Celebrating the Women of Iran and the Middle East

Some of the biggest challenges for those of us who teach courses on women's issues are combating Western stereotypes of Muslim women that are deeply entrenched in our students' minds. According to scholar and reformist, Asghar Ali Engineer, the Koran is not only fair to women, it also gives them all the rights that they are fighting for today. "When a religion is practiced in a conservative cultural milieu, it often loses its original thrust. This is what has happened with Islam," he says. Yet may Westerners forget that for anyone who has ever read or remembers the Bible, the apostle Paul stated that women are essentially no more than wards of their husbands.

It seems that many Western women have misconceptions about Islam based upon its various practices in several countries. However, it should be noted that even some of the most conservative Islamic countries have made more political progress than the US -- for example, in Pakistan, women are now occupying up to twenty percent of the seats in government due to a newly established quota system. Women occupy a large number of university seats in non-traditional subjects throughout the Middle East. Countries, such as Bahrain, have made great strides in insuring women's access to higher education and the subsequent labor market. More importantly, women in these countries are fighting to change their conditions. And we should acknowledge their progress.

IRAN ...

Such imperialistic portrayals have a history dating to colonial times. The British, for example, used repressive treatment of women in India to denounce all of Indian culture as backward, and to legitimize their presence as the ruling power. It is certainly true that burning widows was - and is - a repugnant practice, but the use made of it in the West was opportunistic. Similarly, Britain's Lord Cromer, as de facto ruler of Egypt, denounced Islamic practices such as the veiling of women while back home he was among the leaders of the elite combating the extension of the voting to women.

In Muslim countries today, the oppressive aspects of certain laws enforced in some countries, including Iran, are used to depict Muslims in general as backward and, therefore, badly in need of being taught civilized practices by the West. This trend is now reaching a fever pitch because of the situation in Afghanistan, even though most countries where Islam is important, including Iran have denounced that regime as aberrant and even un-Islamic.

Incidentally, we hear remarkably little about this, given the Western media's chronic preoccupation with condemning the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rarely in North America are Iranian women given credit for their successes, including their daring candidacies in parliamentary and presidential elections, or their courage in demanding an end to discriminatory treatment. During the last two parliamentary elections, women voted en masse for candidates with the most liberal views on women. During the last national municipal elections, a considerable number of women, in small villages as well as cities, stood for election -- many successfully. Moreover, like many Middle Eastern countries, women's education levels are rising at a much faster rate than are men's


Two well-known Iranian activists -- Roksana Bahramitash is a faculty member at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University and a research associate at the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies. Homa Hoodfar is a professor of anthropology at Concordia and a founding members of Women Living Under Muslim Law, an international organization which campaigns on Muslim women's rights issues.