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Women in Islam

Speakers: Alina L. Romanowski, U.S. Department of State, and Mahnaz Afkhami, president, Women's Learning Partnership
Presider: Caryle Murphy, reporter, the Washington Post
Introductory Speaker: Nancy E. Roman, vice president and director, Washington Program, Council on Foreign Relations
June 2, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations

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Washington, DC


Nancy Roman: Welcome to this evening's program. And I want to thank you all for being here in what is our final program in a series that we've done this year on Islam around the world. We concluded last summer with an issue that we wanted to really dig into, and several of you have been here throughout the series. But we first took on the subject geographically, looking at Islam and Europe and Eurasia and Africa and other geographic regions.

And then we've turned to the subject of Islam and youth. And now, tonight, Islam and women, one of the subjects that I think, frankly, has been around for a long time, and certainly our speakers this evening have been focused and involved for a long, long time.

But I just want to say that I appreciate your participation. I look forward to what we have to say this evening. And we are about to wind down the program year in June, and we'll be then planning in the summer for next year. And one of the things we're going to do is a series on the nexus of religion and foreign policy more broadly. But I encourage all of you who have ideas or thoughts about what we should do and what we should take on to call me, e-mail me, just let me know, because this is the critical time, the planning time. And I thank you all. Caryle.

CARYLE MURPHY: Thank you. I'm Caryle Murphy, and I'm going to be moderating the discussion tonight. Thank you all for coming.

And at the beginning— I have to remind you, it's my duty to remind you— to please turn off your cell phones and your BlackBerries. This Council meeting is on the record. And after I introduce my two partners, we will have a discussion among ourselves for about 25 minutes. And we have decided among ourselves where we're going to concentrate our remarks. But after that time, we will open the floor to questions. And you can ask to your heart's desire. And we will end promptly at 7:30.

So tonight on my right, we have Alina Romanowski, who is director of the office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the Department of State. Ms. Romanowski has held several high positions in the Department of State, and she was director. Before that, she was at the National Defense University, where she was the founding director of the Near East-South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. She also worked at the Department of Defense, where she was the principal adviser to the secretary on all matters relating to Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. Prior to that, she worked in the Central Intelligence Agency. She also attended Tel Aviv University to pursue post-graduate work in Middle East studies and to learn Hebrew. And she is a graduate of the University of Chicago.

On my left is Mahnaz Afkhami, who is founder and president of Women's Learning Partnership, and executive director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies, and a former minister of state for women's affairs in Iran prior to the Iranian revolution. She was born in Kerman, Iran. And anyone who is interested in women's rights in the developing and the Islamic world knows Mahnaz. She has been a terribly active advocate of women's rights for more than three decades. Formerly, she was president of the Sisterhood is Global Institute, and she's led numerous task forces on democratization, leadership, and women's rights in the developing world. And she attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. She is a prolific writer. She has authored many books, and she's been on many television and radio programs talking about women. However, I see that you have not yet made Bill O'Reilly [Laughter]. Maybe that's coming up.

We've decided that we are going to talk about several things tonight. And roughly we're going to talk about, first of all, the environment in which women in the Islamic world are operating, both their mental and their economic environments. Then we're going to talk a little bit about the new initiative that Muslim women are doing themselves to change their own status in their countries. And then we're going to talk about women in the United States and how the government of the United States can best help these initiatives. So I'm going to ask Mahnaz first to talk a little bit about the importance of us seeing the whole environment when we talk about women's rights in the Muslim world. Mahnaz?

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI: Thank you, Caryle, both for your generous introduction and for the great questions. Is this working? No?

Actually, a holistic approach to the situation of women in the Muslim world is a very important factor, because important as cultural and religious matters are, they are one, very significant, but only one of the factors that affect people's lives. Women in the Muslim world, as women everywhere else, have a number of concerns at any given moment: Among them, economic well-being, health, education, environment, political participation, and all. It all relates, of course, to the context, the cultural and religious context, that its struggle is broader, and sometimes, especially in the atmosphere and the political air that we all breathe these days, one seems to tend to focus on religion as if it's the all-consuming and the only factor with which we need to concern ourselves when we consider Muslim women.

And just to add to this, just a couple of sentences before you might want to go on with your query. I think, for instance, the major factor that Muslim women are dealing with right now is the general problem of their own agency, both raising consciousness in the population, but awareness of their agency, awareness of the fact that they can make a difference. And their role is important. This is something that is essentially concerning them. And programs and projects that have to do with empowerment beginning with consciousness and going on to skills— building and participation in management and in leadership, in various types of skills, which enable them to take an active role in their societies. And of course, many of these projects have to be rooted in the cultural and religious environment which they live in.

