John Hughes

Muslim women find an ally for more rights: the Koran

Courageous figures like Indonesia's Siti Musdah Mulia are showing Muslim women how to break out of bondage by using the Koran.

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Indonesia’s Siti Musdah Mulia is a name to remember. That’s because she is showing Muslim women how to break out of bondage by using the words of the Koran.

Dr. Mulia was raised in a traditional Indonesian Muslim home and an Islamic boarding school. She was barred from contact with men. She was not allowed to laugh out loud. If she socialized with a non-Muslim, she was made to shower afterward.

Growing up, she traveled to other Muslim countries and found ways to understand Islam other than the rigid orthodoxy of her upbringing. Having earned a PhD in Islamic political thought, she has become a significant force in Indonesia and elsewhere for Muslim women’s rights. In 2007 she received the International Women of Courage award from then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

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Mulia is one of several courageous Muslim feminists who are challenging conservative male interpretations of Islam. As Isobel Coleman, a leading American authority on Islamic feminism and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me: “Half of those men have never read the Koran in their own language.”

Mulia is one of several Muslim women in Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries profiled in a new book by Dr. Coleman, “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.”

Instead of blatantly waving the banner of democracy, certain to raise charges of being tools of Western cultural imperialism, these women are quietly working within the culture, rather than against it, citing progressive interpretations of Islam itself as justification for women’s empowerment, particularly in education and the workplace.

Coleman applauds the work of a global women’s movement, musawah (“equality” in Arabic), in researching how the laws of Islam elevated women’s rights in Arabia upon the faith’s 7th-century arrival there. Islamic laws prohibited the killing of girl babies, upheld the right of women to own property, the right to choose their own husbands and impose conditions on the marriage, and to divorce their husbands. They entitled women to an education, to dignity and respect, and the right to think for themselves.

As the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia has experienced its surge of Islamic fundamentalism, as has the neighboring Muslim country of Malaysia. But both are non-Arab countries. Both are democracies that have avoided the religious extremism of the Arab world. In many respects, Indonesia today is a showplace of how nations prosper when they advance the cause of women in education and the workplace.

Could its example cause a transformation in the Arab world, where in some countries half the female population is illiterate and denied the benefits of education? Coleman says that when she floats this thesis in the Arab Muslim countries, the answer is: “But they [Indonesians] are not really Arabs.” True enough, but they are Muslims, and a common faith must surely have some influence.

In the world of politics, Indonesia has exerted substantial influence in Southeast Asia. However, successive leaders since President Sukarno have been careful to assert its non-aligned status vis-à-vis the major powers. US diplomacy has skillfully taken account of this, offering help and aid when welcome (as was the case when a giant tsunami crashed across Indonesia’s shores in 2004) but avoiding too public an embrace.

The present government of President Yudhoyono has, however, given some cautious indications that Muslim Indonesia might be able to help ease tensions between the Muslim Arab world and Israel.

In religious development, women in Indonesia are finding common cause with Muslim women elsewhere as they recapture the original meaning of the Koranic texts. Perhaps, as Coleman suggests, this quiet revolution “has the potential to be as transformative in this century as the Christian Reformation was in the 16th century.”

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column. His book, “Radical Islam and the War of Ideas – Lessons from Indonesia,” will be published by the Hoover Institution in June.

Related:

Muslim women could be the key to ending extremism

Opinion: Islam and democracy can – and do – coexist

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