American and Muslim Women Working Together

by Hiam Nawas
08 November 2005
Washington, DC - American women activists and women's organisations have long been lobbying the Bush administration to press issues concerning women’s rights when dealing with Muslim countries. Recently, for instance, women’s organisations in the United States and in Iraq voiced their concerns over the status of women under the new Iraqi constitution. Many questioned whether the blood of US-service men and women was being shed to support a rollback of women’s rights in Iraq, a country where women have enjoyed equal rights in the past. In fact, many women served in high-level government positions when Saddam Hussein was in power.

US administrations, including the present one, have often been hesitant to address the question of the status of women in the Muslim world. One reason is that the US does not want to be perceived as “interfering” in the internal affairs of Muslim countries. This attitude, however, seems to be changing.

During her visit to the Middle East in September, Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, raised the issue of women in almost every Muslim country that she visited. This effort was not well received in some circles. Many Muslims, including Muslim women, apparently felt that Ms. Hughes was there to lecture them on how to treat women the “American way”. They accused Ms. Hughes of not understanding the Muslim world and the values that its people espouse.

It is quite true that there are universal values that Muslim and American women share, but one needs to remember that the Muslim world is not homogeneous.

Firstly, not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arab. Secondly, Muslims are heterogeneous, so finding common ground between women in the US and women in the Muslim world will vary depending on the Muslim nation in question. For example, areas of common ground are more likely to exist between American and Turkish women than between American women and their Saudi or Pakistani counterparts. In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, women do not have even basic rights such as the right to leave the house without male approval, whereas in Turkey the constitution guarantees such basic rights.

Thirdly, one of the most common problems that Muslim women face is their marginalisation, not only in social life, but also with respect to the political and business arenas. For example, Saudi women are not allowed to drive or participate in matters of state. Yet in Indonesia, the most populous of Muslim countries, a woman was elected president.

Finally, Muslim political groups, especially in Egypt and Jordan, fear that adopting Western values may drive their women away from Islam.

The majority of these groups believe that the “gender” concept means encouraging women to abandon the values and laws of Islamic culture. These groups depict modernism as Westernism and describe secular values as directly opposed to religion. As a result, some Muslim women reject Western values because they perceive them as “un-Islamic”.

What is the solution?

We need to recognise that the social structure in the Muslim world is very different from America's. American women need to understand that what is best for them is not necessarily what is best for Muslim women. Advocacy of women’s rights in the Muslim world must show sensitivity to local political realities.

It would also be useful if American women activists coordinated more with their counterparts in the Muslim world on issues of concern in each particular country. American organisations would then be more effective when lobbying the US administration on the behalf of Muslim women. A focus on abstract equality of the genders, for example, runs into religious roadblocks. A focus on practical rights such as the right to education, health, and equal pay for equal work faces less resistance and allows local women activists more manoeuvering room.

Additionally, American women’s organisations can pressure the US to raise the issue of “honour killings” whenever the US enters into a treaty with a Muslim country. (Honour killing is against the true teaching of Islam. To his credit, the mufti of the republic of Syria, Dr. Baderaddin Hassoun, recently issued a fatwa declaring honour killing a crime and that the killers should be tried for first-degree murder.) In keeping with its desire to be seen as a defender of democracy, the US should also insist that women be given the right to vote and to run for public office as a precondition to doing business with the US.

Moreover, while Muslim Americans do not always agree with US foreign policy, they are virtually unanimous in their high regard for American values. It would therefore behoove American women’s organisations to involve more Muslim American women in their efforts.

Finally, the message must be clear that there can be no real democracy in the Muslim world without the full participation of women in society.

* Hiam Nawas is a Jordanian-American expert on political Islam, and a political analyst with the Rothkopf Group.

Source: This article is part of a series of views on "The Role of Women in US-Muslim Relations", published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service – Partners in Humanity (CGNews-PiH) and United Press International (UPI).

Visit the CGNews-PiH website at

Distributed by the Common Ground News Service – Partners in Humanity.

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