In recent years, some postmodern feminists have warned us about the perils of generalizations in feminist theory that transcend the boundaries of culture and region, while feminist critics of postmodernism have argued conversely that abandoning cross-cultural and comparative theoretical perspectives may lead to relativism and eventual political paralysis.footnote2 As I will argue in this article, the two positions are not always as diametrically opposed as they seem to be. The militant Islamist movements which have proliferated across a wide variety of cultures and societies in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, have propagated remarkably similar policies and doctrines with regard to gender issues. As a result, a comparative theoretical perspective that would focus on this issue is both essential and surprisingly neglected. But careful distinctions need be made between conservative discourses—both Sunni and Shi’ite—that praise women’s roles as mothers and guardians of the heritage yet deny them personal autonomy, and progressive discourses on Islam that argue for a more tolerant and egalitarian view of gender roles.

In examining the gender ideologies of several fundamentalist movements, we shall see that, despite regional and cultural variations, they exhibit a significant degree of similarity. Gender relations are not a marginal aspect of these movements. Rather, an important strength of fundamentalism lies in its creation of the illusion that a return to traditional, patriarchal relations is the answer to the social and economic problems that both Western and non-Western societies face in the era of late capitalism.

A number of feminist thinkers have tried to explain the appeal of fundamentalism among the middle and lower-middle classes in the predominantly Muslim societies of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. Despite some significant regional variations, these studies can be divided into three groups. One group of writers has stressed the economic and political issues that have contributed to the rise of fundamentalist movements; a second group has explored the disruptive impact of modernization on the family; while a third group has argued that militant Islamist movements and organizations may indeed empower students and professional women in certain ways, though restricting their lives in others.footnote3 By critically examining these three approaches, we can develop a more integrated and dialectical explanation of fundamentalism, and understand why in the late-twentieth century men and women have become attracted to such authoritarian ideologies.

At the same time, Western readers need to become more attentive to the progressive Islamic discourses that are gradually developing in the region, voices that call for greater tolerance, diversity, and more egalitarian gender relations. In Iran a new generation of men and women, who are in opposition, are constructing feminist and democratic discourses on Shi’ite Islam, and are carefully and thoughtfully reinterpreting Muslim jurisprudence to arrive at more liberal perspectives on the issue of women’s rights. As an Iranian historian who has followed these developments from afar, I will argue that we must map out the differences between voices of progressive women and men who, in difficult conditions, are carving out a more egalitarian discourse on Islam and gender relations, and the rhetoric of those, who under the rubric of ‘the sovereignty of the Muslim people’ and ‘the struggle against colonialism and imperialism’, have maintained nativist and reactionary teachings with regard to gender relations.

Scholars of the Middle East and of religious issues continue to debate the relevance of two terms, ‘Islamism’ and ‘fundamentalism’, to a growing number of cultural and political movements that have made substantial inroads in the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Southeast Asia. Some, such as Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, have argued for the relevance of the term ‘fundamentalism’, not just in the context of the Middle East, but for similar ideological currents around the world which in the last two decades have sought political power in the name of religion, be it Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism. Fundamentalism in this view is a late twentieth-century phenomenon, a response to the loss of identity in a modern secular world. Fundamentalism is a militant movement that accepts and even embraces the technological innovations of the West, but shuns many social and cultural aspects of modern society, particularly in the realm of the family. Fundamentalists fight for a world view based on an ideal and imagined past, and yet this past is a carefully constructed one which often rests on unacknowledged forms of theological innovation. Fundamentalists believe they are carrying out the will of God, and are often intolerant of dissent both within and without the community of believers.footnote4 Others such as John Esposito and Edward Said have criticized indiscriminate use of the term. In Said’s view, by constructing reductive notions of ‘terrorism’ and ‘fundamentalism’, the West has attempted to claim for itself ‘moderation, rationality’ and a specific Western ethos.footnote5 Both groups of writers, however, would agree that despite significant regional and political differences among these movements, such Islamist or fundamentalist groups have called for a return to more traditional norms for women, emphasizing women’s roles in procreation, the adoption of ‘proper hijab’ (the Islamic dress code), and submission to patriarchal values. A few examples should suffice to establish this point.

The first dramatic reversal in women’s rights took place during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which brought to power the Islamic Republican Party (irp). To this day, strict government enforcement of the hijab and periodic rounding up, fines, and imprisonment of women on charges of ‘improper hijab’ continue. Despite some compromises by the government in the areas of education, divorce and marriage law, and employment, and despite the fact that women remain very active in the social and political life of Iran, holding high academic, managerial, and even political positions, Iranian women remain segregated in schools, on buses, and on beaches and are restricted in their choice of career, employment, and education. Prohibitions against dating and casual friendship between unrelated men and women remain strong, while polygamy, encouraged by the government, has increased among the urban middle classes.footnote6 The election in May this year by a large margin of the more moderate President Mohammad Khatami, whose support was particularly strong among women and young people, shows how frustrated Iranians have become with the harsh policies of the Islamist government, and how widespread the desire for change was after eighteen years.

In Sudan and Afghanistan fundamentalist groups have assumed control of the government and so have significant authority in imposing their views, while in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, and Lebanon, Islamist movements remain in opposition to the government. These and other religious revivalist movements do not operate in isolation from one another. Indeed the 1994 un Population Conference in Cairo became the scene of a new type of alliance between the Roman Catholic Church and a host of Muslim fundamentalist groups. Both opposed any reference to abortion rights in the un documents. Since Muslim jurisprudence has historically been tolerant of birth control methods, one wonders whether Islamist movements are learning new arguments from the Catholic Church or from Christian fundamentalist groups in the United States in their efforts to limit women’s reproductive rights.footnote7