Mervat Hatem, a political science professor at Howard University, described the emerging "phenomenon" of Islamic feminism on Tuesday in Robertson Hall. She is the first speaker in a series of spring lectures hosted by the Workshop on Arab Political Development and sponsored by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.
"If you've been following what's been going on in Egypt and Tunisia, women have a very large presence [in the demonstrations]," Hatem noted at the start of her lecture. She also said that the majority of these women were young and dressed in conservative Islamic clothing, a trend often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamist opposition group in Egypt.
"We have a paradox of women who are conservatively dressed but are very active politically ... and we must look at how the politics of the Middle East have caused this," she explained.
In an interview following the lecture, Hatem argued that there are three diverse approaches to feminism in the Middle East: secular feminism, Islamist feminism, which is concerned with achieving political rights, and Islamic feminism, which seeks to reform traditionally male-dominated interpretations of the Qu'ran.
Hatem explained that the last form of feminism is a new development among the younger generation of Muslims and often a source of contention with older Islamic feminists. The older feminists criticize Islamic dress as socially sanctioned and argue that Western dress helps movement and is thus more practical, she said, noting that they prefer to define rights in political terms and "ignore the discussion of religion in those rights."
By contrast, young women have often elected to adopt a conservative Islamic mode of dress as a response to secular societies that oppressed them for wearing such clothing. In Turkey, Hatem explained, women were prohibited from wearing head scarves in public and women who chose to maintain their rights of dress were excluded from Parliament. Likewise, women in Tunisia risked job loss for wearing conservative outfits.
Hatem also said that the role of governments in interpreting and applying Islamic law has varied widely. She explained that Muslim women were very visible in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and their conservative dress was symbolically utilized to oppose the Shah's "modernizing project" that had continued to discriminate against them. Yet, after the revolution, they resisted efforts to make such dress mandatory and successfully pressed for changes in personal status laws.
For example, following such reforms, if a husband took a second wife, the first wife could divorce him and have access to joint family property. Women who did not ask for divorce in this case could instead ask for house wages during the time of the marriage, Hatem explained.
"You can't say that these countries are unwilling to respond to demands for women's rights or that they are for women's rights," she said.
"The lecture was very informative," said Linda Nilsen, the director of benefits and work life at University Human Resources. "It's a very difficult, challenging topic that was interesting to hear about from someone who has studied this for years."