Women transforming the Middle East

February 21, 2011

Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, by Isobel Coleman (Random House, 2010)

Many people in the Western world observe the fundamentalism, terrorism and oppression of women in Middle Eastern countries and assume Islam is the problem. In fact, many in the Middle East look upon women’s rights as a threat to their culture, not only because of indigenous male chauvinism, poverty and ignorance, but also because European colonizers and, in Afghanistan, the Soviets, attempted to force it on them in the name of modernization. Of course, women in Afghanistan were struggling for their freedom long before the Russian invasion.

Coleman, however, states that the sacred texts of Islam, the Quran (considered to be the word of God) and the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), have been interpreted in different ways. She describes how, since the 1800s, both male and female Islamic feminist scholars have argued that these scriptures had given women more rights than they had previously. They argued that the fundamentalism and misogyny of Islam’s past 1,400 years are heresies that completely changed the original religion.

Today, even some secular feminists are beginning to think there is a necessity to work within the philosophical and legal framework of Islam and work with its religious leaders to avoid cultural backlash and to change the lives of rural women, many of whom are religious themselves.


Coleman explains why women’s liberation must be part of the modernization of Middle Eastern countries if they are to survive economically and become part of the global society. The education of women and their inclusion in government and business in all economic classes leads to improvement in public health, including a decrease in maternal and infant mortality and in the birth rate. Women also tend to spend the money they earn on their families and community projects. When women participate in the public sphere as equals with men, that becomes an important means of fighting the terrorism and political tyranny that comes with fundamentalism.

Coleman describes in depth the activities of individuals and groups, both local and international, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Some rural mullahs are beginning to allow girls and women to use mosques as classrooms and governments are sponsoring higher education for women who want to run businesses and go into professions such as journalism to change their countries.

Schools emphasize the importance of girls learning to form their own opinions. Women and religious leaders appear on new television talk shows to discuss controversial issues, including sexuality, and to show that women’s rights have religious justification. Women risk their lives to run for office and become judges. They have the support of some religious leaders and scholars in reforming laws, usually sharia laws based in Islam, to make them humane towards women. Some women become religious leaders and are asked to counsel youth who are at risk for becoming terrorists.


Coleman does not gloss over the fact that changing the intensely patriarchal and misogynist culture in the Middle East is extremely difficult and slow, that women are always making “one step forward and two steps back” and that progress or backlash often depends upon which ruler or type of government is in power. Women often have to make compromises and pick their battles, such as focusing on the right to be educated over the right not to wear a headscarf or veil. However, the internet and the ability to network internationally are important new tools in what Coleman sees as a movement that “has the potential to be as transformative in this century as the Christian Reformation was in the sixteenth century.” This movement includes both feminism and the ability of the average person to reevaluate the scriptures and to think for themselves.

This book is important because Westerners often have a vague idea of what is going on in the Middle East, and Coleman describes some of its history of constant dynamic struggle, not only between different forms of government but between forces of progress and fundamentalism. She explains that its culture, like any culture, is never really unchanging because there are always people willing to risk their lives to struggle for change. She has confidence that these small changes can add up to a larger cultural change.


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