Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Wednesday, July 27 2011
Snapshot: Natana J. DeLong-Bas
Natana J. DeLong-Bas is editor-in-chief of The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Women, which will be published next year. She is the author of Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (Oxford 2008), which was named one of the five best books for understanding Islam by the Wall Street Journal. She is concerned about what needs to be done so the women of the Arab Spring are not just thanked for their contributions and sent home, but can claim their place in emerging systems. She serves on the advisory board for Oxford Bibliographies Online – Islamic Studies, is a consultant to the media, international governments, and corporations, and she teaches comparative theology at Boston College. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and two children.
Womenetics: Why don’t we hear more about women leaders in the Arab Spring?
Natana DeLong-Bas: This is a very good question. It runs along the same lines as, “Why don’t we hear more about the good things that are happening in the world, instead of violence and killing?” Part of it may have to do with the culture of our viewership and readership. We have come to expect to hear about negative and terrible things happening in our world, accepting this as “normal.” Part of the reason why violence “works” is that its perpetrators know they will get media coverage. We need to change our mentality and deny violence the prominence it receives in media coverage. Because the women leaders of the Arab Spring have been very careful to focus on nonviolent methods, they may not seem as newsworthy as men committing acts of violence.
The second reason why I think these women leaders haven’t received as much media coverage is because they are playing roles we don’t expect them to. For years, we have been fed a steady diet of images of Arab and Muslim women as oppressed, repressed, and suppressed, waiting for someone to rescue them. These women aren’t waiting for someone to rescue them.
They are liberating themselves. We don’t know what to do with that because we tend to expect that men are the leaders and decision makers of the world, particularly where Arabs and Muslims are concerned. So we need to change this mentality, too, and look for the many instances in which women are active in leadership roles. We need to look carefully at how they set their goals, what kind of goals they set, and how they go about achieving them. Doing this would help us to realize that there are many different ways of expressing leadership, organizing, and setting and achieving goals.
Women tend to be shut out of many of the traditional avenues of power, so they have to find creative ways of inserting their voices into the conversation. They did so quite effectively in the Arab Spring and continue to find new ways of organizing and demonstrating for reform.
Womenetics: Were women accepted by the men alongside whom they demonstrated?
DeLong-Bas: Yes. This was one of the most empowering and refreshing aspects of the demonstrations – men and women working together, standing together, demonstrating together to achieve common goals. This was not about men’s rights or women’s rights, but about national rights and nation building in which everyone had a stake. At least for a time, men and women found that they were perfectly capable of working together toward common goals and did so successfully and without sexual misconduct. My personal hope is that this was not a one-time exercise, but more of a pilot program that delivered clear, positive results.
|Natana J. DeLong-Bas|
Womenetics: Why were women in Algeria and Kuwait not given a role in their new governments?
DeLong-Bas: This was one of the most disappointing developments for women in both countries following their respective wars for independence. Women were worthy of being killed, raped, assaulted, beaten, and tortured, but apparently not worthy of holding decision-making power. In Kuwait, the resistance to Iraqi occupation would not have survived without the women. Men were not able to leave their homes for fear of abduction or arrest, but women could make the argument they had children to care for and used their access to public space to keep the resistance alive, including by delivering messages and computer disks.
They did so at great risk to their own personal safety and lives. Kuwaiti women were very angry at being shut out of power after the occupation ended and have been among the most vocal in the Gulf about demanding their rights. Some have run for office, a few have been elected to parliament, and others have been appointed to government positions. It has been a long, hard battle. Men need to see women as partners in decision making and nation building, rather than as threats to male power and prerogative. I do hope that the women of the Arab Spring will fare better and that the lessons of this history will be remembered.
Womenetics: What can outsiders do to help women leaders take their places as public officials in the new regimes?
DeLong-Bas: We need to exercise a mix of caution, patience, and support. It is not the place of outsiders to dictate who runs another country. If democracy is to be genuine, people must be free to run for office and vote for the candidates of their choice. That means that our main obligation is to support genuine democracy, by making sure that all citizens, whether male or female, Muslim or non-Muslim, have the right to vote and run for office.
Bringing women fully into the public sphere will require some patience in very conservative societies if the venture is to be successful in the long term. Simply putting a woman into office doesn’t make her effective. There needs to be a support network producing qualified, educated, capable public officials, both male and female, who come to their positions through merit, rather than family connections. New officials will need support in learning the ropes of the job.
We can provide help through mentoring, building connections and networks of support, and encouraging new governments to include women as a normal part of governing so that all voices are truly represented.
Womenetics: Why was Wahhabi Islam named one of the five best books for understanding Islam by the Wall Street Journal?
