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Women's Rights in the Muslim World: the Universal-Particular Interplay

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An ironic ramification of the tragedy of September 11 and the subsequent demise of the Taliban government in Afghanistan seems to be an unprecedented rise in the international prominence of issues concerning the rights and status of women in the Islamic world. This increased international attention to women's quest for equal civil and human rights and a better appreciation of women's agency in the modernization and democratization of the Islamic world can be a welcome development. The significance of this potentially positive turn is better appreciated when we bear in mind that if it were not for the outrage and protest widely expressed by international feminist groups, especially Afghan women activists and American feminists, the US government, prompted by some oil companies, would probably have recognized the Taliban government. Perhaps it would have taken no less than the September 11 wake up call for many officials to speak out against the blatant violations of women's rights in Afghanistan. The worldwide outcry against the Taliban's destruction of a few historic statues in Bamiyan was indeed much louder and wider than those raised against their daily abuse of women and blatant violations of women's/human rights in Afghanistan. The increased attention of Western leaders towards the rights of Muslim women will probably be short-lived, but advocates of women's rights can work to turn this development into long-lasting progress. This problem must be approached on two fronts. On the one hand, how can we transform interest in Muslim women's rights into an effective and long-term foreign policy (including foreign aid) on the part of Western governments? On the other, how can we mobilize new resources in support of Muslim women's grassroots activism, which can exert effective pressure on the governments and ruling elites of Muslim societies and force concrete legal reforms and policy change? First, we need to turn this increased and at times "otherizing" attention into a deeper awareness of the complexity of the "Muslim women question," its commonalities as well as its differences with the "women question" in non-Muslim countries, its historical roots and present interconnectedness to broader national and international socio-economic and political problems in the global context. Starting with a brief review of the global state of women's rights in general and a comparative historical background of Muslim women's rights in particular, this paper will attempt to make the following arguments and policy recommendations:

1. Historically speaking, sexism has not been peculiar to the Islamic world or to the Islamic religion;

2. What is peculiar is that a visible gap has emerged in modern times between the Islamic world and the Christian West with regard to the degree of egalitarian improvement in women's rights;

3. This gap has been due to the legacy of colonialism, underdevelopment, defective modernization, the weakness of a modern middle class, democratic deficit, the persistence of cultural and religious patriarchal constructs such as sharia due to failure of reform and secularization within Islam, and weakness of civil society organizations - especially women's organizations - in the Muslim world;

4. The recent surge in identity politics, Islamism and religio-nationalist movements is in part due to socio-economic and cultural dislocation, polarization and alienation caused by modernization, Westernization and globalization, and in part is a "patriarchal protest movement" in reaction to the challenges that the emergence of modern middle class women poses to traditional patriarchal gender relations;

5. Processes of democratization, civil society building, consolidation of civil rights and universal human/women's rights are intertwined with reformation in Islam, feminist discourse and women's movements. Gender has become the blind spot of democratization in the Islamic world;

6. In terms of national and international policy implications, it should be recognized that women and youth have become the main forces of modernization and democratization in the Islamic world. Democracy cannot be consolidated without a new generation of Muslim leaders and state-elites who are more aware of the new realities of a globalized world and more committed to universal women's/human rights;

7. To win the war against terrorism and patriarchal Islamism, we need more than military might. In the short- and medium-term, a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can alter the present social psychological milieu that has allowed the growth of extremism and male-biased identity politics; and

8. In the long-term, democratization and comprehensive gender-sensitive development seems to be the only effective strategy. A significant component of this strategy has to be Islamic reformation, which requires international dialogue with and support for egalitarian and democratic voices in the Muslim world.

Affiliations: 1: California State University, Northridge


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