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Feminists vs. Fundamentalists

Sat, Jan 1, 2005

Articles

GlobalizingWomenTransnationalFeministNetworksWomen Living Under Muslim Law and Sisterhood Is Global Institute

By Mahnaz Afkhami
In Globalizing Women : Transnational Feminist Networks/ Valentine M. Moghadam (ed.) / Johns Hopkins University Press / Baltimore / 2005

At the level of national politics, effective lobbying and advocacy strategies must be devised and initiatives pursued. The discourse of politico-religious groups must be consistently and loudly opposed at all levels, local, national, and international. Local initiatives need to be strengthened through linkages at a national and international level, and strategies must be evolved to address, effectively respond to, and modify contextual constraints within which women are obliged to live their lives. No single women’s group can adequately assume such diverse roles. However a multitude of autonomous groups effectively networking may achieve the critical mass needed to transform women’s struggles into workable strategies for bringing about gender-equitable society. [Farida Shaheed, of WLUML, 1995]

At the center of this concept [global feminism] is the idea that the conditions women have in common outrank and outvalue those that set them apart. As historical victims of patriarchy, they are naturally united across history; they must now transcend political and cultural divides that are contemporary effects of traditional patriarchal politics. … Because Muslim countries have not been colonial powers, Muslim women, like other women from the South, are in a better position politically to help with a global movement for women’s human rights. Many among them are multicultural, familiar with the West, multilingual, and conversant with international organizations and politics. Their freedom, however, is curtailed by a male-oriented hegemonic social structure at home and by their lack of access to the means of communication domestically and internationally. [Mahnaz Afkhami, of SIGI and WLP, 1995]

We have seen how responses to globalization in its varied dimensions have taken a number of forms. One reaction has emanated from fundamentlist groups. Benjamin Barber counterposes “jihad” and “McWorld” to connote the reaction of tribal, religious, and national groups–various forms of particularisms and identity politics–to the hegemony of corporate capital and Western norms. Such groups also have highly patriarchal agendas. Transnational feminist networks, therefore, have had to “battle” on two fronts: against corporate neoliberal capitalism (McWorld, to use Barber’s coinage) and against patriarchal nationalisms and fundamentalist movements (jihad in Barber’s sense of the term).1 This chapter examines two such TFNs–Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML) and the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI), as well as a newer TFN that operates in the Muslim world: the Women’s Learning Partnership for Peace, Development, and Rights (WLP). These TFNs call for the advancement, equality, and human rights of women in the Muslim world, and urge governments to implement the UN-sponsored Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, along with the Beijing Platform for Action. As advocates of democratization, civil society, and women’s rights, they are fierce opponents of fundamentalism, and have taken positions against those versions of cultural relativism and multiculturalism that undermine women’s equality and autonomy in the name of respect for cultural or religious traditions. They also have paid special attention to the violations of women’s human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Algeria, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Nigeria.

WLUML and SIGI were both formed in 1984, mainly in response to the growing crisis of fundamentalism but also, in SIGI’s case, in response to preparations for the third UN world conference on women. Both networks have been identified with strong leadership–Algeria-born Marieme Hélie-Lucas in the case of WLUML, along with the Pakistani feminists Farida Shaheed and Khawar Mumtaz, and in the case of SIGI, Iran-born Mahnaz Afkhami, along with the American feminist writer Robin Morgan. During the 1980s and 1990s, WLUML’s administrative base was in France, and in 2001 moved to London.2 During most of the 1990s, SIGI was headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, where Mahnaz Afkhami resided. In 2000, Afkhami, a movement entrepreneur as well as a movement intellectual, completed her term as president of SIGI and moved on to form the Women’s Learning Partnership.

Origins, Aims, and Alliances: An Overview

Both WLUML and SIGI may be described as antifundamentalist networks of Muslim feminists and secular feminists who link with other women’s networks to advance the human rights of women in the Muslim world. As we shall see, they are similar in organizational structure to the TFNs examined in the previous chapter. WLUML, SIGI (especially during the 1990s), and now the Women’s Learning Partnership have been centrally concerned with women’s human rights, but they differ from other women’s human rights groups in their focus on women in Muslim countries and communities. WLUML in particular was the first such feminist network to emerge.

The international solidarity network WLUML formed in response to concerns about changes in family laws in the countries from which the founding members came. The group came together on the initiative of Marieme Hélie-Lucas, an Algerian citizen who had taught epistemology and social science methodology for twelve years at the University of Algiers. Helie-Lucas had been a left-wing activist on political and women’s issues, and like other dissidents she had faced harassment. She left Algeria in 1982 and settledln Europe. This was a time of transition in Algeria, from the era of Arab socialism under Houari Boumedienne (who had died in December 1979) to a period of economic and political restructuring under Chedli Bendjedid. The new government was also drafting a patriarchal family law, which alarmed many women and led to the formation of an Algerian feminist movement.3 In July 1984, nine women-from Algeria, Sudan, Morocco, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Mauritius, and Tanzania-set up an Action Committee of Women Living under Muslim Laws in response to situations ariSing out of “the application of Muslim laws in India, Algeria, and Abu Dhabi that resulted in the violation of women’s human rights.”4 By early 1985, the committee had evolved into an international network of information, solidarity, and support, and Hélie-Lucas became the guiding light behind the network WLUML.

Tasks for the network were established at the first planning meeting, in April 1986, involving ten women from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The tasks were: to create international links between women in Muslim countries and communities; to exchange information on their situations, struggles, and strategies, in order to strengthen and reinforce women’s initiatives and struggles through various means (such as through publications and exchanges); and to support each others’ struggles through various means, including an Alert for Action system.5 Since then, WLUML has become a network of women who are active in their local and national movements but who meet periodically to reach consensus on a plan of action. For example, the 1997 plan of action identified the following as priorities: the continuing rise of fundamentalism; militarization/armed conflict situations and their impact on women in Muslim societies; and sexuality. Some thirty-five activists from eighteencountries gathered in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to agree on the plan.

Fiercely antifundamentalist since its inception, WLUML began to issue warnings as early as 1990 about an “Islamist international” with the organizational, human, financial, and military means to threaten secularists, feminists, and democrats.6 As one activist notes, “the organization also has denounced the presence and in some instances the protection by the West” of Islamists such as Anouar Haddam, who was a member first of the Algerian Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) and then of the Group Armee Islamique (GIA).7 Because of the FIS and GIA record of terrorism, including harassment, kidnapping, rape, and murder of Algerian women, WLUML has opposed any legalization of these groups without prosecution of those responsible for crimes, and . has protested the granting of political asylum in the West to individuals associated with these organizations.

SIGI came into being following the completion of the book Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology, edited by veteran American feminist and writer Robin Morgan. Many of the book’s twenty-five contributors went on to be involved with SIGI. Marilyn Waring-former New Zealand member of parliament and author of an influential study of how the system of national accounts systematically undercounts women’s economic contributions-was an early executive director. Gertrude Monghella of Tanzania became a member of the board–and later was appointed the secretary general of the UN’s 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. And Mahnaz Afkhami–author of the anthology’s essay on Iran who had been president of the Women’s Organization in Iran but went into exile after the 1979 revolution–became Vice-president, executive director, and finally president of SIGI. Initially conceived as a transnational feminist think tank, SIGI went on to be “an international non-government, non-profit organization dedicated to the support and promotion of women’s rights at the local, national, regional, and global levels,” as stated on its website. By late 1999 it boasted members in seventy countries, with “more than 1,300 individuals and organizations worldwide. SIGI works toward empowering women and developing leadership through human rights education.”8

During the 1990s the network’s primary goals were to:
• Inform women of their basic rights guaranteed to them under international human rights conventions and empower them to attain those rights;
• Increase public awareness and concern about human rights abuses committed against women;
• Facilitate the direct participation of women from the global South in international debates concerning their rights;
• Encourage women from all cultures, religions, races, classes, ages, sexual preferences, and abilities to work together to define and achieve common goals;
• Facilitate research and proVide training models for women from the developing world in the areas of human rights education, communication, and leadership.