MURPHY: OK, Alina, would you make a comment about this point?

ALINA ROMANOWSKI: Yeah, actually. I would like to also build a bit on what Mahnaz has said, because when we— in terms of U.S. government— lend support to what's going on in the region, we look at the holistic environment— the environment broadly speaking about the women's empowerment, but also trying to expand their rights in all aspects of their societies. And I think we, under the Middle East Partnership Initiative— and I'm going to focus a lot of my comments in that arena, largely because we are looking at this issue through it. Speaking of environment, we're looking at it in the context of the support for democracy and freedom, and more participatory government in this region.

So a lot of what we are trying to do is focus on the challenges that women face in that sort of context. So, while I completely agree that health issues, et cetera, are critical to the status and the empowerment of women, we are tending to focus it in some other— in very different areas, in terms of their economic empowerment, their political empowerment, their legal empowerment, and also, education, which as those of you who have looked at the region know, that the access for women and girls to education, including literacy, is pretty abysmal.

So I'll talk more about that as we get into the Q and A, but when we reach out to try and support those women who are working in these areas, it has to be done in a cultural context. It has to be done in the context of the specific country. But I also want to point out that we're also taking it from a regional perspective. What is the region also doing? And bringing those who may be further in certain areas of women's empowerment, and those who may be lagging behind in other areas, how can we bring them together and address some of the challenges? I think— well, I'll stop there.

MURPHY: OK. So I'd like to ask you, Mahnaz, to tell us a little bit about— a few examples of some cutting edge things that Muslim women are doing to improve their rights or their status.

AFKHAMI: One of the most important aspects of the activism that is going on— I mentioned leadership and management skills, but I think that, considering the topic that was assigned to this meeting, perhaps I should tell you a little bit about a couple of initiatives in two of the countries with which my organization, Women's Learning Partnership, have undertaken in terms of legislative change, and what sort of activities have been undertaken in order to bring successful legislative change.

One would be the family law in Morocco that was passed earlier this year after a long struggle and many years of work. The other is the violence against women, the first violence against women legislation that passed in Malaysia a few years ago [in 1994].

Now, I pick those two specifically because I think they sort of demonstrate that even though the conditions of women is so different in the two countries, and with the diversity that exists, the multicultural nature of the society in Malaysia, and the rather less diverse society in Morocco, how they use similar active— areas of activism. And that activism is based on a number of concepts. One is the acceptance of the facts that, since religious law has been a very important component of the lives of women— since that has been the determining law almost across the board in Muslim societies except for one or two exceptions, all family laws really have been based on—

MURPHY: Family laws are based on shari'a [Islamic law], right?

AFKHAMI: On shari'a, of course— on a variety of interpretations of shari'a, but nevertheless always on shari'a. This is also an interesting point, because these Muslim countries, Muslim societies, have been able to use other bases for different kinds of laws which relate to other areas from economics to politics, et cetera. But when it comes to women especially, and the family, always shari'a becomes a very important underlying foundation.

So, it's been important for both these countries as just examples. It goes across the board in all of these countries to consider Shari'a and the role that it plays in society.

There is of course the concept espoused by some people that shari'a is divine law. Since a large component of it has to do with the Quran, the text of the Quran, or with the sunna, or with the traditions of the Prophet [Mohammed]. However, it is generally accepted by the women activists as well as other liberal interpreters of shari'a, that although the foundation of aspects of shari'a is the holy text, in fact, shari'a is man-made law. And therefore, it is subject to various interpretations and various ways of looking at the text.

MURPHY: So when people say, "We want shari'a to rule our country," what do they really mean?

AFKHAMI: They don't know what they're talking about.

MURPHY: Thank you.

ROMANOWSKI: She's right.

AFKHAMI: Because there are so many different aspects of shari'a. How has it been looked at? For one thing, shari'a came about some 150 years after the Prophet, and it became codified 150 years later. And then it has been described so variously and interpreted so variously that not even within one society are there uniform interpretations.

MURPHY: So did these women in Morocco use any arguments? What were their arguments to get the family law changed?

AFKHAMI: This is the beauty of what the Moroccans did, and I think the Malaysians followed the same path with different legislation. One is that they looked at the foundations of shari'a, which is the Quranic text, the (inaudible) from the Quran. They looked at those and brought those to the floor as related to the specific items of the law; for instance, polygamy, or minimum age of marriage, or the guardianship of the male of the females. These are things that are in most of the family laws based on shari'a.

