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Scholar to speak about Islamic feminism at ASU

March 10, 2011

Are the Mideast revolutions bad for women's rights? How will women in Tunisia, Egypt and other Muslim-majority countries fare under proposed new constitutions, and yet-to-be-chosen leaders?

Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East,” will discuss the role of women in Islamic societies during a free lecture at 4:30 p.m., March 31, in Old Main Carson Ballroom on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.

The lecture is presented by ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

“If a brave new world of electoral politics does emerge (in the Middle East), women's rights activists will have to be savvy - commanding international support without raising fears of undue Western influence,” Coleman wrote in an opinion piece recently published in The Washington Post.

“When women in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, have faced disastrous rollbacks of their rights in the name of religion, they have called in the international media and shamed their governments into backing down.”
Women’s rights in these countries go far beyond whether women should wear head coverings or go out in public alone, Coleman said.

“Women’s struggle for justice in much of the world is about the most basic human rights. It is also 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.”
Coleman’s premise in “Paradise Beneath Her Feet” is that “women’s empowerment, like many things, cannot be imposed on a country or a culture from the outside. Men and women within these conservative communities must first find their own reasons and their own justifications to allow women a fuller role in society.”

“Islamic feminism,” then, Coleman says, is the key to furthering women’s rights throughout the Muslim world.
Coleman writes that “attitudes toward women have helped to define and set apart the broader worldviews of conservative and progressive Muslims. Conservatives link women’s piety to the purity and Islamic authenticity of their societies. They use religious justifications to enforce that piety through a limited public role for women, gender segregation and harsh punishments for any perceived transgressions.

“For decades, powerful Islamists have successfully smeared women’s groups as being slavish followers of an illegitimate, neocolonialist Western agenda.”

In the second half of the book, Coleman introduces women from five Islamic states – Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq – who are making a difference as Islamic feminists, albeit with struggles and setbacks:

The Iranian journalist Shahla Sherkat, who founded the women’s magazine Zanan; Sakena Yacoobi, an Afghan educator who runs more than 40 women’s centers across Afghanistan, teaching hundreds of thousands of women about their rights within Islam; Dr. Riffat Hassan, one of Pakistan’s leading theologians who started a research institute on women’s issues called the Aurat Foundation; Madawi al-Hassoun, a successful businesswoman who is breaking new ground for Saudi professional women; and Salama al-Khafaji, a dentist turn-politician who is promoting opportunities for women in Iraq.

Coleman writes that rising literacy rates among Muslim women, which will allow them to read the Quran for themselves, will be the key for long-lasting change. “At the heart of Islamic feminism is (Zainah) Anwar’s contention that Muslim women ‘will no longer be shut up by some verse in the Quran.’”

And, she says, “The growing ability of Muslim women to read the Quran for themselves is commensurate with the sea change that occurred when average Christians began to read the Bible directly.”
Coleman also notes that the Internet is already bringing change to Muslim women by allowing them to catalog and archive relevant material and communicate and study with other women.

“In many ways,” she writes, “the Internet is to Islamic feminism what the printing press was to Martin Luther’s reformation.”

For more information or to RSVP for the lecture, go to, or call (480) 965-7187.