To realize these goals, SIGI implemented four programs. The Women’s Human Rights Education Program worked to inform and empower women; the International Dialogues were a series of meetings, conferences, and symposia on issues of concern to women; the Urgent Action Alert Program issued alerts in response to cases of human rights abuses against women; and the outreach and advocacy initiatives aimed to increase public awareness and concern for women’s human rights.9 A number of human rights manuals and more academic studies resulted from these programs, including two books produced following SIGI conferences that have been cited widely and adopted in women’s studies programs internationally. Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World promotes the universality of human rights while also examining those existing patriarchal structures and processes in Muslim countries that present women’s human tights as contradictory to Islam. In Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation: Implementing the Beijing Platform for Action, sixteen activists and scholars from Muslim countries and representatives of international organizations describe ways of promoting women’s participation in the affairs of Muslim societies.

SIGI has rotated its headquarters every five years in order that the organization not conform permanently to the culture and environment of any area, and to allow it to focus on women’s participation in activities in new regions.10 After its founding in New York, the headquarters moved to New Zealand in 1989, then on to Bethesda, Maryland, in 1993, where Afkhami worked to make the organization prominent and active. She felt her aim was to “help bring about a more equitable representation of women from the Global South in international debates.”11 In January 2000 SIGI moved to Montreal, Canada, where the new president, Greta Hofmann Nemiroff, shifted the organization’s focus from the rights of women in the Middle East to economic issues of women in Canada. The defense and promotion of women’s human rights in the Muslim world are the principal aims of both WLUML and SIGI. As fluid networks rather than membership-based organizations, they give priority to creating strong networks and ties of solidarity among women across countries rather than seeking to influence national or global policy through interaction with governments or intergovernmental bodies. But SIGI also sought to enhance its research capabilities, especially during the 1990s and under the direction of Mahnaz Afkhami. When she took over in 1993, SIGI “had a budget of only $18,000. There was no office, no proposals, nothing but a group of famous names connected to it.”12 She set about to develop its “feminist think tank” role through conferences, symposia, workshops, international dialogues, and publications. These were funded by grant proposals that she wrote for UNIFEM and such foundations as Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur. In addition, SIGI had a catalyst role to play, in that it engaged in partnerships with Muslim women to enhance their rights and helped to build capacity for women’s organizations. In one particularly successful example of such partnering and capacity building, a request for assistance to form a new organization by Asma Khader–the Palestinian-Jordanian activist lawyer and past president of the Jordanian Women’s Union–led to the formation of SIGI-Jordan.13

The UN conferences of the 1990s helped TFNs to spread their messages, expand their networks, and raise funds for specific projects. But for WLUML and SIGI, and for similar feminist groups, the 1993 UN conference on human rights was a major turning point, in that it helped them to focus on the concept of women’s human rights and to refine the argument that women’s rights were inseparable from human rights. As Afkhami explained: “We all worked together on that concept. It was our focus from the beginning. We had a presence [in Vienna], and that was a launching pad for us. There we all coalesced and came together–the feminist human rights networks.”14 The feminist networks argued forcefully that violence against women in the home, on the streets, or in wartime should be regarded as human rights violations. And they took part in the Tribunal on Violence against Women, organized by veteran activist Charlotte Bunch.

The Vienna conference was the first UN conference that WLUML officially attended, and it did so largely to raise awareness about Islamist violence against Algerian women at the women’s tribunal. Charlotte Bunch had raised funds to enable women to attend the Vienna conference and testify at the women’s tribunal, and WLUML had recommended that Khalida Messaoudi, an Algerian feminist leader, be invited.15 WLUML also participated in the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development, where it joined other feminist networks in criticizing efforts by the Vatican, conservative states, and Christian and Muslim fundamentalists to remove references to women’s reproductive rights in the conference declaration. These conferences helped WLUML to expand its collaborations and alliances with transnational feminist networks such as WIDE and Women, Law, and Development International in Washington, D.C.–in addition to its ongoing links with the Institute for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, with Shirkat Gah in Lahore, Pakistan, and with Baobob in Lagos, Nigeria. Said Helie-Lucas: “We were always present at the NGO forums. We were less interested in the intergovernmental, official conferences. “16 There were no links with UN agencies, and unlike SIGI and other TFNs, WLUML did not seek accreditation to ECOSOC. Like SlGI and other TFNs, however, the network receives funding from the major U.S. and European foundations, as well as the Dutch, Swedish, and Canadian international development agencies, to finance its activities and projects.

According to its mission statement, “WLUML is a network of women whose lives are shaped, conditioned or governed by laws, both written and unwritten, drawn from interpretations of the Koran and tied up with local traditions. Generally speaking, men and the State use these against women, and they have done so under various political regimes.”17 In order to achieve the network’s principal aim of increasing women’s autonomy over all aspects of their lives–social and economic, cultural and political, physical and psychological–WLUML undertakes a variety of activities. It collects and disseminates information on formal and customary laws in the Muslim world, as well as on women’s lives, struggles, and strategies. It advances shared lived experiences through exchanges, including face-to-face interaction among women in the Muslim world. Common projects are identified by women in the network and reflect their diverse concerns. One project was called the Koranic Interpretation by Women, which was launched in Lahore in 1990 and entailed an independent reading and interpretation of the Koran, Hadith, and existing Islamic laws. The ten-year project culminated in a book and increased awareness of the religious women involved of the misapplication of Islamic law in the Muslim world. Particularly active in this project was the Malaysian women’s group Sisters in Islam.18

The central activity of the network, however, may be identified as its solidarity and support work. WLUML receives appeals and responds to as well as initiates campaigns pertaining to violations of human rights, including women’s human rights.19 All requests from groups or individuals representing varied opinions and currents from within the movement for reform or defense of women’s rights seeking support and urgent actions are forwarded throughout the network. As Hélie-Lucas has explained, these actions range from campaigns concerning the repeal of discriminatory legislation, the end of oppressive gender practices, the enactment and/or enforcement of legislation favorable to women, and cases of systematized or generalized violations of human rights; to individual cases where, for example, harsh sentences have been meted, women have been forcibly married against their will, fathers have abducted their children, and women’s lives have been threatened. In November 2002, WLUML expanded its information and solidarity work on fundamentalism and women’s human rights through a new website called Fundamentalisms: A Web Resource for Women’s Human Rights, a joint initiative with the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).20

WLUML Activities: A Closer Look

In keeping with its focus on monitoring the human rights of women in Muslim countries, extending solidarity, and raising international awareness, WLUML has issued numerous action alerts. These have been disseminated by the international coordination office in Europe, the Asia office in Pakistan, or the African office in Nigeria. A sample of action alert efforts between 1990 and 1995 that were either initiated by WLUML or disseminated by them on behalf of other organizations include the following: an alert on the campaign to end the trafficking of Burmese women and girls into Thai brothels; an alert on the campaign to prosecute three war criminals of the Bangladesh War of liberation, now citizens and residents of the UK; an alert regarding violation of women’s human rights in Kurdistan (in this case “committed by the relatives of women or even by members of the autonomous government of Kurdistan”); an alert regarding the appeal by a Pakistani fanatical group for the murder of four prominent citizens for alleged blasphemy; an appeal by Amnesty International regarding the torture of a nine-year-old Indonesian boy detained on suspicion of stealing a wallet; an alert regarding the rape of an eleven-year-old Bangladeshi girl by police in Delhi; an alert regarding the campaign to save the lives of the thirteen-year-old Christian Pakistani boy and his uncle who had been sentenced to death under blasphemy charges in Pakistan.

