1This research explores the intersection and inter‑connection of Islam, gender, and development policy and practice in Yemen in a context where a new paradigm for development studies is being shaped. The previously prevailing approach of emphasizing political economy shifted in the 1990s to include other areas of study such as feminist and cultural studies. According to this new paradigm, not only are women from developing countries now at the centre of development and global processes, but their cultures are also discussed. This results in the political statement that human development is only possible if gender equality and local cultures are embraced. The central question is this: how has this new paradigm of development studies been put into practice in the context of developing countries and in particular, within the various Muslim communities found in Yemen? To what extent are these development actions consistent with the latest gender and development theories and political statements? In addition, there is also the question of how this new paradigm has been interpreted, redefined and renegotiated from a local perspective by women’s human rights activists and gender practitioners.
2I examine these questions in the context of contemporary Yemen ‑ from its unification in 1990 until the present —focusing especially on gender and development policies and practices reflecting perspectives of human development, gender equality and cultural sensitivity relating to Muslim identity. In particular, I am interested in specific projects that consider Islam a powerful tool and means for gender and development advancement. Most such initiatives have been implemented in Yemen since the second half of the 1990s by local NGOs and women’s organizations, and have been funded by international donors. I analyse these projects to find out the different ways in which recent international development theory on gender and development has influenced, impacted and been implemented in local policies and practices, in dealing with women’s empowerment and human rights. I place special emphasis on examining the opinions of women’s human rights activists and gender practitioners, and their direct experiences, to better understand the complexity and diversity of gender issues in Yemen. I also draw attention to the political and social implications of using ‘Islam’ in developmental work, specifically to the Islamic views on women’s rights laid down by opinion‑makers and religious scholars, both of whom may resist or, on the contrary, promote culture transformations aimed at women’s empowerment and social change. These Islamic discourses are embedded in the specific socio‑economic, historical and political context of Yemen, and are seen as resulting from power struggles between different groups with various social positions and interests. Power relations play an important role in shaping the capacities of communities and the associated social change processes, as cultural systems frequently confer power and privileges on some by denying rights and access to resources to others. These power relations are reproduced and legitimised by cultural mechanisms, including socialization according to prevalent Islamic standards and representations concerning gender models and women’s rights. In this framework, projects aimed at promoting women’s rights and gender equality through woman‑friendly interpretations of Islam challenge the patterns in opposing ideologies justifying gender inequalities. Nevertheless, the meaningful impact of these projects will depend on their willingness to achieve feminist goals of women’s empowerment and the transformation of gendered power structures.
- 1 Batliwala, 2010, p. 111‑120.
- 2 Cornwall, 2010, p. 14.
3The starting point of my research focuses on the above‑mentioned shift in international development theory ‑ from understanding development merely in terms of economic growth to the new paradigm based on human development and considering culture and gender. Several authors, such as Amartya Sen, Mahbub ul Haq and Martha Nussbaum, have helped theorize this innovative perspective, which resulted in a normative approach to development policy promoted by the UN and Western donor agencies. However, this shift in developmental discourse and policy has not necessarily been accompanied by meaningful changes in development actions or their impact assessment. In particular, there is still a persistent gap between actual gender and development discourse and its implementation pattern on the ground. A large body of literature on the topic shows how feminist concepts that were captured or co‑opted by international agencies have lost their radical or critical edge. In that sense, the language of gender and development has been criticized for turning into “buzzwords”. An example of this is the developmental use of the term “women’s empowerment”1. As this concept underwent a process of institutionalization by development agencies in the 1990s it was emptied of its original meaning connected to feminist politics and the transformation of gender power relations. Despite the depolitization of such concept, spaces for contestation and resignification of meaning have never been completely closed.2 In this context, I was particularly interested in exploring how ideas relating to Islamic feminism have shaped and been shaped by gender and development policy and practice in Yemen.
- 3 The WID (or Women in Development) approach emerged in the 1970s and called for greater attention to (...)
4Since the second half of the nineties, international trends in culture, gender and development approaches started being reflected in Yemen’s local projects relating to women’s rights and Islam. In line with UN and Western donors discourse and policy, more focus has been placed on funding project proposals that promote women’s rights and gender equality from a culturally sensitive perspective, taking more into account Islamic concepts and collaborating with faith‑based organizations and religious leaders. With the shift from the WID to the GAD approach3, donor interest focused on funding projects aimed at “women’s empowerment in Muslim contexts” in line with the GAD strategy, rather than merely “incorporating Muslim women into development”, as required by the WID approach. The cultural dimensions of development were also brought to the donors´ attention. Culture was no longer seen as a homogeneous and static unit hindering development, but rather as a dynamic and diverse entity in a constant state of flux, driven by both internal and external forces. As such, culture was recognized as a potentially powerful tool that had to be taken into consideration in development processes aimed at social change and at advancing gender equality. Consequently, increasing attention was paid to positive aspects of religious and traditional practices that could be utilized as powerful vehicles for the promotion of women’s rights and empowerment. In line with this discursive framework for development, an international dialogue within the Islamic feminist movements could now be set up.
- 4 Badran, 2010, p. 2. See also on the variety of Islamic feminism, Latte Abdallah, 2010.
5The term “Islamic feminist” itself has been the subject of controversy and disagreement, due to diverging political positions as to whether it is possible to reconcile feminism with Islam or not. Scholars who use this concept also draw attention to its development and plurality of meaning, ranging from evolutions and fragmentation in the theory to the diversity of local Islamic feminist movements. In Margot Badran’s view, despite the range of Islamic feminisms, we can still consider their driving core principles and core ideas to have remained the same, and that they are connected to a message of full human equality, including gender equality and social justice.4 Contemporary Islamic feminist scholars, such as Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Azizah al‑Hibri, Riffat Hassan, Leila Ahmed and Fatima Mernissi, have produced refined research on the topic and initiated important efforts to propound egalitarian models of Islam. They have been advocating an emphasis on reinterpreting religious texts in the light of feminist human rights perspectives, rather than patriarchal ones, in order to guarantee equal rights to Muslim women within the Islamic framework. The idea that Islam and feminism are compatible and complementary in nature has been seen as a new opportunity to advocate for women’s rights within Muslim societies. As such, it has nourished and innovated gender and development strategies applied particularly in countries where Sharia‑based laws are enforced. Data from Yemen has not contradicted this trend.
