Islam, Gender, and Democracy in Comparative Perspective

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Jocelyne Cesari, Jose Casanova
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book aims to problematize two simplifications of the relationship between women’s rights, Islam, and democracy: first, treating women’s rights as a litmus test of liberal democracy in Muslim societies, and second, the binary opposition which pits secular rights advocates against religious opponents of equality (1). It does so via theorizing about the relation of Islam, gender, and politics to each other in contemporary states and transnational political contexts and comparing this relation to Islamic law, secularism, and the transition to democracy in Catholic countries. Issues analyzed include Muslim family law in the context of legal pluralism in India and the non-Muslim democracies of Greece and Israel; women’s rights movements in Iran, Malaysia, Morocco, and Tunisia; and gender-sensitive political change in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Senegal.

By and large, the book succeeds in problematizing the simplistic association of women’s equality with secularism. Its essays present a wide swath of experiences which are diverse enough to demonstrate why the targeted bifurcation is too simplistic (as it is in Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Senegal) without ignoring contexts in which it sometimes appears applicable (as it does to varying extents in Iran, India, Morocco, and Tunisia).

In so doing the book walks the fine line between trumpeting its thesis by caricaturing the simplifications it seeks to problematize (which it could do by presenting only evidence which supported its thesis that said simplifications were inaccurate) and failing to argue for a thesis (which it could do by presenting case study after case study without identifying a common thread). But when the book veers off this fine line, it does so in the former direction. It veers not because its authors’ scholarship is deficient—quite the contrary. Rather, it veers because of what it lacks.

The first absence is the Arab Middle East. Except for Israel, which is featured in a discussion of Muslim family law in a majority non-Muslim country, the Arab Middle East is noticeably absent. While I sympathize with the goal of broadening the conversation so as not to make Arab Middle Eastern contexts archetypal for the rest of the Muslim world, the region’s historical and contemporary significance to Islam mean that a comprehensive picture of the relationship between gender, Islam, and the state ought to include it. One might object that the absence is warranted by the current lack of truly democratic states in the Middle East, but the volume includes case studies of other arguably non-democratic states (such as Iran, and perhaps Bangladesh). Furthermore, one way to problematize the simplifications which are its object would be to discuss religious women’s rights movements in nondemocratic states.

The second absence is positional. The first and third things that contributor Robert Hefner identifies, based on an Indonesian case study, as necessary for successful gender reform are “the intellectual wherewithal to engage Islamic legal traditions on their own terms” and “changes in popular and scholarly understandings of Shari’a” from “unchanging and unquestionable” to reformable, lest “gender reformists proposing changes in fiqh-based legislation risk being smeared with the accusation of apostasy” (105). This highlights a more troubling absence: scholarship which engages with these matters from theological perspectives. One author, Maila Stivens, notes her “own problematic and particular positionality as a ‘Western’ female scholar” writing about Malaysia (269), but none consider how the positionality of their scholarship as secular affects how they engage with theological issues. This is not to say that their scholarship is theologically uninformed. My claim is rather that, as Hefner notes, theological positionality is important to the success of gender reform among Muslims. If this is the case, this scholarship’s secularity may undermine its effectiveness in engendering the gender reform it seeks.

It need not, however, undermine the volume’s effectiveness in problematizing the two simplifications which are its target. It is best suited to do that for an academic, but non-specialist audience. It would work well as a supplement in undergraduate or graduate sociology, anthropology, or political science courses that discuss religion and gender, although instructors should select chapters judiciously to ensure representation of the breadth of perspectives from its case studies that is necessary to problematize its target simplifications. Instructors would be wise to frame selections with Jocelyne Cesari’s opening essay, since it defends the book’s treatment of the postcolonial state as the interpreter of religious orthodoxy. Featuring selections in conversations that problematize treating religious perspectives as opponents of equality would likely also be fruitful.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel Jonker is a doctoral student in Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jocelyne Cesari is professor of religion and politics at the University of Birmingham and Senior Research fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center where she directs the Islam in World Politics Program. She is an adjunct Professor at the Harvard Divinity School and directs the interfaculty Program on Islam in the West at Harvard University. Her publications include The Islamic Awakening: Religion, Democracy and Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and Why the West Fears Islam: An Exploration of Islam in Western Liberal Democracies (Palgrave, 2013). She is also the editor of The Oxford Handbook of European Islam (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Jose Casanova is professor at the department of sociology at Georgetown University, and heads the Berkley Center's Program on Globalization, Religion, and the Secular. He has published works in a broad range of subjects, including religion and globalization, migration and religious pluralism, transnational religions, and sociological theory. He is the author of Public Religions in the Modern World (University of Chicago Press, 1994).


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