Bärbel Reuter: Islam as it is Lived out in Cairo Today by Female Islamists

Prof. Dr. Christine Schirrmacher

Bärbel Reuter. Gelebte Religion. Religiöse Praxis junger Islamistinnen in Kairo. [Islam as it is Lived out in Cairo Today by Female Islamists] Mitteilungen zur Sozial- und Kulturgeschichte der islamischen Welt, Bd. 5. Ergon Verlag: Würzburg, 1999, 286 S., 29.00 €.

Bärbel Reuter’s dissertation is a worthwhile compilation of 7 years of studying Islam as it is lived out in Egypt today. In this distinctive study, Reuter presents the opinions and viewpoints of younger women in Cairo who “feel deeply tied to the Islamic movement” (p. 246). This particular spectrum (or stream) of Islam called Islamism affects more than just individual behavior of a believer and how he/she personally applies their religious beliefs, it encompasses every aspect of the participant’s life and is considered an effective force for changing society which in turn brings changes to the political realm. The young women in this study have returned uncompromisingly to the pure and unblemished Islam of the early religious fathers, i.e. a means for stabilizing and reconstructing society. Reuter pursues the question of how these young women interpret this form of early-Islam in this day and age and how it can be compatible with modern day ideals. Reuter is not searching for spectacular political involvement on the part of the followers of this spectrum of Islam, instead she traces the changes in society that are becoming apparent as these young women live out their beliefs to their own close environment.

In addition, Reuter describes the detailed arrangements for the milestones in a woman’s life (e.g. single-hood, the wedding, birth, circumcision and funerals). Reuter completed her study between 1991 and 1998 during multiple visits to Cairo. Her research included interviews with women in this particular Islamic spectrum, attending lectures at the university as well as in the classrooms of the mosques and gathering relevant information from women’s literature and printed material. Reuter renders a broad spectrum of convictions – including the separation of sexes and strict women’s dress codes – that promote the continued stability of the Islamic family and society. For example, women carry the responsibility for giving men any grounds for entertaining sinful behavior and therefore clothe themselves appropriately (his includes the long black robe “hidjab” with faceveil and gloves) to avoid leading men astray. The segregation of the sexes presents for the women their purpose as a woman is found in the care of her husband and children. Educated women are only allowed to work if the family truly needs her financial support. These women do not question the superiority of the male or the moral and intellectual inferiority and subservient role of the women and maintain that Islam is an ideal way of life and a rational, scientifically founded social system. Nonetheless, the women of this spectrum are also striving for intellectual equality with their spouses and are at times able to protect themselves from the arbitrary rule of their husbands by including special divorce clauses in the marriage contracts to allow divorce in case of marital conflict (even when this partially negates the Islamic principle of obedience to the husband). In addition to adhering to dress codes and the separation of sexes, the women of this stream of Islam aim at bringing others into Islam by propagation (“Da’wa” in Arabic), which is often initiated by helping „outsiders” in practical and tangible ways. It is often presumed that the Islamic women look upon the freedoms and practices of western women with envy. In fact, Islamic women look down on western women and actually pity them in that they do not display a sense of honor and are not respected by others. Ironically, western women look upon the women of Islam with the same misconceptions, which underlines the drastically differing worldviews of both cultures.