Gender Questions

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    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    The Emancipation of ‘the’ Muslim Woman
    Polarisation and Ambivalence in a Controversial Debate

    Girls in an Islamic boarding school on Java. © Susanne Schröter Equality for men and women has become a touchstone for the acceptance of Islam in Western societies. Nonetheless, many are convinced that Islam and emancipation are, per se, irreconcilable, and appear to have made up their minds on the matter in advance. Why is there such persistent interest in this subject, even though people often have preconceived opinions? Why is it so emotive? The question is therefore not only what different perceptions are being represented here, but also: what is the purpose of the discussion itself? This article will examine these questions by highlighting a number of contradictions and ambiguities with reference to key controversies, for example over equality and difference in the relationship between the sexes, or over freedom and oppression. This will be followed by the presentation of different positions within the Muslim point of view, and finally an investigation of what function this discourse can have for the majority society.

    Equality versus difference in relations between the sexes

    The reason why many find the Islamic headscarf provocative is because it makes no bones about emphasising the difference between the sexes. This emphasis establishes their inequality. That, at least, is our experience in many areas of our society. The more pronounced the division into typically feminine and typically masculine, the more likely women are to lose out, whether because they are more poorly paid in their professional lives, or because in the private sphere they are required to take on most of the responsibilities for work in the home, raising children, or caring for the sick and elderly. It therefore seems that they are only able to assert their equality if they can also overcome the differences between the sexes.

    However, this does not mean that Western societies have now universally adopted the agenda of abolishing discrepancies between the sexes. On the contrary, many people, such as conservatives and Christians, proceed from the assumption that men and women are essentially different, and that it is also important to preserve this difference. Even in feminist circles there are also lines of thought that assume fundamental differences between women and men – without, however, abandoning the goal of establishing gender equality. Even if the majority of feminists are highly sceptical of such a position, this is nowadays seldom a point of discussion or political debate. The Muslim model of difference between the sexes, on the other hand, provokes fierce arguments and is almost unanimously condemned.

    Such condemnation creates a unity that transcends all unspoken differences and ambivalences within one’s own camp. Those who make such judgements spare themselves self-critical reflection and complicated discussions, and as a rule they do not address the various Muslim positions and the differences between them either. Instead, they project onto them their own conservative gender model. Most people thus associate with the Muslim concept a Western-style traditional relationship between the sexes, in that they imagine that the headscarf conceals a housewife deprived of her human rights, or an uneducated Catholic peasant.

    In fact, as illustrated by a survey conducted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the majority of Muslim women in Germany who opt to wear the headscarf are young and self-confident. Having a job is very important to them, and they aspire to equality in their relationships. In all this they are very similar indeed to people in German majority society. It cannot therefore be inferred that the headscarf is synonymous with the oppression of women, at least if employment and interest in education are taken as the criteria.

    This applies not only to Western societies. In Iran too, where the headscarf is imposed on women by a totalitarian regime, the percentage of female students and working women has risen considerably since the revolution in 1978. Indeed, during that period adopting the veil and being seen in public became the trademark of the revolutionary woman. Here too it would be jumping to conclusions to equate the veil with the role of housewife. On the contrary, the chador seems rather to have helped women to conquer new fields; i.e. they used this traditional symbol of femininity and transferred it into other contexts. In this way femininity became associated with the public domain.

    It is interesting to note that Turkish women in Germany also emphasise the difference between the sexes more strongly than their female German colleagues, for example by making a stronger association between employment and femininity. Women of Turkish origin are therefore more likely to seek acceptance in their work by highlighting their femininity, whereas German women tend rather to believe that they have to conform to masculine standards. The reasons for these differences certainly lie in cultural traditions, whereby societies shaped by Islam place greater emphasis on segregation of the sexes and draw external lines of demarcation between them, whereas societies shaped by Christianity focus more on the internalisation of gender-specific norms.

    Commissioning traditional symbols like the veil or the headscarf for the conquest of new areas is, however, risky, as it always also carries with it the danger of being monopolised by a patriarchy. This is especially apparent in Iran, where the strategy not only makes it easier for women to gain access to the public domain and enter professional life but has also reinforced a culture of masculine authority.

    In comparison, the path to equality through overcoming gender difference appears to be the easier one. However, this path also entails risks of its own. Here too difference is a requirement, especially from the feminist perspective. Difference is necessary in order to emphasise the different experiences and perspectives of women; as a source, then, of criticism and resistance. This also explains why it is often feminists, of all people, who not only emphasise the differences but also, with the help of women’s spaces and in the form of specific female cultures, repeatedly re-establish them.

    This means that both the concept of gender equality and that of differentiation between the sexes entail specific dangers – but also specific opportunities. Thus the danger in emphasising the differences between the sexes is the potential reinforcement of patriarchal ideas, while the opportunity is to change ideas about femininity and their symbols through new practices. Overcoming the differences between the sexes, on the other hand, carries the danger that women will be compelled to subjugate themselves to patriarchal norms, whereas the opportunity is that they should be able to gain access to funds and positions of power as smoothly as possible.

