– Nadia Tazi: « More than ever, the issue of women is the touchstone of politics, a clear indication of democratization or regression. »

Nadia Tazi: « More than ever, the issue of women is the touchstone of politics, a clear indication of democratization or regression. »


Born in Spain in 1954, of Moroccan nationality, she arrived in France in 1970 where she studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and then taught French at a Maryland faculty. Nadia Tazi’s professional career is extraordinarily rich and diverse: she participated in the creation of newspapers and then worked in publishing as well as for exhibitions of contemporary art and architecture. She is now the program director at the International College of Philosophy, where she conducts seminars, particularly on virility in Islam. In 2018, she published a highly erudite work: Intractable Gender. Politics of virility in the Muslim world (Actes Sud), a subject she has been studying for 25 years. She reveals (among other things) that the current Islamist movement expresses more a revival of virilism than a revival of faith, which corresponds to an offer addressed to men crushed and humiliated by modernism forced by despotic powers.

French version here

Virility and Islamism :

« I have tried to build a genealogy of virility as an Arche [concept in Greek philosophy that means the foundation or beginning of a principle] in the Muslim world, not just in the Arab world – I also discuss about Ottomans, Iranians and Afghans. And through archetypal sequences, I mark major historical and geographical differences: they determine types of masculinity and political specificities. There are obviously similarities between the two shores of the Mediterranean, as Germaine Tillion showed in Le Harem et les cousins. It seemed to me more appropriate to work on Islam in the light of the political crisis facing this religion-culture, considering the authoritarianism in force everywhere and the rise of Islamists, who are first and foremost virilists.

Islamists have no other project than that of a virility that is at once rectified, disciplined, and placed under the strictest control. Their key words refer to morality, internal jihad (the struggle against passions) and external jihad. While economically they are neoliberal, as the Saudi regime proves, they must give back their pride to abused and humiliated populations. To understand, we can refer to what the Treaty of Versailles was for Germany. The humiliation of peoples produces disaster. Muslim peoples have been humiliated by colonization, by political failure in the aftermath of independence, by lost wars, by the difficulties of keeping up with the accelerating progress. The feeling of not being up to history and to the destiny promised to Islam then developed. Religion was the only thing that dictators could not confiscate; even Arab nationalists, who were secular, could not do so.

It should be noted that all the Islamists’ historical leaders have served time in prison. They are not scholars, trained in theological institutes or universities, but simple people for the most part, raised against the colony and then against the State, who have spent years behind bars and produced a very poor theoretical corpus. If Islam becomes « political », it is largely because it has always been the first and last resort against oppression. They are frustrated men, trapped in « sad passions »: hatred, resentment, humiliation, feelings of failure. To build any kind of virilist order, an exceptional situation is required in the first place: extreme conditions such as desert, war, tyrannical regime, colony, brutal anthropological and cultural changes.

Virility is extroverted. Better still, it is ostentatious, it must be recognized as such by others, as opposed to the masculine which refers to the inner self, to the intimate. On the outside, the man must show that he is the master and protect the reputation of his wife, daughter or sister. Traditionally, women only have access to the world when veiled, protected, i.e. controlled. She must give the image of a reasonable woman who, as the mullahs say, « stays in her place ». Inside, she has few rights, but she relies on sexual and emotional attachment, on the education of children, and she is supposed to be the guardian of traditions (moral, cultural, aesthetic…). On the one hand, the man is raised in the cult of virility; on the other hand, he is castrated by the despotic powers in place. In the family context, the father commands the son, who, to ensure his power, will in turn commands the youngest, the sister, the wife. How do you expect this other divide not to produce problems? And outside the home, the common man has so to speak no political life. If you look at the powers taking place, they have all bludgeoned their people without exception. Of course, before that, colonization has humiliated men and wreaked havoc on all sides. At the time of independence, the new regimes were expected to improve the lot of the population. That is not what happened. Disillusionment and bitterness were enormous, devastating.

Islam, and Islamists even more so, confront men with a double constraint: if Eros is a grace from God, then women must be veiled – not because they are the exclusive object of a man, according to dogmatics, but because they must be protected from the desire, irrepressible by nature, of men, as well as their own, from the weakness of their bodies and minds. There is no Sunni or Shia cleric manual that does not provide the theme of protection to justify domination (an argument that, it must be stressed, is traditionally valid in the relationship between rulers and governed). How can this blockage and Islamist regression be explained? Ordinary machismo is essentially a result of despotism, which points to sex asymmetry. Oppressed by its leaders and seriously shaken by modernization, the macho strives to regain his authority and power at home, within the walls. The lower he is, the more tempted he will be to impose himself as the master of the house. Likewise, the more the son is dominated by the father, the more likely he is to bully his sister. A mirror game is set up between the top (the leader of his country and of his house) and the bottom (this fallen man who, unable to free his will for power, falls back on his home), one supports the other. The macho is persecuted by the powers outside and disturbed inside. It is a culture of authority – at school, in the factory, in the administration, etc. – which causes immobility, as well as escapes and feints « under the veil ». The macho is also confronted with women’s (relative) emancipation and the evolution of morals. The macho is the little lord who raised his mother’s status (a woman is only really fulfilled as the mother of a son), served his father’s dream of illimited life and, once adult, intends to rule as master in his own home, but who is confronted with a cascade of authorities and power games that he must continually negotiate. Modernization has strengthened the techniques of coercion and state control, and somehow liberated women: the one ripped off in this evolution is him, this ordinary macho, whom his Islamist brothers will enlist.

