Experts: The West should listen to the Muslim women.
1. I know it is hard to give some definitive answer as the level of women’s rights is different in various countries but as we witness changes in the Arab world how much should the West and international community push for the improving of women’s rights in the MENA region?
2. Basically I have the same question related to Afghanistan. How much must be a focus on the women’s rights a part of the strategy for the future of Afghanistan?
1. The international community is not “to push” but to seek out and support the work of regional civil society organizations and others. Change has to come from within societies and cannot be perceived as dictated by or imposed by outsiders.
Today, the status and roles of women vary considerably, influenced as much by literacy, education, and economic development as by religion. Some women wear stylish Islamic dress, some are veiled and some wear Western fashions. While in some sex-segregated countries educated Muslim women are not visible in the work place, in other countries women work as engineers, doctors, scientists, teachers, and lawyers alongside their male colleagues. The veil has become a particularly charged symbol; yet even the wearing of the veil has diverse meaning for wearers and observers. A modern Muslim woman isn’t necessarily wearing Western clothes and a veiled woman isn’t necessarily oppressed.
The complexity of women’s status is illustrated by many country-specific contradictions.
Women in Egypt today have access to the best education and hold responsible professional positions in virtually every sector. Yet, like women in most Muslim societies, they need a male family member’s permission to travel.
While women cannot vote in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, in almost every other Muslim country, they do vote and run for political office, serve in parliaments and as head of state or vice president in Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
Saudi women own 70% of the savings in Saudi banks and own 61% of private firms in the Kingdom; they own much of the real estate in Riyadh and Jeddah, and can own and manage their own businesses, but they are sexually segregated, restricted to “appropriate” professions and cannot drive a car.
In nearby Kuwait, women freely function in society, hold responsible positions in many areas, but they have not been able to get the vote. In modern-day Egypt women could not until recently serve as judges, but in Morocco more than 20% of judges are women.
In Afghanistan and in some areas of Pakistan, the Taliban in the name of Islam, have forced professional women to give up their jobs and prohibited girls from attending school. In Iran, where women must cover their hair and wear long-sleeved, ankle-length outfits in public, they constitute the majority of university students, hold professional positions, and serve in parliament. A woman is Vice President in this Islamic Republic.
In some parts of the world, women’s basic literacy and education reflects serious inequality: in Yemen women’s literacy is only 28% vs. 70% for men; in Pakistan, it is 28% vs. 53% for men. Percentages of women pursuing post-secondary educations dip as low as 8% and 13% in Morocco and Pakistan respectively (comparable to 3.7% in Brazil, or 11% in the Czech Republic).
But these figures do not represent the entire Muslim world; women’s literacy rates in Iran and Saudi Arabia are 70% and as high as 85% in Jordan and Malaysia. In education, significant percentages of women in Iran (52%), Egypt (34%), Saudi Arabia (32%), and Lebanon (37%) have post-secondary educations. In the UAE, as in Iran, the majority of university students are women.
What about Muslim attitudes today regarding women’s rights. Majorities in some of the most conservative Muslim societies do support equal rights. Majorities in virtually every country surveyed say women should have the same legal rights as men: to vote without influence from family members, to work at any job for which they qualify, and to serve in the highest levels of government. In fact, majorities of both men and women in dozens of Muslim countries around the world believe women should have the:
–same legal rights as men : 61% of Saudis, 85% of Iranians and 90% range in Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh and Lebanon say that men and women should have the same legal rights.
–right to work outside the home in any job for which a woman qualifies (90% in Malaysia, 86% in Turkey, 85% in Egypt and 69% in Saudi Arabia)
–right to vote without interference from family members (80% in Indonesia, 89% in Iran, 67% in Pakistan, 90% in Bangladesh, 76% in Jordan, 93% in Turkey and 56% in Saudi Arabia)
None of these examples should make anyone complacent about the condition of many women in Muslim (or Western) societies. Patriarchy and its legacy, legitimated in the name of religion, remains alive in many countries although it is also progressively challenged in the name of religion.
Like the status of women in all the World’s religions, in Islam and Muslim societies patriarchy played and in many cases continues to influence the status and roles of women. The place of women in the formative period of Islam reflected Qur’anic concerns for the status and rights of women as well as the patriarchal structure of the societies in which Islamic law was developed and elaborated. The status of women and the family in Islamic law was the product of Arab culture, Qur’anic reforms, and foreign ideas and values assimilated from conquered peoples. While the Qur’an introduced substantial reforms, providing new regulations and modifying local custom and practice, at the same time, much of the traditional pre-Islamic social structure with its extended family, the paramount position of males, the roles and responsibilities of its members, and family values was incorporated.
A new source of women’s empowerment today has become active participation in the mosque and use of Islam’s tradition to reclaim their rights in Islam. Reformers today emphasize that just as women during the time of the Prophet prayed in the mosque, so too today they actively exercise that right. In the centuries after the death of Muhammad, women played a small but significant role as transmitters of hadith (prophetic traditions) and in the development of Sufism (Islamic mysticism). Gradually, however, women’s religious role and practice, particularly their access to education and the mosque, were severely restricted. Male religious scholars cited a variety of reasons, from moral degeneration in society to women’s bringing temptation and social discord, to restrict both their presence in public life and their access to education and the mosque.
