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Islamic Feminists Transforming the Muslim World

Interviewee: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, CFR
Interviewer: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor, CFR.org
April 30, 2010

In her new book “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East,” CFR Senior Fellow Isobel Coleman writes about ways in which Islamic feminists, for whom Islam is central to their lives, are rereading the Quran and finding in it support for women's rights and women's equality. Coleman talks to women from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and other countries and notes how this small but growing Islamic feminist community is insisting on education and human rights for women as values as innate to Islam.

“Women with rising levels of literacy are engaging in this debate,” says Coleman. In many cases, they are supported by mainstream clerics and thinkers, she says. But they are also taking the great risk of challenging the patriarchal tribal practices and other local traditions that have been grafted onto Islam.

Coleman sees the advocacy for knowledge and education as the greatest driver of change, because of an economic benefit from education that's understood by men as well as women. “Fathers I talked to understand that there's an economic benefit to educating girls. They want their girls to be educated.”  The resulting economic and educational empowerment, says Coleman, can over time lead to vast changes in human rights that will transform the Muslim world.

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