Tag Archives: human-rights

Book Club, Episode 3!

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Yeah, because I haven’t published Episode 2 yet. It’s decomposing in the pile of half-baked drafts and ideas that I haven’t gotten back to, so I’ll probably just publish these all out of order. WOO!

Anyway, if you’re into gender studies, feminism, Islamism, or anything to do with gender discourses in Morocco, you should TOTALLY read Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco by Zakia Salime. It’s a fairly new book and Zakia Salime’s first, but it’s great. The following is what I have to say about it, and a rather detailed summary of what’s in the book. It’s no substitute for reading it, but it’ll sound pretty impressive because I got into Academic Writing mode. Here we go!

Introduction

Morocco’s triumph in achieving independence in 1956 seemed to herald a new era for women: girls were permitted to attend French schools, women were seen walking around the streets of Moroccan cities, and the secular, liberal feminist movement gained popularity and legitimacy in the public eye. Princess Lalla Aisha’s public removal of her veil during her controversial speech in 1947, the prevalence of what would become the liberal feminist movement even among sequestered women, and the gradual decline of the segregation of the sexes all pointed to a more open society for women. Moroccan women looked on as Tunisia revolutionized their family law in one fell swoop, guaranteeing rights for Tunisian women that would take another fifty years for Moroccan women to achieve.

Since then, however, the movement to liberate Morocco’s women has accrued a formidable set of political, social, and religious complexities that must all be taken into account in any discussion about gender equality in Morocco (and, indeed, Tunisia, though I use Tunisia merely as an example to set the stage, and will not further explore that particular episode in the history of gender equality in North Africa). Women’s issues, let’s just say, informed every aspect of Moroccan society.

In contemporary Morocco, particularly in the recent years following the second major revision to the family law, these issues have become all the more complicated and inflammatory. Controversy still surrounds the reaction of Morocco’s only female minister to the story of Amina Filali, who committed suicide after being forced to marry her rapist; the minister voiced the opinion that the law allowing that marriage is a just and viable solution to the problem of rape. The fate of disowned single mothers throughout Morocco remains the arena of NGOs willing to stray from societal traditions and laws that would leave these mothers uncared for. Unbiased discussion of gender issues in Morocco is next to impossible, while heated partisan debate on the subject permeates every facet of society, from everyday talks about catcalling to public forums on abortion. It is into this rapidly changing, clamoring throng of opinions and scholarship that Zakia Salime has cast her first book: Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco.

General Information, Reviews, and About the Author

Salime, Zakia. Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis/London: 2011.

This book presents an insightful examination of the relationship between the two major discourses concerning gender equality in Morocco: the liberal feminist and the Islamist movements. Salime uses in-depth ethnographical analyses of three “movement moments,” or benchmark events in these movements’ mutual history, to illustrate what she calls their “interdependent trajectories.” Rather than rely on the default binary interpretation of these two discourses, which hinges on the polarization of the two movements’ ideologies, Salime argues that the two are mutually influential. Ultimately, her book aims to show how the movements’ interaction over the past twenty years has resulted in dramatic changes in both Moroccan Islamism and Moroccan feminism.

Salime’s methodology is central to understanding her thesis. She uses an ethnographical approach, which is a qualitative research method that aims to explore cultural phenomena through the perspective of the cultural group in which it occurs. Thus, Salime avoids the common pitfalls of postcolonial, Western, or Islamist biases in her approach to writing this book. Furthermore, she investigates with great depth and detail three specific movement moments, which makes her book a focused and incisive study, rather than a generalization of women’s issues or a survey of feminism in Morocco.

This book is recently published, so there are few reviews to be found on it. However, I predict that it will make a lasting impact on the way that gender equality in Morocco is studied, because it challenges conventional ways of interpreting and understanding the relationship between the liberal feminist and Islamist movements. The few reviews I found on the University of Minnesota Press website echoed my own sentiments about the book, including positive reviews from Saba Mahmood, author of Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject and Lila Abu-Lughod, author of Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. Salime’s approach to writing this book is academic and methodical, and maintains an at-once professional and personal engagement with the issues addressed. Between Feminism and Islam is an altogether formidable first publication, and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Zakia Salime is a Moroccan sociology professor at Rutgers State University in New Jersey, and received her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2005.

Thesis & Content: Movement Moments and the Gendered Lens

Introduction: Struggles over Political Power: Entangled Feminist and Islamist Movements.

In the introduction, Salime identifies the major issues and events that characterize the liberal feminist and Islamist mobilization through a gendered lens. She introduces the traditional, binary approach to talking about these movements, and then moves into a discussion of her own methodology, which reverses the conventional method and studies the enmeshing ideologies that shape these movements.