So they basically referred to the specific text of Quran, and to the sunna [record of the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed], the aspects of the sunna, which are credible sunna. Because, you know, there are thousands of hadiths, or recollections by those close to the prophet, as to what he actually did, and what he actually said, as models for behavior. So those were holy parts of the text. But since there are thousands [of recollections in the hadith], it all depends who said it and at one point, how credible they are. So they bring examples from the Quran, and from the hadiths, in reference to the specific item of legislation.

MURPHY: And these supported their arguments for a change in the family law?

AFKHAMI: They bring different interpretations to show not necessarily only support for their case, but also diversity. They want to show, "Look, this member of the ulema [Islamic community of believers] has said this; this school has said this; this other has said an entirely different thing." So the diversity to show—

MURPHY: Diversity in shari'a?

AFKHAMI: In shari'a, and interpretation, so to show that it is possible to have a more egalitarian, more liberal view, more progressive view. And then of course, if I might add this before we go on, that aside from this argument, they have also drawn on other arguments. For instance, sociological arguments, saying that the impact, let's say, of polygamy or child marriage on the society. They've also had a set of those arguments. And they also tried to bring arguments from their own legal system, including the constitution. Many of the constitutions are based on Western constitutions. So to show the dichotomy between the constitution of the given country, in that case Morocco, and the specific legislation that is detrimental to women's empowerment, and of course, [laughter] one more thing, and then the other reference is to the international covenants, declarations, and so forth. So a many-pronged set of arguments to use for advocacy and lobbying.

MURPHY: Both religious and secular?

AFKHAMI: Both religious and secular.

MURPHY: Right. OK. Now this second theme we wanted to go into in our conversation, our directed conversation, was how women in the United States, and how the government, can help these initiatives going on in other parts of the world. So Alina, would you please talk about what our government is doing?

ROMANOWSKI: Well, picking up from the previous conversation, I think that one of the ways in which we've tried to focus our efforts to support women, we started out about two years ago asking Freedom House to do a survey, which was a country-by-country survey of what were the specific challenges by country to the women.

And in fact, they just published the report about a month ago— and I would encourage all of you to try and get hold of it. They did an excellent job— and I'm not saying that because we funded it— but they did a very good job of being able to show the distinctions of each country, of the status of women in each country, and in some ways managed to enlighten— I think— us and even those who will read it, ways in which we can be more targeted in our support.

And they came away also with some conclusions that I think are important and help guide us in terms of the kind of support. And I just want to throw these out for our discussion. First of all, I think, is realizing, as my colleague said, that there really is unequal legal status in the national and citizenship laws of these countries. There is definite discrimination in the workplace, once you even get into the workplace. There is, critically, a lack of information, and a lack of places where women have a voice in this debate. And I think one of the reasons, just to jump back to the Moroccan and the Malaysian cases, in Morocco you had the ability— you had a forum, you had an opportunity for women— and women, in particular— to come and provide an alternative voice to the interpretation in order to begin the dialogue at the national level on changing the mudawana [family law].

MURPHY: Who provided that platform? Where did that—

ROMANOWSKI: Well, this is the interesting thing. You need to have that platform provided by many places. One, you need— first and foremost, the leadership of the government to provide that environment.

I think you need, then, the international community to come in and help fill that space— whether that is by exchanging best practices, or actually being able to support those groups and those individuals who are trying to speak out, either to create platforms for them, or to support their research or their ability to congregate, to come together.

So I think that's why, in many cases— and let me also jump to another case which I think some will be sort of interested in, and that's the case of Tunisia. Those who look at Tunisia will say that women back in the ‘50s with President [Habib] Bourguiba were given their rights from the leadership from the start. Now, how it was practiced and how it was implemented, we can go into that discussion. But you first, I think, have to start with the leadership, and then you have to have encouragement from multiple areas as I think you mentioned.

So how are we doing it? We are trying very hard to, first of all, identify that you need a strong legal network of women judges, lawyers, advocates to begin to continue this dialogue that may have started in Morocco and a few other places. How do you regionalize it? How do you bring these women who have been working on this together?

And one of the initiatives that we have under MEPI is to create an Arab legal network where we're bringing together exactly those people who have a role in interpreting shari'a law, family code law and family issues, within their societies, either because they are judges, or they are lawyers. Even they may not be lawyers in— they may be lawyers and judges in commercial and civil code, but they still have an opportunity to bring in that.

