A discussion with U.S.-MEPI’s Leaders for Democracy Fellows about Women and democracy in the Islamic world

On Monday May 18th, 2015, KARAMAH’s executive director Aisha Rahman and Family Law Staff Attorney Julia Bizer met with eight fellows from the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative’s Leaders for Democracy Fellowship (LDF) program in a continuing effort to further education about Muslim women’s rights in Islam. The fellows hailed from numerous Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria, and the topics of discussion focused on misinterpretations of Islamic law and obstacles to Muslim women’s empowerment in the U.S. and abroad. Several fellows expressed the need for reform of family laws and civil laws in numerous Muslim countries in order to empower women. In many instances, the fellows posited, these laws are derived from Shari’ah, but they are merely personal interpretations of it. The fellows added that authoritarian resilience has been based on religion and historic fatwas which were issued to build up authority and keep the status quo. They also said that many Muslim countries’ leaders have strayed from the Prophetic model in reference to democracy, conflict resolution, and women’s rights, and that the secular model of advancement in majority Muslim countries has proven futile. Ms. Rahman also stated that democracy is not incompatible with Islam. In fact, the form of government Islam promulgated is democratic based on consultation and people’s representation.( See dr. Azizah al-Hibri’s article on Islam and Democracy). Ms. Rahman asserted that the key to change is to develop a strong civil society anchored in a solid knowledge of basic Islamic principles. She added that because of ignorance of religion, people often are unable to make sense of civil laws and rights within the context of Islam. “Before you start talking about gender or more nuanced issues of religion,” she advised the fellows, “start with a basic discussion; in this way, people are able to analyze what is being said.” Looking forward, the fellows expressed concern over how to properly educate and involve youth in their communities and asked if KARAMAH had any initiatives in this regard. Ms. Rahman explained that KARAMAH is conducting research on what is relatable to young people, and how they could be best educated on these matters. Together, Ms. Rahman and the fellows discussed options such as educating parents in order to reach children, and organizing camps where children could learn about the basics of Islam through games and sports. Though unsure of the best course of action, all members of the discussion agreed that investing in young people’s education was crucial for promoting positive leadership and change. The goal is to ultimately raise a generation of future community leaders who are knowledgeable about their rights and obligations based on the gender equitable principles of Islam.

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