Arab Spring turned dictatorships into failed states, not democracies – Muslim feminist leader

Years ago, before the wave of Arab Spring revolutions hit the Middle East, there was much hope for women’s emancipation in Islam. But after years of war and conflict, the radical, puritanical views on Islam have prevailed. Outdated family values guide the lives of millions of women. And while in the West, the voice of the feminist movement is growing louder today, the struggle for women’s rights in the Arab world is barely heard of. Is gender equality even possible in Islam? Will centuries-old traditions ever change? We ask the co-founder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, who fought for Muslim women’s rights after the Libyan revolution – Zahra’ Langhi is on SophieCo.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: The co-founder of the Libyan Women Platform for Peace  and advocate for women's rights in Islam, Zahra’ Langhi, welcome to the show, it's really great to have you with us today. You’re after the reformation, the transformation of Muslim minds. You want Muslims to embrace the idea of equality - that's despite centuries of scholars' work on the Quran and the hadith rejecting equality - putting men above women. So what do you hope to achieve?

Zahra’ Langhi: We've had throughout the centuries patriarchal and misogynistic interpretations of Islam and it's about time that we own back our faith and our religion and present more enlightened or what we call "moderate", wasatiyyah interpretations of Islam that are more for egalitarian view regarding women in their societies.

SS: I want to talk a bit about Libya because this is a topic that's very close to you - Libya’s toppled leader - Colonel Gaddafi - did a lot for emancipation in Libya, whether you like him or not - he enrolled women in universities, in the army, gave them rights to divorce and so on - is the new Libyan state going to keep this legacy? Or anything related to him is subject to destruction?

ZL: First I'd like to make a point that whatever Libyan women have achieved it has nothing to do with Gaddafi per se. We need to disentangle this presumption that these rights have been given by Gaddafi, and we've seen this argument and discourse going on in many of the so-called 'Arab Spring' countries, that they see these women rights as given in certain time during these regimes - as the First Lady's policies and is the case in Egypt or as in the case of Libya, they see it as a byproduct of Gaddafi. We need to disentangle this first. These are rights that women have gained over time and they have to maintain them.

SS: While in most Middle Eastern countries the role of women is limited - in Syrian Kurdistan, women are represented equally on all government levels (that’s the law), discrimination is forbidden. Is it because Syrian Kurdistan isn’t built on Islamic law, it’s just a secular quasi-state which respects religion?

ZL: Well, that's another problem - what do we mean by 'Islamic law' and who defines it and who has implemented it so far - we need to develop a discourse that goes beyond this dichotomy of secular and islamist and to create a space where you have women fight for women's rights but at the same maintain their faith. I'm sure that in the Syrian Kurdish case their secularism is not anti-religion. The problematic that we have in our societies is when you pose the term secularism, it became problematic and it became coined with atheism and anti-religion. So the struggle is how to reconcile both worlds - the world of Sharia, of Islam, of Islamic values, and I mean by that Islamic values... not necessarily I see it as Islamic strict rulings - for me, Sharia is a dynamic process, and I think women need to be trained to understand Islamic tradition and to end the monopoly of patriarchal, misogynist scholars of the religious discourse on Sharia.

SS: So, let's talk a bit about your perception of Sharia and how can that change. You’ve said that Sharia law, Islamic law isn’t set in stone - it’s based on interpretation and is evolving all the time. But for us looking at the state of women’s rights in places which base their law on the sharia, their position in society isn’t evolving at all, it's not going anywhere. Is it even possible to maintain Sharia and achieve emancipation for women?

ZL: Yeah, I hear you and this is exactly the case in post-revolution Libya. A lot of people are saying that we want to implement the Sharia, and by that they also see that Sharia is Islamic law and they want to implement it. So they see it as a set of rigid laws and they want to nullify all the laws that we had from before that are more progressive, claiming that they are contradictory to Sharia. Now, this is their claim, so I perfectly understand and hear you when you say this was the case in other countries as well - yes. Other countries, like Saudi Arabia, in the name of Sharia law, they have prevented women from driving cars. In other countries - we have like 58 majority dominant muslim countries - and in all other countries Muslim women drive. So, what we want? This is the discourse that we are posing here -as we want to end this monopoly of interpreting Islam in a misogynist way. We want to say - "No, this is not Islam, this is not even Sharia, because Sharia is a dynamic process and this is..." - so we go back and review history and history of the development of fiqh schools - legal thought - in Islam, and see how it developed. And see how the process, Sharia itself, needs to be contextualised. I see this as taking the debate of Islam being inherently misogynist religion to another realm where we have alternative discourses to the dominant, hegemonic, misogynist discourse in Islam today. So, that's why we ask for more revisiting of history, more revisiting of Islamic schools of thought, including fiqh and so no one claims the monopoly of that. So that's why, in a way, there's an opportunity to build a new feminist and a new egalitarian interpretation of Islam and Sharia.

