Women’s empowerment is a process. It involves raising consciousness, building skills and reforming unjust laws that limit women’s education, participation in decision making and economic independence. I.M.O.W. Global Council member Mahnaz Afkhami is president of Women’s Learning Partnership, which strives to empower women by practicing and promoting their leadership and self-sufficiency.
The United Nation’s International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights recognizes that “in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy [his/her] economic, social and cultural rights, as well as [his/her] civil and political rights and freedom.”
How do we create the conditions the International Convention stipulates? Let me begin by recalling the memory of a battered woman I met in a village in Iran in 1978. This was before the revolution, shortly after the passage of a seminal family protection law that significantly improved women’s rights. She said to me, “What use is my right to divorce my abusive husband and to have custody of my children, if I have no way to feed and shelter myself and my children except in my husband’s house?”
Legal reform to improve women’s rights is of course essential to women’s well-being. But, as the woman in this story tells us, empowering women is at the heart of the struggle to achieve justice, human rights and equality for women. Freedom from want is at the heart of that empowerment; so is achieving freedom from fear. Those of us who have been working to eliminate violence against women know that freedom from fear and freedom from want are closely intertwined. A woman who is economically independent is less likely to be systematically abused and more likely to walk away from a cycle of abuse. But systemic violence that results from a tradition of patriarchy cannot be eliminated unless women are empowered in a practical sense.
Today, Muslim women have some of the lowest levels of participation in paid economic activity. In some countries in the Middle East/North Africa region women still need permission from their husbands or other male family members to get an education, learn skills or hold jobs. Clearly, though legislative reform is extremely important, empowerment is the key to implementation of the law.
It’s interesting to note that in the 7th century CE, Islamic law permitted women to own property and to hold on to it even when married, a right that it took centuries for women in other parts of the world to attain. Khadija, Prophet Mohamad’s wife, was a successful merchant and the first person to follow the prophet, and thus the first Muslim. But in spite of a historic legal tradition and early female role models, patriarchal culture in Muslim majority countries has created numerous obstacles for women’s economic involvement.
Women’s empowerment is a process, a holistic approach that involves raising consciousness, building skills and reforming unjust laws that limit women’s education, their employment, their participation in decision making, and above all, their opportunities for economic independence. To make real this holistic approach, women need to be included in processes and choices that not only affect their own lives, but those of all women in their societies. They need to become leaders with the sort of vision that can elevate all of us–women and men–to a life of fairness, equality and prosperity that we hope our children will have and enjoy.