The challenge in the Middle East has been intensified by the rise of a political Islam that too often condemns women’s empowerment as Western cultural imperialism or, worse, anti-Islamic, writes CFR Senior Fellow Isobel Coleman in her new book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East. However, she argues, Muslim women and men are fighting back with progressive interpretations of Islam to support women’s rights in a growing movement of Islamic feminism.
In this timely book, Coleman journeys through the strategic crescent of the greater Middle East—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—to reveal how activists are working within the tenets of Islam to create economic, political, and educational opportunities for women. Coleman stresses that these efforts are critical to bridging the conflict between those championing reform and those seeking to oppress women in the name of religious tradition.
She highlights a number of Muslim men and women who are among the most influential Islamic feminist thinkers, and illuminates the on-the-ground experiences of women who are driving change:
- Sakena Yacoobi, an Afghan educator, runs more than forty women’s centers across Afghanistan, providing hundreds of thousands of women with literacy and health classes and teaching them about their rights within Islam.
- Madawi al-Hassoon, a successful businesswoman, challenges conservative conventions to break new ground for Saudi professional women.
- Salama al-Khafaji, a devout dentist-turned-politician, relies on moderate interpretations of Islam to promote opportunities for women in Iraq’s religiously charged environment.
These “quiet revolutionaries” are using Islamic feminism to change the terms of religious debate, to fight for women’s rights within Islam instead of against it, writes Coleman.
There is no mistaking that women and women’s issues are very much on the front lines of a war that is taking place between advocates of innovation, tolerance, and plurality and those who use violence to reject modernity in Muslim communities around the world. Paradise Beneath Her Feet offers the message: Change is happening—and more often than not, it is being led by women.
Advance Praise for Paradise Beneath Her Feet:
Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, offers this engrossing portrait of real Muslim women that reveals how Islamic feminists are successfully arguing that gender inequality is contrary to both Islamic spirit and law. She examines the “gender jihad” waged by male and female feminists in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, arguing that 20th-century efforts to achieve quick results, such as anti-veiling laws, actually “sow[ed] the seeds for decades’ worth of Islamic backlash,” hurting women more than helping. Today, those fighting for women’s advancement are working with and within the culture, rather than against it, in education, business, and politics to forge “a legitimate Islamic alternative to the current repressive system.” Coleman doesn't diminish the enormity of the struggle, but she argues convincingly that it might yet rewrite Islam's future.
Coleman reaches across the Middle East and into Asia in her wide-ranging discussion of feminism and Islam. She profiles women in fields ranging from education to politics who live across the Muslim world and individually exhibit great courage in their struggle to create greater opportunities for girls. The foundation of many of their arguments is Islam itself, and the ways in which they refute sexist interpretations of the Koran and Islamic law will be eye-opening to Western readers who have sadly grown jaded on the topic of feminism. The rapid-fire manner in which Coleman travels from one hot spot to another, tracking political struggles both large and small, makes it clear that while the Western world grapples with how to meet the cacophony of voices from the East, so also the women of Iran, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia are finding a new and assertive way to communicate.
“Women are on the front lines of our most critical human rights struggles today, particularly in war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Isobel Coleman has written a deeply engaging book that shows how Muslim women—and men—across the greater Middle East are driving social justice by promoting cultural change from within their own societies. This is a must-read for anyone who cares about truly sustainable development.”
—Angelina Jolie, UN Goodwill Ambassador and co-chair, the Jolie-Pitt Foundation
“Isobel Coleman has written a profoundly important book that illustrates how and why women are at the core of human progress, especially in the 21st century. She traveled the Islamic world to capture first-hand the poignant stories of a new generation of leaders as they struggle to transform their societies. A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the region.”
—Robin Wright, author of Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East
“I would read anything by Isobel Coleman. No other writer I know sheds greater light into the social and political conflicts of the Greater Middle East with more insight and sensitivity. Far from a dry academic tome on the plight of women in this troubled region, Paradise Beneath Her Feet offers readers an immediate, unbiased account of the lives of real women who are challenging not only the unjust restrictions placed on them by their own societies, but also the tired stereotypes and empty generalizations placed on them by the West. This is a clearly written, deeply moving, and wonderfully enlightening book.”
—Reza Aslan, author of No God But God and How to Win a Cosmic War
To order, visit: www.cfr.org/paradise_beneath_her_feet
Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she also directs CFR's women and foreign policy program. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, USA Today, and the Christian Science Monitor. She is a frequent speaker at academic, business, and policy conferences and a guest commentator on networks including CNN, the BBC, al-Jazeera, and NPR. She lives in the New York area with her husband and children.
The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. Since 1922, CFR has also published Foreign Affairs, the leading journal on international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.