There was also an alert regarding the abduction, torture, and killing of Marinsah, an Indonesian female factory worker and trade union activist; an appeal from the group Women for Women’s Human Rights in Turkey calling for the revision of Turkey’s Family Code; numerous appeals regarding the situation of Algerian women and fundamentalist terror; a condemnation of female genital mutilation; many appeals regarding Bosnia; an appeal by the Union of Palestinian Working Women Committees regarding ill-treatment of Palestinian women fighters in Israeli jails; an alert regarding the Egyptian government’s closure of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association; the campaign for the International Day of Protest against the continued presence of U.S. military bases and facilities in the Philippines; an alert regarding the situation of women in Iran; an alert regarding the reinstatement in the early 1990s of a law allowing “honor killings” in Iraq.

Besides the action alerts, the activities of the network entail documenting and disseminating information in the form of dossiers, which describe the situation of Muslim women and legal codes in various countries and report on the activities of women’s organizations. The Dossier is an occasional journal, appearing in English and in French and intended as “a networking tool with the aim of providing information about lives, struggles, and strategies of women in various Muslim communities and countries the world over.”21 A series on women’s movements was launched with a report on Iran. WLUML also reprints publications, such as one produced in 1995 by North African feminists advocating and describing an egalitarian family code.

The Asia coordination office, and specifically the women’s resource center Shirkat Gah, produces the News Sheet. In the late 1990s, many articles were devoted to describing the plight of women in Algeria and in Afghanistan. Although the News Sheets disseminate news about the network as well as problems faced by Muslim women in various countries, they do not focus exclusively on Muslim women, but address themselves to women’s human rights situation throughout the developing world. For example, in its May-June 2000 issue, the News Sheet included an article on women’s contribution to a culture of peace, with an emphasis on meetings between progressive women in Pakistan and India, and reports on Sri Lanka and Fiji. Shirkat Gah also devotes its resources to translating and publishing books, including two on the gender implications of the changing political economy of Uzbekistan and Central Asia.22 Moreover, it produces many reports on the situation of women in Pakistan. Khawar Mumtaz and Farida Shaheed, who are active with WLUML, are often called upon by UN agencies to serve as consultants and prepare reports on women in Pakistan.

Activist Information Dissemination

The 1998 News Sheets and Compilations of Information included articles on the atrocities in Algeria, especially the kidnapping, rapes, and murders of women; an Algerian appeal against the conservative Family Code; a article about the efforts by the Democratic League for Women’s Rights to secure universal and compulsory public education in Morocco; activities by the Women’s Action Forum in Nigeria against a new law; an article about the El Badeel Coalition against “Family Honor” Crimes in Palestine; and articles about the plight of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan. The situation in Yugoslavia was also addressed, with articles about war mobilization in Serbia and the condition of the refugees. Several articles on Kosovo had titles such as: “War in Kosovo and the Logic of Patriarchy: Violation of Human Rights Is an International Issue”; “We Refuse the War! Open Letter from Women in Black against War”; “Seven Years of Women in Black: We Are Still on the Streets.” News Sheets contained open letters of appeal from different women’s and peace organizations to stop the war and violence in Kosovo.

The tone of many WLUML articles is feminist, antimilitarist, and anticorporate. One article described a campaign by AAWORD. (Association of African Women for Research and Development) against a World Bank-supported oil pipeline project in Chad and Cameroon. A letter of appeal by AAWORD described the environmental and development problems that would ensue from the project. Another article reported on the Baja tragedy, a chemical spill in the Punjab that killed twenty people and did considerable environmental damage. The article also suggested ways to prevent future environmental tragedies. Elsewhere, the Declaration of African Women’s Anti-War Coalition was reprinted and an article described the Women’s Vigil for Peace press conference on the effect of the war on the lives of the Kenyan people. An article on the International Criminal Court discussed its strengths and limitations for women. A press statement from the Philippines feminist network GABRIELA–“Women Condemn Tokyo Court’s Rejection of Lila’s Claim” described the class action suit by the sexual victims of Japanese soldiers during World War II. And another article was entitled “East Asia-U.S. Women’s Network against U.S. Militarism Redefining Security for Women and Children,” describing the group’s final statement at their second international meeting. GABRIELA issued a statement about their campaign Purple Rose to oppose the sexual exploitation and trafficking of Filipino women and girls. An action alert protested the assault on women and girls of Chinese descent in Indonesia who had been the recent victims of targeted violence. And there was a “Call for Peace” in the Persian Gulf by Turkish and Greek members of WINPEACE. In 2002 and 2003 the News Sheets carried articles on the second Palestinian intifada, Israeli military incursions, and women’s peace-building initiatives; criticisms of the U.S. stance on Iraq; and updates on the status of women in various Muslim countries, including the appointment for the first time of a woman judge in Egypt.23

Opposing national chauvinism and religious discrimination, the WLUML News Sheet has carried articles and open letters in opposition to the nuclearization of Pakistan and India, and reported on the six Indians who were killed from the post-radiation blast from the nuclear testing. The News Sheet criticized the Pakistani blasphemy law and covered the Christian who was sentenced to death for blasphemy. Another news item reported on the tragic death of Bishop John Joseph, who took his own life in protest of the Pakistani blasphemy law. A “Press Statement by Indian Citizens” was printed that condemned the attacks on Christian buildings by Hindu fanatics. And the News Sheet reported on a new campaign: the Movement for the Trial of War Criminals of 1971. This campaign appealed to then Pakistan Premier Newaz Sharif to seek public apology for war crimes and sexual abuses of Bengali women by Pakistani soldiers during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971.

One 1998 article described the Banjul Declaration, issued by the participants at the Symposium for Religious Leaders and Medical Personnel on female genital mutilation, which declared female circumcision to be a form of violence. In 1998 and 1999 a series of articles concerned Women in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Iranian women were described as producing films, defying the dress code, and vying for senior political posts. Several articles described notable Pakistani women and their achievements in harsh circumstances. A message by the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) called on Afghans and the world community to commemorate March 8 with intensified struggles to end the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Another article described the activities of the Sudanese Women’s Association in Nairobi. Two memorial articles appeared, one on Kishwar Abid Hussain, a leader and a founding member of the Pakistani Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and another on Bella Abzug, the founder of WEDO.

