Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation

Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation


Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation 1997 / Syracure University Press / Syracuse, NY
Co-edited with Erika Friedl

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At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the international community accepted women’s rights as human rights, and with it charge to work toward the full integration of women in the affairs of their respective nations.

Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation is about ways of promoting women’s participation in the affairs of Muslim societies: from raising consciousness and changing codes of law to penetrating the economic markets and influencing national and international policies. Editors Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl challenge stereotypes about Muslim women and probe the difficulties and possibilities women face as they work for positive social change. Sixteen activists and politicians from international organizations– most from Muslim countries– discuss, for the first time, major issues relevant to Muslim women striving to achieve their human rights through political participation.


Book Excerpt


By Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl In Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 was a threshold in women’s struggles for women’s rights; 189 national governments signed a document that explicitly states that women’s rights are human rights and that all issues are women’s issues. Ninety governments made commitments to take specific measures to implement the conference recommendations in their societies. For the first time in history women were situated at the center of global politics, associated with the concept and practice of power. The document in which this point is made most directly is the mission statement to the Platform for Action (PFA) of the Beijing conference.1 The first and second articles read:

  1. The Platform for Action is an agenda for women’s empowerment. It aims at accelerating the implementation of the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women and at removing all the obstacles to women’s active participation in all spheres of public and private life through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural and political decision-making. This means that the principle of shared power and responsibility should be established between women and men at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities. Equality between women and men is a matter of human rights and a condition for equality, development and peace. A transformed partnership based on equality between women and men is a condition for people-centred 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.
  2. The Platform for Action reaffirms the fundamental principle set forth in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights, that the human rights of women and of the girl child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. As an agenda for action, the Platform seeks to promote and protect the full enjoyment of all human rights and the fundamental freedoms of all women throughout their lify cycle.

In December 1995 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution fully supporting the Beijing recommendations.2 It calls upon “states, the United Nations system and all other actors to implement the Platform for Action” by promoting a “policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective at all levels” (ART. 3) “to ensure that the gender dimension influences other areas such as poverty, housing, the environment and sustainable development.”3 In the resolution the General Assembly charges governments with “the primary responsibility for implementing the Platform for Action” (ART. 4) and with developing “comprehensive implementation strategies or plans of action” no later than 1996 (ART. 6), including “national machineries for the advancement of women” (ART. 7). It calls for monitoring by U.N. organizations (ARTS. 9, 10, 11) and for “the integration of a gender perspective in budgetary programmes” and for adequate financing of programs for securing equality between women and men (ARTS. 12, 13).

The point of the U.N. resolution and of the Platform for Action is to empower women, to promote social change in the direction of gender equality. In the platform are demands that debates by intellectuals, activists, and politicians about the state of women now be followed by concrete action on national, provincial, and grass-roots levels. The prospects of empowering women in Muslim societies, however, nowhere are as self-evident as the U.N. institutions and the U.N. resolutions suggest. In fact, in many predominantly Muslim countries, especially in North Africa and the Middle East, human rights conditions for women have deteriorated since the early 1970s. Economic conditions have worsened, democratic institutions are being challenged, religious radicalism with its androcentric political agendas has increased. Some of the governments that in 1975 had accepted the major international documents on human rights in principle now reject many of these rights on the grounds of a supposed conflict with specific local cultural practices. In the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, for example, Islamic and Christian fundamentalists, the higher leadership of the Catholic Church, and some Asian governments united in opposing women’s universal human rights and jointly questioned the validity of women’s rights on doctrinal or cultural grounds. They challenged the concept of universal human rights as a Western ploy, as cultural imperialism and intellectual colonialism. Muslim fundamentalists declared Islam as the only valid parameter of rights for Muslims.

Under these circumstances the implementation of the Platform for Action requires more than U.N. resolutions, signed documents, good will, and debates. Women need to study the specific historical and cultural contexts in which they are positioned, reconceptualize deeply rooted gender ideologies, question the so-called self-evident truths couched in various traditional interpretations of religious and legal texts, identify and dismantle patriarchal structures, and learn new strategies for managing social relations. All of this also requires large numbers of well-informed women of all walks of life wo know how to debate, mobilize, and lobby at the regional and national levels, who are committed to the goals of the PFA, and who are ready to take great personal risks to realize them. Quite obviously, it is easier to talk about “women’s empowerment” than to bring it about.

