Women, Islam and Syria

An interesting article in the New York Times today about women leading the return to religious conservatism in fairly secular Syria.

In other corners of Damascus, women who identify one another by the distinctive way they tie their head scarves gather for meetings of an exclusive and secret Islamic women’s society known as the Qubaisiate.

At those meetings, participants say, they are tutored further in the faith and are even taught how to influence some of their well-connected fathers and husbands to accept a greater presence of Islam in public life.

These are the two faces of an Islamic revival for women in Syria, one that could add up to a potent challenge to this determinedly secular state. Though government officials vociferously deny it, Syria is becoming increasingly religious and its national identity is weakening. If Islam replaces that identity, it may undermine the unity of a society that is ruled by a Muslim religious minority, the Alawites, and includes many religious groups.

Embracing religion is one thing; the regressive religious politics that we’ve seen sprouting up from Idaho to Istanbul are troubling, whether they’re Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or whatever else. Religious conservatism is certainly nothing new, but it does seem to be taking hold in countries that were previously more moderate. And it seems directly related to U.S. foreign policy — as we invade Muslim countries, and set our sights on others, Muslims in the Middle East feel threatened. When we position all Muslims as the enemy, we aid in establishing a collective religious identity that trumps nationalism.

Women are in the vanguard. Though men across the Islamic world usually interpret Scripture and lead prayers, Syria, virtually alone in the Arab world, is seeing the resurrection of a centuries-old tradition of sheikhas, or women who are religious scholars. The growth of girls’ madrasas has outpaced those for boys, religious teachers here say.

There are no official statistics about precisely how many of the country’s 700 madrasas are for girls. But according to a survey of Islamic education in Syria published by the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, there are about 80 such madrasas in Damascus alone, serving more than 75,000 women and girls, and about half are affiliated with the Qubaisiate (pronounced koo-BAY-see-AHT).

I’m all for incorporating women and girls into every part of social, political and religious life — but I also hope that those same women and girls will be a liberalizing force, and will have some success in securing their own rights.

But it looks like women and girls are more effective at avoiding government scrutiny than anything else.

For many years any kind of religious piety was viewed here with skepticism. But while men suspected of Islamist activity are frequently interrogated and jailed, subjecting women to such treatment would cause a public outcry that the government cannot risk. Women have taken advantage of their relatively greater freedom to form Islamic groups, becoming a deeply rooted and potentially subversive force to spread stricter and more conservative Islamic practices in their families and communities.

Since intelligence agents still monitor private gatherings that involve discussion of Islam, groups like the Qubaisiate often meet clandestinely, sometimes with women guarding the door to deter interlopers.

The Times doesn’t define what “Islamist activity” means. If they’re planning terrorist attacks, that’s one thing, but I certainly can’t support jailing people for radically conservative interpretations of their religion, provided that those interpretations don’t do harm to others. I obviously don’t agree with conservative interpretations of any religion, but I’d rather people have the right to discuss their beliefs openly than be persecuted.

And besides, religious suppression hasn’t ever worked too well, has it?

This group also seems to be as interested in power and influence as it is in religious exploration — another religious theme that certainly isn’t confined to Islam.

Hadeel said she had at first been astonished by the way the Qubaisiate, ostensibly a women’s prayer group, seemed to single out the daughters of wealthy and influential families and girls who were seen as potential leaders.

“They care about getting girls with big names, the powerful families,” Hadeel said. “In my case, they wanted me because I was a good student.”

Women speaking about the group asked that their names not be used because the group is technically illegal, though it seems the authorities are increasingly turning a blind eye.

“To be asked to join the Qubaisiate is very prestigious,” said Maan Abdul Salam, a women’s rights campaigner.

Mr. Abdul Salam explained that such secret Islamic prayer groups recruited women differently, depending on their social position. “They teach poor women how to humble themselves in front of their husbands and how to pray, but they’re teaching upper-class women how to influence politics,” he said.

At the same time, though, there is a degree of intellectual empowerment going on here:

After girls in the Zahra school have committed the Koran to memory, they are taught to recite the holy book with the prescribed rhythm and cadences, a process called tajweed, which usually takes at least several years of devoted study. Along the way they are taught the principles of Koranic reasoning.

It is this art of Koranic reasoning, Ms. Kaldi and her friends say, that most sets them apart from previous generations of Syrian Muslim women.

Fatima Ghayeh, 16, an aspiring graphic designer and Ms. Kaldi’s best friend, said she believed that “the older generation,” by which she meant women now in their late 20’s and their 30’s, too often allowed their fathers and husbands to dictate their faith to them.

