Journal of Democracy - January 1997

Journal of Democracy - January 1997


Journal of Democracy, January 1997

Cited in The New York Times and The Wall Street JournalJournal of Democracy is an influential international forum for scholarly analysis and competing democratic viewpoints. Its articles have been widely reprinted in many languages. Focusing exclusively on democracy, the Journal monitors and analyzes democratic regimes and movements around the world. Each issue features a unique blend of scholarly analysis, reports from democratic activists, updates on news and elections, and reviews of important recent books (from the Johns Hopkins University website).

Book Excerpt


Promoting Women’s Rights in the Muslim World
By Mahnaz Afkhami In Journal of Democracy/ 8.1 / January 1997

Mahnaz Afkhami is executive director of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, an international group devoted to the protection of women’s rights around the world. She was a minister of women’s affairs in prerevolutionary Iran and is the author of Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World (1995).

In 1984, there appeared a volume entitled Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology, consisting of some 70 essays written by women from as many countries in every continent on the globe. The project had been conceived in the early 1980s by Robin Morgan, an internationally known women’s-rights activist from the United States. The book’s contributors, all of whom were involved in the promotion of women’s rights and democracy, represented a great variety of cultures and came from diverse personal backgrounds. They were cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, teachers, lawyers, artists, poets, and political organizers. Uniting them was a belief that women had been treated badly everywhere, and that the reason this situation had been tolerated was that women had not been allowed to develop the kind of consciousness needed to change their social, economic, and political circumstances. The authors believed that, in most cases, the greatest barrier to women’s advancement was a complicated set of prohibitive injunctions that were woven into values women accepted as sacred. These women writers underlined the relationship between this maze of tradition and a social order that relegated them to second-class status at home and in society. Their essays revealed their belief that historical circumstances had helped women achieve a kind of critical mass sufficient to bring about significant change in the lives of people around the world–not only those of women, but also those of men.

Soon after publication of the anthology, Robin moran invited the contributors to form the nucleus of an international organization that would work to promote the human rights of women around the world. In November 1984, 25 of them met in New York to discuss the possibility of establishing such a group. At the meeting, they affirmed the need for a permanent international feminist organization whose aims would be to generate useful theory and to spur national and international action. Their fundamental claim was that women’s rights are human rights. A decade later, at the United Nations’ 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, that claim was officially endorsed by the international community.
The 70 contributors to the anthology became the core members of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI), now based in Bethesda, Maryland. Soon afterwards, SIGI established the Sisterhood Is Global Network (SIGN), whose membership is open to anyone interested in becoming an active participant in the campaign to promote and defend women’s human rights. The membership of SIGN has increased steadily over the years, and now exceeds 1,300.

The current membership of SIGI includes many articulate and influential women leaders from around the world. The group’s president, Maria Lourdes de Pintasilgo, is a former prime minister of Portugal; steering-committee member Gwendolyne Konie is Zambia’s ambassador to Germany. Other members include Nikki Coseteng, a senator from the Philippines; Shalumit Aloni, who was minister of education in Israel under the Labor government; Christine Delphi, Nawal el-Saadawi, and Marjorie Agosin, well-known literary figures from France, Egypt, and Chile, respectively; and Asma Khader, president of the Jordanian Women’s Union and a longtime advocate of women’s human rights.

The Institute is also in constant communication with many organizations and individuals in the United States whose interests and activities bear on human rights. In each of the past three years, SIGI has organized or cosponsored several major international conferences in the United States and abroad on issues of interest to women in the global South. These meetings have provided valuable opportunities for women leaders to analyze the prevailing conditions in their countries, exchange views, develop new strategies for change, and build consensus.2

Objectives and Activities
The Institute’s main objectives are to inform women around the world of the basic rights guaranteed to them in the international human rights conventions; to publicize incidences of the violation of women’s human rights; to encourage all women–regardless of race, culture, religion, class, age, sexual preference, or abilities–to work together to define and achieve common goals; to enable women from the global South to participate in the international debates that involve their rights; and to facilitate research by women from the developing world–and help them train others–in the areas of human rights education, communication, and leadership. These objectives are pursued through four interrelated programs: conferences and workshops, a human rights education project, an “urgent action alert system,” and outreach and publications.

