Islam and Feminism: Towards a Democratic Overlapping Consensus

It is indeed timely to enrich the public debate on democracy, Islam, human rights, women’s empowerment and many other issues concerned with the social contract, and its reform. The social contract is continually in the making in any society, as much as democracy is itself a continuous process with no clear cut end. In my reflection, I would like to go beyond gender and feminism and address the issue of secularization of the public sphere and public debate.

I understand the concern of over-stating religion, especially when there is an over-stating of the state and authoritarianism in the Arab world. As Hania stressed, we do not need an extra burden by politicizing religion and muting the voice of those who do not wish to play on that ground. Her fear that religious discourse might silence other rationales and bases of sound judgment is legitimate. We have seen crimes committed in the name of protecting Islam, from killing secular intellectuals to chasing others out of the country to seek refuge abroad.

Yet Hania’s text reminded me of Richard Rorty’s argument about religion as a conversation stopper.¹ We are now living in a post-secular age where combining different discourses to build a post-ideological and post-secular democratic consensus is possible and is actually the Jihad of the historical moment awaiting the Muslim mind.

Muting religious discourse has proven to be useless. After decades of secular hegemony over the political sphere and the manipulation of the cultural scene by ideologues from leftist background, religion came back strikingly and even to the surprise of sociologists who anticipated its decline. Hence my surprise that Hania, a sociologist, could simply ignore the problematic issues and dismiss religion from the public sphere, assuming it is a mere individual and private matter. Wishful thinking driven by a wish to keep religion pure and powerful by preserving the Sufi tradition as she declared? Maybe. But who said Sufism itself could escape engagement in political struggles and conflicts?

Hania stated that Islam and feminism have had a troubled relationship. From my point of view, the root cause is the troubled relation between modernity and religion. If social sciences as well as philosophy are now turning to religion , how can we in the Arab world simply ignore this historical lesson and refuse to listen to the rhythm of society and wish to dance to the sound of another melody²? Hania comes to the scene with an enthusiasm for a secular public debate on women’s rights (or other issues) at the very moment when secularism is being demystified.  No mention of the probable use of secular discourse to silence other discourses is mentioned in her article, a threat we have seen in the Arab world for decades.

Bringing religion back in is not necessarily harnessing the power of the divine against the power of the people. As she mentioned, women managed to seek empowerment via the religious discourse and reclaiming their share and right to spaces of religion in mosque and society.  While religion can be used and abused to dominate the debate and exclude voices of reason and attempts of religious and social reform, it can also be a theology of liberation. The question is not anymore if this is at all possible, but how it can be done.

The instrumentalization of religion, and of Islam in particular is worrying and problematic,” writes Hania. True. But this is problematic for all ideological and pragmatist frames of reference as well. Even liberal democracy can produce a rhetoric that would obscure colonial interests and veil hegemonic policies.

She asks: “How can one judge whose interpretations and agenda correctly reflects the wishes and designs of God? And how can one oppose or challenge a divine will?“³. Others have been asking the same questions regarding pure reason, and concerning the logic of the modern state.  The answer is simple: by setting the rules of accommodation of difference and empowerment of the people, by struggling for democracy.

Using religion as the pathway to gender justice is not a smooth strategy. It can work well but can induce stumbling when the pathway becomes more important than the destination!” Indeed. That is why the mission of reformists and democrats is to make sure this does not happen. But to prevent religion from having a voice and to discourage citizens who adhere to it from building their political judgement in relation to it, within a democratic social contract, is –in my point of view- a shift towards extremist and radical secularism4.

If our most vibrant opposition movement is a religious as she stated, one should question any argument that discredits such choice and jumps over it as if the masses are deceived and need to be preached about the danger of their choice. I want to remind her that 88 seats went to that opposition in 2005 elections that witnessed much fraud. I expect from Hania to see why this choice was made and how it can become an asset for women’s struggle not turn into the nightmare she is fearing.

There are women who believe in social justice, who adhere to Islam as a faith but who do not use it as a form of representation. They are a group that are sometimes dismissed as out of touch, western, secularists. Then there are those who are activists politically engaged in local and international politics who use their faith as an idiom of representation. In some cases, these groups are countering patriarchal ideological trends within religious thought and in others they are not.  Activists who are seeking to establish the legitimacy of gender justice on religious grounds may be trying to realize feminist gains by appealing to religious sentiments or they may further the notion that choices have to be religiously recommended and sanctioned5. Good point, but again, how can we include all in the public debate and develop the overlapping consensus needed badly for democratic reform? My answer: through debating policies and focusing on strengthening civil society and politics of presence. Coming from a political science background, I found Hania’s text completely apolitical.

The challenge in my view is not only the hegemony of Islamic unitary visions on the public sphere, but the hegemony of the state. Hence my reflection on the need to develop our own formula of separation between state and religion by allowing religion to be contained in a strong civil sphere, protected from the monopoly of the state. Once deliberative democracy is developed, reformist and progressive visions will become the tool of empowerment of society in its struggle against authoritarianism. It is where you place religion that shapes its direction. The threat that state speaks in the name of God is indeed the ultimate threat. We can tame radical voices if this happens in the public domain easily if we can guarantee the neutrality of the state, the rule of law, and of course the presence of democratic mechanisms of government.

I can see a counter argument raising the flag here, saying that the danger is that religious discourse can take over and can end up eating the cake after having it6. Back to my democratic argument: the struggle would then continue against the state that would rule in the name of God and hijack the will of the people with religious slogans.

How can we promote moderate Islam and agree on the mainstream choice from many versions and interpretations7? Again, by fostering the democratic deliberative power of the civil sphere in day-to-day life. By strengthening civil society and all associative spaces, and by allowing all discourses to bloom in the intellectual circles. Romantic? No – democratic. Such a debate is a step on that path and represents a good start.


  1. Richard Rorty (1994) ’Religion as Conversation Stopper’, Common Knowledge, 3.7: 1-2.
  2. See Jürgen Habermas, Notes on a Post-Secular Society,
  3. Hent De Vries (1999) Philosophy and the Turn to Religion, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins   University Press: xi-xiii.
  4. Peter Berger (2003) ’The Cultural Dynamics of Globalization’, in P. Berger and S. Huntington (eds), Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World, New York: OUP.
  5. See Saba Mahmood (2004) Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the feminist Subject, N.J.: Princeton University Press: 1-39; Shereen Hafez (2004) ’The Terms of Empowerment: Islamic Women Activists in Egypt’, Cairo Papers, 24.4; Heba Raouf Ezzat (2007) ’On the Future of Women and Politics in the Arab World’, in J. Esposito and J. Donohue (eds), Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives, New York: OUP.
  6. See Troy Dostert (2006) Toward a Post-Secular Ethics of Public Life, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press; Judd Owen (2001) Religion and the Demise of Liberal Rationalism: The Foundational Crisis of the Separation of Church and State, Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 67-128.
  7. See Abdul Wahab Al Messiri (2007) Total secularism and Partial Secularism, Cairo: Dar Al Shorouk (in Arabic).

Heba Raouf
American University in Cairo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow by Email