‘Muslim Women in War and Crisis’: A Call for Optimism and Caution

In Benghazi, Libya, a female lawyer runs the citizen’s committee that is keeping order in a city which has driven away the central government. In January, Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old Egyptian woman, mobilized protesters with a YouTube video in which she passionately called for people to gather in Tahrir Square and demand their rights. In Bahrain, thousands of women joined in anti-government demonstrations in the capital. Is it a coincidence that this pan-Arab revolt began in Tunisia, where women enjoy rights unequalled elsewhere in the Arab world and stood side by side with men during the protests?

One day soon, doctoral students will be falling over each other to write about the role of Muslim women in the recent uprisings in the Middle East. But now, how can we put these women’s involvement in historical perspective and resist falling back upon the typical ways that women are represented — and usually misrepresented — in times of strife? One insightful resource is Muslim Women in War and Crisis, a thoughtfully-selected collection of academic articles, many by Muslim women themselves. If you don’t let the plethora footnotes and rather stodgy, professorial tone get to you, you’ll receive a valuable education on the experiences of Muslim women in recent conflicts.

How is the media representing women in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya? What motivation is given for their participation in protests? Are they shown as standing up for their own political values, or depicted as merely supporting their husbands and sons? Sara Struckman has studied the portrayal of Chechen women in the New York Times since 2000 and found that reporters typically portray women as passive victims or “black widows” out to avenge their husbands’ deaths. She argues that women are rarely given a political motivation for involvement in conflict. Lina Abirafeh finds that Afghan women are also deprived of agency. A case in point: the well-worn language of “liberating” Afghan women from the burqa implies that they need to “be saved” rather than be empowered to save themselves.

How will women’s Muslim identity inform the type of future they want for their country? Will women want to throw off their headscarves? Maybe, maybe not. Nadia Marzouki argues that women in Tunisia link their identities to Islam and “seek to reconcile women’s rights and the ‘true’ spirit of Islam”. In Afghanistan, Abirafeh found that women “ranked religion as the primary social category within which they chose to identify themselves”. Gender ranked near the bottom, after both ethnicity and national identity. This book shows why it is important to remember the importance of religion to many Muslim women, even as outsiders view some aspects of how Islam can be practiced as a “cause” of women’s oppression.

Will this upheaval in the Middle East also upend the social order, in which women are often second-class citizens, denied equal rights to education, work, and social and political life? Shamita Basu introduces us to the memoirs of two Muslim women who lived in the Bengal portion of India during the struggle against colonialism and the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. She finds that tumultuous times often create openings for “self-transformation” and are opportunities for women to gain new freedoms. Rita Stephan argues that women’s involvement in the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon created a “new image of women as politically active citizens” which “made it possible for them to engage in politics at a much greater level of visibility than ever before”. But this is not always the case: Sya’Afatun Almirzanah says that although women played an important role in the civil war in Aceh, Indonesia, even serving as warriors, they have not had a seat at the table for discussions about post-conflict reconstruction.

Muslim Women offers reason for both optimism and caution for the future. One can only hope that the second wave of doctoral students is able to tell the story of how women’s active participation –- and, yes, leadership — during the 2011 Middle East uprisings led to greater female participation in post-dictator political life across the Arab world.

RATING 7 / 10