The Institute’s objectives are generally promoted by the development of civil society and democratic institutions. Nonetheless, there are certain situations in which women’s advancement and the empowerment of majority opinion may conflict, at least in the short term. This is especially the case in many Muslim countries today. Before the upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism, authoritarian governments in the Muslim world often tended to promote women’s rights in the areas of education, employment, juridical redress, and family law in order to spur economic and social development, despite opposition from traditional power hierarchies and segments of public opinion. But where fundamentalists have increased their popular support or actually come to power, the result has typically been a halt to or even a reversal of the march toward greater equality for women.

The case of Iran has been instructive for SIG1, and encouraging despite the social and political setbacks women there have suffered since the 1979 revolution. While the revolution brought a drastic curtailment of women’s rights in many areas–including education, public employment, and family law–the new Islamist government was subsequently forced to retreat from its initial demands as a result of opposition not only from women but also from many men. These events show that once significant segments of a society break out of the confines of traditionalism, ideological regimes can no longer impose their will with impunity. To achieve their aims, they must be prepared to resort to protracted violence. That violence, however, becomes increasingly costly, eventually necessitating a trade-off in which the regime may insist on strict adherence to certain highly yisible conventions, such as Iran’s current requirement that people dress in the Islamic fashion in public, but yield in areas where it can no longer enforce its edicts. Here is a case where society has evolved along with history–that is, it has retained and developed an awareness of rights despite the governing regime’s efforts to derail the process.

Women’s struggle against fundamentalism in Iran and other Muslim societies provided a strong incentive for SIGI to devote a large portion of its energy and resources to the study of the fundamentalist phenom­enon as well as methods of enabling Muslim women to confront it as effectively as possible. Thus while SIGI continues to pursue its various other objectives, the past three years have seen a special focus on the problems of women in Muslim societies.

Beijing and Beyond
The “Platform for Action” put forth at the United Nations’ Fourth ,World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995, was identified as an “agenda for women’s empowerment,” and emphasized that “women share common concerns that can be addressed only by working together and in partnership with men towards the common goal of gender equality around the world.” Among other things, the Platform states: “Equality between women and men is a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and is also a necessary and fundamen­tal prerequisite for equality, development and peace. A transformed partnership based on equality between women and men is a condition for people-centered sustainable development. A sustained and long-term commitment is essential, so that women and men can work together for themselves, for their children and for society to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.” The Platform makes it incumbent on govern­ments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to help realize the goal of gender equality and states that while it “respects and values the full diversity of women’s situations and conditions,” it also “recognizes that some women face particular barriers to their empowerment.”3

The barriers to which the Platform refers, especially in the developing world, result from history and culture as well as from political and economic conditions. These conditions are often inconsistent and paradoxical. For example, the Muslim world has had several female prime ministers, yet women are largely excluded from high-level political decision making in these and other Third World countries. The situation is better in the West, but not significantly . The employment picture is equally bleak. Women’s share of managerial and administrative posts is approximately 18 percent in the developed world, 13 percent in Africa, and 10 percent in Asia and the Pacific. The figures for Africa and Asia, small as they are, are twice what they were 20 years ago. Women’s role in high-level economic decision making remains minuscule, even in the West. Of the thousand most valuable publicly owned companies in the United States at the beginning of this decade, for example, only two had female CEOs. Everywhere in the world, the workplace is dominated by men.4

There is some evidence–particularly from the Scandinavian countries–to suggest that as women’s share of high positions in society increases, a critical mass can develop that can translate into sustained political effectiveness. Hence the importance of encouraging policies that favor inclusion of women in the decision-making process in all spheres of life. The development of such a critical mass, however, is mostly a function of the particular shape and evolution of civil society. Outside of northern Europe, the struggle for women’s human rights has been burdened by complex issues of policy and norms, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, where historical change–spurred more often than not by the colonial experience–has generated contradictory worldviews that compete for the definition and implementation of women’s rights.

