Syria is known as being a fairly progressive Islamic nation. Women wear jeans and go to school, and although they might not be considered entirely equal to men, they certainly enjoy a position of greater social power than their peers in countries such as Afghanistan.
Today, Syrian women are challenging the presumption that feminism and conservative Islam are opposing movements.
The country has experienced a religious revival in the past couple of years, with a new movement of conservative female preachers taking power.
In one sense, this movement is a testament to Syria’s progressive nature as a nation; after all, you won’t find women leading Catholic masses even here in the United States.
Yet the paradoxical factor in this trend is that while it may empower women, it won’t necessarily provide them with greater rights.
While feminists around the globe may rejoice at this ostensible victory for women’s rights, the movement may actually be working to stifle those very trends feminists have worked so hard to promote.
The fact that women have achieved positions of power in the country is a step forward for women’s rights, though the ideology they promote is not as progressive.
Radical Islam has been under tight governmental control in Syria since as early as the 1980s, when clashes between Baath and Sunni factions brought the country to the brink of a civil war. Fearing ongoing religious tensions like those seen in neighboring Middle Eastern countries, leaders decided to create a more moderate, government-sanctioned brand of Islam, opening up opportunities for women to step in as preachers.
The most influential of these women was Munira Qubaisia, who is now 70 and is said to have around 75,000 followers, according to BBC News. Known as the Anseh, these women are generally educated, upper-class women who are well-spoken authority figures within their communities.
Today, the Anseh have enjoyed a sudden revival, with more women coming to join the cause than ever before.
While this is a great forum to reach out to the community, the extremely conservative ideology could actually make Syrian society less open to feminist activities.
The shift is reminiscent of the anti-feminist Christian movement that surfaced in the United States in the 1970s. As a reaction to the social elements of that era, Christian women began to revolt through conservative Christianity. Leaders included Phyllis Schlafly, who effectively stopped the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Continuing this spirit of political activism today, Schlafly and her compatriots continue to use their religious views as both a source of empowerment and as a force of social conservativism.
On the one hand, they hope to deny women certain “feminist” rights, believing that women should abstain from sexual relations before marriage and should be subservient to the wishes of their husbands in a marriage.
Yet at the same time, they are highly successful professionally and publicly, enjoying large audiences and sizable paychecks for their writings, lectures and the like.
These conservative Islamic female preachers are enjoying an increased social status as a result of their leadership. But mirroring the tendencies of the Christian anti-feminists before them, there are some who feel the work of the preachers is denying certain progressive social elements of Syrian society,
The BBC quotes one Syrian girl, 16-year-old Hanan Kiftaro, who said, “I like [the preachers], they really care about every girl and make her feel important. But for me I take what I believe is right to do. I think God created us to enjoy life and not to be hard. I won’t be bad if I wear jeans, so I don’t care if they shout at me when I do things they don’t like.”
For Kiftaro, the socially progressive views of her larger society were strong enough to prevent her from becoming caught up in the more extreme conservative undertones of the Anseh.
And it is to the movement’s credit that she is still welcomed to return to meetings where she can engage with her spirituality and the community. Yet for those who are more easily influenced by the extremist elements of the movement, it could become a source of friction with the more secular elements of Syrian society.
So is the rise of conservative Islamic women in Syria a good thing, or a bad thing? Only time will tell whether these women will succeed in empowering women or, perhaps, denying them their rights.
Rosaleen O’Sullivan is a junior majoring in English and international relations.