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Women and Social Reform

Mervat Hatem, Shahla Haeri, Valentine M. Moghadam, Susan Schaefer Davis, Leila Hessini, Anita M. Weiss, Sharon Siddique, Farjana Mahbuba
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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    Women and Social Reform

    [This entry contains five subentries:


    The last two decades have witnessed the intensification of economic and political crises in the Middle East region. The change from state led development to privatization has contributed to severe economic crises manifested in the spread of poverty and large-scale unemployment, especially among the young men and women of the working- and middle-classes. The Islamist oppositional movements used these societal contexts to underline the failures of the nation-state and to represent themselves as reformers offering solutions to these complex problems. The result was a polarization between Islamism and nationalism, as distinct social projects, bases of gender identity, and representatives of dominant political forces in postcolonial societies. When these Islamist political movements achieved electoral gains, their successes provoked violent political reactions from many states, leading to the weakening of both forces. The political outcomes of the struggles between the state and its Islamist opponents during the last two decades has increasingly underlined the authoritarian character of national states, which continued to monopolize political power, eroding their national basis of legitimacy as it governs societies characterized by glaring inequalities between classes, genders, and ethnic groups. Similarly, the political and organizational strengths of the Islamist groups have been equally weakened, though their influence over the social, cultural, and political debate has not diminished. The events of September 11, 2001, and the consequent war on terrorism, which pitted the United States against al-Qaʿida, provided new sources of strength for local state allies and reinforced old discourses with new ones.

    Economic and Political Crises and the Reform of Gender Inequalities.

    During the 1990s, as the economic crises in the Middle East intensified, privatization decreased the state's role in the provision of vital social services including education, health, and most importantly, employment. According to the 2002 Arab Human Development Report, one of the significant results of this structural adjustment process was the regional feminization of poverty and unemployment, exacerbating gender inequality. In Egypt and Bahrain, female unemployment was three times as high as that of men and in Morocco, Syria, Jordan, and Oman, it was twice as high (Moghadam, 2004). In response, Islamist oppositional groups and many of the nation-states in the region encouraged women to return home. This strategy was not feasible for female-headed households, whose large presence was documented in Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, the West Bank and Gaza, and for working-class families whose women had increased their participation in the informal sector (ESCWA, 1996, p. 32).

    In a region where women's literacy more than doubled between 1970 and 1985, women still represented two-thirds of the illiterate population. Since 1985, total state expenditures on education in Arab states progressively declined, with serious consequences on the rate of working-class girls who had to drop out of school to assist with housework, as their mothers entered the work force.

    In the face of these acute crises, the Islamists’ have attempted to respond to the grievances of groups who have been excluded in the new privatized economies. They were rewarded by electoral and political gains in Tunisia and Egypt (in the late 1980s) and Algeria (in the early 1990s), leading these states to move against them—representing them as “terrorists” who posed a security threat to the political stability of these societies and continued modernization. In the section that follows, a study of Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria shows how, in violent confrontations between the nation-state and its Islamist opponents, both sides targeted women, used the gender roles of women to score political points against each other, and provoked different responses from women.


    In Egypt, the state and the national/secular political elites accused the Islamists of undermining the long history of Egyptian nationalist modernization/enlightenment by emphasizing a return to traditionalism, represented by the emphasis they placed on women's adherence to the Islamic mode of dress. Nawāl al-Saʿdāwī, the well-known feminist, offered a one-sided position with regard to ḥijāb, describing the Muslim women's head-cover adopted by many women as a sign of closemindedness and as a barrier to the full use of their reason. Others represented women's embrace of Islamism typified by the Islamic mode of dress as undermining the nationalist discourse on the liberation of women, developed by early male reformers like Qāsim Amīn, with its emphasis on education and participation in public life. They argued that the discussion of women's roles in society was a “civil,” not a religious matter. Finally, they stated the familiar argument that the liberation of Arab women is not inseparable from the liberation of Arab men and the liberation of society itself. This articulation pointed out the nationalization of the concerns of women by putting them in the service of the broader social and political project of the modern state.

    In response, the Islamists accused the state and its elites of sacrificing the Islamic character of society in the name of modernization, without being able to meet the developmental needs of the unemployed younger generations of men and women, and the underdeveloped southern region of the country. Some Islamist women concurred with this analysis; they described their decisions to embrace the Islamist project as a means of grounding Islamic principles in the construction of daily life and developing an Islamic sensibility that is more concrete than abstract. Prominent Islamist women, theorizing on the importance of contemporary Islamism as an alternative to Western feminism, offered revisionist views of Egyptian women's history. Zaynab al-Ghazālī charged early Egyptian feminists with contributing to the alienation of Muslim women from their religion that provided them with a dignified status and important role models. Nationalists turned their backs on the Islamic tradition, which Islamist women sought to extract more balanced interpretations of Islam's support of women's rights. Similarly, Heba Ra’uf Ezzat rejected feminism as a Western import that showed a limited appreciation for the important roles that Muslim women played in the family. Her critique focused on how feminism promised women individual liberty in exchange for a weakened family unit, thus depriving women of an important source of social protection and support (Ezzat, 2000).


    In Tunisia, the Islamists used the economic crisis to attract the support of young men and women with limited social mobility. In addition to their economic critique of state policies, the Islamists represented the free mixing of men and women in universities, Western modes of dress, and the violation of religious rules as the “manifestations of moral delinquency” (Ismail, 2003, p. 143). The government of Zayn al-ʿābidīn bin ʿAlī and its Islamist opponents quickly focused on the Personal Status Law, the centerpiece of the national modernizing project, in their attempts to subvert each other's political discourses. The Islamists saw it as a deviation from Islamic tradition, and the state saw it as part of the National Pact with which political parties needed to abide (Hatem, 1995, p. 198).

    In response, the Islamists’ called their new political party al-Nahḍah, (the Renaissance), appropriating the key concept of Arab modernity to describe their political project. Bin ʿAlī responded by posing a national challenge to the Islamists in the form of a new National Pact: “Nothing justifies the creation of a group as long as it has not defined the type of society that it commends, clarified its position towards a certain number of civilizational issues and committed itself to respect the equality of rights and duties of citizens, men and women as well as the principles of tolerance and of the liberty of conscious” (Hatem, 1995, p. 198). Also in the Pact, the state emphasized Tunisia's “Arabo-Islamic identity,” protecting itself against Islamist critics and appropriating a key source of their appeal. While it claimed that the Islamists did not appreciate the civilizational principles of gender equality instituted by the personal status code, it also attempted to underline its own commitment to the Arabo-Islamic identity that provided them with a basis of national appeal. Both the Islamists and the nationalists used gender to serve their own political interests.

    Tunisian women were split in their support of these different political forces and their gender agendas. The official Union of Tunisian Women and relatively independent women's groups supported the state as the defender of the rights of women. In contrast, Islamist women used the Islamic mode of dress to fight sexism in the public arena, to criticize their families’ practice of religion, and to develop support networks (Ismail, p. 143). With the elimination of the Islamist threat, the state tightened its control of the gender agenda and emerging feminist groups, but it also began an undeclared campaign of discrimination against Islamist women. They were warned to give up their mode of dress if they wanted to keep their jobs, and those who worked for the state and resisted faced the termination of their employment.


    The confrontation between the state and its Islamist opponents was the most bloody in Algeria; it resulted in a prolonged civil war that claimed the lives of many men and women. Consequently, the pitch of the polemical exchanges between Islamists and nationalists was unparalleled in the region. Because some of the nationalists and feminists had internalized the French cultural frame of reference, they addressed themselves largely to French and Western audiences. For example, Khalida Messaoudi wrote, “the hijab is like a yellow star for women, the first step towards their physical elimination” (Burgat, 2003, p. 140). Similarly, Rachid Mimouni suggested, “a women to an Islamist is like a Jew to a Nazi” (Burgat, 2003, p. 140). This minority view clearly addressed a Western audience that privileged the holocaust as an example of genocidal oppression that had great currency in the West. It said nothing about what Algerian women who took on the Islamic mode of dress thought and what the Islamic system of representation meant to them.