With Islamist regression, the brothers want to succeed the failed fathers. These supermales are exalted, but they are more subjugated than ever by their masters. The purity of the body and the soul, of this world and the other, is at stake. And from this absolutist perspective, one is never manly enough, never pure enough. The most radical of them push these hyperbolic logics to the extreme: The God that these extremists imagine is a virilised and vengeful absolute; their prophet, a master vigilante who legitimizes them.

The problem arises from the confusion between the masculine and virility. In institutions and practices as in psychic life, these two notions are constantly fluctuating and intertwined. What must be separated to develop a culture of democracy in the Muslim world is not the sexes, but the masculine and the virile. However, this separation is largely compromised by the political authoritarianism that prevails there. If masculinity and its machismo have finally prevailed over masculinity and its weighting, it is essentially for political reasons: they are the result of the combined effects of colonization’s humiliation, secular nationalists’ failure, despotism, difficulties in adapting to modernity and globalization, Islamism, not to mention the misery that accompanies them. Today, despots pose themselves as the fathers of peoples, and grant fathers of families only private space. Oppressed and humiliated by their leaders, men strive to regain their virility by perpetuating their domination over women in particular, but not only. Machos also impose themselves on those who do not lend themselves to the virilist norm, whether they are young people, ordinary people, members of religious (Jews in particular), ethnic and sexual minorities, intellectuals, artists, quietists and saints, slaves of the past, foreigners and the mentally ill – which constitutes a majority! « 

Violence against women:

« We know (probably not enough) the links – already anticipated by Arab thinkers of the past – between sexual misery and violence. The September 11’s terrorists spent the last hours of their lives watching pornographic movies. The attacks committed in Cologne on New Year’s Eve (partly by Moroccans posing as Syrian political refugees) as well as the gang rapes on Tahrir Square in Egypt, to name but a few high-profile cases, should have alerted us to the gravity and recurrence of these attacks. More than ever, the issue of women is the touchstone of politics, a clear indication of democratization or regression. From the 20th century, the only irreversible revolution to be remembered is that of women. And what is at stake through them in the lands of Islam is not only half of the population, but all those who remain silent but do not recognize themselves in the hegemony and macho values, in the narcissistic cult of domination, in the small wars and permanent probations of the « supermales », in their contempt for the feminine, and the power relations that they instill continuously. Like all populists today (French extreme-right, Greek or Hungarian right-wing extremists, Trump and Putin’s supporters, Serbian or Chechen fascists, etc.), Islamists of all tendencies associate identity and morality rather than identity and culture. By making women’s status their hobbyhorse, they speculate on the piety of the masses, ignorance, the weakness of men who are bludgeoned by their leaders here, disoriented further, no longer assert their virility except through patriarchal schemes, emphatic and absurd imageries, a negative self-representation by which they define themselves not in an affirmative and serene manner but essentially against the other: the West as a whole, ‘’minorities’’, women above all – belittled and diminished on principle, stigmatized as soon as they are unveiled, weakened to the extreme barely past the threshold of their house. You will not hear these wrongdoers denounce neoliberalism’s violence (to which they adhere) or the gap between social classes. Nor will you hear them mention the great masters of Islamic spirituality: those who, like Ghazali or Ibn’Arabi, rank at the lowest level of belief « the Islam of the body »: an Islam that shows itself again and again with its outward signs of piety, and that ignores inner experience or work on oneself. On the other hand, as Ismael Zniber puts it well, they are masters in the judgment of others and the obsessive accounting of sins. Being essentially attached to the question of pleasure, women’s cause also raises massive contradictions for men from which they must emancipate themselves. To mention only one of them, how can we literally present sexual pleasure as the foretaste of paradise, the acme of earthly and heavenly bliss, and at the same time veil the woman, prohibit her, disparage her? Exalt with one hand and inhibit with the other?

