Most development experts agree that improving the economic and political status of women is key to combating the conditions that give rise to religious extremism, particularly in the Muslim world. But women and girls in Muslim-majority societies often have limited opportunities to develop the leadership skills necessary to take their rightful place in society.
Now, an organization headquartered in Washington is dedicated to strengthening women’s leadership, communications, and advocacy skills. Its president describes the ways that women are being helped to contribute to democracy and peace building in their nations.
Mahnaz Afkhami, president of the Women’s Learning Partnership, was the former Minister of State for Women’s Affairs in Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution. The author of nine books on women’s human rights, civil society, and democracy, Ms. Afkhami now lives with her family in the suburbs of Washington. She says that the Women’s Learning Partnership is a trans-national organization, dedicated to strengthening the role of women in decision-making across the Global South - and especially in Muslim-majority countries.
"We co-create learning tools and manuals with our partner organizations in 20 countries," says Ms. Afkhami. "And we conduct workshops on empowerment, on enabling women to take part in decision-making, in helping them run for political office, in helping them manage civic organizations, and also helping our partner organizations to rebuild their capacity as civil society organizations. There are a lot of active, articulate, inspired women, but there is a need to help grow these organizations into viable organizations with credibility."
Ms. Afkhami says the Women’s Learning Partnership focuses mostly on Africa, Asia, and the Middle East:
"Especially in the Middle East and North Africa, there are a huge number of women who have skills, who are trained, who are literate, and who are active. But there isn’t a commensurate role for them in society and in political decision-making. Especially within the family, they face extraordinary challenges. They have some of the lowest statistics in terms of involvement in decision-making. So, the combination of the potential and the challenge has inspired us to work with our partner organizations in these countries to help involve women in the process of development in democratization, in improving the human rights conditions."
The Women’s Learning Partnership develops multi-media learning tools, Ms. Afkhami says, because experience has shown that people respond better to the training process when visual and audio guides accompany reading materials:
"That is why we have created videos through the institutes that we organize and the workshops that we organize. We actually videotape them and then edit them. For instance, one that we have on communication is supposed to help women do better in television interviews, radio interviews, and so forth. We have samples of our members doing interviews and then critiquing each other to improve their performance and get their message across better. In addition to the training manual, we have guides to go with each video and guides to go with each audio recording.
The training manual is available in 12 languages, including English. In addition, Ms. Afkhami says, there are two versions of Arabic – one for North Africa and another for Jordan and Lebanon:
"We are also developing a version of Arabic for the Gulf States. And then we have Russian, Uzbek, French, Persian, Assamese [Indic language of South Asia], and Hausa. And recently our women colleagues in Nicaragua have volunteered to produce a Spanish version. And one of our colleagues in Brazil has volunteered to work with a local organization to create a Portuguese [version] to make it available to parts of Africa as well.
Thus far, 3,000 women have gone though the leadership training workshops. Ms. Afkhami says that not only is it important to involve large numbers of women in decision-making, but developing a particular style of leadership is also critical.
"We don’t want women to have the same leadership styles as are prevalent in the world – that is, hierarchical, authoritarian kinds of leadership. What we want is a participatory, egalitarian kind of leadership. So, these workshops are based on telling the story of leadership across the world. There are 12 sessions – each of them a real life story of a woman who has faced a leadership crisis or situation.
The Women’s Learning Partnership has just begun experimenting with electronically-based distance learning for women who cannot get to the workshops.
"There are places where women don’t have an easy time coming out of their own private space and joining a public space," says Ms. Afkhami. "So, we experimented with doing an ‘e-based’ teaching situation. And the prototype course we did last year in fact had participants coming from 16 countries, and it was in English. Then, we adapted it to Persian. We are also planning an Arabic course as well as a Russian course that we hope to be able to implement next year."
Partnership organizations from 12 countries in Asia, Africa, and Central Asia recently met in Beirut, hosted by the Machreq/Magheb Gender Linking and Information Project.Ms. Afkhami:
"It’s called MACMAG GLIP for short. It is a wonderful, very active organization in Lebanon, and we worked together to create the curriculum. They organize workshops in various parts of Lebanon, and they work with different groups – working women, university women, and rural women. And they will be involved in creating the Arabic e-learning course with us as well as the videotapes in Arabic.
Mahnaz Afkhami says that designing programs for Iranian women have presented a special challenge:
"Iran is a unique case. Because of a history of some 100 years of activism and organization and advancement, Iranian women have had a tremendous degree of success and progress that was stopped and push back by the Revolution of 1979. But since the Revolution, the population of wonderfully experienced and active women has pushed back the government limitations to a certain extent. But unfortunately, recently there is a further backlash, and the women are being limited once again. It is a very precarious situation in Iran and very difficult and unpredictable. So we don’t attempt to do actual workshops in Iran. But we’re hoping that the e-courses in which we do have participants will be a way of getting around that. We haven’t had any major difficulties because we’re not proposing any partisan activity with our partner organizations. We are supporting women’s participation in sustainable development and in civil society.
Women – as well as men - in some Muslim-majority countries and among the Muslim diaspora communities in North America and Europe are beginning to reinterpret the Qur’an. Ms. Afkhami says this process, called ijtihad, or reinterpreting Islamic principles for the 21st century, is important because it illustrates what rights women had at the time of the Prophet and what Islam was like in its early days:
"This is actually a very important process – the idea of looking at the text in a new way with fresh eyes and with the eyes of women who are seeking democratic participation and rights. We offer women choice and advocate their right to make choices in all areas across the board. So we rely a great deal on new ways of looking at traditions and texts. The idea is not to push for a particular interpretation. The idea is to push for a woman’s right to make decisions. Once that is done in these hugely diverse societies, people are free to adapt and decide for themselves. We don’t want to replace one rigid way of thinking with another rigid way of thinking."
Among the countries in which the Women’s Learning Partnership has worked are Afghanistan, Cameroon, India, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, the Palestinian Territories, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. For example, in Morocco, earlier this year, a new landmark Family Law was passed supporting women’s equality and granting them new rights in marriage and divorce. The minimum age of marriage is 18 for both men and women. The law was drawn up citing passages from the Qur’an to show that there is no contradiction between Islam and modernity.