In the Name of the Caliphate: What the “Islamic State” Seems to Mean for Muslim Women

If you ever wondered about “Islamization” and the so-called return to the Caliphate, recent debates arising from a number of Muslim countries regarding the “Islamization” and the status of Muslim women bring important questions to the table. First of all, it raises the question of what really is the “Islamic state” and what describes it. Most of us have heard about “ideal” visions of Islamic statehood (here, here and here). Yet, I would dare to say that we have seen none in modern times.

Nonetheless, a return to ideal Islamic governance, and “Islamization,” concepts that could either be posed as opposites or could be conflated, has been raised numerous times in contemporary political movements.  In a recent piece by the Chronicle Herald, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood’s stance on “Islamization” was reviewed. The article emphasized the Muslim Brotherhood’s rhetoric referring to the implementation of Shari’ah and people’s support for “God’s law.”

“Islamization,” which is often described in the West through words such as jihad, extremism, totalitarianism and violations of human rights, and represented by dark-skinned men with big beards, is perhaps not the same concept for some Muslims, who may be referring to a “return to the Caliphate” when discussing Islam and the state. Visions of a modern caliphate, its elements and viability have been broadly discussed in the past few years. The (theoretical) Caliphate could mean unity, individual and communal freedom, economic development, and political accountability.  Even so, in many instances, a state’s closeness to political Islam or Islamic governance is portrayed to mean the automatic violation of human and women’s rights; advocating for a state or community’s “Islamization,” such as Chechnya, poses a broader debate on issues relating to the status of women.

For instance, in the case of Egypt, “Islamization,” which is often framed as a real  possibility in view of the upcoming elections,  could mean not only the merging of politics, religion and the state, but also the revision of “secular” laws such as women’s right to divorce.  Similarly, a government’s preference for the so-called “Islamic” rule, has often meant, around the world, restrictions on women’s clothing, ambivalent stands on honor killings, negligence of gender-based violence, and persecution of LGTBQ Muslims, among others.

Although Western media coverage often alarms readers by associating violation of women’s rights with Islam and proponents of the caliphate, it cannot be said that this is altogether unfounded. Even though there are a few countries that are officially Islamic, meaning that Islam is not only the religion of the majority of the population, but also the base of legal rule and the state (like Saudi Arabia, or Iran), other states and independent republics have endorsed their own ideas of what it means to be “Islamic.” In some instances, “Islamic” has served to justify ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam such as the Taliban rule. Debates surrounding the “Islamization” of law and government, in Muslim and Western sources,  do not necessarily explain what being an “Islamic” state entails other than the implementation of Shari’ah, which is often times consider static and unchanging. Beyond that, we are left to wonder what else is in there.

Tunisian women advocating in favour of an Islamic state. Image via Your Middle East.

Fatima Mernissi does an excellent job in looking at the historical developments of the caliphate, and to some degree political Islam, and their implications beyond shari’ah. In two of her books, The Veil and the Male Elite and The Forgotten Queens of Islam, Mernissi critiques the development of the different caliphates. For her, the historical and patriarchal aspects of the caliphate as institution, from the first Muslim caliphate, were troubling not only in political terms but also for their implications in matters of gender and sexuality. Similarly, following the developments of twentieth century political Islam, she warns readers against the realities of religious discourses in politics and their effects on gender relations and restrictions of sexuality.  Yet, she also acknowledges women’s own involvement in these movements and institutions. From early Muslim queens to figures like Benazir Bhutto, Mernissi describes women’s active participation in both the caliphate and political Islam. Interestingly, in some instances like in Tunisia, some women have argued for a new caliphate in search for guaranteed rights at the same time as in the West the “troubling” aspects of Islamization and the spread of Islam are discussed.

Then, perhaps talks about a return to “real” Islam or Islamization (as some would call it), is not really about Islam, but rather about politics. Similarly, women’s involvement in these developments is political. Women can be harmed by the restrictions imposed to them by political Islam, oftentimes exercised by men, but they can also benefit from imposing those restrictions on others and perhaps even on themselves. This is not unique to Muslim women’s interactions with political Islam and the Islamic state. We, either way, also interact with the secular state and democracy, which can be as restrictive and gendered.

At the end of the day, when we refer to the “Islamization” of government, law or the state, we are not talking about spirituality or even theology. Rather, we are talking about a way in which “we” or “they” make politics. Islamization does not necessarily entail the violation of women’s rights, but it does require women’s participation as with any political and nationalist movement. And while we can refer to the patriarchal and gendered aspects of politics and law, we also find those paradoxical cases in which Muslim women call for the caliphate, Islamization, and what might even be considered the restriction of their own freedom.

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