- 5 KIT, 2000, p. 3.
- 6 Personal Interview with a women’s rights practitioner, a MWDAR project researcher (W‑7), Sana´a, 20 (...)
- 7 Mukhopadya, 2001, p. 17.
6One of the first initiatives in Yemen inspired by this new approach on Islam, gender and development was a project entitled “Muslim Women and Development Action Research” (MWDAR). The project was implemented in 1999‑2000 by the Yemeni Women’s Union and the Dhamar Women’s Health Centre, funded by the Dutch government through the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT). The project aimed to develop insights into the ways in which Muslim women use religious and cultural resources in supporting their rights to reproductive health and education. A further aim was to use these insights to develop approaches to gender and development that empower women and see them as agents of change rather than victims of patriarchal culture.5 Riffat Hassan, a Pakistani‑born scholar and one of the most prominent Islamic feminists, was the principal consultant on this project, providing an Islamic framework to women’s human rights advocacy. She believes that the most effective way of empowering Muslim girls and women is through human rights education based on a feminist reading of the Quran. She argues that if women acquire the competency to use religious texts in support of their fundamental rights, they will be equipped to take a stand against negative cultural practices and gender‑based violence. The research data of the MWDAR project was interpreted in line with this argument. The study findings focused on a few humble women from the rural areas of Aden and Dhamar that were able to use some positive religious and cultural resources to advocate their rights and freedoms. They applied it to situations where they had to defend their traditional way of living in the face of recent ultra‑conservative Islamic speeches that had spread to local villages through extremist mosque preachers and people having received a conservative religious education in school.6 The analysis of these cases shows that mere access to education is not enough for women’s empowerment; above all, it requires an access to quality knowledge and religious information so that women can use these to assert their rights and overcome their reluctance to defending what they consider to be a rightful way of life. Consequently, the study recommended a new strategy for development enhancing women’s empowerment through access to religious knowledge in support of women’s rights.7
- 8 Bartelink and Buitelaar, 2006, p. 351‑361.
- 9 Bartelink and Buitelaar, 2006, p. 356.
7A few years later, Brenda Bartelink and Marjo Buitelaar (2006) took up the debate on the MWDAR project to draw attention to its shortcomings and to problematize the question of Islam as a tool for women’s empowerment. They believed that the MWDAR project did not meet expectations or project goals, because it failed to go beyond an essentialist view of Muslim women.8 This had led to an ill‑informed conceptualization of the role of Islam in development. A renewed analysis of the life stories of the rural women depicted in the MWDAR project, suggests that the role of religion was mainly relative to the configuration of their everyday lives and positions, and that it was not necessarily more important than other cultural, political and socio‑economic factors or knowledge. Although references to Islam are often used when talking, it would be erroneous to think this usage is helpful when dealing with women’s empowerment. It can be interpreted, for instance, as a way of reaffirming their Muslim identities or to highlight their faith as a source of inspiration, motivation, and hope. Trust in God and Islamic messages may even help a number of them to endure precarious and difficult situations, but this is mainly a coping mechanism. The idea of ‘moving into positions of power’, central to the concept of empowerment, was lacking9. Empowerment, in feminist theory, is the process by which women, individually and collectively, become aware of the gendered power relations and gain the ability to develop effective strategies to challenge these inequalities and shift power imbalances. Unlike coping mechanisms, empowerment strategies deal not only with patriarchal restrictions, but also have the potential to challenge an oppressive system of male domination and power. From this perspective, a woman‑friendly interpretation of Islam can only be a helpful tool in gender development if it is used in the pursuit of feminist political ends. In that sense, the importance of Islamic feminism is not only in religious advocacy of women’s rights, but also in its political implications such as tackling those patriarchal ideologies seeking to legitimize gender inequalities in the name of religion. Women’s involvement in such gender politics and transformative actions is crucial. Therefore, a key question, discussed in this article, concerns the dynamics of power relations and the recognition of women’s agency.
8Cassandra Balchin contends,
“in current international development policy, religion is simultaneously seen as the biggest developmental obstacle, the only developmental issue, and the only developmental solution. The co‑existence of these three —seemingly contrary— approaches, which can often be found within a single bilateral or international development agency or NGO, is possible because they all stem from the same Orientalist presumption about the ‘underdeveloped Other’ (Said, 1978).”10
9This reflexion is particularly useful in relation to the debate on women and Islam in development work, since it has often been trapped between two opposing and contradictory discourses. The first depicts Islam as a barrier to development and as a source of oppression for Muslim women, while the second discourse portrays it as a vehicle for social change and women’s empowerment. The problem of both positions lies in their essentialist views of Muslim women as well as in the depiction of Islam as a static and monolithic entity. What is identified as ‘Islamic’ in both discourses is wrongly represented as something affecting all Muslim women in the same way. Women are depicted as a homogenous group, deprived of power and individual voices, treated as the objects, not the subjects of development. This corresponds with Chandra Tolpade Mohanty’s notion of the ”third world woman”, represented particularly in Western views as a victim without agency, who is always in need of external help.11
- 12 Bartelink and Buitelaar, 2006, p. 358.
10Despite the influence of religious factors, it cannot be assumed that the situation of women in Yemen is determined solely by Islamic ideologies, norms or beliefs. And, as such, that these situations can be changed simply by replacing conservative interpretations of Islam with more moderate ones that are supportive of women’s rights. Although a woman‑friendly interpretation of Islam can be a helpful tool in gender and development, it is necessary to bear in mind that there is nothing in ‘Islam’ intrinsically capable of changing gendered power relations.12 Moreover, focusing squarely on Islam and the religious identity of Yemeni women in development projects can result in hindering a deeper analysis of their situations in the broader context of economic, political, cultural, social, and gender relations. In my interviews with Yemeni women’s rights activists and leaders from various women’s non‑Islamist networks and NGOs based in Sana´a, Taiz and Aden, I realized that their primary concerns were not religious, but rather related to the lack of opportunities and basic services, poverty, difficulties in accessing and controlling resources, gender‑based violence, early marriage, under‑representation in the political sphere and in decision‑making positions, among others. When asked about religious problems, they expressed worry about the political and social power that Islamic extremist groups and conservative Islamist parties have gained in relatively recent times in Yemen. In particular, they talked about the negative changes that had been observed in women’s lives and rights due to the influence of ultra‑conservative ideologies that are Wahhabism and Salafism. They also pointed to the influence of conservative party al‑Iṣlāḥ in political circles, which had affected many of the progressive social and legislative reforms concerning women’s issues in Yemen after unification in the 1990s. The impact of these conservative trends hindered, for instance, the promulgation of a new law that would have made 17 the minimum legal age for marriage. It also affected Yemen’s Family Code of 1992, based on Islamic Sharia law, and modified in 1998, 1999 and 2002 with more conservative amendments.