The work of the network has been guided by plans of action, agreed upon in 1986, 1990, and 1997. Collective projects on topics related to women in the Muslim world also have been initiated. These include an exchange program in 1988 that allowed eighteen women from fifteen countries to meet for the purpose of exchanging information on strategies used in different parts of the Muslim world by women activists. According to Hélie-Lucas: “We realized that many local customs and traditions practiced in the name of Islam in one part of the World were in fact unheard of in others. It also became evident that not only are the varied and contradictory interpretations of the Koran monopolized by men but they are also the only ones who have so far defined the status of Muslim women.24

This realization led to the initiation of the project on Koranic interpretation by women, which brought together thirty women activists and resource persons from ten countries to read for themselves the verses of the Koran relating to women. “The meeting allowed participants to see just how differently the same verses of the Koran have been interpreted (both through translations and explanations, or tafsir) by Islamic scholars and various schools of thought.25 This effort led to the initiation of the Women and Law Project, involving women in twenty countries who examined legislation, especially the Muslim family codes that discriminate against women and contradict equality clauses in the countries’ constitutions. The stated objective of the Women and Law Program was to empower women living under Muslim laws through knowledge of their rights in their Societies and to strengthen their capacity to understand their situations, to act locally, and work together towards meeting their needs. As well, it aims to enhance the participation of women in the development of their societies.”

Universal Rights and the Algeria and Afghanistan Campaigns

Like other TFNs, WLUML evinces a discourse and orientation that are universalistic and modernist rather than postmodernist. For example, one dossier criticized a cultural relativism that “explains” honor crimes and other forms of gender oppression in terms of the function of traditions and the noncommensurability of cultures. It is worth quoting at length:

The issue under question is the attitude that accepts these crimes as part of today’s reality and further justifies them by saying that “these people have chosen their own destiny; it is their culture; we have our own culture and they have their own; we should respect their culture and not interfere in their affairs.” In other words they say women in Iran are responsible for not having the right to divorce, the right of custody of their children, having to wear the veil, or laws which punish them with stoning!
Introducing and defending any reactionary and suppressive measure against people, especially under the name of respecting different cultures must be condemned because it is against humanity at large. One cannot regionalize basic human rights. One cannot have thousands of sets of standards for women’s human rights.
Human rights and women’s rights are international in character and substance. Why is it that technology, business and capital soon find their international role and place even in the most backward region but health education, literacy can wait for many years if introduced at all?
Women migrants in Europe and North America have denounced the dangerous softness with which oppressive laws, customs, and practices against women, imported from other cultures, are tolerated or encouraged in host countries–in the name of respect for the Other, of the right to difference, of putting at par different cultures or religions.
Like our own governments, governments of the countries of immigration are prepared to sell out the well-being, the human rights and the civil rights of women for the sake of giving in to the migrant community, solely represented everywhere in the world, by its male members.”
The collusion of patriarchies transcends most of the bones of contention between migrants and hosts. This is why, amongst the many laws and customs that could have been imported from the migrants’ culture only those pertaining to women, the family and the private sphere are viewed with such tolerance.26

In addition to its stance against cultural relativism and misguided versions of multiculturalism, WLUML is very critical of existing political and economic arrangements, and often attributes fundamentalism and women’s inequality to economic inequalities and political corruption. hus it bemoans “the miserable failure of states in many parts of the Muslim world (as elsewhere) to close or even narrow the yawning gap between rich and poor, to provide jobs for burgeoning numbers of unemployed, to stem the insidious corruption that sows disillusionment throughout society, and to provide basic social services, such as health and education, that are essential to a decent life.”27 A solution promoted by many women’s groups that the network once endorsed was that development agencies and donor countries broaden the scope of development “conditionality” to benefit women: “Rather than leaving women to the ‘goodwill’ of their (male) political leaders, states should be obliged by donors to direct a percentage of their aid money to women’s projects.”28

As a network of women in Muslim countries and communities, WLUML may be expected to be an enthusiastic supporter of democratization, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. However, as was noted in chapter 2, global feminists raise concerns about democratization projects that ignore women’s rights. And feminists in Middle Eastern countries have experienced democratization processes that have opened up political space for Islamist parties. In the 1990s, Islamists in Jordan’s parliament blocked legislation that would reform the country’s family law in women’s favor and that would impose strict punishments for honor crimes.

But it was the outcome of the political opening in Algeria after 1989 that confirmed the ambivalence of WLUML feminists regarding a strictly electoral democratization, leading Hélie-Lucas to make the following statement in 1993: “There is no sign that the fate of women will be seen as a valid indicator of democracy by the international community. What we see instead is a narrow interpretation of democracy in the exclusive sense of parliamentary democracy. This never prevented Hitler from being elected!” The reference to “a narrow interpretation of democracy” and to the election of Hitler is indicative of WLUML’s concern with an electoralism that in certain circumstances can give rise to extreme right-wing, fascistic, or fundamentalist regimes. Following urban riots in 1988 that targeted the consequences of structural adjustment as well as political authoritarianism, the government of Chedli Bendjedid in 1989 declared political liberalization and drafted a new constitution allowing for a multiparty system and the first open elections. But it was the fundamentalist organization FIS that emerged as the front runner. In the run-up to the elections, FIS supporters and its leadership had threatened and bullied feminists and unveiled women and had stated their intention to “use democracy to destroy democracy” and establish an Islamic government. Algerian feminists and the network WLUML were understandably hostile to the fundamentalist agenda and skeptical of the prospect for real democratic outcomes of the 1991 elections. After the Algerian military and ruling party cancelled the results of the elections and the PIS initiated an armed conflict, Algerian feminist organizations were appalled by the ensuing violence–which included the kidnapping and rapes of many Algerian women and girls–and issued the slogan “no dialogue with the fundamentalists.” In this they were supported by WLUML.29

Indeed, the Algeria campaign was a major one for WLUML, and the network sought to draw attention to the plight of Algerian women through participation at various UN conferences. They disseminated numerous action alerts and compiled dossiers. They provided funding so that the Algerian feminist leader Zazi Sadou could attend the 1995 Beijing conference and testify at the women’s tribunal on violence against women. In January 1999, in concert with the International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic, WLUML submitted a shadow report on Algeria to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. A highly detailed report, it documented the violence visited upon women by fundamentalist forces and the continuing discrimination women faced in state policies and in the legal framework.30 They also put together a dossier on women’s human rights violations by the fundamentalists (and by the state).

WLUML has become a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court, which the network sees asimportant for accountability, compensation, and awareness-raising. In December 2000, WLUML attended the historic Tokyo Tribunal on Japan’s military sexual slavery in World War II, and was the initiator of a one-day public hearing on similar contemporary crimes, including the case of sexual slavery by Islamists in Algeria during the 1990s. In 2002 WLUML worked with a New York-based feminist and human rights law professor who helped them file a civil suit against the U.S.-based Algerian fundamentalist Anouar Haddam. The plaintiff in the case was the founder of an Algerian feminist organization and had received death threats from PIS during the civil conflict. The civil suit was regarded as not only a way of seeking recompense and justice but also as a political move to raise awareness about the contention between feminists and fundamentalists.31 Another WLUML campaign concerned the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban, and included the preparation in 1998 of a compilation of news reports concerning Taliban atrocities, appeals by Afghan women’s organizations, and condemnations by international women’s groups and prominent women leaders. WLUML had not actively taken up the case of Afghan women in the pre-Taliban era, when the modernizing and left-wing government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was fighting the Mujahideen, an alliance of Islamists backed by the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, and Soviet troops were in Afghanistan.32 Still, Hélie-Lucas, Shaheed, Mumtaz, and others in the network had had no illusions about the Mujahideen and their external supporters, and were appalled by their record of incompetence, infighting, and rapes when they came to power in 1992. In 1996, when the Taliban overthrew the Mujahideen and established a particularly repressive gender regime, WLUML went into action to raise international awareness. Shirkat Gah, for example, helped Afghan women refugees in Pakistan disseminate their international appeals. Throughout, WLUML feminists criticized the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries for having supported Afghan fundamentalists to the detriment of the human rights of women.

WLUML was also critical of the U.S. bombing raids, which the United States conducted in Afghanistan following the tragedy of 11 September 2001 in order to bring down the perpetrators, the al-Qaeda network, Osama bin Laden, and their Taliban sponsors. They were concerned that the raids brought devastation to ordinary Afghans. And they accused Western countries of having turned a blind eye to–and in the case of the U.S., having actively supported–Islamists. An article in a WLUML newsletter declared:

Countless documents drawn up by international women’s groups bear witness to the denunciations of all of this in recent years. Denunciations that not only fell on deaf ears but also suffered attempts of being silenced through the use of pressure and threats.
Western governments are the prime responsible ones for the creation of these big and small monsters that they are now attempting to fight against. The West never cared when the Taliban attacked Afghan women’s rights, when they assaulted them, when they killed them. It has looked in the other direction while in Algeria the radical Islamic groups have kidnapped, raped, killed and ripped to pieces scores of women–the latest aggression taking place barely two months ago–while in Bangladesh women have to live with their faces scarred by the acid thrown in their faces by fundamentalists.
And now. Is an end to western hypocrisy going to come with the resounding measures being taken against the terrorism of the radical Islamic networks? Will they be compatible with measures of justice? It does not seem just to carpet-bomb a people, the Afghan people, who in the last years have been the prime victim of a regime which has been indirectly tolerated and harboured. There must be another way of achieving justice.33

SIGI Activities: A Closer Look

During the 1990s, through conferences, brainstorming sessions, and international dialogues, SIGI developed models to educate women on their human rights. One publication was Claiming Our Rights: A Manual for Women’s Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies, a guide for leaders of human rights workshops. The workshops were designed to promote human rights awareness among women, and empower them with leadership skills to claim their rights and combat gender-based violence.34 After its publication in 1998, Claiming Our Rights was adopted in twelve countries and translated into Arabic, Azeri, Bengali, Hindi, Malay, Persian, Russian, Urdu, and Uzbek. By late 1999, over two thousand women and men had participated in the test workshops around the world.35

Claiming Our Rights was implemented through test workshops in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Central Asia, led by field coordinators affiliated with SIGI. The philosophy and method behind Claiming Our Rights were flexible education, participation, dialogue, consensus-building, individual consciousness raising, and respect for different priorities. For example, Malaysian single mothers confronted the issues of alimony negotiations and child custody battles and greatly benefited from discussions on Islamic law. A report explains: “The diverse educational, sectarian; and socioeconomic backgrounds of workshop participants necessitated that coordinators and facilitators respond creatively to the expectations of the different groups …. Participants in Seema Kazi’s workshop in New Delhi were from extremely poor communities, slums, and shantytowns in and around the city. The Indian participants chose to focus on women’s rights within the family over several sessions because the issue held much personal relevance.”36 In other test workshop sites, such as several Palestinian refugee camps, human rights discussion was introduced for the first time. In Syria, the coordinator reported that most of the participants were well educated but had rarely considered the issue of human rights. The workshop enabled the women participants to understand the concept of basic rights and to see violations of these rights in their daily lives.37 Self-awareness and confidence were points stressed in each group to enable women to recognize these violations and to take a more active role in eradicating them. In turn, the workshops allowed SIGI to learn what improvements needed to be made. Claiming Our Rights was subsequently used in Brazil in the form of a radio project. Ten sessions were broadcast over the radio station REDEH.38

In another initiative, SIGI developed a manual entitled Safe and Secure: Eliminating Violence against Women and Girls in Muslim Societies with aid from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Global Fund for Women, and the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development.39 Safe and Secure was a gender violence training manual for those conducting human rights education workshops. Its purpose was to “mobilize and empower women to eliminate gender-based violence.” The manual trained advocates and trainers to aid grassroots women in their understanding about universal human rights and the international human rights documents aimed toward ending violence against women and girls. lts goal was to assist women by helping them identify sources of violence in the family, community, and state; helping them to communicate their information about and understanding of violence to other women; and empowering them to influence governments to formulate and implement policies that eliminate violence. As the report on the manual explained: “The model underlying the manual is culture-based, grassroots-oriented, participatory, and non-hierarchical. The framework of the model is used to convey universal concepts of human rights in association with indigenous ideas, traditions, myths, and texts rendered in local idiom. It uses local examples, familiar concepts, and idiomatic language.”40 Discussion groups are formed in which the group leader helps the group to identify the sources and forms of violence against women and girls, understand the themes of violence as defined in international documents and as understood in local contexts, and devise effective strategies to combat violence. Included in the manual are case studies related to thirteen different types of gender-based violence: verbal and psychological abuse; financial and resource coercion; verbal and physical assaults in public spaces; sexual harassment on the job; child labor; spousal abuse; female genital mutilation; rape; trafficking and prostitution; child marriage; honor killings; women in the midst of armed conflict; and state-sanctioned gender apartheid. The manual also includes examples of projects intended to address gender violence in the global South; international legal instruments protecting women’s human rights; samples of national legislation on violence against women and girls; a list of organizations that deal with this issue in Muslim communities. Sample questions and interactive learning exercises are intended to stimulate participants to develop ways of ending these violations.

In keeping with its method of bottom-up and systematic human rights education, SIGI developed the manual in a two-part process. In the first part, firsthand reports and data were collected concerning gender-based violence in Muslim communities, and these were adapted to theories and methods of the abolition of violence. Forty activists, advocates, and academicians from universities and international and nongovernmental organizations reviewed the material. They determined the need to place violence against women and girls in local, national, and international contexts to combat the problem effectively. It was also decided to design and implement antiviolence strategies that respected and incorporated local cultural, political, and socioeconomic realities among grassroots populations, and to create an international network of activists seeking to end gender-based violence by sharing information, financial resources, and strategies.41

Test workshops were held in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Zimbabwe. In Egypt, participants were mostly ilijterate and discussed such issues as child labor and escaping debt and financial coercion. The workshops in Jordan saw the participation of NGO leaders and supervisors of programs concerning violence against women. Their recommendations included the addition of more case studies and the modification of some of the exercises. Lebanon’s test groups included rural women and directors of divisions and teachers in Koranic schools. In a country where violence against women is traditionally a taboo subject, the SIGI program helped to bring the issue to the public’s attention. In the second stage of the process of publishing Safe and Secure, changes were made to ensure adaptation to a variety of communities and regions based on the information recovered from the test workshops.42

A follow-up was the manual In Our Own Words: A Guide for Human Rights Education, which begins by describing alternative learning methods through facilitation, and the importance of democratic forms of building knowledge and making decisions. The aim was to provide a structure that would allow women to think for themselves and to plan appropriate action for the promotion of their human rights. The second part of the manual addresses frequently asked human rights questions such as: What are human rights? What is human rights law? How is international human rights law created? What are the NGOs and how to they influence human rights policy? What is CEDAW? The third part guides workshop leaders in their ability to adapt to the different people and issues in their group, and to relate to participants’ lived experience. It also suggests strategies for dealing with difficult issues and situations, and explains how cultural relativism can be an impediment to rights.43

Like WLUML, SIGI emphasized the universality of rights and rejected notions of cultural relativism in connection to human rights. This was a matter of principle and conviction and the result of observing how governments and religious leaders in Muslim countries (and elsewhere) manipulated cultural relativist arguments to justify practices that discriminated against women. Both feminist networks hold fast to international conventions and norms, such as the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979. At an international conference in San Francisco in October 1998, SIGI President Mahnaz Afkhami led the session “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 50: Preface to the Future.” Noting that poverty remained widespread, that women were still subservient to men in many cultures, and that basic rights were still denied large sections of humanity, Afkhami underscored the importance of the Universal Declaration and called it “the highest expression of our noblest aspirations as individuals.”44

These sentiments notwithstanding, Afkhami is aware that not all women’s organizations in the global South are comfortable with the conventional discourse of human rights. This is especially true of certain women’s organizations in the Middle East and North Africa, which do not necessarily state their aspirations in the human rights framework. As Afkhami explained:

They use a legalistic or developmental approach rather than a human rights approach per se. Also, there is a negative connotation regarding human rights, and it is often seen as an American-defined agenda, as a U.S. political ploy, or as a form of cultural colonialism. That’s one of the reasons why women have not picked up the vocabulary. When our training manual was produced, some of our Middle Eastern partners asked us, “can’t you call it something other than ‘education for women’s human rights”‘?

What we’ve tried to do is to find ways of dealing with the issue of women’s human rights in ways with which our partners are comfortable. We don’t have a problem with the issue of the universality of rights, or with an international convention such as CEDAW, for example. But we have to be sensitive to local priorities and to respect our partners’ self-identified values. And we use local idioms where we can, in order to work toward women’s rights. The relativity of rights is not an issue; rather, the priorities and methodologies have to be self-determined.45

Organizational Structures and Dynamics

Both WLUML and SIGI may be described as advocacy networks with loose structures. This is also true of a newer Middle-East-based feminist network, the Machreg-Maghreb Gender Link Information Project (GLIP), as well as the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace, which Afkhami formed after her term as SIGI president expired in late 1999. Transnational advocacy, information exchange, and solidarity are important goals of such feminist networks, and–as the quotations at the beginning of this chapter indicate–they believe that fluid, nonhierarchical, and democratic organizational forms and methods are more conducive to such goals than is the conventional bureaucratic organization. Nevertheless, there are some differences in their respective organizational structures.

Linking Local and Global: WLUML
WLUML exemplifies the type of transnational activity that does not eschew national issues. Indeed, WLUML leaders frequently emphasize that theirs is “an international solidarity network of women’s groups with their own national priorities.”46 At its inception, says Hélie-Lucas, “we deliberately chose to reach out to women who worked on the ground in their countries, in order to enhance their own work by means of international solidarity among us.”47 And yet, she says, “we see ourselves as part of the global women’s movement.”48

Farida Shaheed, a founding leader of WLUML, has written of how the network “creates links amongst women and women’s groups (including those prevented from organizing or facing repression if they attempt to do so) within Muslim communities, increase their knowledge about both the common and diverse situations in various contexts, strengthen their struggles and create the means to support them internationally from within and outside the Muslim world.” The network “builds a network of information and solidarity; disseminates information through dossiers of information, facilitates interaction and contact between women from Muslim countries and communities, and between them and progressive feminist groups at large, facilitates exchanges of women from one geographical region to another.”49

Since its inception, WLUML has operated as a network rather than as an organization or professional association. There is no formal membership; involvement is informal; and a plan of action guides the work for a period of four to six years. As Hélie-Lucas said: “The plan of action is a political document, and specific projects are drawn from it. We come together for the plans of action, where we discuss new developments and new priorities.”50

WLUML began as a one-woman coordination office in France and then progressed to a small group assuming responsibility for implementation of the plans of action. In the second half of the 1990s, stimulated by successive collective projects, the network developed a more complex and diversified system for decision-making and implementation of network activities.51 In the late 1990s the core group consisted of seven persons who were in charge of international coordination, book-keeping, and maintaining the overall direction of the network. Three coordination offices–an international coordination office in Europe, one in Pakistan (Shirkat Gah) for Asia, and one in Nigeria (Baobob) for Africa-shared information and analyses, issued action alerts, and carried out collective projects.52 The coordination group was a flexible group of active “networkers” assuming responsibility for specific projects. The coordination group (which includes all members of the core group) had developed into the most important body for programming, planning, and implementation for the network as a whole. For example, the regional coordinators planned and directed the project on women and the law. In 2000, a series of committees were formed to involve a larger number of active networkers in the coordination and implementation of specific activities, such as publications and finance.

As Hélie-Lucas winded down her activities, the main WLUML office moved to London in 2001, but before that, there were eight staff persons in the office in France (including Helie-Lucas). All were paid positions in administration, accounting, and so on. Shirkat Gahin Pakistan had seventy paid positions. There was also a WLUML training institute, led by the veteran Bangladeshi human rights lawyer Salma Sobhan.

By 1994 women and women’s organizations in some twenty-five countries were associated with WLUML through various projects.53 According to Shaheed, “over two thousand women in several continents are linked through WLUML. These women have diverse professional and academic backgrounds, organizational frameworks and political perspectives but share a commitment to expanding women’s autonomy. Most are actively involved in the women’s movement in their own countries or place of residence. In addition, many are engaged in general advocacy initiatives.”54 Elsewhere, Shaheed notes that “an important minority are lawyers and social scientists, but the majority works in development and advocacy programs, often in an integrated manner. … WLUML links research groups, media groups and training organizations, grassroots organizations and university academics, Islamic scholars and legal aid and crisis centers …. The differences between groups and individuals give WLUML its uniqueness, a channel through which the differences in the lives and strategies of women in the Muslim world can be heard and exchanged.”55

The differences among women in the WLUML network that Shaheed refers to pertain to different perspectives on Islam, women’s rights, and secularism. Women in the network range from atheists (such as Hélie-Lucas) to believers (such as Sisters in Islam, based in Malaysia). All, however, oppose authoritarian Islamization and fundamentalist extremism. For example, Cassandra Balchin, a Pakistani journalist associated with WLUML, was involved in the women’s campaigns against Zia ul-Haq’s Islamization project. Ayesha Imam, a Nigerian feminist sociologist and human rights activist, formed the women’s group Baobob, and in 2002-3 helped raise international awareness about the trials and sentences meted to two Nigerian women who were charged with illicit sexual relations. Asma’u Joda founded a center for women’s empowerment in northeastern Nigeria and in the spring of 2002 was working with the WLUML office in London. Both Nigerian women participated in a workshop on “Islam, Women’s Rights, and Islamic Feminjsm: Making Connections between Different Perspectives,” which took place in Amsterdam in November 2001, organized by the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM).56

Hélie-Lucas has emphasized the decentralized, participatory, nonbureaucratic, and nonhierarchical nature of the network, and its resistance to professionalization. An example of its decentralized and democratic nature is that despite Hélie-Lucas’s prominence, she tried for ten years to have a project on fundamentalist militarization included in the plan of action. It was finally approved for the Dhaka 1997 action plan. The projects and priorities are determined by different regional groups, though the plan of action is decided upon collectively. “We reinforce local struggles, not divert from local struggles. This is the whole point about our network,” said Hélie-Lucas. “The network itself is as fluid as you can imagine, but for each project we have a pyramidic structure.”57 She also emphasizes the informality, dedication, and paSSion that permeate the network.

Like other transnational feminist networks, WLUML stresses information exchange, mutual support, and international solidarity toward the realization’ of its essential goal of advancing women’s rights in the Muslim world. Through its projects and its documentation and dissemination activities, WLUML has expanded the creative use of scarce resources and helped individuals and groups to form contacts and exchange knowledge, thereby increasing their effectiveness. Such a strategy strengthens our local struggles by providing support at the regional and international levels, at the same time as our local struggles strengthen the regional and international women’s movement in a mutually supportive process.”58

Linking Local and Global: SIGI
During the 1990s, SIGI’s membership included founding members, individuals within its network, and affiliated institutions and organizations (e.g., a Dalit women’s organization in Nepal, several centers in the U.S.), which collaborated on projects. Like WLUML, SIGI’s membership was “quite loose,” as Afkhami has stated, and there was no active recruitment of members.59 Members and officers have been a mix of activists, academics, and NGO workers from numerous countries. In addition to those mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, other leading figures in SIGI have been Maria Lourdes de Pinta Silgo of Portugal, Hilkka Pietila of Finland, Zenebeworke Tadesse of Ethiopia, Letitia Shahani of the Philippines, Jacqueline Pitanguy of Brazil, and Asma Khader of Jordan.

Unlike WLUML, SIGI had a more formal organizational structure: president, vice-president, treasurer, secretary, steering committee, advisory board, executive director. The steering committee was regionally representative, and included such women as Marjorie Agosin of Chile, Bouthaina Shaaban of Syria, Patricia Giles of Australia (a former senator), and Vanessa Griffen of Fiji, who was also affiliated with the Asia-Pacific Research Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. When Afkhami became president of SIGI in 1993, “the first two years were a real struggle.” Still, “When I began we had a lot of great ideas and projects.” These were funded in part by the membership, but largely by major foundations and international organizations, such as the MacArthur Foundation, UNIFEM, the Vaughan Foundation, the Global Fund for Women, and the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development. During most of the 1990s, funding for transnational feminist activity was plentiful, and Afkhami said in 1999, “I’ve done very little fund-raising. I’ve been so immersed in the content of the material we’re producing. So it’s just as well that people come to invite us to write proposals.”60 The generous funding served SIGI well, and allowed the network to maintain office space and a staff of five, organize conferences, attend international conferences, publish books, prepare human rights manuals, issue alerts, prepare briefings, and assist in the establishment of SIGI-Jordan led by Asma Khader, and SIGI-Uzbeklstan led by Marfua Tokhtakhadjaeva.

Khader is the well-known human rights lawyer who has taken on honor crimes and discriminatory family laws in Jordan and among Palestinians, and Afkhami has described her as “a giant” among the leading figures of SIGI and Middle East women activists alike.61 Afkhami also considers the opening of the center in Amman to be a major achievement, for both SIGI and the women’s rights movement in the Middle East. The Amman center has worked on draft legislation for the creation of women’s shelters throughout Jordan and for the criminalization of honor killings, and Khader works on women’s legal cases in other countries in the region, often in collaboration with local women’s organizations.62 Afkhami went on to explain that SIGI sought to facilitate women’s rights activities, not to expand its own organization. “Although we opened the center in Jordan, our idea was not to build branches, or ‘an empire,’ but to encourage the establishment of autonomous, affiliated groups.”63

Another accomplishment is the way that SIGI was able to bridge the divide between local and global levels of activism as well as carry out its work in a collaborative and democratic fashion. According to Afkhami, “The whole process of creating the two women’s manuals in the Middle East on women’s human rights and on violence against women bridged the local and global. We worked with people from different countries in the Middle East, and we encouraged them to work together as well as with us. They decided on their own priorities, and these were decided on in a series of brainstorming sessions. Then we all worked together on the manuals.”64 SIGI saw part of its mandate as working with other feminist organizations to promote women’s human rights. In an interview in 1999, Afkhami said: “We work closely with various groups, for example, Charlotte Bunch’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Women Living under Muslim Laws, WEDO, and UNIFEM, one of our funders.” SIGI participated in the UN’s 1993 Human Rights Conference, but was more actively involved in the preparations for the 1995 Beijing conference. It organized a post-Beijing conference in 1996, which resulted in the publication of Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation: Implementing the Beijing Platform. In terms of involvement with the UN, says Afkhami, “we are not as immersed as others are, but we come in when there is a useful dialogue.” In this respect, SIGI came closer to WLUML than to such transnational feminist networks as DAWN, WIDE, and WEDO.

The relationship between women’s human rights organizations such as SIGI, WLUML, the Washington-based network Women, Law, and Development International, and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University exemplifies the explicit collaborations and implicit “divisions of labor” that emerge. As Afkhami said with respect to SIGI’s relation~hip with WLUML: “We exchange alerts, attend each other’s conferences, and share some members. For example, Sima Kazi [of India] works with both SIGI and WLUML.” Another activist who works with both networks is Marfua Tokhtakhadjaeva of Uzbekistan. When I suggested to Afkhami that relations among transnational feminist networks seemed more collaborative than competitive, she replied: “These interconnections, you’re right, may be unique to women’s organizations. There is lots of positive energy, not negativism. We stay out of each other’s turf. For example, Women, Law, and Development International covers Eastern Europe, and we don’t.”65 The same understanding was brought over to the Women’s Learning Partnership, which Afkhami formed after SIGI’s headquarters rotated to Montreal. “After I left SIGI and formed WLP, I waited for about a year to make sure that I would not encroach on SIGI’s work with the Middle Eastern partners. So I developed partnerships with Morocco, Palestine, and Nigeria, where SIGI was not active.”66

Building a New Network: WLP

When it was time to rotate SIGI headquarters Afkhami hoped that the network would move to the global South, preferably the Philippines or a country in Africa. There were candidates there, but “they were not ready to assume the responsibility for the organization, and backed out. We need to build an international presence coming from the South. Hopefully in the next rotation the headquarters will be in the South.”67 In the meantime, Afkhami set up the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace, which allows her to continue the work that interests her the most–institution building and capacity building of women’s organizations, including the development of technology use among women. The focus areas were initially Central Asia and North Africa, but by 2002 Afkhami resumed her work with the SIGI partners in Jordan, Lebanon, and Uzbekistan. She also established ties with the Beirut-based Maghreb-Mashrek Link, also known as the Gender Link Information Project (GLIP). WLP established a board of directors that meets twice a year to review projects and priorities. WLP is a network that carries out both consciousness raising and practical work. In an interview in April 2002, Afkhami explained the role and strengths of a transnational feminist network such as WLP:

We’re useful because when you’re immersed in local work, you don’t want to know what’s going on next door. We facilitate dialogue, and we function as a liaison. We have so much experience with religion, and we can share experiences. We promote South-South and South-North dialogue.
What we are also good at is helping to build capadty in women’s organizations. They need support and knowledge about innovative things done elsewhere. So we have provided leadership training sessions for women. Of course we do it differently, and in a feminist way. I remember Bella Abzug saying, “Let’s not mainstream into a polluted stream.” We want leadership to be participatory, horizontal, consensus-building–the essence of democracy.

