In the Quran, a man approached the prophet Muhammad to ask if he could help wage jihad. Muhammad refused, but the man insisted.
“Do you have a mother?” Muhammad asked, and the man said he did. “Well, paradise lies beneath her feet. Stay home and be loyal to your mother.”
When Isobel Coleman visited Saudi Arabia years ago, an American-educated Saudi man explained why Saudi women couldn’t drive, own their own businesses or leave their homes without a guardian’s permission.
“The reason we have all these restrictions,” the man told her, “is because we Muslims respect our women. We love our women. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them — you see, there’s a saying: Paradise lies beneath the feet of mothers.”
A year later, Coleman was back in Saudi Arabia, this time talking with a group of female Saudi reformers.
“The reason we should be allowed to do all these things,” one of these women said, “is because there’s a saying in Islam: Paradise lies beneath the feet of mothers.”
Coleman said in her lecture at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater that this story illustrates the problems in Muslim culture regarding women. While conservative Muslims claim the Quran restricts women’s rights, progressive Muslims claim the Quran should be interpreted in a modern context.
Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, was the second speaker for this week’s theme of “21st Century Women: The Road to Social and Economic Growth.” Her speech, titled “Paradise Beneath Her Feet,” explored the progress women’s rights have made so far in the Middle East.
In the 1960s, an arms deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia ended Saudi slavery, but the second term — women’s rights — was only half granted. Women were given the option to go to school, but it wasn’t a requirement.
Since then, the 2 percent literacy rate in Saudi Arabia has evolved so Saudi women make up 63 percent of all college graduates, Coleman said. Despite this, women still are not allowed to drive or to own their own businesses.
Coleman said women have been working to earn the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. They are no longer accepting that the Quran is the reason they’re the butt of discrimination.
“The women are pulling out Scriptures, and they’re reading it,” Coleman said, “and they say, ‘Where does it say in the Quran that women can’t drive cars?’”
They also read passages about Aisha, Muhammad’s favorite wife, who rode into battle on a camel. Instead of accepting the word from others’ mouths, Muslim women are reading the texts themselves and fighting the conservative interpretations.
Recently, Saudi women announced a national day for female driving, even though it’s not legal. They were then advised to put videos of the events on YouTube.
“Sadly, from my perspective, (only) about 40 or 50 women dared to do so,” Coleman said. “A very small number, but the Saudi women said, ‘You can’t conflate that small number with small interest. … There just aren’t that many brave women who want to do it.’”
Coleman also talked about a Turkish soap opera called “Noor,” in which the main character treats his only wife, Noor, respectfully. Coleman said it’s had such an effect on the Arab community that clerics of Islam have tried to ban it.
However, just like in any other women’s rights campaign of the past, there are both male and female critics. Coleman said they believe women’s rights would not be beneficial to religion and families.
These critics make up a very small portion of the country, yet change is happening slowly. She described the current path in the Middle East regarding women’s rights as a “slippery slope” — a reference to what the clerics feared in that initial granting of women’s education in the 1960s.
Similar situations can be seen in places outside of Saudi Arabia as well — even outside of the Middle East. She spoke about China, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey and Iran.
In Iran, wearing a headscarf is more of a suggestion than a requirement. These women are even waiting longer to get married: Even though the minimum age for marriage is 13, the average age women get married is now 26.
Essentially, this issue addresses both human rights and economics, Coleman said.
“If you invest in girls’ education and female literacy,” she said, referencing a World Bank study by Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, “it has remarkable spillover benefits. Not only does it change the life of that girl, it changes the lives of the next generation.”
Summers concluded in that study that investing in women’s education makes the highest return on investment in the developing world.
Even among every developing country in the world, Coleman said, the Middle East is lagging behind. She said it’s up to the Middle East alone to make its own progress.
“When you invest in women,” Coleman said, “it can put whole societies — whole cultures — on the positive trajectory.”
Isobel Coleman is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and director of CFR’s Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative. She is also director of CFR's Women and Foreign Policy program. Her areas of expertise include democratization and economic development in the Middle East, educational reform and regional gender issues.
She is the author and co-author of numerous publications, including Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East (Random House, 2010), Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President (Brookings Institution Press, 2008) and Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (Hoover Press, 2006). Her writings have also appeared in publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, and online venues such as the Huffington Post.