Every year brings progress for women's rights in Muslim nations, though the advances are often obscured by smoke from explosive news reports suggesting the opposite.
This spring, black billows literally rose from Pakistani girls' schools – burned by the Taliban. A new Afghan law that amounts to sanctioned marital rape of Shiite women brought loud protests from NATO countries.
In Arab countries, women have the world's lowest political participation rate and high rates of illiteracy.
But this is not the whole story. That is why it's so important to recognize victories large and small – from the women who gained 25 percent of the seats in Iraq's provincial elections Jan. 31, to the two Palestinian women in the West Bank who appear to be the first female sharia judges in the Middle East.
In Pakistan, the public has turned against the Taliban's harsh and extreme interpretation of Islam. Apparently one factor was a widely circulated video showing the public flogging of a young girl. As the Pakistani Army fights the Taliban, remember that this Muslim country twice elected a woman as prime minister – the late Benazir Bhutto. In the past 20 years, female premiers have led Indonesia (the world's largest Muslim country), Bangladesh, and Turkey.
More recently, Freedom House, which tracks liberties around the world, found that six Persian Gulf countries all advanced women's economic, political, and legal rights from 2004 through last year.
But gains are uneven across and within countries. In 2006, Kuwaiti women voted and ran for office in local and national elections for the first time. Saudi women still can't vote. Moroccan women have financial rights in marriage and divorce thanks to a 2004 law; but 10 percent of marriages still involve minors, and now the push is on to change that.
The West has inspired women in Muslim countries to assert their freedom, and President Barack Obama has an opportunity to carry this inspiration forward with a major speech to the Muslim world in Egypt on June 4. On the other hand, many men and women in Muslim countries perceive Western influence as lecturing and insensitive to Islamic culture.
If women's rights and interests are to significantly advance, the drive for that has to come mainly from the Muslim world itself. Pressure for change is evident – from both the top and bottom, from grass-roots women's groups as well as first ladies. Scholars of Islam are showing women's rights to be in harmony with the Koran. Greater access to education and the workforce is increasing a desire among women for more opportunity and independence.
And the Internet is playing a large role: In Saudi Arabia, for instance, women are being urged via Facebook to boycott lingerie stores until they employ women salesclerks. In Iran, women have launched Internet campaigns to overturn misogynistic laws.
The Afghan law may have caused an uproar in the West, but, wonderfully, it did in Afghanistan, too. Critics (including men) did not remain silent. This is how women can gain in Muslim countries – and everywhere: by standing up for themselves and persuading men to stand with them.