Women’s Rise to Political Office on Behalf of Religious Political Movements

By Mona Tajali, Agnes Scott College

*This essay was prepared for the Women and gender in Middle East politics workshop, March 11, 2016.

In many Muslim-majority countries, Islamic movements and parties tend to negatively view women’s access to political leadership positions.[1] The dominant gender discourse of these movements, which is often based on patriarchal interpretations of religious texts, views women’s proper place to be within the domestic sphere as mothers and wives, and largely denies women’s active presence in the public sphere, including in political decision-making positions. Despite this official gender ideology, women have nonetheless been playing increasingly powerful roles within many Islamic political movements and parties with varying degrees of visibility and influence. [2]

While during the early decades of Islamic party formations in the 1960s and 1970s across many Muslim countries, women were mostly recruited to serve as ‘foot soldiers’ in support of the Islamic movement (Arat 2005; Iqtidar 2011; White 2002), following the turn of the century, their roles became increasingly visible as some began to gradually enter political office (Tajali 2014; 2015). Islamic party women’s shift from grassroots organizers and voter-recruiters to eventual politicians and leaders within these conservative religious settings was unexpected as it not only diverged from the dominant gender ideology of these movements, but also countered the essentialist assumptions of modernization and secularization theorists (Fish 2002; Inglehart and Norris 2003).

It was even more surprising when religious political movements on a number of occasions outperformed their secular and more liberal counterparts in terms of women’s nomination and recruitment to political office in major national elections in various Muslim countries, including in Tunisia, Turkey, Iran, Yemen, and Jordan, among others. In this brief note, I highlight the gradual ideological shift that occurred in a number of Islamic political movements in support of women’s increasing political roles. I argue that this shift has been in large part due to women’s decades-long involvement with religious political movements and increasing pressuring to enter positions of authority. While religious political movements initially mobilized and politicized women to enter the political sphere mostly as voters and voter-recruiters, today many women are seeking to also become decision-makers in support of these movements.

Islamic Political Movements: Recent champions of gender equality?

Scholarship on Islamic political movements has identified a series of transformations and ideological shifts, particularly in terms of gender, that many political parties and institutions arising out of such movements have undergone in recent decades. For instance, Asef Bayat (2007) identified a post-Islamist turn in a number of popular Islamic movements as many sought to fuse religiosity with rights, faith with freedom, and Islam with liberty, with women’s and youth groups serving as key actors in such internally driven transformations. Kurzman and Naqvi (2009) in a cross-national study have also recognized that “Islamic parties are more likely now to emphasize democracy and gender equality, and to deemphasize the implementation of shari‘a (p. 2).” Similarly, Mona El-Ghobashy (2005) in the Metamorphosis of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, documented the party’s departure from its initial “old guard’s conservative views on women” to one which in the early 2000s recognized gender equality, as well as women’s right to access political office. In this issue of POMEPS Studies, Ellen McLarney also highlights the fact that the first assertion of ‘gender equality’—without qualification—in the Egyptian constitution occurred in 2012 under the Islamic government of Mohamed Morsi, and ironically not when more secular governments were in power.

While these ideological shifts may seem as mere political moves of religious political movements to appeal to voters (as well as the international community) by distancing themselves from their more conservative and ‘undemocratic’ predecessors (Bush 2011); in practice they have led to modest, yet significant, increases in the rate of women’s political representation in recent decades. For instance, among Arab countries, Clark and Schwedler (2003) observed that in Yemen and Jordan the percentage of women assuming political office has modestly increased in the wake of conservative and Islamist forces’ rise to power. Both Jordan’ Islamic Action Front and Yemen’s Al-Islah parties outperformed their secular counterparts in terms of women’s recruitment to the national parliaments in their respective countries. Likewise, the Islamic Ennahda party in Tunisia was the only party to successfully implement the gender parity quota that required all parties to nominate exactly fifty percent women candidates on their party lists, and to alternate men and women’s names down party lists in a so-called ‘zipper’ system for the 2011 parliamentary elections.

Despite the fact that nine political parties from across the ideological spectrum entered the parliament in the 2011 Tunisian elections, 42 out of the 49 women elected to the 217-member parliament were from Ennahda (Marks 2013). This notable success of Ennahda was due to its well-organized and widespread structure, thanks in part to women’s grassroots organizing and mobilizing efforts in support of the party. The party had mobilized and politicized so many women that when the time came to implement a gender parity quota, it had no problems recruiting qualified women from within the party structures.