Many Third World women, including those living in Muslim countries such as Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, and Bangladesh, have taken the lead in studying, developing, and implementing strategies to increase women’s power in all spheres of life. Realizing the importance of religion and culture in communicating, human rights concepts and mobilizing women to political action, they are investigating the possibilities, among others, of 1) interpreting the Koran and the hadith (the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed); 2) educating the political elite and providing them with new interpretations of sacred texts that can be used as a basis for legislation and the implementation of change; and 3) mobilizing grassroots support and establishing dialogue between people at the grassroots level and national and international decision makers. Their goal is to modify traditional mores and laws to accom­modate the requirements of women’s freedom, equality, and human rights. Given the prevailing religious and political conditions in these countries, this is an undertaking of heroic proportions, requiring significant recognition and support from the international community.

As an NGO with consultative status at the United Nations, SIGI was active in preparing for, participating in, and supporting the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. It is particularly interested in the real impact on women of the Platform for Action. Accordingly, SIGI’s most recent international conference, convened in May 1996 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., addressed the topic “Beijing and Beyond: Implementing the Platform for Action in Muslim Societies.”
The Institute’s strategy for achieving that goal emphasizes the global interdependence of women’s-rights movements and the development of concepts and conditions of leadership conducive to cooperation among women leaders around the world. Worldwide, women’s similarities outweigh their differences. As historical victims of patriarchy, they are naturally united across history; they must now transcend political and cultural divides that are the contemporary effects of traditional patri­archal politics. An important part of the ongoing struggle for women’s human rights is the search for ways to bring together women from different cultures to work toward solutions to common problems. This is not exclusively a women’s project; rather, it brings the women’s-rights perspective, which is fundamentally gender-inclusive, to decisions that must be made to ensure a more productive and humane future for all.

The “Beijing and Beyond” conference provided an excellent opportunity for Muslim women to come together and exchange ideas, not only among themselves but also with prominent members of the political, journalistic, and NGO communities in the United States. For example, on May 8 a delegation of conference participants met with U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright and her staff as well as with representatives from other agencies, including the deputy chief of staff to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, to discuss U.S. policies that affect Muslim women and to convey the priorities of Women in Muslim societies. The meeting participants agreed on the importance of including the women’s-rights perspective in U.S. foreign policy and highlighted the crucial role women play in combating all forms of extremism, terrorism, and gender-related violence.

Human Rights Education Project
The idea for a human rights education project evolved out of a series of meetings, discussions, and conferences organized or supported by SIGI beginning in 1993. The concept was first discussed by several women scholars of Muslim societies, including SIGI members Fatima Mernissiand Nawal Saadawi, at a 1993 meeting on women’s human rights sponsored by the Middle East Studies Association at Duke University in North Carolina. At several subsequent conferences sponsored by SIGI, induding one on “Religion, Culture, and Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World” held in Washington, D.C., in September 1994, participants emphasized the importance of taking internationally recognized human rights concepts to Muslim women at the grassroots level. They identified the lack of focus on identifying and developing culturally relevant language to convey the message of international human rights documents to Muslim women as a major impediment to the expansion of women’s human rights in Muslim societies. At a May 1995 meeting of SIGI’s steering committee in Washington, D.C., members underlined the need for education models that used indigenous ideas, concepts, myths, and idioms to explain and support the rights expressed in international documents.

It is clear that Muslim women face a host of intellectual and social obstacles that have prevented them from gaining the knowledge they need to seek protection of their rights. To help them overcome these obstacles, SIGI took on the task of constructing a human rights education model for women in Muslim societies. The model has already been designed, and it is now in the process of being tested and refined.

The model is grounded in communications theory, and can be broken down into a communicator, a medium, a message, and an audience. In practice, the components mesh–that is, the communicator and the audience become participants in the production and interpretation of the message as well as in the construction and validation of the medium. When successful, the process leads to constructive discourse. The model is designed to be open-ended, producing a dialogical framework that helps transport ideas entrenched in tradition to the “marketplace” of human interaction, where individuals participate in determining their relevance and validity. The human rights education model, then, promotes rights by facilitating individuals’ participation in the definition of law or truth. It is intended to bring into question and politicize concepts; designing and defining freedom as it unfolds.5
Many Muslims believe that Islam provides for the fundamental human rights and that Islamic law, as God’s revelation, is superior to ordinary law. Thus a promising human rights education model must be able to contravene the argument, often advanced by contemporary Islamists, that universal human rights contradict Islamic tenets. A central premise of SIGI’s human rights education model is that Islam is compatible with universal human rights. This is based on the following propositions:

1) The Koran, as the Word of God, is eternal, infinite, and mystical, understood completely only by the Prophet Mohammed. All other mortals have understood it according to their individual human gifts. Therefore, the religious experience–the experience of the Word of God–is by definition a personal experience. Obedience to the “religious law,” the shari ‘a, is obedience to manmade law.