    Both concepts thus contain contradictions. This is also true of the concept of freedom.

    Contradictory freedoms

    The freedom of Western women is often exemplified by the idea that, unlike Muslim women, they have complete freedom to wear whatever they please. However, quite apart from the limits dictated to them by fashion, entirely new constraints become apparent precisely when a woman wants to wear revealing clothes. Her body should be neither too fat nor too thin, not too old and not too flabby. Nakedness requires careful maintenance. ‘Before the West would allow women to expose themselves, they had to learn to wear their nakedness like a dress,’ write Carola von Braun and Bettina Mathes in their publication Verschleierte Wirklichkeit [Veiled Truth] (2007; cf. also the extract from the book in this edition of Art&Thought). These bodily adjustments, to the point of plastic surgery, mark the process of surrendering to standards of beauty that have as much to do with self-constraint as they do with liberation.

    It is interesting to note in this context that Western clothing did not by any means per se represent liberation for Turkish women either, when it was enforced by official decree by Kemal Atatürk at the beginning of the twentieth century. For centuries the Orient had associated the idea of beauty with white skin, curvaceous figures, slow movements and long hair. Suddenly this was substituted by the European ideal of beauty: slim, energetic, corset-wearing women with short-cropped hair. As the Turkish sociologist Nilüfer Göle writes, this active woman with her upright, dynamic body was denied her femininity to such an extent that she was practically assigned a masculine identity. The Kemalist woman may have set aside the veil, ‘but instead she had “veiled” her femininity, had armoured herself in public, made herself “untouchable”, “unattainable”’. She thus had to adopt a masculine deportment as a form of self-discipline.

    A simple polarisation of freedom and constraint is ultimately also dubious with reference to sexual liberation. Here too freedom seems to generate new constraints. Thus the Western model has not only led to greater self-determination for women, but also to extreme forms of sexualisation of the public domain, the commercialisation of sexuality, and to new forms of violence and sexual exploitation. The ‘progress’ made by this liberation was thus purchased at the cost of huge ‘steps back’.

    These examples show that freedom is not an absolute value, but one that can be qualified both by the constraints of self-control and by new forms of violence. What is decisive is not just the freedom to do or not do something, but the extent to which one is also able to control the consequences of such a choice, or at least to influence them. In this sense it is also no surprise that women by no means always choose their ‘freedom’, but also often decide against it. How many women choose to stay at home and look after their husband and children, or even to return to their family, even when they are abused by their husbands? Obviously they find it harder to bear the consequences of freedom than to come to terms with the conditions of their ‘unfreedom’.

    We must therefore also ask in relation to Muslim women whether, for example, it is possible simply to demand that they set aside the headscarf, even if it were a symbol of unfreedom. Must we not also grant women the freedom to choose their unfreedom?

    This does not mean that freedom and unfreedom qualify each other and that it would ultimately be irrelevant which of these conditions prevailed. Of course violence and coercion must be denounced – but in every form in which they appear. The juxtaposition of ‘Western’ freedom and ‘Islamic’ oppression divides the world simplistically into opposite poles, dispelling the tension within each contradictory present. The risk of failure is negated in the West’s image of itself, while Muslims are denied the potential of transformation.

    For many, then, Islam and feminism are irreconcilable. Yet in fact there has been debate within Islam for many years about equal rights for men and women – also with reference to the question of the veil, or headscarf.

    Islam and feminism – a contradiction?

    The issue of the veil and the headscarf has played a key role in the various Islamic women’s movements, and has frequently sparked controversy. Thus as early as 1899 the Egyptian Qassim Amin demanded the un-veiling of women in his book The Liberation of Woman, which is regarded as the foundation stone of Arab feminism. Huda Sha´rawi, the founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union, publicly removed her veil in a spectacular gesture in 1923. From the very beginning, though, there were also other points of view within the Arab women’s movement, i.e. that setting aside the veil led to new forms of oppression and contempt.

    Even before the colonial period women’s rights activists, particularly in Egypt and Iran, had already been demanding equal access to the public domain and the workplace. With the advent of colonialism, however, their situation became more complicated, because the colonial rulers also drew up such demands. These women now ran the risk of being discredited as colonial by the indigenous patriarchy. This is still true today, when feminism is generally identified as a Western ideology and Muslim feminists are accused of disloyalty.

    The idea that Muslims speak with one voice on the subject of relations between the sexes is as erroneous as the idea that there is one unified Islam. The differences in their positions depend not only on different degrees of religiosity; they also have to do with different political attitudes and ethnic contexts. Thus, for example, there are many Iranian women who speak out vehemently against the headscarf because they associate it with the totalitarian regime in their homeland. Other women, however, are influenced by the conflicts between laicism and Islam in Turkey. The multiplicity of different opinions is ultimately also an expression of the constant modification of positions in response to changing life circumstances, as when the children of Muslim immigrants to Western societies want to distance themselves with their new religiosity both from their parents’ traditions and from pressure by the majority society to conform.

