Competing Understandings of Islamic Codes Pertaining to Women in the Arab World

Political Cultures and Interpretations of Islamic Law

October 11, 2023
3:00 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. EDT
Location: Intercultural Center (ICC) 270 Map

Surveys conducted from 2006 to 2022 by Mark Tessler, co-founder and co-director of the Arab Barometer, show that ordinary Muslim citizens in the Arab world differ considerably in the way they understand the teachings of Islam pertaining to the status and behavior of women. Views vary both across societal categories within countries and across national borders. Some men and women give credence to more conservative and literalist interpretations, believing that women should only leave their homes when essential and that Islam requires gender segregation and the complete veiling of women outside the home. Others consider a more liberal and contextual interpretation to be correct. They regard Islamic prescriptions as compatible with gender equality, especially in social and political life, education, and employment. Additionally, some embrace an intermediate position and align their understanding of Islamic codes with a tendency known as wasatiyyah (the middle path). Very few, however, consider Islamic prescriptions to be irrelevant to the question of women’s rights.

How can we explain these variations? Muslim jurists and scholars offer different and competing interpretations of Islamic prescriptions relating to the rights, status, and behavior of women. Their positions run the gamut from conservative to traditionalist to liberal, but this spectrum cannot explain the various positions of ordinary citizens in Arab Muslim countries. Mark Tessler and Jocelyne Cesari’s project to analyze these variations builds on Tessler’s rich cumulative data across 14 Muslim countries and Cesari’s scholarship on the influence of national modern political communities on the societal status of Islam and religion more broadly. This event contextualized the Arab Barometer data within the broader national political cultures in each surveyed country. The conversation explored how these factors have influenced citizens’ conceptions of the role of Islam in shaping the normative parameters of family, gender, and society in general.

This event was co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

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