5 Ways We Can Defend Women’s Rights and Muslim Rights

On January 22, many of the women I know across the Muslim world stood with U.S. women. Some stood in spirit as the Women’s March movement crossed the globe. Some held their own marches, sending messages of solidarity. Many expressed hope that the American women’s movement would take a progressive stance with respect to U.S. foreign policy and U.S. relations with the Islamic world. They wished for less aggression and conflict in the region, and an end to the demonization of Muslims.

The reality is that the majority of Muslims around the globe view the current debate on Islam in the West as problematic. For those who are working to promote rights, the current debate especially hinders their efforts.

On the right, discourse tends to demonize Islam, equating all Muslims with extremist groups such as ISIS and Islam with what ISIS and other extremists espouse—a notion which Muslims around the world, despite varied approaches and interpretations to their faith, adamantly reject. In so doing, those on the right dismiss the differences of Muslims, reducing their identities only to their faith and a version of that faith most Muslims reject. The conservative right in the West fails to recognize that extremists manipulate religion and elements in culture for power and political gains, and that what they preach is a distorted ideology that has little to do with how the majority of peaceful Muslims practice their religion and have lived for centuries.

On the other hand, in an effort to stop this demonization, a discourse has emerged among progressive leftists which almost entirely opposes any criticism of the faith and practice of Muslims. These groups often stifle constructive and legitimate criticism—and are seen by some as apologists for those who may use the religion to justify rights violations or ensure their own power.

The reality is that in most Muslim contexts, there are vibrant movements, even if at times small, which have reformist and even critical perspectives toward the traditional practice of the faith. They question the cultural beliefs and practices attributed to the faith. Many are working for the adoption of secular or civic law, in an effort to promote rights and democracy. In fact, citizens in Muslim contexts while being the most vulnerable to the violence of extremist groups like ISIS are and have for long been engaged in debate and reform, a point exemplified in the varied approaches of each culture, country or sect. It is fair to say that the beliefs of Muslims are anything but static and by no means monoliths.

For those of us who have worked to promote women’s rights in Muslim Majority contexts in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, the connections between East and West are clear and particularly complicated. We fully understand that women’s rights is a politically charged issue in both contexts, used to illustrate ideological points held by groups on each end of the spectrum.

Therefore, speaking up as a Muslim woman in the West—particularly in the politically charged context of the U.S.—is extremely complicated and difficult. You are expected to represent all Muslims; whatever you say is weighed and seen as a statement on Muslim women’s rights across the globe. Caught in a largely static dichotomy of black and white and tangled in a discourse of extremes pitting notions of oppressor and liberator against one another, many fall into the trap of bolstering efforts of Islamophobes or serving to justify or apologize for Islamist ideologies that repress women.

The times ahead are going to pose more challenges for women of Muslim heritage in the U.S. as they try to balance their ethnic, religious and gender identities—at a time when those from Muslim backgrounds are being vehemently targeted and demonized.

How do you speak up against the backlash targeting Muslims while still advocating for women’s rights? How do women from Muslim heritage speak up without emboldening or strengthening either of the extremes, which at their core objectify women to serve their own political ends? I am not sure if I have all the answers—but these five lessons I have learned from advocating women’s rights in Muslim contexts at the intersection of East and West may be a good start.

#1: Defend universal rights and personal choice.

As Muslim women or women from Muslim heritage aligning ourselves with women’s movements in the West, we need to also stand steadfastly for universal rights of women living in Muslim contexts.

We need to defend their personal rights and choices—even if they go against custom, culture and tradition. This includes speaking up against issues such as forced marriage, forced dress codes and efforts to limit women’s presence in the social and political spheres, including restrictions on women’s right to drive. As we work to bring light to positive aspects of Islam or Muslim countries, we need to also speak up against force and violence targeting women and the violation of human rights, especially when it is being done in the name of religion and culture.

We should defend rights as forcefully as when we speak up against those who want to wage war against Muslims or their countries, those who demonize Muslims or promote discrimination against them in the West. If we set universal rights as our starting point, we will always condemn actions by state and non-state actors which take away women’s choice, whether it be in the West or in the East.

#2: Understand your audience—and larger political contexts.

We have to understand the political context in which we speak but still be true to our own values. For this reason, we cannot use single issues to drive home our point.

Single issues—or the flattening of the issues to the point that they fail to reflect even the most basic of complexities—is an approach that feeds into the extreme narratives on both sides. For example, the condemnation of forced hijabs in some Muslim countries presented as a single issue may bolster the argument by some in the West who are in favor of war. They often use this issue to demonize their opponent and justify harsh action, cloaked in an effort to liberate women. At the same time, tunnel vision defense of forced veiling, dismissal of it as a problem or its attribution to cultural norms may bolster Islamists in their effort to push back on women’s rights and its advocates.

These are tricky and politically charged contexts and times—and we have to be able to speak to multiple audiences and multiple issues at the same time.

#3: Adopt a nuanced, more complex third discourse when discussing Islam and Muslims.

Recognize that the dichotomous narrative of opposing extremes—supporting Islamophobes on the one hand and Islamists on the other—is hard to change. Working to create spaces in the middle and alternative discourses, which paint a more complex and nuanced picture of realities with respect to Islam and Muslims, is difficult. Anyone who ventures to do so will be questioned and attacked by single-issue adherents on each end of the spectrum, most possibly simultaneously. It will be tough for sure, but it will hopefully work to widen the space of discourse and to offer a more complex picture of the issues at hand.

At the same time, we need to create a chorus of different voices—each offering a third narrative of their own. Not all of what we have to say will be the same, but much of what we say will be—especially if we adhere to universal rights. In this diversity we will build a wide alternative space for discourse and discussion that will bring with it the opportunity to understand the complexities of the global and local issues we face.

#4: Talk, talk, talk it out!

Women activists of Muslim heritage in the West and women living in Muslim contexts in the East need to interact and learn more from one another. They need to understand one another’s contexts better and work collectively to identify the best strategies to address and prevent the violation of women’s rights as well as rights of Muslims and other minorities.

In the first instance, I would recommend that this discussion take place between those who do see the issues as complex, that are not tied to single issue advocacy and who do not fall on either end of the extremes. We have to recognize that this is a process of growth, both personal growth and collective growth and maturation—so we have to be patient and open to hearing one another.

#5: Celebrate our diversity and multiple identities.

Extremists on both sides benefit from eliminating or demonizing diversity and difference.

For many, the worst thing resulting from the current dominant discourses on the right and the left is the elimination of difference and what makes us unique. They reduce all of us from Muslim heritage to one single identity—our religious one. But we know that we are different and have multiple identities at the same time.

Let us recognize them, celebrate them and value them—whether we are secular women from Muslim heritage, practicing Muslim women who observe the hijab or Atheists; whether we are Sunni, or Shia; first generation from Palestine or third generation originally from Iran; whether we are immigrants, refugees, students or professionals.

Let us recognize and celebrate our differences—and be unified by them.




Sussan Tahmasebi is the Director of FEMENA an organization working to promote women's rights, support feminist movements and women human rights defenders in MENA and West Asia. Between 2011-2017 she served as the MENA/Asia Director at the International Civil Society Action Network which she cofounded. From 1999-2010 she worked in Iran to promote women’s rights and equality. Prior to that, she worked in the US to ensure women's access to reproductive health services. She is the recipient of Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award for extraordinary activism and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta’s Power to Inspire award. In 2011 Newsweek identified her as one of 150 women who “Shake the World.”