Muslim women can reshape Islam

Something special went unnoticed last week when the US State Department gave out its first awards for "women of courage" to 10 foreign recipients: Seven of the women had demonstrated their honored bravery within Muslim countries.

Were these awards another US effort to help reform Islam? Possibly. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice simply praised the honorees for "combating attempts to dehumanize women." And the awards were pegged to International Women's Day, March 8.

Still, the winners, selected from 82 women nominated by US embassies, came from only eight nations, five of which are largely Muslim (Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iraq, Maldives, Saudi Arabia). That carries a message about the churn for change among Muslims.

It's possible that at least one woman activist from Iran should have made the cut. But then she would have been tagged a US agent. Last week, the clerics who rule in Tehran detained 33 women activists as they protested for five other women on trial for a 2006 demonstration against discriminatory laws. Such arrests show that female dissenters in Iran are a big threat to the Islamic regime.

Mullahs in many Islamic nations are nervous these days about educated women smartly arguing against post-Muhammad interpretations of the Koran that treat women differently than men. If anyone on the State Department's list comes closest to fulfilling that role, it is Dr. Siti Musdah Mulia of Indonesia.

Islamic followers in that Southeast Asian nation have long expressed the religion's gentler qualities, such as tolerance and mercy. Indonesian women, for example, don't suffer honor killings or genital mutilation. And they may interpret holy texts and be teachers and preachers, challenging misogynist or patriarchal theology. With more than 200 million Muslims, Indonesia may someday spread a kinder form of Islam, unlike that from Iran and Al Qaeda.

Dr. Mulia was Indonesia's first woman with a doctorate in Islamic political thought and the first female professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. In 2004, she led an effort to revise the legal code, seeking a ban on polygamy and forced marriages. The attempt, however, was thwarted in parliament by Islamists.

Still, the stage was set to further improve women's rights. Many new women's groups in Indonesia are making "unyielding religious arguments," states US scholar Pieternella van Doorn-Harder in her 2006 book "Women Shaping Islam." These women, she writes, "did not set out to be activists or feminists but wanted women to fulfill the status originally given to them by Islam: equal human beings in front of God."

Muslim women can claim that status, lost to them during Islam's early centuries, by gaining more specific knowledge of the Koran. In the 1970s, for instance, women Islamic scholars in Indonesia said the Koran allows birth control. Soon afterward, male scholars endorsed that view.

This kind of grass-roots shift within Islam needs quiet support. It may be more effective than simply championing Western-style human rights. Religion speaks to the heart, and it is hearts that need to be changed if Muslim women are to win equality with men.

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