How Can the Rights of Islamic Women Be Improved?

Javeria, left, and Mehek check a selfie after an exercise session at the first women's boxing coaching camp in Karachi, Pakistan, on February 19. In many countries, Islam is not only used to justify misogyny; many Muslims believe Islam actually sanctions such practices, which is why efforts at reform so often fail. Akhtar Soomro/reuters

As a Muslim woman, I am empowered by my religious identity. But for many women, religion holds them back. As long as Muslim women suffer social and cultural marginalization, political exclusion, economic discrimination and threats, and acts of violence, we will never reach our full potential.

There have certainly been examples of female achievement in the Muslim world. Many Muslim countries—Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh—have had female heads of government, and many have had ministers, parliamentarians and senior officials in public and private sectors. But these accomplishments do not undo a pernicious legacy of segregation and discrimination.

Even where there is progress, it remains uneven. From Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and all the way to Somalia and Nigeria, laws on divorce, child custody, inheritance, ownership, early marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), education, health care, job opportunities and wages as well as protection from abuse and violence continue to oppress and discriminate against women, even though Islamic texts and tradition are clear on women's rights.

My remit at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) includes addressing challenges faced by women across our 57 member states. In many countries, Islam is not only used to justify misogyny; many Muslims believe Islam actually sanctions such practices, which is why efforts at reform so often fail.

Positive, well intentioned efforts at meaningful social change are transformed into existential threats to a people's cultural identity and belief about their destiny.

At a time when many Muslims feel themselves under attack, it's unsurprising to see a hardening of attitudes and a fear of ideas perceived as foreign. But that in turn only entrenches the problem, which the OIC is working to address.

Its flagship women's empowerment initiative, for example, OIC Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women (OPAAW), has spawned numerous conferences, workshops and reports. Designed to compliment this is the impending ratification of the Statute of the Women's Development Organisation, an organization dedicated to the advancement of women.

I hope our partners in the U.S, the EU and the U.N. join us in these initiatives, because we share a common goal of protecting women from violence, creating greater opportunities for women's participation in society and governance and addressing a growing trust deficit between the Muslim world and the West.

But I should also like to see more Muslim women reclaim the language of religion—because religious misogyny is most thoroughly defeated through religious empowerment.

The Islamic language we hear today, justifying misogyny, is not authentic, faithful to the seventh-century text, or somehow purer only because it is narrower and less inclusive. The problem with such religious discourse is that it is extremely selective (and hence can become extremist), pursued in bad faith and consciously overlooks or suppresses the many parts of the Islamic tradition that encouraged gender parity and overturned wildly discriminatory practices in favor of a more egalitarian society.

In the present day, for example, many Muslim voices describe women as secondary to, if not dependent on, men, which justifies second-class citizenship, from the right to travel freely or to pass on citizenship to their children. But when Abraham was ordered to leave Hagar and Ishmael in the wild, Ishmael survived, because Hagar looked after him.

Nor does Islamic tradition honor women simply as caregivers, as supporting actors and never as protagonists themselves. The Prophet Muhammad was employed by a successful businesswoman, Khadija. She proposed marriage to him. She was the first to support him. She stood by him during years of persecution. In her work before and after Islam, she was at the heart of the Meccan economy, not marginal to it.

The daughter of the first Caliph, Aisha, is the source through which a huge proportion of the Prophetic tradition, the basis for Shariah, is derived. Is it not ironic that a legal tradition so much of which is derived through a female scholar is now used to restrict women's rights, including their right to speak as religious authority figures?

And the first ever institute of higher learning was founded by a Muslim woman —Fatima al-Fihri. Yet, equal access to education in the Islamic world today still falls short.

In early Islamic history, women played critical roles and displayed the strength and sophistication of any man. They were persecuted alongside men, worked alongside them and sacrificed with them.

The great challenge facing Muslim women is the rise and entrenchment of a discourse that denies this history, that erases the important roles played by women in the past and for no other reason than to enable the marginalization and oppression of women in the present. That has to stop.

The good news is that Muslim women across the world through governmental and nongovernmental initiatives and movements are rising up and beginning to make the change.

Maha Akeel is director of information at the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the chief editor of the quarterly OIC Journal.

How Can the Rights of Islamic Women Be Improved? | Opinion