A Historical Perspective
“Anthropology, it has often been said, served as a handmaid to colonialism. Perhaps it must also be said that feminism, or the ideas of feminism, served as its other handmaid.”
Leila Ahmed, Egyptian American writer on Feminism in the Muslim World
For over a century there has been an indisputable marriage between feminism and colonialism in the Muslim world that continues into modern times. Successive Western governments and politicians have employed the language of feminism and its movements in order to further their colonial interests in the region. They generated and propagated a narrative that Muslim women needed saving from the ‘oppression’ of Islamic laws and rule as well as liberating through the Western culture and system. This was in order to morally justify their colonial intervention and wars in the Muslim lands and strengthen their foothold in the region. In truth however, their apparent concern for the wellbeing of Muslim women was feigned emotion, for such intervention worsened the lives of women in the Muslim world and stripped away their rights. An academic, Janine Rich, in an article published in the International Affairs Review entitled, “‘Saving’ Muslim Women: Feminism, US Policy and the War on Terror” wrote, “The complex discourses surrounding women in the Islamic world have a long and deeply political history, and this narrative has been renewed and re-utilized numerous times to garner widespread public support for Western military intervention in the Middle East. Yet when examined critically, it becomes apparent that U.S. foreign policy and military intervention in the Middle East has both worsened the status of women’s rights in the region, and subsequently used the discourse of women’s rights as a justification for the “war on terror.”
Today, as the concept of the ‘Caliphate’ is attacked from all sides by Western politicians and media, fear-mongering towards the status of women under Islamic rule has once again intensified. At this time it is perhaps more pertinent than ever to understand that for Western governments, talk of ‘Women’s Rights’ in the context of the Muslim world – both historically and at present times – has only ever been used as a smokescreen and tool to further colonial aims.
The Western Colonial Strategy to Undermine Islamic Rule under the Khilafah:
In the 19th and 20th century, the lust of European powers for expansion of wealth and territory was satisfied through the occupation and colonisation of many Muslim lands, due to their abundant resources and rich revenue potential. Lord Cromer, British Consul-General who ruled over Egypt from 1883 to 1907 stated, “The European would not reside in Egypt unless he could make money by doing so.”
However, these powers realized that strengthening and expanding their domination over the region could only be achieved through undermining the political and cultural authority that Islam held within the Muslim world, that was manifested in the presence of Islamic rule under the Khilafah state, alongside replacing it with Western-inclined values, laws and systems. The Western colonial rulers therefore devised a strategy to weaken and ultimately destroy the Khilafah and prevent its future re-establishment; for this state had always stood as the fiercest obstacle to European control of the ‘East’. This plan included distancing Muslims intellectually and emotionally from their Islamic beliefs and values and hence re-aligning their loyalties and attachment away from their Deen to the Western secular culture and system. They recognized that the strong adherence of Muslims to their Islamic beliefs and practices carried a potential of the re-emergence of Islam as a powerful political state. This would herald the greatest threat to continued colonial rule in the region and had to be fought at all costs. Hence the European powers employed all means to mould the cultural loyalty of their Muslim subjects towards the West, understanding that this was vital for political loyalty: that cultural colonization held the path to continued physical, political and economic colonization. Lord Cromer for example, viewed by many as the mastermind behind British imperialism in the Arab world, wrote in his book, ‘Modern Egypt’, “…it is essential that, subsequently to our evacuation, that (Egyptian) government should…..act on principles which will be in conformity with the commonplace requirements of Western civilization…..It is absurd to suppose that Europe will look on as a passive spectator whilst a retrograde government based on purely Muhammadan principles and obsolete oriental ideas, is established in Egypt. The material interests at stake are too important…It is nothing less than this: that the new generation of Egyptians has to be persuaded or forced into imbibing the true spirit of Western Civilization.”
