Women’s Authority in Patriarchal Social Movements: The Case of Female Salafi Preachers

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Authors Richard A. Nielsen
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Paper Abstract How do women gain authority in the public sphere, especially in contexts where patriarchal norms are prevalent? I argue that the leaders of patriarchal social movements face pragmatic incentives to expand women’s authority roles when seeking new movement members. Women authorities help patriarchal movements by making persuasive, identity-based arguments in favor of patriarchy that men cannot, and by reaching new audiences that men cannot. I support this argument by examining the rise of online female preachers in the Islamist Salafi movement, using interviews, Twitter analysis, and automated text analysis of 21,000 texts by 172 men and 43 women on the Salafi-oriented website saaid.net. To show the theory’s generality, I also apply it to the contemporary white nationalist movement in the United States. The findings illustrate how movements that aggressively enforce traditional gender roles for participants can nevertheless increase female authority for pragmatic political reasons. Replication Materials: The data and materials required to verify the computational reproducibility of the results, procedures and analyses in this article are available on the American Journal of Political Science Dataverse within the Harvard Dataverse Network, at: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/6YNZTE. How do women gain authority in the public sphere? Scholars have focused on understanding how women gain access to political office (Bush 2011; Karpowitz, Monson, and Preece 2017; Krook 2010; Lawless and Fox 2005; Teele 2018), especially when patriarchal attitudes remain prevalent in society (Bush and Gao 2017). But political power is not just about holding political office, and political scientists have also turned attention to other ways women enter public politics, such as activism in social movements, religion, and civil society (Ben Shitrit 2016; Clark and Schwedler 2003). In this article, I document how conservative Muslim women are gaining authority as religious preachers, called dā↪iyāt in Arabic, in a conservative social movement called Salafi Islam. As in many other religious traditions, religious authority in Islam has generally been held by men. There are notable exceptions (Bano and Richard A. Nielsen is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139 (rnielsen@mit.edu). I appreciate comments on earlier versions from Amaney Jamal, Tarek Masoud, Marc Lynch, Mirjam Künkler, Ana Weeks, Marsin Alshamary, Rebecca Nielsen, Bruce Rutherford, Zehra Arat, Henri Lauzière, Aaron Rock-Singer, Ari Schriber, and Malika Zhegal, and participants at the NYU Center for Data Science, the University of Connecticut, the Northeast Middle East Politics Working Group, the 2016 AALIMS conference, the 2016 MESA conference, and the Salafiyya Workshop held at Harvard in March 2016. Marsin Alshamary provided expert research assistance for the Twitter analysis. This publication was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting me as an Andrew Carnegie Fellow. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author. For example, two of the most important recent works on Salafism, Meijer (2009), and Lauzière (2016), have no discussion of female Salafis, and to my examination, there are no women listed in the index of either. Kalmbach 2012; Hassan 2009; Kalmbach 2008), but men have generally occupied authority roles in the Muslim world even if women’s authority is deemed permissible under Islamic law (Kloos and Künkler 2016). The Salafi movement in particular has a gender ideology that appears to leave little space for women’s authority. For example, Salafis seek to avoid almost all contact between men and women outside of family relationships for fear of committing the sin of gender mixing (Rock-Singer 2016). It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the scholarly literature on Salafism has been largely concerned with men.1 Yet, despite the Salafi movement’s explicit opposition to women’s authority, women’s words comprise a remarkable amount of Salafi religious and political discourse. Data from a census of Muslim preachers on the Internet show that approximately 2.5% of Muslim preachers are American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 00, No. 0, xxxx 2019, Pp. 1–15 C ©2019, Midwest Political Science Association DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12459
Date of publication 2019
Code Programming Language R

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