Montreal, May 9, 2013 – With the Arab Spring came massive social upheaval. As citizens continue to rise up and autocratic regimes fall, challenges to women's rights cross borders unimpeded. From community-based oppression to state-sanctioned legal battles, women rights are being challenged at multiple levels.
Because religion is often used to justify these incursions, Islam is stigmatized for being restrictive with respect to gender equality. But contrary to stereotypes that depict women from Muslim societies as submissive and oppressed, women are actively participating in these political changes and also resisting the curtailing of their rights.
"By exploring the historical background of gender and sexuality in different political contexts, we can shed light on the fact that conservative Muslim discourse does not necessarily match the practices of believers or of citizens," says Homa Hoodfar, professor of anthropology at Concordia University.
While women have witnessed a rising tide of discrimination and persecution from conservative groups, they have also strategized for and demanded more gender equality. These trends are documented in Sexuality in Muslim Contexts – Restrictions and Resistance, the new book co-edited by Hoodfar and her colleague Anissa Hélie from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York.
Intended to contribute to the existing debates and organizing around sexualities in Muslim communities, the collection of essays explores resistance against the harsh policing of sexuality, with a particular focus on Asia and the Middle East. Case studies written by advocates and experts explore both the restriction of sexual rights and the strategies designed to counter such trends in countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, China, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Malaysia, Israel and India.
"We wanted to widen the understanding of how sexual norms and sexual behaviour are challenged," says Hoodfar. "Many Muslim-majority countries still use religion to repress those who do not conform to sexual norms. We wanted to publish a book that takes a closer look at why that is and what is being done to improve conditions for women."
For Hélie, who penned a chapter on gender equality and sexual diversity for the book, this anthology "provides evidence of indigenous strategies that women, as well as people stigmatized for their gender expression or sexuality, have designed – either collectively or as individuals – to mobilize for bodily rights."
Sexuality in Muslim Contexts attests to the fact that, as Hélie points out, "social actors in Muslim societies are engaged in redefining, resisting and subverting narrow conceptions of sexuality and gender. As they do so, they reclaim the right to shape their own cultures from within their specific societies". The sustained and ongoing local efforts to improve women's rights throughout the Muslim world, compellingly documented in the pages of this book, will give readers hope for a brighter future.
Partners in research: Many of the contributions were based on a collaborative and multi-site research project – Women's Empowerment in Muslim Contexts – and the workshops which helped inspire it, were facilitated by the Shirkat Gah Women's Resource Center, Pakistan, and Concordia University, Canada.
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