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Muslim women could be the key to ending extremism

Muslim women are addressing issues in conflict zones. Pay attention.

By Sahana Dharmapuri / March 26, 2010

Cambridge, Mass.

Over the past decade, Western media have repeatedly portrayed images of Muslim women as victims. We have read about the Taliban publicly beating young

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women who laugh in the street; we have read about the targeted killings of professional Iraqi women – doctors, journalists, lawyers – who represent an opposing view to an extremist agenda. Americans have so often seen Muslim women as silent victims that they probably conjure picturesque images of shapeless and silent figures in bright blue burqas as synonymous with “Muslim women.”

IN PICTURES: Behind the veil

To be sure, they are among the victims. But as the United States works with Afghan locals to develop policy, it must consider this: In order to responsibly promote democracy and support human rights within countries working toward reform, women must be included in making policy decisions.

Women are some of the greatest advocates for progressive, antiextremist agendas and to ignore their solutions would be an unfortunate mistake. If policymakers were able to identify and address the barriers to women’s participation in matters of public discourse, they would soon be able to open a new space for moderate voices.

It’s not as though women haven’t been trying to participate in such dialogue:

The Afghan Women’s Network called on NATO to include Afghan women’s perspectives in provincial reconstruction team activities in Afghanistan back in 2007.

They pointed out that women’s right to physical security and participation was being undermined, if not all together violated, because the reconstruction teams were not specifically taking women into account. International policymakers were missing out on reconstruction opportunity by not providing women the additional protection and resources they needed to travel safely to the provincial-level government meetings. Because their right to physical security was not addressed, they were unable to participate in important decisionmaking bodies and the ideas that they could have brought to the table – thoughtful suggestions on how to fight extremism based on their own experiences – was lost.

A hallmark of women’s groups, like the Afghan Women’s Network, is that their thinking on the fight against extremism is strategic and long-term. Their recommendations put forward solutions that would strengthen the US and NATO forces on the ground. They have emphasized the inclusion of gender advisers, and strengthened institutional memory in reconstruction teams to create a record of what works and what fails in conflict situation like Afghanistan.

Critics will argue that culture and human rights are two different values in conflict – they will say that a liberated woman is a Western value. Others will say that we need to win the war against extremists first, and then we will address women’s issues. But if the women themselves are working hard to be heard, then that argument falls apart.