‘Paradise’ examines how women are pushing for change in the Middle East

Isobel Coleman’s new book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet, explores just what its subtitle says: how women are transforming the Middle East. The senior U.S. foreign policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations recently spoke to The Hill about how women are pushing for their political, educational and legal rights in the context of an often-misunderstood Islam.

Q: Let’s talk about the term “Islamic feminism.” You’ve said yourself that many people, especially in the U.S., view that as an oxymoron. Explain why it’s not.

The gist of the book is that there are men and women in the Middle East arguing that it is not an oxymoron because Islam provided for many, many rights for women — in fact, was among the first religions to provide rights for women — and has been distorted over the years in the way it’s been interpreted. But … at its core, its value system … really promotes women’s rights.

Q: Who are these Islamic feminists?

They really range from scholars and academics who’ve deeply studied and engaged with the texts down to people at a very local level, who are arguing either within their family or with a community leader, with a local mullah or more broadly in the society at large for change using more progressive Islamic discourse.

Q: What role do men play?

Men play a really important role in providing Islamic feminists with support, with credibility, with justification, with encouragement, for their actions. There are a lot of men who agree with these more progressive interpretations of Islam and really encourage them.

Q: What are the main ways they’re transforming the Middle East?

It really varies country by country. In a country like Afghanistan, women are fighting for their most basic, basic rights: to education, the right to move outside their home and to work. In a country like Saudi Arabia, where women have very high levels of education, they’re arguing for their right to work and to have more mobility and more access. … In Iran, the women have, actually, very strong access to education and most elements of the workforce, but they have very restricted legal rights, and so they’re really pushing on that.

Q: You argue that the success of these women could help counter the type of extremism that fuels terrorism. How so?

Well, extremist attitudes toward women seem to go hand in hand with extremist attitudes in general. So burning down a girls’ school because you don’t think girls should go to school is terrorism and it leads to extreme violence in society.

Q: What should the U.S. do to support these activists?

I think it’s important that we recognize their efforts and their courage. I think it’s wonderful for American groups to provide support and training to some of these activists when they ask for it, when they want it.

And I think helping build bridges across these emerging movements around the world is also a very helpful role, through translation, through education, through conferences, through funding, through the Internet, to help build momentum behind this emerging movement.

Q: Does outside support, particularly from the West, help or hurt?

[These activists] are very sophisticated people, and they are the best people to determine whether … that extension from the U.S. hurts or helps. It’s their calculus that matters. So it’s good to offer — they can choose to decline. But these are sophisticated people who understand their circumstances better than anybody.

Q: How robust is this movement?

This isn’t a revolution. We’re at the beginning of a very, very long and what will undoubtedly be a slow and painful period of change, but change is happening and, more often than not, I see it being driven by women.