Toronto Star: During the height of the Danish cartoon controversy, Canadian media interviewed male Muslim leaders exclusively, without bothering to seek out leaders among Muslim women. It's a given that Muslim leaders are men, preferably with beards.
The Toronto Star

RAHEEL RAZA
OPINION

During the height of the Danish cartoon controversy, Canadian media interviewed male Muslim leaders exclusively, without bothering to seek out leaders among Muslim women. It's a given that Muslim leaders are men, preferably with beards.

Haideh Moghissi, a sociology professor at York University, says that rigid, unforgiving and sexist voices are considered valid voices by Western media. When a Muslim woman speaks out or assumes a leadership role, she's called militant.

Yet the struggle for sexual equality and leadership among Muslim women is gaining strength around the world.

Harvard University recently held a seminar titled "Emerging Forms of Muslim Women's Leadership."

Among the panellists was Sarah Eltantawi, a young Muslim doctoral candidate at the university and a media commentator on American-Muslim Affairs and Middle East policy who writes on counterterrorism for Upfront and The New York Times.

She spoke about the importance of a dialogue of civilizations as someone who has been part of U.S.-Islam dialogue in Qatar.

The dialogue continued at The Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University in New York where a diverse panel of Muslim women to spoke about leadership.

Among them were Aisha al-Adawiya, an African American Muslim who founded the advocacy organization Women in Islam Inc., and Shqipe Malushi, a Sufi poet and writer from Kosovo and Nureen Qureshi, a young TV anchor and head hunter for IT from Mississauga. These women are movers and shakers working at the grassroots level, creating dialogue and safe spaces for other Muslim women.

They believe that if men won't allow Muslim women their rights, then Islam will; all they have to do is reclaim what was originally given to them by the Prophet Muhammad.

This populist women's movement in Islam also has traction in Europe. At an early celebration of International Women's Day, the International Federation of Women Against Fundamentalism and for Equality (WAFE) held a conference in Paris.

Formed after 9/11, WAFE asserts that fundamentalism in all faiths has emerged as the biggest challenge for humanity. The battle for sexual equality and emancipation can't be separated from the fight against extremism, its members say.

The conference, titled "Women's leadership: Indispensable to the struggle against fundamentalism," was supported by 15 European organizations.

Discussions ranged from fundamentalism as it exists in many faiths today to the challenges of female leadership, but the main focus was rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim world.

The international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws has identified anti-female policies as one of the warning signs of rising fundamentalism.

Whether it's abortion bans in U.S., opposition head scarves in Europe or forced veiling by the Taliban, whether its limiting women's freedom of movement or their rights to education and work under dictatorial regimes, the leaders of these movements are always men, and the victims are always women.

The women, however, are insistent on making their voices heard.

The speakers at the Paris gathering were from a variety of religions and countries — United States, Canada, Australia, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, India and Iraq as well as representatives of the National Council of the Resistance of Iran — and included members of parliament from several European countries. They were all of the view that religious fanatics exist in every faith and that women have been exploited by religious leaders for centuries.

In her opening remarks, Dame Elizabeth Sydney, chair of the International Federation Against Fundamentalism and for Equality, said, "Gender equality brings great many benefits ... it introduces an enormous amount of talent and energy into society. Under the fundamentalist regime, women are violently prevented from using their abilities. But the release of 50 per cent of human talent will raise standards for all of us."

In a video message, Maryam Rajavi of the Iranian Resistance said that Islamic fundamentalism is the biggest threat to the equality movement and therefore finding a way to confront the imminent danger of religious fascism ruling Iran is an urgent imperative.

Asked how to defeat Islamic fundamentalism and misogyny, Rajavi responded: "You have to eliminate the male-dominated culture as an inhumane culture, through women leadership. Accordingly, the establishment of democracy without the active role of women in society's leadership is impossible or at best retractable."

Adding their insights were Prof. Carole Fontaine of Boston's Andover Newton Theological School who called "fundamentalist patriarchy" a disease; Sushma Dilip-Pankule, representative of the International League of Women For Peace and Freedom in India, who pointed out the major role fundamentalism plays in female infanticide, dowry deaths, child marriage and sati, all of which continue despite government restrictions; Anissa Boumedienne, a lawyer, writer, and wife of the late Algerian President Houari Boumedienne strongly promoted education for women; Swiss Parliamentary Deputy Salika Wenger, who said that it's popular for politicians to discuss fundamentalism without doing anything to fight it; and Hoda Shaker Maarouf Al-Naimi, a professor of political science in Iraq, who elaborated on "the suffering of Iraqi women in an atmosphere of fundamentalist domination and in the absence of tolerance for diverse viewpoints."

Canadian Muslim women's voices were also heard this past weekend at a conference at Michigan State University titled "Islam and Gender: Social Change and Cultural Diversity in Muslim Communities."

Among the presenters was Jasmin Zine, an assistant professor of sociology at Wilfred Laurier University. She spoke about identity issues and the education of Muslim girls in Canada, both in Islamic and public schools.

Western media would do well to keep these women's names on file for the next time they need a Muslim spokesperson to comment on current events.

Raheel Raza is a media consultant.

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