Paradise Beneath Her Feet

How Women Are Transforming the Middle East

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Read an excerpt of Paradise Beneath Her Feet.

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.

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Middle East and North Africa

Women and Women's Rights


Civil Society

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.

More on:

Middle East and North Africa

Women and Women's Rights


Civil Society

A Council on Foreign Relations Book

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Educators: Access Paradise Beneath Her Feet's Teaching Module.

Reviews and Endorsements

An important update on the state of human rights.

Kirkus Reviews

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

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

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