They came of age before the Islamic revivalist movement that has swept Syria, she explained, and as a result many of them do not feel an intellectual ownership of Islamic teaching in the way that their younger sisters do.

“The older girls were told, ‘This is Islam, and so you should do this,’ ” Ms. Ghayeh said. “They feel that they can’t really ask questions.

“It’s because 10 years ago Syria was really closed, and there weren’t so many Islamic schools. But society has really changed. Today girls are saying, ‘We want to do something with Islam, and for Islam.’ We’re more active, and we ask questions.”

Putting girls in a position where they feel empowered, and where they feel that they can ask questions and exert personal ownership over their religious beliefs, is always a good thing. While I may not be the biggest fan of the framework that they learn it within, it’s definitely a step forward from simply having their fathers or brothers tell them that this is the way it is.

However, women teaching women doesn’t automatically make this a good situation. Far too often, the women who should be our most natural feminist and progressive allies can do us the most damage. Just look at some of the (admittedly few) female leaders on the religious right — Phyllis Schlafley, for example, who made an entire career out of telling other women to stay home, or Caitlin Flanagan, who’s making big bucks on the same thing today. Women exchanging ideas doesn’t automatically translate into progress.

Regardless, though, it’s a step in the right direction. Without generations of women’s rights advocates, there could have been no Phyllis Schlafley, because she would have actually been stuck at home and she would have remained voiceless. Ditto for Caitlin Flanagan. And so while I don’t agree with what they have to say, the very fact that they’re socially empowered enough to say it — and to make entire careers and large amounts of money doing it — is indicative of some kind of progress. Perhaps the same could be argued here — that there have always been underground religious societies in Syria, and that while there seems a region-wide return to religious conservatism in the Middle East, perhaps it’s indicative of some sort of social progress when, within that return to conservatism, women are active participants.

Again, that doesn’t make it a good thing. But it makes it an interesting social phenomenon.

And while a return to religion may always be seen as conservative, it does sound like these girls are finding their own voices:

In upper-level courses at the Zahra school, the girls debate questions like whether a woman has the right to vote differently from her husband. The question is moot in Syria, one classmate joked, because President Assad inevitably wins elections by a miraculous 99 percent, just as his father did before him.

When the occasion arises, they say, they are able to reason from the Koran on an equal footing with men.

“People mistake tradition for religion,” Ms. Kaldi said. “Men are always saying, ‘Women can’t do that because of religion,’ when in fact it is only tradition. It’s important for us to study so that we will know the difference.”


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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7 Responses to Women, Islam and Syria

  1. Chris Clarke says:

    Phyllis Schlafly, for example, who made an entire career out of telling other women to stay home, or Caitlin Flanagan, who’s making big bucks on the same thing today. Women exchanging ideas doesn’t automatically translate into progress.

    Why must you reflexively criticise the West in writing about feminism in the Islamic World? Why do you liberals hate America? Etc.

    (Well, someone had to. Why should G*ldst*in have all the fun?)

  2. Ape Man says:

    We’ve got some commenters over a the Liberal Avenger who could really use a Feministe ass-whuppin. Both political stripes. It’s out of hand. Help us.

    APS

  3. Mandos says:

    I once read an article in a Pakistani newspaper about a woman who studied with a conservative male religious scholar. He taught her the text, and how to understand the text, and then about “Islamic” religious practice. When she asked him for sources, and even quoted him chapter and verse in ways that made such practie sound dubious as to the aspects more directly disadvantageous to women, he scolded her and told her she must not use religious interpretation to question things about women, but just accept them…

    I’m amused by the margins that Assad et al. win. You’d think they’d put in a bit of effort to look slightly credible. Like, why not make it something like 60%?

  4. Tuomas says:

    When we position all Muslims as the enemy, we aid in establishing a collective religious identity that trumps nationalism.

    Should read “if we position…”. As, IIRC, Bush & co consistently has not blamed Islam or all Muslims.

  5. DAS says:

    Actually, in many Islamic areas, women have been a driving force for the adoption of Sharia — because Sharia is, in many places, the only alternative to tribal law which the male-dominated societies will respect … and women fair better under Sharia than under some of these tribal laws.

    Not surprisingly, this sort of subtilety has been missed by our “we don’t do nuance” admin which seems to have somehow gotten the idea, e.g., that they can topple the Taliban and suddenly all of Afghanistan will be a paradise for the women living there (and “why aren’t you feminists happy with us for doing this?”). It is not only a moral lapse, though, but also a strategic one. If you want to prevent, e.g., the Taliban from regaining power, you need to deal with the root causes of the situation — and part of that is dealing with the situation of women under tribal law.

    OTOH, this sort of dynamic wouldn’t seem to apply in Syria, would it?

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