    The views of Algerian Islamist women were not very different from those expressed by Tunisians and Egyptians. Some saw the ḥijāb as providing them with equality before God, greater public freedom, the basis of bodily integrity in crowded social facilities, and greater individuality (Burgat, 2003, pp. 142–143). Algerian women researchers also pointed out that there were few differences between the aspirations of Islamist and non-Islamist women for education, work, and public participation (Burgat, 2003).

    Iran and Turkey.

    The non-Arab cases of Iran's Islamic republic and Turkey's secular republic offered contrasting perspectives on the possibilities of reform under Islamist governments. During the last two decades, women and young people in Iran were able to use the republican principles of their religious government to back the election of president Mohamed Khatami as the representative of a reformist segment of the clerical establishment. As part of this reformist trend, many women were elected to parliament, and upon his election Khatami expressed his gratitude to women as a constituency by appointing a woman vice president. The new opening encouraged the emergence of a new alliance between feminist and Islamist women that pushed for gender agendas that supported more rights for women within and outside the family. Equally important, in women's publications and within some segments of the clerical establishment, debates began about how the creation of the Islamic republic pressured the clerics of the religion to develop interpretations that were friendly to women, to rebut Western claims that Islam was unfair to women and/or inhospitable to their rights.

    The conservative clerical establishment in Iran was successful in blocking the efforts of the reformists in parliament and disqualifying their candidates in the elections of 2004; this led to the election of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His government returned to the restrictive social environment and the strict surveillance of women, in an effort to conceal the economic and political failures of the new regime.

    The recent history of the secular republic in Turkey, whose commitment to nationalist modernization made it a regional role model for women-friendly policies, reveals a new kind of openness. It has responded to the rise of Islamism and its spread among women in surprisingly repressive ways. Using the commitment to secularism as a stick, the republican state passed administrative laws in the late 1980s that discriminated against religious women who wore headscarves, by denying them the right to education, work, and political participation. The result was the familiar split observed in many Arab states, between women who supported the nationalist discourses on modernization and those who embraced Islamism. Interestingly, despite the important role that women played in the election of Islamist political parties, once elected, they did not take steps to politically reverse the discriminatory laws that prevented their women supporters from exercising their rights of citizenship. This showed the extent to which Islamist governments were similar to secularist governments in subordinating women's interests to general political interests, which in this case was to demonstrate to the secularist political establishment and its public their willingness to operate within the set secular rules.

    September 11 and Gender Discourses.

    The events of September 11, 2001 have injected international issues into the debate about the future of Muslim women and their societies. It imported the “clash of civilization” thesis to characterize the struggle between the West (and its secular state allies in the region) and Islam/Islamism as a new source of global conflict. The neo-conservative theorists of the war on terrorism borrowed, without the benefit of critical analysis, the perspectives of the Middle Eastern states on Islamism to characterize al-Qaʿida as a security threat that could be eliminated through the use of force—to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq—to improve the prospects of democratization of Islamic societies and improve women's rights. United States intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has not improved the conditions of women. The war exacerbated the ethnic divisions among the Shīʿīites, the Sunnīs, and the Kurds, and created a new space for conservative religious discourse on the rights of women. The war has also increased the burdens of women in taking care of their families. In addition, it gave al-Qaʿida a regional stage from which it could attempt to strengthen the Islamists as defenders of Islamic lands against the new crusaders.



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    Mervat Hatem

    Social Reform in the Middle East

    The general inability of the modern Middle Eastern nation-state to fulfill promises of political and economic progress, and a widespread perception of deteriorating public morality, have in recent decades rekindled the historical conflict between the political and religious orders—between an Islamic state (presumably modeled after the original Islamic order) and a modern secular state, or between nationalism and utopian Islamic universalism (based on the concept of the ummah). The historical disputes over the legitimacy of the political order and the identity of an Islamic state became an apparently irreconcilable political and ideological conflict, exemplified by the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979, the spread of Islamist movements in the 1980s, and the Algerian civil conflict of the 1990s. The dual crises of legitimacy and identity underscore the fiercely competing religious and secular political discourses (“reformists,” “modernists,” “traditionalists,” and “Islamists”) vying for power, political constituencies, and ultimately the ethical direction of society. The continuing friction between the state and religious institutions has rendered social reform all the more contentious, especially in the domain of women and the family. This essay briefly sketches some patterns of family-law reform and the status of Muslim Middle Eastern women in that context.

    Contours of Family Law: Marriage, Divorce, Child Custody, and Guardianship.

    In Islam, marriage (nikāḥ) is an exchange contract (ʿaqd) between unequal partners, involving a complex set of marital rights and reciprocal obligations. On the basis of the controversial Qurʿānic verse 4:3, traditional Islamic law gives Muslim men the right to marry up to four wives simultaneously. Shīʿī men may further contract an unlimited number of temporary marriages (mutʿah), legitimated in their view by the Qurʿān (4:24). (Following the second caliph's ban on temporary marriage in the seventh century, Sunnīs reject this practice.) The legal possibility of polygyny is an element of insecurity in Islamic marriage.

    Conditions not contrary to the essence of Muslim marriage (e.g., that the husband divorce a former wife) may be added to the marriage contract to safeguard the rights of the wife. To reform Islamic marriage and divorce, Middle Eastern secular legislatures have adopted the form and rationale of a contract.

    Child marriage, a problem endemic in many Muslim societies, has been discouraged by raising the minimum age for marriage for both boys and girls. Generally it stands at eighteen for boys, but for girls it varies from fifteen to eighteen. Abolishing the Iranian Family Protection Law of 1975, the Islamic Republic of Iran returned to the Shīʿī minimum marriage-age of fifteen for boys and nine for girls (New Civil Law, clause 1041). In all cases, the age restrictions may be waived at the discretion of a judge.

    “Of all things permissible, divorce (ṭalāq) is the most reprehensible,” states a saying popularly attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Nonetheless, Islamic law grants the unilateral right of divorce to the husband (Qurʿān, 2:226–237; 65:1). In attempting legal reforms, many Middle Eastern states preserved unchallenged the right of the man to repudiate his wife, while allowing greater latitude for women seeking divorce in cases of cruelty, failure of the man to provide for his wife, and abandonment (Anderson, p. 22).

    A divorce may take several forms; the most common is the revocable divorce. A revocable (rajʿī; literally “returnable”) divorce is semifinal: the bonds of marriage are not completely severed. Although the husband and wife may separate physically, he has the unilateral right to return to his wife during the three months of her waiting period and to resume his marital rights and duties. The wife's consent is not sought or required, and she cannot remarry within the same period. Parallel to his right of return, she has the right to financial support (Schacht, 1964). Islamic law grants a repentant husband the right to return to his wife and revoke the divorce twice; but after the third divorce he can no longer do so, for this last divorce becomes irrevocable (Qurʿān, 2:229). Traditionally, Sunnī sharīʿah permitted the single pronouncement of a triple “I divorce thee,” but in states such as Egypt, Syria, and Kuwait such triple divorce is null and is counted as only one (Nasir, p. 76). Shīʿī law prohibits the triple pronouncement of repudiation altogether (Anderson, 1971; Esposito, 1982).

    An irrevocable (bāʿin) divorce occurs when the dissolution of marriage is final from the moment of pronouncement. In this form of divorce the husband's right to return and the wife's right to maintenance are both curtailed. The woman, however, has to maintain her three months’ sexual abstinence (Nasir, p. 77).

    On specific grounds (e.g., absence of maintenance) Muslim women can apply for divorce, recognized as divorce of khulʿah (Qurʿān, 2:229). A fundamental difference, however, exists between khulʿah and talāq (divorce). Divorce is a unilateral (īqā) act in which the wife's consent is not necessary, whereas khulʿah is a contract to which the husband must agree. If he refuses to cooperate, it is very difficult for a woman to use this option. Under this provision, women are obliged not only to forgo their brideprice and the three months’ alimony, but also to pay some consideration to “ransom” their freedom (Nasir, pp. 78–81).

