By MARY-JANE DEEB
On Nov. 2 the African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) and the Office of Scholarly Programs co-sponsored a symposium on "Globalization and Women in Muslim Societies." This was the third in a series on globalization in Muslim societies that began with a symposium on "Egypt and Globalization" in March, followed on Sept. 12 by a symposium on "Globalization and Identity in Muslim Societies."
Carolyn Brown, acting director for Area Studies, opened by talking about the importance of this series of symposia supported in part by the Rockefeller Foundation. She addressed the issue of globalization and its significance as a conference topic and spoke about the Islamic collection at the Library of Congress, the largest and most important in the United States.
The first panel, chaired by this writer, focused on trends and patterns of globalization and their impact on women throughout the Muslim world. Shireen Hunter, director of the Islam Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, presented an overview of globalization and how it is perceived today in the Muslim world. She maintained that Muslim societies worldwide were traditionally self-contained entities, each with its own "unity of culture." Today these societies feel they are being integrated into a larger, global framework, dominated by one powerful culture, namely, that of the United States. Many therefore reject what they fear is a thinly disguised type of "cultural imperialism" that could mean the end of their specific identities.
Gwendolyn Mikell, chair of the African Studies Program at Georgetown University, addressed the case of Muslim women in Africa and more particularly in Nigeria. She argued that in the past decade a duality emerged between religion and women's rights: While Islam dictated that "good Muslim women" behave modestly and refrain from publicly opposing men, international human rights organizations pressured those very women to struggle for their rights in marriage, child custody, political participation and employment. Globalization for Muslim women in Africa has meant getting involved in women's organizations around the world to address their own domestic problems.
Mahnaz Afkhami, president of the Women's Learning Partnership, a nongovernmental organization that works to empower women, presented the case of communication technology and its impact on Muslim women. In many Muslim societies, where women face some of the harshest gender-related laws, there now is a critical mass of educated women who are acting as intermediaries to raise consciousness and organize women at the grassroots against those laws, and they use new information technologies to inform and mobilize others.
The second panel, chaired by Prosser Gifford, director of Scholarly Programs, focused on the regional impact of globalization. The first speaker was Nasrine Gross, president of Kabultec, a small nongovernmental organization that raises money for education projects for women and children in Afghanistan. Ms. Gross donned a garment that allowed only her eyes to be seen behind a net. She was making the point that in Afghanistan today women have lost all their rights under the Taliban regime. Ms. Gross is the U.S. representative of NEGAR, a global nongovernmental organization headquartered in Paris, that is fighting for the rights of Afghan women, demonstrating how issues that were once regarded as local, are now part of a global agenda.
Ms. Gross was followed by Jenny White, associate professor of anthropology at Boston University, who talked about women in Turkey who decide to wear a veil. She described how wearing a veil had become an issue of identity and did not necessarily reflect a traditional outlook. According to Ms. White, these Turkish women are attempting to create a new identity by integrating traditional and modern ways of life.
The last speaker, Marina Ottaway, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, talked about her research in Bosnia and Azerbaijan. She said that all women, including Muslim women in the former Soviet Union, officially have the same rights as men. Therefore, their plight is very different from that of Muslim women in other regions of the world. Economic globalization has impoverished some former communist societies and has politicized some religious identities. Muslim women in places such as Sarajevo are starting to wear the veil not as a symbol of religiousness, but more as a sign of political identity and political protest.
The next symposium in the series, on Dec. 7, is "Globalization and the Law in Muslim Societies."
Ms. Deeb is the Arab-world area specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.