Dr. Manea: Striving for Women’s Rights and a Humanistic Islam

Dr. Elham Manea was born 1966 in Egypt. She is a Swiss-Yemeni political scientist, author and journalist. She also works as a consultant for Swiss government agencies and international and human rights organizations.

Her research interests include gender and politics in Arab states, democratization and civil society in the Middle East, and politics of the Arabian Peninsula.

Her most recent publication is “The Arab State and Women’s Rights: The Trap of Authoritarian Governance” (London: Routledge Studies on Middle Eastern Politics, June 2011). 

Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland interviewed Dr. Manea about her life, her activism and her vision for a moderate and humanist Islam.


Clarion Project:  Growing up in Yemen and Switzerland, how did you arrive at your approach to women’s rights and freedoms? 

Dr. Elham Manea: I was lucky to have lived in eight countries including Yemen and Switzerland. These included also Egypt, Germany, Iran, Morocco, Kuwait and the United States. The experience was enlightening. It made me realize that we may differ in our colours, religions and customs, but in essence we are all humans. Something brings us together and unites us in dignity and rights. I believe it is humanism.

The experience also provided me with a wider perspective that allowed me to see that freedoms and women’s rights are universal. I know there are some intellectuals who prefer to “relativize” freedoms and rights, arguing that they should be perceived differently within each “culture.”

Often those who argue along these lines forget their own history, and how hard it was for their predecessors to win freedoms and achieve women’s rights. For example, in Switzerland women gained their voting rights in 1971. Until 1988, Swiss Family Law granted the man the right to decide where he and his wife live; his wife had to obtain his permission in order to work or to open a bank account. This was the case until 1988 when a new law, that integrated the concept of gender equality, took effect. It was a struggle until these rights were taken and then integrated within society’s norms and values.

The same holds for the situation in Yemen.  The country lags at the bottom of the Gender Index; it has one of the most reactionary family laws in the Middle East and North Africa. Accordingly, it is possible by law for a father to marry off his daughter at any age. A wife is required by law to fulfil her husband’s sexual desires, not to leave her marriage home without her husband’s permission, and obliged to fulfil her household chores.

If culture is the context within which these Yemeni laws emanated, then culture can be changed, just as it changed in Switzerland. There is nothing “relative” about these laws and culture. They are simply laws and norms that result in abhorrent violations, and therefore should be changed.


Clarion: Are you optimistic about women being able to achieve more rights in Muslim majority societies? 

Manea: Achieving more rights requires women and men dedicated to changing this situation for women in Muslim majority societies both in the public and private spheres. Personally, if it were not for my father, I would not be answering your questions now. He simply disregarded “customs and culture” and believed that his daughter can dream of the stars and she will hold them in her hands, and the hell with the customs that say otherwise.

It also requires being equipped with a strong understanding of how both religion and politics play a role in perpetuating discriminatory laws. For example, the survival of the Saudi dynasty has necessitated an alliance with a religious establishment that propagates one of the most reactionary Islamic interpretations. Part of this interpretation’s worldview insists on women’s inferiority. Breaking that alliance may lead to a different women’s condition in the Kingdom. The same type of alliance, albeit within a different constellation, holds true for Iran as well. Exposing it is one step that makes change possible.

No, optimistic is not the word that I would use. I am simply certain that injustice and abuse cannot endure. It is not sustainable. So no matter how long it will take, it will change.


Clarion: You talk a lot about a more humanistic vision for Islam. Could you tell us a little more about that?

Manea: It is an expression I use, “humanistic Islam,” to describe a reformed Islam. And yes, I am using the word reformation intentionally because it is reform that we need, if we, who consider Islam their religion, are to live in the 21 century. Part of this reformation is the acknowledgment that the Quran was written by humans and should be understood within its historical context.

A humanistic Islam respects that faith matters and does not deny it, but argues that faith should be based on rationality, for without it, it can lead to tyranny in the name of God.

A humanistic Islam is an approach — an approach to religion and life. Its message is composed of four components.

The first addresses the issue of identity. You must have noticed that the “Islamic identity” has been the core of Islamists’ message. “We are Muslims first.” Youth living in Europe and Arab societies, disoriented by many factors, may find some solace in such an identity. It is what I call the “run-away identity.” I suggest a “humanistic identity” as a counter to that argument.