Machismo exists everywhere, but it does not have the same scope, sources or laws everywhere. We must start by asking the question in the various Muslim countries and reflect on their common point: political despotism. During the round table Gender relations based on imaginations and values at the Averroes Meetings, the differences between Muslims themselves were well perceived. On the veil, the views of the Turkish, Moroccan and Algerian speakers were not at all identical. The veil is a joker, we give it the meaning we want; it is also what explains its perpetuation. In France, the veil has an identity connotation: if you explain it to an Afghan woman who is fighting the burqa and has problems educating her daughter, or to a Pakistani woman who sees an increase in feminicide or honour killings, they look at you as if you were coming from Mars…

Women are the key: it is easier to act positively, to rely on a desire for freedom than to coerce such an entrenched gender. If women are emancipated, they open the house to the world, and no longer need to push and revirilize their sons. And men must no longer be seen as masters at all costs. If we are going in the direction of women’s freedom, we progress in general emancipation. For the ordinary man does not only belittle women; to assert himself, he belittles everything that is not him and that he considers « effeminate ». From the moment we educate people in a non-despotic way, we end the logic according to which man must regain his virility at home because he is oppressed outside. If we give space to the masculine, we bring it to citizenship, to a civic responsibility. And everyone breathes. But Islamists are very politically skilled: they do not only teach online and in their mosques, they take charge of people, they give them psychological and material security, and they go everywhere. The only political projects of these populists are the subjugation of women and jihad. « 


« There will be a before and an after Cologne, no matter what we say or keep quiet. The event divided a society and critically exposed latent problems or sporadic tensions, discomfort, difficult and unavoidable themes: collective touching, sexual assault and rape in the public square on New Year’s Eve. Silence of the authorities, discovery that similar events had already occurred elsewhere in Germany, in other European countries, and on Tahrir Square in Egypt during the insurrection against the Mubarak regime. The world was amazed to learn, on the one hand, that revolution can also release libidinous deadly impulses and, on the other hand, that the most insistent racist or Islamophobic fantasies can be verified. The worst abjections and pathologies ever reproached to Muslims did indeed take place on a festive evening: in the dark, with greedy hands, bestiality and insults on the bodies of young white women…

What happens when you are twenty years old and rot in idleness and frustration – sexual, of course, but not only – since you are no more than the « disposable man » of demographic growth, failed development and cynical politics? What happens when these men reach Europe after having braved the difficulties we know – but can we never know them enough? – and that ultimately, the disillusionment is commensurate with expectations? They are young men, often from the rural exodus and poorly urbanized, poorly educated or unemployed graduates, poorly loved at last. Lonely and isolated men, sad and illegal in the gardens of the rich to ruminate on disenchantment and anguish; exploited by smugglers, humiliated, reduced (without rights), they find themselves « like women ». What happens then when they meet in a group? The « tribe » becomes one and protects, the band fraternizes, the number finally revirilizes. Even more so when they surrender themselves to the licenses of the celebration, whether it is revolutionary or not. In societies disarticulated by globalized capitalism, and in a condition as sinister as exile, the famous « asabiyya » (the esprit de corps of which Ibn Khaldûn speaks) is nothing more than the instinct of a pack in the night. Especially since the woman is « naked » or short dressed, she is considered loose, necessarily loose. Don’t Islamists repeat it all day long to impose and thicken the veils more and more, and justify the return to order? However difficult it may be, the problem, by its very repetition, must be taken seriously. German authorities’ censorship could only be counterproductive and reinforce the voices that constantly denounce the double fault. Moreover, whether they were organized gangs of offenders (accompanying their sexual assaults with robberies) does not change much the case. Cologne’s dirtiness only prolonged the daily harassment that women too often experience on the streets of Arab countries: exasperation and acting out, rather than taunts and pressure, meaning that they « do not belong » outside, in men’s territories. What the celebration liberates, the daily life suggests. Sexes must remain separate if we want to avoid fitna, chaos, and scandal. The veil is there to remind us of this, to avoid any kind of instability, fluctuation and becoming, the Islamists would say.

But Islamists are not alone. The National Front and the Muslim Brotherhood are now holding politics hostage. The right-wing extremes on both shores of the Mediterranean feed on each other, while joining as conservative forces and threats to democratic principles. In this context of reversed fronts, the enemies of my enemies are not my friends. And my friends on the left do not support me, or only pay lip service, when it could impair their enemies and serve their priority cause. It is high time that left-wing Europeans confront this double constraint that has shaped the policy of Arab democrats for several decades, if they do not want to give way to populists or paraplegics, those who condemn one side while ignoring the other. The exercise is as painful and paralyzing as it is necessary. This implies, in addition to the imperative rejection of ideology, heartbreaking revisions. It is not comforting for Arab democrats to turn a blind eye to the abuses of Islamists, dictators or small strikes that took place in Cologne, on the pretext that it would serve the other side. Or worse, to position oneself as a lecturer against a Kamel Daoud, who knew how to combine courage with lucidity, in the name of a political correctness as blind as it is dangerous. On the other hand, it is not enough to denounce the imperial policy of George W. Bush, the support of Westerners to Wahhabi leaders, the colonialism of Netanyahu, racism and Islamophobia… We must also question ourselves. »