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Empowering Women in the Muslim World


While making modest political gains in the last few years, women in the Islamic world continue to be underrepresented and largely absent from politics.

In 2003, the percentage of women elected to parliament in Indonesia, home to about 200 million Muslims, was close to eight percent. Today, that number has risen to a little more than 11 percent.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva, the international organization of parliaments of sovereign states, women in Turkey, a nation of 67 million Muslims, hold less than five percent of parliamentary seats. This is the same percentage they held three years ago, but double the number in 1997.

In the Middle East, Kuwait recently granted women the right to vote and appointed the first woman to a cabinet post. Earlier this year, six women ran for local elections in Saudi Arabia - - a political first. And Iraq's new constitution guarantees women a 25 percent share of parliamentary seats.

A Long Way to Go

Shireen Hunter of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding says women seeking a political career in Muslim societies have a long way to go, especially in ultra-conservative countries like Saudi Arabia. "I think that, in some ways, the women there, although they have made a lot of progress in terms of education, their presence in society in general and politics is probably one of the least advanced," says Hunter.

Female politicians in most Muslim countries are a minority, though their numbers vary. Women in Pakistan's parliament, for example, control 38 percent of the seats, compared to nearly 19 percent in Sudan's legislature and close to nine percent in Algeria's parliament.

The Big Picture

But some analysts argue that women are politically underrepresented virtually everywhere. They note that in some European countries, women did not have the right to vote until the middle of the 20th century.

Marina Ottaway, a specialist on democracy and post conflict reconstruction at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that because the global feminist movement is so recent, the political role of women in Muslim countries should be viewed from a historical perspective.

"Let me point out that women got the right to vote in 1920 in the United States," says Ottaway, "and that only about 14 percent of members of [the U.S.] Congress are women. This country has not had many cabinet ministries over the years [run by women] and the possibility of a woman president in the United States is barely beginning to be talked about now. In other words, it is not unusual. It's not only in Muslim countries."

A confluence of cultural and economic factors propelled the feminist movement as women entered the workplace after the First and Second World Wars. Most analysts agree that these factors are now coupled in patriarchal societies with tribal customs that limit public participation by women or subject them to harassment and threats once they do enter politics. Women in ultra-conservative societies like Afghanistan often cannot leave home without an escort or need their husbands' permission to chart a public career.

In addition, Georgetown University's Shireen Hunter points out that oppressive economic conditions make it difficult for women to seek public office, as in Morocco, for example.

"In a country like Morocco," says Hunter, "the government is very disposed to improving the lot of women. But Moroccan women [are] having trouble finding work because the country has a very high level of unemployment. So while we must have focused programs and measures [for] women and economic development and so on, we have to create opportunities for them to be able to make their presence felt in society."

Illiteracy is another obstacle to women's empowerment in Muslim countries. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the world's 771 million illiterate adults are women, with the lowest female literacy rates in South and West Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world.

And political participation cannot take place without literacy, according to Beth Cole DeGrasse, a post-conflict and stability expert at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.

"I remind all of us that the literacy rates of women are pathetic in these societies. And they [women] bear the burden of poverty as well. So if they can't read and write, and if they can't participate in the economy, then they're not actually going to be emboldened to step out for themselves and assert themselves politically," says DeGrasse.

Culture or Religion?

Despite similar difficulties, progress has been made. Afghanistan, for example, saw 347 women out of more than two-thousand candidates run for parliament last year. Some withdrew under pressure, while others defied assassination threats. In the end, women claimed all of the 68 parliamentary seats guaranteed them by the nation's constitution.

But many experts say these problems do not lie with Islam itself, but with the way it is interpreted and practiced, especially in undemocratic societies. Ali Abu Zaakuk, Director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy here in Washington, stresses the need to distinguish between culture and religion.

"The culture of some of the societies, especially in the [Persian] Gulf area, is really being taken as if it is representative of the [Islamic] faith, while it is not," says Abu Zaakuk. It is a tribal culture that we should not take as if it is representative of Islam. We should look at the development of these societies because most are not democratic societies. In the societies that have practiced democracy, women were able to win the premiership or the [post of] president of the country as happened in Indonesia [in 2001]."

Some analysts argue that Islam easily lends itself to misinterpretation, especially given that the interpreters of Islamic law have traditionally been men. Others, like Beth Cole DeGrasse of the U.S. Institute of Peace, see a blurred line between religion and culture in Muslim societies.

"It's hard to separate where culture and religion divide. Women, because they're not part of the religious leadership and they're not part of the tribal leadership, are still under the thumb of their male-dominated societies," says DeGrasse.

But change has already begun. In recent years, a movement known as "Feminist Islam" has emerged under the direction of Muslim female scholars who reinterpret Islamic law in a more progressive light. But so far, it has been confined largely to the West.

Meanwhile, many analysts hope that a parliamentary quota system adopted by many Muslim countries to guarantee women a political stake in their societies will increase their level of participation in public life. The question some observers are asking is whether this controversial system will be manipulated to impede the political advancement of women in the Islamic world.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.