Wassyla Tamzali: The “arab spring”, feminism and islam

Encounters between feminism and islam, in the wake of the arab spring, are the themes of an interview given by the algerian lawyer and feminist activist Wassyla Tamzali to the spanish newspaper, Periódico Diagonal (03/06/2016).  Whatever differences we may have with Tamzali’s reading of the situation, there is much below to feed debate.  We offer the interview in translation …

Wassyla Tamzali: “Feminism does not speak of morality, it speaks of freedom”

Western media diffuse an image of Arab women as oppressed women.  What is there of mythological in this, and what is real?

There is a reality: the only religion in the world that refuses to recognise the principle of equality between men and women is the regions of the world that claim to belong to Islam.  I say recognise, because there are many regions of the world that recognise this equality, but they do not apply it.  However the first step towards recognising the equality of men and women in society has not been taken in the Arab countries.  There is nevertheless a use by the media of this image of the Arab woman.  The media are not really interested in the reality of things, but in the difference.  This is what interests them.  For example, if in this room there are a hundred Arab women from the centre of Madrid, they will photograph the two women wearing a veil and not the other 98.  It happened to me in Spain.  When we inaugurated a centre for Arab women in Madrid, we were some 200 women, many Spanish originally from the Maghreb, and three women from the mosque came to participate in the project.  And the next day, all of the newspapers had photographed them.  We telephoned all of the journalists, and we had a terrible answer from one of the major newspapers, that told us “but we photographed the veiled women because in this way there could be no confusion, they are Moroccan.”  What interests the press?  It is not so much the condition of Arab women, but rather what differentiates them from the condition of western women.  If you try to show that there is but one way to be, then you practically fall into a racist definition of a people.

Women played an important role in the Arab revolutions.  What remains of this?

Tunisia and Egypt are the two countries worth analysing.  In Egypt, there was a revolution quickly covered over by a counter-revolution.  In Egypt, everyone remembered the image of the woman raped in the square.  This image circulated widely and was interpreted in different ways.  For those who were against the revolution, they used this image to show that the revolutions would be worse than the current situation.  For people like me, feminist, democrat, it was not the revolution that raped this woman.  It was the counter-revolution.  They published photographs of women without bras in Tahrir Square, and women stayed at home.  They used sexuality as a means of oppression, so that women remained at home.

Secondly, the Arab revolutions made me think of the melting of the glaciers.  People said that “it was spring”, then they said that “it was autumn, winter”.  I would say that it is a thawing.  That is, for more than 50 years these societies were blocked, they were frozen, buried under sheets of ice: nationalism, Islam, the police, the army … The revolution began to melt the ice.

In the case of Tunisia, we say that the revolution opened onto a world where women had a primordial role.  When the Islamists arrived in power, when they wanted to change in the constitution the word “equality” for “complementarity” … all of the Tunisians took to the street, not only women, and also veiled women.  It is not possible to imagine revolution with a women who is going to return to the home, it is not possible.

What do you think of Islamic feminism?

It doesn’t exist.  It isn’t possible.  You can be a Muslim and a feminist, but you cannot do feminism with Islam.  Firstly, the role of the religion is not feminism and nor is it democracy.  One cannot want the religion to do that which does not correspond to it.  The religion directs us towards spirituality or morality and you may be in favour of it or against.  Feminism is something else.  Feminism doesn’t speak of morality.  It speaks of freedom.

We know that historically, to take the example of Christianity, it was necessary for the feminist movement to confront the Church violently to be able to move forward.  For example, with abortion, with divorce.  In a given moment, in the religion there is an obstacle that can only be overcome by getting out from beneath that conservative idea.  Are you against polygamy?  Then say you are against polygamy, say “I am a Muslim but I am against polygamy because my conscience is opposed to it”.  One should not say that polygamy is the result of a bad interpretation of Islam.  However the Muslim feminists take up an old discourse that we already saw in the 70s to explain the place of polygamy in the Koran and to say that it does not exist.

Their labour of interpretation was already carried out in the 70s, and in the 30s everything was explained.  Linguistics was also called upon, and all the modern media, to try to understand what was written in the Koran, so as to extract those elements in favour of women.  Why was this done?  To be able to touch those women who believed in God and the religion.  And it was necessary to talk to those women, to argue with them.  But from the moment that there were no further steps to take, it was decided to leave the religion aside, because Islam cannot be reduced to a juridical interpretation, and it is not the goal of Islam to regulate the family.

Secondly, it is dangerous.  First because it is a movement that was  born to delegitimise feminism.  And because it gathers together a series of images about the feminine world in the Arab world.  That is, in the case of the media, the images seek out the media, and the media seek out the images.  Today there is a kind of general conspiracy that demands that the Arab woman be a veiled woman.  But the veil is a symbol of oppression, however you look at it.  I am not against the veil, I am against the discourse around the veil.  Because a woman who wants to be oppressed has the right to be oppressed, I can’t oblige her to be free; but to elaborate a discourse of freedom around the veil is dangerous.

After the revolutions, there seems to be a situation of regression in the Arab world … what is the situation in Algeria?

The movements are not strong, because in Algeria there is a political regime that has broken civil society.  The feminist movement is not strong, but a woman’s movement continues.  And the political context today, the international context, is not very favourable to a discourse on the rights of women, because today there are grave concerns that push the rights of women into the background.  Unfortunately, it is so.  For in less that ten years four important Arab countries have been destroyed, among them Syria and Iraq, the heart of Mediterranean Civilization, and Libya and Yemen.  Another concern is the path chosen by Cairo, which instead of going forward, has done the opposite.  They have done a little of what was done in Algeria in 2000, when the Islamists were elected and the military took power.

It is the Tunisian situation that brings some hope, even though it is very difficult.  But it brings hope because it continues and it is alive.  In Algeria, civil society is beginning to organise itself.  I work a great deal in the arts, because political discourse no longer exists, so that I have focused my activity in contemporary art, the Algerian artistic scene, that allows us to better understand the situation.  There is a very rich discussion around women, democracy, the individual, that are a part of these artistic expressions, and there is a mobilisation, however modest, even in villages, where cultural associations have been created.  Culture today seems to be the territory where a little of the vitality of the society has concentrated itself.

Two conferences by Wassyla Tamzali given in Québec, in 2011 and 2013 …


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