social movements. My political project, as a feminist scholar, is enmeshed in this methodological shift.

My study is equally animated by an activist concern about balkanization and divisions among women’s groups which, as I have shown, only benefit the disciplinary power of the monarchy, and the naturalizing forces of the neoliberal/neo-orientalist and oil-driven “war on terror.”  

[Zakia Salime. Photo via the author.]

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ZS: During the Egyptian upraising, my students asked me a very revealing question: Where did all these women come from? They were very “surprised” to see this massive involvement of women in both the Tunisian and the Egyptian revolts. While it is not difficult to imagine where their question was coming from, it is important to historicize women’s involvement in the politics of protest in North Africa and the Middle East. My book provides some of that history. There has been a very enthusiastic reception of my book, precisely because of the timing of its publication, but also because there is truly a need for more serious ethnographic studies about North Africa. However, I believe that my study will be of a great interest, not only to scholars and students who work on the Middle East, but to anyone who wants to understand the current events from the lens of gender dynamics, the place of religion, media and communication, as well as the impact of political mobilization.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ZS: As the groundbreaking events throughout the Middle East and North Africa unfold, academics have just started to grapple with the “sudden” emergence of what was called Arab youth revolts. My interest in youth certainly gained in scope with the current uprisings. However, it has predated them. My current research about youth, as an emerging “category of interest” in the Middle East, started with my investigation of the Middle East Partnership Initiative. In my article “Securing the Market, Pacifying Civil Society, Empowering Women” (2010, reprinted 2011), I set the framework for this project by linking the US interest in pacifying a presumably violent social body through global governance, global capital, and the governmentality of local reforms. At this interstice, I locate my new project, refocusing on the youth themselves and the new “private” arenas and public spaces in which their desires for economic, social, and political change are articulated. These spaces range from sustained forms of socio-economic protests to neighborhood associations and the use of new media (virtual press, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook), as well as specific forms of political expression through alternative and urban counter-cultures (such as hip hop and rap music, which I have written about in my article, “Rapping the Revolution”). My working paper, “I Vote, I Sing: The New Urban Scene in Morocco,” presented at New York University (October 2010), relies on my new ethnographic research to examine how culture, urban desires, intergenerational solidarities, and the politics of identity come into play. In the case of Morocco, the vibrant women’s movement has opened up the discursive field in which young rappers are expressing themselves through music.

Excerpts from Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco

[From Introduction]

The One Million Signature Campaign was the first mass mobilization of feminist groups against the mudawwana. The goal was to collect one million signatures to push the state to reform this code and ratify CEDAW. As we will see, the petition campaign was a critical event in a conjuncture of constitutional reforms, structural changes, and a global mobilization toward the upcoming Beijing conference of 1995. This campaign is still the entry point for analyses of the emergence of liberal feminism in the North African context, because of the transnational dynamics it instigated. In fact, the campaign had a far-reaching impact even beyond the sphere of North African politics, and it continues to inspire feminist activism in the entire Islamic world.

Contrary to most approaches to understanding this mobilization, I consider the One Million Signature Campaign as the moment of birth for both the feminist and the Islamist women’s movements in Morocco. I use the petition campaign as a movement moment to identify its impact not only on Moroccan feminism, but also on Islamist women’s agency as a force of change within political Islam.

The perceived success of the feminist movement in affecting the state’s gender policy after the petition campaign—the state’s ratification of the CEDAW—propelled Islamist women to reflect on their marginalization in the Islamist movements and to position themselves as women with rights, rather than simply members of male-dominated organizations.

[From Chapter 1]

Though the mainstream ‘ulama did not necessarily adhere to Islamist politics, they did share with the Islamists a pressing concern about their political marginalization, the degradation of their representative bodies, and the silencing of their voices in the public sphere. They also shared a mounting anxiety over the secularization and modernization of state institutions, perceived as “West-oxication,” to use Abu-Lughod’s term, meaning alienation and a loss of identity. Both groups perceived the mudawwana as the last resort of the Islamic sharia, to be secured from the intervention of positive law. Furthermore, both groups found in the rise of the feminist movement their missed opportunities to reposition themselves within a highly centralized political system and safely parlay their contestations and claims to the state. Gender became the main field for the ‘ulama’s exercise of control over social change, and their main access point to the state.

[From Chapter 2]

To understand the importance of situating the feminist movement in a modernized Islam, we need to keep in mind that Islamists have been articulating a discourse of “Islamizing modernity.” This would bring the Islamic sharia back to the forefront, as a foundation of the norms that regulate modern life. It is within the borderlines of these two discourses of modernity and Islam that both movements organize their campaign around the reform of family law.

Most studies about the One Million Signature Campaign have focused on the Islamist male response. To them, feminist groups lost the case because of the forceful mobilization by the Islamist male leadership and ‘ulama. I would like to propose here a counter-argument that shows how much of this response was in fact instigated by young women activists within Islamist organizations. In contrast to previous studies, I want to locate Islamist women in a central position as agents who fueled the controversy in the Islamist press, in forums, and in society at large, because of their embbededness in many state and non state institutions, such as schools, mosques, and women’s communities.