11The life stories of women’s rights activists also remind us of the historical difference between women in the South and in the North of Yemen as well as of the diverse sets of values along which both societies were organized. Susanne Dahlgren in her study of Adeni society of the late 1980s has suggests three co‑existing frameworks that should have been taken into consideration when analysing the social life of the former capital of South Yemen. These frameworks are: ‘adāt wa taqālid (customs and traditions), dīn (religion), and thawra (revolution). Regarding religion, Dahlgren specifies,
- 13 Dahlgren, 2007, p. 330.
“‘dīn’ alone does not stand for Islam, since custom and revolution are influenced by it, too, contributing to the local variations of Islam. Rather, ‘dīn’ is a specific understanding of Islam that presents this particular religious discourse as the only rightful way of life.”13
12The above‑mentioned three major ideologies continue to exist side by side in Aden until present. However, I would suggest that religious discourse has become particularly strong after Yemen’s unification in 1990, and has affected the whole Yemeni society. This is how women’s rights activists, and in particular those originally from Taiz and Aden, remembered the abrupt shift in gender relationships that took place in Yemeni society after the 1990s:
- 14 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑10), Taiz, 10 May 2011.
“Everything started to change when Yemeni workers returned to Yemen from Saudi Arabia during the Gulf Crisis in the 1990s… Many of them came back with a Wahhabi mentality. At that time, we were in Taiz like that: women without veils … we didn’t wear any black things or cover our faces… Everything changed in just two years, after the Gulf Crisis, in the mountains and in the city.”14
- 15 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑1), Sana’a, 11 March 2012.
“When Wahhabis and Salafis entered Yemen, everything changed. They changed our culture… When I was young everything was different… When I was in the market [in Taiz], I remember it as an open and colourful place, but with the passage of time, the market started getting more closed in upon itself, women started wearing black clothes, everything started to be cloaked in darkness, women and men stopped working together, people started saying: ‘ḥaram, ḥaram’ [forbidden, forbidden]… They changed our culture, it went from joyful and colourful to a black Wahhabi and Salafi culture…This Wahhabi culture is killing our spirit, our freedoms.”15
- 16 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑3), Sana’a, 13 June 2011.
“In the South [in Aden], we were Muslims… But, because of the communist regime there, after the unification [of South and North Yemen], we were accused of not being Muslim. Before, I was like you, without a veil. I wear the veil only because my colleagues here said that I was not a Muslim… Everything the previous state had done to improve women’s rights, collapsed after unification.”16
13As mentioned above, Yemeni women are particularly concerned about the specific conservative discourses of “dīn” that have gained in influence and induced specific sociocultural changes in Yemen since the 1990s. As a consequence, a number of women’s rights activists decided to engage in religious debates to run counter the ultra‑conservative Islamic influence. In addition, the events of September 11, 2001 represented a turning point in the history of developmental initiatives aiming to tackle Islamist extremism and promote moderate Islam, since Western donor interest in funding such projects in Yemen had grown. This has also had an influence on the project proposals that seek solutions to gender inequality by promoting and enhancing women’s human rights through modern interpretations of Islam, and by working side by side with moderate religious leaders and faith‑based organizations.
14A development programme entitled “Women’s Rights in Islam” started in 2002, shortly after September 11, and finished in 2008. It was implemented by the Taiz‑based NGO “Women’s Forum for Research and Training” (WFRT), and funded by the German Agency for Development (GTZ). Its main goal was to raise awareness of women’s human rights through the lens of Islam. The strategy consisted of training female and male leaders in woman‑friendly interpretations of the Quran and Sunna in order to gain their support and mobilize them to advocate human rights and gender equality in Yemen. Particular attention was paid to imams, preachers and other religious authorities to strengthen their commitment to a human rights perspective on argumentative topics such as polygamy, political participation, the state, inheritance, wergild, equal citizenship, social justice, and equal rights and duties. Project activities consisted mainly of seminars, training sessions, workshops, research studies and publications.
15An in‑depth analysis of the “Women’s Rights in Islam Programme” shows how gender and development actions can be connected to, but also disconnected from feminist meanings and strategies for women’s empowerment. The project was drafted and implemented by the WFRT, which is considered a Yemeni women’s NGO. According to the project leader, this initiative aimed to end the male monopoly on the interpretation of Islam and to challenge patriarchal religious power:
- 17 Personal interview with Yemeni women’s rights practitioner (W‑10), Taiz, 10 May 2011.
“It is very important to take the risk of analyzing women’s rights from an Islamic perspective. We cannot leave it to imams and to all these religious people. We have to bring all these issues to the table and ask what Islam is. We have to know if Islam is against women or not, and why. Imams and some others keep saying that Islam is not against women. However, we have to know, we have to verify that… Because in real life —it seems to be against women, because they made it so. So we have to know if the problem is with Islam or if it is because of their interpretation of Islam… It is very important to talk about women’s rights and Islam, especially when the debate comes from women’s organizations… They [male religious scholars] are used to women just keeping silent when they say that this or that is ḥaram [forbidden]. Women have always done what they told them to do since it came from Islam, because they told them that was Islam. But when you bring all these issues to the table and discuss them… It is a good thing, because women now can stand up and say: ‘No, you are not right, Islam doesn’t say such things’.”17
16The project was driven by the level of women’s interest in politics and aimed to reclaim and reinterpret religion from an Islamic feminist perspective in order to advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. Due to the highly politicized context of Yemen regarding women’s issues, having development practitioners adapt Islamic language and arguments was also seen as a matter of legitimacy needed to justify their work and struggle for women’s emancipation.