WLP staff also help the partners in Muslim countries to expand their resources, build their organizations, and network with other women’s groups by writing proposals, obtaining grants, doing evaluations, arranging for translations, setting up LISTSERVs and websites, and distributing CD-ROMs. Afkharni sees the function of the WLP as one of “connecting, facilitating, bringing new ideas.” As she has explained: “We share a lot of information about women’s issues with our partners, but we also try to sort out what’s important, so our partners don’t have to spend money and long periods on the Internet. If there is a legal campaign under way, we might forward some relevant legislation to help the legal activists. We also have a comparative table on our website with useful comparative data.”

Of the TFNs studied in this book, the WLP works most extensively with the media, and is also technically sophisticated in relation to ICTs. For example, after September 11 it organized a live web cast in which various WLP partners discussed the tragedy. In the United States, WLP has developed close relationships with certain public radio stations and key journalists in the print media. The network provides briefs, profiles of Muslim women leaders, and arranges for interviews. As Afkhami explained: “This relationship is very important to us, and enables us to get our ideas across. It’s how we get our issues on the table. It gives visibility to our themes and priorities. We put a huge emphasis on the media.”68

Another important function is fund-raising for women’s organizations, especially in countries where governments are authoritarian and controlling of civil society organizations. This is true of almost all the countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia where the WLP has partners. In addition, in those countries “there is not a culture of philanthropy apart from donations to religious institutions and charitable contributions to the poor. So they depend on external sources of funding, and here we can help. Of course, it is not easy for us to raise funds, either.”69

Women’s organizations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia face other issues as well, including some that echo the concerns about professionalization discussed in chapter 4. One of WLP’s partner organizations is the Association Democratique des Femmes Marocaines, which is a volunteer organization. Afkhami says that it is difficult to carry out projects with organizations that are purely voluntary. “You need people whose job it is to run things, advocate, lobby, etc. Professionalization is necessary, although you need a combination of volunteerism, too.” She explains that some women activists in the Middle East and North Africa are reluctant to get paid, “because they feel that it might diminish the value of what they are doing. This is something that is working itself out. If you are doing developmental work and advocacy and lobbying, you need paid positions. You need an office, secretaries, etc. Voluntarism takes a certain level of affluence.”70 Afkhami’s advice was obviously taken by SIGI-Jordan, which is run as a professional office with fifteen paid staff positions, occupied mainly by women but also a few men. The director, lawyer Asma Khader, is, however, unpaid. Her income is from her private legal practice.71

Conclusions

The economic, political, and cultural dimensions of globalization–such as the expansion of neoliberal capitalism, the decline of the welfarist and developmentalist state, persistent inequalities, the power of core countries along with the IFIs and the WTO in global governance, and the growth of transnational fundamentalist movements–have been met by collective action on the part of women around the world. In this chapter we have examined feminist networks that formed in response to fundamentalist movements and complicit states in the Muslim world, and that have focused their energies on research, lobbying, and advocacy for the human rights of women in Muslim countries and communities. The growth in the population of educated, employed, and mobile women in the Muslim world also has favored their political mobilization as transnational feminists.

Like other TFNs, transnational advocacy networks and global social movement organizations, WLUML, SlGI, and the more recent WLP have made good use of informal non-movement mobilizing structures such as friendship networks and professional networks, and built alliances with movement structures such as other activist networks. And like the other TFNs examined in this book, they have been funded by major foundations and European governments. Unlike DAWN, WIDE, WEDO, however, they have relied less on individuals in intergovernmental bureaucracies or national delegations and have steered clear of formalities with UN agencies. This is especially the case with WLUML. Although it circulates petitions that are forwarded to the UN, it does not engage in some of the other activities that are undertaken by other TFNs, such as lobbying at the national level. This is mainly because the network views most of the national governments within its purview as patriarchal, authoritarian, or corrupt. Its emphasis, therefore, is on solidarity and support for women who live under Muslim laws. Still, WLUML, like the other TFNs examined in this book, has contributed to the global-social movement infrastructure and the transnational public sphere.

This chapter also has illustrated the ambivalence of some global feminists toward state systems, the UN, and democracy. WLUML in particular eschews the kind of focused work with intergovernmental organizations in which other TFNs engage, as it sees itself primarily as an international solidarity network. And although democracy-like globalization-is the buzzword of our times, WLUML is rightly suspicious of democratic projects that are imposed by force (as in Iraq in 2003-4) or that ignore the human rights of women (as in Algeria in 1990-91). Real democracy comes from below, and it should be seen as the basis for the expansion of citizen rights, not merely as the opportunity for a political group to seize power.

What do the feminist networks dealing with women’s rights in the Muslim world consider to be their major accomplishments? For Hélie-Lucas of WLUML, it is “networking-no doubt about it. Knowing what the others are doing. This is our main achievement and success. We have no real disappointments or frustrations.”72 Despite persistent funding constraints and some difficulties within the broad human rights movement, the main accomplishments appear to be the building of formal networks of information exchange and solidarity, and the contribution to global discourses on women’s human rights, universalism, and difference. According to Afkhami: “One of the things we wanted was a more equitable representation of women in the international dialogue on human rights. We’ve been successful in that. We’ve helped to raise important issues, such as universal rights and feminist ideas.” Referring to the global women’s human rights movement, Afkhami said, “We have been able to place women’s rights on the human rights agenda, when we struggled at the UN conference in Vienna in 1993 to get accepted the notion that women’s rights are human rights and are universal.” She stresses the importance of the UN record on promoting women’s rights, especially in Muslim countries: “International pressures, international conventions–these provide a great tool for mobilizing locally. The conferences have been enormously helpful for networking, and for funding.”73

But challenges remain, according to Afkhami: “I’m not sure we have succeeded in fully sensitizing the human rights community with respect to women’s rights. There tends to be a disconnect between the two, even in the West, even in major human rights organizations.” This is especially true in the Muslim world, she added, where human rights organizations and women’s organizations have different agendas and discourses, although they would appear to converge on many issues. Coalition building across women’s groups but also between women’s groups and human rights organizations will be especially important in building democratization and civil society and in challenging both the authoritarianism of the state and the powerful influence of fundamentalism. Although fundamentalism is less powerful than before, “a lot of problems that women face have to do with clerical and religious interventions. We have to take a strong position on these matters.” And although Afkhami identifies herself as a Muslim, she is against theoretical or political positions that oppose universalism in human rights: “I’m surprised by the relativist approach taken by some scholars. In the U.S., for example, there is pressure to accept diversity, different cultures, etc. But at least there is a legal infrastructure here that prevents religious interventions in the legal sphere. The feminist movement has no choice but to take a strong position against fundamentalism and extremism.”74 As we have seen, this is a sentiment that is shared by the network Women Living under Muslim Laws.

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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 – Fundamentalism

"For most of the Third World the experience of colonialism led the dialectic of encounter to an intellectual impasse by positing the 'other' as the enemy. As so much of the 'other' is appropriated in the developmental process, the enemy steals within and the impasse, intellectual and political at first, becomes a pathology of self-denial. Since the future is claimed by the 'other', the alternative that remains is the irredeemable past. In this sense, Islamic traditionism is a scourge bequeathed by the colonial experience." - Faith and Freedom

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 – Movement Building

"The conditions women have in common outrank and outvalue those that set them apart." - Faith and Freedom

“International movement building in the 21st century and involvement of youth in advocacy will be made possible largely through technology" - Engendering IT Tools

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?