The first modern context for the promotion of women’s rights in the Middle East was provided by the idea of progress defined as national economic and social development. A modern state had to educate women, for example, to spur economic development or, alternatively, to indicate to the world a commitment to building a progressive society based on equality. In most Muslim nations middle- and upper-class women demanded rights for owmen and were the main beneficiaries of new rights and opportunities. In the liberal-Left political dialogue women’s rights and feminist issues were raised but within a class perspective subordinated to larger, utopian ideas of “liberation.” Gender and gender relations as they pertained to everyday life within family and community were largerly ignored. As a whole, therefore, women and their concerns were not seen as important enough to pose a threat to patriarchal social structures. Consequently, men treated women’s human rights as a fiduciary function linked to such traditional concepts as “honor” and harim, rather than as a serious sociopolitical issue. It was, therefore, relatively easy for governmental delegates from Muslim nations to agree to the demands of the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975.

By the 1990s, however, conditions in Muslim regions had changed significantly. Socioeconomic development had helped many women to become educated, to become financially independent, and to reach positions of authority and responsibility. Women became visible. Even if only very few reached higher management ranks, their public presence could not be ignored but instead became emblematic of women’s aspirations and potential achievements. During their “development” women became increasingly conscious of a gap between their human rights and social needs, on the one hand, and their objective conditions, on the other. They started to make public demands. Now “women’s rights” became a serious issue; the patriarchy was faced with a challenge, and it began to react.

The most obvious strategy for those who felt threatened was to link women’s rights to cultural imperialism, which made it easy to attack the very idea of women’s rights. This strategy can be used by secular nationalists, who seek to achieve economic and social parity with the West, as well as by religious fundamentalists, who see in the West and its values a grave danger to the institutions they associate with Islam.

The Islamist argument is advanced on two levels: universalist and relativist. On the universalist level Islamists declare that the moral and legal principles of Islam are divinely willed and, therefore, apply to everybody, that they are superior to any man-made laws or principles, and that they will supersede the latter wherever Islam is practiced.

On the relativist level the argument is based on cultural relativism, which accords every society the right to practice its own customs and laws free of interference and judgment by others. No cultural practice is better or worse than any other. Using this argument, Islamists insist on honoring concepts and practices they present as authentic Muslim traditions, including what human rights activists see as unequal gender relations, and reject universal injunctions, such as those stated in the international documents of rights, if they contradict their preferences. In other words, an extreme relativist stance does not allow for universally binding norms in regard to human rights. This stance, which has the support of some Western intellectuals, at worst undermines any effort to advance women’s rights over local objections as long as the objections are phrased in terms of cultural autonomy and cultural authenticity. At best, it promotes sensitivity toward local sensibilities, caution in suggesting courses of action that might seem nonindigenous, and change from within a culture with solutions to problems formulated by the respective people themselves.

Islamists insist that Islamic law ought to be universal law. To the extent that this law is claimed to be divinely ordained a set of paradoxes arise. The most obvious paradox is that protagonists belonging to different schools of Islamic jurisprudence in various Muslim societies adhere to different versions of a law all of them claim to be of divine origin and, therefore, immutable. A second paradox arises from the coupling of the law and culture in the sense of the proposition that at some golden period the Muslim umma, the community of believers, actually lived according to the proposed law. This contention forces the lawgiver to be in perpetual conflict with the forces of change, including those that assist women to achieve freedom and equality. A third paradox, resulting from the second, converts a demand whose legitimacy is claimed on religious grounds to a political confrontation increasingly sustained by the use of force. Thus, success actually diminishes religion by stripping it of its basic moral appeal. A fourth paradox, thus, is that Islamic fundamentalism must logically debilitate Islam as religion. Because Muslims, however, including Muslim women, need to believe as Muslims, it follows that Islam will have to be reclaimed against, or reimagined independently of, fundamentalism. This last point is materializing now within the civil society in most Muslim countries, including those that are governed by Islamist regimes.

