One Size Does Not Fit All: Correcting Muslim Women’s Empowerment Training To End Terrorism

One of the most effective counter-terrorism training efforts not currently being corrected is the empowerment of Muslim women. Empowered Muslim women, a nightmare for Middle Eastern terrorist groups, can be shaped into an additional weapon to discourage the making of new terrorists, based on trends reported in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report. In my opinion, developers of programs like the USAID Gender Program should rethink their approach to teaching Muslim women how to control their money, make family planning decisions and protect themselves from violence.

The current effort to empower Muslim women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is not new, nor is it sustainable. Afghanistan, in the news again, is a prime example. After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan’s major cities, like Kabul, appeared to be on their way to become a model of gender equality in the region. Millions of girls were enrolled in school. Women were providing service in business, government, and even the military. But these developments were short lived. A 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation survey ranked Afghanistan as one of the most dangerous places in the world for women.

Based on my personal and professional experience, I know we can do better. For more than 35 years, I’ve seen the women’s empowerment world from several perspectives: policy advisor on women’s issues, evaluator of public and private sector empowerment programs and former resident in Northern Nigeria’s Sharia, Islamic law based on the Quran, governed society. I have a Juris Doctor degree and extensive training in leadership development. Equally important, I’m an American woman who has experienced first-hand the ugliness of suppression.

The memory is still fresh. An influential Muslim member of an energy company board of directors attempted to bar me from a board meeting because I was a woman. I, too, was a board member. After winning the support of the other male board members, I attended the meeting.

Change is difficult. I’ve seen frustration in the face of a woman I know personally. Josephine, a former government head of Women’s Affairs, was unable, through regional and local programs, to fully engage Muslim women in advocacy, education, and entrepreneurship programs. Something was missing. One of her biggest regrets is she was unable to find a solution to the problem.

Training program developers need to work with the experts, Muslim women scholars and community activists, to design effective programs.

Program designers should consider the concerns and preferences of Muslim women feminists who say interpretations of Sharia that oppress women, have no foundation in Islam and are simply misinterpretations by men who want to hold onto power. Re-interpretation of the Quran, an enormous undertaking, is essential; if not, change is unlikely.

The Afghan mother who seeks no help to stop her husband from selling their 6-year-old daughter to a 55-year-old man in exchange for a goat would probably reject the American one size fits all approach to women’s empowerment because her view of the world is shaped by fifteen hundred year old teachings from the Quran. Muslim scholars, capable of re-interpreting Islamic doctrine, have the know-how to try and change the Afghan mother’s way of thinking.

It is true American program designers for social changes are famously successful at creating programs to meet the needs of participants. For example, Teach for America, has been so effective that it is now one of the most popular recruiters on many Ivy League campuses. American program designers’ success occurs when development includes a thorough fact finding and analytical process to determine the program content needs of potential participants. Human Services expert Professor P. M. Kettner says program design begins with studying the problem and determining the need. It would be great if designers were to do so when developing empowerment programs for Muslim women.

The task ahead may be daunting, but it is doable. What better time than now to draw from the well of Francis Bacon’s wisdom recognizing the mountain doesn’t always come to Muhammad; sometimes, Muhammad must go to the mountain.