Islamic women rise up

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It may at present be only a whisper. But it could get louder and louder. It is the voice of Islamic women in the Middle East protesting their longtime political and economic second-class status. It is a voice of indignation from women who have long been suppressed in traditionally male- dominated societies.

In recent days it has been heard in Egypt where women were fighting back against harassment from supporters of the ruling party.

It has been heard in Iran where women, despite the election of a hard-line conservative president, demonstrated against sex discrimination under that country's Islamic leadership.

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It was heard in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where Arab women responded approvingly as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bluntly condemned the refusal of their rulers to give women the right to vote.

It was heard in Kuwait as women's rights activists lauded - and some conservative men deplored - the appointment of the first-ever woman, political science professor Massouma al-Mubarak, to a cabinet position.

And it was heard in Pakistan where Mukhtar Mai defied the government that sought to silence her for speaking out against a barbaric custom imposed upon her: gang-raping a young woman for an offense committed by her brother, traditionally followed by the suicide of the rape victim.

In many Arab nations of Islam, women have often been relegated to obscurity, denied a role economically, politically, socially. One out of every two Arab women can neither read nor write. A 2002 report prepared by Arab intellectuals for the United Nations charged that "utilization of Arab women's capabilities through political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world." Women occupy only 3.5 percent of all seats in parliaments of Arab countries, compared to 11 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, and 12.9 percent in Latin America and Caribbean countries.

In many countries women suffer from unequal citizenship, and are denied the right to vote or hold office. In a somber conclusion, the UN report declared: "Society as a whole suffers when half of its productive potential is stifled." But at least in the countries I've named, some women are speaking out and declaring that they've lived under male-dominated rule long enough.

In Egypt the women's movement has been energized by attacks on females from supporters of President Mubarak. Women have been taking a key role in trying to organize opposition to the Mubarak regime. Earlier this year, Hosni Mubarak announced reforms that will permit more than one candidate to run for president later this year. Critics proclaim that all this is a sham, that Mr. Mubarak's reelection is greased, and that those who seek to generate legitimate opposition are being intimidated. Part of this intimidation, they say, is groping and abuse of women demonstrators and the female relatives of male opposition politicians.

This has caused a backlash with not only women, but also with disgusted males, who have inveighed against the government.

In Iran, Islamic women have participated in rare - and unauthorized - demonstrations against sex discrimination by the ruling Islamic regime. Iranian law requireswomen to assume inferior roles to men; they are rarely promoted to senior roles in government service, and need permission from their husbands to work outside the home or travel abroad. Though Iranian women are largely pessimistic about the prospects for reform until there is a regime change, they nevertheless forced candidates in the recent presidential election to pay lip service to the issue of women's rights.

In the Islamic land of Pakistan, Mukhtar Mai has defied tribal tradition and instead of committing suicide after being raped, has fought back and secured the conviction of the rapists - and she did it with the support of a local Islamic leader.

Her subsequent harassment by authorities, including house arrest, a ban on travel to the US, and seizure of her passport - let alone a court order freeing her attackers - has roused international anger and pressure from the US government upon a Pakistani government that has been an important ally of the US in the war against terrorism. Tuesday, Ms. Mai won a victory when Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered her attackers to be rearrested.

In a vocal manner that hasn't been evident before, women in the Islamic lands are speaking out. Their case is being given traction by President Bush's emphasis on fostering democracy in lands that lack it - even though they be longtime allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

There cannot be democracy while women of the region are disadvantaged. There cannot be economic progress while half of the region's productive potential is stifled.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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