Indeed, many Muslim women have begun to take an active interest in theological arguments regarding women. They claim the right to interpret laws and religious texts themselves and to learn the skills necessary for such interpretation; they challenge androcentric and misogynist interpretations of texts; and they are determined to find in Islam justifications for demanding individual freedom and women’s rights. They have, in other words, joined the political struggle over the right to make their religion work for them.

Such an undertaking is by no means easy. It implies that women (and sympathetic men) must challenge not only political and religious authorities who rule over them but also values that are deeply rooted in their cultures and, therefore, instrumental to their identity. They must question the commonsense truths by which their communities function: the family, the village, the workplace, the city, male-female relations. They must dare to displease those who are near them emotionally and on whom they depend in times of need. They need to acquire the skills to identify and use resources to which they have little access. Nowhere is this more difficult than in Muslim countries where religious authorities, anti-Western and anti-modernist sentiments, Islamist agendas, and weak economies form very strong barriers to women’s realization of their rights.

Discussing such issues women are hampered by the limitations and essentialist connotations of the terms Muslim, Islam, and Muslim women. These terms are problematic because they easily make people think in stereotypes that concel a rich variety of different beliefs, practices, life-styles, and philosophies in Muslim societies. Many of these are diametrically opposed to others; all are enmeshed with local cultural traditions that historically cannot be justified with reference to Islam. Yet they frequently are used to deny women rights in the name of Islam. They are used as political tools to retain, forcibly where necessary, a status quo that favors certain classes of people over others or male interests over female rights. For activists working for the advancement of women’s rights in these various Muslim societies skills in separating cultural conditions that impede women’s rights from “Islam” often are crucial to success; one can argue that people are more likely to let go of mere “customs” than of their religion. Any attempt, however, to separate culture from religion will meet resistance. Those whom customs privilege will seek to legitimize them by linking them firmly to theology or religiously inspired law.

Although interference from outside, including the United Nations, may be resisted frequently for those reasons, international agreements on certain minimal standards for the treatment of women nevertheless are crucially important for the advancement of women’s rights. These documents provide women everywhere with models they can use to compare and assess their situations. They also provide international standards by which every nation signatory to them must measure its performance.
Experience suggests that state intervention on behalf of women can enhance women’s rights and improve women’s conditions significantly, particularly in the fields of law, economics, and education. In the Beijing Platform for Action governments are made responsible for establishing the organizational structures, that is, the national machineries, necessary for the platform’s implementation. The prevailing sociopolitical conditions in Muslim societies, however, make it unlikely that governments seriously will promote women’s rights and expand services for women without some pressure. Few Muslim states have women’s rights –related agencies. In some, even nongovernmental organizations devoted to women’s affairs have little official support of have been co-opted by governments. It then falls on the international community to accelerate the human rights-women’s rights momentum generated during and after the Beijing Conference, to give support to local activists, and to monitor the fulfillment of promises by individual governments.

Although many Muslim governments are reluctant to implement the Platform for Action, grass-roots movements concerned with women’s issues are growing just about everywhere in Muslim countries. Women and men sympathetic to women’s rights realize that women cannot change their society without the cooperation of those in power positions, mostly men, and without exercising political leadership themselves. Such leadership starts in the family and community and extends from there. Activist women also realized that awareness of rights is the first step in gaining a political voice and the political power to gain rights. Traditional power structures raise intellectual, emotional, and social obstacles against the attainment of such knowledge and awareness and integrate women into these barriers: for example, as “good” mothers, women socialized their children into unequal gender relations; as “good” wives and managers of their households, they are rewarded for their cooperation in the “patriarchal bargain”;4 as “good” sisters they selflessly advance their brothers’ aspirations. But by playing the games of those in power women undermine their own positions and those of other women. By listening to fundamentalist sermons and reactionary political slogans that are designed to make apparent sense of their subordinated positions and restricted lives they miss opportunities to envision alternatives. By obeying decisions by others about their lives hey perpetuate the myth of their social immaturity. Clearly, any advocacy of human rights has to start with education that deals with the politics of knowledge and power and with raising critical awareness of the limitations the women’s own cultures impose on them.

