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In Search of a Voice: an Intellectual Journey

By Shuruq Naguib

Shuruq Naguib (ISP 96-00) from Egypt is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Manchester. Shuruq's topic is related to her research on Gender and Islam.

In The Name of Allah the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate

I was invited today to celebrate with you and amongst you the 30th anniversary of the Aga Khan International Scholarship Programme. As an ISP fellow myself, I was also honoured by the invitation to speak on the wider area of my academic interest; namely, Gender and Islam. On several previous occasions I have been asked to speak on this topic, usually within an academic context where one may escape to the safety and security of the detached academic voice, the voice of the objective examiner analysing and exploring facts outside him or herself. Today, I will defy the rules of the academic game and choose to speak with my un-detached, subjective, Muslim and female voice about the general background of my own studies.

In 1997, I started a PhD on the concept of purity in Islam, with a focus on the traditional body of text called Tafsir, i.e., Interpretation or Commentary on the Qur'an. My hidden agenda was to show how interpreters of the Qur'an, always male in the classical and modern period, constructed gender positions that disadvantaged women. I set out to show that Islam contains everything good: equality, democracy, tolerance, etc. All bad things, such as bias against women, absence of democracy, as well as social injustice in contemporary Muslim societies, were induced by a failure to correctly understand and apply the Qur'anic text.

Now looking back on this position, I can read it in the light of the dilemma of many Muslim women since the advent of modernity, and later, the emergence of the Islamic revival, i.e., the assertion of Islam in political, social and cultural spheres. The question I was really asking was not: Who distorted the message of Islam? That was only a pretext. The silenced question was: How can I reconcile between my position as a Muslim and a Modern woman; "modern" in the sense that I have received a secular education, went to university and aspired for a role beyond the home? I was unable to sit securely in any of the discourses on women available in the Muslim world. My uneasiness was forged in the midst of heightened debates around cultural authenticity, erosion of this authenticity due to Westernisation, failure of alternative nationalist projects to achieve independent modernisation and development, for example the project of Nasser in Egypt, and finally dissatisfaction with Western political and economic world hegemony hindering real development in many Third World countries.

Let me stop here to share with you the complexity of being Muslim and modern at the same time. In many Muslim societies loyalty to and validity of religion, particularly Islam, though challenged by the project of modernity, was never forsaken. Religion never disappeared from the public sphere and certainly ruled supreme in the private sphere of the family. This divide is evident in many Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and pre-revolutionary Iran, where women's right to education, work and parliamentary membership was recognised. Yet family laws in the case of divorce, custody of children and inheritance remained mostly unchanged and mostly formulated by the traditional positions of the Muslim 'clergy'.

This divide or schism did not always function as an external conflict between the traditional and modern. It functioned at a deeper personal level. It became an inner schism where one was imbued through the family with one value system and through the nationalist media and modern educational systems with another. For one situation a person would have two different frameworks of reference. The choice was a matter of expediency. For example, Muslim women's education and economic independence were accepted by many families, yet the Muslim community struggled to maintain its hold on managing female sexuality. With education and economic independence, the marriage age for women went up. Economic problems also contributed to the delay in marriage for both men and women. Yet values of chastity, purity and women's sexuality representing the honour of the family have hardly shifted or loosened up. Most Muslim women themselves cherish those values.

Can any of the ideological discourses on women in the Muslim world bridge the schism within and without, and incorporate the traditional and the modern in ways more harmonious for women and men? I would like to speak briefly about projects to modernise Muslim women. Most of these projects came about by the beginning of the 20th century as a result of exposure to Western modernity through the colonial experience or through reformers who generally adopted a nationalist project for modernisation.

The colonialists propagated a discourse of modernity based on developmentalism. That is, Western Europe has reached the highest level of historical development and, therefore, has to modernise primitive and backward societies. This is most evident in the belief by Lord Cromer (the British Commissioner of Egypt in the early 20th century) that it is essential that Egyptians "be persuaded or forced into imbibing the true spirit of Western civilisation" (Ahmed,L. 1992:153). Furthermore, colonialists informed by orientalist studies, localised the backwardness of Muslim societies in the low status of Muslim women. This low status was generally attributed to one single practice of Muslim society, namely the veil. "The feminine veil has become a symbol; that of the slavery of one portion of humanity....(Women's position) diminishes the national potential and consequently weakens the paralyses all collective and individual development, masculine as well as feminine...and consequently slows or hinders progress" (Bezirgan and Fernea (eds), 1977:xviii).

This view still prevails and is widely evident in stereotypical associations of backwardness, subjection and oppression with the contemporary practice of veiling in many Muslim societies. This view ignores the fact that veiling is now practised in an exclusively modern context, in which women are making a choice of veiling at the end of the 20th - beginning of the 21st century. Unveiling and modern dress is immediately assumed to reflect freedom and liberation. In fact, many Muslim women who do not practice veiling are not any freer than the women of the harems of the 19th or 18th centuries.

