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Middle Eastern and North African Women Need to Challenge Prevailing Restrictive and Legal Practices Not from the West, But From the Islamic Tradition Itself

04/06/2013 16:42 BST | Updated 05/06/2013 09:05 BST

Muslim women, just as women of all religious affiliations and backgrounds, struggle against various forms of gender discrimination. What is important, is to distinguish between constraints imposed by Islam as a religion and the Patriarchal cultural norms that predate Islam. Legal restrictions on women's autonomy are often an amalgamation of the two.

Globally, Women face diverse circumstances, and we must always highlight the element of diversity that characterises women's lives and the regions they belong to. This would allow us to appreciate both the obstacles they face and their own agency in overcoming them.

In today's Middle East women are negotiating a complex system of restrictions and opportunities created by the intersection of how Islam is interpreted and practiced whilst also being in competition against the local customs and traditions. The nation-state may reinforce what are seen to be traditional restrictions on women based on a conservative interpretation of religion, as in Iran and Soudan, or it may contradict traditional interpretations of Islam and promote women's emancipation and grant them legal rights which compare to those prevailing in the West, as is the case in Turkey and Tunisia.

One strategy being adopted by many Middle Eastern women to challenge prevailing restrictive social and legal practices is to argue that their impulse to reform the status of women comes not from the West but from the Islamic tradition itself. They look to the early reformist spirit of Islam, rather than to the legal accretions of later centuries, to argue that Islam mandates that women and men have equal status in law and society. Scholar Ali Hussain Al-Hakim writes, "both genders are entrusted to integrate and assist the other gender in achieving the highest level of perfection". This said, Muslim feminists may find themselves in the position to proclaim that the female is an equal partner in a balanced dominant division of power between men and women.

Islamist feminists' main achievements consist not only of claiming their rights in modern society through Islamic legitimacy but also exercising their right to read and interpret Islamic sources from a feminist perspective. Secular feminists have also played active roles in society and such roles go back to the twentieth century when they entered the field of politics and played active roles in revolutions.

A significant example of active women is that of Algerian women, particularly known to the world for their active roles in the Algerian revolution. Images of the woman warrior propagated by left wing media across the world came to substitute Orientalist portrayals of Algerian women as odalisques in the harem on the one hand and their torture in colonial prisons when arrested brought much support to the Algerian revolution at the international level.

However, although the first Algerian independent state guaranteed women's rights following the death of the long-time leader Houari Boumedienne in 1978, conservatives started to exercise pressure on the government to adhere to Islamic principles targeting mainly the family unit. In 1981 "the government [was] preparing a pilot study of the code sur le statut personnel i.e.: Family code, which was backed by conservative Islamists." The Code came into being at a time when the Algerian government was struggling to forge a post-colonial national identity in line with a modern society which held democratic values; attempting to preserve at the same time the Islamic tradition as a fundamental part of the Algerian citizenship. In terms of Algerian women's history, the Family Code entered the legislative arena at a moment of intense struggles for emancipation, a few years after equality between men and women was officially inscribed in the Algerian Constitution. It was not until 1984 that a new Family Code was enacted officially.

Algerian Women and Human rights activists fought against the Family Code, which included several sections dealing with issues such as: marriage, women not permitted the right to divorce, legal representation, custody and inheritance, transforming the woman into a second-class citizen and offering men full control over the family. Threatening to encroach on these gains now the law was passed officially on June 9th 1984, it drew the protest of several hundred women. Algerian women "were in deep shock; they considered this act as barbaric and a second betrayal by the neo-patriarchal state to Algerian women."

The forging of a democratic and modern citizenship for Algerians represented a major part of the project of post-colonial nation building in Algeria. The period 1989-1994 saw the formation of a number of active feminist organisations calling for the abolition of the Family Code; one of those organisations being Egalité which was founded in 1985 defending women's rights, collecting media publications and producing a bulletin and newsletter highlighting their pledges and achievements. An important aspect of the association is the fact that its members partake in "international debates on the subject of women and the law, specifically on women under Islamic laws".

During the nineties, a decade mostly known for Islamist violence in Algeria, women have never ceased their campaigns for abolishing the Family Code and the emancipation of women. Their work has been recognised both nationally and on the international level. In May 2002, President Bouteflika "appointed five women to [the] cabinet" and in December 2011, he declared that women's representation in the parliament should reach 30 percent, an extraordinary number in most Arab states.

This is a huge success and a result of relentless activism and hard work.

Given the status of women in society and the socio-economic structure, the prevalence of women succeeding in making change in the region and within their own community is not surprising, and by far exceeds previous expectations. Perhaps it is too farfetched to suggest that in order to redress the problems faced by women, the entire social structure, laws and manner of thinking must be changed.

The role of women in society must be reviewed within the family and the community at large, enforced through the media and education. Oppression, or as it seems to the outside world looking in at the Middle East, is but a dainty word that needs to be broken down to understand. What one culture sees as oppression, another sees as liberation to women. The cultural and religious impacts in which the women of this region live under play an important and viable role in defining whether or not their lives are oppressed or whether these outburst of feminist actions in the region are just the beginning of a more secular and equal state for women and men alike.