Sisterhood Is Global Institute Presents Human Rights Manual at MEI

Fri, Oct 31, 1997


Washington Report on Middle East Affairs / By Janet McMahon

The Middle East Institute hosted Mahnaz Afkhami, executive director of the Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI), and Haleh Vaziri, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle East Studies, co-authors of Claiming Our Rights: A Women’s Human Rights Education Manual, for a July 14 discussion of the SIGI publication. To date, the manual has been field-tested in five countries—Bangladesh, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia and Uzbekistan—and the results of that research will be incorporated into a new edition.

Afkhami began by noting that there are 500,000,000 women in the Muslim world and that their situations, like their societies, are very diverse. There are, however, very few traditional societies left in the world, let alone in the Middle East, Afkhami observed, and as a result, “women today live in modern society.” In Muslim countries, moreover, there are now substantial groups of educated women who “no longer want to be reactive” in addressing issues that affect their lives. Nor do they want to choose between their religion and egalitarianism. “The spirit of Islam is egalitarian,” Afkhami maintained, characterized by “adjustment to the times, and to the will of the community.” SIGI’s research and work have led her to conclude that “rights per se are something which are sought by everyone.” Differences reflect the different priorities and approaches unique to each society.

Vaziri, describing Claiming Our Rights as “a work in progress,” described the educational methods on which the manual and 10-12 week workshops are based. These include focus dialog, in which participants respond and react to pointed questions, and “empathy through fiction,” where participants read a series of narratives—humorously termed by Afkhami a “human rights soap opera”—and come up with solutions to the characters’ dilemmas. As a way to introduce different methods of political organization, participants respond individually, as spokeswomen for a small group, and through reaching consensus as a large group.

What is impressive about Claiming Our Rights is its effective blending of academic social theory and the openìended nature of the workshop process itself, which results in the participants determining the issues to be addressed and answering them in terms of their own social realities. Following the updating of the manual and a September conference (see “Bulletin Board,” p. 120), SIGI plans to expand the workshops to Syria, Morocco, Egypt and Azerbaijan. Nor is the issue of women’s human rights exclusively an Islamic one: a parallel manual and field research project is in the works for Latin America.

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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

Quotables – Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

"Women's status in society has become the standard by which humanity's progress toward civility and peace can be measured." - Architects for Peace

"The crass infringement of women's rights we see in the Muslim world has more to do with power, patriarchy, and misuse of religion as political weapon than with religion properly understood as individual faith." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom

Quotables – Muslim Women

"The most taxing contradiction [Muslim women] face casts the demands of living in the contemporary world against the requirements of tradition as determined and advanced by the modern Islamist world view. At the center of this conflict is the dilemna of Muslim women’s human rights – whether Muslim women have rights because they are human beings, or whether they have rights because they are Muslim" - Faith and Freedom: Introduction

"To the extent that Islam, defined and interpreted by traditionalist "Muslim" men, is allowed to determine the context and contour of the debate on women's rights, women will be on the losing side of the debate because the conclusion is already contained in the premise and reflected in the process. This is the heart of the moral tragedy of Muslim societies in our time." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

“Islam is not the problem. Rather it is the misuse of Islam by interpreting it to fit the needs of the partriarchal order - the powers that be - and the privileges that one gender has held over the other.” - How are women working to eliminate violence against women in Muslim-majority societies?