It is encouraging that many women in Muslim societies (e.g., in Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran) have taken the lead in studying, developing, and implementing strategies for women’s empowerment. They do not necessarily study the Platform for Action itself, although many do, but they investigate possibilities that lead them in the direction of women’s rights from within their cultural practices: they probe possibilities of interpreting the Quran and the hadith themselves, for example; they educate the political elite about specific women’s concerns; they formulate and lobby for women-friendly legislation and policies; they establish dialogue among people of different backgrounds and experiences and national and international decision makers; they organize training sessions for literacy, legal literacy, marketable skills, health education; they disseminate information, organize local women’s groups. For the time being, their goals seem moderate: they want to modify traditional customs and laws to accommodate women’s needs, including the freedom of choice in their personal lives; the want equality with men before the law; they want to be heard and to be taken seriously; they want to get more rights, better education, more access to paid jobs, religious education. These are the prerequisites for the sweeping changes spelled out in the PFA. Given the prevailing religious and political trends in most Muslim countries, these efforts amount to an heroic undertaking that requires international awareness and support.

The Book
After the Beijing conference, concern with women’s rights and the advancement of women shifted from debating and formulating policies to finding practical ways to transform plans and commitments into action. To this end, in May 1996 Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI) called a conference in Washington, D.C., Beijing and Beyond: Implementing the Platform for Action in Muslim Societies.5 Women leaders from Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East and representatives of the United Nations, the World Bank, and international human rights organizations addressed an audience of 250 nongovernmental organization (NGO) activists, scholars, journalists, and policymakers.

Conference participants explored strategies for implementing the Beijing Platform for Action, focusing on political decision making and leadership. A necessary component of the search for ways of ensuring women’s participation in political decision making and leadership is education in the broadest sense—from legal literacy to human rights awareness, from women’s studies to the use of literature as a tool for creating civic awareness. Speakers presented case studies of projects underway in Muslim societies that serve as vehicles for implementing the Platform for Action.

The conference created lively interest among the participants but also in the media and in other institutions, organizations, and individuals concerned with human rights. Apparently, there is no lack of opinion and scholarship on the topic of women’s rights in theory, but there is a dearth of knowledge on how to bring about those human rights in practice. The enthusiastic response to the conference and many inquiries about it prompted the creation of this book.

Some of the papers delivered at the Washington, D.C., conference are included in this book; others were elicited from experts and practitioners in the field. All speak to various aspects of implementation, and their different views, concerns, strategies, caveats, demands, and suggestions reflect the divergent experiences of women pioneers working in the complex and varied societies of the Muslim world. There is not as yet a solid body of knowledge of practices that work and pitfalls to avoid that activists can fall back on when they encounter difficulties in the field. There is not yet a well-defined common ground on which elite women and ordinary women living in quite different circumstances in the same country can meet easily. But there is a perception of the need for such common ground—for a body of knowledge that would articulate women’s rights in ways that are not easily dismissable as “elitist,” “Western,” or “feminist” that could help activists to be proactive and to avoid being put on the defensive.

To the best of the authors’ knowledge this is the first book devoted entirely to the discussion of these problems, of the ways, means, and possibilities for the implementation of the Platform for Action in Muslim societies. It reflects the current state of implementation studies: to define obstacles and devise ways to circumvent them; to agree on priorities; to channel divergent opinions into constructive dialogue; to lift the discussion of human rights implementation off the sticky ground of patriarchal squabbling over “right” and “wrong” interpretations of religious texts or laws and “authentic” versus “alien” ideas and practices onto a plane where Muslim women are able and willing to articulate freely their own concerns and then find ways to achieve redress.

The book, then, is based on the philosophy of the Beijing conference and the PFA without being doctrinaire: in the book, women from different Muslim countries and cultural backgrounds and with different agendas address topics they feel strongly about within the general theme of women’s rights in the widest sense. Some of the contributors are optimistic, some pessimistic; some are adamant in their sweeping demands, others cautiously tread on slippery ground; some speak to general topics, whereas others describe the workings of very specific programs. All together, these women scholars’ and activists’ words amount to a loud and vigorous chorus that encourages women’s hopes for the future of women’s rights in the Muslim world.

