When women's influence increases, these experts explain, it strengthens
the moderate center, bolstering economic stability and democratic order. Women
might serve as powerful assets in the West's attempt to counter Islamic
The results of Iran's last two presidential elections reveal the moderating
power of women -- their covered heads and bodies notwithstanding. President
Mohammed Khatami, a moderate by current Iranian standards, was elected twice
over the wishes of Islamic conservatives because of the pivotal support of
But for the last 30 years, Islamic extremism has flourished throughout the
Middle East. As women have been pushed out of the political and economic
spheres, their traditional moderating role has declined. ''This is the warriors'
time,'' said Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East Studies at the John Hopkins
School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. ''The warriors, the
martyrs they're all men. In this moment of history, with the world of the Arabs
and the larger world of Islam on the boil, the whole question of women and
women's progress is shelved.''
Indeed, in societies where women did gain footholds, that power may have
prompted a backlash among lower middle class men in particular that helped
militants. Women often look like competitors for jobs and a better life in
countries where half or more of the population is under age 25. Angry young men,
many of them unemployed, have seized the public arena from Algeria to South Asia
and filled it with hate, intolerance and the abuse of women, Mr. Ajami said. He
and other scholars of Muslim societies say these men are from the lower middle
class, where expectations were rising fastest. ''This is the class that is most
hostile to women,'' Mr. Ajami said. ''If this class dominates the Islamists,
feminism and modernity are doomed.''
Since 1979, radical Islamic movements have toppled or challenged governments
from Iran to Egypt to Pakistan. Their growing popularity has many causes:
poverty, the dissatisfaction with regimes viewed as corrupt and irreligious, the
dislocation of modernity and unease with women's independence. Azar Nafisi, an
Iranian scholar now at Johns Hopkins, said recruitment of militants is strong
among low-paid workers or lower middle classes.
In recent decades, the media and the Internet have made images of Western
life omnipresent. And what it looks like frightens this segment of the
population. ''If Western culture, if democratic culture, is spread to their
countries, there will be no room for them,'' Ms. Nafisi said. ''Women become the
most obvious symbols of this change that seems threatening.''
That backlash takes place even in less radical societies. In Kuwait, Mr.
Ajami noted, the emir's efforts to bring women into politics has met a wall of
resistance, and an Islamist backlash forced a vote in Parliament against
Not all women oppose extremism. Some women aligned with extremists because
they believed in the cause and were also disturbed by what seemed a
Western-inspired cultural assault on traditional ways. Some thought they would
improve their status by joining a revolutionary movement. Others choose to cover
their heads or faces out of piety. Many initially rallied around militants for
some of the same reasons as men -- distaste for corrupt secular rulers,
frustration over poverty. In Iran in the 1970's, Mr. Ajami said, educated women
donned the chador to protest the rule of Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlavi -- and
walked into a trap. For a generation, he said, they have paid for the mistake
with a loss of many freedoms and rights.
It could be that women are less inclined to support radicalism now. Ms.
Nafisi, who was a professor of English literature in Teheran, explained, ''They
saw what happened in the Iranian revolution, the Algerian revolution, the
Palestinian struggle and many other places.''
WHILE these militants are fighting secularism or the West, ''they need women,
they use women,'' she said. But even women who have risked their lives, she
said, found they were little more than advertisements. When the battle was won,
she said, ''they put the women aside.''
What is happening now, said Mr. Ajami, is ''the break of the compact with
modernity'' throughout the Arab and wider Islamic world. ''The issue of gender
is so crucial to progress and modernity,'' he said, ''But if the cult of the
martyr and the children of the stones on the West Bank, if that's the dominant
cult, then what little place there was for women is shrinking.''
The sense that the place of women is regressing under Islamic militancy is
widely acknowledged. But in the history of Muslim movements, even violent
uprisings, it was not always so. A woman, Cut Nyak Dhien, led the nationalists
of Indonesia's deeply Islamic region of Aceh in rebellion against the Dutch in
the 19th century. Egyptian and Turkish women were in the forefront of
modernizing, secularist movements in the 1920's. In the 1970's, Leila Khaled of
the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked planes. Benazir
Bhutto marched through the streets of Pakistan in the 1980's to demand a return
By the 1990's, some Muslim women seemed to be on the verge of success in the
professions, scholarship and public life. Educational levels and opportunities
were rising in many Islamic countries. ''Some of these networks we thought we
were building don't seem to have survived,'' said Mahnaz Afkhami, who has worked
with Islamic women around the world for decades. Ms. Afkhami founded the Women's
Learning Partnership in Washington, which aids grass-roots women's groups in
many Muslim countries. She calls them an invisible majority not noticed by the
In Malaysia, for example, an anthropologist, Norani Othman, formed a movement
to reinterpret Islamic law and strip it of centuries of accretions that
discriminate against women. In Bangladesh, Yasmeen Murshed founded one of
several organizations that teach women how to run for political office. From
North Africa to Pakistan and Indonesia, women have demanded the right to study
theology along with men, breaking their monopoly of the Koran.
Rounaq Jahan, a political scientist from Bangladesh at Columbia University's
School of Public and International Affairs, said it is often forgotten that
''more than half of the billion Muslims in the world live in Indonesia,
Pakistan, Bangladesh and India more than 500 million in just these four
countries.'' Many are moderates if not secularists, she said, and how they have
dealt with militancy could be instructive elsewhere.
Afghanistan has shown a world of Muslim women just how bad things can get.
Ms. Nafisi said the West's promises that Afghan women would have choices in a
post-Taliban era should be part of the anti-terrorism campaign. ''When
reconstruction in Afghanistan begins,'' she said, ''the U.N. will find their
most ardent supporters will be women.''