Similar trends are also witnessed in non-Arab countries of Iran and Turkey; despite their different theocratic and secular political frameworks, conservative religious parties have at times been at the forefront of expanding women’s access to political office. In 2009, Iran’s neo-conservative president Ahmadinejad’s bold move of nominating three women as members to his cabinet surprised many. This move was particularly surprising since unlike his more reformist and liberal counterparts, Ahmadinejad never campaigned on women’s access to high level decision-making positions, but also because the gender ideology of his party renders women primarily to the domestic sphere.

It has been similarly puzzling to witness that in Turkey, women’s rate of political representation in the parliament raised notably under the watch of the pro-religious and conservative Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP or AK Parti).[3] Indeed, within the past decade AKP leaders have been strategically nominating token amounts of women in electable positions at a higher rate than their secular counterparts of the previous decades.[4] In 2013, due to women’s pressuring, AKP also removed the decades-long headscarf ban for women serving in state institutions, including parliaments (Tajali 2014). Removal of this restriction further contributed to women’s political representation as it enabled headscarved women, who constitute more than 70 percent of the female population in Turkey, to also access the parliament (Cindoglu 2011). [5]

Mere window-dressing or genuinely empowering women?

A number of factors, arising both from international or domestic spheres, led these modest, yet significant, rises in the percentage of women’s political representation on behalf of these Islamic political parties. On the international level, a number of incentives and pressures have encouraged Islamic political parties to democratize, often with particular emphasis on women’s political roles (Bush 2011). Given that increasing women’s numbers in political office often serves as a window-dressing for parties to seem democratic, modern, and liberal, many conservative pro-religious parties, including Turkey’s AKP, have been willing to increase women’s access to decision-making to appeal to voters and international actors. With the recruitment of token numbers of women, this approach also helped distinguish AKP from its predecessor Islamist parties of Refah and Fazilet. However, a major limitation of this analysis is that it predominately credits the party’s leadership for the decision to eventually include women in decision-making ranks, with little regard for Islamic party women’s own roles in pressuring for greater access to such positions. Indeed, Western scholarship writing predominantly from a liberal and feminist standpoint has failed to shed sufficient light onto Islamic women’s activism and agency within religious political movements and parties. This is partly because Muslim women’s activism in support of Islamist movements, conservative institutions, or even patriarchal attitudes has been more difficult to explain, given the paradox of women supporting movements that seek to undermine their rights and status.[6]

To mainly credit the Islamic party leadership for opening the doors for women’s political representation, de-emphasizes women’s own efforts and organizing for increased access to political office from within the religious political movements. Marwa Shalaby, in this issue of POMEPS Studies, identifies authoritarianism as one of the key factors that impacts women’s access to political office as well as their influence while in power, often regardless of the party’s ideological tendencies. Expectedly, such authoritarian tendencies are not destabilized abruptly, but are rather gradually undermined as a result of decades-long pressuring and internal bargaining that attempts to reform these political institutions from within. Consequently, while international incentives do play a key role in encouraging party leaders to become more inclusive of women’s political presence, women as well, have been continuously working towards this end as many do not see any contradictions between their religion and women’s leadership. In fact, many of the women who initially joined Islamic political movements, did so with the hopes of gender justice and equality, which often includes accessing political representation (Personal interviews with Islamic party women in Iran and Turkey, 2011 and 2015).

My research on Islamic party women in Iran and Turkey suggests that more attention needs to be paid to women’s organizing and mobilizing efforts to increase their access to political decision-making positions. I argue that one of the key factors that has led to the recent notable increases in the percentage of women’s political representation on behalf of religious political movements is the activism and recent outspokenness of many Islamic women in demand for removal of gender discriminatory behaviors and attitudes of their own male party leaders in recruitment and nomination processes. Hence, many Islamic women activists in Iran and Turkey, despite supporting conservative and pro-religious political groups and parties, do not see a contradiction between their interpretation of Islam and female authority. In fact, many are disillusioned of the fact that the Islamic political movements in which they have invested so much time and effort in, have failed to deliver on the promise of ‘Islamic justice,’ including the promise to restore women’s rightful place in an Islamic society (Osanloo 2009). Hence, while some conservative women’s rise to political office may still be a strategic move on behalf of the party, it is important to note that many women themselves have also been agitating for their rise to power.

