Afghan Feminists See Koran as Strongest Weapon

Fatima Gailani believes that women’s rights can be achieved by a return to the teachings of the Koran. She is one of a small but growing number of Islamic feminists in the Middle East who are seeking to challenge both the dominant patriarchal culture in the region, and the assumptions of an earlier generation of women rights activists in the West.148956097_f9f5c9e509

There’s no set creed as to what makes an Islamic feminist. Most are university-educated women who took feminism’s critique of male-dominated society (prevalent in the Middle East’s largely secular-minded campuses in the ‘70s) and combined it with the dictates of Sharia Law and the rising Islamist tide over the past decade. In doing so, they have been able to show how poor treatment of women is rarely condoned by the Koran.

“Forced marriage, child brides, honor killings – none of this is in the Koran,” Fatima told me, when we met in her office at Kabul’s Red Crescent Society, which she directs. “Women are treated like chattel, and in the name of Islam. This is not sanctioned in the Koran,” she said.

What Fatima, and others like her, are attempting to do is use the Koran and its huge cultural weight to steer Middle Eastern societies towards a more generous treatment of women.

It’s not an easy task. For a start, their numbers are small – Fatima estimates there no more than a few dozen Islamic feminists like her in Afghanistan. And then there are the entrenched interests they are battling, none more stark than in Afghanistan, where adult illiteracy is estimated at 75%.

“If we want to change Islam from within, we have to be totally committed to the religion. That’s the only way to succeed,” said Fatima, “The men in this country, and most of the women, will only be convinced to change their behavior if they know it is in the Koran. That’s the highest authority here.”

The solution that Fatima proposes is a re-configuration of village life, starting with the village imam, or religious leader. “We can’t have semi-illiterate preachers defining who women are and what they can do,” she says.

Unfortunately for Islamic feminists, they have largely been ignored by traditional women’s movements in the U.S. and Europe, who see Islam as the final frontier in the struggle. They are put off when women like Fatima insist that wearing a veil or headscarf is an Islamic duty clearly spelled out in the Koran, and that they cannot pick and choose elements of their creed.

“What Western feminists don’t understand is that we don’t want freedom,” Gailani said. “We want to be able to follow the Koran, minus all the anti-women dogma that surrounds it.”

Washington Post: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/islamsadvance

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