Muslim Women Reformers – Book Review

Our media have generally acted as a  megaphone for Islamists, rewarding and magnifying their initial 9/11 and subsequent terrorist acts, designed for maximum publicity and recruitment purposes. In contrast, many Muslims with opposing views have not been given a significant voice. There is considerable ignorance of those determined individuals and organizations, particularly in Muslim countries, who are dedicated to the reform of gender discrimination by challenging discriminatory laws and ideology, often at great personal risk. This anthology is dedicated to amplifying their voices. – from the Introduction to Muslim Women Reformers –

Ida Lichter is a clinical and research psychiatrist and contributor to the Huffington Post. She has written a comprehensive, balanced book focused on the global effort to halt oppression against women in the Muslim world. Lichter divides her book into geographic sections, focusing primarily on the countries of Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also making room in her tome for Muslim reform in countries such as Somalia, Egypt, Pakistan, the United States, and Syria, among others. Several sections give important historical background before profiling some of the countries most influential reformers; other sections simply provide the reformer profiles. Lichter also makes room to include some profiles of Muslim men who have been supportive of women’s rights. Finally, she gives background information about transnational organizations which support women’s issues.

One of the things that stands out in this comprehensive book is the complexity of the issue and the very individual approaches of women reformers. Lichter points out in her introduction:

Muslim women reformers are not a homogeneous group and many are still fledgling media activists and commentators. Some are religious and some are secular. A number of “religious feminists” are in favor of education and political participation for women but against changes to shari’ah-based marriage and family law; however, most demand such reforms. Some argue that discrimination against women is a product of postcolonial oppression but most attribute greater blame to the culture of male-dominated tribalism and religious patriarchy that, in their belief, has distorted authentic Islam in shari’ah-legislated discrimination. – from the Introduction to Muslim Women Reformers –

She goes on to note that although most would assume that Muslim women reformers and Western feminists would be natural allies, this assumption is not accurate. In fact, interactions with Western organizations are often viewed by Muslim countries as subversive to “Muslim culture, identity, and religion.” Further, many Muslim women reformers are disappointed and angry at the silence from their Western counterparts.

Lichter does not spare her reader the horrors perpetrated against women in the name of religion.

It is estimated that 80 percent of marriages still involve betrothal in infancy and coercion by families. Underage marriage, often to much older men, is widespread and culturally entrenched. 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. – from Muslim Women Reformers, section on Afghanistan, page 22 –

Somali women continue to be the victims of violence, particularly rape, which is common in refugee camps. In 2002, the aid agency CARE estimated that approximately forty women were raped every month in four refugee camps. – from Muslim Women Reformers, section on Somalia, page 308 –

It is estimated that domestic violence occurs in 80 percent of Pakistani households. Of the 16,000 cases documented by the Progressive Women’s Association (PWA) since 1987, thousands were honor killings and burnings, including over 5,500 choola, or “stove deaths,” caused by family members who doused a wife with kerosene or gasoline before setting her alight. – from Muslim Women Reformers, section on Pakistan, page 257 –

But, Lichter also provides hope within her book through her profiles of the courageous, determined and selfless women leading the fight against these outrages. Women like Safia Amajan from Afghanistan who worked to educate girls and liberate women in Kandahar before she was gunned down; Wazhma Frogh, also from Afghanistan, who found the courage to confront a village Mullah with five verses from the Koran which supported her views of reform and who believes that providing these types of compelling religious arguments are what will eventually promote reform; Hawa Aden Mohamed from Somalia, who works tirelessly to outlaw female genital mutilation and who started a school for girls, advancing women’s rights in the Puntland area of her country; and Nasrin Afzali from Iran who organized a protest through the medium of sport by entering  Azadi stadium (the largest stadium in Tehran) to watch a soccer game – something women were not permitted to do for “religious reasons.” These women have put their lives and freedom on the line to advance their causes – and many have found success toward their goals.

Muslim Women Reformers is not a “light” read. It is difficult to learn in detail about the oppression that dominates women’s lives in many parts of the world, yet it is also empowering to see what the individual can accomplish with passion and education. Ida Lichter brings to light the efforts of dozens of women and organizations working to earn oppressed women the right to education, political and religious freedom, and equality. Her book is complete with glossary, lists of Websites, bibliography and notes. Scholars of Islamic culture, readers interested in women’s rights, and those who wish not to be ignorant of the challenges to women globally, will find Lichter’s book a valuable resource.

Highly recommended.

This book was sent to me by publicist Lisa Roe for review on my blog.

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    • zibilee on January 30, 2011 at 17:36

    I have this book up for review soon, and I have to admit that I am a little intimidated by it. While looking through it, I got concerned with the density of the information and the very detail oriented fashion of the writing, so I am going to be prepared to set back a good block of time for it, and really giving it the attention it deserves. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it with us!

  1. My review for this one is going up tomorrow. I agree that it is difficult reading at times. There is so much there, and most of it is so disheartening. I struggled to read it and had to put it down several times just to give myself a break. It has a great message, and there is SO much to learn from it.

    • Melissa on January 30, 2011 at 18:44

    Oooh, this one sounds really good! I hadn’t heard of it.

    • Wendy on January 31, 2011 at 08:18

    Heather: It is a bit intimidating, isn’t it? But, that said, I didn’t read this book in a linear fashion – I jumped around to the different sections, reading about one country and then letting that sink in before reading another section. I started the book mid-way into December, so you can see, this was one that I spread out. I think it is a really excellent reference tool and I plan on keeping it on my reference shelf.

    Michelle: I agree – I’ll drop by later to read your review.

    Melissa: It is a very good look at women’s rights in the Muslim religion

    • Kailana on February 6, 2011 at 16:33

    This looks very interesting. I will have to add it to the list. 🙂

    • Wendy on February 6, 2011 at 18:02

    Kailana: Hope it will be a good one for you.

    • Teddy on February 6, 2011 at 21:13

    Thanks for bringing my attention to this book. It is so timely and of great interest to me.

    • Wendy on February 9, 2011 at 09:48

    You’re welcome, Teddy!

  2. On Feb 7, 2012 the population of Pakistan is 178 million; a country that in 64 years has grown from approximately 31 million in 1947. Fifty percent of the country’s population is women and yet they remain at the bottom rung of the social ladder.

    Surprisingly the girls that are receiving education are out doing the boys as can be seen by them achieving all the top positions in various school and college level exams. Women who are educated and are willing to teach other girls and women rudimentary education fear the wrath of the mullahs and the extremists. It’s the parents, both educated and uneducated who have to break these shackles and get their daughters educated.

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