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An Interview with Jocelyne Cesari

Jocelyne Cesari is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where her work focuses on Islam and world politics, and an associate professor of the practice of religion, peace, and conflict resolution in Georgetown's Department of Government. Her recent book Islam, Gender, and Democracy in Comparative Perspective critically engages the new discourse on gender and politics emerging since the Arab Awakening. In our latest interview, Natana DeLong-Bas asks about the origins of the project, and how it fits into a broader discussion of the future of Muslim-majority countries.

Natana DeLong-Bas: This book brings together authors who work on issues related to Islam, gender and democracy in a variety of countries with particular emphasis on South and Southeast Asia, rather than the Arab countries of the Middle East. What new insights and perspectives does this bring to light and why is this important at this particular moment?

Jocelyne Cesari: When the question of Islam and women rights is raised, it systematically involves the assumption of the exceptionalism of Islam, i.e. that women in Muslim countries are denied rights that were acquired in the West through secularization and modernization.

This book actually shows that
1) Women were granted rights in the Islamic tradition including in education and social life.
2) that even in the West, secularization did not translate automatically in the extension of women rights: Joan Scott's chapter on the misogynistic dimension of French laicite is a case in point.

In sum, this book shows that we need to compare Islam to the historical evolution of other religions to avoid the snare of exceptionalism that feeds islamophobia and radical Islamism alike.

NDB: We often hear that Islam and democracy are incompatible because democracy is a Western construct coming out of secular Enlightenment principles that Islam supposedly does not share. Many of the essays in this book argue that this is an overly simplified understanding of "Islam," "democracy," and "secularism." What other interpretations are possible? Is there any hope for compatibility or must secular nations exclude religion altogether from the public sphere?

JC: The main takeaway of the book is that the tryptic secularization-democratization and women rights does not reflect the political development outside the West, where secularization and women rights happened under authoritarian regimes (Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, Bourguiba in Tunisia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq).

NDB: Many of the essays in the book highlight the work of specific women's rights organizations in different countries and how they approach the particular legal systems and social constructs in these contexts. Are there any strategies for expanding women's rights that have been universally successful? Are there issues that are common to all of these movements or do the issues vary significantly by country?

JC: It seems that there is no universal strategy for the extension of women rights. The most successful ones happened when the claims for equality are couched into the locally meaningful rhetoric of the different countries, in this case very much influenced by Islam. Take for example, the Mudawana, the Moroccan Family Code, implemented since 2004. It grants equality to husband and wife in marriage and divorce, and was legitimized by the traditional clerics who actively contributed to its elaboration.

NDB: It seems that many women's rights organizations and movements have targeted personal status law, often in the form of Muslim family law, as an area in need of reform. There is a tendency to think of this as an issue only in those states where some form of "Sharia" or "Islamic law" is incorporated into the national law. What about in cases where Muslims are minority populations?

JC: In the minority situation, the question of family law is about the accommodation of Islamic or religious prescriptions in general within the common civil law: what lawyers call legal pluralism. It is sometimes a challenge, especially when some of these religious prescriptions (like talaq or Islamic procedure of divorce) contradict equality between men and women. Again, this is not specific to Islam but to all religious traditions in their adaptation to the secular framework.

NDB: Many of the essays observe that the phrase "women's rights", when used with respect to Muslim women, focuses only on a portion of issues of concern for women—typically, reproductive and sexual rights and status within the family (what you term "rights of the self.") Notwithstanding the importance of these issues, a number of essays insist that there are other important indicators with respect to women's rights, including education, employment and political rights (which you term "individual rights.") In some cases, women have made tremendous strides over the past fifty years. How do you see these successes having a longer term impact on changing social attitudes and expectations? What additional avenues to legal reforms would be helpful not only in advancing, but solidifying, these rights?

JC: The unique contribution made by this book is to show that the advancement of women rights on the social, economic or political front does not automatically translate into advancement in sexual and family rights. That is indeed the difference I draw between individual rights and rights of the self (body, sexuality).

There is not even a linear causation between the two as the Iranian case discussed by Ziba Mir Hussein in the book shows. The joke is that Iranian women under the Islamic Republic are more educated than men, they can run for political offices, but they cannot divorce their husband!

NDB: Finally, could you comment on the intersection between demands for democracy and assertions of women's rights? Must one precede the other or do they go hand in hand? Can Islam be part of the solution or does it stand only as an obstacle?

JC: Islam per se is not an obstacle to women rights when it comes to education, politics and social life (with the exception of Saudi Arabia which is not representative of the condition of Muslim women in the vast majority of Muslim countries, and which is not representative of the status of women in the Islamic tradition either).

But does it mean that a Muslim democracy can allow, for example, same sex marriage? Probably not since the ones that exist like Senegal, Indonesia, and now Tunisia do not. In other words, a Muslim democracy, like any religious democracy (if you think of Catholic examples like Poland), will put some limits on the freedom of the person vis-à-vis sexuality and/or freedom of speech. But it does not mean that free and fair elections and separation of powers or recognition of civil liberties and individual rights are not possible.

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