    Potentially, the most threatening issues facing a married Muslim woman are a unilateral and capricious divorce and an absence of alimony beyond the three months’ waiting period (ʿiddah) following divorce. Islamic law and norms consider that women are sufficiently compensated by the brideprice, although the deferred brideprice can be forfeited if the wife is deemed to have been at fault in the divorce. In some countries, some efforts to compensate divorced women were made. For example, under the heading of “Compensation for Repudiation,” Kuwaiti law states that in the case of a wife's arbitrary divorce, she is entitled to an amount “not in excess of a year's maintenance” above her three months’ ʿiddah period. However, she is not entitled to any provision if the divorce is on the basis of the husband's insolvency or the wife's injurious behavior or her consent, or if the divorce is initiated by the wife.

    Under the principle of guardianship, men have the responsibility of protecting their female kin and maintaining their wives and children (Charrad, 2002). This guardianship also gives men rights to child custody after divorce. In the case of small children, the mothers are allowed to keep them until—depending on the country and legal interpretation in place—the ages of seven, nine, or eleven, when they are returned to their father. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Middle Eastern reformers made minimal and conditional provisions for women's maintenance after divorce, while leaving the wrenching issue of custody of children—religiously and legally a father's prerogative—generally unchanged.

    Family Law Reform in Historical Perspective.

    The codification of personal status matters and family law reform are associated with larger processes of state-building, modernization, or political reforms. In general, the pace of legal and political reforms accelerated in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when most states in the Middle East and North Africa were at their reformist peak. The changes aimed at loosening the political, economic, and moral hold that the religious establishment had for centuries enjoyed over the domestic domain. The success of the legal reforms and of their implementation was not uniform. Depending on their sociopolitical strength, economic resources, and relationship with the clergy, states pursued different strategies (Nasir, pp. 119–136).

    The Ottoman Law of Family Rights of 1917 set in motion the earliest legal reform in a Muslim society, restricting the male privileges of plural marriage and divorce by permitting women to seek justice. The law, however, did not limit the husband's right to repudiate his wives without cause (Kandiyoti, p. 11; White, p. 56). In 1926, as part of the Kemalist revolution, the state adopted the Turkish Civil Code, severing all links with the sharīʿah. It banned polygyny and gave marriage partners equal rights to divorce and child custody. At about the same time, Egypt enacted a series of personal laws (1920–1929) that raised the marriage age for both girls and boys, prohibited marriage without the couple's consent, and restricted divorce by giving women the right to divorce on specified grounds (Coulson and Hinchcliffe, p. 49). Social reforms under President Gamal Abdel Nasser did not, however, eliminate polygamy or men's privileges in divorce.

    In 1951 Jordan reformed the Law of Family Rights (amended in 1976), restricting polygamy and divorce and giving women the right to divorce on certain grounds. A “fair” alimony was provided for the wife if a judge determined that she had been divorced arbitrarily. Syria enacted the Law of Personal Status in 1953 (amended in 1975), adding a right to financial support for a divorced wife of up to three years after arbitrary divorce. The law restricted, but did not ban, polygyny and unilateral divorce.

    In late 1967 Iran introduced the Family Protection Law, revised in 1975. It restricted polygyny and divorce and was the only case of reform to accord the wife an equal right to the custody of children. It also made provision for alimony for either partner, to be determined on the basis of income. The Family Protection Law was abolished after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and Islamic precepts were reinstated, with no restriction on polygyny or temporary marriage and minimal conditional limitation on arbitrary and unilateral divorce.

    In Iraq the Baath party amended the Personal Status Law in 1978 (adopted in 1959, and amended in 1963), which though limited in its objectives, aimed at reducing the control of the husband in plural marriages and unilateral divorce. A husband's desire for a second marriage had to be approved by a judge.

    Lebanese ethnic heterogeneity prompted the state to delegate family matters, divorce, and marriage to the control of each specific religious establishment. Consequently, the Lebanese state did not legislate a national family code but issued some sixteen separate codes for eighteen religious sects (Shehadeh, 1998).

    Between the 1950s and 1970s, the most progressive family laws or personal status codes were to be found in Tunisia (adopted in 1956) and in the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (adopted in 1967). While the former was based on a liberal interpretation of the sharīʿah while also drawing on Western (especially French) norms of the time, the latter drew heavily on the laws and norms of the socialist world.

    During this period Saudi Arabia, northern Yemen, and the Gulf states—Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar—were a case apart, as they held deeply conservative views on women's status in the family and their social participation (Allaghi and Almana, p. 17). Adhering to a puritanical version of Islamic law known as Wahhābīyah, Saudi Arabia has resisted change and strictly enforces its version of Islamic law. Morocco, too, instituted a very conservative family law—the Mudawana, 1957—after independence, in contrast to developments in neighboring Tunisia and Algeria.

    The overall objective of reforms in traditional Islamic family law was to accommodate Muslim women within a religiously and culturally relevant context. Middle Eastern states (apart from Turkey) have incorporated aspects of the different jurisprudential schools of Islamic law in all the changes they have made in family law. For example, they tended to restrict the husband's right to plural marriages by making it conditional on the wife's consent or the court's permission (Anderson, p. 24). This confronted Muslim women with an unenviable choice: either give their consent or sue for divorce.

    For the most part, states initiated family law reforms in the 1950s and 1960s timidly, only to come under strong criticism by Islamists beginning in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Taking a literal approach to the sharīʿah, the Islamists believe its laws to be divine, unchanging, and fundamental to maintaining a distinctly Islamic way of life. They view family legal reform as deviating from Islamic law and as inspired by the West.

    The conflict over the proper Islamic approach to the role and status of women in the family and in the public domain became especially intense in the 1980s and 1990s, with Islamist movements largely succeeding in forcing states to retreat from the earlier social reforms. This occurred most dramatically in Iran, but also in Egypt and in Yemen after the 1990 unification. At the same time, Middle Eastern women—particularly those who had gained access to education and employment and desired more participation and rights—began to mobilize in opposition to state concessions to Islamist pressures. Thus, in contrast with the earlier period of social reform in the Middle East, the impetus for the most recent wave of reform has come largely from women's organizations, which began to proliferate in the 1990s.

    Women's Movements and Family Law Reforms in the New Century.

    In the 1980s and 1990s, heavy pressure from increasingly vocal Islamists forced many states to reconsider family reforms, to Islamize their rhetoric, or to reformulate them within an Islamic framework. The Islamists, unlike the “traditionalists,” are not exclusively against women's social participation, provided that their public roles are legitimated within an Islamic framework, and that women uphold Islamic identity by observing Islamic conduct and veiling. Still, they have opposed liberalization of family laws, and this has galvanized women's rights activism on two fronts. On one, women with religious convictions are questioning historical patriarchal assumptions and practices; they are returning to the Qurʿān and giving it their own emancipatory and egalitarian interpretation (Ahmed; Mernissi; Wadud). On the other front, women's rights organizations, comprising politically aware secular feminists, draw on international standards and norms and on culturally appropriate discourses to demand improvements in the legal status and social positions of women. The global women's rights agenda, crafted and promoted by the United Nations, has been especially important in legitimizing Middle Eastern women's struggles for equal rights in the family and in the public domains.

    Egypt's personal status laws were amended by presidential decree in June 1979, and came to be known as “Jihan's Law” for the wife of then president Anwar el-Sadat. Because of pressure from Islamists, the decree was declared unconstitutional in May 1985 but was legally adopted by the People's Assembly in July of the same year, albeit with some changes. It left unchanged the right of the husband to divorce and to marry more than one wife, and removed a wife's automatic right to a divorce if her husband took another wife, but divorce now had to be mediated by the court, registered, and witnessed, and the wife promptly and officially informed. The 1985 law provided for maintenance for as long as the divorced mother nursed or cared for the small children, but removed her right to abide in the unrented home (An-Naim, p. 170). The age range for which the mother has automatic custody of children was raised to ten and twelve (from seven and nine) for boys and girls, respectively. In the years following enactment of this law, Egyptian feminists worked to introduce a marriage contract that would stipulate the rights of the wife, including the right to a khulʿah divorce; they succeeded in doing so in 2000.

