Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Muslim Women Reformers

"If you educate a man, you educate a person, but if you educate a woman you educate a family."
~Ruby Manikan, social systems analyst

As one of four sisters growing up in NY, my mother stressed the importance of getting a good education to each of us. I attended the Bronx High School of Science, and there was never any doubt that I and all of my sisters would also attend college. My mother believed that each of us needed to go to college, and she made sure that we did. I attended an all-women's school, Scripps College in Claremont, CA.

In 2011, girls in a traditional, Muslim country such as Afghanistan, are very unlikely to attend school and become literate, because they are not seen as worth educating.

Although I have felt at times subtle prejudice against me over the years because of my sex, mostly from the older generation, as an American I've been able to enjoy much freedom (and the responsibility that accompanies it). Of course, there have been times when I felt that others did not take me seriously, just because I'm a female, or that I lacked the authority males seemed to have been born with, but for the most part I felt that I was treated more or less as an equal to males. I never worried that I would not be allowed to go to school because of my sex, or that I would be married off as soon as I hit puberty.

If you decide to read Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression by writer and psychologist Ida Lichter, prepare to be shocked. Published in 2009, this book is filled with unbelievable but true stories and facts that will upset most modern women greatly. I had a very hard time with it, because I was brought up to believe in my worth and value, as well as that of all people, female and male. Consequently, it was very difficult for me to digest many of the traditional ideas and beliefs presented in the book about women in Muslim countries, such as:

Women are seen as inferior in intelligence to men, as items of exchange like land or animals.

Female education is often limited to religious education.

Allowing women to vote would lead to their moral decline.

Girls as young as nine may be wives in certain countries, often to polygamist men who are much older.

Domestic violence against women and spousal rape are common, and if punished, only lightly.

Gang rape of girls and women is rampant. Rape victims are seen as having brought shame upon their families, and so often remain silent.

A woman may be stoned to death for adultery. Female genital mutilation is routinely performed to keep women "in check".

While these ideas do not apply to each and every Muslim country (for example, Bahrain now has greater equality between the sexes, and in some Muslim countries, such as Lebanon, girls are educated), these traditional beliefs are entrenched in many countries. In general and in sum, women are not seen as equal to men in traditional Muslim countries. In Iran, there's a law stipulating that the financial compensation for diya, for accidentally killing a woman, is half that for killing a man; women are seen as half as valuable as men. Even though women give birth, and care for and nurture the young, they are seen as far less important than males (which really doesn't make sense, from any standpoint). In many Islamic countries, women are not allowed to work outside of the home, and in fact are rarely able to leave the house unchaperoned by a male, and must be clothed from head to toe when they do venture out. Of course, these ways are unimaginable to me, as an American woman who comes and goes freely, often by myself. I found many of the ideas about women and their worth to be deplorable and degrading (they stem from the belief that both women and men are animalistic).

Thankfully, though, Muslim Women Reformers also offers hope and inspiration. Thoroughly researched, this absorbing book presents numerous women reformers, activists, and feminists (not a dirty word) from Muslim countries--from Afghanistan to Jordan to Nigeria to Yemen--and details their often heartbreaking stories and struggles. Heroic women activists are working to make their voices heard, such as Iranian Sussan Tahmesebi, spokesperson for the One Million Signature Campaign, which aims to collect one million signatures in support of a petition to Iranian parliament to reform discriminatory laws against women. Or Marina Mahathir in Malaysia, who's trying to prevent the spread of AIDS through efforts to educate Muslim women, who may be more at risk for this dreaded disease because they must submit to their husbands' demands. In this book, the work of numerous Muslim reformers is presented--I wish I could mention each of them by name, because each is so deserving of recognition. They struggle to end gender discrimination and violence against women in Muslim societies, which is due at least in part to men in patriarchal societies who wish to retain their dominance, superiority, and control over women. These women activists are joined by a handful of Islamic male activists, and work ceaselessly for women's rights, hold meetings and international conferences, and campaign for major political, social, and educational reforms. They help pass family laws (moudawana) like those passed in Morocco, which give women more equality. They fight for women's rights because they know that these are basic human rights, which will ultimately benefit everyone.

While we are fortunate in America to have a great degree of equality between the sexes, women's rights in Muslim countries have a long way to go. Muslim Women Reformers points out that this lack of equality stems from a traditional, conservative culture that interprets the Koran in patriarchal and misogynistic ways that oppress and denigrate women, instead of advocating a more modern, egalitarian interpretation of the holy text. Brave and outspoken, these women reformers and activists share an ongoing quest for more rights, equality, and education for women. It was an eye-opening book for me, definitely worth reading.

Special thanks to Lisa Roe, Online Publicist, for sending me this book.


  1. I like your opening quote. --How sad that such oppression still exist. How courageous those women are to voice reform and act on it.

  2. This sounds like a powerful book! Im sure some of those stories are hard to believe and heartbreaking. It must have been inspiring to read about the women reformers. Great review Suko.

  3. I thought this book was really interesting and inspiring. The one country it didn't include is Oman, the country I have visited numerous times. The people I know there are all educated so it's easy for me to feel like things are good for women in the Middle East, but I know this is the exception rather than the rule

  4. Wow! I'm definitely going to want to read this one at some point. What a wonderful review Suko!

  5. This is a powerful book. Thank you for your comments. More comments welcomed.

  6. This sounds like a very eye opening book for many of us-when I read Indonesia short stories by women not long ago I was struck by the level of abuse that was accepted as normal-very good post as always on a difficult topic

  7. What an eye opener of a post, thanks for giving me so much to think about. I hope you don't mind me including your opening quote on my blog.

  8. I am going to be reviewing this soon, and imagine that I will have a lot of thee same reaction to it that you did. It sounds like a tough book to assimilate, particularly because we come from a country where males and females are basically considered equals. Very informative and interesting review, Suko! I can't wait to read this one for myself!

  9. I can't imagine what it must be like for those women! It's hard to believe that women of many different faiths are still treated as if they are lower than dirt. I guess that's why it's so great living in the US where we have so many freedoms.

    Great review as always :-)

    XOXO~ Renee

  10. Many thanks for the comments. Petty, of course you may copy the quote for your own blog--it is worth repeating.

    Additional comments welcomed.

  11. I love that quote very true. Sounds like a wonderful story.

  12. Sadly, there was a time (in Iran, in Afghanistan) when women were educated, were viable members of the professional class. Perhaps the pendulum will now swing back to that direction. A book like this one is a powerful call to action. Thank you for presenting it, Suko!

  13. Thank you, Suko, for this really interessant post ! Yes, it's a long way yet to freedom and equality for numerous women !

  14. Kudos to these women who have the courage to speak up and raise awareness. Thanks for highlighting them.

  15. Many thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Annie, thanks for linking to this post. :)


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