The first part of the book is devoted to a theoretical assessment of some issues in the realization of the Platform for Action.
Deniz Kandiyoti explors what makes some Muslim women support measures of their own control in the discourse of “moral rectitude” and cultural authenticity and integrity of Islamist as well as reactionary secular groups. She suggests that the regulation of gender relations often is a site of struggle for contending power factions and easily elicits populist consensus, much to the detriment of women’s rights. As a political ideology Islam is used to legitimize regimes and their practices of domination, which makes it difficult to establish democratic structures wherein women enjoy full human rights.

Boutheina Cheriet points out that the human rights discourse, which slowly developed out of a humanist tradition in the West, cannot be in tune with local cultural practices in the Muslim world immediately. The author explores various stages of Algeria’s interactions with “the West,” including the upsurge of anti-Western sentiments and political programs that problematize the acceptance of documents like the Platform for Action. Only by encouraging debates about human rights issues within Muslim countries and by making these issues a concern of the people rather than merely a politicians or outsiders can one hope to achieve social change benefiting women.

Azza M. Karam describes three main different “feminisms” operating in Egypt: the secular, Muslim, and Islamist ones. Of these, the rhetoric of Islamist groups had led to an Islamized political discourse that bolsters Islamic power and hegemonic knowledge to the detriment of women’s rights. This hegemonic knowledge must be challenged by other feminists if women-friendly laws, the Platform for Action, and “Western-inspired” international treaties on human rights are to succeed.

Ann Elizabeth Mayer, reviewing some recent laws and legal cases involving women in Lybia, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, and Iran, warns that Islamic rationales are being used by the courts to subordinate women and that human rights are violated with claims to compliance with religious law, the Shari’a. Yet the vigor of the women’s rights discussion sparked in Beijing, and the widespread official acceptance of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) make it politically increasingly uncomfortable for governments openly to defend measures that harm women. Therefore, the pressure of these international movements indeed can counter and challenge successfully the politically reactionary use of Islam against women.

In the seven articles in the second part authors describe specific strategies, activities, or programs designed to bring about change in awareness, in skills, and in knowledge that enables women to take matters into their own hands.

Nimat Hafez Barangazi forcefully pleads for Muslim women’s strong and direct participation in understanding Islam in all its dimensions. Otherwise, women not only are deprived of a fundamental human and Muslim right but will not be able to formulate their own goals, take responsibility for them, and attain freedom and dignity. Only “islamic higher learning” can challenge the misogynist patriarchal practices and interpretations of Islamic scriptures that pose as “Islamic” today and allow women to enjoy fully the rights and privileges of free human beings without having to substitute for their religion a Western, alien value system.
Azar Nafisi uses a famous story from One Thousand and One Nights to demonstrate how a critical reading of classical literature can change one’s attitude toward adversarial circumstances in one’s life and can, thus, make it possible to resist and to change creatively these circumstances. She shows how effective literature can be in shaping women’s consciousness and in sharpening their abilities to influence their own situations in positive ways.

Fati Ziai addresses the problems that Islamism, or certain political uses of Islam, pose for governments and activists who wish to promote women’s rights. She describes some effects of legal codes and their interpretations that are based on Islamic law on women and the family in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Because many of the provisions in the Shari’a perpetuate gender inequality and, thus, inhibit the full realization of human rights, strong women’s advocacy groups such as the Collectif in the Maghreb, have to be vigilant, outspoken, and politically active to prevent the ascendance of discriminatory practices in the name of Islam.

Sharifah Tahir argues for the need to train young Muslim women to take on leadership positions within groups and organizations that advocate women’s rights. All too often, she points out, young women in patriarchal societies lack self-confidence, role models, and opportunities to learn and to practice skills in articulating concerns, negotiating, debating and arguing, in the formulation of programs and agenda, and in working within organizations. Older, experience women leaders and NGOs and other institutions as well need to mentor young women to maintain the momentum of the Platform for Action.

