Four prominent Muslim women leaders spoke about women’s leadership and political participation in Muslim societies Nov. 25 at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC. Organized in collaboration with the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP), which seeks to empower women and girls in Muslim society, the forum drew a large audience of both sexes.
Opening the proceedings was moderator Azar Nafisi, director of the SAIS Dialogue Project, an initiative designed “to foster the development of democracy and human rights in the Muslim world.” A continuing dialogue between Muslim countries and the West is necessary, she said, because the two regions do not exist in isolation from one another. “Sept. 11 taught us that stability and peace in Washington and New York are connected to stability and peace in the streets of Kabul and Tehran,” Nafisi pointed out.
Part of the Islam-West dialogue involves trying to understand one another’s cultures and avoiding stereotyping. The range of nationalities represented at the meeting, with speakers hailing from Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Nafisi observed, “shows how difficult it is to categorize Muslim women and have only one image that comes to mind.” Nafisi then asked the panelists first to provide an overview of the opportunities for women’s political participation throughout the world, then to focus specifically on women in Muslim countries. WLP president Mahnaz Afkhami, originally from Iran, noted that women’s participation in politics worldwide has been relatively recent, with women still unable to vote in some countries. Of all regions in the world, she said, political participation is lowest (under 4 percent) in the Arab Middle East.
The obstacles to women’s participation are substantial. “One of the biggest,” said Ayesha Imam, co-founder of the first feminist organization in Nigeria, “is lack of money and resources.” A double standard also is sometimes employed, she added, with women in politics being considered “dirty” and “loose.” Perhaps the greatest obstacle for Muslim women is religious fundamentalism, which Imam defined as “groups of people who use their definition of the group to decide who is a ‘good’ member.” This deters women from publicly criticizing the system, Imam explained, lest they be branded a “bad”Muslim.
The West’s image of secluded and helpless Muslim women is taken from the stereotypes of religious fundamentalists. The forum participants, however, did not consider this image an accurate depiction of women in their culture. “I don’t know why we’re being simplified and condensed as if we’re all the same commodity,” Afkhami objected. Muslim women, added Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, “have been minimized into one identity. On CNN you only see images of Afghan women being flogged, but we are not all like that stereotype.” Obaid, the first Saudi Arabian to hold such a high-ranking position in the U.N., told the audience that in her country she is seen as a role model: “Men write to me and say, we want our daughters to have the same chances you had.”
Although Obaid’s high U.N. position is exceptional, her role as a leader is not as atypical of Muslim women as some Westerners may think. There are many professional women of high standing in the Muslim world. “There are a lot of us,” insisted Afkhami. “It’s important not to think of us as strange and unique, because that marginalizes us and we lose power.” Rather than being defined by Muslim fundamentalists or misinformed Americans, Muslim women have a right to define themselves, Imam asserted. That is one reason, she said, that she had chosen not to wear a veil that day, as she often does. Imam sometimes forgoes the veil, she explained, as an assertion of her right to participate in defining her culture. Each Muslim society is presented with one image of what a Muslim is supposed to be, she noted. But, she argued, there is great variety across the Muslim world. Some countries give women tremendous freedom, others very little—with all claiming to follow the tenets of Islam. It is important, therefore, Imam said, for women’s rights activists to note the variations in the interpretation of the religion, so that the more open Islamic societies can serve as models in arguing for women’s rights in the more oppressive ones.
Failing to recognize the different treatment of women among Muslim countries, Western feminists often lump all of the Muslim world together, deeming it universally oppressive toward women. “The dialogue between the (global) North and South on women,” Obaid maintained, “has been the North pointing fingers at the South, saying your culture is no good for women. But that same culture has good aspects that can bring about change,” she continued. “We must change that dialogue and harness the good aspects.”
Pakistani-American Shirin Tahir-Kheli, SAIS professor and former head of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, emphasized the need for activists from all cultures and faiths to work together in defending women’s rights. “Empowerment depends on communication between societies,” she stated. A raising of consciousness must take place, she added, not only in Muslim society, but across cultures. Women around the world face many of the same issues and can learn from one another. Rather than making accusations based on inaccurate generalizations, women of the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds should collaborate in order to find common ground from which to defend their rights.