SS: Secular countries with significant Muslim minorities are also struggling to find a good way to live with them - France, for instance, is banning not just full face veils, there’s talk of banning the regular headscarf - like the one you wear, or full cover swimsuits. Are the French right to enforce their vision of secularity in their own country?

ZL: What the French, actually, are doing is the other coin, the other face of the same coin, forcing on women a dress code. I think a dress code should be women's right. Enforcing women to put it on and enforcing women to take it off is but the same act of misogyny. So what France is claiming to do in name of secularism could be contested by other secularists as we have seen and said: "No, this is not actually secularism, this is a distorted understanding of secularism, this is actually forcing a state religion on people".

SS: Yeah, but for instance, if we take example of Turkey, when needed to emancipate women,the only way they could do it was to ban hijabs legally. Now it's lifted. But it does seem like sometimes breaking traditions with force is the only way forward for women’s rights in an Islamic country? Because it worked in Turkey and that's the only example we have.

ZL: I have to disagree with you and again I think that banning and forcing on women what to do is basically against what I believe in in terms of equality and dignity and freedom of choice. So, the right to dress and undress is basically a right that should not be taken away from women. We still have this reminisce  in our societies today that there's this kind of feminist who do not accept women wearing the scarf among them, who do not consider them as progressive enough, as liberal enough, because they still are clinging to their faith and their tradition. So  what we need today is to create a platform where we can reconcile and allow women who are still maintaining their faith and who still are struggling with misogyny in their cultures. This is the kind of discourse that we need to see - I call it a 'postcolonial' feminist discourse and not the typical Western bourgeois discourse.

SS: Judaism and Christianity are also religions that use holy texts with ancient misogynist messages - however, we see nowadays female priests and rabbis in reformed versions of the religion. Can Islam be reformed like that? To a point where we can see a woman spiritual leader?

ZL: In the history of Islam we had women leaders and actually the history of reformist movements in Islam like in the case of the wahhabi movement - it is a reformist movement, but it was puritanical and so it introduced misogynist interpretations of Islam. So it's quite the opposite in the history of Christianity and Judaism. So what we need today is revive and brings back the liberal voices that were there throughout the 13 centuries - we had women scholars, we had women sheikhs, we had women fakirs, women leaders - we need to revisit history and read with a gender lense and we'll find all these things. So, I must warn us all from using this call of reformation of Islam and be careful what you wish for - because the history of reformation or reformist movements in Islam was basically puritanical movements and they have introduced misogynist views to the Muslim world.

SS: So, we need to transform it to the other side, the other way? There’s recently been a scandal surrounding a veiled Muslim woman who took part in a photoshoot for Playboy, another woman is modelling for H&M in a hijab - for many in the Muslim world this kind of behaviour is unacceptable - but for some, this is a way to show the West , that Muslim women aren’t all that different. So how do you see it?

ZL: I can see the point of view of both, and as I've been saying, we need to reconcile both points of view, because these women are not living in typically Muslim-majority countries...

SS: But do you think it's okay for a girl in a hijab to pose on H&M poster? What do you think, not as a scholar, but as a woman who is for women's rights, but also is a religious woman?

ZL: As I've said, I entertain and understand and hear both points of view, those who think this is unacceptable, according to their understanding of Islamic tradition and those who think that we need to break the dogmas and re-represent Islam. We don't live in a traditional Muslim societies, this is a global age, and so I can hear and understand this - how I can say - new ijtihad of representing Muslim women in global media.

SS: Alright. Let's talk a bit about politics.   Why, do you think, every place that the Arab Spring has touched we’re seeing conservative religious forces taking over? You had a vision for post-revolution Libya - but after the revolution, the fighting didn’t stop, it continued with more ferocity. What went wrong? Whose task was it to make sure the transition to democracy happened?

ZL: It's not simply... What is happening is not a transition from authoritarianism or from war or conflict to democracy. Actually, what we're seeing is a transition from dictatorship to failed states, and so that tells us that the template-driven policies, by the international community, on how to handle what they call "transition" - there's something really wrong about it. Basically, we have this so-called "democratic toolkit" that you have to introduce post conflict, and it still needs a lot of unpacking, who’s in conflict or post conflict, or sometimes it’s between conflict and post-conflict - so the democratic toolkit which basically you have to have elections, you have to draft your own Constitution, you have to have a multi-party system and a free media. These 4 elements, they have proven to be a recipe for division and fragmentation and polarization in society and it did not work and did not bring democracy and actually it has caused after five years people to question the whole thing about democracy...