A combination of factors explains this interest in the rise of a female leadership within Islamist organizations. The most important one relates to the division of spaces and tasks observed by these organizations at this initial phase, and the attempt to attract more women to Islamist politics. But generally speaking, this discourse reflects the internal dynamics of change operating in leading Islamist groups in the 1980s, which was also an outcome of women’s increased penetration into these organizations. My interviewees described this process as “self-criticism” or “revision” (muraja’āt), which entails assessment by the Islamist intelligentsia of the pros and cons of their movements, and a reflection on the way these movements have included or excluded the woman’s component.

The purpose of this chapter is to describe the interactions of feminist and Islamist women’s movements in the context of the feminist mass petition campaign. I have illustrated how this movement moment propelled Islamist women to slowly engage a discourse of women’s rights, position themselves within the “international” women’s movement, and make concrete demands about equal opportunities for Islamist leadership. I also discussed the impact of Islamist women’s agency on bringing the issue of women’s rights to the forefront of Islamist activism. I related these changes to the conjuncture of state liberalization, which kept women from both the feminist and Islamist sides at the margin of the political negotiations that were taking place among political elites. In the upcoming section, I will highlight the significance of feminist and Islamist women’s activism for redefining the sphere of religious and political authority at this conjuncture.

[From Chapter 3]

The Islamist rally of March 2000 truly marked Islamist women’s entry into the formal political field. I consider this rally a movement moment because it captures simultaneously the tensions related to political alternance and the new framework in which the feminist movement had to operate. In this chapter, I will show how this movement has been transformed in contact with the Islamist discourse of “identity” and grassroots politics. I coined the term “Islamization” to explore the various modes in which feminists groups have validated feminism in the aftermath of the Casablanca rally. The rally marked a distinct turning point in the interactions between these two movements, reversing the gains made by feminist groups in the new conjuncture of political alternance.

It is worth noting that my meetings with feminist activists took place only one month after the Casablanca attack of May 2003, which created lots of anxiety and uncertainty among Moroccans in general and feminist groups in particular. The level of frustrations that was expressed during my meeting with feminist groups was overwhelming. Most showed doubts about the efficacy of feminist organizing in this juncture of rising Islamist political power and what some called the state’s flirtations with the Islamists. They thought that once again, women’s demands would be sacrificed. The language of individual choice came also under question, especially in light of the “instrumentalization” of women by the Islamist movements.

[From Chapter 4]

As is clear from these statements, the War on Terror is delivered in a package of neoliberal reforms, such as those set forth in the MEPI, the Forum for the Future, and bilateral free trade agreements. These projects are interconnected. I have argued elsewhere that as an economic program, neoliberalism needs the War on Terror as a technique for discipline and control that works through stigma, racial profiling, but also through triggering internal divisions, as illustrated in Iraq. While neoliberalism requires a small government and an active civil society, one that can replace the state in the social sectors, the War on Terror needs a wide-ranging security apparatus and a docile civil society. Yet both the War on Terror and its underlying neoliberal agenda require an inflated state security apparatus, reducing the state to its disciplinary dimensions.

Gender became central once again to the positioning of the Moroccan state in the new conjuncture of the War on Terror. In fact, as the Moroccan state strived to position itself as a player in the US war against terrorism, a new code of the family—one that recognized the equality of husband and wife before the law—started to make sense to the monarchy in a whole new way. It was through the reform of family law that the Moroccan monarchy truly recovered its image as a moderate regime, the Casablanca attack notwithstanding.

Women’s engagement with the most positive “feminist” writing in Islam was fundamental to engendering the field of Islamic studies in Moroccan universities. Most leaders I spoke to, from both al-‘Adl wa-l-ihsāne and al-Tawhīd wa-l-islāh, were affiliated with an academic program to get a degree in Islamic studies or the sharia, in addition to their original fields of expertise in hard sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Receiving a degree is more than a need; it is the path for legitimizing what women have already learned through independent reading and research, supporting their claims to religious leadership and to the sphere of da’wa.

[From Chapter 5]

The veil has surely been the most potent signifier of women’s identity politics, demarcating the boundaries of secularism and Islamism in its original stages of emergence. However, in the past decade, the hijab became the means for blurring these boundaries and bridging gaps between women from various economic backgrounds and political sensibilities. While a politics of identity is still a principal definer of educated women’s mode of veiling, the veil itself no longer demarcates women’s political affiliation and sensibilities, neither does it demarcate the geographical boundaries of secular and religious territories.

Despite their self-proclaimed differences, these groups’ relationship to feminism remains unsettled and subject to negotiations, yet it contains major overlaps. The problem of identification with feminism relates less to concerns about the label itself than about marking boundaries, especially when these boundaries have been constantly shifting and even vanishing. By rejecting the label of “feminism,” Islamist activists wish to stress their differences with feminist groups who, presumably, have left the colonial, secular, and individualistic grounds of the term unchecked. To them, feminism sets men and women against one another by placing too much emphasis on conflicts and asymmetries.

[Excerpted from Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco by Zakia Salime, with permission from the author and The University of Minnesota Press. Copyright © 2011 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]