The presentation of the EuroMeSCo Report, "Women as Full Participants in the Euro-Mediterranean Community of Democratic States", at the preparatory meeting of the Ministerial Conference on the Rights of Women, in Rabat on 14-16 June, generated intense debate and polarisation. The debate centred around three core issues: the contested definition of “Islamism;” whether it is possible to speak of Islamic feminism or whether this is a contradiction in terms (and the related issue of how secular feminists should position themselves vis-à-vis Islamist feminism); and the relationship between Islamism and democracy.
The debate focused on the 5 pages of the chapter on "Women and Political Islam" (pages 27-31). In that section of the Report, it is essentially argued that the majority of Islamist movements have a paradoxical position: on the one hand, they defend the political rights of women and in this sense, are a progressive force; but on the other hand, they often hold a very conservative view of rights which are specific to women, particularly the family and personal rights of women.
This politically motivated or informed interpretation of Islam is also engaged in by Islamist feminist movements, which seek to legitimate their demands through a feminist interpretation of Islamic religious texts.
Defining “Islamist” and “Islamic” in Political Discourse
Some expressed their disagreement with the language used to define Islamist currents. Indeed, it is that case that there is no consensus among specialists as to how to label or categorise these movements. We experience the same problem during the writing of the report, and given the absence of a sufficiently accurate definition, we opted to clarify the meaning attributed to the terms we opted to use in the Report right from the start.
Is Islamist Feminism a Contradiction in Terms?
Some critics of the Report argued that Islamist movements are one of the fundamental problems - if not the core problem - in the struggle for the rights of women in the region, and so it does not make sense to talk about Islamist feminism. There is, however, an opposite view that would argue that by focusing exclusively on Islamist movements that have a conservative vision about the specific rights of women, the Report failed to do justice to progressive feminist Islamist movements that have emerged in various countries. In short, diametrically opposed views on the failings of the focus and interpretation found in the Report are apparent.
Democracy without Islamists: Necessity or Impossibility?
Some participants found it unacceptable that Islamist movements should be allowed to participate freely in the political arena, as this means engaging with anti-democratic actors comparable to the European xenophobic extreme right. The writers of the EuroMeSCo Report, by contrast, expressed the belief that without the participation in public life of peaceful Islamist currents, democratic reform - and concomitantly the rights of women - will remain blocked, although this does not mean that democratic and reform minded actors should not engage in an intense ideological battle with the obscurantist ideas defended by some of these movements.
We prepared our Report on the basis that democracy and human rights are the common goals adopted by the signatories of the Barcelona Declaration in 1995, and that these are core issues that affect the debate about the evolution of the rights of women, including the full enjoyment of all the rights uniquely provided for by a democratic dispensation. That is why we affirmed that the rights of women are part of the long-term project of establishing a Euro-Mediterranean Community of Democratic States.
Freedom of Speech and Promoting Debate: How to Deal with Dissenting Voices
It was suggested that the polemic 5 pages of the EuroMeSCo Report should be revised, while others felt that the comments made during the meeting should be incorporated into the report. However, it does not seem to me that either of these proposals constitutes a satisfactory response to the debate and polarisation that emerged in response to the Report. Indeed, either proposal does little to ensure that network Reports remain intellectually autonomous and independent, or to promote the role of such texts in contributing to the creation of a space for pluralistic debate. It never occurred to us to ask others to alter their reports because we might have disagreed with what was written in them. Obviously, it is another thing to say that the facts or data presented in a Report are not accurate, even when great care is taken to ensure accuracy. If such errors are found in this Report, we shall correct them, as we have already done in one case.
As regards the Arabic version of the Report, we have also been at pains to ensure that this version corresponds faithfully to the original, as there were nuances in the translation that were also contested.
An Opportunity for Honest Debate
I think it would be a great shame to lost this great opportunity to engage in an honest and in depth - no matter how heated - debate about the issues presented in the Report. This is what we aimed to do when we stated in Rabat that we regarded the Report as a platform or a springboard to initiate a process of debate and analysis on an issue that is essential both for the northern and southern partners of the EMP, and for the project for Euro-Mediterranean inclusion within diversity as a whole.
We are therefore creating this space for a debate on the Report and its contents, so that you may freely express your view and engage in this polemic.
The most heated issues were the contested definition of “Islamism;” the nature of Islamist feminism and its relationship with secular feminism and the rights of women; and the relationship between Islamism and democracy.
However, it is important to note that while it is obviously crucial to have an open debate about the core issues above, it is equally important to do justice to the rest of the Report, which discusses many central issues and which absorbed the energies of the many people involved in the preparation of the Report.
We hope also to hear your views about our proposals. By sending in your views and thoughts, you will be contributing to the process of reflection that should inform the Euro-Mediterranean Ministerial meeting on the rights of women.
The EuroMeSCo Report
Space for debate: