Islamic Feminism: How Is It Possible?
Anna Ilina, graduate of the Master's programme 'Business and Politics in Modern Asia', talks about her career after graduation and her research on feminism in the Middle East.
Anna Ilina is a 2019 graduate of the Master's programme 'Business and Politics in Modern Asia'. She was in the first cohort to graduate from this programme.
Anna finished her Bachelor's in Management at HSE University-St Petersburg and supplemented it with a Master's in Asian and African Studies. She now works for a Gazprom Neft subsidiary as an IT project manager and continues her research on the Middle East at the same time.
— Did the knowledge and skills you gained during the programme help you?
— Everything came in handy: the knowledge, the skills, the contacts. I significantly improved my English and developed my analytical skills. Thanks to Veronika Kostenko, I mastered research methodology and learnt how to analyse statistical data. I interned with her as well. In addition, I still keep in touch with the lecturers, such as Professor Romie Littrell, who was my Thesis Supervisor, and Leonid Issaev. I'm in close contact with my group-mates too; we became good friends during our studies.
— Your thesis topic was 'Economic activities of women as entrepreneurs: motivation and obstacles illustrated by modern Lebanon'. What inspired you to study feminism in the Middle East? And why did you choose Lebanon in particular?
— At that time, my knowledge of the East was rather limited. Our group was divided into two subgroups: the Far East and the Middle East. I chose the second one and started thinking about a research topic. Professor Littrell, my Thesis Supervisor, suggested that I write about women's employment in Arab countries. After reading many research works, I decided to focus on women's entrepreneurship because business requires a lot more resources than employment: you need money, contacts, specific personality traits. There are also some external factors: the business climate, public attitudes to women and family, and so on.
In my thesis, I explored three countries which represented different parts of the Arab world: Egypt, Lebanon, and Qatar. I studied various factors, used official statistics, and looked at the portrait of society in these countries from the perspective of Geert Hofstede's cultural dimensions’ typology. I arrived at the conclusion that Qatar has a very low level of business because women usually choose a career in companies belonging to their wealthy male relatives. By contrast, in Egypt, there are quite a lot of female entrepreneurs, as the private sector is filled with men who do not hire women, while the public sector is overcrowded. Many women start their own small business to generate additional income for the family. But it was not that simple with Lebanon. Lebanon is a rather liberal country by Middle Eastern standards, and only 60% of people are practicing Muslims. At the same time, historically, the attitude to trade has been very positive. It seems like women have all the conditions for entrepreneurship. However, this was proved wrong: the percentage of women who run a business is very low. I wanted to find out the reason behind this situation, but there were few works on this topic, so I decided to choose it for my thesis.
During my research, I had online interviews with 11 female entrepreneurs from Lebanon. While communicating with them, I was testing various hypotheses: the support of relatives and society, religion, access to resources, education, the attitudes of counter-parties and how easy it is to start a business in terms of legislation. It turned out that despite the legal equality of both genders, the public attitude to businesswomen is still negative, and families support mainly men in their desire to develop their business. Religion did not play any role, which proved my hypothesis: the reason for the negative attitude to the women entrepreneurship is not religious affiliation, but the country's patriarchal culture.
In addition, I believe that the problem of such countries lies in the lack of role models, ie famous and successful women who could show and prove that other women can realise themselves even in conventionally 'male' spheres. However, this would be impossible without support from the state and mass media.
— You did your research in 2019. Has anything changed in terms of feminism in the countries you studied over three years?
— It is hard to say: at the moment, there is a prolonged crisis both in the government and economy. However, economic problems usually motivate women to find new ways to feed their families. As for the Arab world in general, everything is developing very slowly. Many Muslim women do not understand what we fight for—they live under the care of men, and they are satisfied with many aspects of it. In Qatar, for example, Sheikha Moza, the wife of the Emir, is a real role model: she looks stunning, has several children, and actively takes part in various projects. Or the queen of Jordan, who regularly organises things and does not even cover herself, even though the Jordanian royal family are considered to be the direct descendants of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Of course, they are noble women, but it is a good start for public role models.
— During the Arab Spring in 2011, 'Islamic feminism' began to gain momentum in many Middle Eastern countries. How did this type of feminism manifest itself and is it up-to-date in the modern reality?
— I think that the Arab Spring happened largely due to women's movements; women often are the catalysts for such processes. In developing countries, the position of women is lower than that of men, so men are usually satisfied with the situation, and many of them do nothing. Together, women put forward the requirements for the state. Gradually, disaffected groups join activists, so it takes on a mass character. Islamic feminism, as such, appeared long before the Arab Spring. Originally, it was not called this, but there were some premises at the turn of 19th–20th centuries when European women from high society came to the Middle East and tried to introduce their values of equality between women and men.
