Women's Rights in the Muslim World: Achievements and Challenges

Article excerpt

A majority female audience gathered June 15 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC to hear distinguished local and international scholars discuss Islamic feminism and women's progress in the Muslim world in a two-panel conference on ''Islamic Feminism and Beyond: The New Frontier." In a panel moderated by Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program, Amaney Jamal, Nayereh Tohidi and Lilia Labidi spoke on citizenship, gender, and representation, addressing the historic as well as current situation of women's rights in Iran and the Arab world in general, and Tunisia in particular.

According to Jamal, a particular point of regional concern was the lack of political decision making, witnessed in its lowest percentage of women in parliament (9.5 percent) of all the world's regions. She cited Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa's suggestion that women's status in the Arab world will improve only when they hold important decision-making positions. Similarly, Tohidi noted the important link between politics and women's rights, arguing that the latter is "connected to a patriarchal power game rather than the [Islamic] religion."

Personal status codes are important not merely in defining women in relation to men, Jamal said, but represent the biggest challenge to gender equality in the region. Labidi elaborated by describing how reforms and additions to the personal status code have improved women's conditions in Tunisia. She also touched upon the social effects of the region's demographic shift-how women, unable to get married as rising prices and foreign opportunities drive potential husbands away, are constructing new, religiously devout roles for themselves in order to become legitimate members of society, aside from their established roles as wives and mothers.

The panelists agreed upon the necessity of working within the system; the strategy of refusing to deal with Islam when promoting women's rights; and that greater foreign influence could be detrimental instead of helpful. As an example, Jamal argued, "the number of U.S. troops in any given country is directly correlated with the regression in women's rights. …