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Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices against Oppression

Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices against Oppression

by Ida Lichter

In a world where the strident demands of Islamic extremists capture the media’s attention, the courageous protests of Muslim reformers barely receive any notice. These include a surprising number of women who are prepared to challenge institutionalized persecution, risking derision, arrest, physical harm, and even death.

In this inspiring compilation of


In a world where the strident demands of Islamic extremists capture the media’s attention, the courageous protests of Muslim reformers barely receive any notice. These include a surprising number of women who are prepared to challenge institutionalized persecution, risking derision, arrest, physical harm, and even death.

In this inspiring compilation of Muslim women’s stories from around the world, the voices of these long-oppressed women ring loud and clear as they question ideology and culture, patriarchal and religious beliefs, and demand the social and political rights women lack in many Muslim countries. The reformers speak out with passion, humanity, and sometimes humor in these compact and often poignant biographies, bringing alive the harsh realities for women in many parts of the world.

By surveying a wide range of Muslim reformers, not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and North America, author Ida Lichter uncovers some significant emerging trends. For example, she notes that the majority of Muslim feminists would like to see reform contained within Islam. Many criticize their patriarchal culture for suppressing egalitarian views that they believe the Koran expresses and so they advocate a reinterpretation of the holy text. Some demand changes to discriminatory Sharia-based laws. Others campaign openly for political and educational reforms.

Complete with a glossary and a list of helpful Web sites, this vibrant anthology makes use of reliable translations from original languages to demonstrate the groundswell of grassroots change that promises eventually to bring even the most conservative sectors of Islam into the twenty-first century.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Jennifer Heath
Books about women who struggle to make the world a better place are necessary and welcome. This one, however, suffers from oversimplification, bias, and notable omissions. The thin introduction addresses the fact of omissions, but does not name, for the sake of balance, any of those who are missing. There is a glossary, but no index, and a list of "Reform Web sites and Conferences." The book is comprised not of original interviews or writings, but of third-person, cut-and-paste profiles organized by country, from Afghanistan to Yemen. A few activist men and transnational rights groups are included. Little distinction is made between repressive regimes, generic "patriarchal Muslim males," and the religion of Islam. The book carries no blurbs from Muslims or scholars of Islam. Instead, glowing endorsements from Daniel Pipes and David Pryce-Jones, extreme Islamophobes, further undermine its credibility and authority. There are myriad hard-striving Muslim reformers worldwide and some listed here are indeed genuine. Nevertheless, this is not a thorough, trustworthy, or comprehensive accounting of Muslim women's courageous exertions for justice. Reviewer: Jennifer Heath

Product Details

Prometheus Books
Publication date:
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6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2009 Ida Lichter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-716-4

Chapter One



Women are the property of men from the waist down.

Oppression of women was common in Afghanistan's tribal society, but the situation improved following independence from British rule in 1919, when King Amanullah introduced reforms. He discouraged the veil and polygamy, and he promoted free choice of spouses and education for women, including higher education abroad. The abolition of child marriage increased the minimum age of marriage to twenty-two for men and eighteen for women. However, these reforms were rejected in 1928 by the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly). In the same year, the mullahs decreed a jihad against the king, and he was overthrown in 1929.

His successor, Habiballah, was a conservative mullah who revoked the king's reforms by closing all girls' schools, banning secular education for boys, and making the veil compulsory, but in 1959, the government of President Daoud recommended the voluntary removal of the veil. At the same time, the number of girls' schools increased, as well as women's employment, and in 1964, a new constitution ratified equal gender rights to education. The Civil Code, introduced in 1977, enacted a statutory marriageable age. Again, conservative mullahs obstructed the reforms endorsed by President Daoud. Instead, they demanded shari'ah law and elimination of gender equality.

When the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, some liberal legislation for women was introduced, but it proved unacceptable to traditionalists. After the Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, the Soviet-backed government remained until 1992, eventually deposed by the mujahideen who were committed to restrictions on women's dress, behavior, movement, and education in the name of Islamic shari'ah law. Penalties were widespread and some women were killed.

In 1994, the Taliban took control of Kabul and enforced shari'ah law. In their zeal, the religious leaders authorized the complete subjugation of women by men and openly blamed women's liberty for the country's political corruption and years of conflict. These views were more widely held by the poor in rural areas where illiteracy was high. Traditional mullahs were afraid that female education would undermine religious authority and were in favor of child marriage or marriage at puberty to prevent sexual immorality.

The rationale for male superiority was derived from the Koran, where men were mentioned first, a man's share was deemed twice that of a woman, and, being unable to support themselves, women were dependent on men for protection. Mullahs also opposed the employment of women outside the home, as their primary duty was to the family.

Afghan women were encouraged to believe they were less intelligent than men and that their only right to education was to religious education. Furthermore, a husband's maintenance and sacrifice were considered to impose a debt in perpetuity. Men had every right to punish wives for noncompliance, and the slightest disobedience carried the threat of retribution in hell.