So we are focusing on that. We're also focusing, frankly, on bringing businesswomen together, and business leaders. Because, again, while there is a network out there of women who are trying to build their businesses, allowing them to have equal status and not be discriminated in the workforce, and be able to get loans, and to be able to sign for their own property, who better than business women who are trying to be successful to have a place on that platform?

MURPHY: And where do most of these gatherings take place? In this country, or overseas?

ROMANOWSKI: We're trying very much to have it take place overseas. In fact, I just got back on Friday from a women's summit in Tunisia where we brought about 200 business leaders together from across the Middle East to actually network. And it was astounding to see them, because first of all, they said, "We don't have these opportunities to network," and not only to network, to build businesses and business contacts to develop their business, but also to exchange ideas of how you improve your labor environment, your business practices, and what kind of changes need to happen in the economic environment for them to be able to expand their businesses.

So that's one area. In July, we're having a meeting again of the legal— the Arab legal women's network, to put together the charter for this network. And hopefully, we will then start building chapters in each country.

So those are two very concrete areas— ways. There are others, but I will leave that for other parts of the conversation.

MURPHY: OK, now we're going to open the floor to your questions. After I call on you, please give us your name and your affiliation, and please ask a nice question, not a long speech. OK, the lady in blue, please.

QUESTIONER: My name is Harriet Babbitt with Hunt Alternatives Fund. I wanted to direct the comment— the answer specifically to Iraq and this window that is now open for drafting the Iraqi constitution. Mahnaz mostly talked about family law. We're from the West. I'm a lawyer. I think about the constitution as being this sort of fundamental ground on which everything else is built. But the reality is, as described by you all, it is the set of family laws across the Middle East, particularly, that affect women's lives most directly. How are we to understand this constitution-drafting process in Iraq? What's useful for those of us on the outside to be doing? What's not helpful? And I want to add, [inaudible] is right here, and I just looked at a wonderful piece that they just did on the changes in Iranian law, which allowed reproductive health to be provided on a very broad basis, under a theocracy, under the Quran. How is it that you move these moments— take advantage of this moment in Iraq?

MURPHY: OK.

QUESTIONER: --so that the pieces are put—

MURPHY: Mahnaz, would you like first to—

AFKHAMI: I would just point to what can be done here, in terms of helping that process. I think the more emphasis is put on the participation in women in the process of creation of the constitution, the better it is. And if it were possible not to have an Islamic Republic of Iraq, or anything related to Islam in the constitution, as the major religion of the country, that would be very helpful.

I'm not quite sure if that's possible. But if it were possible, that would be very important. Because again, as fundamental and significant as religion is, the idea of having a state religion is going to be very difficult do deal with further down the line as other legislations are created and participation is looked to.

So I'm not quite sure, politically, how possible and expedient that is. But it would be very important to help those forces that would be able to create a set of laws that separate church and mosque— I mean mosque and government.

MURPHY: I just came back from Iraq, and I will make some comments. But I wanted to know if, Alina, do you want to make some comments about that?

ROMANOWSKI: Do you want to go first?

MURPHY: No, you go first.

ROMANOWSKI: Specifically on trying to get Iraqi women involved in this legislative constitutional-drafting process, at the very beginning, the U.S. government did try and bring women, Iraqi women, out of Iraq to do some training, both those who were lawyers, and those— I think there was one judge— were brought out of the region to train them to begin to explain to them about being greater participants in what aspects of constitutional-drafting they need to be part of.

But I think the other component here is, you have to have— in order to change the laws in favor of equal rights for women— you have to be part of the democratic institutions to draft and work on the laws. So that means you've got to get women into the political process. Women in the region, not just in Iraq, have a very limited participation in politics.

And one of the things that we are doing is trying to increase the training and the leadership skills that women need to be either elected officials or support those elected officials.

And we've had a series of what we call campaign schools over the last two years where we have actually invited not only Iraqi women who have been interested in getting involved in politics, but those who have been in the Gulf and who have also run for elections in Egypt and in certain countries in North Africa, where we've been able to work on leadership skills, message, constituency response, all these things that sort of come second nature to all of us. But they really do need a lot of help. And the opportunity to bring those who have run in some countries, though they may have lost, they still have a lot of experience to exchange. So we're doing a lot of that sort of leadership training. And we do include Iraqi women.

But you've got to get women in elected positions, whether they're at the municipal level or at the national level. And we've got to support the ability of women to take a much better participatory role.

MURPHY: Right now, because mainly of the American influence, about 33 percent of the Iraqi parliament is women. But the majority of those women are very religiously conservative women. Some of them believe in shari'a being the governing principle for their lives. Now, the constitution is going to be written by a committee of 55. I'm not sure how many women are actually on that committee. How many?

