Women Work toward Equality in Muslim Societies

A network of social justice movements is helping women combat inequality, violence and repression all over the globe, especially in Muslim countries.

International Women's Day on March 8 provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the work women are doing to combat gender inequality. Violence and inequality affect women around the world, including women in Muslim societies who, like their non-Muslim counterparts, are engaged on a day-to-day basis to improve their environments for the better.

Traveling back and forth to Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, I witness the amazing work that women are doing both for human rights and economic growth firsthand. Women are running companies, shelters and businesses, and countering the images of disenfranchised, illiterate and socially deprived Muslim women so pervasive in Western media.

Bushra Aslam, for example, opened an orphanage in Islamabad for young girls after the 2005 Pakistani earthquake. She provides educators, mentors, counselors and interfaith activities for the 45 girls living there. Another inspiring figure is Rukhsana Asghar, the president of Fulcrum, a Pakistan-based human resources consulting company that offers scholarships to train girls from poor families in preparation for jobs.

Little is known in the West about the very positive initiatives taking place across the Muslim world. In Morocco, Egypt and Turkey, for example, women are being trained as religious guides, known as murshidat, to provide spiritual guidance for women and children in those countries.

And movements such as the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), a global social network and grassroots social justice movement, aim to create opportunities for women in the Muslim world. One particular WISE project, Jihad (Struggle) against Violence, aims to end violence toward women to promote women's advancement both in the Muslim world and beyond.

WISE is based on the idea that "violence is a human phenomenon that exists across diverse cultures and faith communities. It remains an ever-present reality in the lives of millions of Muslims, preventing entire societies from flourishing in religious, cultural, political and economic spheres. Throughout the world, violence destroys the ability of Muslim women to thrive within their families, communities and nations."

On February 6, WISE announced an international day of action against female genital cutting (FGC), a widespread custom across Africa. Since it happens to so many girls regardless of faith, Christian priests and Muslim shaikhs have come together to condemn the practice. To carry their message further, and as part of its ongoing Jihad against Violence campaign, WISE is collaborating with the Egyptian Association for Society Development, a non-governmental organization in Giza, to provide religious education against the practice, as well as financial incentives and replacement economic activities for those currently performing FGC.

For example, in 2008, members of the association reached out to Amin Hussein, a barber who regularly committed FGC illegally (Egypt banned FGC in 1996). After receiving educational training demonstrating that FGC is un-Islamic and harmful to women, Hussein agreed to stop the practice and was provided monetary compensation and new tools for his business through this program.

It has been well over a year since Hussein committed FGC, and he proudly displays in his shop a declaration from Al-Azhar University that FGC is un-Islamic and forbidden.

WISE also works toward the prevention and elimination of domestic violence. Some Muslims mistakenly believe that Islam permits domestic violence, an attitude that is the result of cultural norms, tribal practices and a lack of knowledge of scriptural interpretations empowering women.

WISE is working to raise awareness of domestic violence and offer support to victims of abuse through its members and their organizations. WISE member and psychologist Ambreen Ajaib, who works at Bedari, a women's rights organization in Pakistan, for example, provides psychological counseling to survivors of gender-based violence.

These are the kinds of commitments and transformations that Muslim women have made and continue to make to reduce the gender inequalities that result in FGC and domestic violence. Despite the work of organizations such as WISE to raise awareness of issues that negatively affect women and take real steps to stop it, more such effort is needed; the journey to equality for Muslim women is not yet over.

Mehnaz M. Afridi, Ph.D. teaches Judaism and Islam and is a human rights activist for women of all faiths, promoting co-existence and peace between Jews and Muslims. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service: www.commongroundnews.org.