Liane Hansen, Host: This past week in Washington, the nation’s Catholic bishops debated and discussed the role of women in the church. It’s the first major conference of church leaders since Pope John Paul II last May formally outlawed the concept of women as priests. Bishop John Snyder [sp] headed one of the conference committees.
John Snyder, Bishop: I would hope it would call us on a local level in a parish or a diocese, as well as nationally, to use the insights of women now who are certainly professional in scripture and theology and canon law, and to have their input as well as those of the men who maybe are in those fields.
Liane Hansen: The conference produced a 12-page statement that called on women to participate in ‘every possible aspect of church life, except as priests.’ This weekend in Phoenix, the restricted role of women in the Muslim world is one of the many topics on the agenda during the annual conference of the Middle Eastern Studies Association. Attending the conference is Dr. Mahnaz Afkhami [sp], executive director of the Sisterhood is Global Institute. Afkhami says the problem of a woman’s place in Muslim societies is not rooted in the religion.
Mahnaz Afkhami, Sisterhood is Global Inst.: It is not, in fact, Islam or any one of the religions, but the patriarchal structures of society which have made it difficult for women to reach equality or to participate fully. We see this in different societies with different religions- Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism. All of them have produced social structures which have been binding, so far as women are concerned, and limiting.
Liane Hansen: Do you expect to get the support of many women in this quest? I mean, I ask this because for centuries, many women have lived within the Islamic guidelines of their country and the way that it’s been interpreted there. Many of them are professionals, doctors, lawyers, they feel fulfilled. Is it possible to work within that current framework?
Mahnaz Afkhami: Well, just what you’re saying, that is, those who are, in fact, professional women, participating in their society’s public sphere, they have in fact done just this. That is, they have been able to reach an accommodation between their religious and spiritual life and their professional and economic life, both as women within their societies. What we’re hoping to be able to do is to not to convince the women. I think the women are for the most part convinced. It’s to convince certain groups of men who hold the power in their hands, and especially in some societies, where the more conservative Islamists are coming to power, or are in power.
What we’re trying to do is to get the possibility of having women take part in this discourse brought forward. And in Islam especially, there are to be no intermediaries between a person and God. And therefore, each person should be allowed to interpret, to decide, to understand religion and its values for himself or herself.
Liane Hansen: I read the transcript of an interview that David Frost conducted with Benazir Bhutto, in which he posed to her the question, did she have any conflict between being a fully committed Muslim and a fully committed feminist. And she said she didn’t, because Islam provides certain rights for women, the right to divorce, for example, the right to alimony, the right to child custody. And it almost sounds as if many of us are not really aware of what Islam really is.
Mahnaz Afkhami: Yes, I agree with Benazir in this, in the sense that it’s not the way the laws are, in fact, in practice now in Muslim societies. I don’t think that those are conducive to equal participation of women. But the spirit of the religion, the essence of the religion, is egalitarian, and allows for justice and allows for participation of all individuals in their community. And this is the whole point, that there need not be a contradiction between feminism and Islam. What has brought about the conflict is not religion, but it’s the seeking of power by certain groups who use religion in order to enhance or sustain their power in the hierarchy of society.
Liane Hansen: How can the women themselves affect change, maybe in their own lives, on a very personal level?
Mahnaz Afkhami: Well, that is actually the main component of change on the larger level. Each woman within her own life, within her own concept of self, and within her own family unit, that’s where it all starts. People, individual women, are feeling that they need to assert themselves as individuals. They need to have a role, they need to have a say, both in what they want to be and how they want to lead their lives, and how they want to relate to other members of their family and their society. It’s not necessarily the same answer for everyone. It’s not the same answer for every society. But the fact that they are making that claim, and that they are aware of the importance of that claim, I think, is the most important element in the coming changes that we’re going to witness.
Liane Hansen: You know, it’s interesting we’re having this discussion as the United States Catholic Bishops are meeting to discuss and define the role of women within the Catholic church. Can you envision a time, perhaps, when all the mullahs get together and actually address the same issue?
Mahnaz Afkhami: [Laughs] I think that they are, in fact, addressing it. I mean, I know in Iran, for instance, ever since the revolution and the coming of the theocratic regime, the women have been the central theme for discussion no matter what has been going on in the country. The fact is that women have transcended a certain state of being, and they’re reaching out for another, and that most of the conservative religious groups simply have to cope with that, have to deal with that. And I think the positions are very similar sometimes. If you noticed in the Cairo population conference, the closest allies were the Catholic- the Vatican representatives and groups such as the Islamic Republic of Iran and some of the other, Sudan [sp] and other conservative Islamic regimes. So there is a certain, actually, similarity, in the way that certain conservative religious figures interpret the role of women. And there is quite a bit of similarity in the way women across these cultures are confronting these ideas.
Liane Hansen: Dr. Mahnaz Afkhami is executive director of Sisterhood is Global Institute, and author of Women in Exile.
Liane Hansen: You’re listening to Weekend Edition.