Archives > Next Story

 The Angry Men Who Dictate Policy
 Barbara Crossette, USA
 November 4, 2001
In the war of militant Islam against the infidel West, there is a chilling paradox. Nowhere—not on protesters' banners, pre-suicide videos or posters of the most wanted—is there a woman's face. These martyrs and radicals call themselves the purifiers of society and the saviors of the poor, yet everything the world has learned in the last decade about why some countries develop and others stay mired in poverty shows that women can make all the difference. National standards of living improve—family income, education, nutrition and life expectancy all rise, and birthrates fall—as women move toward equality, said Jennifer Seymour Whitaker, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She cites as an example a statistical model of Egypt showing that if mothers with no education had completed at least primary school, the population below the poverty line would have been reduced by one-third. United Nations agencies produced similar findings in other countries. When women's influence increases, these experts explain, it strengthens the moderate center, bolstering economic stability and democratic order. The results of Iran's last two presidential elections reveal the moderating power of women—their covered heads and bodies notwithstanding. President Mohammed Khatami, a moderate by current Iranian standards, was elected twice over the wishes of Islamic conservatives because of the pivotal support of women. But for the last 30 years, Islamic extremism has flourished throughout the Middle East. As women have been pushed out of the political and economic spheres, their traditional moderating role has declined. "This is the warriors' time," said Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "The warriors, the martyrs—they're all men. In this moment of history, with the world of the Arabs and the larger world of Islam on the boil, the whole question of women and women's progress is shelved." Indeed, in societies where women did gain footholds, that power may have prompted a backlash—among lower middle class men in particular—that helped militants. Women often look like competitors for jobs and a better life in countries where half or more of the population is under 25.

Angry young men, many of them unemployed, have seized the public arena from Algeria to South Asia and filled it with hate, intolerance and the abuse of women, Ajami said. He and other scholars of Muslim societies say these men are from the lower middle class, where expectations were rising fastest. "This is the class that is most hostile to women, if this class dominates the Islamists, feminism and modernity are doomed." Since 1979, radical Islamic movements have toppled or challenged governments from Iran to Egypt to Pakistan. Their growing popularity has many causes: poverty, dissatisfaction with regimes viewed as corrupt and irreligious, the dislocation of modernity and unease with women's independence. Azar Nafisi, an Iranian scholar, said recruitment of militants is strong among low-paid workers or the lower middle classes. In recent decades, the media and the Internet have made images of Western life omnipresent. And what it looks like frightens this segment of the population. "If Western culture, if democratic culture, is spread to their countries, there will be no room for them," Ms. Nafisi said. "Women become the most obvious symbols of this change that seems threatening." In Kuwait, Ajami noted, the emir's efforts to bring women into politics has met a wall of resistance, and an Islamist backlash forced a vote in Parliament against coeducational universities. Not all women oppose extremism. Some women have aligned with extremists because they believe in the cause and have been disturbed by what seems a Western-inspired cultural assault on traditional ways. Some thought they would improve their status by joining a revolutionary movement. Others choose to cover their heads or faces out of piety. Many initially rallied around militants for some of the same reasons as men—distaste for corrupt secular rulers, frustration over poverty.

In Iran in the 1970's, educated women donned the chador to protest the rule of Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlavi—and walked into a trap. For a generation they have paid for the mistake with a loss of many freedoms and rights. It could be that women are less inclined to support radicalism now. Ms. Nafisi, who was a professor of English literature in Teheran, explained, "They saw what happened in the Iranian revolution, the Algerian revolution, the Palestinian struggle and many other places." While these militants are fighting secularism or the West, "they need women, they use women," she said. But even women who have risked their lives, she said, then find they are little more than advertisements. When the battle is won, they put the women aside." What is happening now, Ajami said, is "the break of the compact with modernity" throughout the Arab and wider Islamic world. "The issue of gender is so crucial to progress and modernity," he said, "But if the cult of the martyr and the children of the stones on the West Bank, if that's the dominant cult, then what little place there was for women is shrinking." The sense that the place of women is regressing under Islamic militancy is widely acknowledged. But in the history of Muslim movements, even violent uprisings, it was not always so. A woman, Cut Nyak Dhien, led the nationalists of Indonesia's deeply Islamic region of Aceh in rebellion against the Dutch in the 19th century. Egyptian and Turkish women were in the forefront of modernizing, secularist movements in the 1920's. In the 1970's, Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked planes. Benazir Bhutto marched through the streets of Pakistan in the 1980's to demand a return to democracy. By the 1990's, some Muslim women seemed to be on the verge of success in the professions, scholarship and public life. Educational levels and opportunities were rising in many Islamic countries. Ms. Afkhami founded the Women's Learning Partnership in Washington, which aids grass-roots women's groups in many Muslim countries. She calls them an invisible majority not noticed by the West. In Malaysia, for example, an anthropologist, Norani Othman, formed a movement to reinterpret Islamic law and strip it of centuries of accretions that discriminate against women. In Bangladesh, Yasmeen Murshed founded one of several organizations that teach women how to run for political office. From North Africa to Pakistan and Indonesia, women have demanded the right to study theology along with men, breaking their monopoly of the Koran. Afghanistan has shown a world of Muslim women just how bad things can get. Ms. Nafisi said the West's promises that Afghan women will have choices in a post-Taliban era should be part of the antiterrorism campaign. "When reconstruction in Afghanistan begins," she said, "the U.N. will find their most ardent supporters will be women."

Barbara Crossette is United Nations Bureau Chief at The New York Times.

From The New York Times, November 4, 2001.