Self-identity as a Form of Democratization: The Syrian Experience

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Ta`rif al Dhat Kashakl min Ashkal al Dimoqratiyah
This chapter combines historical research and a field reporting of participatory action research (PAR) with one of the grassroots women's movement in Syria. I will analyze the participatory or democratization efforts by members of this informally organized group (the group) that is working toward Muslim women's self-identity. Islamic higher learning and its relation to Islamic principles of gender justice provide the framework of this analysis. Various factors have been affecting the priorities in women's Islamic knowledge and self-realization within the predominantly Muslim society of Syria. Even when the group emphasizes community-based informal education and social welfare activities, inside and outside views of Islam and Muslim women do influence the decision-making process. These decisions may concern matters ranging from the group agenda to the members' identifications with Islam. Interpreting Islam in this group's course of action is, consciously or unconsciously, affected by the domestic, national and international affairs of Syria. The present Syrian constitution does not declare Islam as a state religion. Yet, it is hardly possible to find a discussion of any issue in Syria or any other Middle Eastern and Muslim countries without invoking a "monolithic" representation of Islamic religion-cultural and political image. Meanwhile, no studies attempted to present the Islamic conceptual and pedagogical foundations for individuals' self- identity with Islam and the consequent civic decision-making process that affects the individual and communal life. As a PAR researcher and educator, my working and reporting on this group is to argue for the change in discourse to be able to understand Muslim women's movement towards democratization. Some members of the group felt a need to further their indigenous educational strategies and invited me to participate in the group's study-circles. The group strategies consisted on reading the Qur'an and acting on what they learn. I knew of the group earlier and had informally observed some of their activities during subsequent visits to Syria. My presence in Syria for a period of three months annually during 1995-1997 helped develop this research and educational working relationship with the group. Considering the Islamic principle of self-discipline for self-realization as neither inferior nor superior, this group affirms autonomous responsibility as central to the Islamic religio-political process of educating. The group interpreted this principle to mean first-hand knowledge of Islam from its primary sources. Intimate knowledge of these sources (the Qur'an and the books of Hadith that contain the Prophet Muhammad's extrapolation of Qur'anic principles) is viewed as the only means to 'liberation.' Liberation is intended to rid oneself of the dichotomous agendas of "liberal" vis-a-vis "traditional" interpretations of Islam.3 The group's primary concern have been to understand and apply the Qur'anic way of life. Participatory decision-making process in the group, has been confined within the males' 'traditional' (i.e., grounded in absolute principles) interpretation of Islamic texts concerning the role of individual within a religio-socio-political structure of family and society. My work with this group, as a facilitator, takes the Islamic principle of self-discipline one step further to affirm self-identity within the Islamic premise of gender justice. To facilitate their movement from the predominantly males' interpretations of the Islamic primary sources is to make the Islamic principle of trusteeship (Qur'an, 2:30) explicit through higher Islamic learning. A Muslim individual may not fulfill the Islamic pedagogy of a trustee without being able to autonomously choose, understand, and act on her choice of Islam as a worldview. This process requires both autonomous morality and intimate knowledge of the Qur'an before an individual can act as a trustee. Proxy or heternomous moralities--though represent prevalent practices--do not replace autonomous morality. Community welfare is central to Islamic principles of governing, but it does not preclude the primacy of autonomous morality as a form of self-governing. Within the guidance of the Qur'an and Hadith, when in conflict, the community collective welfare takes precedent over individual rights. My analysis of this group self-learning and self-governing is intended to present a form of democratization by this Syrian feminine movement to affirm Muslim women's agency. The group may not call its work democratic, nor feminine. This movement, though, has achieved and maintained some form of effective intellectual and civic participation despite the historical and cultural constraints that dominated the Syrian society, like other Muslim-Arab societies. My intention is not to compare this Syrian grassroots movement with other movements inside or outside Syria, but to change the perception of Muslim women's invisibility as an indicator of full dependency and/or oppression. By changing the discourse we find that "mainstream" literature concerning democratization, Syrian society, and Syrian Muslim Arab women have overlooked this type of groups because these groups are not connected to the center of power. Applying self-identity for self-realization approach within the Islamic framework of gender justice as a base of participation or democratization presents different set of assumptions. Self identity for self-realization approach presupposes higher Islamic learning to re-gain the power of knowledge as a means of active agency. Further synthesis of the context of this study, the history and culture of Syria provide evidence for this group's active agency.
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Copyright 1999, Indiana University Press. This is a pre-copyedited version of an article accepted for publication in the edited book Democratization and Women's Grassroots Movements following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version is available through the Indiana University Press: See also:
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Indiana University Press
Self-identity as democratization; Syrian grassroots women's movement; Islamic gender justice; Islamic knowledge; Community-based education
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In Democratization and Women's Grassroots Movements. Edited by Jill M. Bystydzienski and Joti Sekhon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1999), 129-149
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