Women are still treated as items of exchange like land or animals. Using women as collateral has been effective in settling disputes and avoiding long-lasting blood feuds. For example, women can be traded as compensation for injury or murder committed by a male member of the family. In such cases, mullahs have justified the woman's sacrifice in the name of Islam, because Islam is a "religion of peace" and such exchanges bring "peace between families."

The Karzai government's authority has appeared more willing to compromise, but in spite of Afghanistan's ratification of major human rights treaties and the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, women and young girls are still subject to discrimination and exploitation. In fact, the overthrow of the Taliban did not end the existing constraints on women. Their notions of obedience to husbands and family, acceptance of responsibility for family honor, and acceptance of a subordinate social, legal, economic, and political role had been internalized. It is estimated that 80 percent of marriages still involve betrothal in infancy and coercion by families. Underage marriage, often to much older men, is widespread and culturally entrenched. Mullahs tend to justify child marriage on the basis that one of the Prophet's wives was only nine years old when he married her.

To procure a wife, a prospective husband is required to pay his bride the mahr, or "bride price." However, widows are often forced to remarry into their deceased husband's family so that the family can inherit the dowry.

A major problem is the deeply ingrained culture of degradation and violence justified by religion and tradition: for example, the local religious council (ulema) can decide to punish a woman with stoning for adultery. The use of domestic violence to control women is common, but wives are usually obliged by their families to tolerate abusive husbands. In any case, there is little access to justice, as police are loath to investigate and there are few female advocates to represent women. Domestic violence is commonplace, especially against child brides, and for wives who contemplate leaving a violent relationship, there are no shelters. Without husbands, women often become beggars in order to feed their children. Rape and abduction are commonplace in areas of armed conflict and are probably underreported. In cases of rape, four adult witnesses are required to testify, otherwise the victim may be accused of zina-any sex outside of marriage, including consensual sex, criminalized in the penal code. Women who refuse to marry a husband chosen by male kin, or who transgress sexual mores by even minimal contact with unrelated males, risk punishment in the form of "honor killings," which are not treated as criminal offenses. Vindicated by dishonor to the family name, this summary retribution is meted out by an informal justice system of jirgas and shuras, community courts and councils composed entirely of men. Furthermore, when Afghan women human rights activists have attempted to initiate reforms for women's protection, they have encountered hostility, derision, intimidation, and violence, including disfiguring acid attacks.

Lack of social support and unbearable family pressures have forced some young women to run away from home, an action classified as an uncodified crime of "running away" and a punishable offense. Even more desperate are the suicides and attempted suicides by self-immolation, mostly associated with violence in the family.

In this tribal, male-dominated society, run by powerful warlords and consumed by perpetual political instability and drug-financed internecine warfare, reforms to criminalize violence against women, let alone to ensure basic women's rights, are considered irrelevant. Women's lives are in danger for other reasons too. At 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births, maternal mortality is one of the highest in the world.

Segregation of the sexes severely restricts women's opportunities and daily life. Women still fear venturing into the public space without being fully covered, and seclusion inhibits female access to education and the workplace. Illiteracy is particularly high in rural areas; overall literacy, at only 23.5 percent of the population aged fifteen and older, is one of the lowest in the world; and only 12.6 percent of adult women are literate.

Stories of women's oppression rarely make the news as there are only a small number of female journalists. Those few also encounter discrimination and religious restrictions affecting their work as they cannot travel without a guardian or talk to male strangers.

The new constitution, adopted in 2004, is committed to gender equality in principle but does not specify equal rights in family law. In order to enact laws furthering women's rights, activists achieved the 25 percent women's quota for Afghanistan's parliament but the majority of women delegates are under the control of parties of former mujahideen and told how to use the system. For example, some women drafted a bill to enforce mandatory full body covering for women. Others voted against the 25 percent quota and attacked one woman who voted in favor of it.

Lack of security is the major impediment to women's political participation and reinforces seclusion. Women also need to develop the leadership skills required to build productive grassroots networks and eschew tribal tensions, personal rivalries, and dependency on the international community for the bestowal of women's rights. Major opponents for women activists are the warlords who employ private armies, effectively ruling over widespread regions not yet controlled by the central government. Many have histories of flagrant human rights abuses and some are also radical Islamists. They have no compunction in using scare tactics or violence, and their inclusion in the parliament serves as an affront to women activists.

There has also been some resurgence of the Taliban. Together with Pakistani Islamists, and emboldened by government inaction, it set up new restrictions on women in 2008, forbade polio immunization for children, and instituted strict Islamic punishments in accordance with shari'ah law. The terrorizing of women may include acid attacks. An example involved Islamists on motorcycles who poured acid on girls because they were attending school. According to one defiant schoolgirl, "My message for the enemies is that if they do this 100 times, I am still going to continue my studies."

Various projects have been developed to empower Afghan women. For example, the Afghan Rule of Law Project (AROLP), initiated in 2007, promotes women's rights in Islam through increased public awareness and also critical and progressive reinterpretation within the context of Islam. Strategies to ensure success include co-opting Afghan men willing to defend women's rights. Central to the program is a forum for candid discussion between Islamic clerics and Afghan and non-Afghan scholars, without evading particularly sensitive issues like child marriage.

