Cracks in the ‘Mightiest Fortress’

Ahmad, Irfan. 2012. “Cracks in the ‘Mightiest Fortress’: Jamaat-e-Islami’s Changing Discourse on Women”.In. Caroline Osella and Filippo Osella (eds). Islamic Reform in South Asia. Delhi: Cambridge University Press: 317-345.

Abstract: Islamists’ ideas about the position of women are readily invoked to portray them as ‘anti-modern’. The operating assumption is that Islamism (mutatis mutandis Islam) sanctions gender hierarchy. In this paper, drawing on ethnographic research and written sources of the Jamaat-e-Islami of India, founded in 1941, I question such assumptions. While defending Islam against the ‘epidemic’ of westernization, Maududi (b. 1903), the Jamaat’s founder, called women ‘the mightiest fortress of Islamic culture’. Invoking the Quran and Prophetic traditions, he argued that women should not step outside of the home, and must veil themselves from head to toe. He stood against any political role for women. For decades, Maududi’s interpretation went uncontested. However, from the 1970s onwards many members of the Jamaat began to critique Maududi and offered an alternative reading of Islam. They argued that women could indeed leave the home, assume key economic and political roles, unveil their faces, as well as act in films. By highlighting such voices and analysing the sociological coordinates of the contestations within the Jamaat, I underscore the transformation in the Jamaat’s discourse. I conclude by discussing whether the critiques of Maududi by his own followers inaugurate an alternative discourse of Islamic feminism.