At the same time, witnessing the old world of Muslim societies collapse under the domination of Western political and technological domination, many Muslim intellectuals in colonised (Egypt) and non-colonised Muslim countries (Iran and Turkey) accepted the superiority of Western modernity and the localisation of backwardness in the Islamic practice of the veil. In so doing they have also accepted a view of the Muslim self constructed by the Western other as backward and culturally inferior, an image carefully constructed through generations of orientalism. Such intellectuals saw the reconciliation in reform. The general projects of reform represent trajectories of traditionalist and modernist positions throughout this century.

In general, the modernist position, allied with the elite of Muslim societies and those in positions of power, gained more impetus. It was male Muslim students of upper class families who travelled to Europe for their studies in the 19th and early 20th centuries who came back calling for women's liberation. Among those is Qasim Amin, the well known Egyptian feminist. Qasim Amin, the 'father' of Middle Eastern feminism (his work was translated into Persian and spread all over the Arab world) - if feminism can be said to have a father - called for unveiling. He justifies unveiling by his deepest trust in Western wisdom. He says, "These intellects (Westerners) and these souls that we so admire, could not possibly fail to know the means of safeguarding women and preserving their purity" (Ahmed,L. 1992:161). Muslim women, adopting feminist positions at that time, made the symbolic gesture of throwing off the veil in public in Egypt and Iran. The friendship of Qasim Amin and his feminist protegé, Huda Sharaw, with Lord Cromer and other British colonialists, represents the colonial legacy of feminism. This legacy continues to make the term "feminism" awkward even amongst secular Muslim women with a clear agenda on women's issues.

In Iran and Turkey, reformers came to political power. They carried out a heavy handed process of modernisation. In Iran, the Shah waged a campaign against the veil as well as men's traditional clothing. Taking after Ataturk in Turkey, he tried to Europeanise Iran. "Police were ordered to physically remove the 'Chador' (Iranian veil) from any woman wearing it in public" (Moghadam(ed.), 1994:125). Veiled women, including rural women, whose dress was not a veil but rather looked at times similar to a Chador, were prohibited form using public facilities. The Shah's enthusiasm for women's liberation seemed to lead to the propagation of Western fashions, hairstyles and etiquette.

Nationalists in Iran and Egypt, for example, adopted a form of state feminism towards the 1950's. Women were to be trained and educated outside the home, to subsequently return to the home as better mothers. The dominant feminist discourse then, surfacing in women's magazines and relevant literature in girls' schools, strongly discouraged traditional forms of women's solidarity in the private sphere as sources of gossip, ignorance and a waste of time. The 'new woman' was to be literate, well versed in home economics and a companion to her husband. It is noteworthy, that unveiling also became a class marker. Veiled women were poor, or rural or both. The 'new woman' was usually urban. Feminism remained within the boundaries of upper and middle class urban women.

According to contemporary Arab women scholars, such as L. Abu Lughd, this state feminism has not liberated women through education. Nor has it opened the labour market for them. Rather, it has shifted the control over women from the private sphere to the public sphere by subjecting them to the control of state institutions. This perhaps explains why feminism in the Middle East was not confrontational as in the Western world. Most Egyptian feminists I personally know advocate motherhood as the main but not the only role of women. The family is to be protected, cherished and reconciled with feminist concerns. This view characterizes a wide spectrum of feminist positions in the Middle East. Women were liberated from the veil, but their role remained domestic. The education of women was in some ways a modern method to control female space in a modern world.

When I was growing up as a young Muslim woman, some of my family members, men and women, opposed my veiling, mostly on the grounds that it would lessen my opportunities to find a good suitor who would be attracted by my appearance. The same people opposed my travelling abroad to study on my own in a European country. In many ways my own personal choice was a way to liberate myself from society's demand on me to project a particular feminine image. It was my own way of protesting against this domestication of women. When I review literature on the phenomenon of veiling in the Middle East, be it in Algeria, Jordan or Egypt, boundaries between the academic and the personal experience fade.

Scholars explore a wide range of meanings attached to the veil: women's assertion of cultural authenticity; their adoption of a political position rooted in a refusal to separate the private and the public; their 'emancipation' from being subjected to the male gaze in the public sphere; as well as a spiritual commitment to Islam. For me there is no one meaning of the veil. The veil is all of these things.

Having explored some historical roots of feminism in the Muslim world and posited the question of re-veiling in the Islamic revival since the 1970's, I would like now to elaborate on the question I posed earlier: How can I reconcile my positions as a Muslim and as a modern woman? The positions available to me forged by the beginning of the 20th century could be generally classified as traditionalist, secularist and fundamentalist. Those categories are not marked by clear boundaries. There are always overlaps. But they will serve here to give an idea of the contexts in which debates on women and modernity can be found in the Muslim world.

The traditionalists advocate certain interpretations of Islam that have precipitated over the centuries and became dominant. They generally assert that women's social, and not spiritual, status is subordinate to that of men. They have accepted modernity as a matter of fact and function alongside maintaining, to a large extent, two separate worlds. Amongst them I feel my existence is an anachronism. Their lack of political responsibility sits heavily on my conscience. In most Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Morocco and Pakistan, they collaborate with the state and remain silent in relation to political oppression.