These words were spoken in Kabul by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on International Women's Day, March 8, 2005:

Today, women play an important role.... Of course women in Afghanistan still face challenges. Girls are married in their childhood or married off to resolve disputes. These practices are cruel, against our religion and no longer acceptable.

However, in February 2009, new family laws that "explicitly sanction marital rape" were hurriedly passed for Afghanistan's Shia minority. Refuting the gender equality enshrined in the new constitution, Article 132 enforces sexual intercourse on wives, Article 133 forbids a wife from leaving the house without her husband's permission, and Article 27 sanctions marriage for girls at the age of their first period. Although President Karzai initially decried "the misinterpretation of the law by Western journalists," he subsequently ordered a review.


The women reformers described in the following pages have been dedicated to overcoming the lifelong plight faced by most of Afghanistan's women, particularly in the rural areas and still evident in spite of the antidiscrimination legislation enshrined in the new constitution.

A selection of eighteen reformers are mentioned here or described in more detail in the following section. Three of them were assassinated. Nearly all have university degrees, including in economics, languages, medical studies, geology, and international studies, and more recently, some of the younger women have studied abroad. Malalai Joya is self-taught in political science and history.

Social reforms at a basic level have been a priority, although hampered by lack of infrastructure. Educational reforms are at the forefront for Fatana Gailani, Manizha Naderi, Suraya Parlika, Nilofar Sakhi, Sima Samar, and Masuda Sultan, who are convinced that education is the key to women's empowerment and freedom. Gailani believes that the education of women is the "sole means of keeping children from becoming terrorists."

During the Taliban years, teacher and women's rights advocate Safia Amajan and Suraya Parlika, another feminist activist, ran underground schools at great personal risk. Even in 1978, when Parlika was head of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the authorities objected to her strong advocacy of women's rights and had her thrown into prison for eighteen months and tortured. Amajan was assassinated in 2005 by the Taliban in Kandahar, one of their major strongholds.

Lt-Col Malalai Kakar, head of Kandahar's department of crimes against women and the most senior female police officer in Afghanistan, was also murdered by the Taliban in Kandahar in September 2008. Kakar, a valiant protector of women suffering domestic violence, had been an inspiring reformer who courageously defied recurrent death threats. Another policewoman was killed in Herat Province in the previous June.

Most reformers faced great peril during the Taliban years. Fatana Gailani, who led the charge to establish the Afghanistan Women Council (AWC) and worked tirelessly for the relief and rights of refugees during the Taliban years, received repeated death threats. Shukria Barakzai, journalist and member of parliament, narrowly escaped death when bombs were planted in her bedroom, and in 2007, she was warned that she might become a target for a suicide bomber.

Basic literacy classes for all women and schools for girls were the aims of Amajan, Parlika, Sima Samar, and the organizations Women for Afghan Women (WAW) and the Women Activities and Social Services Association (WASSA), in a country where the female literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world. If women were literate, much more information vital to their legal entitlements and political participation could be imparted.

For those who are literate, women's publications, Payam-e-Zan (Women's Message, a newspaper written, published, and distributed by the Revolutionary Association for the Women of Afghanistan-RAWA), and Aina-e-Zan (Women's Mirror), by Shukria Barakzai, have facilitated the dissemination of information regarding women's issues.

Six reformers and reformist organizations have been actively involved in the delivery of medical services, including Dr. Sima Samar, who opened the first women's medical center and the RAWA organization, which established medical clinics for refugees in the Pakistani border cities of Peshawar and Quetta. A veteran surgeon, "the General" Suhaila Seddiqi,24 who remained in Afghanistan during the Taliban period and consistently treated the Taliban with contempt, was legendary for her surgical skills and responsible for organizing the funding and renovation of Kabul's main hospital. She also held a national conference on HIV and oversaw the vaccination of 6 million Afghan children against polio in order to combat one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world. The WASSA organization, run by Nilofar Sakhi, has focused on outreach programs for hygiene, nutrition, pregnancy, childbirth, and childhood illnesses, particularly in rural areas.

Widespread poverty and lack of welfare prompted reformers Amajan and Parlika, and the organizations RAWA, WAW, and WASSA, to initiate training programs for marketable vocational skills like baking, garment making, handicrafts, mobile phone repair, jam and juice works, and other small businesses. In addition, microloans have been made available to women with entrepreneurial capacity so they can provide for their families.

Many refugee families who escaped to Pakistan have also been beneficiaries of an organization set up by Sima Samar. Like RAWA, WAW, and WASSA, Samar's Shuhada organization operates in many areas: education, hygiene, medical treatment, and training and employment for refugees in Pakistan and those living in Afghanistan.

Two organizations deal with the domestic violence that is prevalent in Afghanistan. WAW runs a women's shelter in Kabul and provides family counseling and legal advice. In addition to addressing domestic violence, WASSA also deals with the problems of forced marriage, male domination, and female self-immolation.


Excerpted from MUSLIM WOMEN REFORMERS by IDA LICHTER Copyright © 2009 by Ida Lichter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ida Lichter, MD, is a psychiatrist who lives in Sydney, Australia.

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