http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ida-lichter-md/the-west-should-be-listen_b_832232.html The West Should Listen to Muslim Women Reformers Posted: 03/08/2011 12:29 pm EST Updated: 05/25/2011 6:35 pm EDT On the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, women in most Muslim lands are still oppressed by sharia family law. Many Muslim female activists were demanding changes to gender discriminatory laws well before the current wave of reform started pounding regional governments. There are good reasons to listen to these dissidents whose demands are indispensable to real democratization in the Muslim world. Many activists are sophisticated intellectuals who do not fit the stereotype of the submissive Muslim woman. They are aware of their historic moment and pivotal role as stakeholders in Islamic reform, having the most to gain if freedom takes hold but the most to lose if radical Islam advances. Prepared to risk fatwas, imprisonment and death, some are perplexed and exasperated by the indifference of Western human rights activists to their plight. Female reformers assert that men with a patriarchal agenda have interpreted sharia law, resulting in legalized discrimination against women in family life, education and employment. Many reformers have attacked discriminatory laws with demonstrations and Internet campaigns. Reformers affirm they are also fighting for human rights in general, including freedom of speech, assembly and association, and the right to change religion without punishment. Some Muslim feminists who emigrated to the West have assumed a vigilant, protective role in their adoptive countries. Homa Arjomand, an Iranian immigrant to Canada, successfully campaigned against Islamist pressure to choose Islamic family law over Canadian civil law in sharia courts that legalized suppression of women. Apart from moral obligations to support reformers, the West shares common interests for their advance with liberal Muslims and progressive Muslim societies. According to the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) 2005, "An Arab renaissance cannot be accomplished without the rise of women ... Directly and indirectly, it concerns the well-being of the entire Arab world." Unlocking the potential of half the population and releasing this major resource would benefit social, economic and political progress in the region and the Muslim world in general. In line with Western views, many reformers believe religion is a personal matter and has little place in education and public institutions. They are aiming for secular school and university curricula with critical analysis, scientific method and reduced emphasis on rote learning. Some have advocated codification of sharia law and an overhaul of legal studies, often entirely restricted to Islamic jurisprudence. Raising educational standards would empower women and also provide a challenge to misogyny, one of the central pillars of radical Islam. Most reformers reject the jihadist political message and some believe the antidote to extremism is an education free of indoctrination with the ideology of death, damnation, takfir (accusing other Muslims of heresy) and fighting infidels. According to Afghan feminist Fatana Gailani, education of women is the "sole means of keeping children from becoming terrorists." Progressive Muslims also share views about those international declarations of human rights that take precedence over religious and cultural considerations. In regard to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the AHDR counsels Arab States to "remove all reservations against Article 2 of the Convention, which prescribes the principle of equality." The 2009 ADHR also underscored the importance of recognizing the taboo subject of violence against women in the Arab world. The outcome of current turmoil in the Middle East may not ultimately reflect the women's rights and human rights aspirations of younger-generation liberals. History has shown that women can be worse off following revolutions. In Iran, women from the whole political spectrum were sorely betrayed after being promised increased rights after removal of the Shah. In today's Egypt, the end of an era may not herald the beginning of a new, liberal order if the Muslim Brotherhood gains influence or the military continues to dominate politics without civil society infrastructure to safeguard fair elections and women's rights. Although women protested loudly to oust Mubarak, they were excluded from a recent committee formed to prepare amendments to Egypt's constitution. The U.N. is hobbled by the majority of member countries that elect the likes of Libya to the Human Rights Council and Saudi Arabia to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, an organization "dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women." The West and the U.N. have moral responsibility and self-interest to increase awareness of Muslim women reformers and offer support for their empowerment, an issue of consensus for people of goodwill. Western feminists could also assist by conveying their experience in becoming part of the political process. Incorporation of women's rights in new regional constitutions would fulfill grassroots demands and constitute a valid litmus test for democratic reform. Ida Lichter is the author of'Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression,' published by Prometheus Books, New York. Originally published in 'The Australian'.