UNKOWN: [inaudible]

MURPHY: Thank you, [inaudible]. And obviously, the women who are already in parliament will have some say, because parliament is going to be discussing the constitution before it is finally approved.

And as for this, it has been probably the most fascinating debate in the Islamic world this year. Because the Iraqis are basically going to have to work out, and there is a big diversity of opinion among them, what our constitution says on Islam's role in the public arena and in the private arena.

Some of you may know that even before [U.S. administrator in Iraq L. Paul] Bremer left, the Governing Council of the Iraqi— the Iraqi Governing Council, tried to get family laws changed in Iraq, because they had a more— they'd be based more on shari'a than the civil law that was prevailing under Saddam's secular regime. That was retracted because of the outcry from Iraqi women.

Now, I have to remind you that we shouldn't be, let's say, panicky here. And I think people should read their stories very carefully, and read the words that are written very carefully.

There is a constitution in the Middle East in a very secular country, which in it, Islam is the official religion of this state, and that is Egypt. I have no doubt that the Iraqi constitution, at a minimum, is going to say that or something like it. What the people who are in charge of writing the constitution on the religious side want— what they say they want, is for the constitution to reflect the Islamic identity of Iraq. So that is where the debate is going to be. How do we reflect Iraq's Islamic identity? What does that mean? And then they're going to hash it out, and from that you'll get the language that will be in the constitution.

But it's very encouraging— and let's hope he means it— that the chairman of the constitutional committee, who is a— who comes from a religious party, said that they're very happy with how things were written in the interim constitution as far as Islam being a source of legislation. The interim constitution says that Islam is a source of legislation— not the only source. And he said a few days ago that he was quite happy with that. So that's a good sign. It's an encouraging sign.

OK, I'll stop. Yes, sir?

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm Jim Turner for the U.S. Department of Energy. A few years ago, the constitution in Qatar was rewritten to provide— and I think it provided a lot more rights for women, and a lot more access to education and business opportunities. I was just wondering, has enough time elapsed to assess the impact? And also, are there any lessons learned from that experience?

MURPHY: Would you like to address it?

ROMANOWSKI: Well, yes, that's true. And I think you can already look at where Qatar is in terms of trying to empower their women. Shekha Mozah, who is the wife of the emir of Qatar, is an unbelievably active and very public voice on building a better educational system in Qatar. At the University of Qatar, there is a woman who is appointed the president. I think the Qataris have at least one, if not two [women] ministers in their cabinet. There are many— the Qataris— she was actually at one of our campaign schools. She ran for local elections and won, actually, in Qatar.

So I think Qatar is an interesting example of how— what it means to be in a rather traditional Islamic society and still be able to have women very active in all aspects of society. So I think the Qataris are an interesting example, and you can track very much what they've done in the last six or seven years since they changed their constitution. I don't know, you may have Council experience there?

AFKHAMI: I wanted to sort of broaden this from Qatar to a more general idea that, what is important and has been actually recognized across the board in Muslim-majority countries is the interconnection between both democracy and development and women's participation. And that level of awareness has already happened. So that's an important thing.

MURPHY: The thing that has penetrated the leaders of the country?

AFKHAMI: I think even the leaders have come to—

MURPHY: What about the men of the region?

AFKHAMI: The men, also, I think, even though they might not like it, they have to at least address it even to the point like, for instance, in Iran having an alternate philosophy. They have to address the question to the center of the debate and discussion.

But what we have to have in mind, which is as important as constitutions and major legislation is, the process of sort of learning how to tolerate, how to accept diversity, how to respect other people. It's a process that people have to become accustomed to and practice.

MURPHY: This is really going back to what Islam was in the beginning, which was— not in the very beginning, but in its glory days, it was a religion of tremendous diversity, wasn't it?

AFKHAMI: Absolutely tremendous diversity, and also the fact that the religion itself has all of the basic support that one needs to push for these ideas. There are huge resources inside the [Quranic] text for that.

But to do this, to actually impart that kind of training, it really takes indigenous, culturally applicable material and tools that are suited to each of these societies. And just to argue, [inaudible] the importance of ICTs [information and communication technologies] in this process, people in Afghanistan, for instance, our partner organization in Afghanistan, they ask— the first thing they asked for at the beginning of our partnership was an ICT center in Harat.

MURPHY: What's an ICT?

AFKHAMI: A technology center. In Harat, for instance, because the idea is, even the more secluded things are, the more apartheid this experience, women who can go to a safe space with a few people and access the world through one computer.

MURPHY: Oh, you mean, computers?

