Iran: Women, Islam and...Foreign Policy?


Early July pulsed with reports of Iranian mother Sakineh Ashtiani's impending execution, which, at the time, was to be carried out by stoning. Her alleged crime was zina, adultery or fornication, a moral transgression for which more women are punished than men. Because stoning is defended on religious grounds (in Articles 86 and 105 of the Iranian penal code), its champions afford themselves the authority to acquiesce rarely, if ever, to external demands for clemency. So while diplomatic pressure, international offers of asylum, and a Western media push constitute the most visible efforts to "free Sakineh," a new book suggests that "Islamic feminists," or individuals working within Islamic discourse to promote women's empowerment, constitute a more potent activism over the long term.

In Paradise Beneath Her Feet, Council on Foreign Relations expert Isobel Coleman makes the case that the emerging Islamic feminist movement is the most effective way to empower women in the "greater Middle East," a region that includes Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and that she believes will likely determine the stability of our world. It is in these countries that she spent the last decade researching and profiling the work of women, and even some men, who are "contesting the self-appropriated right of conservative religious leaders to interpret Islam." Islamic feminism, she argues, holds special credibility and grassroots appeal, and can ultimately benefit the stability and prosperity of the countries of the greater Middle East, as well as their relationships with the West.

The post-9/11 discourse on Islam, gender, and the so-called Muslim world has been peppered with writings that range from oversimplified preoccupations with the veil to convoluted academic analysis of Islamic laws and human rights. The task of navigating through this unrelentingly politicized literary landscape for insights that are both nuanced and readily comprehensible is daunting.

Paradise can function as both a well-researched, Cliffs Notes-like guide for those who seek to learn about some of the complex histories and debates on women's rights and Islam, and as a resource that fleshes out the potential for religious gender-based movements to generate broad development in Muslim-majority societies.

There are serious implications to each of these functions. Perhaps most importantly, the relationship Coleman touts between women's development and U.S. foreign policy goals, specifically in curbing extremism, requires a careful read that considers the associated practical and ethical challenges.

The Contexts for Islamic Feminism

One of the most compelling aspects of Paradise is its well-researched overview of Islamic feminism's genesis in multiple contexts. Coleman describes it as a nascent movement that emerged in reaction to contemporary Islamism (Ziba Mir-Hosseini calls it "the unwanted child of political Islam"), as well as the failures of secular reform efforts.

She delves into turbulent colonial histories and the rise of Islamism, particularly how the conflict between secularists and Islamist leaders such as Hassan al-Banna of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Abul Ala Maududi of India's Jamaat-e-Islami made the bodies of women its battlegrounds through issues like female dress and gender segregation. Pivotal to that conflict, Coleman says, was the Islamist realization that "linking feminism with the heresy of the West is good politics, and helps turn patriarchy into patriotism." In part, Islamic feminism developed as a religious response to those patriarchies. It also stemmed from the dual tensions, which Coleman chronicles excellently, of secular feminists' antipathy for women's religious activism, and the equally passionate disdain among some in the postcolonial world for Western feminist frameworks that long projected Third World women's inferiority.

Islamic feminism's proponents contend that it is deeply rooted in historical Islamic tradition. The epistemology behind this is a quest for reinterpretation, often through ijtihad, a historical practice that Coleman defines as "the process of arriving at new interpretations of Islamic law through critical reasoning." Some of the most well-known Islamic feminists, for example Asma Barlas and Amina Wadud, are those who engage with the Qu'ran to argue that its original meaning is egalitarian and antipatriarchal.

But hermeneutics is only one aspect of Islamic feminism, and Coleman is sharp to recognize that. Much of this book features the labors of activists who are not scholars, but embody the goals of Islamic feminism in other ways.

Islamic Feminism, Embodied

Paradise is exactly that for those afflicted with wanderlust. With every chapter and, at times, with every turn of the page, Coleman is in a new country documenting a dizzying array of activist movements. Her study spans Faezeh Hashemi's quest to launch the first ever Islamic women's games in Tehran, a mission to get Afghan clerics to sign onto women's educational programs, advocacy against Article 41 of the Iraqi constitution, the Meydaan Organization's Campaign to Stop Stoning Forever in Iran, Mukhtaran Mai's fight against repressive feudal laws in Pakistan, and the reforms of women preachers in Morocco.

As a result, Coleman's view of "Islamic feminism" is more encompassing than prevailing conceptions, which center chiefly on the reinterpretation of Islamic jurisprudence relating to family law issues like divorce, rape, and adultery. Coleman's broader definition is welcome insofar as it highlights efforts that might otherwise be overlooked: projects to alleviate poverty, the grassroots work by women without elite Islamic educations, NGO development work, the valuable roles men are playing, and other activisms that challenge overarching structural inequalities.

But this inclusiveness can also obfuscate what exactly it takes to be an Islamic feminist. Some of the women and men Coleman profiles are less than revolutionary, and many of them would disagree with one another's approaches to gender justice. Coleman depicts some of these disagreements, particularly the conflict between those who identify themselves as "Muslim feminists" and "Islamic feminists," and those who shun the term altogether. In doing so, she illustrates that the promotion of women's rights through Islam is anything but monolithic, and should be considered with all of its complexities, even its contradictions.

