Women’s activism in Hizbullah and Hamas

The latest issue of ISIM Review has two very interesting articles that start to probe the role of women within, respectively, Hizbullah and Hamas.
Big appreciation to ISIM, the Netherlands-based International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, that (1) they produce such a fascinating periodical, and (2) they make the whole text of the articles available online. (Even if only in a slightly hard-to-use PDF format. But hey, it’s an still an excellent contribution to the global knowledge-base.)
In this piece, Lara Deeb looks at the changing way in which, since the 1970s, women’s roles have been portrayed in the annual Ashura rituals that are an important feature of Shiite community life in Lebanon (and elsewhere); and she tracks these shifts with the increased role that Lebanese Shiite women– primarily, I think, Hizbullah women– have been playing in public life.
Along the way she makes some thoughtful comments on the relationship between piety and modernity:

    The activist lesson of Karbala [ that is, the battle of 680 CE that’s commemorated in the Ashura rituals], in its application in daily life, provides a framework for these expressions of [female] piety, and indeed, insists on public activity as a part of piety. In this context, to be pious according to such standards is a large part of being modern. Women who did not express piety “properly” were considered “backward” and in need of education to bring them into their proper role in the progressivist narrative of community development.
    While it can be argued that this is true to a certain extent for both women and men, public piety marks women most visibly…

Of course, this portrayal of what has been happening among Lebanese Shiite women challenges many western notions about the relationship between (our form of) “modernity” and public expressions of piety, which we hold to be generally an antithetical one. To be “modern” in the west is often taken to involve being scantily clad, secular, and even profane. Deeb gives us a timely reminder that that there are many different versions and visions of “modernity.”
And then in this article, which is titled “Religious Mediators in Palestine”, Nahda Shehada examines the networks of pious Muslim women (mainly, Hamas women) in Palestine who have an increasingly respected role as what Shehada terms “sub-mediators” as well as the pious religious men who acts as qudah (i.e., religious judges.)
The context in which these networks of religious mediators have grown up in the occupied Palestinian territories in recent years has been, as she writes, one of the breakdown of nearly all earlier traditional mechanisms of conflict resolution as well as the abortion of the emergence of any well-functioning “Palestinian Authority” judicial apparatus.
The women whom Shehada identifies as sub-mediators are the da’iyyat (female social/religious mobilizers) within primarily Hamas, but also in Islamic Jihad. I imagine that back in March when I traveled around Jabaliyeh camp in the Gaza Strip for half a day with Sister Maha, visiting various Hamas-related activists in their homes, as related here, that Maha was acting as a da’iyya.
Also, in my article, go back and see how Jameela Shanti, MP, described the contribution that Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had made by stressing the need for women’s engagement in public affairs. This seems largely analogous to what Lara Deeb wrote about Hizbullah’s framing of the need for female public engagement by the Lebanese Shiite women.
Shehada gives an intriguing description of the role the da’iyyat play:

