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Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices…

Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression

by Ida Lichter

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Before I get into how I felt about the book, let me talk a little bit about how it is organized. There is a section for each country, including countries that have Islamic law and also those with large Muslim populations. Each country's section has an introduction that summarizes the history of the oppression of women in that country, and which steps have been taken to aid women's rights. The country summary is followed by mini chapters containing biographies of the reformers from that country; groups and organizations are also listed if they have had a positive impact on women's rights in their country. In addition there is a small section in the back of the book devoted to men who have worked against the suppression of women in Muslim countries.

When I read Muslim Women Reformers I was at once both encouraged by the bravery of women around the world who are working for reform in Muslim countries, and disheartened by the seemingly insurmountable odds that they face. Thankfully there has been some progress made in various countries, but for the most part it seems to be slow going.

One thing I thought about a lot while reading these mini-biographies, was how quickly women in these countries can lose their rights and freedoms (in many cases due to a new form of government such as a dictatorship and/or theocracy). The rights and freedoms were so easily lost, and yet so hard to gain back, and the progress to regain those rights seems to move at a very slow pace in most countries, and then only with the sacrifices of those demanding fair treatment. Over and over again in this book I was impressed with how it is much easier to lose your freedoms than to gain them back.

This to me was one of the most memorable quotes in the book:

[Khalida:] Messaoudi believes the West is not only misinformed about the global intentions of Islamist movements but also misguidedly accepts misogyny in the name of multiculturalism:

"Even the members of the United Nations appear deep down to believe that the suppression of Algerian women is founded on the culture of our country - and under the pretext of 'respect for other cultures' one simply has to respect and accept the suppression of women.

We Algerian women call that a 'cultural trap.' All countries of the west have fallen into this trap. They believe that suppression is a cultural question and do not want to understand that it is a purely political question. (Page 70)

I wanted to include that quote here because I have heard that line of reasoning before; the argument that our government should not get involved with any issues that are wrapped in another culture's religion because they should be allowed to be free to practice their religion. It brings up some interesting questions: When does something go from being a religious issue to being a human rights issue? Just how much oppression is ok in the name of religion?

So many countries and ethnicities are covered in this book that you cannot generalize about who is included. Some of the women are secular, some very religious, and then many more fall somewhere in between, but what they share is a burden to improve the lives of women in their countries, so that they have basic rights and freedoms in addition to a better quality of life.

Here are just some of the rights that Muslim women are fighting for in various countries: the freedom to appear in public, to go shopping unescorted, to be in public unveiled, to be able to have a job, to go to school, to be safe from beatings from male family members, child custody rights, the right to vote, freedom to marry the person they choose, to have legal status as an adult (instead of being classified as a minor regardless of age), freedom to run for and hold public office, and others.

I wanted to include at least one example of a success story in this review. In 1956 the Tunisian Personal Status Code gave Tunisian women greater rights than anywhere else in the Muslim world, "They are free to enter any employment, and many hold down senior positions." (Page 348) Additionally, Tunisia signed an act in 1985 called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women (although it included reservations in cases of conflict with Islamic principles). It included "equal rights for all citizens, a woman's right to give her own family name to her children if she is a single parent, punishment for rape, spousal rape, and sexual harassment, and severe punishment for domestic violence. However, discriminatory Shari'ah law still applied to inheritance and family law." (Page 340) In comparison to the situations in many other countries discussed in this book, it was refreshing to read about a country that has laws protecting women from domestic violence and sexual crimes. Granted there are still other areas where women are not equal, like the inheritance laws, but it was nice to see that there were laws on the books to protect women.

