Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Changing the Middle East
Over the centuries and throughout the world, women have struggled for equality and basic rights. Their challenge in the Middle East has been intensified by the rise of a political Islam that too often condemns women’s empowerment as Western cultural imperialism or, worse, anti-Islamic. In Paradise Beneath Her Feet, Isobel Coleman shows how Muslim women and men are fighting back with progressive interpretations of Islam to support women’s rights in a growing movement of Islamic feminism.
In this timely book, Coleman journeys through the strategic crescent of the greater Middle East—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, to reveal how these activists are working within Islam to create educational, economic, and political opportunities for women. Isobel argues that these efforts are critical to bridging conflict between those championing reform and those seeking to oppress women in the name of religious tradition. Successes will bring stability and prosperity to the Middle East, transforming the region. ISBN 9780812978551.
Isobel shines a light on several Muslim men and women who are among the most influential Islamic feminist thinkers, and brilliantly illuminates the on-the-ground experiences of women who are driving change: Sakena Yacoobi, an Afghan educator who runs more than forty women’s centers across Afghanistan, providing hundreds of thousands of women with literacy and health classes, teaching them about their rights within Islam. Madawi al-Hassoon, a successful businesswoman challenging conservative conventions to break new ground for Saudi professional women. Salama al-Khafaji, a devout dentist-turned-politician who relies on moderate interpretations of Islam to promote opportunities for women in Iraq’s religiously charged environment. These “quiet” revolutionaries are using Islamic feminism to change the terms of religious debate, to fight for women’s rights within Islam instead of fighting against Islam.
Women and women’s issues are very much on the front lines of a war that is taking place between advocates of innovation, tolerance, and plurality and those who use violence to reject modernity in Muslim communities around the world. Ultimately, Paradise Beneath Her Feet offers a message of hope: Change is happening—and more often than not, it is being led by women. Paradise Beneath Her Feet was first published in 2010, the stories of the activists profiled by Coleman have become even more relevant. Across the Arab world, popular uprisings have overthrown secular regimes and brought Islamist parties into the political mainstream. Demands for sharia are already clashing with existing rights for women.
In a new preface, Coleman places the main themes of the book, the struggle for women’s rights and the broader reform movement within Islam, within the context of the Arab uprisings. She argues that as the political landscape of the Middle East continues to change, how effectively women’s rights are incorporated into broader demands for social, economic, and political change is a bellweather for the region.
Many fear that reconciling Islam and women’s rights is an impossible task, that the Arab upheavals will only spread theocracy. But Paradise Beneath Her Feet describes how that reconciliation has been happening for years across the Islamic world in a growing movement of “Islamic feminism.” Muslim women want to practice their faith, but not at the expense of their rights. Increasingly, they look to their faith as a source of those rights.
The fact is that young Arab women today are more overtly religious than their mother’s generation, but they are also significantly better educated, they are marrying later, having fewer children and more likely to work outside the home. Their demands for greater freedom have been building for years. The Arab uprisings have undeniably mobilized women. The defiance of brave female activists has surprised many in the West who have long viewed Arab women only as oppressed victims of conservative patriarchy and religion. But as the inspirational stories in this book attest, women have long been at the forefront of social change throughout the Islamic world. Despite uneven progress, new media is giving voice to their demands and aspirations in unprecendented ways, and history is on their side.
Isobel Coleman is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where she focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. She is the director of CFR’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative. She is also the director of CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy Program. In 2011, Newsweek named her one of “150 Women Who Shake the World.”
Prior to joining the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Coleman was CEO of a healthcare services company. A Marshall Scholar, she holds a DPhil and MPhil in international relations from Oxford University and a BA in public policy and East Asian studies from Princeton University. She serves on several non-profit boards.