“The spirit of Islam is egalitarian. We can have a life of civility, of plurality, that is respectful of the religion and draws on it.” Barbara Crossette reports on  an “Islam-based and not threatening” manual on women’s rights.

For several years, an informal group of Muslim women from around the world has met to spur discussion among Muslims everywhere about the rights of women. Now, with the shadow of a repressive Islamic regime in Afghanistan hovering over the debate, the group has produced a manual on the rights of women under Islam.

Intended to be adaptable to a wide range of cultures at the grass-roots level, the new publication, “Claiming Our Rights: A Manual for Women’s Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies,” will be tested over the next year in five very different countries: Bangladesh, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia and Uzbekistan.

The plan is to assemble discussion groups to exchange ideas on the subject. There has already been a quiet trial run among a group of university women in Iran.

“There is a great change in self-awareness among women in Muslim societies,” said Mahnaz Afkhami, executive director of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, a private organization based in Bethesda, Md.

Ms. Afkhami directed the effort on the manual, which the institute produced with the help of the National Endowment for Democracy and the Ford Foundation.

Sometimes at great risk to themselves, women are making gains, though frequently small and fragile. But developments like the introduction of more egalitarian family laws in North Africa often go unnoticed, Ms. Afkhami said, because militants and fundamentalists dominate contemporary images of Islam.

“This very sound-bite-friendly Islamicist movement doesn’t allow the other side to be heard,” she said in an interview. “But women are often the center of debate, even in Iran.”

Ms. Afkhami, who was minister for women’s affairs in the government of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, has strong critics among Islamic women because of that. And she is aware that promoting women’s rights from a base outside the Muslim world attracts the criticism that the campaign is Western and alien.

“We are not confrontational,” she said. “Our manual is Islam-based and not threatening. Our hope is that we can get people to engage in dialogue.”

The manual on women’s rights in Islam — which is being published in Arabic, Bengali, Malay, Persian and Uzbek as well as English — contains instructions for conducting grass-roots discussions. It also includes sometimes provocative passages from the Koran — like those about a husband’s punishment of an “ill-behaved” wife — and the Hadith, the often-disputed collection of teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as recorded by religious leaders centuries later.

Juxtaposed are texts of major international agreements on human rights, particularly women’s rights, which many Muslim nations have signed.

The book briefly profiles four women it calls “the first heroines of Islam”: two wives of Mohammed; his daughter Fatima, and Zainab, the sister of a Shiite leader who went into battle and successfully pleaded with a victorious enemy to spare her brother’s life in defeat.

There is also a sampling of Arab proverbs about women, a bibliography, and the names, addresses and telephone and fax numbers of women’s rights groups throughout the Islamic world.

Women who contributed to the manual brought a range of experiences to bear, Ms. Afkhami said. In Bangladesh, where grass-roots women’s groups are strong and women are well represented in politics, there is an interest in more sophisticated political training at the local level.

In Uzbekistan, women are concerned that the process of sloughing off the Soviet system could allow the adoption of a fundamentalist order in the name of Uzbek nationalism, with the consequent loss of the considerable rights Muslim women enjoyed under communism.

In Malaysia, where the equality of women has been fostered by the government, several women’s organizations are engaged in scholarly revision of traditional Muslim laws and practices to make them more relevant to the times. Islamic militancy has been largely marginalized.

“Give women rights, let them participate — that’s the lesson of Malaysia,” Ms. Afkhami said. “The spirit of our religion is egalitarian. We can have a life of civility, of plurality, that is respectful of the religion and draws on it.”


This article originally appeared in the New York Times, December 29, 1996


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