“The Nightmare is not with Islam, it is with Secularism”
Such is the opinion of Imrana Jan, a prominent media representative of Hizb Ettahrir Britain – the “Party of Liberation.” Jan came to Tunis to attend the party’s international conference organized around the topic, “The Caliphate: a Shining Model for Women’s Rights and Political Role,” held on March 10th.
In Tunisia, Hizb Ettahrir is still not legally recognized as a political party. It was refused authorization shortly after the revolution, in accordance with a law banning parties based on religion and regionalism. Hizb Ettahrir has fueled ongoing debate in post-revolutionary Tunisia, both over its legalization as a party and in the general political and public discourse.
Delegations of women flew in from across the world to attend the event, hailing from countries as varied as Belgium, Canada, Egypt, Indonesia, Libya, Sudan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Yemen.
“I have to say, it’s a packed venue, we were over-subscribed,” said Nazreen Nawaz, another central media representative of Hizb Ettahrir’s branch office in Britain. Jan estimated that approximately 1,000 women were present at the conference. She was enthused to say that their event had received over 1,500 registrations, and they were consequently obliged to turn people down.
It seems that women attended the conference for different reasons – some to demonstrate their clear allegiance to the party, some out of mere curiosity, and others to test their own beliefs. A 28-year old radiologist from Nabeul, a city located in northeastern Tunisia, explained that she had come to the conference to gather arguments – as a sort of ammunition – to use when explaining her political and religious choices to her friends and family. She hoped to learn from the experiences, opinions, and arguments of the other women who were present that day.
The conference was comprehensive in its effort to reach out to non-Muslims and non-Arabic speakers. All speeches had been pre-translated from Arabic to English, and were projected onto two large screens. Informative pamphlets and booklets were available in both Arabic and English, and were widely distributed throughout the conference. Furthermore, the participants actively sought out journalists, and were eager and enthusiastic to discuss and shed light on their party’s vision.
Throughout the conference, the “Western model” – as a political, social, and economic framework – was called into question. Like her colleagues, Jan focused on the false sense of empowerment of women in the West. “In practice, you are not viewed the same way. You don’t wear the pants. You are always struggling to fight the stereotype, the normative image of what it means to be a woman at that specific time. This is the struggle of women in Western society.”
She further criticized the stasis of women’s rights issues in Western discourse. “Every single year the discussion on International Women’s Day is the same: domestic violence, insufficient percentages of women in top positions in the business world, insufficient representation of women in politics, etc.” She called for this discussion to advance.
Hizb Ettahrir’s platform is premised on the refusal of the concept of “gender equality” as a criterion or form of “gold standard” of evaluation. Gender equality is dismissed as, “a flawed and irrational concept” – a product of the “European experience” that carries, “a number of Eurocentric assumptions.” Importantly, the party literature highlights a fundamental contradiction between difference and equality.
In defending this point, the movement draws on the literature of feminist thinkers, such as Peggy Antrobus. This argument provides concrete examples that seek to demonstrate how equal treatment (i.e.: gender-neutral laws) lead to discrimination, by ignoring, “obvious physical differences.” However, the only stated example was the treatment of pregnant women and women in age of bearing children in the workforce – where they are subject to discriminatory policies.
The conference sought to debunk misconceptions regarding Islam and the status of women. “We as Hizb Ettahrir do not use violence,” insisted Jan. The party firmly condemns the oppression of women – a term which encompasses honor killings, forced marriages, acid burnings, poverty, lack of access to education or work, and the prohibition of female suffrage. It further declares that under the Islamic State, “there would be zero tolerance for any form of sexual harassment whether verbal, physical, or even by innuendo.” In Hizb Ettahrir’s vision, education is compulsory for both women and men. Furthermore, women may work, but are not obliged to do so.
However, not all attendees left the conference feeling convinced. A representative of the Tunisian Association of Women Lawyers declared that, “As a lawyer, and as a woman, I can state that we Tunisian women have acquired rights. We have progress, we are for openness to other cultures. It is as though you proposed a swap, whereby you asked us to give up a precious jewel in exchange for one that is fake.”
She further questioned the legitimacy of the conference, underlining that Hizb Ettahrir remained unrecognized as a party in Tunisia, and that Ettahrir, “does not represent a majority.” Finally, she reported that representatives of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda had been invited, but had refrained from attending.
Another woman left the conference before the close, visibly upset. “This is not the Islam that I was taught,” she said.
Hizb Ettahrir’s rhetoric may indeed strike many as socially and politically conservative. A woman’s “honor” is characterized as the most sacred thing, which must be preserved and defended. “Islam has defined a public role for the woman under the Khilafah [Caliphate], but, in contrast with secular states, it has also defined rules to enable her to fulfill this within a secure environment where she is viewed as an honor.” The party furthermore calls for “the prohibition of socializing between the sexes” and “the prohibition of fornication or adultery.”
Furthermore, while women are allowed to work, Hizb Ettahrir’s message bears undertones that tend to promote motherhood as the ultimate role for a woman, and even openly discourages a woman’s participation in the workforce. The organization argues that today, we live in societies where women do not simply have the right to work, but rather are expected to.
Hizb Ettahrir deems that a woman’s role as both a mother and a worker are incompatible, lamenting the challenges that face “the ‘do-it-all’ woman,” who must juggle the double-burden of motherhood and work. The party further questions the portrayal of employment as, “an icon of empowerment,” and, in contrast, argues that, “a domestic mother in the Islamic social framework is an empowered and honored position.”
While women can participate in politics – whether as members of political parties or within the Majlis Al-Ummah (the consultative body that advises the ruler), or even as officials of the state – their role is explicitly restricted to “non-ruling positions” only. The party justifies this by stating that, “ruling in Islam is not a position of prestige but a position of responsibility.”
Ettahrir’s reading of Islam places social cohesion before individual fulfillment. Distinct social roles for women and men – that are “complementary rather than competitive” – are essential to this cohesion. Within Ettahrir itself, there are separate executive committees for women and men within the party that organize the activities of the group nationally. The political work of the women’s section includes organizing talks, seminars, conferences and demonstrations.
It is not a surprise that women such as the representative from the Tunisian Association of Women Lawyers felt alarmed by what they saw as representing a peril for their rights. The conference occurred in the wider context of an ongoing debate on the role of women’s rights – and religion – in post-revolutionary Tunisia, in the constitution, and in society. This gathering of Ettahrir women stood at the crossroad of these two salient issues.
Several activist groups, including the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women (ATFD), recently drew up a draft constitution to be proposed to the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) – entitled “for a constitution that guarantees women’s rights.” In this document, they advocate for the separation of religious and state affairs, and call for the guarantee of women’s rights in the constitution.
In spite of such worries, Jan considered the massive turnout to be a success, in and of itself. “Today’s event is a historical landmark. I think what is unique about today is the global relevance. Never on this scale have you had the international presence of Muslim women calling for Khilafa. We’ve had Muslim women calling for democracy, calling for support of UN resolution this, UN resolution that, etc. After today, I think anyone would be either extremely stupid, or mentally unstable to make the statement that women don’t want the Muslim state,” said Jan.
“We are a movement for the truth, we are a political entity that does not work within the system. We consistently voice, on every level, that we are the political alternative,” she concluded.