SS: But you've said that 5 years after the Libyan revolution, you regret calling for “days of rage” – the movement that helped topple Gaddafi . You say it’s time to call for compassion and mercy. That sounds commendable, but people who will do the fighting against those who resist change - those people need rage to win, where would any revolution be without that?

ZL: Exactly and I always call myself a "reflective" or a "meditating" revolutionary. I know that part of me in 2011 was really angry and was passionate, but my point is that with passion and anger or rage alone you cannot build societies. Yes, you can revolt against the dictator, but what about the day after? I think we as Libyan people did not give much thought about that, and so the rage or passion of the revolution does not build nations, and certainly does not build states. The other part of it is that the international community in the name of the responsibility to protect, which intervened and created this Libya model, the "light" model of intervention, has made drastic mistakes in Libya in not having a political strategy for the day after, after Gaddafi.

SS: Yeah, but...

ZL: So externally and internally, I think we messed up.

SS: Yeah, because I'm thinking it's kind of strange that after Libyans applauded their armed militias for a violent overthrow of Gaddafi, they are now decrying the militia's continued violence and power-grabbing after the revolution. Don't you see that as a bit naive?

ZL: I don't think it's naive, I think it’s… up to this moment, if one is against militarisation, if one is against unchecked militarisation, if one is against the arms anarchy, you can... from the very beginning to the end, we had voices that were saying: "okay, you are now arming these revolutionaries, but how are we going..." - especially in the case of Libya, the war of liberation or the revolution took only 6 months, not like the Syrian case - it could have been easy to disarm these revolutionaries, but this was not the case. So there were voices from the beginning, who were thinking about "okay, we are now arming civilians to get rid of Gaddafi and to protect civilians, what about when Gaddafi is not there?"...

SS: Yeah, but on the other hand, people who risked their lives, people who killed - they want reward, why would they cede power? That's just the rule of the game, that's the way it goes..

ZL: That's from the point of view of warlords, definitely, and from the point of view of certain kind of revolutionaries, but it's not the point of view of local communities which I try to represent. We want to see the perpetrators of war crimes held accountable, we want to see an end to the arms anarchy in Libya. I don't think it's possible to have a successful transition in Libya to democracy if we do not address the root causes, and the root cause is, basically unchecked militarisation.

SS: Zahra, you're citing all these examples of what went wrong inside Libya after the revolution and you've said that Libyans weren't smart enough to think what was going to happen the day after the revolution, but what about those who helped overthrow the regime from the outside?A NATO bombing campaign lead to regime change in Libya, but it was what they called a ‘light model intervention’ - and no other ‘regime’ was put in place. Why was the West in such a rush in Libya? Why did it leave the country without helping it rebuild?

ZL:Yeah, I definitely hear you and this is a sound question and I think Libya has set a bad example and a precedent for the "light model" intervention. That said, that doesn't mean that the international community should not intervene - because we've seen what happened in Bosnia and Kosovo and Rwanda and that's a scar in the international community...

SS: So who's responsibility is it - because the British and the French and Americans didn't plan on what to do after Gaddafi was gone but then, again, like we've talked about, neither did the Libyans who were protesting against him. Should everything be left in the hands of the West or should Libyans do something about it themselves?

ZL: No-no, this is why I started with internal factor and failure and then I mentioned the external factor. But the external factor we cannot minimize because it has intervened and it has created the failed state. So there should have been a collaborative effort with Libyans to deal with D-D-R - Disarmament, Demobilization and the Rehab of the rebels, but that was not the case. That was not on the table. What we had, the "light model" intervention is basically an ad-hoc strategy, that we have a UN political mission that up to this moment, to the 5th year, they only extend their mandate for another 3 months. Every 3 months or 6 months they expand it - so we don't have a comprehensive long-term strategy of what are you going to do with Libya. No, it's rather an ad-hoc strategy, no thinking of what to do and so that's why it's creating a lot of mess and destabilizing the whole region. Again, you need to have the Libyan voices heard, you need to have Libyan ownership of how they want to build their state and nation. You cannot have state-building in Libya without having nation-building and the question of legitimacy, to address the question of legitimacy, address the question of national identity - all these questions after 4 decades of dictatorship and the loss of identity and with of 5 years of military anarchy, a lot of things happened that need to be addressed. We need to work on social cohesion, nation-building in parallel with state building. So the question of, back again, Libyan local ownership is important.

SS: Zahra’, thank you very much for this insight and for this interview. We were talking to Zahra’ Langhi, Director of Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace and advocate for gender equality in Islam, talking about the future of women's rights in Islamic countries after the wave of the Arab Spring revolutions. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.