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Education, Economic Empowerment Are Keys to Better Life for Muslim Women

International Women's Day Thursday highlights women's struggle for equality, justice, peace and development. For many it is a day to celebrate progress. For others, it is a reminder of just how far they still must travel. VOA's Margaret Besheer reports that, positive changes affecting women in the Islamic world are coming slowly, but steadily.

The principle of equality between men and women is deeply rooted in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad was known for his equal treatment of the sexes. He required that a dowry be paid directly to a bride, rather than to her father or guardian, and he offered special protection to widows and orphans.

Mishkat al-Moumin, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says that has interpretation has changed.

"Later on, when Prophet Muhammad died, and so many other interpretations came to exist, again, it goes back to controlling society," said Al-Moumin. "If you want to control society, if you want to control families, then you control women."

Today, Muslim women are working to break free of restrictions. Al-Moumin says economic and social empowerment are the keys to women's advancement in the Islamic world.

"You cannot expect a woman to stand up for herself, if she has no income, or if she cannot afford to put food on the table for her children. There are so many widows and divorced women," said Al-Moumin. "They are responsible for a whole family -- sometimes three or four kids. If there is no social or economic program to support them, it will be so difficult for them to survive."

Education is another area where Muslim women lag behind. U.N. statistics show that, in 2005, more than 75 million women in the Middle East and North Africa -- a large part of the Muslim world -- could not read or write.

Wadeer Safi, a professor of law at Kabul University, says illiteracy is also a serious problem in Afghanistan.

Safi said, "The main problem in front of female students in Afghanistan is the illiteracy, which is prevailing all over the country."

Mishkat al-Moumin says uneducated girls grow up to be unprepared mothers, who often lack strong parenting skills. This leaves them unequipped to deal with modern problems, such as drugs, crime and religious extremism.

"When you make women suffer, you make the whole family suffer. That is why women's rights are important. It is not about women. It is about families," said Al-Moumin.

Women are advancing at different speeds across the Muslim world. In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, the pace of modern change is coming more slowly, with women still denied the right to vote or drive.

Munira Nahid, a sociologist at King Fahd University in Riyadh, "Saudi women, because of the restrictions, and because of this unequal kind of opportunity that they are facing in this society, have become great fighters, and they have become great achievers."

Such determination is not limited to Saudi women. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, women are beginning to develop a voice in politics. In Iraq, women are playing an active role in government, while, last June in Kuwait, women voted and ran as candidates in parliamentary and local elections for the first time.

In the Gulf nation of Bahrain, the king appointed the first female judge last year. She joins the ranks of other women judges in Jordan, Lebanon, Iran and several other Muslim nations.

A handful of Muslim women, including Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, have been leaders of their countries. But a long road still stretches ahead.