“Yemeni society is strongly influenced by religion”, says Suad al‑Qadasi, chairwoman of the WFRT. “Any talk of gender equality or the emancipation of women is almost automatically branded here as western colonialism or un‑Islamic. But it is not right to pretend that the emancipation of women is a privilege reserved for the West. Women have rights in Islam too ‑ you just have to read the texts correctly."18
17The issue of women’s rights, as Deniz Kandiyoti put it for the Muslim world, is invariably
- 19 Abu Lughod, 1998, p. 3.
“part of an ideological terrain where broader notions of cultural authenticity and integrity are debated and where women’s appropriate place and conduct may be made to serve as boundary markers.”19
18That is why many Yemeni activists, both secular and religious, applied an Islamic framework to human rights and gender equality in answer to those who wished to perpetuate the notion of an East/West split and use the label "western" to discredit progressive moves to implement human rights and women’s freedoms. Furthermore, the promotion of women’s rights through Islam has been seen as a culturally sensitive approach that helps to connect with wider segments of Yemeni society.
19One of the contributions of the Islam‑inspired gender projects in Yemen was to prove and promote compatibility between Islam and women’s human rights, as defined by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), through the use of feminist interpretations of Islamic texts. The above‑mentioned WFRT project published two training manuals in Arabic supporting women’s human rights authored by female experts in the field of Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy. The first guide was prepared by Zeinab Radwan (2004), an Egyptian academic scholar and successful politician, member of parliament. The second one was edited by Farida Bennani (2005), a Moroccan feminist researcher and university professor of Islamic law. Similar publications relating to women’s human rights and Islam were also developed by other Yemeni women’s organizations, including the Women’s National Committee and the Yemeni Women’s Union. Consequently, women’s rights as stipulated in international human rights treaties and ratified by Yemen, were reaffirmed as valid and legitimate from an Islamic perspective. In particular, among women’s rights confirmed as being fundamental to Islam are the following: the right to life, dignity, education, justice, freedom, work, income and property, to live in safety and security, and to participate in all affairs pertaining to women’s personal well‑being and that of their families, communities and societies.
20The women’s reinterpretations of Islamic texts and teachings in accordance with international standards of human rights challenge conventional patriarchal views on gender relations in Islam, and are a threat to male dominance and power. Therefore, such practices often meet with religiously grounded opposition and are the target of attacks from conservative religious factions. The WFRT project was no exception to such a dynamic. As one project leader recalls,
- 20 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑10), Taiz, 10 May 2011.
“The first minister who contacted me when he read about the project was the Minister of Awqāf [Religious Endowments] from Saudi Arabia. He sent twenty copies of books about Islam to my office… These people, when they get to know about projects like that, they become afraid. They want to keep you within their interpretation of Islam. For us, it was a sign that our project was on the right track. I even put those books in the library, I don’t hide them… It is a measure of our project. We didn’t know that the project could be a problem for them. But it was… It caused them a lot of problems… Even Zindānī [‘Abd Abd al‑Majīd al‑Zindānī, conservative Yemeni cleric from the Iṣlāḥ Party] wrote a fatwa against one of our researchers [Muḥammad Sayf al‑‛Udaynī], who wrote a book about ten obstacles standing in the way of women’s rights in Islam… Things calmed down, because he [Muḥammad al‑‛Udaynī] is from Iṣlāḥ too… But, what do you think would have happened if al‑‛Udaynī had not been with Iṣlāḥ? If he had been just a researcher at the university or from any other modern organization? They let him off the hook, because he was from their organization.”20
21There is no doubt that feminist interpretations of the Quran, along with other training and social re‑education activities dealing with such points of view of Islam, points of view amenable to human rights and gender equality perspectives, play a part in gender politics and dynamics of power. The renegotiation of gender power relations involves conflict and resistance. However, I would argue that without a real commitment to the feminist goals of women’s empowerment and the radical readjustment of patriarchal power structures, these strategies can easily lose their initial meanings and intentions in terms of transformative actions in development work. The crucial questions of how, why and who is implementing these strategies make all the difference in determining their success in terms of final project outcomes and progress toward the goal of gender equality and social justice.
22The “Women’s Rights in Islam Programme”, according to WFRT and GTZ reports, succeeded in engaging Yemeni women with leadership potential and from different professional backgrounds (such as lawyers, teachers, journalists, preachers and NGO representatives) in project activities. The training provided them with sound arguments about their rights in Islam, and with the skills to participate in public debates with the media, judiciary, university scholars and religious leaders. The project aim was to generate a ripple effect by mobilizing them to train other women and discuss specific issues relating to gender and Islam from a woman‑friendly interpretation of the Quran and hadiths. There are no available references in the project documents to measure the real impact and changes incurred as a result of these activities. As I was told, the women, mainly preachers and teachers, refused to be observed and evaluated when they had meetings with other women, mostly in private houses and schools. Still, post‑project interviews with the outstanding Yemeni women involved in the WFRT project as coordinators or as participants, suggest certain positive impacts on their personal sense of empowerment thanks to the knowledge acquired on women’s human rights in Islam and other related topics. The woman‑friendly interpretations of Islam were seen as an important tool to give legitimacy to their public work and to enhance their motivation to pursue their personal goals. However, it was not the religious knowledge in itself that had prepared them and propelled them to their leadership positions.
23The experience of empowerment was seen as a process. It was not due to just one project but instead to many factors that shaped their personal, relational and professional life. Training on women’s rights from a reform‑oriented Islamic perspective was relevant in gaining an insight into the distinction between normative Islam, and its cultural interpretations tied to a local political and economic context. It helped by enhancing women’s freedom to make choices. For example, Tawakkul Karmān, laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize 2011 and founder of the organization “Women Journalists without Chains”, decided in 2004 to take off her niqāb, the cloth covering her face, to make a point that fully covering your face is not dictated by Islam, but is Yemeni tradition. Other well‑known women who were involved in the WFRT project, like Raḥma Ḥujayra, founder of the Media Women’s Forum, or Misk al‑Junayd, who now works for international organizations, made similar remarks, and removed their face veils in the process of empowering themselves. It is difficult to attribute this kind of personal choice to the WFRT project. However, according to one of the WFRT leaders, such a choice should be recognized as a result of the awareness raised in Yemen by such initiatives. Personally, she considers that her particular knowledge of Islam along with the critical thinking skills was useful in defending her rights and freedoms in the face of religious conservatism:
- 21 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑10), Taiz, 10 May 2011.
