Women working within Islamic society for change in Middle East

Isobel Coleman. Photo by Eleanor Beaton/SF Public Press.

By Maryann Hrichak, SF Public Press

A growing Islamic feminist movement is taking shape in the Middle East and offers hope for the future of women’s rights there, according to Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Coleman recently spoke at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco to promote her new book, “Paradise beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.” Her book chronicles the stories of women in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, an area of the world she terms the “strategic crescent.” Her latest work reflects how Muslim women and men are using progressive interpretations of Islam to support women’s rights.

“The challenges these women face of working within traditional religiously conservative societies and legal frameworks based on Islam are enormous,” Coleman said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that women are a great untapped resource and are vastly under invested from a human capital perspective in the Middle East. Their potential has been restricted by a repressive legal system and by cultural, social and religious practices. The women in my book are trying very hard to overcome a stereotype.”

Although not a Muslim, Coleman became interested in her subject matter from an economic development angle drawn from her work at the Council on Foreign Relations, where for the past 10 years her focus has been on the Middle East.

“Patriarchy runs very deep and strong throughout the Arab world and South Asia, but I believe what we’re really dealing with is culture, very deep cultural practices,” she said. “And as we all know it is very difficult to change culture in any situation. When culture is justified and reinforced by religion, it is even harder to change. You’re not just working against culture and tradition, you’re working against God.”

Women working within Islamic society for change in Middle East: Q&A with Isobel Coleman from SF Public Press on Vimeo.

Coleman said the idea that women should have equal rights is universal, but how that goal is realized is unique to each culture. “Women as well as men in these parts of the world are searching for different strategies and approaches to affect change. Women are not equal to men in all ways, but in terms of rights and access, the idea is universal. I also believe we’re living in a time where that idea may still be a very controversial one,” she said. “We’re working with constitutions that elevate Sharia (Islamic) law and no law can contradict that.”

She also spoke about “key drivers of change” that are necessary to promote the women’s rights movement. Those drivers include education, media, the economy and extremism. In education, Coleman said that 70 percent of recent college graduates in Iran are women, and in Saudi Arabia that figure is 64 percent. There is an explosion of new media in the Middle East that is reaching diverse audiences. The economic value that women bring to the marketplace is causing societies to realize that restrictions on women are fruitless.

“Women are engines of economic activity,” she said. “In Saudi Arabia, the women are energetic and hungry for entrepreneurship.”

Extremism is the last key driver. “Extremist views on women and extremism in general no longer serve society,” Coleman said. She pointed to Morocco, where women are now being trained as religious leaders.

Coleman sees herself in the role as an observer, offering advice to U.S. organizations but not to women in the Middle East.

“These women don’t need my advice,” she said. “They are very capable, smart women who are firing on a lot of different cylinders. The women are finding their own sources of empowerment, and while some of those sources may be inspired or funded by the West, the movements themselves are local and indigenous. The women are inspired by their own dreams, visions and beliefs in what they can do themselves.”

Coleman said she hoped that people reading her book would have a more nuanced understanding of the Middle East: “I want people to feel encouraged that, despite all the negative headlines we hear, there are some positive trends out there. If you are constantly inundated with bad news, you feel a sense of hopelessness but, by reading my book, I hope people will feel inspired by the stories of these Muslim women clawing their way to positive change. The women are part of something larger, something brewing in their own societies. That will not only encourage those that read the book, but also the Muslim women and countries about which I write.”

Originally published at sfpublicpress.org. Video by Eleanor Beaton/SF Public Press.

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