Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Muslim Women Reformers

Motivation for reading: I came across Ida Lichter’s book Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression on Lisa’s Online Publicist blog. Thinking it would be a great read for my Make Women Count Project I requested a review copy. Thanks Lisa for providing me with this opportunity.

Summary (from the press release): In a world where the strident demands of Islamic extremists capture the media’s attention, the courageous protests of Muslim reformers barely receive any notice. These include a surprising number of women who are prepared to challenge institutionalized persecution, risking derision, arrest, physical harm, and even death.

In this inspiring compilation of Muslim women’s stories from around the world, the voices of these long-oppressed women ring loud and clear as they question ideology and culture, patriarchal and religious beliefs, and demand the social and political rights women lack in many Muslim countries. The reformers speak out with passion, humanity, and sometimes humor in these compact and often poignant biographies, bringing alive the harsh realities for women in many parts of the world.

By surveying a wide range of Muslim reformers, not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and North America, author Ida Lichter uncovers some significant emerging trends. For example, she notes that the majority of Muslim feminists would like to see reform contained within Islam. Many criticize their patriarchal culture for suppressing egalitarian views that they believe the Koran expresses and so they advocate a reinterpretation of the holy text. Some demand changes to discriminatory Sharia-based laws. Others campaign openly for political and educational reforms.

Complete with a glossary and a list of helpful Web sites, this vibrant anthology makes use of reliable translations from original languages to demonstrate the groundswell of grassroots change that promises eventually to bring even the most conservative sectors of Islam into the twenty-first century.

My Thoughts: My first thought was the stories of the courageous women detailed in this book were both eye-opening and disturbing; I’ve since come to the conclusion that that was an understatement. I’ve read other books covering the lack of women’s rights in Muslim countries, but I had no idea how widespread the problem is or how horrific. Women working for reform in the Muslim world are imprisoned, tortured, burnt, attacked with acid and even murdered if caught educating other women or speaking out against their government. Not to mention the honor killings, polygamy, genital mutilation, child rape, gang rape, and stonings that appear to be common occurrences in some Muslim countries.

Why do these women risk their lives and security to reform Islamic restrictions on women’s freedom?
They have everything to lose if the extremists take over and everything to gain if they succeed. In the current social structure women are considered third class citizens at best and have no avenues for recourse open to them to seek justice for the atrocities committed against them:

In Afghanistan rape is not an offense under the criminal code (Pg. 50)

In some countries women have even lost ground. Reforms that were previously put in place were lost when extremist governments came into power.

Is there anything those of us in the western world can do to help?
According to Algerian feminist Khalida Messaoudi:

We are dealing with an influential fundamentalist international that has a clear strategy. In order to secure women’s rights, we need a democratic international of women- otherwise we have absolutely no chance of conquering this beast. Not only Algerian, but Sudanese Iranian and Afghani women know what I am talking about. They know the horror of “God’s state” all too well. But alone, without your support, without the women’s and human rights movement of the countries of the West, we are losing this battle of life and death.” (Pg. 70)
In my opinion, true reform will not occur without the assistance of global human rights groups. It is important for westerners to know of these Muslim women reformers and help spread their message.

A caveat:
Although this book is an important read and the stories of these women have to be told this book is not an easy read. It is organized like an encyclopedic reference book and reads like one as well. I attempted to glean the important messages from each country and story, but the more I read the more difficult it became.  The stories began to blend together. I came to the conclusion it would be best to read this book in small doses preferably one country at a time.

For example:
Last week, I read the stories of the women of Egypt with interest particularly the story of Nonie Darwish adding her book Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror to my TBR list.

If you enjoyed this review you may also like:

"In the Name of Honor" is an important book that deserves to be read

Was opening the "Kabul Beauty School" A truly unselfish act?


  1. Tough stuff. We forget how well off we are in the US and western Europe. We haven't really any understanding of what it's like for women in rightist countries. Any support we can give is not really enough. But, it's a start. Thanks for pointing a small light on this problem.

  2. Great post! It reminds me to be grateful for living in such a wonderful country such as Canada.