AFKHAMI: So this interconnectedness, exchange of ideas, being able to see what other people are doing, not merely in the West, but in other countries of the region, it's an extraordinarily important fact, and I hope the— maybe [inaudible] is paying attention in supporting ICTs.

ROMANOWSKI: In fact, I wanted to build on what you said by giving another example where it's not just ICT, but it's drawing from the religious text to justify women's participation in the electoral process. To support the Palestinian elections that occurred, we did turn to local indigenous leaders to put together a training program that brought women from the grassroots, who had no interest, no understanding of why it was important for women to come to the polls. And we spent a lot of time drawing from, and reinterpreting text, or at least being able to draw examples from the Quran to say, "You know, your voice, your participation is allowed, is legitimate."

And you know, women who originally said, "I'm not interested in voting." Why? "It's not right. It's haram." They came. And they later dragged their daughters to it and said, "You know, we're going to vote."

So being able to put the context, the environment, and bringing it— and finding people who can legitimately draw on the text is important to move the awareness along.

MURPHY: OK, we could move on to another question. That woman in the back, please?

QUESTIONER: Hi. My name is Najiba [Salaam], and I'm from Afghanistan with Voice of America Afghanistan service. My question is for Ms. Afkhami.

It is said that you have worked on the issues in Afghanistan. If you could please talk about that a little bit. But also, I would like to know, as I'm interested, you talked about polygamy. In countries, Islamic countries, strict countries like Afghanistan, that they're saying that, OK, their prophet did it, four wives, more than that. Even if we put it in the mildest way, that's not right. My question is, in those two countries especially, how did you explain this to these men especially, that this is not right and you're not supposed to be doing that? Thank you.

AFKHAMI: Actually— thank you for the question— actually, the aya that talks about polygamy—

MURPHY: Aya, explain aya.

AFKHAMI: The verse in the Quran which refers to polygamy, which says that you can have as many as four wives and so forth, there is also a hadith, which is a very credible hadith that has the Prophet saying that he has been asked to have a son-in-law marry a second wife. And the Prophet says, "Absolutely not. My daughter must not have a second wife in the house," and so forth.

And also, of course, the idea of equality, that is, total equality, between all the wives, which is humanly not possible [laughter].

So there are arguments back and forth on both sides. And the Moroccans have used these. But I think, more importantly, is that these women use the resources, the positive resources in religion, but more importantly, they stress the choice that women have, that in Islam, especially, there is no intermediary between an individual and God. A woman has the right to make the choice between various interpretations. So, everybody is working on the idea of not what choice they make, but the fact that they have a choice, to read, to understand, to follow various texts and accept the one that they accept.

In Afghanistan, my organization works with partner organizations in 18 countries. We work in 12 languages, with AIL, Afghan Institute of Learning, which is one of our oldest partners, what we do is, we co-create materials, leadership-training, capacity-building for civil-society organizations, campaigns, how-to-do political campaigns: how to stand for office, how to do a press release, how to get the public mobilized, how to get the shared vision across, and so forth. So they have hundreds of workshops in this area, and we work together, both to create the tools and also to implement the workshop.

QUESTIONER: [Inaudible] for children and families. I hope that you will talk a little bit about the historical development of women. Because the Iranian Shah's father— Reza Shah— told people to take off their chadora [religious covering for women], and liberated them from at least that impediment.

And then, now you've had other leaders that have told them to put it back on. So I wonder what the spirit that needs to emerge among the women of Iran and other parts of the world, needs to be nurtured so that their ideas prevail and flourish without having men sort of impose their ideas of what they should be doing at any given time.

MURPHY: That's a huge question. I personally think the veils coming back on, is part of a much larger religious revival. It's only part of this more conservative religious trend that has been going on for two or three decades now, at least in the Middle East. But Mahnaz, would you like to say something about that?

AFKHAMI: As I say from what you said, it's a very broad question. Actually, [inaudible] my former colleague at the Women's Organization of Iran, and I would have probably a whole session talking about what happened in Iran, and some of the advances that were made regarding women— enormous advances. What I'm describing in Morocco happened 30 years ago in Iran and lots more.

Of course, in the situation of Iran, women were extraordinarily successful. However, it's like the saying that "The operation was successful but the patient died." So we were successful, but the rest of the system sort of fell apart, and unfortunately, we were stuck with the bill.

But the important thing that applies to other countries, I think, is an experience that I personally had when I was at the university teaching with a group of university students. And we had endless discussions on an important topic, and that was, how do you live as a modern independent woman with agency, and with full human rights, and yet be rooted in the culture and religion? That is the question of modernity that is indigenous and is related to your roots. It is the same question that is there for us across the Muslim world, and we are still dealing with it, and we are still grappling to find that way.

