Women, democracy and dictatorship

Published on openDemocracy, by Sami Zubaida, February 15, 2012.

In the early and middle decades of the twentieth century it was always dictators who embarked on policy and legislation which liberated and empowered women in both family and society. The dictators liberated women in the good days, but retreated under pressure, and it was the populists ushered in by ‘democracy’ who oppressed women.  

The electoral success of Islamic parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, has raised worries about policy and legislation on family and gender issues, this despite re-assuring noises from leading figures. Earlier electoral successes of Islamists in Iraq had brought about a disorderly mix of family policies and rule of disparate religious authorities, accompanied by much constraint and intimidation. This may be a good time to reflect on the record of various Middle Eastern countries on these issues over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first century and their relations to political regimes … //

… Some elements of the historical Shari`a provisions on family law remained in the reformed systems of all Middle Eastern countries bar Turkey. Ataturk abolished all Shari`a provisions and made the advocacy of the Shari`a an offence. At the other extreme, Saudi Arabia maintained the full force of the historical Shari`a in family and gender provisions. Most other countries instituted legal reforms which retained some elements of Shari`a provisions. Issues affected included restrictions on rights of a man to multiple marriages and unilateral divorce at will, as well as giving the wife some rights regarding divorce and custody of children. The liberty of the wife to work outside the home and to travel abroad without the husband’s or male guardian’s permission has remained a thorny issue in many countries. Legal reforms, from the Ottoman Tanzimat of the mid-nineteenth century, involved the codification and etatisation of law, on European civil law models, with modern court systems and procedures, except for family law which continued to be entrusted to Shari`a courts, with religiously trained personnel, but subject to reformed state legislation which varied over time. It was in the 1950s that many of the ‘mainstream’ countries, such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Morocco, abolished the separate Shari`a courts, and integrated family law into the regular civil courts, but ruling in accordance with reformed, codified, Shari`a provisions. This step was enacted by military dictators, against the stifled displeasure of religious and conservative circles. This was most notable in Iraq, under Qasim, who came to power at the head of a military coup in 1958, and enacted some of the most liberal family provisions in 1959. These reforms, which abolished Shari`a courts, and gave women enhanced rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance, delighted the strong leftist-secularist current of the time, and angered religious conservatives. A mocking rhyme chanted in the streets was: tali al-shahar maku mahar, wul-qadi nthebba bil-nahar, ‘come the end of the month there will no longer be dowries, and we shall chuck the qadi in the river’.

The bloody CIA assisted Ba`thist coup in 1963 put an end to the relatively benevolent Qasim dictatorship, and brought in the rule of a pan-Arabist and sectarian Sunni regime under the backward Arif brothers. Sure enough, a delegation of venerable clerics, Sunni and Shi`i, prevailed on Arif to reverse all Qasim’s reforms. The second Ba`th coup in 1968 ultimately brought Saddam Hussein to dominance in the 1970s, the ‘golden age’ of prosperity and cultural revival funded by multiplication of oil revenues, which also reinforced the security state and bloody repression. This regime pursued secularism quite seriously, aimed, in part, at weakening religious and patriarchal loyalties in favour of the regime and party. The 1970s and 80s saw great strides ? in the empowerment of women in family and society and the curbing of religious authority over family law, albeit within the limits of the totalitarian security regime which integrated all women’s organisations within the Ba`th Party and the state.

All this came to an end in the following decades of destructive wars, against Iran in the 1980s, then the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent pulverisation of Iraqi economy and infrastructure by American and allied bombardment, followed by disastrous UN sanctions. An increasingly weakened regime resorted to tribalism and religion to shore up social controls, easily bypassing its own reforms to return to patriarchy, ‘honour’ violence and all kinds of impositions on women. By that time the class of people who would ‘chuck the qadi in the river’ had been all but eliminated. The violent repression of all politics and civil autonomies had been highly successful in killing, imprisoning and exiling the ‘citizen’ middle classes; the Ba`th Party itself had been transformed from an ideological campaign to a passive vehicle of allegiance to the ruling dynasty. Most important, individuals had been driven by the violence and collapse of the economy to seek safety and livelihood in family, clan, patron bosses and religious networks. The only political opposition facing the regime became the Shi`i parties, tied to those patrimonial networks and Iran. The fragmented electoral ‘democracy’ imposed by the Americans after the invasion inaugurated chaotic sets of legal and religious practices on family law, largely restoring the religious and patriarchal authorities’ powers over family and women. The dictators liberated women in the good days, but retreated under pressure, and it was the populists ushered in by ‘democracy’ who oppressed women.

Tunisia is generally reckoned to be the most liberal of Arab states on family law and women’s rights. It is, for instance, the only Arab country to ban polygamy outright, while most of the others could only introduce restrictions of the man’s right to multiple wives. These measures were part of the modernising project of another dictator, Bourguiba. We should add, however, that Tunisia was the Arab country with the most vibrant civil society and associational life, which chimed in with Bourguiba’s reforms. The Nahdha Islamists ? , brought to power by elections have promised not to reverse these reforms, but will they resist the voices from below clamouring for a more vigorous Islamic project?  … (full long text and pictures).

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