Islam: What's the Problem? It's Not Faith -- It's the Neighborhood Which Restricts Muslim Women's Rights

Here's a stunning statistic that got my juices going:
World Economic Forum data shows that of the 20 countries in the world with the lowest rates of female participation in the economy, 19 are Muslim-majority. So you can just imagine what women's rights might look like in these countries. While that's a shocker, Najib Razak, Malaysia's Prime Minister argues that it is misleading: "The acquisition of knowledge is binding for all Muslims," and "those who argue against educating women do so as a result of a cultural bias, one which frustrates the aspirations of Muslim women -- and holds back economies."

While many uneducated Muslim men might argue against education and employment for women, women clearly want these options for themselves. Islam clearly provides incredible role models through Khadijah, the Prophet's entrepreneurial first wife who was a very successful caravan trader. Women are chomping to learn and earn regardless of age. This came home to me starkly when I visited a Read Global Center in Delhi where girls and toothless, older women showed up reliably for their vocational training classes. And did they love learning? Yes they did--and in spades. One old woman who had just learned to read Urdu was ready to move on to Arabic, so she could argue with the mullah.

To be economically self sufficient disenfranchised women have three key mantras: to be educated, employed and to invest in their children's education - and particularly their daughters - who are often not financially supported by their fathers who favor their sons. It is mothers who recognize that their daughters will not be empowered if they do not invest in their education and so they do while the fathers are primarily inclined to pay only for their sons' education. But both mothers and fathers are Muslims, pray to the same God, at the same mosques, guided by the same Quran.

The Qu'ran does not distinguish between the sexes but says "men and women have the same spirit; there is no superiority in the spiritual sense between men and women."(Qur'an, 4:1, 7:189, 42:11) But we all know that in reality, women are discriminated against -- not necessarily because of the faith -- but rather due to the cultural context of the countries in which many millions of Muslim women live.

Islam gets a bad rap - mostly because it is not understood by large populations of uneducated followers who misinterpret the content and context and are guided primarily by the cultural context of the countries where they reside--the neighborhood if you will.

This is reflected in the reality that Muslim majority Tanzania has the highest female labor force participation in the world, and that the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, has participation rates on a par with the EU.

Let's look closely at Malaysia.

In an enlightened speech to the World Islamic Economic Forum in London, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, connected the dots between female participation in a country's economy and its positive contribution to economic growth, development and prosperity. Despite the many countries where Muslim women are not entitled to human rights, Prime Minister Razak resolutely asserted the basic tenets of Islam which support women's contributions to a society's economic well-being. "The religious texts are clear: Learning is an honorable pursuit, regardless of gender," Najib told the gathering. He quoted the Quran, Verse 4:32 that says 'For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned'".

On the ground it's murkier. Malaysian women are disproportionately afflicted by their country's still endemic poverty, human trafficking, environmental degradation, increase in refugees, civil unrest, crime and a resurgent Islamic movement. Their rate of work force participation is 54% -- already significantly higher than that of countries like Argentina and Belgium. But Razak considers 54% too low. His goal is to rise is it to 59% as soon as possible - the level of Denmark.

This blog would be incomplete if I leave out the extraordinary contributions of Zainah Anwar, a dedicated Malaysian lawyer and activist who represents women dealing with divorce related issues. She is a quintessential women's rights activist. For many decades, she has been a leader and a founder of Sisters in Islam (SIS) who fights tenaciously for the legal rights of women in Malaysia. She is an aspiring role model for many of us activists as she sets a high bar for women's rights. She is a big believer in working with her sisterhood of supporters and a veritable star, mover, shaker and exemplary role model in her space. Her contributions to women's rights are off the charts. We are all indebted to her for her ground breaking work on women's rights in Malaysia.