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Last Updated: Monday, 31 October 2005, 09:41 GMT
Islam feminists urge gender jihad
By Danny Wood
BBC News, Madrid

Valentine Moghadam (centre) talks with delegates
Women from the Islamic world are attending the three-day conference
Organisers of the first international congress on Islamic feminism are calling for a "gender jihad".

Organiser Abdennur Prado Pavon says the struggle for gender equality in Islamic countries involves refuting chauvinist interpretations of Muslim teachings.

The congress is being held in Spain, organisers say, because they want their message to reach the growing number of Muslim women in Europe.

Around 300 delegates are looking at women's rights in the Islamic world.

Mr Prado, of the Catalan Islamic board, believes a common misconception in the West is that women's liberation is not possible in Muslim societies.

Activists representing the Islamic feminist movement are in Barcelona to counter that view and discuss ways of achieving female equality in an Islamic context.

Collaboration

Among the delegates is the Pakistani feminist Riffat Hassan, regarded as one of the pioneers of Islamic feminist theology.

Also here are representatives from the international association, Islamic Feminism.

Islamic Feminism argues that the inferior legal and social status of women in Muslim countries is a result of misogynistic distortions of the teachings in the Koran.

Organisers say they want more collaboration with western feminists but say non-Muslim feminists need to challenge their anti-Islamic stereotypes.


What do you think should be done to address misconceptions of women and Islam?

The following comments reflect the balance of views received:

It is a common misconception in Western nations that Islam is an inherently oppressive religion with regards to women, but as the Islamic feminists themselves argue, it is the interpretations and cultural influences of the societies in which the religion spread that allowed for the current status for women in Islamic cultures today. The West is hardly so far advanced from Islam as we would like to believe. We are just less open in our practices than others.
Carolyn Bailey, Gothenburg, Sweden

The major factor behind discrimination against women in the Muslim world is lack of knowledge about rights and duties as defined in the Holy Quran. We reject and accept whatever we feel like without even bothering to consult the Quran. We Muslims should understand that our religion is not just a few praying rituals but a doctrine defining our behaviours and ways of life. Lack of education and weak financial conditions make men insecure and more liable to turn oppressive, violent and dominant, proving to themselves and others that they are still "Man enough". Education and good job opportunities is a way to make them realise that there are better ways to prove themselves "Man" rather than beating their wives.
Shaheera Munir, Lahore, Pakistan

There is a lot of action these days in the context of activism among Muslim women. This is very gratifying. I am happy to see that the educated women in Islam are taking the lead. Some times, it borders on the ridiculous - as when a lady decided to lead Muslim prayers in congregation. But the movement is gaining momentum - despite false starts like this. And it is not just the liberated, educated, western Muslim woman - we also have Mukhtar Mai from Pakistan (in New York at present) - one can have nothing but admiration for her.
Usman Suleman, Wappingers Falls, NY, USA

It is about time that women's rights are addressed within Islam without feeling the need to reject Islam itself. We in the West tend to forget that women here were not treated with any semblance of equality until fairly recently. The rights of women in many Islamic countries is indeed a disgrace. But that is more likely to be due to a bunch of old men than to any innate aspect of Islamic faith itself. We should continue to engage Muslim theologians, governments and immigrants on women's' rights.
Jean-Luc, Vancouver, Canada

Bravo and all that, but Muslim women in Europe are not really the ones who face most of the sexual discrimination that has tarnished the reputation of Islam. Why not hold this in Pakistan or in the Middle East? These are the places where wonderful opportunities like this could go a long way in changing mindsets.
Suraj Menon, Cardiff, Wales

The best way to solve discrimination against women and other races is education. If you study more educated societies you find women in better social status. Even in America, New York is a location where women are most prosperous. Mohammad's first wife was his boss even before she married him. After the revelation he stopped working to devote his energy for the message while his wife carried on the business.
Mazhar Raslan, New York, US

Unfortunately, one of the tallest hurdles these women face is an internal one. Traditional gender roles and subjugation to fathers and husbands have been ingrained in the minds of women from birth. Mothers too, pass this mindset on to their daughters and so most women defend their second-class status whenever it is challenged. For a women's liberation movement to get off the ground, we must first convince the women themselves.
Zaher Ali-Dib, Damascus, Syria

Why must women in Middle Eastern countries/cultures be forced to define themselves according to religious terminology at all? Women's liberation does not require the rubber stamp of Islam or any other religion. If Westerners will not accept "Christian feminism" as the basis for the feminist argument, then we must also not accept "Islamic feminism" for the argument as well. Feminism is liberation, and any time it is recast in religious terms, women's liberation inevitably becomes deceptive yet beautified misogyny and discrimination.
Daniel Schereck, San Francisco, USA

