The “women question” has been an Islamic issue over the last two centuries of renewal and reform in majority – and minority – Islamic societies alike. The question takes a particular “flavor” in the Arab–Islamic context. When Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi — the pioneering reformist figure of the “Arab Nahda” (the renaissance of the 19th century) — wrote Paris Diaries after his sojourn in France between 1826 and 1831 he gave space to the question of women. He particularly admired the independence and education of women in French society.
While he remained conservative, and sharia-minded, he remained a staunch believer in the importance of the education of women for a better and just society. On his return to Egypt, and later in his life, he drafted the curriculum for the first girls’ school in the country.
Many scholars like him, who graduated from classical religious universities, colleges, and seminaries like al-Azhar, Damascus, Zaituna and Fez, had similar progressive views. The case of the Egyptian Qasim Amin, an Azhari graduate and influenced by Muhammad Abduh, is considered controversial, despite his celebrated volume The Emancipation of Women (1899).
In this work, he defended women’s education (but only to primary level), and their right to divorce, and the abolition of polygamy and the mandatory wearing of the veil. However, his “aristocratic” views remained, for some scholars, patriarchal and male-domineering despite their relatively progressivist take, for the times. Allal Al-Fassi, a religious as well as a political leader, is a Moroccan example, spanning the independence period.
Al-Fassi’s defense of male and female education as a source of renewal for Islamic societies stems from the sharia spirit itself, as argued in various books, most notably his In Defense of the Sharia (1966). This broad debate over the women’s question during the precolonial and colonial period has assumed a different tone in the postcolonial period, including after the so-called Arab Spring.
Sara Borrillo, currently a research fellow at L’Orientale University of Naples, delves into the themes of women, feminisms and Islam in Morocco in her very enriching socio-anthropological and ethnographic work in Italian, entitled Femminismi e Islam in Marocco: attiviste laiche, teologhe, predicatrici [Feminisms and Islam in Morocco: Secular activists, female theologians and preachers] (Napoli: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 2017). The work is the fruit of research undertaken between 2008 to 2014, in which she conducted more than ninety (90) interviews with state officials, religious scholars, feminist activists, and intellectuals, male and female.
The argument of the book is that there are serious dynamics in the country over the question of women and gender equality, despite the competition that exists between three major camps or stakeholders: secular feminists, religious feminists, and state or official representation of women’s empowerment. The author labels these dynamics variously as “change within continuity” and a form of “democratic containment” (p. 194). She also notes that these dynamics are not a sign of real democracy (p. 8), even as they constitute one the most “advanced” position for women in the Arab world (p. 6).
Borrillo presents her argument in three empirical chapters (following a combined theoretical and methodological chapter). The first chapter offers an overview of the emergence of women’s issues in the Arab–Islamic world, and how they developed into periods of women’s struggle for greater rights. She begins with the 1920s, when Western versions of feminism entered and took hold in the Arab–Islamic world, passing through to the rise of political Islam since the 1970s—a period which gave rise to a counter-narrative based merely on religion—to the “Islamic feminism” of the 1990s, which attempted to empower women and shape a third—modern and religion-friendly—way.
Chapter one also discusses how women’s issues have been addressed in Morocco’s various constitutions since its independence in 1956, until the openings in the 1990s during the late reign of King Hassan II (d. 1999), and the reforms to the Family Code of 2004, known as al-Mudawwana.
Chapter two delineates the various feminisms that have emerged in the country, with a focus on secular feminism, religious feminism (political), Islamic feminism (intellectual), and civil society activists, including those of the 20 February Movement: Khadija Ryadi, Abdessamada Dialmy, Nadia Yassin, Khadija Mufid, Fatema Mernissi, and Asma Lamrabet. The last three appear as the major figures of influence in this debate in Morocco. The author also traces the cooperation among these different feminisms for the sake of promoting women’s rights in the face of patriarchal state feminism.
Chapter three (the longest) focuses on state feminism in Morocco, in particular in the wake of the religious reforms of 2004 within the Ministry of Endowments. These reforms have given prominent space to female guides and preachers (murshidat and wa‘ithat). State feminism in Morocco competes with secular and religious feminisms and has emerged as the dominant—or the only—voice on women’s issues in Morocco’s public space.
Borrillo attempts to uncover the political rationale behind these reforms, and whether protagonists of state feminism in Morocco follow state discourse on women’s issues—which the author notes remain conservative—strictly, or whether these female guides and preachers adapt or approach matters independently. Borrillo interviews female guides and preachers, as well as free feminist activists on various issues—like equality, qiwama (male domestic authority), polygamy, divorce, domestic violence, abortion, piety and body politics, etc.
In so doing, she finds that—while the dominant official discourse remains patriarchal, and underlines complementarity of gender roles instead of equality of the sexes—activists, in their individual experiences, live a more female-independent interpretation of that patriarchy, be it state-oriented, or religious-oriented, or both (p. 23). Borrillo concludes that approaches to women’s issues are eclectic and varied; she notes how different groups share many views and are constantly engaged in dialogue. In the end, the issue that unites all is the need for an expansion in the scope of women’s rights, which state authorities at present channel according to their particular exigencies, a practice typical of authoritarian regimes (p. 7).
Overall, Sara Borrillo has produced a well-mapped view of the history and types of modern feminisms in Morocco. In so doing, she has put the question of women on the right track for analysis. She rightly eschews a hasty division of feminisms into “religious” versus “secular”. Rather, she presents the Moroccan state as one major actor in the debate, among many.
She notes that the nation-state in the Arab world monopolizes mainstream religious authority through ministries of religious affairs, high religious councils, TV channels and other means of communication, which it controls through salaried clerics and public servants. This affords the state’s discourse on religious affairs (and women’s affairs in this case), the upper hand—to the detriment of free intellectuals, secular and religious feminist movements in opposition or in competition with the state.
Moreover, Borrillo intellectually situates the Islamic feminism of major figures like Mernissi and Lamrabet at the center of the debate—their Islamic ontological egalitarianism is thus set at the heart of the socio-cultural and political questions that occupy Morocco’s public discourse. With this, she narrows the gap between the political and the theological, the religious and the secular.
In sum, Borrillo works in a context we might call “seculareligious”—to borrow the term coined by Asef Bayat in describing the Arab (Egyptian) case. In this regard, her work is powerful. For it is only with this recognition of the various stakeholders in the dynamics of changing societies like Morocco, that creative ways to approach majority Islamic societies and their secular-religious worldview can be better understood.