THE QUEST FOR AN ALTERNATIVE (2)
Grounds validating a Quest
(1) We live in an age of fluctuating sensibilities between claims on a universal and universally binding morality and claims on a contextual and relatively binding morality. At an epistemological level our ways of knowing have failed to establish a consistent framework for relating the relative to the absolute, the one to the many, and change to constancy. Since the absolute is a main feature of Islamic societies, this is highly problematic to understanding gender.
(2) We also live in a world that has increasingly come to subscribe to the principle of cultural relativism. Conceding to Muslim societies their cultural differences has not been freed from the implicit normative sanctions and measures accompanying hegemonic (western) cultural perspectives. More significantly, admitting to a degree or sphere of cultural relativity in Muslim societies has rarely been accompanied by recognizing an autonomous sphere of knowing relating to the social and ethical manifestations of that specificity. There is therefore a contradiction between what are rationally considered to be valid ways of knowing and between the variability conceded to ways of being through empirical observation.
(3) Islamic tradition historically provided a viable world culture and civilization which spanned over ten centuries and continues to be felt in modern Muslim societies. More significantly, the sources of that tradition remain intact and accessible to reinterpretation and reconstruction and re-activation. The field of gender relations in Muslim societies today constitutes one of the foremost arenas for the energies and the controversies that attend this process of reconstruction.
(4) The reality of Muslim societies as culturally penetrable/ susceptible societies and as constituting part of a global political economy needs to be taken into consideration. The influences operating on gender relations in Muslim societies cannot be solely studied from the perspective of the developments in an autonomous tradition, any more than the operating influences in a modern global economy can be studied independently of the particular traditions in question. Again, this has a direct bearing on understanding the issues of gender relations in Muslim societies and in putting into context such phenomena as the women's movement and the agitation for gender-related social reform there.
(5) Gender relations in any society are an aspect of social relations and of a social whole that cannot be abstracted or understood reductively without entailing their distortion. At the same time the status of gender at any given moment and how it is developed/develops is subject to multiple influences - a reality which calls for a multi-dimensional approach. While gender is a central category in any society, its relative importance is contingent on the structure and cultural priorities and perceptions in that society. Both religion and the family are active and structural elements of the tradition in Muslim societies and they need to be examined accordingly.
More often however, a matrix of inquiry screens out phenomena, or blocks vision conducing to a pattern of `black holes' in the literature. These are areas which are not simply misinterpreted, but which are often entirely missed.
The essentials/ elements of the alternative paradigm can be conceptualized from the Quranic conception of the basic categories relevant to social understanding. These categories should be viewed in their relational and dynamic bearings to the whole. ( ie. beyond atomization, fragmentation and stasis). It is part of the Quranic worldview that concepts are only meaningful and relevant if they are actualized or realizable in practice. Therefore any valid conceptualization in the Islamic mode would have to include the dimension of contextualization too. This is precisely where the example of the Prophet (S) and his Sunnah, and the formative experience of the early Muslim community constitutes an integral element in any reconstruction of the paradigm of gender and gender relations in the Muslim experience. Yet, if we were to observe the dynamics of social reform in a given Muslim society, and if we followed the practical instances and initiatives at the every day level of ordinary groups and individuals, we would observe at work there basically the same approach and rationale that we are trying to abstract and define in formal terms. The debate and action as it unfolds at this paradigmatic nexus varies from one setting to another. It is more obvious in the context of the Islamic movement in places like the Sudan and Tunisia, partly due to the dynamic nature of the ground movement there as well as to the dynamics of its leadership. In other settings like Algeria, Turkey or Egypt for example, it might be more subtle.
Given the above observations it becomes increasingly evident that the sociological and anthropological parameters of our study need to be critically re-examined in order to accommodate the experiences and realities of gender relations and gender related discourse in Muslim societies.
