Women’s Rights Gaining Attention Within Islam

Thu, May 16, 1996

Persian, Press

The New York Times / By Barbara Crossette / Newspaper clipping of the article (PDF); The Globe & Mail clipping (PDF); Keyhan clipping (In Persian) (PDF)

In Iran, Azar Nafisi, a professor of English, writes about the strong and clever women in Persian classical literature and the pallid female characters in contemporary Iranian fiction. In Bangladesh, Yasmeen Murshed, chairwoman of an Asia-Pacific network for women in politics, teaches women how to run for office and write legislation enhancing their rights. In Malaysia, Norani Othman, an anthropolgist, leads a movement to reinterpret Muslim law and strip it of centuries of accretions that discriminate against women.

Throughout the Islamic world, from North Africa and the Middle East to Southeast Asia, a diverse assortment of individuals and women’s rights groups, different in cultures but sharing a powerful faith, are creating a momentum for change that few would have predicted only a few years ago.

While the status of women can vary widely from country to country in the Islamic world, advocates of Muslim women’s rights share a core group of demands.

They want the right to education, both secular and religious, which is often denied to girls. They seek changes in economic practices to allow them to own and inherit property, enjoy the freedom to start businesses and share in decisions on the distribution of family income.

They also want reform in Muslim family laws that often leave them at the mercy of men who can divorce them without warning, take away their children, deny them the right to travel and bequeath them as chattel to the next male relative.

“It’s actually a much stronger movement than people realize,” said Roslyn Hees, a Canadian who is the World Bank’s division chief for human resources operations in the Middle East and North Africa.

As part of a wider move toward more open societies in some Islamic countries, she said, “women’s issues have started to take on a greater prominence.”

This weekend in Washington, these issues are being discussed at an international conference on Muslim women, with speakers from more than 20 countries. The conference is being sponsored by the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, a private international organization in Bethesda, Md., that was founded in 1984 to promote women’s rights.

Women in the Islamic world say they draw on universal concepts of human rights — and often on Western educations — while insisting that they are Muslims first and that this will always affect their thinking and methods. Many, including women who might consider themselves secularists, defend others who chose to veil themselves and adopt a conservative theology.

Ms. Murshed of Bangladesh, who was denied a Saudi visa to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca because she planned to travel alone and not with a man, says she and others want more than equality under secular law; they want a more active role in Islamic religious life.

“We have to claim our rights as Muslim women,” she said. “We have to claim our Muslimhood. We cannot be set aside. We cannot be ignored. We cannot be outside that system or its religious observences.”

Some see themselves as the best line of defense against Islamic fundamentalism. Others believe that they and the fundamentalists must become partners in building more democratic societies. Either way, these women do not have the luxury of ignoring Islamic militancy.

“One of the things the fundamentalist movement has done — whether they wanted to do it or not — was to bring these debates about women to the forefront,” said Mahnaz Af khami, an Iranian who directs the Sisterhood Is Global Institute.

In some countries, like Algeria or Afghanistan, women who assert themselves may be in physical danger. In other countries, like Iran or Saudi Arabia, women may be quietly active though hidden. In an age of mass communications, few educated women are unaware of or unconnected to the movement, said Ms. Af khami, who was a minister for women’s affairs in Iran before the Islamic revolution of 1979.

At the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women last year in Beijing, where women from around the world gathered and shared experiences, Ms. Afkhami met women from the official Iranian delegation. She said she had been surprised by their forthrightness.

“The Iranian women were under enormous constraint,” she said. “They had all been picked by the Government, both the official delegates and N.G.O.’s,” or non-governmental organizations. “They may have had to wear the chador, but they didn’t have the conservative line at all, especially not on women. They were active and energetic and outgoing in participation. That kind of interaction is very important.”

The movement for Islamic women’s rights is being widely recognized as one of the most interesting phenomena to emerge from the Beijing conference. The Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy and the Council on Foreign Relations all support programs on this issue.

“The Beijing process and all the excitement that flowed from it encouraged us to give some attention to this subject first,” said James Piscatori, a Middle East scholar who directs a new Muslim Politics Project at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We were immensely impressed by the number of very articulate women across the Muslim world who had important things to say.”

While there are disagreements among leaders of women’s movements about their approaches to fundamentalism, he said, “many if not most of the women are irritated at the patriarchal control of Islamic tradition — that is to say that men control the texts.”

Access to the education in the basic religious writings and laws of Islam is a major aim of the Muslim women’s movement. They want to argue their case from within the Sharia, the Islamic legal code that governs their lives, not just from a secular perspective.

“At Beijing, for the first time, the right to religious higher education became a demand,” said Boutheina Cheriet of the University of Algiers, who is now at the Brookings Institution in Washington writing a book on comparative fundamentalism. “That would then give us credibility in interpreting the texts.”

Ms. Cheriet is among many leaders of Islamic women who believe that their place in Islamic life has eroded over the years and that women and men must re-examine the great writings to restore the balance.

“There is an intrinsic interest in women in the Islamic legacy,” she said. “It started with the first Islamic discourses — that is, the Koran, the Hadith and the Sunna — the behavior of the Prophet himself. You cannot find any chapter in Islamic history that has not brought up the question of women in one way or another — in literature, in politics, in pleasure, in art, what have you.”

The Islamic women’s movements face uncertain futures, many scholars agree. Governments battling fundamentalism may be ready to accept women as allies but may not be prepared to give them a greater role in public life should the threat subside.

Although Islamic women have largely avoided demonstrations and public protests, they could easily become targets of militant mobs if they ventured into places they are supposed to avoid, like behind the wheel of a car in Saudi Arabia or, lately, in a park for bicycling in Teheran.

“A problem is going to arise where women’s rights are concerned as decision-makers in the family,” said Ms. Cheriet. “This is why we are all dealing with how to interpret the Sharia, because the Sharia does make family law the main topic.”

Ann Elizabeth Mayer, an associate professor of legal studies at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied women living under Muslim law, says, “There is no question that there is a very rough road ahead” for the Islamic women’s movement.

“I do believe they will meet obstacles,” she said. “But at the same time, they have very clear perceptions of what their problems are. And they are actually more militant and better organized than American feminists seem to be these days.

“The United States is the only country in the Western world, except for a few Roman Catholic statelets, that has not ratified the United Nations convention on discrimination against women.”

Photo: Many Muslim women demand more rights. At a weeke
nd meeting inWashington were Mahnaz Afkhami of Iran, Yasmeen Murshed of Bangladesh, Fatima Mernissi of Morocco and Deniz Kandiyoti of Turkey. (Amy Toensing for The New York Times)

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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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