Council on Foreign Relations
Isobel Coleman

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Paradise Beneath Her Feet author assesses the role of women in changing the Middle East.

Isobel Coleman is a leading American expert on Islamic feminism, which she addresses in her book Paradise Beneath Her Feet. A senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, she also directs the Council's Women and Foreign Policy Program. Her previous experience includes research fellow at the Brookings Institution, adjunct professor at American University, CEO for a healthcare services company and partner with McKinsey & Co. Coleman holds a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University.


Tavis: Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the council’s Women and Foreign Policy program. Her new text is called “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.” Isobel, good to have you on the program.
Isobel Coleman: Thank you.
Tavis: One could argue if one were a cynic – I guess one wouldn’t even have to be a cynic to make the argument that the evidence is not overwhelming that women are changing the Middle East, given X, Y and Z, but you disabused me of that notion.
Coleman: Well, listen, we always hear so much about the bad news, and what I’ve tried to do in this book is give a more nuanced picture of the region and talk about some of the changes that are happening. There are some rises in female education, female economic participation and also female engagement in public society, in politics.
You’ve had, in just the last couple of years, women get the vote and be elected to the parliament in Kuwait. A quarter of the parliament in Iraq is women; a quarter of the parliament in Afghanistan is women. So we’re making some progress and together I see the seeds of something much larger which is going on around the world, which is a really profound transformation under way where women are moving up and saying, “Enough. We’re going to change things.”
Tavis: When you say, “We’re making progress,” define for me who the “we” are, because I’m curious as to whether or not you’re suggesting that there is some role that Western civilization is playing in this.
Coleman: No, I mean we women all around the world.
Tavis: That’s what I thought, exactly.
Coleman: I mean women in Africa, women in Europe, in the United States, and women in the Middle East countries that I talk about – these conservative Muslim majority countries. Even there you see some glimmers of hope, of women coming together and saying, “Hey, it doesn’t need to be this way.”
Tavis: What’s forcing the crack in the door that’s allowing these women, as you mentioned, step by step to make progress? What’s allowing for that crack in the door?
Coleman: Well, I think there are a number of things. First is rising levels of female education, so when women are more educated they’re better able to articulate their own case, and you see that around the world.
So you do have rising levels of female education in the Middle East. The Middle East is a region that has really lagged in female education. It has under-invested in half of its population, but they’re beginning to close those gaps and in some countries you now have women outnumbering men at the secondary school level.
Then even at the college level. In Saudi Arabia 60 percent of college graduates in Saudi Arabia are women. In Iran, 70 percent of college graduates are women. They’re finding when they graduate from college that they don’t have a lot of economic opportunities.
In Saudi Arabia they’re not allowed to vote, their rights are severely limited, but they’re very educated and they’re questioning and pushing and saying, “Why does it need to be this way?”
Tavis: Hillary Clinton, our secretary of State, as you know has been very aggressive about this, and every time she speaks, it seems, she’s advancing the role of women around the world. President Karzai from Afghanistan was here recently, as you know, and again she says to him publicly that whatever we do in Afghanistan has got to be connected to, not disconnected from, the role that women will play in this open society.
What’s the advantage to the U.S., the advantage to our foreign policy, when women are involved and engaged?
Coleman: Well listen, Secretary Clinton speaks about the role of women in the world from a position of passion. It’s been a deep interest of hers for many, many years but as secretary of State she’s really pushing that agenda because she knows that it is in the best interests of the United States.
When the status of women is improved, economies improve. It’s half the human capital in a country. So economies improve, global health improves. When a woman is educated, when she has opportunities, she raises more educated and healthier children. It’s a way of breaking cycles of poverty.
A lot of what I’ve written about in this book is extremist attitudes towards women and those go hand-in-hand with extremist attitudes in general. So there’s a linkage there – a linkage in terms of economic terms, in terms of political stability and in terms of security.
Tavis: Where are we still seeing the least amount of paradise beneath the feet of these women?
Coleman: Well, there are three regions in the world that have lagged the most in terms of improving the status of women – sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia – and the book that I’ve written focuses on the Middle East and South Asia and it focuses on very conservative Islamic countries which struggle not only with culture, tradition, patriarchy, which exists around the world and keep women from fulfilling their roles in society, but it has an overlay of religion, of religious justification for keeping women from realizing their full rights.
