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Women of Islam

In conversation after the lunchtime press conference Dr Gabriela Guellil, from the German Foreign Ministry’s Cultural Task Force seemed surprisingly straightforward. When it came to reaching across the widening gap between the Islamic world and the West, Dr Guellil said, the usual round of diplomatic rituals between elites and powerbrokers was not sufficient.

Since September 11 her task force has adopted a more pragmatic approach. Across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, it targets the non-government sector, the intellectuals and professionals of the new middle classes who often open windows of opportunity for those around them. They are also often the voices of moderation spanning traditional strictures and modernisation.

‘There is a sense’, she said, ‘in which all Muslim countries are Islamist because religion plays a fundamental role in every aspect of life. Of course this does not mean they embrace terrorism.

‘You have to understand al Qaeda are newcomers. Like Bin Laden they are wealthy but outside the old traditional networks that make up a kind of aristocracy. Because of this, they bear a sense of humiliation. They don’t have the self-esteem of belonging to privileged groups. And the fact that al Qaeda is a franchise makes them dangerously flexible.’

This week the task force’s latest initiative was hosted by Minister of State Kerstin Müeller, as part of its ‘European–Islamic Cultural Dialogue’. It gathered together in Berlin middle class Islamic women from almost 20 different Muslim countries and from Germany’s large Turkish community. From morning until late into the evening, women teachers, social workers, journalists, scientists and academics passionately debated the rights of women, the wearing of head scarves and burkas, sharia law, the glass ceiling and, above all, the conflicting challenges of family and career.

They were a formidable gathering—articulate and confident, with an experience of life that had mostly demanded great courage. For example, Dr Sarah al-Fadil Mahmoud Abdel Karim from the Sudan trained as a sociologist in New York and now works for an non-government organisation (NGO) in her home country. Bone-thin, elegant, strongly religious, she was imprisoned for six years and tortured by the Sudanese military, an experience which left her hospitalised with paralysis.

In a statement which resonated with the history of Christian churches, she told the gathering, ‘Interpretations of the Qur’an by scholars made room for many developments including oppression.’ Present conditions in the Sudan where millions have fled before a regime of murder, rape and plunder, ‘stem from these developments.’

Such a view of the role of interpreters of Islam was repeatedly endorsed by other women in the room. As Khadija Ben Ganna, a journalist with Al-Jazeera TV network who left Algeria after death threats and who recently began wearing a head covering in public, put it, ‘Islam is more than a headscarf; nor does it forbid women to drive a car or meet men. What we are talking about is moral norms’.

Or from Dr Sayeda Saiyedain Hameed, a founding member of the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia, ‘Recently in Kashmir, acid was thrown at girls who did not cover their faces. This is not Islam and we women have successfully campaigned against such behaviour’.

For Dr Hameed religious practice was a matter directly between her and her God, ‘It is a fundamental tenet of Islam,’ she said, ‘that God is closer to you than a jugular artery’.

Nevertheless for many in the room the success of her campaign is part of a wind of change across the region, from which they have benefited against the odds. And beyond the niceties of conference etiquette, there was also a firm acceptance of the importance of open discussion of brutality, prejudice and the ‘dark dingy tunnel’ that leads to equality for women.

Though similarly outspoken, journalist Raeda Taha from the Palestinian territories had less reason for such hard won optimism. Like her Sudanese colleague, she is a graduate from an American university. From the age of 21 she worked for seven years in Tunis as Yasser Arafat’s press secretary and now runs her own business in Ramallah. ‘As a child I twice visited East Germany as a PLO guest and was shocked to see such a low wall’, she said, ‘the one the Israelis have just built is much higher. So is that a definition of development?’

Seated beside Raeda Taha at the large round conference table is Rana Ismail. She is a small pale woman in traditional dress. She is the headmistress of Lebanon’s largest Islamic school and also an electrical engineer, in a country which she says will soon have more female than male engineers. At 14 she was already working for an NGO and witnessed the Israeli seige of Beirut. In 1982 while still a teenager she was in one of the first International Red Cross convoys to enter the Sabra and Shantala Palestinian refugee camps to bury the piles of corpses from the Israeli massacres.

Deeply religious and conservative, nevertheless, she too is a strong voice for women’s rights and pointedly describes Lebanon as a tolerant multicultural society. The challenge of her life, she says, is how to use her gifts to benefit others. And this is not possible without love, above all from her husband.

This relationship is part of what has given her essential ‘strength and support’.

Talking to such women, listening to their stories, their lives seemed interwoven with common threads of experience. Well-educated and professional, many paid tribute to their strong mothers who refused to accept that obstacles could not be overcome. Most came from egalitarian, liberal families in which girls were encouraged as much as boys. Underlining their lives was the powerful belief that they were accountable before God.

And bringing these women together for a ‘dialogue event’ as the German Foreign Ministry’s booklet describes it, what exactly will that achieve?

The task force’s Dr Guellil twists in her chair, folds her arms. ‘Maybe nothing’, she says. ‘But then there is mutual understanding, networking, friendships. These women are the role models for what comes next. And after this it is important that we try to support them when they go back into their communities.’ 

Dorothy Horsfield is a writer and journalist currently based in Berlin. Her most recent book is a memoir of her late husband, Paul Lyneham.



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