Coleman: Women’s rights movement on the rise in Middle East


Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, gives the Tuesday morning lecture in the Amphitheater. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

In the Quran, a man approached the prophet Muhammad to ask if he could help wage jihad. Muhammad refused, but the man insisted.

“Do you have a mother?” Muhammad asked, and the man said he did. “Well, paradise lies beneath her feet. Stay home and be loyal to your mother.”

When Isobel Coleman visited Saudi Arabia years ago, an American-educated Saudi man explained why Saudi women couldn’t drive, own their own businesses or leave their homes without a guardian’s permission.

“The reason we have all these restrictions,” the man told her, “is because we Muslims respect our women. We love our women. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them — you see, there’s a saying: Paradise lies beneath the feet of mothers.”

A year later, Coleman was back in Saudi Arabia, this time talking with a group of female Saudi reformers.

“The reason we should be allowed to do all these things,” one of these women said, “is because there’s a saying in Islam: Paradise lies beneath the feet of mothers.”

Coleman said in her lecture at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater that this story illustrates the problems in Muslim culture regarding women. While conservative Muslims claim the Quran restricts women’s rights, progressive Muslims claim the Quran should be interpreted in a modern context.

Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, was the second speaker for this week’s theme of “21st Century Women: The Road to Social and Economic Growth.” Her speech, titled “Paradise Beneath Her Feet,” explored the progress women’s rights have made so far in the Middle East.

In the 1960s, an arms deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia ended Saudi slavery, but the second term — women’s rights — was only half granted. Women were given the option to go to school, but it wasn’t a requirement.

Since then, the 2 percent literacy rate in Saudi Arabia has evolved so Saudi women make up 63 percent of all college graduates, Coleman said. Despite this, women still are not allowed to drive or to own their own businesses.

Coleman said women have been working to earn the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. They are no longer accepting that the Quran is the reason they’re the butt of discrimination.

“The women are pulling out Scriptures, and they’re reading it,” Coleman said, “and they say, ‘Where does it say in the Quran that women can’t drive cars?’”

They also read passages about Aisha, Muhammad’s favorite wife, who rode into battle on a camel. Instead of accepting the word from others’ mouths, Muslim women are reading the texts themselves and fighting the conservative interpretations.

Recently, Saudi women announced a national day for female driving, even though it’s not legal. They were then advised to put videos of the events on YouTube.

“Sadly, from my perspective, (only) about 40 or 50 women dared to do so,” Coleman said. “A very small number, but the Saudi women said, ‘You can’t conflate that small number with small interest. … There just aren’t that many brave women who want to do it.’”

Coleman also talked about a Turkish soap opera called “Noor,” in which the main character treats his only wife, Noor, respectfully. Coleman said it’s had such an effect on the Arab community that clerics of Islam have tried to ban it.

However, just like in any other women’s rights campaign of the past, there are both male and female critics. Coleman said they believe women’s rights would not be beneficial to religion and families.

These critics make up a very small portion of the country, yet change is happening slowly. She described the current path in the Middle East regarding women’s rights as a “slippery slope” — a reference to what the clerics feared in that initial granting of women’s education in the 1960s.

Similar situations can be seen in places outside of Saudi Arabia as well — even outside of the Middle East. She spoke about China, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey and Iran.

In Iran, wearing a headscarf is more of a suggestion than a requirement. These women are even waiting longer to get married: Even though the minimum age for marriage is 13, the average age women get married is now 26.

Essentially, this issue addresses both human rights and economics, Coleman said.

“If you invest in girls’ education and female literacy,” she said, referencing a World Bank study by Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, “it has remarkable spillover benefits. Not only does it change the life of that girl, it changes the lives of the next generation.”

Summers concluded in that study that investing in women’s education makes the highest return on investment in the developing world.

Even among every developing country in the world, Coleman said, the Middle East is lagging behind. She said it’s up to the Middle East alone to make its own progress.

“When you invest in women,” Coleman said, “it can put whole societies — whole cultures — on the positive trajectory.”

