Review of Isobel Coleman's 'Paradise Beneath Her Feet,' on women in the Mideast

By Tara Bahrampour
Sunday, June 27, 2010


How Women Are Transforming the Middle East

By Isobel Coleman

Random House. 315 pp. $26

After Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, women were barred from working as judges or attending soccer matches, forced to wear hijab, and declared unequal to men in the realms of inheritance, testimony and divorce -- all under the pretext of hewing to Islamic tenets.

But something interesting happened on the way back from the revolution, as Isobel Coleman describes in her new book, "Paradise Beneath Her Feet." As Iran's mullahs tightened control, women from conservative religious families who had never had a voice began to ride the very Islamic wave that seemed to be rising against them. Those who had been active in the revolution now elbowed their way into political and civil society, and universities were soon packed with women. If unintentionally, "the Islamic takeover made formal girls' schooling acceptable to even the most conservative families," Coleman writes. "Now that society was Islamized -- with girls wearing hijab and schools and many public places segregated -- how could a father say no?"

As fathers began to say yes, Iran's male-dominated leadership was busy isolating iteself from the international community. But Iranian women were connecting with the outside world: Their One Million Signatures campaign against discriminatory laws drew global recognition; the human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize; and one year ago last week, when Iranians took to the streets to protest suspicious election results, the symbol of the Iranian resistance became Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose death was broadcast on YouTube.

It's not what the mullahs had in mind, but the trajectory of Iran's women gives Coleman hope that even in Muslim societies that present cultural and political obstacles, women are finding opportunities to rise up -- and to bring their countries up with them. The key, she writes, is to do so within Islamic paradigms.

The director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy program, Coleman traveled throughout the Muslim world, visiting relatively egalitarian societies such as Indonesia but focusing especially on five countries where women's rights are most tenuous -- Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq -- to support her view that while keeping women down keeps a nation down, the battle for gender equality is a continuing process and women are becoming smarter about engaging it.

She introduces us to female politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs and educators, urban and rural, who are making impressive inroads, and she cites studies showing that societies that educate and invest in women become "richer, more stable, better governed and less prone to fanaticism," while those that limit women's opportunities "are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption and are more prone to extremism." Despite the advances of women in places such as Iran, she argues that such countries are not nearly as advanced as they could be if women's opportunities were equal to men's.

Women's rights have been slow to blossom in the Middle East, Coleman writes, in part because the principle is often associated with Westernization. Twentieth-century West-leaning modernizers such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk bluntly denounced the veil without acknowledging its complex effect on society, while current politicians seek legitimacy by catering to anti-Western religious conservatives and sacrificing women's rights along the way. "Islamic feminism" can be a loaded term among those who see feminism as an illegitimate Western import.

But according to Coleman, reform within an Islamic framework is the most promising avenue toward women's advancement. She introduces us to Muslims, both religious and secular, who engage in ijtihad, "the process of arriving at new interpretations of Islamic law through critical reasoning, rather than blindly following the views of past scholars." They use the Koran to show that gender inequality isn't an Islamic concept so much as a cultural one, and that extreme practices against women represent "a subversion of Islamic teaching, its corruption by tribal customs and traditions."

Traditional societies do not tend to tolerate change imposed from the top, however, and turning ijtihad into action requires delicate maneuvering by insiders who can work with mullahs and politicians and resist the urge to superimpose Western-style feminism on Eastern societies. "I don't want to criticize the work of foreigners," says Sakena Yacoobi, an Afghan woman Coleman meets who runs a women's health and education nonprofit, "but when they come here and start teaching the women about their rights, the women often go home and criticize their husbands and their life just gets worse. We are helping the women learn how to negotiate with their husbands. The Quran is most helpful for that."

Coleman's feminists use modern technology to promote their message: Advocacy groups bombard policymakers with e-mail, and activists use YouTube to broadcast abuses captured on cellphone videos. An Egyptian television sex therapist who is popular across the Arab world uses the Koran to recommend foreplay, and an actor portraying a religious leader on a radio soap opera in rural Pakistan deprecates women to spark discussion among the show's characters and listeners.

Coleman acknowledges the fragility of women's advancement. Hard-won rights have withered in the face of war, revolution and restrictive religious trends. In Iraq, for example, women in the early secular years of Baathist rule enjoyed some of the region's highest levels of female literacy and workforce engagement. But after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, when women's rights were subverted in an attempt to gain clerical support for the Baathist regime, female literacy plunged from 75 percent to less than 25 percent.

Nor do all of Coleman's Islamic feminists succeed; some are killed or forced into exile, and even the successful ones have little hope of eradicating the "strain of nihilism running on the fringes of Islam today." Some grudgingly view the marriage of Islam and feminism as one of convenience, and they despair of achieving true equality in a religious context. Still, Coleman believes the Middle East's small but persistent streams of female activists are more likely to swell than to subside, and that with time they have the capacity to erode the barriers that have held them and their countries back.

Tara Bahrampour is the author of "To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America" and a staff writer at The Washington Post.

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