The War Against Feminism in the Name of the Almighty: Making Sense of Gender and Muslim Fundamentalism

This article was published in New Left Review 224 (89-110), July-August 1997

In recent years, some postmodern feminists have warned us about the perils of generalizations in feminist theory that transcend the boundaries of culture and region, while feminist critics of postmodernism have argued conversely that abandoning cross-cultural and comparative theoretical perspectives may lead to relativism and eventual political paralysis.’ As I will argue in this article, the two positions are not always as diametrically opposed as they seem to be. The militant Islamist movements which have proliferated across a wide variety of cultures and societies in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, have propagated remarkably similar policies and doctrines with regard to gender issues. As a result, a comparative theoretical perspective that would focus on this issue is both essential and surprisingly neglected. But careful distinctions need be made between conservative discourses-both Sunni and Shiite -that praise women’s roles as mothers and guardians of the heritage yet deny them personal autonomy, and progressive discourses on Islam that argue for a more tolerant and egalitarian view of gender roles.