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Women and Leadership in Muslim Societies: Voices for Change

Sun, Sep 22, 2002

Press

The Middle East Women’s Studies Review / By Abby Jenkins

On November 25, 2002, the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace (WLP) in collaboration with the Dialogue Project of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University sponsored a forum examining the constraints and opportunities Muslim women face in expanding their political participation and leadership opportunities. The session, entitled “Women and Leadership in Muslim Societies: Voices for Change,” included an international group of Muslim women from Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran. Azar Nafisi, Director of the SAIS Dialogue Project, organized the forum, which included Ayesha Imam, a Nigerian feminist and women’s rights activist and founder and former Executive Director of Baobab for Women’s Human Rights; Thoraya Obaid, Under- Secretary General of the United Nations, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund and the first Saudi national to head a U.N. agency; Shirin Tahir-Kheli, director of the South Asia program at SAIS, head of the U.S. Delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and former United States Ambassador to the U.N. for Special Political Affairs, and Mahnaz Afkhami, President of the Women’s Learning Partnership. These prominent leaders challenged stereotypes associated with Muslim women and discussed strategies for strengthening the role of women in creating democratic and pluralistic societies in the Muslim world. Over 200 scholars, activists, leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and policy makers participated in the event.

Afkhami opened the discussion with a global overview of women’s political participation. Women everywhere remain severely underrepresented in national politics, comprising only 14 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide. The lowest level of participation is in the Middle East. The panelists identified some of the major economic and socio-cultural barriers to women’s political leadership worldwide. Imam emphasized lack of funding, restrictive gender roles, and essentialist identity politics as major limiting factors to women’s political empowerment. One of the primary obstacles to women’s political leadership is a dearth of resources, indicative of the larger problem that women in all regions experience. This is what Obaid called an overall “poverty of opportunities” in all aspects of life. Panelists also pinpointed the social and cultural constraints on women’s roles in Muslim societies that impede their participation in public life. Another reason women have yet to gain access to decision-making positions is that women’s roles are seen as complementary to the role of men. In many Muslim societies, women are at the center of the conflict between supporters of modernization and those who support traditional interpretations of culture and religion.

Panelists also discussed the role of “the veil” and Muslim women’s identity in a changing world. Panel participants were quick to refute the myth that Islam itself is to blame for obstructing women’s empowerment, noting the variety of interpretations of Sha’ria law and the diversity in the practice of Islam among the more than 2.2 billion Muslims in the world. Tahir-Kheli noted that Western stereotypes mask the primary issue at hand, which is ensuring that women have the freedom to choose how to interpret and express their system of beliefs. At the same time, Obaid pointed out, “culture and religion are still critical components in understanding the context of women’s disempowerment.” While both progressive discourses that support democratic principles and regressive discourses that suppress human rights can be found in Muslim societies, Imam argued that the legislative process must be scrutinized to determine the extent to which people have a voice in shaping the laws governing their lives. “All laws are grounded in some system of values. The critical question we should ask is what beliefs are being institutionalized and how can we change them if they are the ones that suppress human rights.” Additionally, Afkhami made the point that a separation of religion and governance must occur in order for full participatory democracy to take place.

In concluding the discussion, the panelists suggested various ways that Muslim women’s leadership roles could be expanded. Nifisi stated, “Women are undoubtedly at the core of the struggle to achieve equity and tolerance in the family, in the community, and between state and society in the Muslim world. What is apparent is that we need new voices for change. The question remains, however, if these will be voices for democracy and pluralism or for destruction.” There was no doubt that women must be the central force in determining the future of their communities. While powerful external forces often dictate women’s freedoms, Afkhami believes that much of the hope for the future “must arise from women coming to believe that their agency makes a difference and that they have the right to determine the course of their destiny.” Internalizing this consciousness and an awareness of one’s basic rights will play a crucial role in the future of women’s political participation in Muslim societies.

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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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