Q: Why is it that some women stand against the advancement of other women? Is it a matter of prejudice? Is it a matter of security or identity in those women? How would you speak about this?

A: It’s a hard question to answer. I think it’s all of those things. I think it’s a matter of prejudice; it’s a matter of insecurity. It’s also a matter of — they’re members of a family. The hardest thing is to buck your family. The hardest thing is to go against a father, a husband. And I think all of those things play out. And in many of the societies I’ve been talking about, women are not encouraged, not taught, to think for themselves. Nor are men, by the way. And so there’s sort of a blind following of tradition, and anything that goes against that is threatening. And you will find women, as I said, on both sides of the issue. It’s not that women are always on the right side of this issue. They’re not. There are lots of men who are on the right side of the issue. It’s something not unique to the Middle East by any means. We’ve seen it throughout history and in every country.

Q: How many Islamic women in the United States are negatively impacted by the restrictions of Sharia law?

A: In the United States? To my knowledge, none. There is no Sharia in the United States. We are a secular country with civil laws. There are no doubt women who are told by family members that they must do something or cannot do something because of Sharia. And it’s hard for a teenage girl or a young woman to, as I said, go against her family. But there are lots of non-Muslim women who were told by their families they can’t marry this person, they can’t go to that school for whatever reason. And of course, they have the right to make a different decision, but it’s very hard to buck your family. But there is no legal practice of Sharia in the United States.

Q: You did not mention Libya, and our questioner says, what about the women there? Can you comment on women, particularly those that serve as bodyguards to Kadafi?

A: Well, the women who serve as bodyguards to Kadafi, from my understanding, are mostly Italian and French and Dutch. They’re European and good-looking. The story in Libya is not really a story about women. The story in Libya is a story of civil war and it is active, brutal fighting. Women are part of it. You’ve seen women protesting on the streets in Tripoli and other cities. You’ve certainly seen women helping the opposition in all sorts of ways. But war still tends today to be a pretty manly affair. What is going on in Libya today is a civil war, and women’s rights, women’s issues, are not a big part of that story yet.

Q: To what do you attribute the stark contrast in respect to women’s status in Israel with its neighbors?

A: I think Israel in some ways is a bit like China in that it just said we have a lot of challenges, and women are going to be right alongside men. Women have fought in the Israeli Army. They serve in every single capacity, and women are a model of liberated, active, empowered people in the Middle East. But you also have a very conservative group in Israel, and the challenges that women face within that conservative tradition in Israel are very, very similar to the challenges that Muslim women face in a very conservative tradition. It’s interesting when you compare those challenges. The mainstream practice in Israel is a much more open, conducive environment to women and women’s rights, but you do have groups in Israel that don’t look dissimilar to other parts of the Middle East.

Q: Do you predict that the Egyptian military will give up its power so that open elections can occur?

A: I’d like to reword the question. I think open elections will occur, but the military will not give up its power. They will be a backstop to the process. I think that the Egyptian military will perhaps run a candidate. They’ve said that they won’t, but it’s entirely possible that they will. The elections, as you know, have been postponed again until later in the fall. I think that the Egyptian military will likely follow a model not dissimilar to Turkey, which has had processes of open elections but the military retaining a very strong grip on powerful strings in society — politically, militarily powerful strings — and over time loosening those reins. But that’s a long process, and the military will not overnight give up its privileged position in society — not at all.

Q: Do you think that a positive turn, particularly in relation to the education of women in the Middle East, may influence the cause of peace?

A: I don’t want to stand here and say that women are the key to peace. I think that oversimplifies things. But what I will say is that extremist views on women go hand in hand with extremism. And extremism is an enormous obstacle to peace. So as you find more people moderating their position on women’s rights — as I said, it’s a marker for a whole range of other issues, and I do think that rising levels of female education, a growing role for women in society, economically, socially, politically, is a positive influence.

Q: Would you once again state the name of the book about the girl from Yemen?

A: I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, and the little girl told it to a French journalist. So it’s written in her own words, which makes it very moving.

Q: What do you have to say, or what word of advice do you have, about how we might take these 10 years (since 9/11), and what might we say that would be helpful at this point in history?