“I know a lot about Islam. I can discuss it with imams. If they say one thing, I can answer back and give them other arguments from the Quran or hadiths… However, if you want to challenge them, you have to know what you’re talking about. These people are very tough. They will fight for what they have. If you don’t have something to make them question themselves, then you have failed.”21
24Other activists from non‑Islamist women’s networks in Sana’a present two different, but complementary points of view. In their statements, they claim that a faith‑based approach is politically necessary in Yemen, even if the way the strategy is currently implemented is a topic of controversy in the women’s rights movement. A number of women focus on the potential of Islam as a positive resource for gender equality. They claim women have a right to interpret their religion in accordance with modern times and with the principles of equality, justice and freedom in mind. Their declarations clearly go against patriarchal interpretations, made by mostly male religious scholars. As one of the Yemeni female university scholars says,
- 22 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑7), Sana’a, 5 April 2011.
“Women should have the right to interpret Islamic texts to lay down our rights very clearly. They should sit with men and say, ‘these are our rights according to this book [in the Quran], why are you hiding them?’ I, as a Muslim woman, I know Islam by myself, I practice what I know, and I never accept any advice or speech from any imam or religious men. I don’t accept them at all, because they are not clear and not honest in their visions… I am not a specialist in this area… But, there are women who are specialists of Islam, and who have the power to teach about these issues… Internationally, we should set up a system where women are visible and they interpret their religion. Women should interpret religion for other women. We should have access to their books to read them… Unfortunately, there are also women who are specialists of Islam, but they are extremists, and they ask other women to be invisible, more than they are now. They are dangerous… We need women who can teach women‑friendly interpretations of Quran… I am a Quranist, I believe in the Quran and in a few hadiths only. I don’t believe in all the hadiths, because they were created by people, and some seem to be against women.”22
25There are also Yemeni women’s rights activists who think the current talk about Islam only shifts the focus away from other debates relating to modern, cultural, intellectual and social dynamics in the country. This resulted in their voices not being heard in current gender and development policy and practice. These secular Muslim activists prefer promoting human rights and gender equality from a non‑religious perspective. Most of them are highly critical of the ways in which Islam‑inspired gender projects are implemented in Yemen. According to them, that sort of strategy does more harm than good. It overlooks the problem of power relations and seeks a solution to discrimination against women through religious preaching and education. Although these opinions are still limited in number, they are based on women’s professional experience in gender and development work in Yemen. One of these women identified the following shortcomings in the projects on which she worked:
- 23 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑14), Sana’a, 14 June 2011.
“We have very weak education in Yemen. The only knowledge that the society has access to comes from religious perspectives. There is no effort to give people a different kind of education… And, development organizations have never made any effort to change that… From my point of view, the main problem is not religion, but the lack of services and opportunities… Here… they use religious awareness for family planning… When they want to stop a woman from having too many children, they give her religious speeches. Do you think this can give her access to contraceptives? That is not the way to go. We have to give her contraceptive services. We have to have more powerful women, women with income and a good education, and also stop the conflicts.”23
26Another women’s rights practitioner, while talking about her experiences in dealing with the religious approach in the UNFPA Gender‑based Violence Programme, came to the similar conclusion that religion and Islamic scholars are not the key issues in enhancing women’s empowerment and in implementing women’s rights in Yemen. She was concerned with the strategy itself as well as with the ways in which the project was implemented:
- 24 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑4), Sana’a, 7 June 2011.
“There are no real follow‑up mechanisms… When we finished the project, we ended with some recommendations to be implemented. But, nobody has used these recommendations to start from where we finished… Everybody is always starting from square one… The second point is that we have to work on services… We need to support women with services free of charges… We were talking about how women should use these services, and we worked on women’s awareness about the system. It was like the first stage… but the problem is that we didn’t develop these services… We were discussing whether women should go directly to court, to the police station or to the hospital. But, these places are not gender‑sensitive at all, and you have to have money to pay for them. What if you don’t have money?… The majority of women don’t have their own money… They need help with services.”24
27The above‑mentioned declarations of Yemeni women’s rights practitioners draw attention to the complexity of Islam‑inspired gender projects in a context of development machinery. On the one hand, a number of women activists recognize the positive value of promoting women’s rights within the legitimate framework of Islam. They see it as a positive strategy to raise awareness about women’s rights and to connect with broader segments of Yemeni society. On the other hand, there are limitations. Gender equality advancement and women’s empowerment do not necessarily take place in the targeted or expected directions. From the feminist perspective, it is questionable if any meaningful impact on the advancement of women’s empowerment and gender equality can be attributed to such development projects. In reality, all these are specific and isolated activities, the impact of which does not necessarily go beyond the information gained during the training sessions, workshops, seminars, mosque‑based activities or awareness raising campaigns through mass media. The main shortcoming of these programmes is in their inability to implement a holistic strategy that would empower women and provide them with the necessary resources and services to put into practice the knowledge acquired during awareness‑raising activities. For Yemeni women’s rights activist, the holistic strategy requires, as a minimum, access to good quality education, control over resources, providing services, and the power of decision making.
- 25 Gender analysis refers to “the systematic gathering and examination of information on gender differ (...)