The Western Colonialist Attack on “Women and Shariah” to Aid the Destruction of the Khilafah
Reforming the thinking and identity of Muslim women was a primary target in this colonial plan to destroy and prevent Islamic rule, for European powers recognised that in the Islamic society, women were the centre of the family, the heart of communities, and the nurturers of future generations. Hence capturing their minds and hearts would be pivotal in re-shaping the mentality of entire Muslim societies. If they could get Muslim women to despise and reject the Shariah by presenting it as ‘the enemy’ of the woman, then they could create staunch opponents to Islamic governance within the Muslim world. If they could couple this with enticing them towards the Western identity and system so that they view them as the path to liberation and salvation, then they could also generate strong advocates and ambassadors of Western culture and Western-orientated rule. Christian missionaries also openly advocated targeting the women of the Muslim world due to them being the primary shapers of the thinking and inclinations of the region’s children. S. M. Zwemer, a well-known missionary to the Middle East argued, “Owing to the fact that the mother’s influence over the children, both boys and girls…..is paramount, and that women are the conservative element in the defence of their faith, we believe that missionary bodies ought to lay far more emphasis in work for Moslem women as a means for hastening the evangelization of Moslem lands.”
Therefore, to achieve their goal, the colonialists engineered a specific narrative: that Islam and Islamic rule oppressed women and hence it was their moral duty to save her through removing the cause of her subjugation – the Shariah laws – and to ‘civilise’ her people through the imposition of Western rule and the Western system. This narrative provided moral justification amongst their own public and those they occupied for their continued colonisation of the Muslim world, also aiding them in their goal of maintaining and strengthening their foothold in the region. Joan Scott in ‘The Politics of the Veil’ writes regarding France’s colonization of Algeria in the 19th century, “From the outset, the violent imposition of French rule was justified in terms of a ‘civilizing mission’ – the bringing of republican, secular, universalist values to those who lacked them…..the colonizers aimed to assimilate these underdeveloped peoples to French culture.”
A host of lies and misinformation was therefore constructed and widely disseminated regarding the position, rights and mistreatment of women under the Shariah. They also promoted the idea that if Muslim women continued to accept the Qur’an and Sunnah as the basis of their beliefs and actions, they would be condemned to oppressed lives. To achieve their aims, colonial rulers also employed the malicious accusations of numerous Western orientalist writers who had over many years conjured up false tales about the mistreatment of women under Islam. Some had even suggested that the backwardness of the Muslim world was due to Islam’s degradation of women, and that Muslim societies could only progress towards modernization and civilization if Islam’s practices and laws were discarded in exchange for European culture, social customs, and mores. Stanley Lane-Poole for example, the early 20th century British orientalist and archaeologist wrote, “The degradation of women in the East is a canker that begins its destructive work in childhood, and has eaten into the whole system of Islam.” Lord Cromer’s writings mirror such views. He wrote in his book, ‘Modern Egypt’, that the reasons, “Islam as a social system has been a complete failure are manifold.” However, “first and foremost,” he asserts was its treatment of women. He claimed that unlike Christianity that teaches respect for women and causes European men to “elevate” women due to their beliefs, Islam degraded them, and it was due to this degradation, epitomized in ‘veiling and segregation of the sexes’ that the inferiority of Muslim women could be traced. He wrote that it could not be doubted that ‘veiling’ exercised, “a baneful effect on Eastern society. The arguments in the case are, indeed, so commonplace that it is unnecessary to dwell on them”. He stated that it was essential, “that the new generation of Egyptians has to be persuaded or forced into imbibing the true spirit of western civilization”, and to achieve this it was necessary to change the position of women in Islam, for it was Islam’s degradation of women through ‘veiling’ that was “the fatal obstacle” to the Egyptian’s, “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization”, and only by abandoning this could they attain, “the mental and moral development” which he (Cromer) desired for them.
