An Under-reported Revolution
An Under-reported Revolution:
Women Around the World As Change Agents
Much of what has been reported about women in the Muslim world in the years since September 11, 2001 distorts our view of that vast civilization, according to Anisa Mehdi, guest speaker at Interweave’s Fall Luncheon on October 7. Headlines detailing cruelty, repression and honor killings are the reporting norm. Mehdi offered more hopeful portrayals: under-reported stories of the positive change women are leading throughout the Islamic world.
Mehdi shared with the audience vignettes of women she has met around the globe who are helping to shape a rapidly changing cultural landscape,in which women are shifting from supporters of male dominance to partners and co-creators. “For every horror story about suppression of women, honor killing and terrorism, there are hundreds of women leading normal lives,” said Mehdi. She encouraged the audience to be wary of easy stereotypes and to embrace a more nuanced view of women in Islam.
Born to an Iraqi father and a Canadian mother, Mehdi grew up in a truly multi-cultural world, and chose Islam as her religion. An Emmy Award-winning journalist and TV producer, she has specialized in documentary films of the Middle East like Inside Mecca that seek to increase Western understanding of the Muslim world. Currently spending a year as a Fulbright scholar with her high school-age daughter in Amman, Jordan, Mehdi consults with media organizations in the areas of news and documentary production and programming. In Jordan, and throughout the Muslim world, she has met women who are working to reinterpret the Qur’an and reconcile Islam with the realities of globalization and a Westernized world:
HalaZureikat, for example, Director of Jordan’s Radio and Television Corporation. A dynamic businesswoman with a staff comprised primarily of men who admire and respect her, Zureikat cracks the stereotype of subordinate females, and influences how news is reported, helping to reframe the country’s self-image.
ZainahAnwar, a feminist activist in Malaysia and founder of a group working for modern interpretations of Islamist texts, who sees the seeds of progress in the Qur’anitself. “We found that it is not Islam that discriminates against women,” she insists. “It is not the verses in the Qur’an; it is the way that these verses have been interpreted by men who wish to maintain their dominance and their superiority and control over women in patriarchal societies.” Anwar’s work highlights the fact that the majority of Muslims live outside the Arab world, where news images of Saudi women forbidden to go out without male escorts predominate (even though such customs have less force in Jordan,Lebanon, Syria and Iraq).
In Malaysia, Dr. Harlina Halizah works to reduce unwanted pregnancies. An Ob-Gyn in Kuala Lumpur, she rejects liberal Western attitudes towards sexuality, saying “I think we don’t really have to imitate all that is happening in the West.” She opposes abortion, but believes that contraceptive use within marriage is permissible in Islam, asserting that there is no specific text in the Qur’an that prohibits the prevention of pregnancy or restriction of the number of children. “I do not like it when [people] use Islam as an excuse not to practice family planning,” she says.
Halizah’s Islamic perspective cautions us about viewing these women through the lens of Western feminism. A very different history and a tradition that values social interdependence over individualism makes the Muslim experience unlike our own. Women like Halizah see women’s issues as an opportunity to foster Islamic values—like the democracy many see as inherent in the Prophet Muhammad’s vision ofa just society.
Gender activist and Fulbright Scholar Penda M’Bow, a professor of history at Senegal’s University of Dakar and former Minister of State for Culture, has researched the evolution of Islam’s relationship with democracy in Senegal and the interplay of women,human rights and religion in Islamic societies.
Women’s power to make change reaches even into highly traditional societies like Afghanistan. Dr. Sakena Yacoobi was awarded the 2007 Gleitsman International Activist Award for her commitment to literacy, health and education for the children and women of Afghanistan. Founder and executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, Dr. Yacoobi and her organization serve 350,000 women and children annually, and employ 450 Afghans, over 70% of whom are women.
Islam,of course, now reaches into Europe and America, with an increasing number of converts. Tall, green-eyed blondes like the Irish-born Fidelma O’Leary defy the most obvious stereotypes about Muslim women. A convert from Catholicism with a PhD. in neuroscience,O’Leary allowed her 2003 journey to Mecca to be filmed for AnisaMehdi’s National Geographic special Inside Mecca. She wanted to challenge people’s perceptions of Muslims and show the world the “beauty and inclusiveness of Islam.”
The struggle for gender equality may seem like old news to us in the West, but is the cutting edge of change in Islam. The rise of an extremist, authoritarian element also makes it imperative that these women succeed. “Islam can, and must, support all these women,”according to Mehdi. And she challenged the audience to be change agents in their own communities. “Where are we going? Where we were is unsustainable. What’s next is up to you and me.”