Islamic party women’s increased activism and loss of patience with their male political elites on the demand to enhance women’s political roles and influence is apparent from the public campaigns that have been recently launched at the time of major elections by influential Islamic women’s groups and individuals in demand for women’s increased access to political office. Having realized that they have public support on their side, these campaigns openly criticize the gender discriminatory actions of Islamic party leadership by directly pressuring male party elites to address women’s marginalization from political office. Over time, many Islamic party leaders became willing to reward women’s decades-long commitment to the party, particularly as they realized that women constitute half of the electorate, also had it not been for women’s initial support as voters and voter-recruiters they would not have risen to power (Arat 2005; White 2002).

In sum, Islamic movements in many countries, including in Iran and Turkey, politicized and mobilized previously marginalized female sections of the society to enter the political sphere. Although the Islamic political leaders in both Iran and Turkey initially encouraged women’s political participation as grassroots organizers and voter-recruiters in support of the Islamic movement, they never expected women’s political engagement and experience to eventually translate into women political leaders. However, decades of women’s politicization and grassroots organizing in support of the Islamist movement have resulted in a caliber of qualified women who want their seat at the decision-making table. Hence, despite being products of religious political movements in their countries, many Islamic party women are increasingly playing a key role in agitating for more expanded roles for women in political decision-making. Given the fact that women compose half of the supporters and constituents of religious political movements in their countries, Islamic parties can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to women’s demands, including their access to political leadership.

Mona Tajali is an assistant professor of international relations and women’s studies at Agnes Scott College.



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[1] For the purpose of this work, the term ‘Islamic movements’ refers to ideologically and politically motivated movements that advocate living according to Islamic social mores (Mahmood 2005). While many Islamic movements are presented as revivalist movements that arise in response to extreme secularization, westernization, and suppression of religious expression, it is important to note that there is great ideological and practical variety among Islamic movements in different contexts and times. Despite significant ideological shifts however even within the same particular movement, it can be argued that the dominant gender discourse of most Islamic movements are patriarchal in which women hold subordinate positions (Shitrit 2013). This is the case with the Islamic movements in Iran and Turkey. Although the Islamic discourse is constructed differently in each country (one a theocracy and the other a secular state which is currently governed by a pro-religious party), the dominant gender discourses of both groups of ruling elites advocate non-gender equal agendas.

[2] The literature on women and politics has been increasingly recognizing many aspects of women’s efforts and actions to influence and shape their surroundings, communities, and other formal and informal institutions as ‘political’ (Chappell 2002; Waylen 2007). While I also acknowledge multiplicity of women’s political roles and actions in various contexts, here, I wish to emphasize women’s efforts to enter formal political decision-making positions, such as membership to the national parliament or access to ministerial positions. Whether women who enter political office on behalf of Islamic parties (their descriptive representative) leads to representing women’s interests (substantive representation) is beyond the scope of this brief analysis.

[3] Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP or AK Parti), was founded in 2001 by members of former Turkish Islamist parties, such as Welfare (Refah) and Virtue (Fazilet) parties. Since its landslide victory in 2002, AKP, which identifies itself as a “conservative democratic” rather than “Islamist” party, has steadily increased its percentage of popular votes in general elections (Akdogan 2006). Due to AKP’s support of a secular system in which public displays of religion have a place, I identify this party as “pro-religious.”

[4] An important exception among all of Turkey’s political parties is the pro-Kurdish rights parties, which put particular emphasis on women’s political representation. The 2015 parliamentary elections was the first time however that a Pro-Kurdish party, the HDP (Halkların Demokratik Partisi) or the People’s Democracy Party, entered the parliament as a party, rather than independent candidates. Women constituted close to half of HDP candidates.

[5] According to research conducted by Dilek Cindoglu (2011), as of March 2011, more than 70 percent of Turkish women cover their hair.

[6] Although some research attempted to explain this through reference to women’s false consciousness, more analytical research has attempted to address it by questioning ‘rational choice theory’ which emphasizes actor choices based on reason (to maximize self interest) rather than emotion (Mahmood 2005).

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