Paradise Beneath Her Feet: Women Transforming Islamic Societies

Isobel Coleman speaking in Washington, DC on July 27, 2010. (Linda Cook/Asia Society Washington Center)

WASHINGTON, July 27, 2010 - While the US's promise to advance women's rights in Muslim countries has yet to materialize, change is coming from within.

Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, made this argument in her talk here on Islamic feminism with Asia Society members. Coleman surveyed initiatives from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan that are advocating for women's rights to education, political participation, reducing child marriages, and other harmful cultural practices.

"In any society, it is difficult to change tradition and push back patriarchy, but when you have an overlay of religion, it's extremely difficult," Coleman said. While some countries like Morocco approach women’s issues from a secular perspective, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan "discussions need to engage religious communities, or there will be serious resistance," Coleman commented. "Women have to do it on religious ground."

Coleman argued that Muslim women have come to recognize the power of making Islamic arguments in order to subvert the patriarchal system. They invite religious leaders and Islamic scholars to contextualize the Qur'an and invoke examples from the Prophet Muhammad's life to claim that women belong in business, the military, and other public spheres.

Coleman pointed out two promising trends. First is the rising level of female education. Although the Middle East is part of the world where women's education has been lacking, many countries are closing the gap. In Jordan, females outnumber males in secondary schools. Seventy percent of the college graduates in Iran are women, along with 60% in Saudi Arabia. Education may not change the system immediately, but it has slowly moved women into different spheres of civil society.

The proliferation of media is the second front in building awareness of women's rights. Coleman highlighted several examples: In Saudi Arabia, the most popular TV program is a Turkish soap opera in which men are progressive and women work, drive, and have a voice in their families. A talk show modeled after The View brings religious leaders, political figures, and scholars together debating on sensitive subjects such as women’s sexual pleasure and custody rights of children. These shows provide different perspectives about women in the Muslim world. In addition, Afghan Star, the Arabic version of American Idol in which women dance and sing with joy, has led Afghani men to see women in a different light.

Coleman suggested the best way to change women's rights systematically is the combination of top-down reform and bottom-up grassroots efforts. She offered Morocco as providing a good example: its young, aggressive king encourages change, and has won support from religious leaders as well as grassroots organizations.

Reported by Szuhan Chen, Asia Society Washington Center