    In December 2001 the Jordanian Cabinet approved several amendments to the Civil Status Law. The legal age for marriage was raised from fifteen for women and sixteen for men to eighteen for both, and Jordanian women were given legal recourse to divorce. New restrictions on polygyny require a man to inform his first wife of plans to marry again and to submit evidence of his financial ability to support more than one wife. Interpretation of guardianship to justify the so-called honor-killing of a female family member deemed sexually transgressive was challenged, and women's rights activists successfully pushed for reform of the penal code to criminalize this extreme form of family violence (Moghadam, p. 286).

    In North Africa, women's rights and feminist organizations formed the Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalité, which was the major organizer behind the “Muslim Women's Parliament” at the NGO Forum that preceded the UN's Fourth world Conference on Women, in Beijing in September 1995. The Collectif formulated an alternative “egalitarian family code” and promoted women's political participation. Moroccan women's groups launched a campaign to obtain one million signatures for family law reform, and in 1998 they received the support of the new government. The plan to reform the Mudawana came under attack by conservative Islamic forces, but victory came in October 2003, after a royal commission recommended reform and the new king issued a decree supporting reform. In January 2004 the parliament adopted Morocco's new family law, which is far more egalitarian in spirit and letter. While it does not ban polygyny, it makes it extremely difficult for a man to take an additional wife and establishes the principle of divorce by mutual consent. Moreover, the law gives the wife self-guardianship and confers on the wife as well as the husband responsibility for the family. Newly-formed family courts will adjudicate issues of matrimonial property division and child custody following divorce.

    Calls for family-law reform in some countries seek to eliminate gender injustices such as child marriages, male privileges in divorce, and the absence of a concept of matrimonial property. In other cases, reform is needed to close the gap between outdated laws subordinating women to husbands or male kin, and the new social realities of educated, active, and empowered women.



    • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
    • Anderson, J. N. D.“The Role of Personal Statutes in Social Development in Islamic Countries.”Comparative Studies in Society and History13, no. 1 (1971): 16–31.
    • An-Naim, Abdullahi A.Islamic Family Law in a Changing World. London: Zed Books, 2002.
    • Charrad, Mounira. States and Women's Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
    • Coulson, Noel J., and Doreen Hinchcliffe. “Women and Law Reform in Contemporary Islam.” In Women in the Muslim World, edited by Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie, pp. 37–51. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
    • Haeri, Shahla. Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shiʿi Iran. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1989.
    • Hinchcliffe, Doreen. “The Iranian Family Protection Act.”International and Comparative Law Quarterly17, no. 2 (1968): 516–521.
    • Hussein, Aziza. “Recent Amendments to Egypt's Personal Status Law.” In Women and the Family in the Middle East, edited by Elizabeth W. Fernea, pp. 229–232. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.
    • Joseph, Suad, ed.Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
    • Kandiyoti, Deniz, ed.Women, Islam, and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
    • Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1991.
    • Moghadam, Valentine M.Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. 2d ed.Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003.
    • Nasir, Jamal J.The Status of Women Under Islamic Law and Under Modern Islamic Legislation. London: Graham & Trotman, 1990.
    • Shehadeh, Lamia. “The Legal Status of Married Women in Lebanon.”International Journal of Middle East Studies30, no. 4 (1998): 501–519.
    • Wadud, Amina. Qurʿan and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective. 2d ed.New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
    • White, E. H.“Legal Reforms as an Indicator of Women's Status in Muslim Nations.” In Women in the Muslim World, edited by Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie, pp. 52–68. Cambridge, Mass., 1978.

    Shahla Haeri Updated by Valentine M. Moghadam

    Social Reform in North Africa

    Since the colonial period, North African women have been involved in social reform, but more often than not, they have been the object of social-reform efforts, rather than participating actors. Although the pace of change was initially slow, it increased in the 1980s, as more women entered public life and created political discourses and organizations through which to transform their status. This change has not been uniform, and there are wide variations between and within countries, across social classes, and within political movements. Cross-cultural similarities do exist, however. For instance, in the past, change for women was usually pursued as part of a more universal reformist agenda, intended to benefit the entire society. Women and men often worked together for these reforms. Today, more women are promoting woman-specific reform.

    Colonial Period.

    While the French controlled Algeria (1830–1962), Tunisia (1881–1956), and Morocco (1912–1956), few reforms were directed at the status of women. Instead, traditional female roles were often stressed as symbols of cultural authenticity. Early nationalist groups in all three countries favored secular reform, and education for women had limited support. In the 1950s, an Algerian political party recruited women, but men and women met separately. Some of the more popular religious reformists between the 1920s and 1950s, such as Algeria's Shaykh Ibn Bādīs, advocated primary school education for women, as well as a limited overlap of the separate gender spheres. For instance, he recommended that women and men participate in the market, and that they learn and teach together. A few Algerian and French women discussed women's veiling, education, and the conditions of marriage and divorce in newspapers or books. Tunisia had a French women's league chapter whose nearly all-male (French and Muslim) members debated women's rights. But Tunisia's ʿulamāʿ blocked secular reform and condemned its supporters, attacking, for example, journalist al-Ṭāhir al-Ḥaddād's1930 book, Our Women in the Sharia and in Society, in which al-Ḥaddād argued that the Qurʿān allowed for expanded roles for women. Few supported him.

    As significant for post-independence reform was the record of participation of women in all three anticolonial struggles. Their activities in Algeria's war of independence, from 1954 to 1962, have been most fully documented. Nearly eleven thousand women participated, and 20 percent were jailed or killed. The majority played traditional roles, providing food and shelter for resistance fighters. However, a few participated in combat and strategic actions, and were imprisoned and tortured, including Djamila Bouhired and Djamila Boupacha. Revolutionaries deferred the process of changing female roles until after independence (and later), but women's war heroism remains an important symbol of their potential. Their revolutionary roles are often most powerfully described in literary works, such as Moroccan Leila Abouzeid's semibiographical account, Year of the Elephant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989).

    Post-independence Period.

    After independence (Morocco, March 2, 1956; Tunisia, March 20, 1956; and Algeria, July 3, 1962), each country laid out its own path to social reform, including the establishment of a constitution, legal codes, and government agencies to promote change. In order to build viable national political constituencies, and to reconcile the competing interests of Islam and nationalism, however, reforms concerning women were limited. Nonetheless, Tunisian women voted in 1957, Algerian women in 1962, and Moroccan women in 1963.

    Despite early constitutional reforms such as enfranchisement, Maghribī women are subject to contradictory legislation governing their status. While Maghribī constitutions support the principle of equal rights and duties of males and females, national codes actually legalize gender differences as they are based on the Mālikī version of Islamic law. These personal status codes concern the regulation of individuals before, during, and after marriage, as well as the institution of marriage itself. Under Mālikī law, which has traditionally given male relatives control over key decisions in women's lives, the bride's consent to marriage is expressed via her father or male guardian. A man may marry up to four wives. Men may repudiate their wives at will, while women may request a divorce only under specific and limited conditions. Inheritance provisions overwhelmingly favor men.

    The 1957 Moroccan Code of Personal Status essentially codified the provisions of Mālikī law, securing the status quo in gender relations. Likewise, under the 1984 Algerian Family Code, most legal prerogatives of men, including polygyny and preferential inheritance, remain intact. Divorce, replacing repudiation (a verbal dismissal of the wife by the husband), must now be conducted in the courts. A widowed mother becomes the children's guardian. Yet, as a woman, she legally remains a minor throughout her life, requiring a male tutor for any legal transaction. The 1956 Tunisian Code of Personal Status provides greater rights for women and reduces somewhat the authority of men over women. The bride's physical presence and verbal consent are required to make a valid marriage, and women are entitled to initiate divorce. Polygyny, repudiation, forced marriage, and the requirement that male tutors act on behalf of women have been banned. Despite these drastic legal changes, women, often ignorant of their legal rights, remain in a position of permanent dependency as daughters and wives, as men are always legally the head of the family.

