Participants in the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace, a coalition of non-governmental organizations headed by and for women, met recently in Washington, D.C. Delegates from developing countries — many from Islamic nations — compared notes on the struggle to advance women’s rights.
Founder and CEO Mahnaz Afkhami, a native of Iran, now lives in the United States. She sees women as being in the forefront of the fight for human rights and democracy, particularly in the Muslim world.”Any sort of progress toward modernism, toward what we consider egalitarian societies, involves the basic structure of the family,” she says. “All the arguments for backwardness and fundamentalism really focuses on women.”
The activists face sometimes violent resistance from Islamic fundamentalists. One organization’s office in Morocco was firebombed in August. Yet the delegates say women activists increasingly find themselves in a dilemma. As they promote the ideals of democracy, they have to distance themselves from the very word, since “democracy” is now associated with unpopular U.S. foreign policy and war in the Middle East.
Asma Khader of Jordan says it’s possible to work for issues associated with democracy, such as equal rights and full participation in the political process. “But using the word ‘democracy’ when it’s so close to the war and the military action is not helping the word to be accepted by the majority of the people,” she says. “Be nice to America,” read a banner carried by one delegate… “Or it will bring democracy to you.”
But the women’s groups persevere. A main focus of the Washington conference was a new campaign across seven Arab countries to give equal citizenship rights to women.