New Steps In Muslim Women's Fight For EqalityS

Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia appointed its first female minister, while, at a conference in Malaysia, Muslim women discussed how to demand more rights by reinterpreting Islam's tenets.

On Saturday in Saudi Arabia, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, a US-educated former teacher, was made deputy education minister in charge of a new department for female students, reports the Guardian. The appointment was part of a cabinet reshuffle by King Abdullah that did away with several ultra-conservative minsters and clerics and paved the way for more moderate reforms.

While Al-Fayez's appointment as vice minister for women's education marks the highest rank a woman has achieved in Saudi Arabia, there are questions about how much power she will actually have, since other Saudi women have been appointed to lower councils, but then never heard from. Al-Fayez says she's confident that her appointment is not just symbolic, telling CNN, "I think by being the second person after the minister, I think I have enough power to work in the improvement of girls' education."

But, women's rights advocate Wajeha al-Huwaider tells CNN that while the appointment of Al-Fayez is a step in the right direction, she is still subject to oppressive Saudi laws.

"Even this minister now ... she is not really in control of her life," al-Huwaider noted. "It is not up to her, it's up to her male guardian."

She said the "guardianship system" is the first thing that should be removed by the new Saudi government.

"This is the main thing that is controlling our life," al-Huwaider said. "We want to be able to drive our cars, you know, to feel like we are just like the rest of the world."

This weekend, several hundred Muslim women attended a conference in Kuala Lumpur to discuss such conditions and to come up with ways to demand equal rights for women, reports the New York Times. Advocates came from 47 countries for the project, called Musawah, which is the Arabic word for equality.

The women argue that the repression of women does not come from the Koran, but from the human interpretation of it, which has evolved over the centuries into Islamic law. "Secular feminism has fulfilled its historical role, but it has nothing more to give us," said Ziba Mir-Hosseini, an Iranian anthropologist. "The challenge we face now is theological." She referred to controversial Muslim intellectuals who say that the laws derived from the Koran should be interpreted in a historical context and can change over time.

Mir-Hosseini said that President Bush's policies wound up hurting the campaign for women's rights in Islamic countries:

Ms. Mir-Hosseini argues that Muslim societies are trapped in a battle between two visions of Islam: one legalistic and absolutist that emphasizes the past; the other pluralistic and more inclined toward democracy. She said that in Iran reformers were gaining ground, but that President Bush's antagonism toward the country ended up strengthening hard-liners there.

"It's really a struggle between two world views," she said, adding that time was on the side of the women.

Though some scholars argue that the women's efforts to reinterpret years of Islamic scholarship are unrealistic since to do so would require entirely replacing the system of Islamic law, the activists point out that change is already taking place at the grass roots level in many Islamic countries. Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says women's movements are making progress, as girls' education levels increase and the Western world is a click away on satellite television. "It's a slow shift," she said. "It's just beginning to come together as a movement."

[Image via Musawah.org]

Saudi Arabia Appoints First Female Minister [Guardian]
Saudi Activist: Female Minister 'First Step' But More Needed [CNN]
In Quest For Equal Rights, Muslim Women's Meeting Turns To Islam's Tenets [New York Times]