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The Emerging Role Of Muslim Women

By Syeda Abida Hussain. Syeda Abida Hussain is Pakistan's ambassador to the United States. / March 11, 1993



WOMEN of the Muslim world have experienced discrimination and injustice over a long period of time. History we cannot change. Today, however, women are gradually becoming empowered in many parts of the Muslim world as they gain access to education, opportunities, and self-expression.

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Take the case of women in Pakistan. My country is an Islamic state and a multi-party democracy at the same time. In its early history, nearly five decades ago, Pakistan offered very few women opportunities to participate in formalized careers. Mainly, they tended the fields and cared for the livestock. Recently, however, this has been changing as more and more women learn the value of economic independence and begin to fend for themselves.

Our religion is very important to us. Religion influences culture, especially in Islamic countries. How do we reconcile our modernism with the dictates of our faith? It is widely believed in the Western world that discrimination against women is imbedded in our religion. This is not so. The dictates of our faith do not in themselves discriminate against women. Rather, it has been later interpretations and the process of history that has created those situations that many activist Muslim women are working

to change. In the Qu'ran, the basic document of Islam, women's rights are specified, not the least of which are the rights to inherit property and to work and earn.

Muslim women are beginning to interpret Islam from their own perspective and to find in it reinforcement for their claim to equality. In every Muslim country, to one degree or another, the woman's voice is gradually being heard, and women are doing this without treating their religion as an adversary.

IN recent times the generations have seen much change. My grandmother lived a life of segregation. My mother began life in a segregated environment but eventually stepped out of it and into the integrated one. I grew up in a totally integrated environment. This is the story of most women in most families in my country. Fewer and fewer Muslim women today live lives of segregation, sequestered from the mainstream of their world.

Muslim society emphasizes interpersonal relationships and is very family-centered. As a result, it is also community-centered. At the same time its ethics are quite puritanical. Yet the puritanical side of Islam is beginning to moderate as it affects women.

Statistics show that women are still behind in education in many Muslim countries. Nevertheless, I have observed that in my country there is a steadily increasing demand for schools for girls and new colleges for women - in even the most remote areas. At the university level women have no handicaps as to entrance. And although their percentage of the total student population is still small, those women who go on to the university do very well in their studies. A growing number of young women are going to

universities to prepare themselves for careers in the professions. In 1992 a woman received the top score on the Pakistani government exam - a first.

All of this indicates the beginnings of major change both among men and women in my country. That change is at least partly due to the realization that half of the work force is not being economically productive.

In South Asia women have been heads of government in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. While this is partly due to what might be called "the politics of legacy," it is symbolic that women need not be restricted to historically traditional roles.

I look at the women of the United States as having advanced the most. And while one cannot draw many parallels between the US and a Muslim country, one can see that elements of the successful advance of women here - bonding, networking, speaking out - can be applied by Muslim women in their effort to gain self-expression and self-sustenance.