Isobel Coleman on Women's Rights in Mideast's Major Theocracies

Article excerpt

Isobel Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, spoke July 20 at the Women's National Democratic Club in Washington, DC about a new movement comprising feminists who "are looking at the Qur'an and...working with Muslim scholars."

These women are "focusing on the progressive passages" and "contextualiz[ing]" the "difficult" passages, Coleman explained.

In many Middle Eastern countries, feminism often is associated with such Western concepts as "colonialism, communism" and "atheism," according to Coleman.

"I am a secularist," she admitted, "but in the book I focus on...theocracies." In Coleman's opinion, "when you have an overlay of religion, it [gaining women's rights] is extremely difficult indeed."

Speaking on the failures of feminist movements in the past, she pointed to the fact that many feminists have "approached it [the issue of women's rights] from a secular, elitist perspective." As a result, these activists are "discounted or ignored by many powerful people in their countries."

Emphasizing the role of men in women's rights movements, Coleman considers them crucial in "providing intellectual cover for the women." The first part of Coleman's book, which describes the beginning of the women's rights movement in the Muslim community, details the achievements of the movement's forefathers, including Indian-born Mumtaz Ali, president of the Canadian Society of Muslims, and Qasim Amin, an Egyptian jurist and one of the founders of the Egyptian national movement and Cairo University. …