Just one quick thing, and that is that we have to have in mind [inaudible] women's status is rooted in history and not in culture. If you look back and see that Switzerland gave women the vote in 1970 after 10 years of a trial period, so, you know— and also you look at the United States. We have 14 percent participation in high levels of politics, this advanced country with all of the resources and so forth. So we have to have a little bit of a larger picture when you look at the [inaudible].

MURPHY: A larger perspective, right.

ROMANOWSKI: Can I add just another perspective on the issue— the scarf and the veil that we hear a lot about when we're out there doing some work? And in some conversations, it seemed more as a statement of the young rebellious crowd versus their mothers. For example, in Egypt, in some cases, it's the mothers who don't understand why they're doing this. But this is more in the context of sort of what younger kids here would do, which is they want to make a statement about the fact that they're different from their older generation.

So I think there's a lot of different reasons why people, or women, or younger women, are probably keeping the scarf. Some of it is very religious. Some of it is for other reasons. And it's changing. That whole conversation is changing. So I would hope that our support and our conversation doesn't get wrapped up in whether there's a scarf or a not. You know, you never know where you're going to end up on that conversation.

MURPHY: A scarf is really irrelevant to a women's mind and to a women's sense of herself. You get some women who don't wear a scarf, but all they do is sit home and complain and watch TV. And then you get some women who wear a scarf, and they are just fireballs in their society. Next question. Yes sir?

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I was wondering if you could give us insight, and I know— I would suspect that you could probably go on for a long period of time— but if you could give lay people like yours truly, some insight with regard to how are women's issues and the status of women treated differently in Shiite versus Sunni and then in some of the subsets of Shiite versus Sunni. Thank you.

MURPHY: OK. Mahnaz?

AFKHAMI: I feel— I wouldn't say that there is a perceptible difference simply on Sunni and Shiite. It's a lot of factors that impact this. Possibly the fact that in Shiite, you have the ijtihad; that is in the sense that there is—

MURPHY: Ijtihad, everybody here know what that is?

It's the process of looking at the sacred text and using your mind and your knowledge and your capabilities to try to interpret them for the situation at issue.

AFKHAMI: And also, each person can choose their guide or their leader and they have— so that can be helpful depending on what kind of guide you have and what kind of ijtihad takes place. But in essence, I think, economics, educational, sociological factors are much more impactful than Shiite-Sunni.

QUESTIONER: And what about the major [inaudible]?

AFKHAMI: Some of them are. Some of the schools within Sunni, like the Maliki [school] for instance, are more conservative, generally, in interpretations than some of the others. But some of them are better in some areas, and some in some other areas. Like— and this is why our partners, for instance, choose items from each of the schools that are useful for their argument. So they don't necessarily go straight down one school.

MURPHY: Yes.

QUESTIONER: Carol Lancaster, Georgetown University. I wonder if you could talk for a minute about the special political environment of Iranian women. Every one of these countries has a different environment, but I think we're certainly often exposed to commentary here on the Iranian one. So I wonder if you wouldn't mind chatting about that?

MURPHY: Our expert.

AFKHAMI: Actually with the Iranian situation, we have a very complicated situation. We had the beginnings of the Iranian women's activism almost 150 years ago. And we have the constitutional revolution which took place at the beginning of the 20th century. And a constitution that was, for the most part, an enlightened constitution that it wasn't carried out always, is one of the problems that possibly later led to the revolution.

But what we have is over 100 years of activism by Iranian women increasing as time went on in the 20th century, organization and so forth. My grandmother from 80 years ago, in a small city in Kerman in the south of Iran, was an entrepreneur, was a single mother, and she had her own business. And we've had a high level of political participation since the 1960s.

However, this rather active, sophisticated civil society is superimposed with a legal system which is totally archaic. It's one of the most archaic and yet sophisticated.

ROMANOWSKI: You're talking about the family law?

AFKHAMI: No, no. I'm talking about the— there is no, per se, family law right now because that was one of the first things that was nullified after the revolution. But the political structures, the constitution of the country, the role of the [inaudible], or the religious ruler, and the intricacies of how that works is totally out of sync with this very sophisticated civil society.

So on the one hand, there is this fantastic, articulate, active, wonderfully participatory group of women, doing everything from making films to science and so forth. On the other hand, there is this extraordinary, at least trying to impose apartheid, segregation, purdah [seclusion of women] and the limitations. Politically, women and men, more or less, are in the same place, except that women cannot run for president. Both of them are subject to the limitations of the constitution and the political process, which is extremely limiting in terms of democratic action. I don't know if that's enough, but that's as much as we have time for.

