How Women are Transforming the Middle East

Women are at the epicenter of global conflicts, Isobel Coleman said.

Coleman, a Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and expert in the Middle East and South Asia, came to ASU on Thursday to give a talk about her new book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.

Coleman gave an unexpectedly hopeful and realistic outline of women’s abilities to struggle for their rights from an Islamic perspective and not a Western one.

She said the role of women is also an enormous economic issue: “When you underinvest in half your population, you struggle.”

When it comes to the Middle East, access to economic opportunity, labor force, technology, capital, education and healthcare are all areas where women lag.

“When you educate a girl, the benefits are not just to herself but to the community,” Coleman said.”…she grows up to become an educated mother.”

But it’s not like women aren’t working right now; they just don’t make the profits off of it. For example, she said 80% of agricultural labor in South-Saharan Africa is done by women. However research shows that education for the woman increases productivity more than fertilizer or more plots would.

One of the problems Coleman said was the rise of political narrative of political Islamism that equates women’s rights with “negative” things like Westernism, colonialism, materialism, communism, feminism. This expansion portrays it as a resistance against tradition, culture and religion.

Ataturk in Turkey and in Tunisia enforced women’s rights with secular, authoritarian regimes, so those countries are cast in a bad light.

Women’s rights in US history also was an uphill battle as the suffrage movement was commonly labeled as anti-Christian and the Equal Rights Amendment was largely opposed by women themselves.

Coleman said that she does see change and sees a presence of “Islamic feminism,” where Muslim women are saying they want their rights not because a UN declaration or because of the West.

“We want our rights because it’s part of our tradition, religion and culture,” she said of the women she has met during her travels. “It just hasn’t been taught that way.”

Media influence like shows like the popular Turkish show Noor, Al Jazeera, reality shows and competitions are all opportunities for Middle Eastern men and women to face each other and critically question their religion.

The main drive of the movement according to Coleman is rising levels of female education. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt have more women graduating from higher education.

Women are increasingly forming Quranic study circles and finding passages in the Quran that talk of respect, tolerance, good treatment of women and using those as leverage against their husbands.

Generating so many educated, critical-thinking, forward-minded women in the Middle East and only allowing a few number of “acceptable, appropriate” jobs is not a sustainable system.

Many women are becoming entrepreneurs and business women since they can’t find many jobs otherwise in such gender-segregated societies.

Coleman said this is a battle that over the long term is not one that the conservatives can win. Too many women with higher education, reading the religious text themselves, and are finding a reading of religion that accommodates the modern life they want to live.

They are understanding the things that their societies are saying they cannot do–drive, travel, vote, own property– as women based on religious reasoning are in fact false.

She said women also need to be increasingly savvy on how to navigate the tricky terrain of democracy on their own with all the countries in turmoil. They cannot rely on the state to secure their rights. Having powerful, progressive men behind them as well is also incredibly important to make substantive changes.

The idea of women’s rights is definitely a topic that people care passionately about on either side of the spectrum, but we need to help back the forces for egalitarian, educated, just leadership by supporting and recognizing Muslim women’s voices as their own.

Make sure to get a copy of Coleman’s book so you can read in more detail of her experience in the “strategic crescent”: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and the women and men leading the way for a new future where religion and rights can coexist peacefully.

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