Beyond Feminism and Islamism: Gender and Equality in North Africa

  • Book Title:
 Beyond Feminism And Islamism
  • Book Author:
Doris H. Gray
  • Total Pages
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  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Note on Transliteration xi
  • Preface to the Paperback Edition xiii
  • Civil rights and women’s rights 2
  • Modernity and tradition 4
  • Another scramble for Africa 5
  • Morocco at the crossroads 8
  • West meets East 11
  • Overview of the book 12
  • AND GOD CREATED EVE . . . 15
  • Islam as state religion 17
  • Patriarchy 19
  • The West’s obsession with Muslim women 21
  • Feminism before feminism 25
  • Pioneer of Islamic feminism: Fatima Mernissi 31
  • The war on terrorism and women’s rights 39
  • Changing laws, changing minds: The Personal
  • Status Code reform 41
  • A royal tussle over reform 46
  • The perils of legal reform 49
  • Women in national development 54
  • Modern traditions or traditionally modern 57
  • A view from a train 58
  • Social stability and the role of women 77
  • The lessons of the marketplace 78
  • Islamic discourses on women 81
  • The Justice and Charity movement 89
  • Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine and his daughter 93
  • Sisters of Eternity 102
  • Women’s special dispensation 107
  • Abortion 112
  • Gender equality versus gender justice 115
  • A renewal of feminine consciousness 118
  • Going it alone 124
  • Islamist women leaders 130
  • A THIRD WAY 132
  • Sacred or secular 136
  • Morocco’s hybrid identity 140
  • Caravans for equality 145
  • A doctor’s prescription 151
  • The Mohammedian Council of Religious Scholars 161
  • Intent or purpose 164
  • Female religious leaders 172
  • The Tunisian revolution and the Arab spring 178
  • Gender and religion 187
  • Gender and democracy 188
  • Gender and Islamists 190
  • Who is a proper Muslim? 192
  • Gay rights 194
  • New activists, new demands 195
  • International conventions 198
  • Conclusions 205
  • Glossary of Arabic Terms 209
  • Notes 213
  • Bibliography 225
  • Index 237


Research for this book was conducted in 2009 and 2010, before the occurrence of any of the remarkable events that took place in North Africa in the spring of 2011. A wave of persistent mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt overthrew their respective dictators or rocked governments in Libya, Bahrain, Syria and other countries of the Middle East and set their countries on a path of tenuous democratization.

 Internal dissent was evident prior to these eruptions, of course, but no one could have foreseen that average, courageous civilians – led neither by the military, political leaders, nor Islamist radicals – would take matters into their own hands in such a show of force through- out North Africa and the Middle East.

In chronicling some of the debates on women’s rights, roles, and status that are taking place in Muslim-majority countries such as Morocco, this book hopes to pro- vide insights as to the dynamics among activists – from secular to Islamist – in trying to develop a new vision for the society in which they live.

When the status and the role of women becomes one of the most hotly debated topics in a country, change is in the air. When women’s rights become the linchpin around which major national discourses revolve, it is a sign of movement and reorientation. Such is the case in the North African kingdom of Morocco, where one of the most frequently discussed and controversial issues is women.

Why is this North African Muslim monarchy so concerned with the status of women? The answer to this question is multifaceted, comprising economic and political questions and issues related to human rights, national and cultural identity, post-colonialism, and religious principles.


At present, debates about gender issues are a dominant feature of public discourse in Morocco. Particularly among young Muslims, both male and female, there is a desire to know how Islam applies to the here and now, and how changing conceptions of gender relations affect their daily lives. An emphasis on religion enjoys increasing popularity among the young in Morocco.

Secular feminists with an overt Western orientation often find themselves out of touch with this reality, and the number of young Moroccan activists who belong to secular organizations is today less than in religion-based associations. In fact, the per- formance of religious observance is evident in the increasing numbers of young women wearing the Muslim hijab (headscarf) in the bustling modern urban centres of Casablanca and Rabat.