Eileen Kuttab and Laurie E. King-Irani both deal in their respective chapters with the possibilities of women’s studies programs and institutes devoted to research on women. Kuttab describes the women’s studies program at Birzeit University; King-Irani speaks of her experiences at the Lebanese American University. Women in such programs, working within universities or colleges, not only can be crucial for the raising of consciousness among students and the gathering of scholarly information on women’s circumstances in a region but can use their links to a well-developed infrastructure for all kinds of activist purposes and for crisis intervention. Yet the close link to an often rigid adminsitrative authority and lack of independent funding also make such programs vulnerable to political changes.

Mahnaz Afkhami introduces the first practical, detailed, step-by-step manual that can be used by anybody working with Muslim women to make them aware of their rights. The manual’s goal is to enable Muslim women to think through and discuss their understanding of themselves, of their relationships within the family and the state, and of their rights and responsibilities as Muslim women. It is built on dialogue and participation and on indigenous values rather than on Western cultural assumptions. The introduction and two sessions serve as examples.

In the third part of the book five representatives of international organizations describe the work of their organizations in terms of benefits to women in Muslim societies.

Maryam Elahi assesses the organizational tools and the possibilities of bodies such as Amnesty International and the United Nations for promoting the rights of women after Beijing. She notes that the growth of the women’s movement has resulted in increasing power to advocate and to monitor women’s rights on all organizational levels especially after the rights of women as human rights had been affirmed at the Beijing conference. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International now have become more gender-sensitive and more willing to be outspoken and active on behalf of women.

Mervat Tallawy brings her experience as a diplomat to the discussion of the importance of national machineries for the realization of the goals of the Platform for Action. She credits an increased participation of women in the formulation of goals for women’s rights with recent successes but also points out that the international media’s sensationalist attitude toward happenings in the region, fluctuating policies of donor-countries on issues such as population control, economic development, and human rights, and the use of religion as a political tool of oppression pose impediments to the full realization of women’s rights.

Seema Kazi, taking up the issue of women’s legal literacy, describes the work of Women Living Under Muslim Law (WLUML), a network of activists whose goal is to teach Muslim women to recognized and to fight discriminatory codes and laws and to be aware of existing laws they can use to their advantage. Making women aware of the fact that laws and legal interpretations vary widely among Muslim societies and that references to religion must be seen within the context of textual interpretations, gives women confidence to engage the legal process for their benefit.

Roslyn G. Hees explains how the World Bank can promote the goals of the Platform for Action in the region and that it has to be careful to fashion policies that are in tune with individual countries’ cultural and political conditions to promote effectively the enhancement of gender equality. In several examples the author demonstrates that the awareness of local circumstances increases participation in the formulation of strategies and that supporting projects that targets women directly and encourage their participation greatly benefits women’s rights.

Noeleen Heyzer and Ilana Landsberg-Lewis together describe the work of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), a U.N. organization that supports women’s programs on all levels by advising governmental agencies, NGOs concerned with women’s rights, and economic planners how to incorporate gender-sensitive plans and programs, how to involve women in setting national priorities, and how to translate the PFA into international, national, and local policies. With examples from some Muslim countries the authors illustrate how UNIFEM’s funds and organizational expertise can help women in individual countries to devise their own PFA-related strategies.




Book Reviews

Middle Eastern Studies / By Madawi Al-Rasheed

Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation Implementing the Beijing Platform edited by Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997. Pp.xxiii + 198, bibliography, index.
This book consists of articles presented at a Washington conference sponsored by Sisterhood is a Global Institute in 1996. The conference was meant to discuss the recommendations and implementations of the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Contributors to the book include academics, activists and representatives of international women organizations (NGOs). The objectives were to discuss ways of implementing the `platform for action’ in Muslim societies, a slogan which emerged from the Beijing meeting.

In the introduction Afkhami and Friedl argue that there is a need for a body of knowledge that would articulate women’s rights in ways that are not easily dismissable as `elitists’, `Western’, or `feminist’ and that could help activists to be proactive and to avoid being put on the defensive. This seems to be the objective behind holding this conference, to start a dialogue which would enable those working on women’s human rights in the Muslim world to benefit from theoretical arguments developed by academics and specialists in the field of gender studies.