    “La femme en rondelles” (compartmentalized woman) accurately describes the Maghribī woman's dilemma. Legal constitutional changes have not greatly altered social reality. The real value of legislation stems from the way it is perceived and applied by those it addresses; in the Maghrib, traditional forces of the status quo tend to prevail.

    Maghribī Women Today and in the Future.

    Advocates of social reform for Maghribī women include conservatives and liberals, secularists and scripturalists. Their reform agendas may be quite different, however. Some state-sponsored and some revolutionary groups call for the reinforcement of traditional roles, while women's organizations pursue social and legal equality. All of these groups present models for women's identities. But change for any individual woman has complex determinants, including local and global economic and political conditions; in other words, one cannot simply reduce the causes of gender inequality to “Islam.”

    Governments and “State Feminism.”

    On the state level, governments sponsor national women's unions focused on nation-building. These unions and ministry programs often reinforce traditional sewing and embroidery skills. State-provided education has benefited women most. While few attended school before independence, in 1986 the primary school enrollment for girls was 62 percent in Morocco, 85 percent in Algeria, and nearly a hundred percent in Tunisia, according to a 1989 World Bank Development Report. Many state bureaucracies employ women, though not in highly influential positions. A number of political parties have affiliated women's groups or address women's issues, but with few results. Women may run for office and have won Moroccan municipal elections and two parliamentary seats in 1993; currently, women constitute 3 percent of Algeria's National Assembly.

    Women's Agendas.

    Women's own increasing public advocacy of their rights represents a new historical moment for reform in gender relations and women's status. Having paid employment increases women's leverage within the family, and often in society at large. Since 1988, nearly thirty Algerian women's associations have formed, most advocating change in the 1984 Family Code discussed above. As Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi says in Beyond the Veil, women are now “designing a future instead of growing old.” A specifically North African feminist discourse is developing through scholarship like The Veil and the Male Elite, in which Mernissi identifies the misogyny behind certain ḥadīths traditionally used to support male privilege and finds evidence for early Islam's egalitarianism.

    Islamist Women.

    Yet, calls for reform among women are not univocal. An increasing number of Maghribī women, including many educated professionals, are electing to wear the ḥijāb. This modern-day version of the Muslim veil leaves the face uncovered and is worn with an ample gown. Islamists advocate separate public spheres for men and women, demanding segregated educational and public facilities. Their campaign has been only partially successful. But such a phenomenon cannot be solely ascribed to social pressure exercised by Islamists, particularly in countries where they lack an official power base. Women are defining their identity both as Muslims and as women within new social and economic realities, in which traditional boundaries of role and space are no longer clear-cut. Professional women are increasingly penetrating public space, hitherto reserved for men, while the boundaries between traditional public space and women's private sphere in the home are shifting. Against this current of change have emerged strong individual and social desires for permanence and stability.

    Women adopt the ḥijāb for many complex reasons, not necessarily as an acquiescence to male power. Although perceived by most Westerners as a symbol of female oppression, for many Maghribī women, wearing the ḥijāb represents a commitment to Islamic authenticity. The concept of authenticity is religious and cultural in nature, based essentially on indigenous cultural norms and a rejection of Western values. But the veil has taken on contemporary meanings and functions, to meet the demands of the new situations in which women find themselves. It allows women easier, less controversial access to public space, while at the same time reemphasizing their traditional primary role as dependent, domesticated keepers of the private sphere. The ḥijāb, novel in shape as well as meaning, meets the need for an overt expression of Islamic religious and cultural identity, while providing a solution to the spatial dilemma, accommodating women's expanded social presence within an Islamic framework. The veil ensures its wearer her private space (including freedom from male harassment), whatever the context.

    For women wearing the ḥijāb, the societal rewards are twofold. First, through their overt statement of virtue and commitment to Islam, they gain the respect and consideration of traditional men. Second, the initiative taken by these women, deliberately choosing to wear the veil, is empowering for many, creating a strong self-image and providing unimpeded physical mobility in public space, previously unknown to all but a few privileged women. While for some the veil represents a retrograde mechanism of female oppression, for others it is psychologically liberating and facilitates access to a professional life. Paradoxically, then, the ḥijāb, advocated by the Islamists, has the potential for being a liberating device while strengthening constraints traditionally imposed on Maghribi women.

    The twenty-first century will no doubt be a period of varied change for the women of North Africa.

    See also ḤIJāB; and MERNISSI, FATIMA.


    • Abderrazak, Moulay Rʿchid. La femme et la loi au Maroc, Casablanca: Editions le Fennec1991. Focuses on the legislation in Algeria as it pertains to men's and women's roles, status, rights, and duties.Abouzeid, Leila. Year of the Elephant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.
    • An-Naʿim, Abdullahi A., ed.Islamic Family Law in a Changing World: A Global Resource Book. London: Zed Books, 2002.
    • Bodman, Herbert L., and Nayereh Tohidi, eds.Women in Muslim Societies: Diversity within Unity. Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.
    • Bourqia, R., M. M. Charrad, and N. Gallagher, eds.Femmes, Culture, et Société au Maghreb. 2 vols. Casablanca, Morocco: Afrique Orient, 1996.
    • Brand, Laurie. Women, the State, and Political Liberalization: Middle Eastern and North African Experiences. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
    • Chamari, Alya Chérif. La femme et la loi en Tunisie. Casablanca: Éditions le Fennec1991. Focuses on the legislation in Tunisia as it pertains to men's and women's roles, status, rights, and duties.
    • Charrad, Mounira. “State and Gender in the Maghreb.”Middle East Report163 (March–April 1990): 19–23. Summarizes women's conditions and analyzes the reasons each Maghribī state has dealt differently with changes related to gender.
    • Charrad, Mounira M.States and Women's Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
    • Esposito, John L., with Natana J. DeLong-Bas. Women in Muslim Family Law, 2nd ed.Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001.
    • Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. London, 1980. Contains lucid descriptions of the psychological importance of female veiling and traditional behavior in the maintenance of cultural authenticity.
    • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, and Banks Findly Ellison, eds.Women, Religion, and Social Change. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985. See especially the introduction, “Islam, Women, and Twentieth-Century Arab Thought,” and Haddad's discussion of how women are influenced by, or can influence, religion to accomplish social change.
    • Kandiyoti, Deniz, ed.Women, Islam, and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991. Explores interrelationships between religion, family, politics, culture, and the state.
    • Keddie, Nikki R.Women in the Middle East: Past and Present. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
    • Knaus, Peter R.The Persistence of Patriarchy: Class, Gender, and Ideology in Twentieth-Century Algeria. New York and London: Praeger, 1987. Stresses male domination, but thoroughly examines women's roles from precolonial times to the mid-1980s and includes an extensive bibliography.
    • Lazreg, Marnia. “Gender and Politics in Algeria: Unraveling the Religious Paradigm.”Signs 15, no. 4 (Summer 1990): 755–780. Well-documented discussion of Algerian women and their changing roles, from Algeria's independence to the present.
    • Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Rev. ed.Bloomington, 1987. See p. xii. The introduction vividly portrays recent changes for women, as well as Mernissi's view of the bases and goals of Moroccan Islamist groups.
    • Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite. Translated by MaryJo Lakeland. New York: Addison Wesley, 1991.
    • Micaud, Charles, Leon Carl Brown, and Clement Henry Moore. Tunisia: The Politics of Modernization. New York: Praeger, 1964. Covers social change involving women during the protectorate and in the early years of independence.
    • Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law: Iran and Morocco Compared. London: I. B. Tauris, 1993.
    • Saadi, Nouredine. La femme et la loi en Algerie. Casablanca: Éditions le Fennec1991. Focuses on the legislation in Algeria as it pertains to men's and women's roles, status, rights, and duties.