She introduces also the three movement moments that will form the body of her work. The first is the One Million Signature Campaign that took place in 1992, which marked the first mass mobilization of feminist groups to reform the mudawwana, or family law. The second is the Islamist mass rally of 2000, which marked the decisive entrance of Islamist women into the political arena. The third and final movement moment, a momentous one for both groups, is the terrorist attack on Casablanca in 2003, which she uses to discuss the centrality of gender in Morocco’s changing position in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror.

Salime also addresses the problematic terms “feminism” and “Islamism,” and the colonial, post-colonial, and identity politics informing that terminology throughout the history of North Africa and the Middle East. Liberal feminism carries the added stigma of encroaching Westernization, while Islamism carries the stigma of the wholesale oppression of women. Vilifying Islam and its perceived subjugation of women was central to justifying the colonial agenda. In recent years, scholarship has also addressed these connotations of a “monolithic, ahistorical Islam and a normative Western modernity” (Salime, xxiii), recognizing their problematic etymologies and the way those etymologies inform the identities that surround those terms. This is not a major focus of Salime’s work, but an important side-note as we delve into her scholarship.

The rest of the introduction she spends summarizing her chapters, and then begins her study in earnest.

Chapter 1: Gender and the Nation State: Family Law, Scholars, Activists, and Dissidents

In this chapter, Salime outlines the major players in the movements: the monarchy, the ‘ulama, the Islamists, women’s groups, and political parties. She talks about how questions of political legitimacy, democracy, and access to political clout are all part of the gendered space of social discourse. The patriarchal hierarchies that inform the political system of Morocco limited the range of freedoms afforded women both in the public and private spheres, and Salime identifies the political parties and women’s groups that both challenge and propagate these structures.

Chapter 2: Feminization of the Islamist Movements: The One Million Signature Campaign

Chapter two explores the One Million Signature Campaign of 1992, which mobilized women’s groups and liberal feminists across Morocco in favor of the reform of the mudawwena. Salime identifies the global economic shift, the focus on state liberalization in the wake of the Years of Lead, and the rise of Islamist radicals as a political force in Algeria as important forces influencing the One Million Signature Campaign, and talks about the opposite effect of the campaign in setting the stage for the 1995 Beijing Conference. In this way, the campaign marked strides for both the liberal feminist movement and the Islamist movement with regard to women’s issues.

Salime also talks about the “feminization of the Islamist women” in this chapter, examining how Islamist women endorsed a discourse of women’s rights and repositioned themselves within the feminist movement, and began to take decision-making positions in Islamist groups.

Chapter 3: Reversing the Feminist Gains: The Islamist Mass Rally of 2000

The second movement moment that Salime discusses is the Islamist Mass Rally of 2000, in which the Islamists in Casablanca put forth an overwhelming show of force in response to the liberal feminist march in Rabat on that same day.  This chapter challenges the reader especially to reexamine the way the march is conventionally interpreted; rather than a march against women’s rights, Salime points out the other vested interests and motives behind the liberal feminist agenda, and talks about how the march decidedly marked Islamist women’s entry into the political arena. Islamist women had easy access to grassroots activism, were effective organizers and demonstrators, and formed a formidable political force hitherto unseen.

As a result of such a strong showing of Islamist women, Salime argues, one can see an Islamization of the liberal feminists developing in the wake of the march.  The liberal feminist movement was forced to adjust their discourse in order to keep their movement alive, and this included an adoption of both feminist and Islamist policies within feminist groups. This included redefining Sharia to fit feminist ideals, incorporating the ‘ulama in feminist activities in order to legitimize their ideals, increased interaction with the male-dominated political parties, and a greater role of grassroots organizing.  Though the liberal feminist movement remained grounded in the secular UN basis for human rights, this movement moment was important in legitimizing both the liberal feminist and Islamist discourses for the future.

Chapter 4: Feminism and Islamism Redefined: In Light of the 2003 Terror Attack on Casablanca

Chapter 4 identifies the major challenges set before both movements in the wake of the 2003 terror attack on Casablanca, particularly in light of 9/11 and the War on Terror. Though these are not normally events one associates with gender issues, Salime talks about the way these events shaped gendered discourse, particularly as (since the rally of 2000) feminist movements were seen to have lost steam. The Casablanca attack “undermined the legitimacy of political Islam…and provided feminist groups with their missed opportunity to reposition themselves as the agents for the new era of fighting ‘terrorism’ through ‘state feminism’” (Salime, xxix). Thus, feminists were able to associate themselves with democracy and modernity when contrasted with radical, old-fashioned Islamic extremists.  In response to this, the Islamist groups also had to redefine their movement, and attempted to position themselves as the moderate group between religious extremists and liberal feminists.

The position of Morocco in the global arena is important in this chapter as well; the close friendship between the United States and Morocco put Morocco in a precarious position during the War on Terror. On the one had, Morocco was a member of the Arab-Muslim world; on the other, Morocco provided a doorway into that world for the United States. Salime explores what happens to the formulation of Moroccan identity in such an explosive situation through a gendered lens.