Part of what makes many of these activists so compelling is their grassroots appeal. Coleman argues that one of Islamic feminism's greatest strengths, particularly in comparison with secular feminism, is its ability to mobilize women across classes. Sakena Yacoobi, the founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), which provides health and educational services to more than 350,000 women, is a prime example. "We call it a human rights workshop, but what we are really teaching is the Qu'ran," she tells Coleman. The class Yacoobi leads uses standard curriculum developed by the Women's Learning Partnership, which she has adapted for Afghan women on the village level.

Also fascinating is Coleman's exploration of the opportunities offered by new media to promote gender justice, especially as a result of greater access to satellite television. She describes how Egyptian talk show host Heba Kotb has brought discussions of sexuality to screens across the Arab world and how the male scholar Javed Ahmad Ghambidi has advocated against the harsh punishments of the Hudood Ordinance on Geo Television in Pakistan. Despite the compelling examples Coleman highlights, it should be noted that new media can offer an equally powerful platform to anti-women religious fundamentalists.

In each country chapter, Coleman also digs into the history of women's activism and some of the figures that have inspired it. One of the most affecting portions of the book is the beginning of the chapter on Iraq, in which she relates the fiery, yet mournful tale of Zainab bint Ali, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The rest of the chapter, however, glosses over some of the most significant issues in the country's more recent history. Coleman writes about how the devastation of the Iraqi infrastructure that resulted from the U.S. invasion has disparately affected women, but she avoids addressing the uncomfortable argument that U.S. economic policy toward and involvement in Iraq over the years has brought extraordinary challenges for Iraqi women. Furthermore, the short chapter does not adequately capture the rich variety of local activisms that have emerged in response. What Kind of Liberation? by Najde Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt is one work that provides deeper insight into what is happening in Iraq today.

In general, Coleman's profiles are very engrossing, at times because they are tragic and at others because they are funny (her conversations with "Soheila" in Iran are some of the best). Though much of the book is simply devoted to sharing news of their work, the author's broader, more ambitious goal is to flesh out how they fit into a foreign policy and development agenda.

The Foreign Policy Lens

Although Coleman does briefly profile activists in countries like Malaysia and Morocco, the geographical focus of Paradise mirrors U.S. foreign policy priorities: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. To some, the deliberate inclusion of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Middle East may seem curious, perhaps even imprecise, but it is very telling of the book's ambitions and intended audience.

These five countries are repeatedly referred to as the "greater Middle East," U.S. foreign policy nomenclature popularized (and politicized) in 2004 via reform initiatives targeted to combat Islamic extremism through the development, and especially the democratization, of Muslim-majority countries. Today, "the greater Middle East" is employed to denote both Washington's Middle East and "AfPak" priorities. For Coleman, the broader Middle East represents the "strategic crescent" in which some of the world's most critical conflicts will likely play out.

Focusing on the greater Middle East is a calculated part of Coleman's larger project to demonstrate a link between gender and foreign policy. She specifically makes the case that the world has a stake in Islamic feminism, writing that women's struggle for justice is central to many of the most pressing foreign policy concerns: alleviating poverty, promoting economic development, improving global health, building civil society, strengthening weak and failing states, assisting democratization, tempering extremism. (xvii; emphasis added)

This much-trumpeted relationship between women's development and reducing Islamic extremism in policy discourse has been contested by some feminist scholars and undercut by examples of popular women's religious movements that are neither liberal nor rights-based. Works like Saba Mahmood's The Politics of Piety, which focuses on the women's mosque movement in Egypt, and Amina Jamal's study of Jamaat-e-Islami women in Pakistan directly challenge the argument that women activists are necessarily moderators or proponents of democracy.

Though Coleman does not address these counterexamples, she does concede that some of the political currents pulsing through Islamic feminist movements do not necessarily fall in line with U.S. objectives. In fact, she is quick to acknowledge that many Americans would be less than pleased with the attitudes of some Islamic feminists, which can be anti-Western, anti-globalization, and even sympathetic to militancy. The reality, she argues, is that these very views frequently afford them the credibility they need to work for gender justice in their environments.

An example of one such woman is Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran's first female vice president. Though Coleman does not hide her disapproval of the Iranian regime, neither does she dismiss the work of Ebtekar, who for the most part defends the regime, rejects the "feminist" label Coleman applies to her, and is extraordinarily critical of U.S. policy toward Iran. While some Iranian feminists consider her work hollow, others believe Ebtekar's power is in her ability to "work under the table" with the legitimacy she traces from these beliefs. Where Ebtekar fits into Coleman's assertions about tempering extremism is unclear, but the attentionParadise pays to her does demonstrate Coleman's balanced approach, in spite of her own strong views, to incorporating a gender lens in foreign policy.

