Unveiling the Islamic sisterhood

Isobel Coleman has produced a highly readable study of the ordinary lives of extraordinary women changing the Muslim world.

Pakistan fashion week (photo credit: Saeed Shah/MCT)
Pakistan fashion week
(photo credit: Saeed Shah/MCT)
Isobel Coleman is no male-bashing feminist. Indeed she admits: “Gender issues had never been on my radar screen.” Neither is Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East a predictable study in the West vs Islamist culture clash.
The tone is set early on, in a mosque-based school in Hazarajat, home to the Hazara minority in central Afghanistan. Here the local mullah who welcomes Coleman tells her: “Education is like sun and water. Without it you can’t grow anything. But if the girls are educated, they can change our whole society.”
The outcome of the struggle between the mullah seeking funds to educate village girls and the Taliban who burn schools where classes for girls are held will have an impact way beyond the borders of Afghanistan, in countries and places those villagers can barely imagine.
On the other hand, Coleman recalls giving a talk in New York where the discussion turned to using the mosque as a school. A woman in the audience interrupted and declared: “We should be working to dislodge religion, not further entrench it.”
“Clearly she has never been to the central highlands of Afghanistan, I thought to myself, and might not appreciate the political and cultural realities of the region... If the advancement of women’s rights in the Middle East depends on the removal of Islam, Muslim women will be waiting a long time indeed.”
The book avoids being too academic, although it was born when Coleman, a senior fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, was asked by the CFR to develop a program on women and foreign policy.
“It did not take long for me to understand that the women’s struggle for justice in much of the world is about the most basic of human rights. It is also central to many of the most pressing foreign policy concerns: alleviating poverty, promoting economic development, improving global health, building civil society, strengthening weak and failing states, assisting democratization and tempering extremism.”
Coleman traveled widely and researched her topic well, and fortunately for the reader, produced a highly readable account of the lives of some ordinary and remarkable women, at home, in their own environments.
Hence we meet a series of powerful women (and some men) who are acting to transform lives. But they are almost always working within the framework of ijtihad, interpreting Islamic law to promote gender equality rather than act as a tool of repression.
Incidentally, Coleman notes that in places like Tunisia, where the hijab remains ubiquitous despite an official ban, many women wear the head scarf as a means of asserting their rights to protest strident secularism rather than to express piety. Feminism is seen, even by some women, as a foreign cultural import.
The book is arranged in two sections, the first providing historical background on the status of women and the rise of “Islamic feminism,” and the second looking at some specific ways in which women’s rights are playing out in five Muslim countries.
Among the women we meet through Coleman are the unknown – like Nasreen Parveen, a formerly destitute Pakistani slumdwelling widow who, with the help of a small loan, now runs her own business, and Chaggibai Bhil, an uneducated Indian villager who became a groundbreaking local politician. And readers can become better acquainted with the far more public American- born Amina Wadud, who came up with the term “gender jihad,” that gives one chapter its title. She stirred controversy across the Islamic world by insisting women could lead Friday prayers (sound familiar, anyone?).
In Saudi Arabia, the reader is introduced to Dr. Haifa Jamal al-Lail, the dean of an allwomen’s university, and businesswoman Madawi al-Hassoon who runs a chain of hair salons – this in a country where women are forbidden to travel without a male guardian and where infamously the Mutawa morality police in 2002 prevented schoolgirls from leaving their burning building because they weren’t wearing head scarves and robes. Fifteen girls died in the incident.
The chapter on Iran is fascinating: In it we see women who won the battle to compete in sports, for example. And how press wars and gender issues combine. (As an aside, there is also a joke said to have circulated in Teheran about how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, determined to prove his hard-line credentials, carefully separates the male lice from the females when he combs his hair. This story, I suspect, could easily undergo some kind of un-Orthodox conversion.) As the debate on niqabs and public veils continues to rage throughout France and the rest of Europe, the timeliness and relevance of this book to readers outside the Muslim world is obvious. My major reservation is the subhead. The lively reports about life in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Malaysia make an important contribution to our understanding of the issues, but including them in a book on “How women are transforming the Middle East” is pushing the geographic boundaries of the region to the outer limits.
Even stranger, Israel’s immediate neighbors, more traditionally considered the Middle East, are not covered.
Ultimately, Coleman does see a “silver lining.”
In Pakistan, for instance, the notorious Hudood ordinances, under which, among other things, a rape victim can find herself imprisoned for sex out of wedlock, are gradually being pushed back. She also holds that “when the current repressive regime finally loses its hold, Iran will undoubtedly emerge as the most progressive environment for women in the region.” And she is encouraged by the gradual change in attitudes in Saudi Arabia. But clearly a long, long road lies ahead – especially for women not yet allowed behind the steering wheel of a car.