Judaism and Christianity were not the first to give women the right to vote in history. It was Islam, though it is bitterly hurtful to see many cultures today prohibiting women from exercising the rights Islam gave them. Do not blame Islam for the actions of these self serving idiots who name their cultures pro-Islam and destroy the peaceful image it bought centuries ago. The fact is the US still has never elected a female president, though many Islamic countries have or had female heads of the nation.
Farrukh, St Louis, Missouri

I think that education and public discussion can change perceptions on any issue over time. However, as long as women continue to raise their sons to believe that they are little princes, I don't think that things will change much for their daughters. Regardless of where they live, or what religion they believe in (if any), mothers and grandmothers have a lot of power over society that is unrealised at present.
Zena Curwain, Toronto, Canada

I am a Muslim woman, some would say an "Islamic feminist". Despite the stereotypes, radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hizb-ut-tahrir, unlike the traditionalists or culturalist movements like the Taliban, are usually the source of most Muslim women's sense of Islamic empowerment or Islamic liberation away from things like forced marriage, child custody, abortion, domestic violence, sexploitation, etc. It is these movements on a grass roots level that have advanced a message of re-visiting the Quran to see how it does not in any way endorse the above oppressive practices, and this is one of the reasons why they find support. The sad thing is they are viewed as "extremists" and unpalatable to the West because they are also fiercely against Western foreign policy, and crude capitalism.
Dr Habibah Ellahee, London, UK

Aside from the humanitarian aspect, this is a vital economic issue for the Muslim world, as cultures that treat their women more equally just function better. Before anyone in the West starts making condescending remarks, we've got a long way to go as well.
Eliot Axelrod, Bloomington, Minnesota

I am a father of three, two of whom are girls, all under ten. I wish to see my children treated equally in all and every aspect of their lives by the religion whose core values I am trying my very best to pass on to them. This is an encouraging news item to me. I wish the organisers the best of luck and hope they will avoid the early trajectory of feminism in the West, that of excluding men from their just struggle. If they do exclude men of good will, I worry progress will be so slow that even my under tens will not enjoy the fruits.
Kamal Ibrahim, Carbondale, IL, USA

First, I think we should not think misogyny in the Islam world is "their" problem. The oppression of women is global and we are all involved with it to great extents. As a male, I feel especially responsible to deconstruct myths of "masculinity" and how many historic and current interpretations use masculinity to support a patriarchy. But to do this, I feel it seems a great deal of the problem could be alleviated if the media stops looking at the oppression of women as transparent or like it is some one else's problem. I would like to hear and read a lot more about Islamic misogyny and to begin to understand what Islam means to many women and men.
Josh Zimmerman, Portland, Oregon USA

Having been a resident of Middle East a few years back, there is a long struggle ahead. We must remember however, that gender equality is as important as racial, religious, sexual orientation, political affiliation equality. We cannot shy away from the fact that many religions openly (it is not a misinterpretation) reject under the "word of lord" these and many other rights. In my opinion, we need not constantly be defensive and try to appease to people who believe in the infallible status of religions.
Ketan Sudhakar Khare, Mumbai, India

The religion of "Patriarchy" predates Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and underlies them all. If we see an "ugly face" to Islam, let us Christians remember to look to our own house first. What we have done in the name of Jesus has surely made him grieve a thousand times over.
Thomas McCabe, Lakewood, OH, USA

One can guess the relative support of a religion by counting the number of priests (or whatever the religious 'leaders' are termed) who are women. Using that criterion it is quite obvious that Islam is not alone in promoting male chauvinism.
John, Canada

I grew up though the "women's movement" in North America. We have the issues with feminism today, all over the world, simply because religious male leaders quote from their religious texts why a female is considered unequal; or my favourite: equal but different. In some countries, as in Canada, females are protected against this male mindset by human right laws. In many countries the law of the country is the law of the religious faith of the country. Adjusting a male mindset from self interpreted religious text will take generations, maybe never. Civil laws outside the boundaries of this text must be written and enforced to protect females. The civil law is without passion to the unreasonable demands of a religious text, civil law is concerned of what is just and fair, not a passionate plea to keep a gender superior simply because they hold the XY chromosome.
Carolyn Hortie, Dartmouth, NS, Canada

There is no sexism in Islam. Many people have misinterpreted it. People who say Islam is sexist should learn about the Shariah, the Quran and Islamic history before they make such an idiotic statement. I admit that violations of women's rights have taken place in Muslim countries but Islam should not be blamed for it.
Abrarur Rahman, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Islam, like any other religion, is viewed through the actions of the people. If there are misconceptions, then it is the responsibility of its followers to present itself as they wish to be seen. A veil of misconception can only be removed by those who wear it.
Brian K Smith, Maryville, TN, USA

