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Gender and Islam: a complex issue

Date Released: Fri, 25 March 2011 14:38 +0200

Dr Elaheh Rostami-Povey, visiting Senior Mellon Fellow at the department of Political and International Studies shared her views on gender and Islam and the misperceptions surrounding women’s activist groups at a seminar held at the department last week.

In her talk on gender and Islam, Iranian born academic, Dr Rostami-Povey addressed the need for a more refined approach to gender issues in the Middle East, saying, “The picture is much more complicated than we generally understand. Women are not simply the passive victims they are portrayed to be in these societies. There is lots of resistance and important work going on there which needs to be understood.”

In discussing the recent history of women’s movements in countries like Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine, Dr Rostami-Povey said a pattern has emerged whereby many movements that first appeared in the 1970s have gradually built up their strength, to the point where they are now a force in society. “These movements have gone through many phases, from anti-colonialist rebellion to state-controlled apparatuses, to a much more independent and powerful organisational grouping. From the mid-1990s these groups became free for the first time and they now play key roles in challenging conservative laws and regulations and challenging western imperialist views of women in these areas,” she said.

While the various forms of feminism emerging from within the Middle East are challenging western notions of feminism in their complexity and dynamism, Dr Rostami-Povey believes a “huge amount of bravery” is needed to tackle the issues that so many people criticise Islamic women for. “You have to be very brave to be critical of yourself when the whole world is against you. Today Islamophobia is the norm and to be under that amount of pressure with stereotypical views of your society being so dominant in the west and to still criticise your men, culture and regulations is very brave,” she said.

The wearing of the hijab is a case in point, she explained, as “many westerners believed wearing the scarf oppressed the women, when in actual fact it was a sign of their strength and their resistance,” she said.
Dr Rostami-Povey is hopeful that the view of Muslim women as passive victims will change in time as a more nuanced approach toward the subject of gender and Islam emerges. “These women’s argument is very powerful. It goes beyond religion and other issues and focuses on gender equality. You get groups of women from across religious and cultural lines uniting in support of their cause, which is the equality of women in these countries, and that is very powerful,” she said.

Dr Rostami-Povey said that the activism is linked with complex relations of cooperation and support, often from unlikely actors. “Women unite across borders for the same cause, and their men actually support them. It’s time for the simplistic notion of gender and Islam to be rethought. Some Muslim women believe their feminism is more powerful than the west’s because they have learned from the west. Let’s not just dismiss them as passive victims, because they are not,” she said.

Dr Rostami-Povey is a Research Associate at the Centre for Media and Film Studies and member of the London Middle East Institute and Centre for Gender Studies at the school of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She is lecturing Political and International Relations postgraduate students as part of a semester’s visiting teaching programme that was organised by the Department of Political and International Studies last year.

Photo: Dr Elaheh Rostami-Povey. By Sarah-Jane Bradfield