    Susan Schaefer Davis and Leila Hessini

    Social Reform in South Asia

    Efforts at social and legal reform have provoked integral changes in Muslim women's lives in the subcontinent throughout the past century. Attention to Muslim women's status and ways of improving it began as an offshoot of two separate kinds of movement: the larger social reform movement in British India and the growing pre-partition Muslim nationalist movement. In the post-partition era, the issue of social reform and Muslim women has largely been associated with the discourse on the role Islam can and/or should play in a modern state. It addresses the extent to which the civil rights common in most western democracies are appropriate in the South Asian Muslim context and whether they should override Islamic injunctions in family law, or vice versa. While this discourse is exemplified by events in Pakistan, it has also been important in Bangladesh and India.

    Early Efforts at Social Reform.

    Although Muslims in the nineteenth century did not have to contend with such social issues as abolishing suttee or promoting widow remarriage as did Hindu reformers, they had an uphill struggle in introducing female education, easing some of the extreme restrictions on women's activities associated with purdah, restricting polygyny, and ensuring women's legal rights under Islamic law. Sayyid Ahmad Khan's Mohammedan Educational Conference, which began promoting modern education for Muslims in the 1870s, included many of the earliest proponents of female education and the improvement of women's social status in the wider society. The intent was to advance girls’ technical knowledge (e.g., in sewing and cooking classes) within a religious framework, and thereby reinforce Islamic values. A women's section of the Mohammedan Educational Conference was formed in 1896, followed three years later by the opening of the first teacher- training school for girls. Progress was slow in opening more Muslim girls’ schools; by 1921, only four out of every thousand Muslim females were receiving an education.

    The promotion of female education was a first step in removing the bonds of traditional views of purdah. Education contributed to transforming the very idea of purdah, of that symbolic curtain that separates the world of men from the world of women. Many writers and social groups emerged, ostensibly promoting female literacy but in effect advocating women's rights.

    The nationalist struggle also tore at the fabric of that curtain. Two important groups were soon established: the politically-oriented All-India Muslim Ladies Conference, predominantly wives of leaders active in the Muslim League, and the social-reform-oriented Anjuman-i Khawātīn-i Islām (Muslim Women's Society), the precursor to other social welfare-oriented women's groups. While remaining within the bounds of tradition, the precedent was set to challenge purdah itself. In the gradual buildup of support for a Muslim homeland, women's roles were questioned and their empowerment linked to the larger issues of nationalism and independence. The demand that Muslim women be entitled to inherit property, and other rights Muslims had lost with the Anglicization of certain civil laws was rectified somewhat in 1937 with the enactment of the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act.

    Post-Independence Pakistan.

    After independence, elite Muslim women in Pakistan continued to advocate women's political empowerment through legal reforms. They mobilized support that eventually resulted in the passage of the Muslim Personal Law of Shariat (1948), which recognized a woman's right to inherit all forms of property; they also supported the ultimately futile attempt to include a Charter of Women's Rights in the 1956 Constitution. The most important sociolegal reform was the 1961 Family Laws Ordinance that regulates marriage and divorce and is still widely regarded in Pakistan and Bangladesh as empowering to women.

    Two issues—promoting women's political representation and finding some accommodation between Muslim family law and civil, democratic rights—came to define the discourse regarding women and sociolegal reform in Pakistan in the years following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. The latter issue became particularly prominent under President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq (1977–1988) as women's groups emerged in urban areas in response to the promulgation of an Islamization program that many feared would discriminate against women.

    Discourse about the position of women in Islam and women's roles in a modern Islamic state was sparked by the Pakistani government's attempts to formalize a specific interpretation of Islamic law; this exposed the controversy surrounding its various interpretations and role in a modern state. It was in the highly visible arena of law that women were able to articulate their objections to the Islamization program initiated by the government in 1979. Protests against the 1979 Enforcement of Hudud [Ar., ḥudūd] Ordinances focused on its failure to distinguish between adultery (zināʿ ) and rape (zināʿ bi-al-jabr), and the ways in which its enforcement was discriminatory to women. Further protests in 1983–1984 questioned the promulgation of the Law of Evidence, or Qanoon-i Shahadat, which many felt did not give equal weight to men's and women's legal testimony. Importantly, the controversy surrounding the Law of Evidence raised the issue as to whether or not women and men are equal economic actors and the extent to which western parliamentary and civil rights are applicable in a modern Muslim context.

    The Shariat Bill and the Ninth Amendment (that all laws in Pakistan should be in conformity with sharīʿah), proposed in 1986, were opposed by a number of women's groups on the grounds that these laws would give rise to sectarianism and divide the nation. They were concerned that the sharīʿah would now come to be identified solely with the relatively conservative interpretation of Islam supported by Zia ul-Haq's government. They also felt the Shariat Bill and the Ninth Amendment might reverse many of the rights women in Pakistan had already won. In April 1991, a compromise version of the Shariat Bill was promulgated, but the debate over the issue of which kind of law—civil or Islamic—should prevail remains controversial.

    During the democratic interregnum (1988–1999) in which Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif'sPakistan Muslim League (PML) jockeyed for power, no pivotal legislation was passed to further affect the rights of women. Despite both parties’ rhetoric to work for the empowerment of women, neither ever attempted to reverse the Hudud Ordinances, reinstate reserved seats for women in the provincial and national assemblies, or develop other substantive measures to transform Pakistani society in ways that could ensure women's rights in popular practices.

    Social Reform Efforts Today.

    The government of Pervez Musharraf, which came to power in Pakistan following a coup in October 1999, incorporated women's empowerment as a substantive component of its policies to promote Pakistan's progress and alleviate poverty: it reinstated reserved seats for women in the 2001 elections, encouraged a variety of educational initiatives to improve female literacy rates, and introduced micro-credit and other financial schemes to facilitate an increase in women's earning power. Despite protests from Islamist parties that organized into a coalition, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) that led the opposition in the National Assembly, Musharraf's government reformed the Hudud Ordinances in November 2006 by removing the zināʿ clauses and placing the crime of rape back into Pakistan's penal code with the promulgation of the Protection of Women Act. Additional legislation introduced in December 2006 entitled Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill proposed to ban those traditional practices (e.g., badal-e-sulh, vani, and swara that are oppressive toward women and treat them as chattel, when women are given in marriage either in exchange for other women or for wrongdoings on the part of men of their family or tribe.

    While the federal government of Pakistan has articulated its development priorities within a global framework (skills training, poverty alleviation strategies, improvement of the educational infrastructure, and promotion of the empowerment of women), it cannot leave behind the language of Islam, as this would provide its Islamist opposition with the opportunity to claim they are the only viable Islamic alternative on the political landscape.

    Bangladesh and India.

    Since the 1980s, the government of Bangladesh has been in the grip of a debate similar to that taking place in Pakistan: the extent to which Islamic law should be instituted as the supreme law in the country. While the rights granted women under the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 are still in force, they are being threatened by efforts to assert mandatory dress codes and conduct for women, and may be affected if legal changes are instituted.

    Similar issues have been raised regarding Muslim women and social reform in post-independence India. As members of a minority community, Indian Muslims are caught in the dilemma between maintaining a communal identity and adapting to the larger Indian society. A watershed event concerning sociolegal reform for Muslim women in India, the 1986 passage of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act revoked Muslim women's rights to maintenance granted to Indian women under the country's civil laws. This question remains pertinent in the twenty-first century, as Indian Muslims continue to question the relationship between civil and religious laws.