Although encyclopedic in form (and therefore sometimes slow reading), Muslim Women Reformers provides an excellent overview of women's issues in countries with Muslim populations, including the United States. This book would be an excellent first source for anyone wanting to know more about Muslim women's activists.
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  akreese | May 16, 2013 |
Imagine a life where, as a woman, you cannot leave the house without accompaniment by a male relative, or where you can be bartered off as payment for a family debt. Where the length of the stick your husband can beat you with is prescribed by law, or in the case that you are raped, you may well be stoned to death. These and many more startling things happen to women every day in Muslim countries around the world. In this eye opening non-fiction compilation, Ida Lichter has brought to us the voices of women subjugated by their culture and religion. In their own words, they share their public and private thoughts and accomplishments in their efforts to release the stranglehold of subjugation that hangs darkly from Muslim women’s necks. We learn about the oppression of women in Afghanistan, where those who chose not to marry the men selected by their families are at risk of honor killings, and about the rights that are withheld from women for educational advancement. We share in the horror of Algerian women who are kidnapped, made sexual slaves and are then murdered, and hear of marriages taking place between elderly men and children in Bahrain. From Syria to Nigeria, Pakistan to Kuwait, the plight of Muslim women unfolds in all its terrifying realities.

What I read here shocked and horrified me. I don’t think many Western women consider themselves in relation to our Muslim sisters who suffer these abuses every day. As I read and learned, I began to see that the women who had chosen to fight these regimes and attitudes were not only courageous but instilled with a love for the women of their culture that far outstripped anything that the men, even those of the same family, could claim to have. As one of the reformers reflects, it’s not really about women’s rights, it’s about human rights. As far as I could see, the Muslim women who are suffering each day under oppression and cruelty aren’t granted even the most basic human rights. I was stunned to learn that the traditional head-to-toe covering of Muslim women can lead to vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunlight and this can cause softening of the bones. It was also disheartening to hear that women were engaging in acts of self-immolation to escape their terrible existences and choices. Child rape and kidnapping are common against Muslim women, where they’re held in such low esteem that it takes the voices of two women to equal that of one man in a court of law.

But the book doesn’t only deal with the oppression of Muslim women, because most of its story lies in the acts of the women reformers who are constantly speaking out in order for the world to be informed and to manifest changes. Often these women are targeted for death or imprisoned and tortured for speaking out. Countless have had to go into hiding and a few sleep in the same dwelling only two or three nights at a time. A few have been killed by bombs or cut down in a hail of bullets. When they succeed in having laws changed to protect other Muslim women, the changes seem to magically disappear from finished documents or are ignored altogether. The religious leaders of their communities speak out against them, turning them into social pariahs running not only from their community, but from those who want to see them killed. Many have had fatwas placed upon their heads. The avarice that rains down on them continually is life altering and severe.

But stunningly, they continue to lead, to resist, to fight, and to speak. When one avenue is closed to them, they move onwards to another. They create foundations such as RAWA ( The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) and start grassroots magazines like Zanan (meaning “women” in Farsi) that grow to be widely read and influential. They fight the gender injustice through journalism and win awards and accolades from all over the world. They take heart in every small advancement and cherish their hope for Muslim women in their breast every day. Through every situation and every attack of violence, they persist in letting their countries and the rest of the world know that Muslim women’s voices will be heard. They live in the hope that the female children of the Muslim nations will one day rise up and take their place beside the men, in equality. They spearhead and chair organizations for women and children’s rights and they travel far and wide to educate and engage other nations in the things they so passionately fight for. They are courageous and uplifting, and inspire the rest of the world to join with them in understanding and reform.

While I was reading this book I was by turns sickened and awed. The no-nonsense presentation of the material made such a deep impression on me that at times it produced an awed fascination at the risks these women take everyday. This is more of a reference book than one you would read cover to cover, but as I browsed through it, I found I couldn't keep myself from stopping throughout each section to read more about these amazing women. Coming from a mindset that was ignorant of a lot of these issues, I urge other readers to pick up this book and explore not only a topic that deserves the most serious attention, but to share in the wonder of the women who make it their life’s missions to thwart the oppression of Muslim women. ( )
  zibilee | Mar 14, 2011 |
One-sentence summary: Brief, readable profiles of nearly one hundred Muslim women reformers, representing 27 countries.

