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

The forthcoming article “Women’s Authority in Patriarchal Social Movements: The Case of Female Salafi Preachers” (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12459by Richard A. Nielsen is summarized by the author below.

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How are women gaining public authority in a conservative Islamic social movement with doctrines that seemingly restrict women’s authority?  In Women’s Authority in Patriarchal Social Movements: The Case of Female Salafi Preachers, I describe this puzzling trend and offer an explanation.  

Salafism is a conservative Islamic social movement with patriarchal gender norms.  The prevailing doctrine of the movement is that men and women should not “mix” in public, that public religious authority belongs to men, and that women’s rightful place is in the domestic sphere.  This seems like an unlikely place for women to be gaining authority. 

But gaining authority they are!  A prominent website for Salafi preachers (www.saaid.net) hosts the writings of over 40 women alongside 170 men.  How are these female preachers gaining authority in a movement that seems predisposed to reject women as authorities?  I show that Salafi leaders are actively recruiting these women as authorities because they can reach new audiences and deliver persuasive arguments that male authorities can’t.

In particular, women are uniquely able to support the Salafi version of patriarchy with arguments like, “As a woman, I don’t want the so-called ‘women’s rights’ defined by the United Nations.”  Although Salafi doctrine has little place for women as preachers, male movement leaders want to harness the pro-patriarchy arguments that these women can offer.   

To see this dynamic playing out, I examine the preachers on the Salafi website http://www.saaid.net.  In email communication, several of the 40 female preachers indicated that the administrators of the website sought out their work, or even posted it without permission.  This hints at the demand for female preaching from the movement leaders.  Looking at what male and female preachers write, I find that they construct their authority differently.  Men use the traditional “Salafi method” of supporting their arguments through citations to the Quran and Hadith traditions.  Women have less than half the number of citations as men when writing on the same topics.  Instead of relying as heavily on citations, women instead invoke identity authority, supporting their arguments with their experiences as women.  This comes through in their writing quantitatively as well as qualitatively; women use personal pronouns much more than men. 

I also can see that women are reaching new audiences by seeing who reacts to their writings on Twitter.  Female followers on Twitter prefer women’s preaching over men’s.  And female preachers are more likely to get retweets from individuals who have never before reacted to any previous writing on http://www.saaid.net. 

To see if these dynamics happen in other social movements with conservative gender norms, I look at the role of women in the contemporary White Nationalist movement in the United States (also called the Alt Right).  Neither the Salafis nor the Alt Right are likely to appreciate the comparison, but the similarities are striking.  Despite large swaths of the movement being deeply skeptical of any public authority for women, male movement leaders are seeking out female spokepersons (like Ayla Stewart, famous for her “white baby challenge”) because they offer unique identity-based arguments and reach new audiences.   

Whether the rise of these female authorities will change the gender norms of conservative movements is unclear.  On one hand, conservative social movements are promoting these women as authorities precisely because of their willingness to support patriarchal norms.  But even so, placing women in positions of authority may have long-term effects that movement leaders don’t anticipate.  The result will largely depend on how these conservative women wield their growing authority.

About the Author(s): Richard A. Nielsen is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research Women’s Authority in Patriarchal Social Movements: The Case of Female Salafi Preachers (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12459) is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.