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. 



Norway and terrorism as a daily event.

In the West, we seem to have at least a double standard when it comes to violence and mayhem.

When violence and mayhem involves People Who Look Like Us (“us” in this case generally translating to: ethnically European/white, not-poor, citizens of a Western-style democracy) — we experience society-wide woe. When it involves People Who Don’t Look Like Us? Often, not so much.

We see this in the semi-annual “OMG heroin has reached the suburbs” stories, we see it in the stories of missing mothers or schoolyard shootings that take place somewhere outside our inner cities or meth-riddled mountains — and I think we saw it again in the wake of the terrorist attack in Norway.

I am not, in any way, suggesting a sliding scale of pain. Pain is pain, loss is loss — if your child, partner, friend, parent, loved one was killed, in Oslo, on her way home from work, or in some random Columbine-like horror, your grief is no less because your skin is pale or your bank account full.

But as someone who follows the news out of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, as someone who once-upon-a-time covered terrorism’s aftermath as a reporter, as someone who has seen up close and personal the damage that bombs can do, I couldn’t help but feel the vast difference between America’s response to the terrorism in Norway, and our response that with which the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan live on a nearly daily basis.

Part of this is, of course, because in Norway, the line between good and evil was clear, shining and bright. One terrorist, 77 innocents. We know, in a heartbeat, how to direct our horror and revulsion, and to whom to offer our prayers and support.

This is not the case in the Af-Pak region. First of all, the West isn’t even sure of its own role anymore, if it ever was. Are we good guys or bad guys? When children are killed as our soldiers aim for the Taliban — who are we? Should we even be there? Are we imperialists, or did we fail to go after the Taliban hard enough in the first place?

But beyond the complexities of the war and a porous border — Western soldiers are not the ones purposely blowing people up in the middle of busy cities. Surely the people doing that are the bad guys, right? But what if their fight is just? And wait — who gets to decide what “just” means? Throw in the endlessly complex cultural and political realities of the two societies, the fact that Westerners tend to expect Muslims to be violent (though Muslims might disagree) — we throw up our hands. Another 27 dead. Another 22. An 8 year old boy. Those people.

One need only scroll through the Twitter feed of Foreign Policy’s Af-Pak Channel to see that a good deal more than 77 Afghans and Pakistanis were killed in the month of July alone, not on a battlefield, but while trying to live their lives. Hell, nearly 100 were killed in the Pakistani city of Karachi in the first week of July.

Some of these were combatants. Some were violent misogynists. Some were trying to go to the market. Some were children. Some of the “innocents” probably deserved to die, and some of the fighters had probably been involved in trying to bring peace. The lines are neither clear, nor shining, nor bright.

But I do know this: Dead is dead. The tears of a Pakistani mother are no less excruciating than those of a Norwegian father. The pain in these faces is as human and as raw as the pain in these.

I don’t have any grand conclusion to draw or act of advocacy to recommend. I know that no human being can carry all the world’s pain without buckling under the weight, and if a geek like me can’t always keep all the warring parties straight in Af-Pak, I surely don’t expect anyone else to manage it.

I just think that as we mourn the losses in Oslo, as we send our prayers and our white light and our best wishes to our Norwegian sisters and brothers, it matters that we also remember those for whom the Norway attacks look horrifyingly familiar. We need to find a way to manage to bear witness to the humanity of those living and dying in Afghanistan and Pakistan, too. As the holy month of Ramadan begins, perhaps we owe the living and the dead at least that much.


If you want to learn more about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the violence that has marked the history of both, here are two great books to get you started: Invisible History by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, and Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven (both of which I reviewed for the Dallas Morning News).

Crossposted at Feministe.