    • Ahmad, Sadaf. Pakistani Women: Multiple Locations and Competing Narratives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
    • Ahmad, Sadaf. Transforming Faith: the Story of al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism among Urban Pakistani Women. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2009.
    • Committee on the Status of Women in India. Towards Equality. New Delhi, 1974. Groundbreaking recommendations by a government-appointed commission to promote the empowerment of women in India.
    • Jayawardena, Kumari. Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. London, 1986.
    • Lateef, Shahida. Muslim Women in India: Political and Private Realities, 1890s–1980s. London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1990.
    • Metcalf, Barbara D.Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi's Bihishti Zewar: A Partial Translation with Commentary. Berkeley, Calif., 1990.
    • Minault, Gail. “Political Change: Muslim Women in Conflict with Parda; Their Role in the Indian Nationalist Movement.” In Asian Women in Transition, edited by Sylvia Chipp and Justin Green, pp. 194–203. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
    • Minault, Gail. “Shaikh Abdullah, Begum Abdullah, and Sharif Education for Girls at Aligharh.” In Modernization and Social Change among Muslims in India, edited by Imtiaz Ahmad, pp. 207–236. Delhi, 1983.
    • Mirza, Sarfaraz Hussain. Muslim Women's Role in the Pakistan Movement. Lahore, 1969. Thorough account of the history of the Muslim women's reform movement in South Asia.
    • Mumtaz, Khawar, and Farida Shaheed. Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1987.
    • National Commission on the Status of Women. “Recommendations of the NCSW on Hudood Ordinances 1979: Why it is Essential to Repeal it?”Islamabad, 2005.
    • Pakistan, Commission on the Status of Women. “Report of the Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan.”Islamabad, 1986. Controversial document produced by a commission appointed by President Zia ul-Haq; it condemns the conditions under which women in Pakistan live and the lack of government action to rectify them.
    • Shahid, Ayesha. Silent Voices: Untold Stories: Women Domestic Workers in Pakistan and their Struggle for Empowerment. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2010.
    • Thanawi, Ashraf ʿAli. Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf ʿAli Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar: A Partial Translation with Commentary. Translated by Barbara D. Metcalf. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
    • Weiss, Anita M.“Crisis and Reconciliation in Swat through the Eyes of Women.” In Beyond Swat: History, Society and Economy along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier, edited by Benjamin Hopkins and Magnus Marsden, pp. 179–192. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
    • Weiss, Anita M.“Straddling CEDAW and the MMA: Conflicting Visions of Women’s Rights in Contemporary Pakistan,” In Family, Gender, and Law in a Globalizing Middle East and South Asia, edited by Kenneth M. Cuno and Manisha Desai, pp. 256 284. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2009.
    • Weiss, Anita M.. "Moving Forward with the Legal Empowerment of Women in Pakistan". USIP Special Report 305. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, May 2012. Available online at http://www.usip.org/files/resources/SR305.pdf.
    • Weiss, Anita M., and S. Zulfiqar Gilani, eds. Power and Civil Society in Pakistan. Oxford and Karachi, 2001.

    Anita M. Weiss

    Social Reform in Southeast Asia

    Women's roles in Muslim societies in Southeast Asia have been defined largely by two interrelated factors. First, traditional Southeast Asian societies have been based on bilateral kinship systems, in contrast to pre-Islamic Middle Eastern societies, which were largely patrilineal. Second, Southeast Asian societies at the time Islam was introduced had already been profoundly influenced by other world religious traditions, most notably Hinduism and Buddhism. Although women enjoyed a relatively emancipated status in these two religious traditions, they also heavily influenced and shaped the contemporary social gender attitude in Southeast Asian Muslim societies, which generally involves acceptance of male authority. Many prejudicial customs that prevailed in Muslim social gender perceptions in Southeast Asia can be traced back to earlier religious traditions. In peasant societies, women were laborers and petty traders, and in court societies, there are examples of women rulers. However, women’s royal authority had little influence on average Muslim women’s everyday lives. In Southeast Asian Muslim societies, the primary role of women always was, and still is, as mothers and wives. Nevertheless, the demand for a larger labor force since the industrialization in this region in the 1990s has led to mass participations by Muslim women in the workforce. This industrialization ultimately shaped the contemporary concept of Southeast Asian womanhood, which considers a woman’s primary role to be a mother and a wife, with a secondary role as a worker (Ariffin, 1994).

    Adherence to traditional customary law, or adat, was a vital part of the societal orientation of Southeast Asian Muslims. Many scholars, for example, have been fascinated by how the Minangkabau, a matrilineal society reputed to be the most pious Muslim community in Indonesia, have managed to retain many elements of their matrilineal system, when it would appear to contradict the patrilineal nature of Islamic law and custom. Nikki Keddie argues that the answer may be found in the fact that the Minangkabau appear to stress matters of worship and individual ethics (ʿibādāt) while paying relatively little attention to the worldly questions of Islamic law (sharīʿah) and jurisprudence.

    Traditionally, Southeast Asian Muslim societies have emphasized ʿibādāt and the acquisition of an early familiarity with the five pillars of Islam. The transmitters in this socialization process are women, in their roles as mothers and as religious teachers (asātidhah, sg. ustādh). The formulation and implementation of sharīʿah, in contrast, was a male purview, and is generally restricted to family law.

    In the modern Islamic revival, the preoccupation with ʿibādāt has translated into a desire to take on a more overt Islamic identity; this extends to learning to read Arabic, studying the Qurʿān, and strictly performing the five daily prayers. All these are manifestations of a quest for Muslim religious piety. Thus women activists draw inspiration from Islam for a variety of political, social, and economic reform projects. For advocates of gender equality, Islam is a crucial resource for mobilization.

    What is new, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, is the gathering shift to implementing sharīʿah in Muslim communities. What type of sharīʿah, how it should be accommodated within existing legal codes, and who should be empowered to determine its contents and formulate its judgments are all subjects of intense debate among Southeast Asian Muslims. In Malaysia and Indonesia this means reconciling three legal systems: adat (customary) law; adaptations of Western law (British in Malaysia and Dutch in Indonesia); and Islamic law. Hitherto Islamic law has been largely restricted to family law; the situation is similar for Muslims in Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. This appears to be changing, as the scope for sharīʿah is broadened, especially with the introduction of alternative educational and economic models and structures that match similar changes in other places in the Muslim world.

    Colonial Period.

    Southeast Asian Muslims recognized that it was as important for women to acquire a religious education as it was for men. This emphasis on learning paved the way for some acceptance of secular education for women, particularly for upper-class women in the Dutch East Indies. Raden Kartini (1879–1904) was the Dutch-educated daughter of a Javanese regent (bupati) whose correspondence with a young Dutch woman has inspired generations of Indonesian women. Kartini argued that while there was much value in acquiring a progressive Western education, this must not supersede the religious education that provides a firm anchor in one's own traditional culture and value system.

    Kartini inspired a small circle of aristocratic Indonesian women to dedicate themselves to establishing educational opportunities for women. The first organization set up for this purpose was the Putri Mardika (Liberated Women) founded in Jakarta in 1912 as a sort of women's wing of the Budi Utomo (Pure Endeavor, the first native political society in the Dutch East Indies). Aisyiyah was formed as the women's section of the Muhammadiyah, a reformist organization founded in 1912 in Yogyakarta, and led by the wife of the founder. Other groups in the Dutch East Indies included the women's wing of the Nahdatul Ulama, the Nahdatul Fatayat, and the Wanodya Utomo of the Sarekat Islam.

    A pattern emerged for the foundation of women's organizations, whether secular or religious, generally as counterparts to exclusively male organizations, and particularly with women generally being the wives of the founders of the male organizations. These women's organizations focused on the education of women as their primary mission; toward this end they established magazines and newsletters and published widely.

    The emphasis on the education of women took on another dimension in the 1930s when Muslim women became actively involved in the nationalist movements in the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya. Given the prevailing belief that women and men had an equal right to education (particularly Qurʿānic education), it followed that Islam served as a legitimating base for women's entry into political activity. Even so, there is ongoing debate on the degree to which Muslim women should be allowed to participate in politics and whether or not Islam permits them to do so. In the context of Malaysia, it is argued that women can take part in politics as long as they conform to a certain role: they must be conciliatory and able to establish harmony, while relying on male patronage. In an interview in December 1998, of Rashila Ramli, the head of the Department of Political Science at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, it was argued that Southeast Asian politics is a man’s game and that, in the context of Malaysia, women who take part in this always have to demonstrate that they can balance their family life and work. They must show that they are good wives and mothers, and play a supporting role in politics. As this is difficult to do, many women who are in high political office in Malaysia are mostly past childbearing age .

