Inside Islam, a woman's roar
Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan, uses her religion to press for women's rights – and development agencies take note.
Just hours after Wazhma Frogh arrived in an isolated, conservative district in northeastern Afghanistan in 2002, the local mullah was preaching to his congregation to kill her. Ms. Frogh was meddling with their women with her plan to start a literacy program, he told the assembly.Skip to next paragraph
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As she walked past the mosque during noon prayers, his words caught her ear. Shocked, she marched straight into the mosque. In a flowing black chador that left her face uncovered, she strode past the male worshipers and faced the mullah. Trembling inside, she challenged him.
"Mullah, give me five minutes," she recalls saying. "I will tell you something, and after that if you want to say I am an infidel and I am a threat to you, just kill me."
She then rattled off five Koranic verses – in both Arabic and the local Dari language – that extol the virtues of education, tolerance, and not harming others. She criticized local practices of allowing men to use Islam to justify beating their wives, betrothing young girls, and denying women an education.
The room was silent. All eyes were on Frogh and the mullah. Then the mullah rested his hand on her head.
"God bless you, my daughter," he said.
With that, Frogh won permission to start the literacy program that later helped women from Badakhshan Province participate in local government and run for the national assembly.
Where rigid interpretations of Islam relegate women to second-class status, Frogh uses rhetorical jujitsu to turn religious arguments on their heads and win women's rights. Her steely determination has earned her attention in Washington.
"In a country where religion is so important to people, we need to understand the religion," she says. Arguments based on principles of universal human rights or on what international conventions say don't persuade many Afghans to support reforms, she says. "[M]y experience in the last 10 years is this does not matter to the people in Afghanistan," she says. Only religious arguments hold sway.
The international development field has lately seen more of that approach, says Rachel McCleary, a fellow at the Center for International Development at Harvard. In the 1960s and '70s, foreign aid became more secularized, but now religious groups are a growing presence in international development work, says Ms. McCleary.
Frogh is like a number of Islamic scholars – from the United States to Yemen – who are using religious jurisprudence to argue that women have greater rights under Islam, convince leaders in Muslim communities to make reforms, or even turn around extremists who use Islam to justify violence. As an Afghan Muslim, Frogh is in the best position to persuade other Afghan Muslims to support her various projects, experts say.