Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East Isobel Coleman Random House, Dh96 A few years ago, on a plane en route to Kandahar, I met a battle-axe of a woman named Tajwar Kakar, who told me about how she had tried to convince Mullah Omar to open girls' schools in Afghanistan. Kakar fired off a series of letters to the Taliban leader, quoting verses from the Quran to support her argument that sending girls to school was in accordance with Islamic values. Mullah Omar, she said, finally agreed to open one school - but by this time Kakar had received so many anonymous death threats that she dropped her campaign.
After the fall of the Taliban, however, she was ready to take up the cause once again: girls' education, she told me, was the key to a better future for women in Afghanistan. But she had little time for the hundreds of international aid organisations then descending on the country, staffed by legions of secular experts eager to liberate women from the shackles of the burqa. "We do not want to show off our bare arms and allow our daughters to date," Kakar declared. "We don't need American feminism, thank you very much. Islam already gives us our rights and we will change our country with Islamic values." It was an illuminating moment - the first time I had heard anyone cite Islam in the context of women's liberation - and a clear sign of an emerging "Islamic feminism", a movement for gender equality that looks markedly different from its western counterpart.
This burgeoning Islamic feminism is the subject of Isobel Coleman's fascinating new book, which examines the efforts of reformers of both sexes to improve women's lives while striving "to work within the values of Islam, not against them". Coleman, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, heads a programme focused on women in foreign policy - an endeavour she admits undertaking with reluctance: " 'women's rights' for me," she writes, "conjured up images of cranky, privileged women trying to get into all-male golf clubs".
Her attention settled on the Islamic world, and on five countries in particular - Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan - where she charts the work of brave and smart women whose struggle for equality has the potential to radically change the region. "While the more dramatic subjects of jihad and terrorism dominate the headlines it is instead attitudes towards women's rights that will over the long run have a far more profound role in shaping the economic and social development of these countries and their interactions with the West," Coleman writes.
In Iraq, women are setting up special schools to study Islamic jurisprudence; in Afghanistan mullahs are being co-opted to open schools; in Saudi Arabia girls are enrolling in all-female colleges. An international women's movement called Musawah is cataloguing various family laws that discriminate in areas such as custody, divorce and arranged marriage to show how supposedly divine laws differ from country to country.
"Women's empowerment," Coleman says wisely, "like many things, cannot be imposed on a country or a culture from the outside." In the Middle East, western-style feminism is equated with neo-colonialism, and secular efforts at reform stoke the fury of the fanatics who have used the Quran to justify honour killings, the closure or destruction of girls' schools, or restrictions on women driving and voting. According to this logic, Muslims who argue otherwise are disobeying the dictates of their religion and serving as stooges of the West.
As Zainah Anwar, the head of the Malaysian women's rights group Sisters in Islam, complains to Coleman: "Today, everything is an 'insult to Islam'. My God and my Islam recognise me as a human being of equal worth and dignity -nothing less." The West remains obsessed with the burqa and the niqab; in Belgium and France fierce debate is under way to ban them. But for many Muslim women, this is a trivial issue at best. In Kabul, many female expatriates who came to work on women's issues refused to cover their hair because they thought it signified solidarity with Afghan women. Instead, I sometimes saw, it caused a backlash among men, who hesitated to allow their wives and daughters to participate in otherwise worthy projects such as schools and small businesses because they would be working with women perceived as having loose morals.
This is an uncomfortable logic for secular western feminists; Coleman reports that after one talk in New York, in which she described visiting a girls' school in a mosque in rural Afghanistan that had opened with the support of a local mullah, a female audience member objected, complaining that "we should be working to dislodge religion, not further entrench it". "If the advancement of women's rights depends on the removal of Islam," Coleman suggests by way of a hypothetical reply, "Muslim women will be waiting a long time indeed." Polls show that about 90 per cent of Afghans now support sending their daughters to school, and a higher proportion of girls are now in school than at any previous point in the country's history. If enlightened mullahs are helping to facilitate the education of young women, their contribution should be welcomed.
For the region's female reformers, meanwhile, the language of religion positions Islamic feminism as a "grassroots" movement, and lends them, Coleman writes, "the credibility and influence ? to be effective agents of change". Many of these women, in fact, have taken on traditional roles as devoted mothers, sisters or daughters, with spotless personal reputations. Coleman later meets Salama al Khafaji, a devout Shiite politician who attempted to negotiate a ceasefire between Muqtada al Sadr's militia and US forces in Iraq. After her teenage son was killed as they drove through a Sunni neighbourhood one evening in May 2004, al Khafaji was hailed as the mother of a martyr and became a national hero.
There are parallels with female leaders in early modern Europe whose personal reputations affected their political power in a way that did not apply to men. Queen Elizabeth I ruled 16th-century England without a husband. She did so partly by promoting an image of herself as the Virgin Queen, chaste and devoted to her countrymen and the daughter of Henry VIII. "I can do my job because I have the right clothes of Islam, my look is suitable for Islam," one Saudi woman who is a member of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce told Coleman. Even in the Saudi kingdom things are changing. Women, of course, cannot drive, but this no longer appears to be the burning issue it once was.
One irritated Saudi journalist says: "We don't need to be told to spread our wings as if we are in middle school and we are all too aware of our right to drive a car." Instead, Saudi women are focusing on jobs and education, which in the long term will have a far bigger impact on society. They make up only five per cent of the workforce but 60 per cent of all college graduates. Dar al Hekma, a private women's college opened in 1999, is backed by the business community. It provides one of the few Saudi degrees recognised internationally. Its vice dean expressed pity for Saudi men to Coleman. "It's a shame really. The men here are getting left behind," she said, shaking her head.
In Iraq, the American invasion brought on a revival of religion which set back many freedoms that Iraqi women had enjoyed under Saddam Hussein's secular dictatorship. Many Iraqi women worked outside the home and were highly educated. But after the religious fanaticism of the past few years there are signs that there is a swing towards the middle. Men are involved as well. One women's group obtained a fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the revered Shiite leader, who ruled that it was appropriate for women to study and work outside the home. It allowed the organisation to convince many conservative women that they could participate in income-generation projects while staying true to their religious values.
The secular Arab nationalism that dominated the Middle East half a century ago has fallen out of favour, discredited by the failures of Nasserism and the absence of prosperity and progress promised by its adherents. In its place a religious revival flourished, led by conservative Islamist movements that too often succumbed to the excesses of literalism. Muslim women now appear to be trying to find a new third way, and Coleman's book is an excellent guide to their efforts; it should be particularly eye-opening for readers in Europe and North America, who still seem to regard Muslim women as belonging to two mutually exclusive camps: veiled (and oppressed) or unveiled (and liberated). The emergence of an Islamic feminism poses a challenge to both western stereotypes and Muslim fundamentalists: its central tenet, as Coleman points out, is that "women should not have to choose between their faith and their rights".
Hamida Ghafour is a senior reporter at The National