"Women and Leadership in Muslim Societies: Voices for Change"

Article excerpt

On November 25, 2002, the Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace (WLP) in collaboration with the Dialogue Project of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University sponsored a forum examining the constraints and opportunities Muslim women face in expanding their political participation and leadership opportunities. The session, entitled "Women and Leadership in Muslim Societies: Voices for Change," included an international group of Muslim women from Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran. Azar Nafisi, Director of the SAIS Dialogue Project, organized the forum, which included Ayesha Imam, a Nigerian feminist and women's rights activist and founder and former Executive Director of Baobab for Women's Human Rights; Thoraya Obaid, Under- Secretary General of the United Nations, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund and the first Saudi national to head a U.N. agency; Shirin Tahir-Kheli, director of the South Asia program at SAIS, head of the U.S. Delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and former United States Ambassador to the U.N. for Special Political Affairs, and Mahnaz Afkhami, President of the Women's Learning Partnership. These prominent leaders challenged stereotypes associated with Muslim women and discussed strategies for strengthening the role of women in creating democratic and pluralistic societies in the Muslim world. Over 200 scholars, activists, leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and policy makers participated in the event.

Afkhami opened the discussion with a global overview of women's political participation. Women everywhere remain severely underrepresented in national politics, comprising only 14 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide. The lowest level of participation is in the Middle East. The panelists identified some of the major economic and socio-cultural barriers to women's political leadership worldwide. Imam emphasized lack of funding, restrictive gender roles, and essentialist identity politics as major limiting factors to women's political empowerment. One of the primary obstacles to women's political leadership is a dearth of resources, indicative of the larger problem that women in all regions experience. This is what Obaid called an overall "poverty of opportunities" in all aspects of life. Panelists also pinpointed the social and cultural constraints on women's roles in Muslim societies that impede their participation in public life. Another reason women have yet to gain access to decision-making positions is that women's roles are seen as complementary to the role of men. In many Muslim societies, women are at the center of the conflict between supporters of modernization and those who support traditional interpretations of culture and religion. …