The first part, `Assessing Women’s Right Issues’, includes an interesting article by Kandiyoti who situates women’s human rights in the general political realm and the struggle for power. The struggle between various factions in Muslim societies is responsible for the polarization between the `Islamists’ and the `secularists’ over gender issues. She rightly points out that the emphasis on appropriate Islamic conduct for women may not be the result of Muslim doctrinal imperatives or fundamentalist impulses but of regimes’ pragmatic needs to maintain social control (p.8). This argument moves away from simplistic interpretations which holds Islam and its doctrines responsible for the subordination of women in Muslim societies. Her article is contrasted with that of Karam who argues that in Egypt, the rhetoric of the Islamist groups has led to an Islamised political discourse that bolsters Islamic power and hegemonic knowledge to the detriment of women’s rights.

The second part, `Strategies for Change’, describes various attempts at intervention such as programmes designed to `empower’ women. The acquisition of skills and knowledge are portrayed as important conditions for raising women’s awareness of their situation and `taking matters into their own hands’. The key word is `empowerment’, which has become fashionable jargon in recent years not only in areas related to women, but also in general. It is unfortunate that the book and the introduction in particular do not include a serious consideration of this concept. Is empowerment just a flag to be raised by activists or is it a concept in the process of being refined by those working on gender issues? Does empowerment come from `above’ or `below’? Does invoking it imply that Muslim women lack power? These remain unanswered questions in a book which aims to bridge the gap between theoretical and applied knowledge.

The third part, `International Organisations and the Implementation of the Platform for Action’, includes articles by NGO representatives describing various programmes aimed at benefiting Muslim women. Amongst them is the representative of Amnesty International (Elahi) who shows that this organization has become more gender-sensitive and is willing to lobby on behalf of women. The representatives of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Heyzer and Landsberg-Lewis) describe various programmes initiated by the organization to raise women’s awareness of their rights and advise local governments in matters relating to women. This section would have seriously benefited from a consideration of an important dimension, that is the perspective of those Muslim women who are working with local organizations not benefiting from international money. The book describes situations where so called Muslim fundamentalists have gained power in society if not in politics, but fails to include the voices of those women, who in the jargon of the book would be described as `fundamentalist women’. We are left with a discussion of how international aid donors/activists/consultants design mechanisms for `empowering Muslim women’ from not only `above’ but also from `abroad’. The objection to this comes from Boutheina Cheriet who argues that `the total and comprehensive enfranchisement and empowerment of women are moral and structural imperatives in today’s societies, but they cannot be demanded from outside’ (p. 17). While I appreciate the new climate among international agencies which stresses the importance of local women’s participation and greater involvement (a climate which followed the disastrous policies associated with development from above). I cannot but question why the conference organizers did not include representatives of the various Islamic organizations claiming to `empower’ women, albeit within an Islamic framework. Section three of the book is most disappointing for missing this dimension.

I have no doubt that the editors are sincere in their claim that they seriously seek knowledge which help the promotion of women’s human rights in the Muslim world without being `elitist’, `Western’ or `feminists’. Unfortunately the book seems to be rooted in that discourse of Western feminism, which so far has not succeeded in developing an understanding of Muslim women without invoking polarized categories such as `secularists’, `fundamentalists’, `Islamists’ and `Western’.



Book Endorsement & Praise

“This anthology addresses the urgent need for empowerment of women in a very sensitive and part of the global community. The Muslim world today is in the midst of great intellectual, cultural, and political ferment. This book provides necessary guidelines for various Muslim societies to join the twenty-first century with a sense for potential accomplishments.’

Dr. Clovis Maksoud
Director, Center for the Global South
American University

‘This book is a necessary companion to every Muslim woman feminist and activist. For once, the issue of Muslim women and human rights is presented through complex cultural variants which makes this book encouraging, inspiring, and extremely useful.’

Bouthaina Shaaban
Both Right and Left Handed

‘A useful and informative addition to the literature in English about Muslim women.’

Elizabeth Fernea
Professor of English and Middle East Studies
University of Texas, Austin


Memorable Quotes

“Activism women realize that awareness of rights is the first step in gaining a political voice and the political power to gain rights.”