DeLong-Bas: After 9/11, many people became interested in Saudi Arabia, wanting to understand more about the Saudi interpretation of Islam and something about the kingdom’s dynamics, particularly with respect to jihad, terrorism, and extremism. I was one of the few academics in the United States who had been working on religion in the kingdom before 9/11, so I felt that I had a public responsibility to write something accessible beyond a purely academic audience.
Wahhabi Islam was the first English-language analysis of the writings and teachings of the 18th century founder of Wahhabism. I hoped that going back to the original texts would provide insight into how this particular interpretation developed, and, in some cases, changed drastically, over time. After 9/11, many argued that Saudi Arabia was incapable of reforming itself because of the strong role played by religion in public life. However, I think that my analysis showed that there were many ways in which reforms could be made that would be in keeping with the Saudi interpretation of Islam, particularly where women’s rights were concerned. I also included a chapter on Osama bin Laden and where he departed from the classical Wahhabi tradition. It became very easy for many people after 9/11 to just assume that bin Laden was somehow representative of Saudi Arabia. He really wasn’t, and the book tried to make that clear.
Womenetics: How did you become knowledgeable about Islam?
DeLong-Bas: I have always had a deep interest in religion and spirituality. My father is a pastor, so I grew up in a deeply religious environment. When I was in high school, I began exploring other interpretations of Christianity in order to understand how other people experience God and worship. I discovered Islam in college and became interested in the many connections between Islam and Christianity.
I was surprised, for example, to find that the Quran mentions many of the prophets from the Bible and even passages on Jesus and the Virgin Mary. I was also drawn to the values of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness in the Quran. Perhaps most importantly, for the first time, I read a scripture that recognized other scriptures as valid. The Quran states that the Torah, Psalms, and Gospels are revelations from God and that those who believe in these scriptures and follow them will go to heaven in the afterlife. This inspired me to learn more and to work to build bridges of understanding between Muslims and Christians, in particular. We have so much in common it seems ridiculous to spend so much time demonizing each other instead of learning to work together.
Womenetics: Does Islam respect women?
DeLong-Bas: When looked at in a historical context, it is clear that Islam did, in many ways, improve the status of women at the time when it was revealed, such as by prohibiting female infanticide and giving women rights in inheritance and property ownership, rights that were not granted to women in the West until the 19th century. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that society has changed tremendously from the original 7th century context, so what might have been liberating in the 7th century no longer seems so today.
We also have to recognize the role that culture plays in the interpretation of Islam. Islam as practiced in Iran is not necessarily the same as Islam as practiced in the United States. This makes it difficult to assert that “Islam” either respects or disrespects women because some of the images and ideas we tend to associate with “Islam” really pertain to culture. Overall, I think that the Islamic intent is to respect and honor women, but sometimes this is not carried out in practice.
Womenetics: When you were young, were you interested in writing and what did you write about?
DeLong-Bas: I enjoyed creative writing in junior high and high school. My oldest sister and I wrote stories together, turning our pet cat into “Detective Meow.” We had a grand time writing funny adventures and giving our cat (and other neighborhood cats) personalities. We also wrote about weekends we spent at our grandparents’ home with our cousins. As the second of five children, I sometimes felt like my voice wasn’t always heard, so it was important for me to find other ways of expressing my thoughts and ideas.
Writing became one way of doing that. Playing the piano was another. When I went to college, I no longer had time for creative writing and had to turn to academic writing. To be perfectly honest, I did not do well with academic writing as an undergraduate. I struggled with learning how to properly structure a paper, clearly explain a thesis, and present supportive evidence. I think what was hardest was having to take my personal voice out of my writing in favor of presenting other peoples’ ideas and factual evidence, rather than what I actually thought about the material.
That is why, as a professor, I have my students write a mix of academic and reflection papers. Academic papers teach them the discipline of academic writing, but reflection papers allow them to express their own voices and ideas and to think for themselves.
Womenetics: Who was the biggest influence in your life?
DeLong-Bas: The biggest influence in my life has always been my father. Everything I know about writing, the power of language, the thrill of academic discovery, the importance of faith, and the discipline of hard work, I learned from Dad. He is, quite simply, the most brilliant person I have ever met and the person I have always striven to be like. To me, he is the personification of unconditional love and support. No matter what happens in life, he has been and always will be there for me. He is one of the few people who truly understands how I think and shares my passion for research. He is the ultimate role model.
Womenetics: How do you relax?
DeLong-Bas: Good question, and one I’m thinking about more these days. It’s so easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of teaching, research, speaking, writing, and raising children that it’s hard to find time for myself. My husband and I make a point of spending a lot of time with our children and doing family activities. We do a lot of physical activity for stress management, from hiking and biking to martial arts training. I just earned my black belt this past weekend.
Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.