    Two Malay women who later went on to become prominent Malaysian politicians, Aishah Ghani and Sakinah Junid, were both associated with one of the first women's movements in British Malaya, the Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS or Progressive Women's Corps). AWAS was the women's section of the Malay Nationalist Party (MNP), a radical party dedicated to establishing an Indonesian republic that included Malaya.

    Postindependence Period.

    The contributions of Muslim women in the independence movements of the 1930s helped to ensure their smooth entrance into the post-independence political arena. In British Malaya, both leading Malay political parties established women's wings. The women's wing of the United Malays National Organization or UMNO was called Kaum Ibu (later Kaum Wanita), and that of the opposition Partai Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS was called Dewan Muslimat (Women's Section).

    In Malaysia, the rights of women, as citizens, to participate in the political and administrative functions of the nation have been recognized and safeguarded in the federal constitution. Similarly in Indonesia, the 1945 constitution ensures rights and equal responsibilities for men and women.

    The women's wings of religious reform movements have played active roles in advocating and implementing social and educational reforms. In Indonesia, Aisyiyah organizes religious courses, Qurʿān-reading groups, and kindergartens. It also runs orphanages, maternity clinics, hospitals, day-care centers, family planning units, and girls’ dormitories. Its role as a catalyst for change is exemplified by its dissemination of family planning information and methods. When family planning was first introduced in Indonesia, the Muslim response was generally negative. After the Muhammadiyah issued a fatwā in support of family planning in 1971, Aisyiyah began to recommend it in the context of total environmental welfare for families. Although Muslim women have continued to play an active role in politics, they are underrepresented in elected political offices. For example, in Indonesia in 2007, fewer than 12 percent of the members of the national parliament were women, and more than half of the country's 440 district legislatures had no women members at all.

    Late Twentieth-Century Developments.

    Since the early 1970s, Islamic reformist movements have gained prominence in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, the leading dakwah (from the Arabic daʿwah, response to a call) organization has been the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (ABIM), which followed the pattern of other Malay organizations by establishing a women's branch, HELWA (women's affairs unit).

    The reformist wave that began in the late twentieth century has clearly had an impact on the status and role of women in Southeast Asia. In contrast to earlier twentieth-century reform movements, there appears to be a greater preoccupation with elaborating a model for Islamic women that is distinct from the Western model.

    In the early twenty-first century, many Southeast Asian women do not see a contradiction between wearing a headscarf (jilbāb, tudong, ḥijāb), and being a feminist, even though most Muslim women do not directly accept a “Western” feminist identification. However, they do accept that women have not been given equal opportunities and that this needs to be acknowledged and changed. For some Southeast Asian Muslim women, Islam offers an alternative modernity, in that the institutionalization of Islam provides a path to middle-class education and jobs.

    Muslim women in Southeast Asia have also increasingly focused their attention on the process of, and preoccupation with, the implementation of sharīʿah in Muslim communities, and nation-states. The expanded implementation of Islamic law is affecting the legal status of Muslim women as well as the social and political perception of their roles in society. In Malaysia the most controversial element of this effort has been the call to introduce ḥudūd laws. Some Muslim scholars in Indonesia have also advocated the expansion of the domain of Islamic law. Much of this concerns morality codes, as exemplified by the rejected attempt to introduce a pornography law in 2011.

    Muslim women in contemporary Southeast Asia have been a significant part of these socio-political reform endeavors. Their constant efforts can be observed in the increase in veiling—albeit stylish and fashionable—among Muslim female students throughout Southeast Asian universities, reflecting a struggle to meld their individual autonomy and modern education with a commitment to Islamic discourse and lifestyle. It also can be observed in the rising awareness among female Muslim activists and intellectuals in Southeast Asian societies of women’s rights and gender equality in Islam.

    Besides a range of activities in research, advocacy, public education, publications, and networking in the social and political arena, Muslim women are also taking steps to reform the legal status and conditions of women. In Indonesia, the 1974 Marriage Law and the Compilation of Islamic Law (Kompilasi Hukum Islam, or KHI) have been widely criticized by Muslim feminists, and, since 2004 there have been calls to reform it as it no longer meets the spirit of gender equality in Islam and violates human rights (Mulia, 2007). In Malaysia, Muslim female intellectuals are pursuing reform to Islamic laws, Islamic administration, and Islamic interpretation (Foley, 2001). An increased increasing number of conferences, seminars, and workshops on women and Islam, which are mostly organized by various women’s groups, reveals an avid interest in the “woman question” among female audiences seeking to understand their position within Islam and subsequently engaging in a discourse on reforming interpretations of women and Islam. Women in countries where Muslims are minorities, such as the Philippines and Singapore, are also striving for change, despite a growing sense of Islamic identity that is leading many Muslims to advocate a greater emphasis on authentic Islamic education (especially for female children) to be administered in the madrasahs rather than the national secular schools.

    However, women’s access to justice under the law, particularly Muslim family laws and the state’s administrative policies and procedures relating to religion, poses substantial challenges in any reform efforts undertaken. In order for Muslim women in Southeast Asian societies to advocate for necessary socio-political and legal reforms and to reclaim their justice in Islam and under its laws, Muslim women themselves need to actively engage with the interpretation of religious texts, along with forming broader local and global alliances and support networks (Othman, 2006). All of this requires strong education and access to public space, while Muslim women remain faithful to Islamic lifestyle, albeit on their own terms.

    True to their heritage, Southeast Asian Muslim women are taking an active role in debates on the redefinition of women's social, cultural, legal, and economic roles in their modernizing societies. Groups of professional Muslim women are spearheading a reexamination of traditional Islamic sources for answers to these complex questions. Among these groups are the Malaysian organization Sisters in Islam, and the Indonesian Fahmina Institute, both of which have been active in publishing books and pamphlets, organizing seminars and training sessions, and reinforcing the relevancy of Kartini's observation of more than a century ago—that education is the key to progress for women.



    • Anwar, Zainah. Islamic Revivalism in Malaysia: Dakwah among the Students. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1987. Provides interesting insights into the motivations of young women who join the dakwah movement.
    • Badran, Margot. “Understanding Islam, Islamism, and Islamic Feminism.”Journal of Women's History13, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 47–52. Good on the definitional debates.
    • Foley, Rebecca. “The Challenge of Contemporary Muslim Women Activists in Malaysia.” Ph.D. diss., Monash University.
    • Husein Muhammad, Faqihuddiin Abdul Kodir, Lies Marcoes Natsir, and Marzuki Wahid, eds.Dawrah Fiqh Concerning Women: Manual for a Course on Islam and Gender. Translated by Marlene Indro Nugroho-Heins. Cirebon, Indonesia: Fahmina Institute, 2006. Excellent introduction to the evolving Muslim model.
    • Karim, Wazir Jahan. Women and Culture: Between Malay Adat and Islam. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992. Balanced historical view of the role of Muslim women in Malay society.
    • Keddie, Nikki R.“Islam and Society in Minangkabau and in the Middle East: Comparative Reflections.”Sojourn2, no. 1 (February 1987): 1–30. Seminal article on the relationship between culture and religion in this matrilineal society.
    • Mulia, Siti Musdah. Islam dan Inspirasi Kesetaraan Gender. Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Kibar, 2007. See esp. pp. 131–149.
    • Othman, Norani. Muslim Women and The Challenge of Islamic Fundamentalism/Extremism: An Overview of Southeast Asian Muslim Women’s Struggle for Human Rights and Gender Equality. Kuala Lumpur: Sisters in Islam, 2006. Insiders’ views on women's reactions to the pressures of extremism.
    • Robinson, Kathryn, and Sharon Bessell, eds.Women in Indonesia: Gender, Equity, and Development. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2002. An excellent compendium of views on the current status of the gender/religion debate in Indonesia.
    • van Doorn-Harder, Pieternella. Women Shaping Islam: Indonesian Women Reading the Quʿran. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

    Sharon Siddique Updated by Farjana Mahbuba

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