Today, in many Muslim countries and communities, particularly those that have been regarded as among the more modernized, such as Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia, and in America, women lead and participate in Quran study and recitation groups as well as mosque-based educational and social services. In countries like Iran, women serve as prayer leaders (Imams) for congregational prayers; however, they are only permitted to lead groups of women. Female reformers look to early Islam for examples of women noted for their learning, leadership, and piety to strengthen the rationales for women’s contemporary role in public activities.. Strong public female figures during the Prophet’s time include Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife of twenty-five years, who owned her own business in which Muhammad had been employed and played a formative and significant role in the birth of the Muslim community. After Khadija’s death, Muhammad’s wife Aisha was very prominent as a major source of religious knowledge, an authority in history, medicine and rhetoric.
Though patriarchy, legitimated in the past by religion, remains very much alive as an ideology and value system, in many Muslim countries it is progressively challenged by women, also in the name of religion as well as economic realities. Rather than breaking with tradition, female reformers argue that their religious activism today reclaims an ideal “forgotten” by later generations. As a result of this new discourse, increasing numbers of women have an alternative paradigm that enables them to broaden their expectations both inside and outside the home.
2. The answer here is same as I have given above. A strategy that emphasizes literacy and skills, education (building schools and universities) and economic development will empower Afghan women and men who will also make their decisions on their way forward.
Jennifer Heath, Author of various books including The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam
1. You are quite right that it is difficult and indeed it is wrong to generalize. And in a nutshell, my general answer is that the West and the international community should mind their own business when it comes to pushing for the improvement of women’s rights in the MENA region or Afghanistan. We in the West must be supportive whenever Arab or Afghan women ASK US to help, but they must take the lead. If they don’t ask, we don’t “push.”
(Among the raison d’etres for my books, “The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam,” “The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics” and most recently “Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women,” is to dispell this notion that somehow women of the MENA regions and Afghanistan have no agency and can do nothing on their own without the patronage of the West. I believe the West must shut up, sit back and learn something from others.)
When you look at the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya (as well as the less publicized ones in Bahrain and Yemen, for instance), you see that women are at the forefront. Does this indicate that they are somehow shrouded pitiful ghosts simply waiting for help from the West? I don’t think so. These are women of great strength, and they appear to be far better educated than most Western women. The numbers show that, for instance, even in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, women make up 60% of the educated (university) population.
Afghan women have suffered 30 years of war — and counting. The West has, I’m sorry to say, been largely to blame for the position of pain and oppression that so many are in, and now the West proposes to tell them HOW to liberate themselves. Absurd. Let Afghan women tell us what their needs are and how to achieve what they determine are the proper goals.
(As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and writer Sheryl WuDunn note in their book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” “The best role for Americans who want to help Muslim women isn’t holding the microphone at the front of the rally, but writing the checks and carrying the bags in the back.”)
Consider the idea of “gender mainstreaming,” invented in Beijing and so very precious to the United Nations and others, but which has been imposed with no thought to the fact that in Afghanistan, for instance, in the Dari language, there is no word for gender. With no consideration of the structures of Afghan families — destroyed though they have been by these wars. With no thought to the fact that Afghan women are AFGHAN, not Polish, not American, and although many in the urban populations may long for the so-called freedoms Western women enjoy, they likely wish do so through their own cultures and by their own definitions of what “free” means. (And believe it or not, they also LIKE being Afghan.) The West fetishizes a one-size-fits-all Western-style democracy (again, perhaps we should look to our own houses, at least in the U.S.), which is not necessarily appropriate for other people.
And why, in all this rush to help women has the West not considered that Afghan boys need education (and employment — unemployment equals more Taliban) as much as women, or else there can ultimately be no peace. A world of ignorant men does nothing to help women. None of these questions — questions of culture, subtleties, nuances — are considered as the West moves in with BIG guns and BIG ideas and BIG money that mostly lines the pockets of contractors and corrupt government officials.
Please forgive my temper, but I am a little tired of this self-righteous question. I don’t know why the West cannot learn that its actions are often/usually deeply counterproductive. Perhaps Europeans and Americans should look to their own exploitation of women for a change. While it may appear as if Western women are “free” — because among other things they wear makeup and few clothes (another form of objectification) — deeper examination will reveal a much different story in far too many cases. Lack of reproductive rights. Sex trafficking. Unspeakable poverty.
About 77% of the entire world’s poor are women. And 60% of the starving worldwide are women. This is what we must concentrate on improving, and when we do so, the rest will come.
2. As far as strategy for the future of Afghanistan, women have consistently been left out of any discussions. We say we want to help them and then leave them out of all negotiations, out of all discussions of DDR, (I refer you to the Women’s 50% Campaign). If the West is so serious about helping women, why have they allowed women to be left out at the very top levels, where it counts? These are missed opportunities.
Indeed, as everyone by now knows, the U.S. government has exploited Afghan and Iraqi women as an excuse to invade and go to war (and kill their families and friends in the process of “liberating” them). Iraqi women under Sadaam Hussein were already liberated. They had voted since about 1980, among the first to do so in Arab nations. They were free to dress as they pleased, but the US invasion sent them back into “hiding.”
Arab women and Afghans will do fine without our interference. If they want our help, they will ask, and we must give it generously, without conditions and without imposition of our own ideas, our own points of view, onto their lives.