Ida Lichter: Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression

by Rachel Baker on January 4, 2011

I read in the news yesterday about an Iraqi immigrant who is to be tried in his daughter’s death.  He apparently believed she’d become too westernized and in essence, committed an honor killing.

In all actuality, I probably would have glossed over this story if I hadn’t just read Dr. Ida Lichter’s book Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression.  That’s not to say I wouldn’t have read it, I would have.  However, I probably wouldn’t have thought much about it.

Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression is a portrait of Muslim women in 27 countries.  This book looks at the few women who have taken a stand to try to reform the rights of women in Muslim countries.  These women are courageous, and inspiring.  Often times, they have prices on their heads, have had acid poured on them, have been beaten, and live in exile while trying to battle a patriarchal society which says they are little better than farm animals.

The book seems to be a well-researched; however, my disclaimer would be that I don’t know enough about some of these countries and the religious politics of each to be able to make this assertion emphatically.  I think the most interesting aspect of the book is “hearing” the view points of women from some of these countries and (really) for the first time understanding what human rights atrocities are really taking place all of the world.

Muslim Women Reformers is a celebration of what these women have accomplished – even with a price on their head. Even though intellectually, I knew there were massive human rights violations that occur around the world, I don’t think I ever actually thought about just how horrific and violent it is for women in other parts of the world. Many times during my reading, I couldn’t help the feeling of disgust at how one’s faith could allow them to treat another human being as described in the book.

To quote from the introduction:

“According to shari’ah law, women’s dress and activity must be restricted.  For example, a woman should not leave the house without authorization from her husband or male guardian, and when she is in a public space, she must be entirely covered and walk with her head bowed.  In case an unrelated male is nearby, she should remain covered when visiting the house of a female friend.  Choice of spouse is not an option, nor can she marry a non-Muslim.  She cannot freely divorce her husband, who is encouraged to beat her if she is disobedient and may divorce her with impunity.  In the even of rape, she is considered a temptress and may be punished with the lash or stoning to death.  If her family believes she has brought them dishonor by dating an unsuitable man or having an affair, her male kin are empowered to take her life.”

I did not know that in Afghanistan, women could be treated as one would treat land or animals.  If there is a dispute between two families, the woman can be traded as compensation for the wrong committed by a male member of the family.  I also did not understand that underage marriage is prevalent (9 year old girls being married to much older men); and men can have several wives and many more temporary wives.

The biggest issue in all of the 27 countries discussed in this book is the way the religious laws are (or were) translated.  In the examples above, tribe leaders justify trading women like land or animals because “Islam is a religion of peace and such exchanges bring peace to the families.”(page 23)  In regards to child marriages, “Mullahs tend to justify child marriage on the basis that one of the Prophet’s wives was only nine years old when he married her.”

Many of the women in the book make several interesting points in regards to illiteracy and how Islamic laws are translated.

Most of these countries have high illiteracy rates and the mullahs are reliant on someone else’s translation of what the Koran says.

One woman, Washma Frogh, from Afghanistan believes:

“authentic Islam is not sexist.  On the contrary, she maintains the Koran contains verses that justify gender equality and that these provide compelling religious arguments that are crucial womens for debating with mullahs, many of whom have only learned the Koran by rote and don’t have a deep understanding of the texts.”

“She says: The literacy rate is very low in the country and when a preacher preaches for his own benefit, a man who cannot read or write will believe…that this is the real religion and then applies all those self-made rules in his home.  As a result all the weak members of the family become victims of his ignorance.”

“Frogh maintains these values are spread by Muslim preachers and embraced by males in communities that are 85% illiterate.”

Many go on to discuss the “on paper legislative” rights of women in their countries, only to then make the point, how can we really have any rights when in the same government legislative laws it says Islamic law supersedes government law?

Reading Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression by Ida Lichter was an interesting experience. For me, reading this book was like realizing that Christopher Columbus was probably not the hero we grow up believing he was.  Realizing that the women’s rights movement of the developed countries did not extend to other countries was a bit surreal (again, I intellectually knew it was bad in some countries – I just didn’t realize how many).  I realized during all the talk over the last 10 years of Iraq and Afghanistan, very little had been said in the mainstream media about the rights of women in these countries – why is that?  Wouldn’t it seem that if one could unite these women who have been oppressed for decades, one could probably help to change the political strife of these countries?

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a better worldly view of what’s really going on in regards to women’s rights.  Every chapter provides a look of one of 27 countries, alphabetically.  Each begins with a bit of historical background, then a profile of women who are trying to make a difference for the women of their country.  One doesn’t need to read the book straight through, and can skip around to different countries.  There is a glossary, though not an index and there is a chapter at the end about Male Muslim Reformers, one about Transnational Organizations that support Muslim Women’s Rights and then a list of reform web sites and conferences.

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