It was clear therefore that to achieve this ‘Westernization’ of minds, the colonizers sought to dismantle and eliminate any aspect of Islam that prevented them from having control over or access to Muslim women, such as the Islamic family structure of male guardianship over women, the segregation of the sexes, and the Islamic dress. Frantz Fanon, the Afro-French philosopher and writer, commenting regarding French colonialism in Algeria in the 50’s, noted, “There is also in the European the crystallization of an aggressiveness, the strain of a kind of violence before the Algerian woman. Unveiling this woman is revealing her beauty; it is baring her secret, breaking her resistance [to colonial rule]. There is in it the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession.”
Indeed, accusing the Muslim woman’s dress of subjugating the woman was an essential part of this colonial project of ‘capturing hearts and minds’. As the most visible marker of the difference between Muslim societies and the West, it became a key target of the European onslaught against Islam and came to represent the conflict between the culture of the colonizers and that of the colonized. For example, in the 20th century, in response to an uprising of Algerian Muslims in 1954 aimed at ousting French control of the country, French authorities attempted to maintain their grip over the country by trying to enlist Algerian women to their cause by establishing a network of ‘feminine solidarity’ centres across the country, run by the wives of the occupation’s military officers. The aim was to inculcate Algerian Muslim women with French values and the orientalist narrative on Islam and the Islamic dress in order to win their loyalty to the French cause. The wife of Brigadier General Jacques Massu who led the movement in the capital Algiers once said, “Nourish the mind and the veil will wither by itself”. On May 16th, 1958, the women from the organization, accompanied by the French army unveiled a hundred women in a public square. The Muslim women apparently cried, “Let’s be like French women” and “Vive L’Algérie francaise”. It was a symbolic gesture, aimed at propagating further the engineered idea that these ‘native’ women wished to be set free from their covers and Islam, and that continuing French rule was the means to achieving this. However, later historians have suggested that these unveiled women were impoverished women and maids of the colonial government who were coerced into taking part in this carefully managed event under the threat of losing their jobs if they did not comply. Joan Scott writes in ‘The Politics of the Veil’, “It (the veil) was the piece of cloth that represented the antithesis of the tricolore, and the failure of the civilizing mission…..For a long time, much longer than the duration of the war of independence, the veil was – for colonized and colonizers alike – an impenetrable membrane, the final barrier to political subjugation.”
The issue of ‘women’ and their status under the Shariah therefore became a centre-piece in the colonial assault against Islamic rule. Indeed it is interesting to note that the European campaign against the Islamic social laws was not undertaken initially by Western feminists – whose influence came only later – but rather by colonial rulers and their administrations. Leila Ahmed, the US Professor on Women’s Studies writes in her book ‘Women and Gender in Islam’ regarding this colonial feminism, “It was here and in the combining of the languages of colonialism and feminism that the fusion between the issues of women and culture was created. More exactly, what was created was the fusion between the issues of women, their oppression, and the cultures of Other men. The idea that Other men, men in colonized societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilized West, oppressed women was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonized peoples…..Colonial feminism, or feminism as used against other cultures in the service of colonialism, was shaped into a variety of similar constructs, each tailored to fit the particular culture that was the immediate target of domination – India, the Islamic world, sub-Saharan Africa. With respect to the Islamic world, regarded as an enemy (and indeed as the enemy) since the Crusades, colonialism…..had a rich vein of bigotry and misinformation to draw on.”
The Deterioration of the Rights of Muslim Women under Colonial Rule
Whilst European governments employed feminist rhetoric to attack the ‘apparent’ low status of women in Islam, they cared little about the subjugation of women within their own societies in the West who were denied basic educational, economic, political, and legal rights of citizenship at the time. In fact colonial rulers such as Lord Cromer, who in Egypt adopted the self-appointed role as liberator of Muslim women from their so-called ‘oppression’ under Islam, while in England was a founding member and one time president of the Men’s League that opposed the suffragette movement and their fight for equal legal, political, and economic rights. Indeed, the predominant view within states such as Britain and France during this period was that women were biologically inferior to men in intellect and rationality. Even Western thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and Montesquieu had described women as incapable by their nature to develop the full faculty of reasoning. They had depicted them as creatures of emotion and therefore unsuitable for the public sphere. Rousseau had argued that the abilities of men and women differed and this is what defined their roles such that men became citizens and women became wives and mothers. Women at the time also lost all legal existence upon marriage, their property and wealth were placed under their husband’s authority, and they were denied the right to seek divorce even in an abusive relationship.
