The Muslim Sisterhood

It’s probably reductionist, simplistic and uninformed of me, but I’ve long considered that the biggest source of cultural misunderstanding between the West and the Islamic World was their fundamental disagreement over the role of women in society. Not that there is any monolithic, uniform opinion on either side of the debate. But for me, modernism culminates in — if it doesn’t quite boil down to — the liberation of women from biologically determined social roles. But if the Islamic World has embraced almost all other aspects of modernism — after all, what’s more modern than uranium enrichment? — the sticking point has most visibly remained the role of women.

In her WPR column today, Frida Ghitis flags some signs of progress in Arab and Muslim women’s struggle for equality. There’s still a long way to go, but the gains are real and encouraging. By coincidence, the Independent (via today’s WPR Media Roundup) also has a piece on the nascent Iranian women’s rights movement. It’s a little heavy on mountain-climbing racecar divers for my taste, but provides a fascinating glimpse into a complex and courageous social movement. And both pieces give me an excuse to link to this June 2007, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace paper (.pdf) by Omayma Abdellatif and Marina Ottaway. It discusses how Muslim women’s participation in Islamist movements like Hizbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas has transformed women’s role in the Islamist societal vision.

Development workers have long known that the surest way to improve a nation’s health and well-being is to improve the condition of its women. Inasmuch as poverty and popular discontent is a driver of conflict between the Islamic world and its titular governments, and the Islamic world and the West, the advances made by women are positive signs.