The second, third, and fourth components of humanistic Islam go beyond the attempt to provide just an alternative to the Islamists’ arguments. They deal with core issues of the Islamic religion that were for various reason set aside along the course of Islamic history. The second component is setting the record straight about what kind of religion I choose to follow– namely,one that is based on the principles of freedom of choice and rationality!

The third component touches on my right as a person who considers Islam her religion to cross the “Forbidden Areas of Thinking.” Talking about the human and historical natures of religious scriptures is one such forbidden area of thinking.

Finally, the fourth component of a humanistic Islam deals with the one core issue that if addressed seriously could, in my opinion, change the course of Arab/Muslims future: the gender question in Islam. We have a problem when it comes to women’s rights, and one should address it in a manner that avoids the widespread defensive and denial approach.


Clarion: Since Islamic extremists are well-funded and inculcate their misogynist ideology from a very young age, how can the battle for the minds be won?

Manea: It has to be an integrated approach. Security measures may be helpful in terms of combating Islamists, who are espousing violence. But how do we deal with Islamists, whose main aim is to create an Islamist state and do this “gradually,” using democratic venues to propagate their message and Islamacize their communities?

I think political Islam represents the most serious threat in the twenty-first century. Tony Blair stated that in his article published on January 26, 2014 by the Observer. And although I disagree with his position on the Iraqi war, I totally agree with his position on political Islam. One has only to observe the type of social and human damage this ideology has caused and the political instability it created in many countries in the world.

Yet, just to state that this is an “evil” ideology will not do. It has to be fought on an ideological front as well, and it has to be fought by Muslims themselves. It is the duty of citizens with Islamic heritage and other citizens of other faiths or persuasions, who see and recognize this danger, to speak up and expose the agenda of Islamists. This requires good coordination and a united front in this struggle.

But you are correct to mention the issues of  “funding” and “indoctrination” used by Islamists to propagate their ideology. As long as this funding and the indoctrination through the madrassas and other venues continue, these organizations will endure.


Clarion: In what ways has the European approach to Muslim integration been flawed in your eyes?

Manea: Where should I start?

One flaw has been the European tendency to put diverse groups in one basket and reduce them to their religious beliefs. When I meet you for the first time, the question that I will pose is, “Where do you come from?” and not, “What is your religion?” And while this is common all over the world, this does not seem to be the case when it concerns “Muslims.” In Britain in the sixties, one spoke of South Asians, today one speaks of Muslims. If one just looks at the British Pakistani communities and their diversity, one realizes that this “homogenization” is a serious misperception.

By reducing these communities to their religious identity, European states failed to see the diversity of these communities and opted instead to engage with the most vocal organizations. Not surprisingly, the most vocal are Islamist organizations with a reactionary Islamist agenda.

Such organizations are well versed in the language and discourses of European societies and have been using a “cultural relativist” argument to introduce changes in laws and norms in the name of freedom of religion. They have been able to build schools and madrassas that propagate their political ideology.

Many security agencies in European countries (with some minor exceptions) are aware of the long-term danger posed by these organizations. However, mainstream politicians and intellectuals seem to disregard this danger as mere “Islamophobic.”  Misguided conceptions of political correctness have also led in some cases to compromising important freedoms that are the very basic of an inclusive liberal democracy.

The real success of the Islamists has been in turning any criticism of their “political ideology” and “Islamist interpretations” to a form of Islamophobia. It is important, therefore, that the critique to these organizations comes from within the communities.  This is already happening in Britain. The problem is that these counter voices lack support and funding.

A final remark on this aspect is warranted. Some European countries, such as Britain and Holland, have adopted a policy of “multiculturalism.” While I support embracing different ethnic groups within the context of citizenship, what these countries in fact did was to create segregated ethnic groups. Citizenship was not the yardstick, rather religion and ethnicity. Islamists used this context to control and separate some of the minority communities in the two countries, creating ghettoized communities.

The main failure of European political establishments is that by not responding to these developments in a planned and differentiated manner, they open the space to far right groups, who are using a racist argument against “Muslims” just as they do against “Jews.”

If European political establishments think that by continuing to bury their heads in sand, these problems will go away, they are wrong. This strategy will only exacerbate the problems and backfire.


Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.