The size of the book or the scope might seem overwhelming, but this is a wholly readable, easy-to-understand piece of non-fiction that lifts up the work of Muslim women reformers around the world. Living in the US, there's a great deal of misinformation about Islam and Muslims, and while this isn't an intro to Islam, it is a fabulous book for those unfamiliar with or curious about the work of women in Islam.

Each section -- organized by country -- opens with a summary about the status of women's rights, followed by profiles of key reformers. The profiles are a mix of biography and commentary; Lichter doesn't sugarcoat or minimize the violence that many of these women have experienced. Each profile bears witness to the struggle of being a woman, many of whom live in repressive societies, and lifts up their strength, passion, and commitment to reform.

For those who are afraid to jump in, browse the table of contents for a recognizable name. (For example, Iran's Azar Nafisi, author of the immensely popular Reading Lolita in Tehran, is one of the women featured.) This book also contains a glossary and extensive footnotes, as well as over ten pages of websites, annotated.

I've found this book so handy to have as a reference; in the last month, I've reread the section on Egyptian reformers given the current revolution happening there. The small piece on Suzanne Mubarak is fascinating given the criticisms leveled at her husband; the profile on Dr. Nawal El Saadawi made me even more appreciative of her commentary about the events there.

A timely reference for anyone interested in women, Islam, and activism around the world. Recommend! ( )
  unabridgedchick | Feb 13, 2011 |
If ever I needed a reminder of how lucky I am to be living in the United States, Muslim Women Reformers was that reminder. The stories of the struggles of Muslim women in countries throughout the globe are heartbreaking yet inspiring. Facing ostracism, torture and even death, these women are not afraid to stand up for their rights, to challenge the status quo and do everything to make their voices heard. It is up to the rest of us to help them in their fight.

Broken up by country, Ms. Lichter presents vignettes of the battle women in that country face. Some countries are more tolerant, more progressive than others, but all of the women featured experience hardships the likes of which most women in western countries can only imagine. The portrayals of each woman is in the form of a short biography and cover activists, politicians, correspondents, writers and others.

Told matter-of-factly, Ms. Lichter showcases the fact that most westerners do not understand just what it means to be a Muslim woman in a Muslim country. Their oppression is most decidedly not religious in nature but from men who are distorting a religion for their own power struggles. If anything, this true understanding of the battle is one that remains most important lesson to share with others.

Because of the nature of some of the stories, Muslim Women Reformers is best read in short bursts, allowing the reader time to absorb the information first. I made the mistake of reading the book quickly, and at times, it became too much - too much pain, too much danger, too many unhappy endings. I wish I had read it more slowly, if anything to avoid the sense of repetition I felt. So many of the women face such similar oppression, that often it felt I was reading the same biography over again. I do not feel this was the fault of Ms. Lichter but rather indicative of the pervasiveness of the overall problem.

Muslim Women Reformers is one that should become part of the canon for women's studies. One glance at the table of contents gives one a clear picture of how many women are fighting for equal rights in a majority of the countries around the globe. If we are to help our sisters in their fight, the first step is understanding what they face. In her comprehensive presentation of Muslim Women Reformers, Ms. Lichter does just that.
  jmchshannon | Jan 31, 2011 |
Ida Lichter is a clinical and research psychiatrist and contributor to the Huffington Post. She has written a comprehensive, balanced book focused on the global effort to halt oppression against women in the Muslim world. Lichter divides her book into geographic sections, focusing primarily on the countries of Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also making room in her tome for Muslim reform in countries such as Somalia, Egypt, Pakistan, the United States, and Syria, among others. Several sections give important historical background before profiling some of the countries most influential reformers; other sections simply provide the reformer profiles. Lichter also makes room to include some profiles of Muslim men who have been supportive of women’s rights. Finally, she gives background information about transnational organizations which support women’s issues.

One of the things that stands out in this comprehensive book is the complexity of the issue and the very individual approaches of women reformers. Lichter points out in her introduction:

Muslim women reformers are not a homogeneous group and many are still fledgling media activists and commentators. Some are religious and some are secular. A number of “religious feminists” are in favor of education and political participation for women but against changes to shari’ah-based marriage and family law; however, most demand such reforms. Some argue that discrimination against women is a product of postcolonial oppression but most attribute greater blame to the culture of male-dominated tribalism and religious patriarchy that, in their belief, has distorted authentic Islam in shari’ah-legislated discrimination. – from the Introduction to Muslim Women Reformers -

She goes on to note that although most would assume that Muslim women reformers and Western feminists would be natural allies, this assumption is not accurate. In fact, interactions with Western organizations are often viewed by Muslim countries as subversive to “Muslim culture, identity, and religion.” Further, many Muslim women reformers are disappointed and angry at the silence from their Western counterparts.

Lichter does not spare her reader the horrors perpetrated against women in the name of religion.

It is estimated that 80 percent of marriages still involve betrothal in infancy and coercion by families. Underage marriage, often to much older men, is widespread and culturally entrenched. Mullahs tend to justify child marriage on the basis that one of the Prophet’s wives was only nine years old when he married her.- from Muslim Women Reformers, section on Afghanistan, page 22 -

Somali women continue to be the victims of violence, particularly rape, which is common in refugee camps. In 2002, the aid agency CARE estimated that approximately forty women were raped every month in four refugee camps. - from Muslim Women Reformers, section on Somalia, page 308 -

It is estimated that domestic violence occurs in 80 percent of Pakistani households. Of the 16,000 cases documented by the Progressive Women’s Association (PWA) since 1987, thousands were honor killings and burnings, including over 5,500 choola, or “stove deaths,” caused by family members who doused a wife with kerosene or gasoline before setting her alight. - from Muslim Women Reformers, section on Pakistan, page 257 -

But, Lichter also provides hope within her book through her profiles of the courageous, determined and selfless women leading the fight against these outrages. Women like Safia Amajan from Afghanistan who worked to educate girls and liberate women in Kandahar before she was gunned down; Wazhma Frogh, also from Afghanistan, who found the courage to confront a village Mullah with five verses from the Koran which supported her views of reform and who believes that providing these types of compelling religious arguments are what will eventually promote reform; Hawa Aden Mohamed from Somalia, who works tirelessly to outlaw female genital mutilation and who started a school for girls, advancing women’s rights in the Puntland area of her country; and Nasrin Afzali from Iran who organized a protest through the medium of sport by entering Azadi stadium (the largest stadium in Tehran) to watch a soccer game – something women were not permitted to do for “religious reasons.” These women have put their lives and freedom on the line to advance their causes – and many have found success toward their goals.

Muslim Women Reformers is not a “light” read. It is difficult to learn in detail about the oppression that dominates women’s lives in many parts of the world, yet it is also empowering to see what the individual can accomplish with passion and education. Ida Lichter brings to light the efforts of dozens of women and organizations working to earn oppressed women the right to education, political and religious freedom, and equality. Her book is complete with glossary, lists of Websites, bibliography and notes. Scholars of Islamic culture, readers interested in women’s rights, and those who wish not to be ignorant of the challenges to women globally, will find Lichter’s book a valuable resource.

Highly recommended. ( )
  writestuff | Jan 31, 2011 |
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"This compilation of Muslim women's stories from around the world focuses on the voices of reformers who battle fiercely against such barbarisms as stonings, acid attacks, gang rapes, and "honor killings" that go largely unpunished due to discriminatory religious laws and an entrenched patriarchal culture. Each chapter provides an in-depth and up-to-date look at the status of women in Muslim countries, and in compact and often poignant biographies, reformers speak out with passion, humanity, and sometimes humor to expose to the whole world the harsh realities many women experience on a daily basis in many parts of the globe."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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