In my many years working for women’s rights, and currently at the Global Fund for Women, I’m inspired by progress made to reduce that statistic. I’ve seen what it takes for women to shift deep-seeded cultural and religious ideals that perpetuate it; this includes the deep work that Muslim women are doing to harness aspects of their religious tradition to change societies and radically change the political order.
In 2011, Cairo's Tahrir Square saw the largest demonstration of women in Egypt since 1919, when women mobilized under the leadership of feminist Hoda Shaarawi as they protested against British Colonial rule. For women’s organizations in particular, this moment presented a tremendous opportunity.
After over ten years of grantmaking in the Middle East, the Global Fund for Women had a cohort of tightly networked women’s organizations with the capacity to absorb money at a time when they were finally free to organize on a larger scale. The breadth and depth of issues addressed by these organizations ensured a strong and flexible foundation, able to adapt to political circumstances.
In recognizing this breakthrough political moment for Muslim women’s organizations, it’s also important to highlight that Tahrir Square was also a place of mass sexual harassment and violence against Muslim women that was deliberately perpetrated to exclude women from public life and punish them for participating in political activism and demonstrations.
To help maintain women’s human rights during this time, women-led organizations trained young Muslim women to be confident and skilled advocates for their rights and made efforts to keep women safe from violence by the military and revolutionaries.
Amoung the countless crimes in Tahrir Square, Egyptian army officials arrested and detained 18 women activists during its violent sweep of protestors. While under custody, the women were beaten, electrocuted and subjected to strip searches and “virginity tests” by male soldiers in front of crowds of onlookers. One woman, Samira Ibrahim, filed a lawsuit against the army with the support of three Global Fund grantee partners. She won her case and a court order banning “virginity tests” in Egypt was issued in December 2011.
Faith and Freedom
By holding fast to a vision for a new world order while also focusing on the points of commonality rather than difference, fierce and visionary Muslim women like Samira have been working to transform the world and, by extension, Muslim women’s place in this new world. They do it by embracing a moderate Islamic faith rather than one steeped in extremist and fundamentalist beliefs.
This is social change in action and we cannot let it fail. It cannot fail because the stakes are too high. Just this week, Egypt’s ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, submitted a bill that would cripple women’s organizations and other NGOs by forcing them to work under the government, halting years of progress.
We need to dramatically increase our investment in Muslim women’s movement building not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because if we do not, then the continuous violence these women are seeking to mitigate in their own countries will become our daily reality here in the US. The violence, beliefs and attitudes of extremist religious leaders and their followers will permeate this country more deeply and more widely than we’ve seen to date.
In the spirit of the successes we’ve seen as a result of Muslim women’s organizing, I conclude with two reflections by Rumi: “There's a tradition that Muhammad said, 'A wise man will listen and be led by a woman, while an ignorant man will not,' and 'This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.'”
And, I would add, without fear.