Defending the human rights of Muslim women is a highly charged minefield

MONTREAL — A few weeks ago, at a party honoring a respected defender of women’s human rights, I found myself in conversation with another guest, discussing a recent controversy: Gita Sahgal, the head of Amnesty International’s gender unit, was dismissed after she publicly questioned AI’s association with Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and self-proclaimed Taliban supporter. I told the guest, a fellow women’s studies scholar, that I supported Ms. Sahgal and opposed the Taliban’s policies towards women in Afghanistan.

Student Journal: Summer dispatches from the fieldEach year the UC Berkeley-based Human Rights Center awards summer fellowships to students from University of California campuses, to enable them to work with human-rights organizations in the U.S. and abroad. Three current Human Rights Fellows have agreed to share their experiences this summer, with regular updates from the field to be published on the NewsCenter. Rochelle Terman sends her first post from Montreal.

Rochelle TermanRochelle Terman
on women living under Muslim laws

  1. Defending the rights of Muslim women is a highly charged minefield
  2. Violence against women in the name of ‘culture’ is pandemic
  3. How activism has brought me closer to my ‘Madar’ and my heritage
  4. A cousin’s bat mitzvah, and the tradition of defending our traditions by any means necessary
  5. A one-way path towards gender justice: The West leading the rest
  6. The aromas of Bali and the contours of a furious debate
  7. Reflections on a hijab-wearing Iranian feminist and how she touched my life
Also reporting:

“So you support the Northern Alliance!” she fired back. “That’s typical of Islamophobic Western feminists, pounding war drums in order to save Muslim women.”

I start my first blog post with this anecdote because it reflects issues I expect to grapple with this summer as a Human Rights Fellow.

When I tell progressive-minded people that I focus on women’s rights in Muslim contexts, I am often met with a round of questions designed to peg me as either a Geert Wilders (a Dutch politician known for his criticism of Islam) or a Moazzam Begg. That is, do I think (a) that Islam is an inherently barbaric religion that hates women or (b) that all calls to promote women’s human rights hide a neo-liberal agenda to demonize Islam and re-colonize the Muslim world? My interrogators often look for clues on my person — my clothing, skin color, accent, and demeanor — to determine which of these is my dominant mind-set.

I don’t blame others for assuming I’m one or the other. In such a polarized social landscape, it’s natural to assume that anyone working on the highly politicized issue of women’s rights in Muslim countries is either neo-imperialist or an Islamic fundamentalist.

There’s reason on either side to think this way. On the one hand, anti-imperialist activists have good reason to be skeptical of ostensibly enlightened initiatives that want to “save Muslim women.” On the other, self-proclaimed cultural spokespeople often promote violence against women in the name of religion — regardless of whether those practices are legitimately rooted in religious teachings —  and then attempt to silence anybody who opposes them by labeling these dissenters “anti-Islam” or “Orientalist.”

Is there any room in this conversation for the rest of us? By which I mean those who promote women’s human rights but also vehemently oppose racism, xenophobia, and prejudice; those of us who demand an end to all forms of violence against women, but also reject the misuse of women’s rights to impose an imperialist or Orientalist agenda. What can we do to defend women’s rights around the world, build international solidarity, and put an end to injustice — without fanning the flames of intolerance and racism?

These are some of the questions I’ll explore this summer. I’ll be working for the Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women (SKSW), an international movement that demands an end to the relentless misuse of “culture,” “religion,” and “tradition” to justify violence against women. While we recognize that violence against women occurs in every country, the campaign is currently most active within Muslim contexts, as it grew predominantly from struggles against cruel, inhuman punishments of women and girls — such as stoning, whippings, female genital mutilation, and honor killings. Today, SKSW works with partners in seven focal countries: Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, and the Sudan.

As an intern, I will explore “success stories” of individuals and groups who have struggled in these countries against culturally justified violence against women (CVAW), and will document their successful strategies. Along the way I hope to ask many questions: Who speaks for culture? Who has the legitimate right to define what is authentic, and by what authority? Why is it that the “human rights vs. cultural relativism” debate is so often centered on women’s rights and gender practices?

I hope also to reflect on more personal questions: What motivates people (myself included) to pursue social activism, and what triggers our interest in the issues for which we campaign? How does personal identity and upbringing affect how we engage with issues of social justice and politics?

This is my point of departure for what I hope will be a  challenging, exciting, and fun (!) summer. In my next post I’ll talk more about my personal goals for the summer, my organization, and what my position as a summer intern will require from me.

About Rochelle Terman

Rochelle Terman

The daughter of a Muslim-Iranian mother and Jewish-American father, Rochelle Terman became interested in women’s rights in Iran while an undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying political science and Near Eastern studies. During that time, Terman did a summer internship at Women Living Under Muslim Laws — an international solidarity network for women whose lives are shaped by laws and customs said to derive from Islam — and helped to found the Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women (SKSW).

Now a graduate student at Berkeley focusing on political science, Terman, 24, will spend the summer researching and documenting success stories of local women’s organizations located in seven countries — Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal and Sudan — as part of her continued work with SKSW.