Chapter 5: Subversive Veiling: Beyond the Binary of the Secular and the Religious

The final chapter identifies how the traditional binary is now blurred, and uses veiling as her main example. Moroccan women today choose to wear or leave off the veil independent of their political or religious identities; thus, veiling has become a gendered area of Moroccan life in which the secular and the religious overlap. In this chapter, Salime points out that these two movements are indeed intertwined, and yet still divided along ideological lines.

Conclusion

The book is heavily academic and rich in detail, and so if you’re into that sort of thing, it’s a great introduction to many themes that I’ve been studying this semester: the politics of liberation, the interplay of religion, gender, and politics, the significance of the veil, the gendered space in all areas of Moroccan society.  Salime is a Moroccan author with a personal interest in the issues researched as well, and I believe that this lends her writing credibility and authenticity.  She is able to apply a personal familiarity to an apersonal qualitative research method, which makes the book altogether more readable.

On the whole, I would recommend reading this book. I believe it should become a standard text for anyone wishing to study and understand the dynamics of contemporary gender issues in Morocco, and even as time passes, the book will serve as a valuable historical resource, an important methodological study, and an excellent exploration of the varying discourses that inform the debates surrounding gender issues.  I think this is an important book, rich in detail, factual evidence, testimony from many of the major leaders of these movements; the book is well written, and will hopefully have a positive influence on these movements and the scholarship surrounding them in years to come.

IF YOU READ ALL THE WAY TO HERE, YOU ARE A MACHINE.

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Book Club: This Blinding Absence of Light

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And a new series is born, to join the ranks of Gender Talk and Art Talk! Welcome to Book Club, where I recommend good books. Aren’t I awesome?!

Also, just as a fun challenge, I am going to do my best to avoid books that have been assigned; so unless otherwise stated, these are all books I’m reading outside of class.

I’m retroactively declaring this post the first of Book Club, because I talk about books you should read (also, that post feels like years ago), and who wouldn’t want to read Dreams of Trespass and Beyond the Veil? Great books, all around.

This first real episode of Book Club isn’t quite so lighthearted, however: the book I’m going to talk about today is a difficult one. Not difficult to understand, no; in fact, it’s written pointedly in simple, understandable language. It is, however, emotionally draining, graphic, and heart-wrenching.

For a long time I searched for the black stone that cleanses the soul of death. When I say a long time, I think of a bottomless pit, a tunnel dug with my fingers, my teeth, in the stubborn hope of glimpsing, if only for a minute, one infinitely lingering minute, a ray of light, a spark that would imprint itself deep within my eye, that would stay protected in my entrails like a secret. There it would be, lodging in my breast and nourishing my endless nights, there, in the depths of the humid earth, in that tomb smelling of man stripped of his humanity by shovel blows that flay him alive, snatching away his sight, his voice, his reason.

So begins This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun, a novel depicting the sufferings of the inmates at Tazmamart, a secret concentration camp built in 1972 to contain Hassan II’s political opponents. In 1972, 58 army officers were transferred from the prison in Kenitra to Tazmamart, and effectively disappeared for 18 years, during which the government denied the prison’s existence. The release of the 23 survivors in 1991 and the ensuing discoveries of how the inmates were treated have made Tazmamart a powerful symbol of what some opponents of Hassan II called Morocco’s “Years of Lead,” marked by state violence against political dissidents.

The inmates were kept in individual cells underground, the ceilings less than 5 feet high, in complete darkness. They were given barely enough starches and water to keep them alive, or as Ben Jelloun says, “lingering on the edge of death.” There was no medical attention; the intention was for them to “die by inches,” a punishment made doubly cruel by the meticulous planning that had gone into its implementation.

This book is the product of the author’s close work with one of the survivors, who was a lieutenant who participated (knowingly? unknowingly? didn’t matter) in the failed coup d’êtat against Hassan II that took place in one of his many palaces in 1971. Scraps of hope, of escapes into spirituality, imagination, solidarity between inmates, and prayer are woven through his stories of desperation and deprivation, of immense suffering, of horrific death, of disease, and of the farthest reaches of inhumanity.

It takes many deep breaths and a few breaks to get through this book, but I do recommend it. Tahar Ben Jelloun is an excellent writer, and again, the style is simple, blunt, but also beautifully composed. It left me, unexpectedly, with a desire to read it again; passages of the book rang with a wisdom that stuck with me, and I found myself learning a lot as well. Though there are times when turning the page constitutes another sucker punch to the gut, the book will leave you with a weary but fierce appreciation (I want a better word, but can’t think of one) for the capabilities of the human spirit to endure the most horrific circumstances and emerge, alive, to once again live in the light.