I come now to the secularist position that started to surface in the early 20th century. It covers a spectrum of liberal, Marxist/Leftist as well as a form of Islamic secularism. The liberal and the Leftist positions relegate Islam to the private individual sphere considering it a matter of the past. Western modernity and enlightenment traditions are the frame of reference. In fact their discourse on religion and modernity would sound ultra-conservative in contemporary Western Europe, especially with regard to their focus on nationalism and the marginalisation of diversity in the Muslim world. An extreme case would be Turkey's position against the Kurds. The Islamic secularist regards modernity as a universal phenomenon, attempts to interpret and adjust Islam in accordance with modernity or claims that modernity is the true message of Islam. It was again hard for me to operate within a discourse that took for granted Western modernity as an ideal against which all nations and cultures are judged. On mere humanist grounds, this discourse is too exclusive and universal.

Finally, I come to the fundamentalist position. Dissatisfied with both the above discourses, many young educated as well as rural men and women seeking an alternative discourse, started to look to the 'roots', to the fundamentals of Muslim culture, Islam. Frustrated with the political process, state control, religious institutions, élitist modernism, resorting to an Islamic ideological and political position was a rebellion against a cultural and a political impasse. Seeking cultural authenticity, Islamic fundamentalism rejected Western things and ideas. Fundamentalist intellectuals justified their position by their refusal to remain marginalised, while the project of modernity remains to be produced and reproduced by Western centres of knowledge. Imitation itself is an irrational act. It is better to create one's own indigenous centre.

My earlier sympathies were with the fundamentalist position. But as the movement became more entangled in the politics of several Muslim countries, it seemed to me to be a struggle, sometimes unjustifiably violent, for power. I could not find in it a way out of a cultural impasse or an answer to some of the important questions Muslim men and women are asking.

I remained without a position, without a voice. It was only after I came to England that I found my inspiration. Starting my PhD has provided me with the opportunity to meet Muslim women who were similarly dissatisfied with current discourses on women. I met Muslim women who used Islam as a main frame of reference in new ways. Some of them were Iranian who subverted the attempt by the post-revolutionary state to push women back to the home. They defied the state by constructing arguments grounded in Islam. I have also met women scholars who are working on changing the way we look at the family as a unit, supporting the individual against state control and putting a curb on political oppression in Middle Eastern societies. For example, Hebba Ezzat, the Egyptian scholar is deconstructing the binary of private/ public spheres in relation to the exercise of power.

At the university, across the departments of theology, philosophy and sociology, I was exposed to post-modern thinking and its critique of modernity that converges with the Muslim critique of modernity in some aspects. Risking oversimplification, one can say that the post-modern view of modernity questions its universality. For example, 'the secular' as a category and a concept is examined and deconstructed as a historical outcome of the confrontation between Western societies and the church. The term itself reveals a repressed religious notion of time, starting from Creation to the Day of Judgement (seculum).

Post-modern critique tries to delve into unspoken assumptions of modernity. The scientific method, respected because of its objectivity, is not immune to culture, history and power struggles. The anatomical model that saw women's reproductive system as an inversion of the male reproductive system was scientific but not as objective as it claimed. It still propagated a cultural man (male) as the biological model of humanity. This 'scientific fact' was used by Hegel in his analysis of women's passiveness, being the inversion, the void and the receptor. His philosophical argument was backed up by so called 'scientific facts'. Science is therefore subject to social structures of power and is always historically situated. In short, post-modern critique challenges Western liberalism and calls for rethinking rationality, development and progress as culturally and historically biased terms.

Why was I asking the wrong question in my PhD? I think when I asked that question I was still operating within a discourse that saw some fault in the Muslim interpretation of Islam, a fault we should attempt to rectify or interpret away. I had also internalised the superiority of Western intellectual discourse and was trying to master it as a source of power. Now I have come to realise that neither the Muslim interpretation of Islam is faulty per se, nor is the Western intellectual tradition superior. I started to see how ideas have genealogies and are constructed in specific cultural and historical contexts, and how some of them become more powerful and dominant when supported by influential institutions and people. This is true for Muslim male interpreters as well as Western philosophers of modernity, who are largely masculinist.

So what question am I asking now? How am I thinking across two frames of reference? How do I remain independent of submitting to the power of any particular interpretation? The question for me now is: What were Muslim interpreters saying? In what historical and cultural context were they speaking? Why and how particular sayings became more dominant? I am trying to answer these questions without imposing analytical categories developed in the Western world, such as the divide between public and private spheres, a divide alien to classical scholars. In this way, I do not analyse a particular Muslim view to veil women as necessarily a way to deprive women of political power or diminish their status. This attempt to move freely and independently, to learn from the Islamic as well as the Western philosophic traditions, to find a space where schism could be healed as things fall in perspective, was made possible by the opportunity facilitated by the ISP fellowship to undertake a PhD course.

Finally, there was one more person I had wished to address amongst you today. To him I would like to pay homage. He stood by me all my life whenever I refused to conform to either the traditional or the modern models of womanhood. He gave me the example that one could find one's own and novel space to think, to question and to reach out for that which is most genuine in life for us, whatever it is. I pay homage to my father who passed away on the 22nd of October 1999.

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