At the same time, King Mohammed VI is pursuing a modernizing agenda for his country, and supports research into new religious interpretations that lend credence to a more gender-egalitarian agenda.

Civil rights and women’s rights

The first decade of the twenty-first century has been a time in North Africa that is reminiscent of the 1960s in the United States. During that period, the civil rights movement in the United States of America arose from a quest for rights for African-American citizens. Yet the discourse about rights for this minority went well beyond issues of equal opportunities and legal rights for a certain segment of the US population.

The civil rights movement unleashed a national debate that exceeded the demands, aspirations, and visions of inclusion of African Americans; more broadly, the civil rights movement raised questions of identity and about the future inclusiveness of a previously discriminated and marginalized population group in the United States.

The civil rights movement was not a broad mass movement; it was comprised of courageous individuals from a minority population and their supporters who rose to the forefront and publicly questioned the status quo. For their actions, they were ridiculed, attacked by police dogs, sent to prison, and sometimes killed. In response to the upheaval, even moderate Americans feared a disintegration of society, as they knew it.

In retrospect, it is easy to overlook the enormous perseverance and courage required to achieve rights and protection for minorities. Further, many who in those days stood at the sidelines now claim to have been part and centre of the struggle. Such distorted views of history are held by segments of the majority population, even today. As civil rights became more and more the accepted norm it became problematic to admit to having opposed rather than having promoted the movement. It is com- monly held that people like to side with winners.

 Nevertheless, while the civil rights struggle was ongoing, many stood on the sidelines, waiting for the outcome. Once Martin Luther King Jr. became a national hero (especially after his violent death in 1968) and once civil rights became widely accepted, many among those who sat on the fence claimed to have always been enthusiastic supporters.

Thus, though movements for positive change may start small and often face great obstacles, those who remain uninvolved or even in opposition to them will in the end also enjoy the results. This is as true in the West as it is in the Muslim world, where forces of change can easily be underestimated.

The expansion of rights and freedoms for African Americans, then, led to an improvement of rights and freedoms for the majority population in the United States. Further, in the wake of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement became invigorated and emboldened, and the sexual revolution broke with previously held sacred customs – changing America forever.

The fact that white middle-class women were beneficiaries of the civil rights movement whether they participated in this particular struggle or not illustrates the point made above. In this, the great effort and broad consequences of the civil rights movement in the United States provides a point of comparison and perspective on the struggle for women’s rights in Morocco.

 Obviously such a comparison is limited because of the very different nature of American and Moroccan society, as well as the structure of their respective governments and constitutions. Yet, there are similarities that make for an interesting analysis.

In the early years of the twenty-first century, the Moroccan monarch Mohammed VI responded to demands by women’s rights associations and spearheaded the quest for gender equality in his country. In a comparable way, the then US President John F. Kennedy called for a civil rights bill in 1963 that was signed in 1964 by his successor Lyndon B. Johnson.

In both instances the heads of state used their positions of authority to push through legislation that emerged from grassroots organizations but which did not have the support of existing established power structures.

To the extent that the struggle for minority rights ushered in a profound change of North American society, it is not unlike the women’s rights challenges faced today in the Maghreb. The Maghreb comprises the North African countries of Mauretania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, though conventionally Maghreb (Arabic for West) refers to the former French colonial territories of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Modernity and tradition

Women’s rights are a contentious issue in the North African kingdom of Morocco. Many men and women alike do not quite know what to make of demands for equal rights. Some fear social disintegration and prefer the status quo, even if it comes with undeniable injustices.

 Others advocate for change – for instance, reform of certain laws – but there is no overall consensus on the role and status of women. Discourse on women’s rights is not limited to what women do or do not want (of course women do not constitute a homogeneous population); it extends to the direction of an entire country, caught between various notions of modernity and tradition. This is because equal rights for women even- tually will lead to rights for ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, and the majority of men from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

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