28These missed opportunities for women’s empowerment within Islam‑inspired development projects are due to the way in which “gender” has been deployed within them, resulting in the de‑politicization of feminist commitments. While in feminist theory, “gender” refers to male‑female power relations, and its goal is to transform these hierarchical relations in order to generate more equality and justice for women, the usage of this concept in development practice has often been misleading. Authors like Sally Baden and Anne Marie Goetz (1997) show how “gender” has become a synonym for “women” in development work. My concerns lie elsewhere, and point to practice where “gender” gets men and women jointly involved in development projects, but fails to integrate consciously and consistently gender analysis25, which creates a disconnect between this advance and feminist goal of eliminating gender discrimination and inequalities. Involving men into gender and development policy and practice is of unquestionable importance. However, this integration should not be mainly interpreted as a mean of increasing number of men in existing gender projects, inadvertently at the expense of women’s participation and advancement. It is more about assuming equal responsibilities in transforming gender power relations to make the world a better place for both men and women.
- 26 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑10), Taiz, 2011/05/10.
29Yemen‑based projects relating to women and Islam can give an insight into challenges that lay ahead of this “gender” trend. Projects goals are the promotion of women’s rights and empowerment, but do not necessarily focus on strengthening women’s movements, instead they target influential men. Getting male leaders involved in women’s rights advocacy stems from an assumption that they have an advantage over women as influential community members who are perceived as trustworthy and who people will listen to. The change in strategy of the WFRT project on “Women’s rights in Islam” was partly motivated by this belief.26 In 2005, the project shifted from a woman‑oriented approach to a gender‑oriented one. Consequently, influential groups of men were targeted, including imams, religious scholars, mosque preachers, university professors, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. The aim was to turn them into supporters of women’s issues in Yemen. As explained in the project documentation,
“the gender issue was placed in a general human rights and democracy context. The original concept was modified such that special training courses [focusing on citizenship, democracy and women’s rights in Islam] were offered to men alone, so that they too could support the process of rethinking.”27
30Engaging men in the process was acclaimed by development agencies as good practice to achieve successful results in gender work. However, little efforts have been made to critically analyse the outcome of this strategy in Yemen, to measure its real contribution to feminist goals of women’s empowerment and gender equality.
31The data from the WFRT project documents raise questions. The WFRT report on the last phase of the programme (September 2007–December 2008), for instance, shows that men, and not women, were the major beneficiaries of the project. The first activity of that phase consisted of a research meeting in Taiz, in September 2007, held to prepare a study design on equal citizenship in Yemen. Eight researchers took part in that meeting, all men. Three of them ended up writing research studies sponsored by the WFRT project. As a result, three books were published, namely: Citizenship and the Paradox of State in Islamic Thinking by Abdulkarim Kassem, Equal Citizenship in Islam by Mohammed al‑Lotaify, and Equal Citizenship in Light of Sharia Objectives by Abdulaziz al‑Usaly. Following the new gender strategy, the language deployed in the project also changed. There were no workshops on “women’s rights” anymore, but on “equal citizenship”, so that the title of the topic was more attractive for both sexes. In fact, it was appealing to men, who represented the majority of training participants. Concretely, the targeted number of beneficiaries in the first workshop on equal citizenship, held in Sana’a in December 2007, was 46: 66.6% males and 33.3% females. In the second workshop, carried out in Sana’a in March 2008, there were 21 participants: 63.15% males and 36.85% females. The majority of lecturers in both workshops were also men. In the first one, there was only one woman out of eight lecturers. In the second one, the main trainer was a male expert on human rights in the Arab world, who carried out eleven sessions. A woman, the chair of the WFRT, held two sessions only. The rest of the projects’ activities consisted of lectures presented mostly by male scholars. As a result, in the last phase of the programme, most of the 276 direct beneficiaries were men, although it is hard to find out the exact number due to a lack of sex‑disaggregated data. The total number of indirect beneficiaries, those to whom direct beneficiaries of the program imparted their knowledge, was 16143: 5120 women and 11023 men.28 The fact that the majority of beneficiaries in the last phase of the project were men means that they also benefited the most from that stage of the project. The training courses provided them with qualifications, skills and contacts that were helpful in enhancing their public profile and in getting job opportunities. A number of male religious scholars and leaders were employed as trainers in other projects, including other WFRT initiatives. Some got a chance to travel abroad to receive more training or to spread success stories of their experiences in gender programmes.
32The lack of an equity policy regarding the problem of gender distribution and power relations raises questions of missed opportunities for women in such gender projects. Instead of promoting women, they involuntarily promote men. Incorporating religious leaders and scholars as development partners in gender projects in Yemen is another illustration of this issue. The justification for mobilizing religious men and faith‑based organizations in women’s rights advocacy is based on the assumption that they could play a leading role in influencing public opinion and stimulating social change. In Yemen, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has one of the longest‑running experiences in dealing with gender initiatives implemented in partnership with faith‑based organizations and religious communities. Since 1998, the UNFPA has been working with Yemen’s Ministry of Awqāf and Religious Guidance and other religious institutions to raise public awareness and social change in the fields of reproductive health, family planning, HIV/AIDS, early marriage, female genital mutilation and gender‑based violence. Initiatives involved male imams, scholars and preachers who were supposed to promote women’s empowerment through the use of women‑friendly Islamic resources. Nevertheless, these projects never intended to challenge the fact that women are excluded from the most important religious leadership positions in Yemen, and that certain Islamic teachings continue to be widely used to justify this exclusion. There are no female imams or women having attained decision‑making positions in prominent religious institutions in Yemen. As of now, female preachers mostly operate at grassroots levels. This goes against the fact that there are female precursors in religious leadership positions in other Muslim countries and in Muslim communities in Europe and in the United States. The case of Amina Wadud, an American scholar and Islamic feminist, who asserted the right to be an imam for a mixed‑gender congregation, is emblematic, for instance, of the debate on women as imams in Islam.
- 29 Dr Hilary Kalmbach, co‑author of Women, Leadership and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Aut (...)
- 30 Zeinab Radwan and Farida Bennani do not usually use a ḥijāb, a headscarf, which is a practice that (...)
