Civil society: alternative definitions

Civil society is a contested and ambiguous term that can accommodate a wide spectrum of views.  The state can use the notion of civil society when it wants to promote projects of mobilization and modernization, non-state actors use it as an angle for a legal share of public space while independent activists and intellectuals use it to expand the boundaries of individual liberty.

It has been conceptualised variously as civil institutions, as human networks that exist independently of the state, as a realm differentiated from the economy and state, and as a place of social life independent of the state that cannot be swallowed up by the state.  Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian political sociologist describes civil society in terms of the link it creates between ‘democracy, development and a peaceful management of conflict domestically and regionally’ (Ibrahim, 1995).

A number of authors argue that civil society is a Western construct and there are problems in applying it uncritically to the Third World as a measure of modernity and progress. Serif Mardin is categorical in asserting that civil society cannot be unquestioningly translated into Islamic terms.  He bases this assertion on his argument that civility and civil society are not interchangeable terms and therefore the presence of civility does not automatically translate into a presence of civil society (Mardin, 1995).  Deniz Kandiyoti suggests an alternative way of conceptualizing the interface of engagement between state and society.  She refers to it as the site of a ‘new political society’ that does not necessarily conform to the norms of civil society but facilitates mobilization that channels popular demands in the emerging state (Kandiyoti, 2001).  Alternatively there is literature that seeks to redefine Islam’s internal structures, groupings and associations as demonstrable evidences of civil society from its earliest beginnings (Esposito, 2000:, Esposito and Burgat, 2003:, Chambers and Kymlicka, 2002:, Hanafi, 2002).

An alternative to civil society as framed by Western theory is needed to understand where engagement for negotiation occurs in non-Western societies.  The basic premise of Western civic culture is that sovereignty lies with the will of the people whereas Islam is based on the ultimate authority of God’s Word.  Therefore, how can the interface that allows for negotiation, where women’s organizations and activists can engage with state and society be conceptualized? 

Saad Eddin Ibrahim defines the concept of civil society by linking it to the concept of public space or the public sphere.  (Ibrahim, 1995)  The concept of the public space is variously used to identify that place where discourse and interaction between players of society happens and where society can interact with the state.  Nancy Fraser refers to it as mediation between state and society with society ‘holding the state accountable’ as she explores Habermas’ use of the concept (Fraser, 1992).  

However, where the concept of civil society contrasts public and private space, there are limitations in its usefulness as a framework for understanding negotiation for change for women. Concepts of public and private spheres are foundational to Islam’s designation of male and female space and roles.  It can be argued that these designations serve to maintain the inequalities and reinforce the power structures that are part of the problem for women living under Islam.  Talal Asad conceptualizes this when he argues the inherent and unquestionable link between the public sphere and articulations of power (Asad, 2003). Bari and Khattack observe that civil society is intrinsically linked with masculine interpretations of the state (Bari and Khattack, 2001).  Suad Joseph and Susan Slymovics further this idea, arguing that definitions of what constitutes civil society are based on a gendered distinction between the public and private (Joseph and Slyomovics, 2001).  The public domain is an arena from which women are largely excluded in strict Muslim definitions of space. 

Joseph and Slyomovics speak to this perspective when they assert that central to public, private and domestic spheres in Arab-Islamic societies is the patriarchal family, which they view as a construct of power in society.  They elucidate their argument by describing kinship and community as central organizers of social life; that state institutions and civil society do not operate independently of kin-based and communal relations (Joseph and Slyomovics, 2001).

Shahnaz Khan, in an article ‘Muslim Women: Negotiations in the Third Space” offers an alternative space, one that is neither traditionally differentiated public and private but what she designates ‘political space’ (Khan, 1998). This is a place for ‘supplementary sites of resistance and negotiation’ formed when the original symbols and signifiers that have been translated through the discourses of Islam and colonialism, are re-appropriated, re-historicised and reread.  Nancy Fraser’s work on a ‘multiplicity of competing publics’ suggesting that ‘subaltern counterpublics … function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment … [and] … as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed towards wider publics” (Fraser, 1992:124) may be helpful in developing an understanding of this.

How do women in different societies negotiate and translate these discourses that regulate their lives into a ‘politics of everyday living’? 

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