Tavis: How do we read what you’ve written so powerfully in the book where these examples are concerned, these countries? How do we read this as an honest critique and not a bashing of Islam?
Coleman: Well, the book actually is – you can read it really almost in the opposite way, which is women within these countries are saying, “We want to change things. We recognize we live in deeply conservative, religious countries.” These are not secular societies and Western secular arguments have had limited appeal in their countries.
There have been many, many courageous and determined secular feminists but what I write about in this book is a new generation of women who are using Islamic feminism as a tactic, as an argument, and somewhere approaching it from positions of deep faith.
They truly believe that their religion is one of the progressive notions for women, and it’s just been misinterpreted over the years.
But they’re coming together, some are coming together with secular feminists and pushing for change within a dialogue and within a context that is authentic and local and really trying to push for change in that way.
Tavis: The question I wanted to ask was the primary difference as you see it between Islamic feminism, the term that you used a moment ago. Islamic feminism and feminism as we know it here in the country, but I guess the religion is obviously at the center of that.
Coleman: Well, I think what I’m – it’s interesting. The people I write about in this book, they all hate the term “Islamic feminism.” They hate it because – for different reasons. Some hate it because really, they’re secularists and they don’t want the Islamic part of that, or they’re living in a country where the feminist part of it has a lot of baggage.
So put it together and really, nobody likes it. But what they’re doing in effect is arguing for women’s rights as being compatible with Islam, and as I said, for some it’s a tactic; for others, they truly believe it and it’s from a position of deep faith.
But you see in the countries that I’m writing about that it’s a very important approach that these women are using because after all, fighting against culture, fighting against patriarchy is very difficult. When you throw in religion on top of that, it becomes almost impossible.
Tavis: How would the role of women being increased dramatically in these countries impact the so-called war on terror that we’re now engaged in?
Coleman: Well, I really think that this is a battle within Islam as opposed to a battle between us and them over the role of women in society.
The stories that I tell in this book are about very courageous, very determined women and men, by the way, who are a big part of this, who are really trying to redefine their religion in the 21st century, and women, I think, have for a variety of reasons really ceded the ground of religious authority to men and in recent decades it’s become very conservative men who’ve been defining religion.
Women now are saying, “We want to take that back,” and this struggle is very much within Islam and it’s country to country. You can see there are those who are taking very narrow, rigid, extremist views on women and those who are having more open and progressive views on women, and I think that those with more open, progressive views on women tend to have more open and progressive views on a range of different subjects, including how they interact in general with the modern world.
Tavis: How would you describe the pace of this progress?
Coleman: In some places very slow, painfully slow; in others, faster than I would have anticipated. Just six or seven years ago I had a group of very determined and courageous Kuwaiti women come and talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York about their quest to get women the vote in Kuwait, and one of them afterwards told me, “Oh, it might be decades before we achieve this.”
It wasn’t decades; it was a matter of years. Women got the vote and now they’re four tremendous women who’ve been elected to the Kuwaiti parliament. So that’s a small change, it’s happening, but in other countries it will – Saudi Arabia’s a deeply traditional, conservative society. These changes will go quite slowly there.
In Iraq it’s a very fluid environment. It’s hard to predict what will happen there, but women make up a quarter of the parliament now.
Tavis: Are the men in these countries getting it, waking up because they see the light or because they feel the heat?
Coleman: Both. Some feel the heat. They feel the heat from their wives, their daughters. They feel the heat at home. Some feel the heat from the position of their country in the global world. They realize that their country, their society, their economy is getting left behind.
Others see the light. They recognize that investing in women is good for the society, is good for the economy and they’re really behind women and pushing it. I think it’s partly feeling the heat. They understand that these very rigid, archaic notions about women are leaving their countries behind.
Tavis: The new book from Isobel Coleman is called “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.” Isobel, thanks for the book and good to have you on the program.
Coleman: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Glad to have you.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm