Are Islamic societies more prone than others to violence against women? That was the subject of a symposium held on the sidelines of the Conference on the Status of Women being held at the United Nations.
The subject of the conference was "Eliminating Violence Against Women in Muslim Countries." The event was partly a blunt critique of the failures of Islamic societies in the treatment of women, and partly a celebration of the dramatic progress that many Muslim women have made.
Several speakers at the conference questioned the idea that violence against women is worse in Islamic societies than in others. Yakin Erturk of Turkey, the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, says violations of women's rights know no religious boundaries.
"Religion is used as a political tool whether in Muslim societies or Christian or Jewish or any other society," she said. "But because of the Islamophobia that has emerged throughout the world, attention has turned to Muslim countries as if there's a specificity there which promotes and perpetuates violence against women. I think it is good to demystify this perception, because it is not Islam or Christianity or any other religion but a coalition of conservative forces who speak on behalf of these religions that is [an] obstacle to women's rights."
But Ms. Erturk acknowledges women in many Islamic countries are lagging behind in the quest for equality, partly because Muslim countries tend to be less democratic.
"In terms of legal rights, we might be able to say yes, because across the Muslim world you find less democratic institutions available to allow women to exercise their rights," she said.
Participants at the conference stressed that the key to achieving gender equality lies in education. Ayesha Imam of Nigeria, a U.N. gender, culture and human rights official, said the simple skill of reading will allow girls to make giant strides.
"If we know how to read, even if the stuff we are given to read is all religious right wing to start with, it at least keeps open the possibility that one can read other stuff," she said. "So yes education is important with all its limitations, but if we want it to work, what we're talking about is teaching people how to think as opposed to telling them what to think."
Several women at the conference explained how important it is that women know their rights in order to stand up for them. Child psychiatrist Khushelta Shekar Ahmed of India said as a Hindu married to a Muslim, she learned that a lot of what she was told about Islamic rules and regulations turned out to be incorrect.
"I am a Hindu by birth, married to a Muslim, and my personal experience came up right at the beginning when they wanted to change my first name and last name which I fought very vigorously in beginning, but I was told 'Islam says that.' And …I studied what I could get my hands on, and discovered I don't have to change my name," she said. "There is no such thing as forcing you to change your name because by changing my first and my last name I was going to be somebody completely different and I don't, couldn't recognize myself."
Ms. Ahmed and Ms. Imam argued it is not Islam, but those who interpret its teachings, that are responsible for many misunderstandings. The same is true, they said, of other religions.
Participants at the conference pointed time and again to the Platform for Action adopted at the Beijing conference on women 10 years ago. It says "in all societies, to a greater or lesser degree, women and girls are subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse that cuts across lines of income, class and culture."