33“Recent increases in the ability of Muslim women to publicly speak as preachers, teachers, scholars or interpreters of religious texts represent a significant shift in Islamic leadership and authority”.29 These women, and especially Islamic feminists, are challenging male dominance, drawing on their knowledge, beliefs and practices in creative and innovative ways. The WFRT programme on “Women’s rights in Islam” dealt with a similar experience when it first started. Leading female Islamic scholars, such as Zeinab Radwan from Egypt and Farida Bennani from Morocco, were involved in the early phases of the project. Despite their controversial appearance as unveiled Muslim women30, they are acknowledged as prominent Islamic scholars, and male religious preachers and leaders take part in their training courses and workshops. WFRT’s first initiative relating to gender and Islam was to organize a training workshop on Islam in Lebanon for a mixed group of potential leaders from Yemen. The trainers were mostly women and their reform‑oriented teachings were progressively accepted by Yemeni male imams. As one of the WFRT leaders remembers,
- 31 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑10), Taiz, 2011/05/10.
“Mūna come from Egypt and another trainer from Tunisia, both women came to train male imams. It was a shock for them, ‘female trainers on modern Islam!’ And then, they had that long workshop, maybe 10 days, and they always came on time, they sat and listened to these women…This is what we first did —we took 25 imams, among others, to Lebanon. Why? If we had started here [in Yemen], we would not have succeeded. But, because we took them to Beirut, it made a difference.”31
34Getting back to the debate on the role of male religious leaders and scholars in development programmes, there is no in‑depth research on the impact of their involvement in gender projects on empowering women and on gender equality. A number of developmental practitioners in Yemen believe that cooperating with religious leaders as advocates and partners in promoting women’s rights is a successful strategy. However, to what extent are their opinions influenced by current development discourses rather than based on facts? If we question the details of how the approach was implemented, limitations show up. My concern goes further, as even the most moderate imams that I interviewed in Yemen ‑ acting as project stakeholders ‑ were sometimes reluctant to break with certain conventional Islamic teachings on gender models, regarding differences between women’s and men’s rights and freedoms. This is in opposition to international commitments to gender equality and women’s human rights as declared in CEDAW.
- 32 The name has been changed to protect the informant’s identity.
35In 2011, I paid a visit to the National Organization for Developing Society (NODS) in Taiz, founded by Shawqī al‑Qāḍī, moderate imam and Iṣlāḥ Member of Parliament. Previously, I had had the opportunity to evaluate a project carried out by the same organization in partnership with the Yemeni Women’s Union. The project was entitled “Leadership for Strengthening Women’s Political Participation through Dialogue in Yemen”, and was implemented in 2008–2009. Its goal was to improve the political and social integration of women through consensus and network building in support of women’s political rights across a broad spectrum of political and civil society actors. It is one of many projects, in which NODS has collaborated in support of women’s rights in Yemen. Nevertheless, NODS’ area of expertise is in projects targeting imams and other religious people in an effort to embrace democracy and human rights as well as combat religious extremism and faith‑based violence. The NODS is well known for the effectiveness of its strategies in that field and its achievements in re‑educating ultra‑conservative men in accordance with moderate teachings of Islam. The contribution of such initiatives to social change and for a better society is indubitable. However, the extent to which these male religious leaders and scholars play an important role in women’s empowerment and in transforming gender power relations is unclear. Do they offer any alternative to traditional and conservative gender models in Yemen? The case of Muḥammad32, a 35‑year‑old imam who currently works for international organizations and trains youth on human rights in Islam, is an illustrative example of a Salafi turned moderate Islamist. Because he received training on women’s human rights from the WFRT and other development organizations, questions have been raised about the impact that these gender courses have had on his life and his way of thinking. In a conversation, he listed his public contributions to the promotion of women’s rights in Yemen, and in particular to the national campaigns against early marriage and gender‑based violence. On a personal level, he mentioned how his perceptions of Yemeni women working for international organizations had changed positively. Previously, he used to have a negative opinion of them, based on stereotypes of ‘modern’ women’s behaviour, particularly women’s rights activists. In Yemen, female activists are often the victims of discrediting tactics, one of which is to falsely accuse them of being agents of the West and of subverting Islamic values. In short, Muḥammad’s discourse on women’s rights and freedoms tended to be progressive. However, a closer look at his private life revealed certain contradictions between his moderate discourse and his actual practice. He considers that there are still certain men’s rights and privileges that cannot be revoked since they are given by Islam. His recently contracted multi‑wife marriage, which was undoubtedly made in good faith, is an example of men’s exclusive rights which he asserts cannot be changed and are considered sacred.
36In my interviews with Yemeni women’s rights activists a part of the urban elite of well‑educated professionals who mostly work for International Organizations (IO) and NGOs, having male imams and Islamic scholars promote new models of masculinity and the full realization of gender equality is greeted with scepticism. Yemeni religious leaders, with the exception of one or two, are not seen as the best role models for other boys and men to promote gender equality and new conceptions of masculinity. A number of women’s rights activists believe that they should not been seen as key people to work with on women’s empowerment. Their criticism concerns the fact that too much importance has often been given to male religious leaders and scholars, at the expense of other stakeholders, including Yemeni women. They recognize, however, that it is politically important for women’s organizations and development workers to set up strategic alliances with religious leaders and faith‑based organizations to advocate reforms of Sharia‑based laws and other related issues. Yemeni women’s rights activists point out the advantages of using religious strategies in Muslim contexts, but also show the limitations and possible dangers of approaches to women’s advocacy relying solely on religious discourses and actors. While speaking about the sensitive gender issues in Islam, like equal rights and spousal duties, inheritance, and so on, one of the Yemeni activists said:
- 33 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑8), Sana’a, 18 September 2011.
