Panelists Disagree On Value Of Development For Muslim Women

Wed, Apr 1, 1998


Washington Report on Middle East Affairs / By Randa Kayyali

The contrast between the academic and the activist approaches to development was highlighted well in a panel discussion on “Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation” held at the Middle East Institute on Feb. 3, 1998.

Although they are co-editors of a new book, Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation; Implementing the Beijing Platform, (Syracuse University Press), panelists Mahnaz Afkhami, executive director of both the Sisterhood Is Global Institute and the Foundation for Iranian Studies, and Dr. Erika Friedl, professor of anthropology at Western Michigan University and author of several books on Iran, presented sharply contrasting views on the consequences of development for Muslim women.

Afkhami is optimistic about the future participation of Muslim women in the political process and felt that the Beijing Conference on Women (1995) was “a ground-breaking event for women and their role in society.” She reminded the audience that the majority of decision-makers in the international conference were women and the agenda of the conference was the empowerment of women. The rapid growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the past 20 years and the Beijing conference have combined to create a “critical momentum” for a global women’s empowerment and put pressure on governments to improve women’s education, voting rights and health care in their countries, Afkhami said.

As a result of the Beijing conference, some women’s organizations have concluded that emphasizing women’s political participation is more important than focusing on policy issues, as women’s organizations in the U.S. have done. “We have learned that there are very few countries in the world that have realized women’s political participation,” Afkhami said, with the notable exceptions of the Scandinavian countries that have a substantial number of women in the executive and legislative branches of the government. She added that since 1996 many people have concluded that being a feminist and a Muslim are not contradictory identities and “there is no reason why we can’t be both—especially in a religion where there is no intermediary to God.”

In her more pessimistic view, Friedl acknowledged that the Beijing conference had had a “trickle-down” effect and cited the implementation of a gender-based quota system for women at Iranian universities. She emphasized, however, that the effects of the quota system are not yet known. Friedl contended that education, particularly in vocational or technical skills, only provides women with a “very, very marginal advantage” that may do more to bolster cottage industries than it does to raise the standard of living or happiness of women in general. Friedl said that the structure of society, politics and the economy are the biggest problems facing Iranian women today and that many of the youths and women who voted for President Khatami said they did so because they thought he would do the most to improve the Iranian economy.

Friedl was critical of the Bejing conference and the desire to establish universal women’s rights. She emphasized that human rights and women’s rights are difficult to define and often are used for demagogic purposes, such as the ongoing debates on the veil and clitordectomy. Friedl emphasized the need for women in different situations to express their own localized needs.

Friedl expressed concern over the approach of many NGOs established by urban, middle-class women to help rural, poor women. She felt that there is a paternalistic tone and class bias in agendas of such groups and in the topics addressed by NGOs in general and at the Beijing conference in particular. Afkhami said that the Beijing conference focused on attaining and prioritizing universal rights because “human aspirations are not determined by race or gender.” In contrast to Friedl, Afkhami wanted to identify and prioritize global concerns of women before defining and demanding rights in a particular society.

Despite their contrasting reactions to the value of NGO work, both Friedl and Afkhami agreed that national crises and violence take the greatest toll on women. The interplay of governments and extremist movements, as in Algeria and Afghanistan, have combined to deprive the women, as well as the public at large in those societies, of political institutions and ways to improve the status quo.

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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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