It’s Ramadan. How ’bout those Muslim women?

In honor of Ramadan (which began this week ), and the fact that I have but a little time left with the lovely folks of Feministe, I thought I would aim once again for the overlap in my life’s Venn Diagram.

To your right! The circle labelled “reads a lot of books.” To your left! The circle labelled “academic and professional obsession with matters Middle Eastern.” Up above! The circle labelled “thinks a lot about women’s issues.”

Boom! Right there in the middle, where you would find the book I blogged about on Tuesday, Teta, Mother and Me, you will also find this: Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East, by Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Affairs (which I first reviewed when it came out in 2009).

The public discourse among non-Muslims regarding the Muslim community tends to be shaped by stereotypes, possibly most powerfully when the conversation turns to Muslim women — they are hounded, we tend to think, and quite possibly cowering. The very real problems with which Muslim women grapple appear rooted in the nature of the religion, and, we assume, are thus powerfully immune to real change.

By way of counterargument, Paradise Beneath Her Feet presents an engrossing, seemingly counter-intuitive take on the question of women’s advancement in the Muslim world, showing that Islamic feminists are successfully arguing – from within the texts and traditions of their faith – that gross gender inequality flies in the face not just of the spirit of Islam, but also its laws.

Opening with a global examination of the dilatory consequences of gender discrimination – higher infant mortality, lower incomes, even lower agricultural output – Coleman then takes an exhaustive look at the “gender jihad” under way across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia (an indication, in fact, of the inaccuracy of the title — this is not so much “how women are transforming the Middle East” as it is “how women are transforming the Muslim world”). Over the years, the shape of the effort has changed, as Muslim feminists learn from the mistakes of the 20th century — efforts to impose change from above (anti-veiling laws, for instance) are now understood to have “sow[ed] the seeds for decades worth of Islamic backlash,” ultimately setting women back as they struggle to move forward.

Today, Coleman argues, those engaged in the jihad for Muslim women’s rights are trying to work “with the culture, rather than against it,” frequently succeeding where few thought it possible, as they attempt to build “a legitimate Islamic alternative to the current repressive system.” Her findings reflect the countless interviews she’s conducted, with activists who’ve been fighting for decades alongside those born in the meantime, as well as years of comprehensive research. She doesn’t attempt to paint a rosy picture — the challenges are real, and they are immense — but Coleman does present a convincing argument that Muslim feminists have the potential to shape the future of Islam.


A few links for anyone looking for more on Islam:

  1. The BBC has great background information on Islam (and all kinds of things, really!) on their website, covering all the bases in brief articles — here’s the one about veiling (hijab).
  2. Muslims respond to extremism – a brief compendium that I put together, with links to more information if you want to go deeper.
  3. A Gallup poll finds that Muslim Americans “are by far the least likely among all religious groups to justify targeting civilians, whether done by the military or by ‘an individual person or a small group of persons’.
  4. A short list of Muslim American heroes that I compiled in response to the wave of Islamophobia that has swept the US in recent years.
  5. To learn more about Ramadan, click on the links at the top of the post. They’ll bring you to the BBC & a great, brief video by The Guardian (check out the Indonesian drummers!).

 Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles and Feministe.