    Estimations of the possible emancipatory or repressive potential of Islam thus also vary tremendously. Islamic feminists such as Leila Ahmed see the meaning of Islam above all in its ethical egalitarianism, which confers equal dignity upon both women and men: they may indeed be different, but they are of equal worth. Accordingly there are clear conventions on what their roles should be, conferring rights and imposing duties upon women and men differently, but in equal measure. Islamic feminists believe that the principle of separation of the sexes and the principle of difference are not necessarily repressive, as long as duties and responsibilities are shared equally between men and women. Such reform-orientated feminists, of whom Fatima Mernissi is also a prominent example, believe that the Koran has been translated and interpreted in a biased way on account of the patriarchal culture that has dominated for centuries. They therefore believe it is time for a new interpretation. This view is opposed by radical feminists, who believe that the Koran itself establishes the primacy of the male and that it is therefore insufficient simply to reinterpret it, but that it must also in places be reformulated entirely.

    They in turn are opposed by Islamist feminists, for whom the Koran is fundamentally orientated towards placing the sexes on an equal footing. They believe that women’s rights are adequately taken into account in the traditional exegeses. For them, the problems lie primarily with the ‘West’. Thus they are convinced that the oppression of women is essentially a result of capitalism and Western ideology. Their view is that women in the West have been exploited, degraded to sex objects and exposed to public harassment. They believe that Islam is the solution because it promises a just order.

    The different positions are, among other things, an expression of the manifold conflicts between the forces of reform and the traditionalists within Islam, which are barely acknowledged by the West. For many, indeed, religion and emancipation are in themselves a contradiction in terms – also where Christian feminism is concerned. In that case, then, secular ideologies should also be subjected to scrutiny. It soon becomes apparent that secular attitudes in politics, science, and daily life are in no sense a guarantee of fairness and gender equality; on the contrary, here too the inequality of the sexes is generally written into the manifesto. In this sense secularism per se is not the answer either; rather, it is necessary to address patriarchal ideologies in all their manifestations. Here too, then, simple polarisations are inappropriate. We must therefore conclude by asking what functions such polarisations may serve.


    Polarisations offer simple explanations. They eliminate contradictions and internal ambivalences. However, in the case of the confrontation of ‘the’ West with the idea of ‘one’ Islam, the issue is not simply about finding strategies to lighten the cognitive and emotional burden. This controversy is, after all, being played out on an intensely political field: positions are being adopted that help to determine both social conditions within majority society and their relationship with Muslim minorities.

    In these discussions ‘the’ Muslim woman is generally used as a foil to offset the emancipation of ‘the’ Western woman, enabling it to shine even more brightly. The dark sides of Western emancipation with its specific constraints and new forms of violence can thus easily be overlooked, and the risks of the emancipation process glossed over, as this ‘emancipation’ no longer measures itself by the degree of inequality between men and women but by the distance between ‘the’ Western and ‘the’ Islamic woman. The focus of attention is shifted and the pressure to take action thereby removed from the relationship between the sexes. The reasons for conflict are, as it were, transferred. This can explain, at least in part, why so many people are suddenly interested in equality for women as soon as it is ‘the’ Muslim woman who is the object of attention: it enables them to demonstrate their own progressiveness without actually having to do anything about it. In this sense the debate in this polarising form is also counterproductive for indigenous German women, as it makes it appear as if their concerns have for the most part already been dealt with.

    Where Muslims are concerned, a discourse along these lines edits out internal debate and does not take processes of cultural transformation into account. A generalised attribution of backwardness has the effect of alienating Muslims in this society and brands them as not belonging. As a rule this also makes it harder for them to gain access to various social resources. Thus over the course of the ‘guest worker era’ in Germany an ethnic hierarchy was established. The agitation in the debate today indicates that this order has begun to crumble. Young Muslims are increasingly confident about claiming their opportunities in society. Others find this unsettling. It becomes necessary to put them back in ‘their’ place more forcefully. This is why the Muslim headscarf was not a problem as long as it was worn by cleaning ladies or factory workers. Now it is also being worn by doctors, lawyers and teachers; and now it is provoking fierce resistance.

    A fundamental paradox of the debate is that Muslim women are being kept out of desirable positions in society in the name of their emancipation. In this sense, the fundamental difficulty for majority society lies in seeing that its concept of emancipation is in itself repressive, and that resistance to its ideas of emancipation can itself be emancipatory.
    Birgit Rommelspacher
    is a professor of psychology specialising in interculturality and gender studies. She is based in Berlin. This article was first published in the journal Politik und Zeitgeschichte in 2009.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    January 2011

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