MURPHY: Another question.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Pamela Bates from the State Department. I had a question in terms of more grassroots outreach from Western countries and the U.S. in particular, to grassroots women organizations, if they exist. Or how do you reach the people who aren't the lawyers and who aren't the MBA graduates? How do you reach out to them?

MURPHY: That is an excellent, excellent question. And I think that women's private NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] in the United States, women's groups have not done enough to think about how to do that. So, Alina would you give us your thoughts on that.

ROMANOWSKI: Yes. That's an excellent question and it brings me to tell— it's one thing to— you have to go to the elite, to the leadership. But you also have to nurture this from the ground up. And that really means trying to go directly to grassroots civil-society organizations or groups or try and find a way to get them together. And that is probably one of the biggest challenges that we have in the region, is that this grassroots— it's really hard to find them, and if you do find them, what is their capacity to deliver on ideas and on projects?

So one of the things that we have to do is build that capacity. And we do that, again, through trying to connect our NGOs, other NGOs on the ground. But let me give you an example of how we actually went to a community that relates to informing Moroccan women and men about the changes in the mudawana code. And when you think about reaching out to villages in the high Atlas Mountains or in the Berber villages, you have language issues and you have a literacy issue. So we ended up supporting a street theater that actually took this, a play, a street theater, out to these villages where the women came out all in their costumes. This was a new neat thing. But it was the delivery of a win-win, very positive message and an explanation of the changes.

First of all, many of these women didn't even know what their rights were before, let alone, after it. And then you had also the ability to have the men as part of the audience to hear that the changes were not— they weren't losing a situation, they were gaining in this situation. So you've got to really be creative and use in some ways, nontraditional ways. State Department doesn't normally fund theater, except in the context of cultural. But what is that program about? What is that presentation about? And how are you going to that kind of audience that needs to be brought in and needs to be part of the process?

MURPHY: And I would say that private, especially private NGOs, should also think about how do we reach the men? You've got to reach the men to allow the women to have the space to change.

Now, we're going to conclude shortly, but I'm going to end up with two questions, one for each of you. Alina, I'd like to know if you can tell us what kind of resistance you're getting from people when you approach them to work with the U.S. government program, given the current animosity that's widespread against the United States in the Muslim world.

ROMANOWSKI: I would like to say actually on that point that it sort of goes up and down. But right now, we're on an uptick, which tells me that people in the region have come to the point in this conversation about reform and the involvement of the international community and specifically the United States promoting this, that they can leave some of that other baggage out the door. And they come in and they want to talk about what are the issues that affect their lives. It doesn't mean that they don't think that the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn't— needs to be solved. It would make life easier. They need the situation in Iraq to stabilize. All of that is still there.

But it's no longer a precondition for working with us. Now, there will always be groups that are not going to want to take funding from the U.S. government or any other government. And that's fine. But in terms of our ability to share the practices, to provide them a forum to come together— which is so critically needed— the fact is that the United States is doing that. And bringing our experts or bringing our experiences and others' experiences, I have to tell you, in this recent summit in Tunis, I was surprised.

We really didn't have to do very much except to create the environment and they were there. They were talking about all sorts of things and for the first time, it wasn't really about what the United States, "Don't impose, don't do this, and change this and that." It was very much, "Hey, we have an opportunity nobody else is giving us, so we got to do it."

MURPHY: Okay. And Mahnaz, I would like to ask you, what do you think is the single most significant victory that has been achieved by Muslim women, say in the last five years? And it can be as specific as you want.

AFKHAMI: I was going to say, I was going to be general. I think the changes in the legal system are very important, but I think that generally, the most important factor is the raised consciousness. And the raised consciousness of men as well as the women. Because once that happens, other things can build upon that. And the raised consciousness has to do a lot with communication, with interaction.

And to relate back to the grassroots and how you can reach that: The intermediaries, the creation of intermediaries which have come about— regionally, intermediary organizations, local intermediary organizations. You can go directly to the grassroots, but there are capable organizations that are working either regionally or nationally that can reach the grassroots, and pass on this level of consciousness all the way to the masses, which again, reverberates and gets back to the decision-makers. And I think that consciousness of the importance of choice and the importance of women's agency, is probably the most important.

MURPHY: OK. Well thank you, Mahnaz. Thank you, Alina. Thank you, Nancy, for having us. And thank you all for coming.

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