Surely it's not the Muslim women in Europe they need to focus on here, as they have comparatively much greater freedom given the make up of our societies. It is those outside Europe that appear to be greatly oppressed by their governments and families. Maybe they are doing this in Spain as it would be much more difficult to get away with in say Tehran?
Marek, Hungerford, UK

Unfortunately 'Islamic sexism' is an issue that only women from the Islamic world can defeat. Western feminists are trained to challenge the Western style of thinking to promote positive change. It must be the same for Islamic women, only they can understand how they see their problems and how they want them changed.
John Roman, Toronto, Canada

All religions and most men see women as second class citizens. You can see it with the violence and the job structures everywhere. Until men can actually start believing women are equals (and they are) we will not have peace & prosperity.
Charles Fetterman, Lena, IL USA

We put so much emphasis about how Islam does not treat its women right, we forget how Hinduism and Christianity in their own way deprive the women community from directly participating in their religion. All religions must start empowering women, but over-emphasis on Islam will only leave the other religions behind!
Chetan, Bangalore, India

Well since I am responding to a media source, I think its only appropriate that it should start here. Aside from Hollywood, news agencies have a strong influence to alter people's stereotypes about Muslim women.
Saotomae, Tokyo, Japan

This article was helpful in debunking myths about women and Islam by stating "gender equality in Islamic countries involves refuting chauvinist interpretations of Muslim teachings." This tells your reader that it is not Islam itself which is bad, but it is poor interpretations of it which places women in a subordinate place.
Jessie Pettigrew, Rapid City, SD

I believe that "role equity" issues are needed in the feminist debate. Western feminists have neglected this point. The home tending that women have traditionally done is vital to the survival and health of the human species and, done well, serves to change both the marketplace and the environment in fundamentally positive ways. Muslim women are powerfully home-based still. I believe bringing the concept of "role equity" to the feminist debate would do many things, including help address the misconceptions about women and Islam.
Nancy Woodruff, Washburn, TN, USA

I am thrilled that we are re-examining the place of women of in Islam - especially as the mother of three daughters - we have a vested interest in seeing women having greater self-expression and autonomy, with a stronger emphasis on education. While the efforts of non-Muslim feminists are valuable and enlightening, the real change will come from within. With women moving into positions of strength, we will experience the love, peace and compassion that are the true essence of Islam.
Ameena Meer, New York, U.S.A.

I am delighted that feminist Muslim women are speaking out and telling us how we can support them. That act in itself is countering the stereotype. All of us in Britain need to be informed by them to counter the possible rising Islamic fundamentalism and also our idea that all Muslims approve of fundamentalism.
Jessie, London, UK

Misconceptions of women and Islam are effectively addressed when people understand the life and times of Prophet Muhammad in a sincere and honest manner. Looking back, there is no doubt that women enjoyed equal rights and freedoms with their male counterparts while maintaining public and personal dignity. Yet the pioneering role of women in early Islam in society, economics, and politics have been conveniently ignored in the male dominated cultures of many societies. The best way to address misconceptions about women and Islam is to make a sincere effort to understand the religion and then through our collective behaviour to ensure that Muslim women and men around the world live the true word and spirit of God's universal system.
Dr Basma Abdelgafar, Ottawa, Canada

This is centuries overdue. I am afraid that this round of call for revolution is another wave of words and no action. The inaction by the Islamic Feminists encourage the Islamic male chauvinist to continue suppressing women in the Islamic societies and further erode their civil and human rights.
John S, USA

You need to continue fighting for your rights. Yours is a power struggle that is masked by your religion, over a millennium dominated by men. You must chip away at stereotypes and educate. It will take time but persevere and good luck.
Brandon, LA, Ca, USA

We as Muslim women need to be more visible in the public arena so that people can see that we are independent beings who have a mind of their own. For too long Muslim women have been portrayed as submissive and meek. Its about time that we stand up tall and tell the world that we exist.
Asya Jalil, Toronto, Canada

Islam is not against women. Koran can be interpreted in a way to help women reach closer to equality in the society. Islam as a Semitic religion protects the right of women better than Judaism and Christianity. Money, sex and women have been clearly discussed in Islam. Women's issue is a civilisation. "Please don't use women to bash Islam". Women can be used easily to bash any philosophy on the Planet Earth.
Victoria Arshad, Toronto, Canada

I am an artist living in the middle of the USA, far from the coasts and even farther from the Islamic world. It is very apparent to me however, that the only way our cultures can coexist is through the efforts of women activists. The key to the "war on terror" is in the hands of women world-wide. As long as men are in charge nothing will change. Women must throw off the shackles of oppression and misogyny.
Louis Copt, Lawrence, Kansas USA

