How Women are Changing the Middle East

Isobel Coleman greeted the crowd at MOCA Grand Avenue with some regret.

“I’ve actually spent more time in Riyadh and in Kabul than in Los Angeles in my lifetime,” the Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow said. “That’s a very poor trade-off.”

But Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, brought the lessons of her travels throughout the Middle East and Central Asia home. At an event co-sponsored by the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, she explained how women in the region are fighting for their rights within their religious and cultural context, and why their struggle matters to Americans.

Miniskirts to headscarves

The audience for Isobel ColemanThe women Coleman studied are fighting a “very very tough battle,” she said, against traditional cultures, patriarchy, and a particularly conservative interpretation of Islam that sometimes “equates women’s rights with some very bad things in the world, in their view – feminism, materialism, westernism.” While their fight has appeal in urban areas and among the educated elite in the region, their grassroots appeal has been limited as political Islam has taken hold and as conservatism rises among young people. “You used to see in Cairo women dressed in miniskirts,” Coleman said. “Today, 85% of Egyptian women wear the head scarf.”

But an Islamic-based feminism is not an entirely new approach – it has been around for over a century and is effecting change in societies that are by no means secular, or even trending secular. Many women in the region see Islam as a progressive and too often misinterpreted religion; others realize the tactical utility of adapting feminism to an Islamic framework. While some object to applying either the label “Islamic” or “feminist” to their work, they’re all fighting for similar ends.

Slow and steady

In Paradise Beneath Her Feet, Coleman profiles several women who caught her attention during her travels, from Indonesia to Iraq. One was told as a child that if she ever touched the hand of a non-Muslim, she was to go home and shower. She’s now a noted Islamic scholar who says of Islamic law, “It’s not a fax from heaven. These are manmade laws and we can interpret them,” Coleman recalled. Another studied at a local mosque in her home country of Afghanistan – unusual for a girl in the 1960s – and was such a good student that her father sent her to the U.S. to continue her education. When she returned, after Afghanistan had suffered years of war, she launched a series of schools for women and girls, convincing local tribal chiefs and clerics to allow female education. One Iraqi woman, who grew up under Saddam Hussein’s secular regime, hoped for progressive ideals to take root after Hussein’s ouster. When it didn’t happen, she launched the Women’s Leadership Institute to prepare women for political participation and leadership. And another, in Saudi Arabia, launched a women’s college that, over a few years, began to allow women to sit in the same classroom as a male professor. It was a definite, if slow, progressive change.

Sweet talk

Reception for Isobel ColemanColeman pointed to several factors spurring change in women’s status in the region. The first, she said, was education. The women she profiles are highly educated in either their home countries or the West. But they aren’t isolated examples, she emphasized. Sixty-three percent of college graduates in Saudi Arabia are women; in Iran, the figures is 70 percent. “There is a real demographic shift going on,” she said. “The Middle East has underinvested in female education, and they’re beginning to close those gaps. We’re beginning to see the results of it.”

Another factor is media. For all the extremist views aired online, women have a strong presence in the media as well. Coleman cited a television show modeled after “The View” called “Sweet Talk,” featuring hostesses from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon, discussing everything from domestic abuse to rape and incest and whether women should be able to drive. “These are conversations now happening in living rooms,” Coleman said, noting that 43 percent of viewers are men.

Economics is driving change as well, as men recognize the cost of repressing women. In Saudi Arabia, Coleman noted, one member of the Shura Council argued that because women can’t drive, the country has to import labor, and thus loses $4 billion in remittances. Women for their part are “channeling Khadijah,” Muhammed’s first wife who was a successful business woman. “She hired Muhammad to drive her caravans,” Coleman said. “He did such a good job that she married him.”

Extremism and feminism

A final driver is extremism – particular atrocities have served as wake-up calls, Coleman noted. In Saudi Arabia, schoolgirls were pushed back into a burning building because they had rushed out without covering themselves. “This unleashed a wave of revulsion within Saudi society,” Coleman said. Saudi Arabia is also pursuing science and technological education for men and women – the entire Arab world, she noted, has fewer patents than MIT receives in one year. King Abdullah’s recently opened university is co-educational, and when one religious leader objected, the King fired him.

Morocco is reforming its family law – restricting polygamy, raising the age of marriage, and granting women more rights in divorce and custody. Morocco is also allowing women to be preachers, doing everything men do except leading Friday prayers. Other countries, including Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt, are following suit. Iran’s green movement was led by women who face severe government repression but, Coleman said, cannot be quashed. Also in Iran, some Shia religious leaders are particularly favorable to women, giving them progressive rulings. And in Malaysia Coleman saw the launch of a global movement at an event that brought together women from across the Islamic world to share strategies for reform. They’re also accessing the Koran, Coleman noted in Q&A, in languages other than Arabic, often for the first time. “Many women don’t understand what they’ve been reading – mullahs don’t understand,” she said. “They’re going on a lot of hearsay.”

The U.S. role

Isobel Coleman and guestsThese changes are not uniform, Coleman noted, and are slow coming. Americans who want to help, Coleman noted, often fear a backlash – that the women they help will be labeled “stooges of the West.” Civic groups in Iran, for instance, discouraged the U.S. from allocating money to support civil society in Iran. One Indonesian woman debated whether or not to accept an award from the State Department (she ultimately chose to take it). And, Coleman noted in Q&A, we each have stereotypes of each other. Coleman recalled one woman telling her, “We don’t want to be like you American women. We love our husbands and we love our children.”

Coleman said she is less concerned about the problems of American influence than she once was. Many women in the region are supported by donations from the West.  Coleman encouraged the audience to seek ways to help. “They’re very smart and sophisticated women,” she said. “They know whether an outstretched hand from the U.S. is going to hurt or help them, and it’s up to them to make that decision.”

Watch the video here.
Watch a highlight clip here.
See more photos here.
Buy the book here.
Read an excerpt here.
Read Isobel Coleman’s In The Green Room Q&A here.

*Photos by Sarah Rivera.


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