An alternative paradigm for the New Sociology draws more on the grounds of a global moral economy as opposed to a liberal market economy deferential to the overwhelming power of the dominant materialist currents. With the shifting emphasis away from the latter, gender-related issues come to be increasingly central to the discipline; they can no longer be relegated to the periphery as they were under the Old Sociology.. The New Sociology would also more readily resolve the dilemma of women's studies by integrating them in the curriculum at a structural level precipitating thereby, a root transformation of the disciplines.
(a) There is already a radical and critical consciousness at work in contemporary social theory and feminist scholarship is a good example of this awareness. This has led to the questioning of many of the conventional premises of social inquiry. Yet this orientation is hardly reflected when it comes to studying Muslim societies where implicitly/ or unconsciously, the focus of pathologies continues to be sought in the societies under study, or in Islam, but not in our paradigms of inquiry. The objective then of a New Sociology would be to urge scholars for consistency and to extend the purview of critical thinking to the area of studies on Muslim societies while rectifying the focus of their critical acumen.
(b) Notwithstanding the above observation, there has been some output of valuable and relevant scholarship on women and gender relations in Muslim societies where, for various reasons, the negative dimensions of the matrix of inquiry have been minimized. This no doubt reflects the changing and more open attitudes among the scholars in the field, particularly those who have benefited from a tradition of anthropological empathy. In some cases, scholars have returned from their field inquiries with a willingness to question the validity of standing conceptual assumptions and have thereby benefited the broader discipline as well as better serving the immediate objectives of their inquiry.
An example of one such contribution at this epistemic level may be found in Cynthia Nelson's writing in the seventies. At the interpretative level of mediating ideas and transposing the terms of a cultural discourse, or simply at the level of reporting polemics or translating a debate we have significantly more Western scholars capable of that exercise. In the vein of a New Sociology on gender in Muslim societies, there would already be some ready material to use and build upon. Whatever the rupture with the traditions of current scholarship that might ensue at the paradigmatic level, this is offset by the openness to the disparate trends and output that has been produced within a growing field of knowledge. Moreover, the New Sociology would be able to revalorize such knowledge and make it even more relevant to an enhanced understanding of the subject.
(c) The New Sociology plugs into an emerging stream of radical inquiry and reflection among Muslims who while intellectually critical of aspects of their society and tradition, are not alienated from either. They are part of what is sometimes referred to as the Islamic intellectual revival. Individually and collectively, their efforts are steadily verging on a regenerate and reconstructed knowledge tradition that has its theoretical and practical implications for our current understanding of culture and society more generally. The gender-conscious New Sociology feeds into and draws on the elements of a New Anthropology (Davies, 1988) and a New Science and Technology (Sardar et al. 1987, 1989) and a general disposition to rethinking the dominant historical and International Order categories.
(d) Finally, one might add that understanding gender in Muslim societies in terms of an alternative epistemic paradigm whether it is articulated in a New Sociology or otherwise is likely to have positive consequences for approaching gender in other settings. This observation is prompted by both theoretical and practical considerations pertaining to gender-studies as an emergent and flexible field of inquiry as well as to the basic politics of gender-related issues in modern post-industrial society.
Muslim societies are societies in transition. One can give a more substantial reading of the parties and politics in an ongoing debate which extends to gender-related issues. We can take our example from the Arab Muslim constituency in view of both its geostrategic and topical centrality to the greater Muslim constituency. The geo-cultural core of the Muslim world remains in the Middle East, particularly the Arab world. There the more radical critics see society in an endemic crisis which they attribute to a protracted condition of historical stagnation and civilizational decline. The polarization of the political and cultural spectrum there between Left and Right, modernists and Islamicists usually ends on the threshold of a consensus on the politics of transformation.
Gender-related issues may be seen to lie at the hub of a transformational politics that provokes much heat and dust. This is reflected in the inconclusive debates that attend such issues as women's legal status and women's practical role in contemporary society. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, it is not the debates between fundamentalists and feminists, or between Islamists/ traditionists and modernists that are the most fateful. Rather it is the debate within the influential rival or supplementary Islamic circles in these societies that in the long term, here as in other key culture issues in Muslim society, will provide the cutting edge in resolving the tensions and affirming the course of morality as it rebounds in gender-related issues there.