To progress, Islamic countries must advance women's rights

Much is written about the conflict between Islam and the West.

But the debate that will actually determine the future of Islam lies within Islam, between Muslim and Muslim. It is a debate that is going on in Arab lands from Morocco to Iraq and in non-Arab, but predominantly Islamic, lands from Pakistan to Iran.

It is a debate about many things, not the least being the use of terrorism against innocent human beings. But particularly significant is the discourse about the role of women in Islamic societies. It is significant because the emergence of women from the subordinate role to which many of them have been relegated in Islamic societies would speed the economic and political progress of these countries in a positive direction.

In the economic field, some Arab countries have made progress, but a recent UN report prepared by Arab scholars found that over the past 20 years, growth in per capita income was the lowest in the world except in sub-Saharan Africa. The report concluded: "At an annual growth rate of 0.5 percent annually, if such trends continue in the future, it will take the average Arab citizen 140 years to double his or her income, while other regions are set to achieve that level in a matter of less than 10 years."

The report found that stunting the education and advancement of women was a major hindrance to development. One in every two Arab women can neither read nor write, and, said the report, "society as a whole suffers when half of its productive potential is stifled."

In the field of politics there is some progress. For example, women are assigned 25 percent of the seats in Parliament under the new Constitutions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But there are still many hindrances. For instance, while Iraq's new constitution may claim on paper to bar discrimination because of sex, reform advocates argue that it can be manipulated by reliance on Islamic law to the detriment of women.

It is important for Westerners to understand that while many Islamic women want to play a stronger role in their respective societies, their strategy may sometimes be within the framework of Islamic theology, or sharia, the body of Islamic law developed over the years by religious scholars to provide moral guidance to Muslims.

In an article in the magazine Foreign Affairs, Isobel Coleman, an expert on the subject, says that sharia is open to a wide range of understanding and that across the Muslim world today, "progressive Muslims are seeking to interpret its rules to accommodate a modern role for women."

This may explain the somewhat surprising reception Karen Hughes got from Muslim women in Saudi Arabia last year. Ms. Hughes, long a key political adviser to President Bush, has become undersecretary for public diplomacy at the State Department. A substantial part of her assignment is to engage in dialogue with the Muslim world. Sensibly, she sought out Muslim women, arguing that they had much in common with women in the West. However, when she talked of the right of Saudi women to drive cars just like American women, some demurred and said they had no interest in driving. It is possible that Hughes was set up with an audience programmed by the Saudi governing regime. It is also possible that the audience was reflecting another reality. As Ms. Coleman writes, in many Islamic countries, reformers have largely abandoned attempts to replace sharia with secular law, a "route that has proved mostly futile. Instead, they are trying to promote women's rights within an Islamic framework. This approach seems more likely to succeed, since it fights theology with theology - a natural strategy in countries with conservative populations and where religious authority is hard to challenge."

The argument Coleman says that reformers use in their campaign against these extreme conservative regimes is that Islam is actually a very progressive religion for women, but has been perverted because of selective interpretation by patriarchal leaders and a mingling of Islamic teachings with tribal customs and traditions.

Thus if democracy is to flourish in the Islamic world, it may not be "democracy" as Westerners know it. Perhaps "freedom" is the better word to describe what we can hope for. Freedom may come in different forms in different countries. Though the culture may dictate different approaches, there are some basics: freedom of the press, free elections, an independent judiciary. And the emancipation and empowerment of women.

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

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