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The Challenge for Muslim Women on the road from Cairo to Beijing


Riffat Hassan, Ph.D.


Dr. Riffat Hassan is a member of the Islamic Research Foundation International and is an award winning scholar, an inimitable voice for moderate  Islam & interreligous dialogue and Professor for Religious Studies and Humanities at the University of Louisville, Louisville, KY. In February 1999, she  founded The International Network for the Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan (INRFVVP), a non-profit organization with a worldwide membership, which has played a noteworthy role in highlighting the issue of violence against girls and women, particularly with reference to “crimes of honor”  (website: ; E-mail:]


[Again, please note that "This article is excerpted with permission from the paper she presented at the IPPF Inter-Regional Workshop on 'Women in Islam: Human Rights and Family Planning', Tunis, July 1995." The following comes at the end of the excerpted article. Thanks].

The United Nations Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, in September 1994, was an extremely important landmark in raising global consciousness with regards to a number of issues which are central to the lives of women. The Conference was particularly momentous for Muslim women who participated in record numbers in this Conference which was held in one of the most important capitals of the Muslim world. The presence in Cairo of Al-Azhar University, the oldest University in the world, whose "fatwas" or religious proclamations carry much weight amongst Muslims, added further significance to the venue of this Conference.

In an opening session of the Conference, three male Professors representing the Al-Azhar University, presented what were labelled "Muslim viewpoints" on the subject of "Religion, Population and Development". Only a small part of their presentations, however, dealt with the topic of Population and Development which was the subject of the Conference. After stating that Islam was not against family planning but that it allowed abortion only to save the mother's life or health, the speakers focused on the status or position of women in the Islamic tradition. The purpose of this panel presentation by high-powered representatives of the most prestigious Muslim University in the world, was to pre-empt any discussion on the subject of Muslim women by making the "privileged" position of women in Islam clear to both the Western media (which stereotypes Muslim women as "poor and oppressed") and to Muslim women themselves.

In interventions from the floor, however, the "Muslim viewpoints" represented by the three male Professors of the Al-Azhar University were questioned as voices of Muslim women were conspicuous by their absence in the panel of presenters. Muslim women demanded "equal time" and they got that and more - in subsequent days when a number of sessions were held at the NGO Forum in which Muslim women figured significantly and in which women-related issues were explicated by women themselves.

Women's identification with body rather than with mind and spirit is a common feature of many religious, cultural and philosophical traditions. However, though women have, traditionally, been identified with body, they have not been seen as "owners" of their bodies. The issue of who controls women's bodies - men, the State, the Church, the Community, or women - has been one of the most important underlying issues of the Cairo Conference. The fact that Muslim women forcefully challenged the traditional viewpoint not only with regards to women's identification with body, but also with regards to the control of the woman's body, indicates that Muslim women are no longer nameless, faceless or voiceless, and that they are ready to stand up and be counted.

It has now been accepted globally that issues which may appear to pertain primarily to a woman's body, namely that of contraception and abortion, cannot be looked at in isolation from the larger factor of women's overall development as human beings. However, as pointed out by a number of persons and agencies, the primary focus of the Cairo Conference was on "population" issues focusing on the body, rather than on "development" issues which focus on the whole person.

The challenge before women in general, and Muslim women in particular, is to shift from the re-active mind set in which it is necessary for women to assert their autonomy over their bodies in the face of strong opposition from patriarchal structures and systems of thought and behaviour, to a pro-active mind set in which they can, finally, begin to speak of themselves as full and autonomous human beings who have not only a body, but also a mind and a spirit. What do Muslim women - who along with Muslim men have been designated as God's vicegerent on earth by the Qur'an - understand to be the meaning of their lives? Reacting against the Western model of human liberation no longer suffices, as a pro-active orientation requires a positive formulation of one's goals and objectives. The critical issue which Muslim women are called upon to reflect on, with utmost seriousness, between the Conferences at Cairo and Beijing, is: what kind of model of self-actualization can be developed within the framework of normative Islam which takes account of Qur'anic ideals as well as the realities of the contemporary Muslim world?

Santayana had remarked with acute insight that those who do not know their history are destined to repeat it. Until such time as the vast majority of Muslim women remain unaware of the religious ideas and attitudes which constitute the matrix in which their lives are rooted, it is not possible to usher in a new era and create a new history in which the Qur'anic vision of gender-justice and equity becomes a reality.

Dr. Riffat Hassan is Professor of the Religious Studies Programme at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. This article is excerpted with permission from the paper she presented at the IPPF Inter-Regional Workshop on 'Women in Islam: Human Rights and Family Planning', Tunis, July 1995.

Copyright IPPF 1995.

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