    These voluntary activists often come from a middle class background and enjoy a high level of education; most have a BA or higher degree in a variety of specializations such as medicine, agriculture, architecture, and, obviously, Islamic studies. Despite denying any explicit political commitment, a number of informants indicate that they are attached to the social infrastructure of the main Islamic political party (Hamas) or, to a lesser degree, of the Islamic Jihad movement.
    In the course of their activism, da‘iyyat meet hundreds of women from various regions, generations, statuses, and classes. They often take the lead in introducing women from different backgrounds to each other and design shared teaching programmes and various activities for different communities, which indicates the importance of social networking for their activism. Part of their daily agenda is to follow their “clients” to their homes; they regularly pay visits, both at times of crisis and of celebration. Their female “clients,” in response, make them privy to their intimate problems as well as more “public” conflicts. This might be the most interesting question in the study of the roles and actions of da‘iyyat, their modes of intervention in the social conflicts submitted to them by their female “clients.” The preliminary data indicate that the motivation for their intervention in social conflicts is not public status; rather, their intervention is veiled behind their religious activity. They seem to prefer confining themselves to the role of sub-mediators between the parties to a dispute and the principal mediators, i.e., those “wise” men who share with them both their religious background and willingness to resolve communal conflicts. Studying their activism may therefore provide us with further insights regarding the careful gender division of labour, political vs. nonpolitical activism, and the public-private division.
    The variety of cases in which da‘iyyat intervene is vast: domestic disputes, sexual harassment and assaults, adultery, inheritance, financial disputes, land disputes, etc. The male leaders of the community do not seem to feel threatened by their activism, unlike their reaction to other outspoken feminist activists. Despite their advocacy for women’s rights (regardless of what that means), their religious background and Islamic perspective ensure them a positive reception in the community. The interventions of the da‘iyyat, may, I believe, (as in the case of their counterparts, the qudah) fill the gap left by the increasing vulnerability of the formal justice system of the Palestinian Authority. Further, the fact that these new actors have gradually earned the people’s trust may also signify a degree of scepticism with regard to the neutrality, influence, and legitimacy of other informal systems.
    The da‘iyyat have a particular method of dealing with community disputes including those related to political conflicts between Hamas and Fatah. For example, in 2004, a sixteen-year-old young man was arrested by the preventive security force (one of the many security branches functioning in Gaza) on the basis of his membership of Hamas and his involvement in preparing crude bullets. His mother was one of the followers of Dr. Salma, who is one of the most active da‘iyya in Gaza. Dr. Salma, who does not deny her sympathy for Hamas, however has good relations with Fatah (then the ruling party) through her kinship with a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Islamic Endowment (awqaf). She approached him with the argument that the first half should not imprison the second half of the nation. This is Dr. Salma’s conception of the polarised political matrix in Gaza between Fatah and Hamas. The man, on his part, approached the top security head to release the boy, astonishingly using the same argument as Dr. Salma: “it is unfair for one half of the nation, which dominates the political scene, to imprison the other half.” After several attempts by the Shaykh of awqaf, the boy was released and returned to his mother. What is significant and requires deeper theorization, which unfortunately is beyond the scope of this short article, is Dr. Salma’s advice to the mother: “Our God works for our good, even if His decisions seem to be illogical to us. Your boy may or may not come back. We should work hard to release him, but if we cannot do so, we have to look beyond our agony. God may want to teach us how to be patient, compliant, and accommodating through such tests.” Thus, while doing her best to release the boy, Dr. Salma’s advice to the mother was that of acceptance and confession. This approach is not unique in the discourse of da‘iyyat. They teach their followers to work hard to improve their living conditions, but at the same time they train them to accept the hardships of being truly pious.

This last-noted little observation is really intriguing. It’s almost like the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment to the fruits of one’s labors, don’t you think? Anyway, within whatever tradition it’s expressed, it seems like a very helpful piece of teaching that could strengthen the ability of people living under very stressful conditions to become more resilient, and to absorb and transcend the many difficulties they face in their daily lives.
… Altogether, some fascinating material from two very promising-looking scholars there. Again, thanks to ISIM for putting this up on the web (as well as sending me a paper copy.) I should add that there are a LOT of other interesting articles in this issue, too.

3 thoughts on “Women’s activism in Hizbullah and Hamas”

  1. Dr Salma’s advice is not for quietism. It is advice for activism, but with a stoical dialectical counterpart. I remember a famous Jesuit preaching that you must strive to understand the mysteries even though you know it to be impossible!
    The practical effect is that the daily practice must in the first place be activist; and in the second case, rational.
    I have been reading an article in [[http://www.transformation.und.ac.za/|Transformations]](a South African magazine) number 25 where Cherryl Walker criticises a previous article of Zarina Maharaj’s.
    It is here:
    That was 1994. You may think it is no big deal. I that nothing much has changed in 12 years, and that is tragic.
    Incidentally, yesterday was the start of the annual “16 Days of Activism” against woman and child abuse in South Africa. This is big-scale a government- and NGO-supported media campaign. Meanwhile the organisation of women in structures is still stuck in the same doldrums, or maybe it is worse than it was in 1994.
    I suspect that the louder the media champions shout, the less the masses of women are organised. The one is not just a substitute for the other. It is part of the suppression of collective agency on the ground.

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