The relevance of Islamic feminism for U.S. foreign policy is more apparent with some of the other work that Coleman profiles, particularly in women's economic development. For example, she lauds the National Solidarity Program (NSP), an Afghan government program that gives local villages the responsibility for their own development. Since 2009, the NSP has increasingly become Washington's program of choice to fund in Afghanistan, and Coleman discusses how its successful gender-based development strategies are a model for other kinds of work the United States can back.

For Coleman, the best way the United States can offer support is by providing technical expertise and financial assistance through local channels, but only when it is demand-driven. The complications resulting from backlash against organizations receiving Western aid, she argues, is a sunk cost, as most women's groups are already accused of following a foreign agenda. And although she advocates that the United States push for women-friendly laws in places where it can -- for example, electoral quotas for women -- she clarifies that "women's empowerment, like many things, cannot be imposed on a country or a culture from the outside." It is important to note that Coleman's agenda does not reek of the "savior rhetoric" prevalent in most Western discussions of gender and foreign policy (and, by extension, war).

Beyond the perils of Western association, Coleman does not analyze the very real obstacles of targeting U.S. aid at gender development (though that might well have required doubling the book's 352 pages). The reality is that women's NGOs and empowerment groups are often donor-driven, and deeply politicized as a result. In some cases, they are manipulated by others, and thus it is quite difficult to ensure that funds are in fact directed to gender-based development. Perhaps the best example of this is the challenge USAID presently faces in disbursing the $7.5 billion in Kerry-Lugar aid to Pakistan. The distributors are working very hard to see some of it directed to women's empowerment organizations and gender-sensitive development projects -- no easy feat. Channeling money is one part of the problem, but ensuring its impact is even more difficult.

It will be interesting to see if Coleman, through her work as director of the Women and Foreign Policyprogram at the Council on Foreign Relations, will flesh out some of the more practical challenges associated with gendering development through U.S. foreign policy, particularly in religious contexts.

Secular Implications

For Coleman, understanding the potential of Islamic feminism to transform societies includes accepting that, at least for now, religion has won in the greater Middle East and secular movements have lost. Thus, some secular feminists tactically choose to adopt, at times with great discomfort, a religious paradigm for their work. And while Coleman recognizes that there are secular feminists that find Islamic feminism simply unpalatable, the implications of Islamic feminism's rise for many secular-feminist activists remain unaddressed in Paradise.

With the growth of faith-based feminisms, as well as the emergence of outright non-liberal, Islamic revivalist women's movements, some scholars are measuring their impact on the women activists that do not fall within these categories, namely secular feminists. For example, sociologist Afiya Zia argues that the growth of Islamic feminism in Pakistan has driven polarization between Islamic and secular feminists, and the emergence of a problematic "good Muslim" and "bad Muslim" dichotomy for women activists. She extends her critique, writing,

The feminism part of Islamic feminism gets subsumed and relegated as a lesser appendage to the more compelling and overarching Islamic phenomena. Islam as a political strategy is increasingly becoming a limited empowering tool for the Islamic feminist reformist project -- instead it has become a legitimate mobilizing strategy almost exclusively for the radical right.

This critical question of whether Islamic feminism's growth delegitimizes secular feminism while empowering the radical right should not negate the progress of the work of Islamic feminists. But the question also deserves more consideration than Paradise gives it.

Transforming More than the Greater Middle East

The best of the "Islam and gender" canon includes Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam; Remaking Women, edited by Lila Abu-Lughod; and Women Islam and the State, edited by Deniz Kandiyoti -- works that have inspired further study and activism. Still, their intellectual density limits their popular reach. On the other hand, the attention paid by more mainstream Western media to Islamic feminism, while powerful, is fleeting.

Paradise possesses neither the depth of the scholarly works named above nor the mainstream reach of mass media. Situated between those poles, it has the rare ability to resonate with both the policymaker and the "enlightened celebrity-activist" (Angelina Jolie has already offered her praise on the book jacket). In the right hands (read: Madame Secretary Clinton), its prescriptions might even materialize in U.S. diplomatic efforts, to the delight of some Islamic feminist activists and maybe to the hesitation of others uncomfortable with Western association.

Foreign policy aside, the book also has the potential to make an impact within the United States. It may not radically transform dominant Western representations of Muslim women, but in the haze of media coverage that will inevitably highlight "boobquake" more than it does the work of Afsaneh NajmabadiParadise is a refreshing and intelligent read.

Still there are many, who for differing reasons, may repudiate this work: those who believe that choosing not to confront the patriarchal structures they identify as inherent to Islam precludes the ability to engender true justice for women; those who identify the Islamic feminist movement as constituting baseless "innovations" on Islam, or biddah; and those who doubt its capacity to transform and develop societies unless it more strongly resists universal political and economic power structures. With the exception of the last group, they fail to appreciate what is a powerful, though deeply complicated, means to ensure, in the long term, the rights of women like Sakineh Ashtiani.



20 AUG 2010 16:50


Azmat Khan is on the Web/editorial team at PBS FRONTLINE.