In relation to this lowly view and poor treatment of women by European rulers in their own lands, Leila Ahmed writes, “Even as the Victorian male establishment devised theories to contest the claims of feminism, and derided and rejected the ideas of feminism and the notion of men’s oppressing women with respect to itself, it captured the language of feminism and redirected it, in the service of colonialism, toward Other men and the cultures of Other men.” Therefore, feminism on the Western home front was resisted while exported abroad and used against Islam. It illustrates clearly therefore that all talk of the rights of Muslim women by the European powers was born purely from a colonial will to dominate the Muslim lands rather than any noble altruistic intent to improve the lives of the region’s women.
It is therefore not surprising that the rights of Muslim women deteriorated rather than improved under colonial rule. Firstly, European economic penetration into the Muslim world adversely impacted its rural and urban working-class women. European textile imports as an example flooded the Egyptian market, negatively affecting the local textile industry due to competition with the Western goods. Textile production in many of the Muslim lands had for centuries been an area in which women had been employed and able to gain a good income. However, under European economic reforms, countries such as Egypt became mainly an exporter of raw materials such as cotton and an importer of finished European products. This naturally caused a decline in employment, business, and income of those local women involved in the industry. Similarly women in Syria and Aleppo employed within the cotton industry lost their important position within the sector due to imports of European twists and dyes. Other local traders were also affected with local merchants pushed aside due to European companies. Women who invested in local business were therefore also negatively affected.
Secondly, under British colonial occupation of Egypt, the education and training of Muslim girls and women in various fields was minimized hence reducing their possibilities for employment. Lord Cromer as an example placed restrictions on Egyptian government schools and raised school fees which naturally held back girls education. He also discouraged the training of female doctors, closing down the School of Hakimas that had given women as many years of medical training as men received in the School of Medicine, restricting it to midwifery. He argued, “I am aware that in exceptional cases women like to be attended by female doctors, but I conceive that throughout the civilized world, attendance by medical men is still the rule”. Additionally, the colonizers introduced British women into the labour force of Egypt in the fields of education and healthcare. This reduced the employment opportunities of Muslim women in these sectors while simultaneously increasing the dependence of the colonized on their colonizers for teachers and medical care.
Thirdly, the imposition of British laws upon the Muslim world, stripped women in the region of their rights ordained by the Shariah that they had enjoyed under Islamic rule. Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, wrote in a 2008 edition of The New York Times Magazine, regarding ‘The implementation of Shariah’, “As for sexism, the common law (of European countries) long denied married women any property rights or indeed legal personality apart from their husbands. When the British applied their law to Muslims in place of Shariah, as they did in some colonies, the result was to strip married women of the property that Islamic law had always granted them”.
All this clearly illustrates that the historical attack on the Islamic social laws and the status of women in the Shariah by European politicians and governments had no association whatsoever with furthering the call for women’s rights. Neither did it bear any relation to the true problems facing Muslim women at the time. It was unequivocally driven purely upon securing colonial political interests in the Muslim world. The accusation that Islam and Islamic rule oppressed women while the Western secular system liberated them from subjugation was therefore nothing but a false, deceitful, self-seeking narrative born from a colonial will to dominate the region. Present day attacks against ‘Women and the Shariah’ by Western politicians, governments and institutions are replicating this same strategy.
Written for The Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir by
Dr. Nazreen Nawaz
Member of the Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir