Elevate Difference

Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression

Ida Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers ambitiously highlights the work of Muslim women around the globe involving an array of interrelated issues, including lack of gender equity in education and the workplace, domestic violence, human trafficking, biased family law practices, and rape with impunity. Many of these problems stem from the socioeconomic inequality experienced globally by women of all backgrounds, and problems that transcend class and religious boundaries. In other instances, misogynist traditions have persisted because local and national authorities, in a gross affront to the majority of Muslims, pass abuses off as Islamic practices.

The book is organized by country, with the largest number of women representing Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, localities prominent in current U.S. political discourse. However, it is worth mentioning that the nations with the largest number of Muslims are actually Indonesia, India, and Pakistan. The reformers’ biographies are preceded by a very brief background section describing important historic events in the region. In terms of methodology, Lichter, a psychiatrist by training, does not give many specifics about her selection process or research methods.

The biographies are brief but moving; many of these women are literally risking their lives in order to work for change. Lichter also included biographies of a half dozen men, offering a hopeful sense that allies can help to transform a view of masculinity that allows the demeaning of women. The biographies are presented as summary reports without a lot of analysis; for someone unfamiliar with the issues at hand, this brevity can be misleading at times.

An encouraging aspect is the inclusion of transnational efforts to eradicate the practice of honor killings. This practice is not a teaching of Islam, but an example of the very worst patriarchal violence. Eliminating this practice requires cultural change backed by political will, and this work represents an area where the Qur’an and the Hadith (sayings of the prophet Muhammad) could eventually bring positive change. Those who justify honor killings may not give up “tradition” for a Western interpretation of human rights. However, reform could happen by relying on the early history of Islam, when Muhammad laid down harsh tribal customs in favor of practices that protected women in that historic context. In this light, the custom clearly is un-Islamic.

One omission felt problematic. The sections on Canada, France, and the U.S. lacked background pages. Creating this difference in the presentation of material seems only to aggravate existing dichotomies between North America and Europe and the rest of the world’s Muslims. Furthermore, the issues facing Muslims in these nations are complex and well worth an introduction. By neglecting to include background on France, the author assumes readers are familiar with the history of France and its former colonies, as well as the anti-Arab racism that plagues the country. (These issues were highlighted this summer, when France was again in the news for its laws against wearing hijab in public.)

The broad scope of Muslim Women Reformers is a weakness. By including women from so many localities, the author had to sacrifice depth of discussion, giving the book the dry feel of an introductory text. The stronger sections of the book are those with the most voices represented, and if I had been editor, I would have suggested Lichter develop that strength and focus the book on those nations.

Written by: Lisa Rand, November 24th 2009