“Yes, maybe they [male religious leaders and scholars] don’t believe in all rights for women, but some of them… Very few of them, who are open‑minded, they believe in women’s rights… But me, I don’t believe that they will accept ever all of women’s rights. You know, Yemen ratified CEDAW, but some issues are untouchable, nobody will touch them, because they will say that these rights are for men and are given by Allah. Even some women believe that… I don’t want to generalize, but men always fight for women’s rights if it doesn’t get in the way of their own interests. Their own interests have to be prioritized, and then if women can get other rights —it is fine [laughs]. That is why the Quran is interpreted in keeping with the interests of men. Who interprets the Quran? All of them are men. The preachers are men, so they give the community what they want, and they pass on the idea of the Quran and its verses based on their interests.”33
37My research findings suggest that the religious scholars, preachers and imams who were selected for and successfully passed the gender and human rights training workshops, organized by NGOs and IOs across Yemen, are able to accept women’s rights and freedoms, and even become partners in promoting them, unless this implies a subversion of their own position within the hierarchy of patriarchal power. It means that certain women’s rights are more easily accepted than others. In fact, Islamic jurisprudence recognizes many women’s rights, but still promotes significant gender differences in freedoms and responsibilities in people’s daily lives, for marriage and its dissolution. This, along with granting men privileges such as polygamy, unilateral divorce (ṭalāq) and a larger part of inheritance, constitutes a sensitive issue when dealing with Islamic leaders from CEDAW gender equality perspective. When talking about these issues, cultural and religious differences are frequently claimed to justify patriarchal models of gendered power relations. It seems like these cultural and religious claims merely serve as justification for women’s oppression. Within this system women can obtain certain privileges and rights by coping, strategizing or bargaining with patriarchy. However, their strategies do not necessary mean the subversion of the whole structure of men’s power. If social change only occurs at men’s convenience, and in clear opposition to the real recognition and implementation of gender equality in rights, responsibilities, freedoms and opportunities, the patriarchal system will not collapse, but will be revived in a new form. Its survival depends on its capacity to extend within the limits of women’s rights and freedoms. It can be useful at certain levels to promote gender equality by dealing with male Islamic religious leaders, scholars and preachers; however it is likely to have limited results in terms of real transformation of gender power relations and women’s empowerment.
38Through an analysis of selected gender development projects and in‑depth interviews with women’s rights activists, I have tried to verify to what extent gender and development practice in Yemen is consistent with the current theory and policy on ‘culture, gender equality and human development’. I was particularly interested in analyzing the ways in which new developmental thought and policy reconsider Islam as a potential tool and means to promote women’s rights and empowerment, and how it has been adapted and implemented in Yemen. I also paid attention to the ways in which women’s rights activists were involved and dealt with issues of renegotiation of gender power relations and resignification of gender concepts in the light of Islamic feminism. The main research findings confirm a persistent gap between gender, culture and development theory and practice. Academic efforts and political statements hardly translate into effective action. Discourses in international development have changed, but initiatives on the ground are still very often guided by outdated developmental thought. Stereotypical representations of others and of their cultures as well as North‑South power relationships determine the main orientations in development work. Cultural considerations in Muslim countries have frequently been reduced to religious aspects only. Furthermore, my research findings suggest that there is still an inadequate understanding of how “Islam” may affect the empowerment or disempowerment of Yemeni women. Although gender and development projects created within an Islamic framework have been inspired by Islamic feminisms, they are not necessarily consistent with the political implications of promoting “women’s empowerment” and “gender equality”. Once deployed in development, these concepts are used as buzzwords to get funding and justify development intervention. As a result, they easily lose their original feminist meaning during project implementation. Despite good intentions, many Yemen‑based projects relating to gender and Islam did not succeed in achieving their goals of gender transformation and women’s empowerment. In my argumentation, the problem is that they ignored the question of power and undermined women’s agency. These projects mainly consisted of training and social re‑education in woman‑friendly interpretations of the Quran and Sunna. They undoubtedly contributed to raising gender awareness and also provided useful arguments with which to defend women’s human rights from an Islamic perspective. Nevertheless, access to information and knowledge does not necessarily guarantee that women’s rights will be fully exercised and gender equality implemented. Raising awareness through training and workshops can be considered a first step in that direction, but certainly not the last. Unfortunately, a number of projects in Yemen end before moving past the beginning stages, hoping that social change will come about automatically, regardless of the shortage of effective strategies to transform patriarchal power structures. Despite the use of gender and development discourses, most of the projects mentioned in the article failed when they were being implemented, more specifically, they failed in applying the feminist strategic vision of gender and power transformations. They used an Islamic framework and got religious leaders involved as a strategy to promote women’s rights and freedoms. However, little effort was made to critically analyse the possible dangers and assumptions that are behind that approach. My concern lies in privileging faith‑based approaches over more secular strategies to advocate women’s rights in Yemen. In particular, there is a problem with the instrumentalization of religion to advance certain political agendas. The use of ‘Islam’, either by Islamic feminists or by opposing fundamentalist clerics, results in competing religious visions over gender relationships and women’s rights. In fact, when dealing with ‘Islam’ and women’s issues, it is necessary to take into consideration the power relations that shape and are re‑shaped by highly contextualized and dynamic aspects of Yemeni culture and politics, which determine the gender interests of the different social groups. Power relations are continuously overlooked in the process of mobilizing male religious leaders and scholars in development projects to advocate women’s rights and enhance women’s empowerment. Partnering with them without challenging patriarchal power structures means women’s exclusion from religious leadership and other decision‑making positions, traditionally male‑dominated, remain unchanged and reproducing the status quo in Yemen.
- 34 Personal interview with a woman’s rights practitioner (W‑15), Sana’a, 2011/07/11.
39Religious and cultural considerations need to be taken into account, but with close attention paid to power relations and their gender implications for bargaining power. Having male religious scholars, imams and other opinion‑makers as allies in efforts to enhance women’s rights and gender equality is seen as politically necessary by Yemeni activists and development practitioners. However, due to the fact that funding allocations in collaboration with religious entities are often made at the expense of directly supporting women and women’s movements, Yemeni women’s rights activists find this strategy particularly controversial. As one of my interviewees said, “by supporting and engaging religious leaders in gender and developmental projects, we also empower them.”34 To be consistent with feminist meanings of gender and development, the priority of investment should go to empowering women rather than male religious leaders. Dealing with the latter yields unreliable results. Especially now, with the emerging women’s movement as part of Yemen’s Revolution of 2011‑2012 there is a new opportunity to re‑engage with feminist goals. Although women’s agency was internationally and locally recognized in the ‘Arab Spring’ and symbolically acknowledged by awarding the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Tawakkul Karmān, there is still a gap between this recognition and the feminist‑oriented empowerment of the women’s movement. This very agency has framed women’s ability to resist oppression in Yemen and lead cultural and social transformations. As soon as it engages within a strong feminist movement, it will also provide meaningful answers about the political strategies and creative power needed to successfully challenge gender inequalities in Yemen and shed light on how to overcome deep‑rooted patriarchal structures.