Step by step, it started to develop. As a result, at the end of the 20th century, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, an Iranian activist, first formulated the term 'Islamic feminism' in the newspaper Zanan. She declared that the ideas of gender equality are not a compilation of western culture, but can be found in the holy book of Muslims.
Basically, Islamic feminism is based on interpretations, as many Muslim scholars insist that everything related to women's rights is stated in the Qur'an and cannot be cancelled (in contrast with, for example, slavery).
Besides, many Sharia laws certainly seem patriarchal to us: for example, women can only receive half of an inheritance. This is connected with the fact that in the past, men were considered the family breadwinners and had to spend money on both women and children. Women spent money only on themselves. Correspondingly, men needed more money, so it seemed logical that men got a bigger part of inheritances. However, nowadays, this does not fully fit reality because not all men take on the role of breadwinner. Of course, there are countries where women still cannot work (for example, Saudi Arabia). But in general, the situation is changing: women can work and men do not have to support families as before, yet still no one is in any rush to amend the law on inheritance.
Or let's look at the hijab. The Qur'an says that the Prophet's wives must cover themselves when someone comes to visit. Basically, a hijab is a coverlet, but the Qur'an does not state that the wives should wear it: they could simply go behind a screen so that nobody could see them. But there is nothing about other women. Yes, women have to look up to the Prophet's wives, but it is not plainly stated that they must wear a hijab, so women's obligation to cover up is just an interpretation. Islamic feminism is now more trending than ever before because feminism is active all around the world. Though some radical feminists do not recognise any religious feminism, as for them, all religions are patriarchal. But I like the ideas of intersectional feminism, as we do not exclude certain groups of women from feminist discourse, but quite the opposite, find a special approach for them.
— If the Qur'an states that men and women are equal, why is there still a stereotype that Muslim women have fewer rights?
In the Sharia, women have quite a lot of rights. Originally, the Prophet was rather poor until he met his first wife Khadijah, who proposed to him herself. She came from a rich family, ran her own business and later supported the Prophet who, thanks to his wife, could engage in his intellectual activities and 'talk' to Allah. The thing is, at that time, society in Arabia was very patriarchal, but the Prophet was a liberal man in many ways who tried to regulate human rights issues, including women's rights. It is believed that a woman has to cover up so that she does not trigger a man's lust, and if something happens, it is her fault. However, according to the Qur'an, a man has to control himself and has no right to lust for anyone except his wife, which means that his responsibility is even bigger.
As for having four wives, there are three phrases about this in the Qur'an. In one part, it says that a husband may have four wives. Then, it is stated that a man can have as many wives (but not more than four) as he can equally support. In addition, it is written that a man has to treat his wives equally, so none of them feels discriminated against. First of all, this was connected with the rules of ancient society, where women did not have any opportunity to support themselves, so men took guardianship over them. But many people forget about the reason for such a tradition and the man's responsibilities in this case.
Also, I would like to add something about domestic violence. The Qur'an says that if a wife behaves badly, there are three ways to 'bring her back to her senses'. Only the last one mentions the word 'beat', so it is an extreme measure—but lots of men start with it.
Unfortunately, the Islamic religion was interpreted by men and for men. That is why even in the 21st century, we face misunderstandings of the Islamic religion and a woman's place in it.
— There are many Muslims in countries outside the Middle East, such as China. Do you think that women become more active in the labour market if they live in a non-Muslim country?
— I think they do. In Muslim countries, men have a duty to support their families, and in rich countries, it is not necessary for women to work at all. If it is a low middle-income developing country, a woman will have to work to support herself and her family. But the problem is that in patriarchal countries, women get paid less, and it is harder for them to get a job. We cannot even keep accurate statistics, because in such cases, many women work illegally. Besides, it seems to me that many women have to run a business informally, so we cannot monitor growth dynamics in the number of female entrepreneurs. Again, often it is not a problem of religion, but of the patriarchal principles of the society.
— Why did you decide to join the academic sphere and start teaching?
— Over the years, I have gained a sufficient amount of knowledge in a rather narrow topic. I believe that students would be interested in this, as Islamic feminism is still unclear to many people. As a graduate, I delivered lectures in the Vladimir Mayakovsky Central City Public Library. Many people were wondering how such a symbiosis is even possible, as many people—even feminists—see feminism and Islam as mutually exclusive concepts. Moreover, I always enjoy talking to people and exchanging knowledge. In addition, at HSE University, the lecturers and their approach to education are very different from many Russian universities. A lot of my group-mates who came from other universities mentioned this. That is why I wanted to become a part of the university not just as a student, but as a lecturer.
Additionally, I am thinking about entering a PhD programme.