The near weekly demonstrations and sit-ins lobbying for a range of women's issues in the Lebanese capital have one common denominator: Alia Awada.
Having championed women's causes for the past few years, the hijab-wearing young woman stands out not only for her passionate activism but also for her appearance, which sends mixed messages to some. “Wearing the hijab or being religious certainly does not mean that I am against women's rights,” says the 27-year-old campaigner.
“One does not go against the other. Islam is not against women's rights or civil rights in general.”
Awada, one of the producers of “Sharika wa Laken” (A partner, but not yet equal), a program about women's issues that airs on the Communist Party-affiliated radio station Sawt al-Shaab, also believes in freedom of choice.
“Freedom means that women are free to walk on the street sporting a miniskirt or wearing the hijab,” she says. For Awada, wearing the hijab is above all a political statement of choice.
Yet like many Muslim women in Lebanon and other countries, Awada expresses serious fears that the rise of fundamentalist and Takfiri movements – Muslim religious groups that accuse other Muslims of apostasy for failing to espouse their radical beliefs – will do away with the few achievements and rights women have won in the last decades.
Awada and other Muslim Lebanese women believe that the upsurge in extremism will primarily and directly affect women groups, society's “weakest link,” as Awada likes to describe them.
“Unfortunately it is the underprivileged Muslim women that will be the most affected,” says Lara Fahs, a communications specialist who is the child of a mixed marriage.
Poverty and illiteracy have generally constituted two breeding grounds for fundamentalism.
Awada agrees, saying that restricting the liberties and activities of women is a means to prevent women from fighting for their rights.
“Cases of rape in Cairo and increasing incidents of verbal and physical harassment on the streets of Beirut are a strategy to prevent women from taking to the streets, confining them to their homes in a bid to silence them,” she says.
Islamist groups have risen to power in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” a wave of protests that have swept the Arab world in the last few years and led to the toppling of longstanding dictatorships. Their rise has drawn out fears that women's rights activism will be sent back to square one. Some women are convinced that these groups will attempt to threaten women and their causes.
Myssan Stouhi, an instructor at the American University of Beirut's English Department, maintains that fundamentalist movements are taking modern, educated, well-established Muslim women “in the other direction.”
“It is making us [Muslim women] despise these people and their utterly distorted comprehension of religion,” she says. “However, I think the actual effect will be that more women are going to rally for their causes and the fight back will eventually be more aggressive.”
Writer and researcher Rajaa Nehme, who argues that the growth of fundamentalism is a direct result of the numerous military and political “defeats” Arabs have witnessed over the years, believes that the only means to counter extremism is to issue legislation against Takfiri groups. The author of “Memoirs of a Shiite Woman” uses Freudian principles to justify the increasing popularity of fundamentalism among Arab Muslims, saying that according to the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, the more a group feels threatened the more it turns radical in search of its roots.
“It's sort of a defense mechanism,” she says. Despite her understanding this attempted return to Islam's origins, Nehme calls for legislation against all forms of “takfir,” saying Takfiri groups ought to be “punished, not only condemned.”
“Nobody owns the truth since truth is a divine concept,” Nehme says. “Accusing people of apostasy is against the religion.”
The overall performance of Islamist groups and a recent series of controversial fatwas about women issued by some Muslim clerics have led some Muslim women to question their religion.
Stouhi confides that extremists are making her increasingly doubt her religion, largely because of the issues of sexism.
“Islam is not sexist per se, but the way it is applied and followed in this part of the world and probably everywhere else is definitely sexist,” she says. “These people are threatening my attachment to my religion. The more extreme they become, the more I want to let go.”
Television host Nadia Bsat also blasts the “extremism” of certain Islamist groups, but categorically refuses to blame Islam itself, saying moderate Muslims oppose fanaticism.
“Islam is absolutely not a sexist religion. Islam has granted women their rights, maybe more than any regime in the region has done,” she states. “Islam is not the problem, absurd fatwas and erroneous interpretations of the religion are to blame.”
Nehme affirms that many Muslims have begun to question their faith in the face of extremist edicts by preachers that are seen to be all-knowing.
“Of course you're going to be shocked if you take it for granted that sheikhs know all the truth,” she says. According to Nehme, it is high time that Muslims take a “modern and less rigid interpretation” of Islam.
“You have to see Islam from a new perspective,” she argues. “You have to carry out a new reading of Islam that takes into consideration cultural and societal developments.”
In light of a global stigma against Muslims and the extremist practices of some Islamist groups, Bsat, Nehme, Fahs and Stouhi, for example, face the daily challenge of defending moderate Islam and initiating non-Muslim friends and acquaintances to what they believe are the true values of their religion.
Fahs admits that she tends to avoid engaging in discussions about Islam. “I struggle to make some realize that fanatical groups do not represent the real Islam and to convince them that mixing both concepts [Islam and fanaticism] is a fatal error.”
Fahs also believes that the best weapon to counter the influence and impact of Islamist extremists on women is the promotion of education for society's poorest. Bsat agrees, saying empowering women and educating them about their rights is key to combating fanaticism.
For her part, Stouhi says effective legislation ought to be drafted to protect women and their rights against extremist influences.
“The way to counter extremism is simply to ignore what they are saying and speak up in the other direction,” she adds. “I believe in God, decency, and doing good. As far as religion is concerned, that's about it for me.”