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Interview. Moroccan sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy says a reinterpretation of the Koran can create gender equality, but it must accompany political and economic reforms.

What is Islamic feminism?

“Women’s liberation in the name of Islam is possible. But now, Islam is no longer just a religion. In many Arab countries, it has become an expression of power and a foundation for law. In a nutshell, it has degenerated into Islamism, which is a pathological form of Islam itself.”

For over 30 years, Abdessamad Dialmy, a Moroccan sociologist and former professor at the University of Fez and Rabat, has been exploring the complex relationship between Islam, sexuality and feminism, arguing for the necessity of a reinterpretation of Islamic sacred texts in a feminist light. Dialmy is giving a new impetus to this original and modern research project, which has earned him insults and death threats since the end of the ‘90s. His latest book is Transition sexuelle: entre genre et islamisme (“Sexual transition: between gender and Islamism”; Paris, L’Harmattan, 2017).

Professor, is there a “Feminist Spring” in the Arab world?

Certainly. The first feminist movements in the Arab-Muslim world were born in the mid-19th century. An important contribution in this regard was made by the Tunisian Islamic scholar Tahar Haddad, who argued that the interpretation of the Koran which had been hitherto followed denied the freedom of women. That was the reason why a new reading of the sacred texts was necessary, one which would reconcile Islam and women’s liberation.

This position would find significant resonance in the political field.

In this sense, the new Family Code promulgated in Tunisia in 1957 by Habib Bourguiba, which, among other things, banned polygamy and unilateral divorce, was a revolutionary act. For the first time, in a non-secularized state, women were allowed freedoms that had been unthinkable until that moment, not against Islam but in the name of Islam. It is no coincidence that during the writing of his reform proposal, Bourguiba also relied on the input of Tunisian ulama [Islamic religious scholars] in order to justify, from the Islamic point of view, the prohibition of polygamy and unilateral divorce.

And thus, the idea of ​​a form of women’s liberation in the name of Islam has become more and more prominent.

Exactly. But the first Islamic feminist reformers did not go beyond the concept of “fairness,” which recognized different rights for men and women based on their different natures. Only at the beginning of the ‘70s would another Islamic feminist movement take shape, this time of a secular mold and linked to the parties of the Left, which would begin to introduce the concept of “equality” in the name of Islam. For this purpose, it was necessary to go beyond the literal meaning of the Koran and look for a new interpretation. It was recognized, then as now, that the emancipation of women could never start from Islam itself, which is still the religion of the state and society and the basis of the legitimacy of the legal order in the Arab world. However, by the late nineties, with the birth of what we might call “Islamist feminism,” there was a return to the concept of “fairness” and to a literal approach to the Koran and Sunnah. For Islamist feminists, “fairness” does not mean “equality.”

But is it not a stretch to want to reinterpret the Koran in a feminist key?

Our society has changed since the seventh century, although at the time of its birth Islam gave much more freedom to women compared to the West. Today, we have to recover the original spirit of Islam if we are to build a more just society. In this sense, the Koran and its feminist reinterpretation is a tactical tool to make this change more acceptable to the masses, or, better put, to make it more acceptable from an Islamic point of view.

Yet, the younger generation seems to want to want to recover a literal interpretation of the sacred texts.

Currently, Islamist feminism is the predominant current. Young Muslims feel humiliated and marginalized by the West, and because of this, they are looking for a strong identity to identify with. And from that point of view, a return to a literal interpretation of the Koran appears to be a good solution—an interpretation that is also the simplest to understand. This is why an intellectual turn is needed. But it will not be an easy change. Most Arab governments are not democratic, and religion has proved to be an excellent tool for the maintenance of power. Because of this, they are not interested in any process of secularization.

It is for good reason that Bernard Lewis, the British historian and orientalist, said that the democratic revolution in the Middle East will start from the women themselves.

I don’t fully agree with that. Certainly, women have less to lose and more to gain in this process. But women’s liberation implies the involvement of all social actors. As I said at the Fourth International Congress on Islamic feminism, feminism has no sex. That’s why I think women are not the only means through which the Arab world can achieve democracy and gender equality. Many of them still believe in the patriarchal system, in the same way as men.

In recent terrorist attacks, the bombers have targeted women in particular. Is it a coincidence or does it reveal something deeper?

It is unquestionable that radical Islam hates women. Generally speaking, the terrorists are not married, and they do not have a satisfying sex life. For them, a woman who is not veiled is a negative object, capable of arousing desire and causing chaos. This is why women are the preferred target of violent extremists. But in these particular cases, it could have been a coincidence. The ultimate goal of the terrorists is the physical destruction of all infidels, regardless of gender or nationality. For them, there are infidels among Muslims as well.

What about the veil—is it an instrument of self-determination or a symbol of male domination?

For Islamist feminism, it is an instrument that allows the woman to not be perceived as a body. For Islamic feminism, on the other hand, it implies the acceptance of a perspective according to which the female body is a nuisance in public and social life. But undoubtedly, the decision to wear the veil or not must be the result of a personal choice and not a political one. Thus, even forcing women not to veil themselves is a form of violence.

Today, however, the veil has also become a means of protest.

Certainly. The veil can be a means of challenging the Western system and its norms. Veiling oneself can therefore mean affirming one’s identity.

And how will the Islamic world finally achieve equality for the sexes?

Reason, freedom and equal treatment are the foundations of this process. For this, it is necessary to start with education, with respect towards the opposite sex, with democracy and the rejection of traditions that are hostile to women’s emancipation. Another key point is economic independence. If women gain economic power, they will earn, as a result, the right to be recognized as full citizens, breaking the chain of male domination. Radical Islam knows this well, and it is afraid.

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