Despite the perception that strict Islamic law and feminism are incompatible, women's rights advocates argued Wednesday that Muslim values could actually help women of the Arab Spring promote greater equality.
The U.S. ambassador for global women's issues Melanne Verveer testified on Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy, and Global Women's Issues that women in predominantly Muslim countries have shown in the past that critical reforms are indeed possible within the context of their religious values. She argued that although the political future of countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are uncertain, it's possible that the rights of women there will be protected, even if Islamist parties take control. [See a photo gallery of the unrest in Libya.]
"Sharia is thrown around a lot," she said, speaking of the brand of Islam most associated with radical movements. "[But] so much has to do with whose interpretation."
Verveer acknowledged that leaders with stricter interpretations of Islam could significantly push back the civil rights gains already made by women involved in the so-called Arab Spring movement. But, examples like Morocco—where women now enjoy improved political and personal status—could give women in other Muslim-dominated nations hope.
In Morocco, Verveer noted that women went through a difficult process that lasted "many, many years," during which many activists were jailed. However, as "good Muslims," she said, these women realized that their desire for civil rights didn't clash with their religious faith.
"They were not about to sacrifice their values to the voices of those who said, 'You are being anti-Islamic because you are supporting personal status law reforms,'" she said. "They steeped their reform effort in the very values of their religion."
Indeed, according to Verveer, Moroccan women made a legitimate case to their country's leaders by putting their arguments for equality in Koranic verse.
"The values that the religion represents, and that so many women are a part of in a very significant way, infuses the kind of reforms they want to see for themselves," she said.
Recent revolutions in northern Africa have prompted the U.S. State Department to commit resources to training women on how to better communicate their ideas and become more politically engaged. This includes helping them form cross-border coalitions so they can learn the strategies that other women in the region, like those in Morocco, used to promote their interests successfully in the past.
"They are all from predominantly Muslim societies. They are all reform-minded. They all want to see a better life," Verveer said. "To learn what those lessons and best practices are, and the support mechanism that they represent for each other, the mentoring that they represent for each other, I think is a very lost-cost, significant investment that we need to keep making." [Read: U.S. Role Continues After Qadhafi in Libya.]
Mahnaz Afkhami, president of the Women's Learning Partnership, an international non-profit advocacy group, cautioned that while some Islamic countries have provided a more positive outlook, other examples, like Iran, give women reasons to worry.
"A lot of the organizations who self-identify as Islamists are the ones whose goals and aspirations don't necessarily match those of the progressives and the rest of the democratic world," she said. "The definition of moderate should be looked at very carefully when we look at these countries."
Afkhami said Iranian leaders originally stated the same goals as today's self-proclaimed moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya which promise democracy and equality. However, as Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini remains in power three decades later, women in Iran are among the world's most oppressed, she explained.
"Mr. Khomeini — I have quotes from him before and after the revolution talking about freedom, talking about the fact that he didn't want to take part in the governing the country, talking about women being free to dress as the like," she said. "At first he was very inclusive, Marxist, nationalist, all groups were included, and gradually they were eliminated and a theocracy was put in place."