‘A Mother is a school. Empower her, and you empower a great nation.” (Hafez Ibrahim, Egyptian poet (1872-1932))
Do women hold the keys to the future of the greater Middle East? Isobel Coleman considers this question in her tremendous new book, “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East” (Random House, 2010). Coleman is a senior fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. A graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities, she is the co-author of “Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security” (Hoover Institution Press, 2006).
In “Paradise Beneath Her Feet,” Coleman takes us on a trip to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, where we meet bold pioneers, who are fighting for equality, social justice, and the empowerment of women. These exceptional men and women are paving the way for the emergence of inclusive Islamic societies for themselves, their children and future generations.
“In every country across the Islamic world,” Coleman writes, “the role of women is contested. Attitudes toward women represent a stark fault line between those promoting economic reform, human rights, and democratization on the one hand and those who adhere to austere, fundamentalist notions of society on the other.”
Afghanistan was once a hostile battlefield against women under the brutal Taliban regime (1996-2001). Conditions have improved for Afghan women, thanks to the nation’s Constitution of 2004. However, Coleman points out that the gender war in Afghanistan is far from over.
“As fast as the Taliban burn down girls’ schools in Afghanistan,” she writes, “a dedicated group of parents and teachers rebuild. They are willing to risk their lives to change their own culture.”
Courageous men and women in Iraq and Pakistan are also risking their lives for progress and development. Coleman introduces us to daring thinkers and activists, who are carving out a place “for women’s rights within an Islamic framework.” These feminists are “learning how to harness the power of religion for their own reform agendas.”
They are working for a day when parents do not have to disappoint their ambitious daughters by saying, “You should have been born a man.”
Iran is another contested landscape for women. Iranian women are not waiting for change to happen; they are working for it now.
Their role models include Nobel Peace Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi (“the country’s conscience”) and Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, former chancellor of Alzahra University, and wife of Mir-Hossein Mousavi. “Women’s presence,” Rahnavard states, “in positions of power and leadership makes for a healthy society. It will create equality. It will create a gentle society.” The Islamic feminist cause in Iran is also supported by many of the leading male clerics in the city of Qom.
When Coleman visited Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2005, a young woman informed her that “We all want to be modern Khadijahs!” Without noise and fanfare, the Kingdom is embracing noticeable change and substantial reform on behalf of women. It’s a “Quiet Revolution,” according to Time magazine (Cover Story, October 19, 2009). “Today,” Coleman states, “women’s reform efforts are a critical part of the country’s broader, struggling reform movement.” This movement is supported by many progressive leaders in Saudi Arabia, especially King Abdullah. “I believe strongly in the rights of women,” he told Barbara Walters in October 2005 on 20/20.
Coleman cites the path breaking work of Saudi Gazette columnist Sabria Jawhar, businesswoman Lubna Olayan, Dr. Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, Dean of Effat University, and entrepreneur Madawi Al-Hassoon. The efforts of these change agents are the building blocks in the future development of Saudi Arabia.
Such development must include a reduction in the high unemployment of women in the Kingdom, which is currently 28.4 percent compared to 6.9 percent for men.
“Paradise Beneath Her Feet” is a rare and extraordinary book. It is a strong reminder that the Islamic world has everything to gain – and nothing to lose – by the empowerment of women. As Coleman maintains, “Economies cannot prosper without the full participation of half the population.” Recognizing this fact is the key to the future for all of us. – SG