2) The shari ‘a, the rules by which Muslim societies have been governed for centuries, is historically determined and temporally situated, since it has had to be rendered understandable to each age and commu­nity by reference to the requirements of that particular time and place.

3) Since human society has been organized hierarchically and patriarchally through the ages, the shari ‘a, like other religiously inspired laws, reflects that social reality. The ulama (religious scholars) have always interpreted the Koran and the Sunna (traditions of the Prophet) in the context of the historical reality of which they were a part, and their interpretations inevitably reflect that particular set of circumstances. Different interpretations have been put forth by different interpreters in different ages because the original Word of God is infinite in depth and scope and hence applicable to innumerable situations.

4) The Koran contains specific verses indicating that God foresees human limitations and consequently enjoins the Prophet not to force human beings with respect to religious matters. Where the Koran clearly states that some specific social policy must be followed, the statement is, by implication, always bound to the requirements of time and space.

5) The moral impulse of the Word of God is toward equality for all. All instances of inequality are linked to specific temporal and spatial circumstances. Since the Koran values the human being as God’s creation, it also, values each individual’s right to live in a state of equality with other persons under God.

6) These points yield a moral imperative in favor of achieving gender equality within Islam’s ethical compass. It is therefore morally incum­ bent on the political system to promote gender equality.6

7) The above claims can be substantiated by reference to the Koran and the Sunna, provided that one moves outside the traditional epistemology of Islamic shari ‘a. On the other hand, they are directly supported by the Islamic Gnostic tradition.
The model features interaction, reciprocity, and exchange of positions between communicators and their audiences. Its aim is not to teach a particular truth but to foster dialogue, for it assumes that whenever a situation of dialogue is sustained, rights are promoted regardless of the content of the dialogue. For example, only when a significant degree of general awareness of human rights has been achieved does it become possible for a young woman in a Middle Eastern village or small town to maintain an ongoing conversation about her rights as an individual with her father, brother, or teacher–a form of dialogue that might give rise to social or ethical dilemmas in a traditional context.

The audience varies depending on the purpose of the communication. It may be a government agency, a religious group, a village assembly, women participants in a workshop, or family members. The model’s focus, however, is mostly on the younger generation. The young not only are receptive intellectually and ethically to ideas about human rights, but, as students, they are accessible. They constitute a significant majority of the population in the model’s target societies. They are the world’s future leaders. Given the criteria of rights education delineated above, their very participation in the discussion of rights is a strong impetus to the development and democratization of civil society.

The education manual that SIGI has developed, Claiming Our Rights, will be tested in workshops in five Muslim countries–Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Jordan, Malaysia, and Lebanon–chosen because of the diversity that they represent in terms of sociopolitical systems, cultures, and approaches to Islam. A revised manual that can be used for broader implementation of the model will be available by October 1997.

The Urgent Action Alert System
The Institute was the first international Organization to establish a system for initiating campaigns of support for women censored, jailed, tortured, exiled, or otherwise persecuted for activities on behalf of women’ s human rights. In this “urgent action alert system,” SIGI receives information about violations of women’s human hghts from its international network, SIGN. Institute staff members then prepare “alerts” and distribute the information to all SIGN members, who respond by writing letters to the appropriate officials or submitting articles to newspapers requesting specific changes in policy or action. Alerts are translated into numerous languages; SIGN associates also activate their own networks. In some cases SIGI arranges diplomatic meetings on behalf of women whose rights have been violated and offers legal assistance through its network.