A: Well I think one thing that’s happened over the last 10 years is Americans have learned a whole lot more about Islam than they knew before, and a lot of it is bad. A lot of it that people have taken and internalized is bad. A lot that is done in the name of Islam is very, very bad. But what I would say is that Islam is a varied faith. There are lots of different ways it’s practiced, it’s interpreted. Muslim communities around the world differ enormously, and to demonize Islam in the way we increasingly are doing in this society is a very, very negative trend. People always say to me, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” I say, “They’re all over.” “Well why don’t we ever hear them?” Well, guess what? Good news doesn’t sell. Bad news sells. Horrible headlines are what grab people’s attention. I also get the question, “Oh, your book is so interesting. How did you ever find those women?” I say, “No, no. I wrote about a handful of women in my book. There are thousands and thousands of women I could have written about. The hard part was choosing who to focus on. It’s not like there’s just a few of them.” Some people dismiss that, “Oh, these women are marginal, on the edge of society,” and when you look at what‘s happening today in the Middle East, what happened in Egypt was not an Islamic revolution. This was about freedom and democracy, and it took so many people by surprise because we don’t see that. We don’t see what is really going on. We just read the headlines and take away the really sort of extreme notions. The fact is, if you live in the Middle East, what do you hear about America? You hear about a pastor in Florida who’s burning a Quran. Is that representative of all Americans? Of course not. But that’s what they think of as America. And we know what we think of them. There’s a huge gulf there and a huge stereotyping on both sides. My message as this 10th-year marker approaches is in our increasingly polarized society, stop and take a moment to think and to listen.

Q: Is there anything the Western World can do to help advance women’s rights in the Middle East, or must it be internally driven movements, much like events that happened in our own country?

A: It’s a major theme of my book, which is that it does have to be internally generated. For this to be a sustainable movement that’s embraced, it has to be locally driven. It doesn’t mean that they have to do it all on their own. And there are many ways that they look to support from the West. All of the women I write about in my book have some connection to the West. They may have been educated in the West; they may get funding, money for their organizations from the West. One of the women I write about, Sakena Yacoobi, who runs a remarkable network of girls’ schools and health clinics in Afghanistan, I said to her “Sakena, does it undermine your credibility that most of your funding comes from the United States and Europe?” and she looks at me and says, “Isobel, my whole government is on the dole. Eighty percent of the Karzai government’s funds come from the West. Why should my little organization not take some money from the West?” What I learned from her and from all of the women that I write about in my book, what I learned, well, I was nervous; could we do more harm if we try to help these women? These are sophisticated, courageous, smart women who understand their own environment, and they will take help when they want it, they’ll ask for help when they want it and when it does them no good, they’ll steer clear of it. One woman I wrote about, she’s a religious scholar in Indonesia, Musdah Mulia, she was recognized with a Women of Courage award that our State Department gives out. It honors women of courage around the world on an annual basis. And she was recognized some years ago. And she debated long and hard. “Should I take this award? My critics are going to say I’m a Zionist spy, I’m in the CIA, I’m a neocon doing Washington’s work.” And she said to herself, “They already say that about me. I’m going to Washington.” And she did, and she got this award from Condoleezza Rice, and she became a celebrity at home. That media spotlight on her really enhanced her stature and her reputation at home. I think that when groups there are looking for help, we should reach out. And the last thing I would say is that American Muslims have a remarkable opportunity to engage with other Muslims around the world and really help this — it is a revolution — help this revolution of thinking, Move forward. And a lot of the — I assume Daisy Khan will talk about this this afternoon — a lot of the reinterpretation of the text that is going on, it’s happening here in the United States. People like Daisy, centers of learning and scholarship here in the United States, in Europe, because it can’t happen there. And a lot of the leading scholars today are exiles, intellectual exiles living here, teaching at the University of Virginia or UCLA or Columbia or Harvard Law School and looking at the text and debating and parsing and a lot of that thinking is flowing back into the region. And I write about this in my book, but American Muslims, American non-Muslim scholars, have a big role to play in that.

– Transcribed by Leah Rankin