Voice of Conscience: Impassioned Author Lobbies for Rights of Muslim Women

Fri, Jun 23, 1995


The Jewish Exponent / By Marilyn Silverstein

Mahnaz Afkhami shares a certain sisterhood with the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland — a woman who thought nothing of believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

“To believe the impossible is possible is the first step in making it so,” said Afkhami, executive director of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute in Bethesda, Md.

Two of the “impossible” things Afkhami believes is that the Islamic world will one day take power out of the hands of the fundamentalist Islamic clergy and that Muslim women everywhere will one day enjoy full human rights.

Such beliefs caused by 54-year old Afkhami to be cast in to political exile from her native Iran 15 years a go.

Such beliefs brought Afkhami to Philadelphia recently to discuss “Women, Islam and the Middle East.”

Many roles

Teacher, lecturer and voice of conscience for Muslim women, Afkhami is the author of Women in Exile and the co-editor of In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post revolutionary Iran.

Her lecture was part of the “Women and World Politics” series jointly sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Marvin Wachman Fund for International Education and the Philadelphia Branch of the American Association of University Women.

Islam — the religion of a diverse 1 billion people, including 500 million women — is really no different than any other religion when it comes to women, according to Afkhami, who served as Iran’s minister of state for women’s affairs from 1976 to 1978, when the position was eliminated on the eve of the Islamic revolution.

“Islam has really a lot of ideas… which are very egalitarian and just, both to men and women,” the author said. “It also has negative aspects, as far as egalitarianism is concerned, but we do feel that is the case with every religion.”

In fact, Afkhami said, the first Muslim was a woman — the wife of the Prophet Mohammed — and the Koran itself declares, “All people are equal — as equal as the teeth of a comb.”

The problem, she said, is the “learned men” of Islam, the male clergy who have appointed themselves the interpreters of Islam — despite the fact that the religion requires no intermediary between the believer and God.

“Why should these men be the ones who interpret the religion? Why should we not have a say in how we see the text?” Afkhami demanded. “A new movement has begun for women and women leaders to do just that.” Practices seen as alien to Islam

Certain practices in the Muslim world — genital mutilation, polygamy, the veiling of women, the segregation of women from men — have nothing to do with Islam as such, asserted Afkhami.

“This is not the religion,” she said. “What we’re trying to say, as women in that part of the world — these are Muslim men’s laws, not Islamic laws.”

As the movement grows to emancipate Muslim women from the laws of Muslim men, the author said, it is important to recognize that the Muslim world perceives the ideas of emancipation and women’s rights as imports from the Western colonial powers.

“There is this idea that women’s rights are an imported idea from the West,” she observed. “Therefore, there is a rejection of this without thinking it through.”

In a way, Afkhami said, there are two worlds of Muslim women — women in the northern, developed countries, who are more accepting of modernity; and women in the Third World, who have played very little role in the international gatherings of Muslim women.

“Women in the north tend to label women in the Third World as veiled forms without any rights or any powers,” Afkhami said. “On the other side, people in the Third World think of women in the West as made-up, materialistic dolls — Madonna-like — wearing absurd clothes.”

But despite these differences, she added, there is much that is shared, including the necessity of dealing with paternalistic structures.

“What has to happen is a restructuring in all of these societies,” Afkhami said.

For the fundamentalist Islamic clergy, such ideas are considered to be heresy, she added.

“But the fact is,” she said, “the holy text is on our side.”

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

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