Members of the Institute, many of whom have been victims of such persecution, represent a cross section of women’s-rights leaders, including grassroots organizers and political decision makers. The geographic, political, cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity of the membership combines with its autonomy to make the “urgent action alert system” an effective tool for monitoring women’s human rights around the world.

Among the alerts SIGI issued in 1996 were those dealing with violations of women’s reproductive rights in Mexico; forced dissolution of an Egyptian professor’s marriage because of his academic writings; the abduction of a Bangladeshi woman leader before a national election; unequal pay for Japanese women; and advocacy for the drafting and signing of the UN’s Optional Protocol (mechanisms of implementation) for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), also known as the Women’s Convention.

Outreach The Institute has an extensive international outreach program. Its staff regularly respond to requests for information about the status of women in various countries. The Institute’s headquarters serves to link women activists and scholars in different countries and regions. Scholars and journalists use SIGI’s global network in preparing research and media projects. Members of SIGI serve on national, regional, and international boards of organizations with similar goals, thus extending SIGI’s reach. Members write and publish books and articles in many languages; those who are involved in publishing facilitate the translation of books on women written by other members as well as nonmembers to help expand the audience for scholarly work on women. The Institute’s newsletter, SIGI News, is a source of information about SIGI members as well as international actions and events related to women. Members contribute to a growing resource center containing reports, articles, periodicals, books, and other publications on women’s status, studies, and activism. The resource center is open to researchers.

Young women are the most important resource for realizing SIGI’s goals in the years to come. Accordingly, SIGI has prepared videotapes, textbooks, and other instructional materials for use in human rights-re­lated gatherings and activities, including women’s-studies courses, in the United States and abroad. The Institute’s members routinely participate in campaigns to familiarize young women with the main issues and priorities of the international women’s movement.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, many societies in both the developed and the developing worlds are undergoing rapid and substantial change. Diverse groups, each adhering to its own cluster of values, beliefs, norms, and customs, compete for the definition of right and truth. But a significant common thread connects them. As history continues its relentless forward march, women everywhere are becoming more conscious of their identity as autonomous individuals. This awareness will spur them to action in defense of beliefs that emphasize freedom, equality, community, dialogue, and tolerance. In some societies, and among many groups across the world, these beliefs seem iconoclas­tic and antitraditional. They elicit responses that are often virulent and sometimes violent. To gain the strength necessary to meet the challenges they face, women around the world must come together in a spirit of global cooperation. Through its conferences and workshops, its human rights education project, its urgent action alert system, and its outreach program and publications, SIGI is working to create an atmosphere of understanding and solidarity among women that transcends divisions based on race, nationality, class, religion, and political orientation.

The Sisterhood Is Global Institute can be contacted at: 4343 Montgomery Avenue, Suite 201, Bethesda, MD 20814; telephone (301) 657-4355; fax (301) 657-4381; e-mail
1. Robin Morgan, ed., Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology (New York: Doubleday, 1984). 2. See Mahnaz Afkhami, ed., Faith and Freedom: Women ‘s Human Rights in the Muslim World (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995). 3. See Covenant for the New Millennium: The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Freehand Books, 1996), 7-8. 4. For general statistics on women’s status in various fields, see Women: Challenges to the Year 2000 (New York: United Nations, 1995); and Ruth Leger Sivard, Women: A World Survey (Washington, D.C.: World Priorities, 1995). 5. See Claiming Our Rights: A Manual for Women’s Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies (Bethesda, Md. : Sisterhood Is Global Institute, 1996). 6. For support for various aspects of these propositions, see, among others, Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), esp. pp. 78-79, and History of Islamic Philosophy, trans. Liadain Sherrard and Philip Sherrard (London: Kegan Paul, 1993); Abdullahi Ahmad An-Na’im, Toward an Islamic-‘ Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law (Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse University Press, 1996); Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); and Joseph Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959). See also the series of articles by the Iranian “Islamic” philosopher Abdul Karim Soroush published in Kiyan magazine–for example, “Idiuluji-i Dini va Din-i Idiulujic” (Religious ideology and ideological religion), in which he maintains that religious ideology is false religion and ideological religion is corrupt (naqis) religion, Kiyan (Tehran) 3 (November-December 1993): 24-28.