The phrase "never judge a book by it's cover" is probably the perfect way to describe a Muslim woman. People automatically assume that a headscarf means a Muslim woman has no rights, civil liberties or a voice of her own. Look beneath that and you will find a woman who has as many rights as a Western woman.
Anon

There are no misconceptions about Islam and the status accorded to women in Islam. Not to single out Islam and considering the overlapping influence of religion on cultures and societies at large, the treatment meted out to women in almost every corner of the world bar none is that of a second class individual. I have witnessed barbaric acts of violence inflicted upon women in Pakistan, yet again I have seen and witnessed violence on women in the US.
Wacar Rizvi, Gaithersburg, USA

Any religion that denigrates half its members (or any of its members) has no credibility. Islam is supposed to be about peace. There can never be peace when women are denied the basic freedoms and respect that men enjoy. All world and religious leaders and people of good conscience should stand up and say so in support of these brave women.
Michelle Godwin, Howell, MI, US

Western feminism is incompatible with Islamic feminism by definition. Witness the Western and university educated young women (most born in the west) revert to Muslim dress. Western feminism has failed women, despite Western countries being educated and highly developed democracies. Women's rights in the lesser developed countries are no worse. It remains a novelty for a Western government or political party to be lead by a woman. Meanwhile Muslim countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and Indonesia have had female leaders. Iran had a female vice-president and there are proportions of seats reserved for women in parliaments of Pakistan, Iran, UAE and few others while women are free to contest the others too. These facts are overlooked in the West.
Shoukat, London, UK

In order to address misconceptions of women in Islam all women need to come together to spread the needs and viewpoints of Muslim women. We must demand all political leaders stand and represent us. The Western world has let the issues slide for so long now because there is not enough of us coming together to demand the human rights of our sisters around the globe. If we can make a big enough ripple, leaders will rise to the task.
Angie Binoz, Tyler, Texas USA

Muslim women should be encouraged to take a leading role in Islamic academia and re-interpret texts which have been interpreted predominantly by men. As long as religious monopoly lies with a particular group, and religion continues to exercise the social, political and spiritual influence it does, it is hard to see how less fortunate groups are ever going to get a fair hearing.
Dr Saqib Qureshi, London, UK

I am reminded of the Prophet's most beloved wife; Aisha who rode on top a camel into a battle to fight for what she believed to be right. I hope that these women are successful in their long struggle for equal rights.
Anut, Oregon USA

As a woman of faith, I would love to see more co-operation when possible amongst feminist movements within faith organisations. We should definitely all pray for each other and be willing to lend a hand breaking the stained glass ceiling when our sisters request it. As for a perception in the West that Islam is not capable of feminism, I would like to remind us that our stained glass ceiling is not yet broken, it was not so long ago Christians debated whether or not women had souls, Jewish women who pray at the Western Wall do so at risk to themselves in the 21st century, and finally, that with God, all things are possible.
Cait, Boston, MA, USA

First and foremost, a lot of non-Muslim women, especially feminists, need to talk and interact with Muslim women. I have several friends that have joined me in feminist activities and they wear the veil and that's not a bad thing. The veil can be used as a symbol of oppression, but just as equally it is used by women as a defiant act. Communication is key to understanding the differences between Muslim and non-Muslim women without using stereotypes to do so.
Rachael, Washington DC, US

Misconceptions about women and Islam could be addressed through first-hand writings from women in Islamic countries about what everyday experience as a woman is like in those countries. In the West, too, traditionally female-or home-focused work is often thought of as less important or valuable than office or career-centred work. This tendency needs to be countered in both the West and Islamic countries. Women's experience is not a pale shadow or bad reflection of men's. It's different than men's and needs to be explored and written about as it's own goal.
Sheridan Mahoney, Portland, OR, USA

I have not read the Koran and it's not likely that I will. I have a hard enough time understanding Christian feminist issues. We struggle with why Jesus didn't seem to have any trouble with women and yet his most vocal follower, Paul, had some big issues. How did we get strapped with Paul's views instead of Jesus'? I would like to know, in a less than Koran length article, what the similar struggles are for Islamic women.
Marguerite Casparian, Oyster Bay, NY, USA

I don't know if the Koran has been interpreted wrongly to suit men's ideas, but what I see here in Dearborn (highest concentration of Middle Eastern people in America) is that these women see the American lifestyle - which is of course the complete opposite - and have to keep living this suppressed life. Unless the men arrive at seeing the women as equal, women will stay suppressed. Of course it has been very nice for the men to have the women in these roles, so why would they want to change that??? It will be a process over many generations to try and achieve equality as this religion has been around for thousands of years and nothing has been done...
Petra Elliott, Dearborn, MI, USA




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