A panel, co-hosted by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, debated Islam and women’s rights in a discussion focused on religion, cultural traditions, secularism, democracy and gender equality in Riggs Library on Thursday evening.
Members of the panel included Berkley Center senior fellow Jocelyne Cesari, University of London Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law research associate Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Syracuse University assistant professor of political science Yüksel Sezgin and GIWPS Executive Director Melanne Verveer (FLL ’66, GRD ’69). The discussion was mediated by José Casanova, head of the Berkley Center’s program on Globalization, Religion and the Secular.
Cesari said she believes that it is important to overcome oversimplified ideas and to view the issue of Islam and gender equality with a modern point of view.
“It is important to look at the diversity and the plurality of content and legitimacy of human rights across different nations,” Cesari said. “It is very problematic when the discussion happens only engaging the Islamic text. It is central that we look at what is the situation today regarding women’s rights and not look at the Islamic tradition as a compact entity, but rather look at the way that it has been nationalized and contextualized in different areas.”
Mir-Hosseini said she believes that we are now at a threshold in a new phase of dynamics and relations between religion, gender and state, which are becoming more transparent.
“It is becoming transparent what are the local and global structures in which Muslim women have to struggle for justice and equality,” Mir-Hosseini said. “Their problem is not only local, but it is global as well. It is also making the link between theology and polities as Muslim women’s struggle for gender equality is as much theological as it is political.”
Sezgin spoke about the relationship between Sharia law and democracy.
“Let’s assume for a second that when Muslims say democracy they mean the liberal democracy as we know it here in the western society,” Sezgin said. “If that is the assumption, is this an oxymoronic demand by Muslims? It is very difficult for us to think of Islam democracy and the presumed relationship with seculars within a democracy. But I believe that we cannot expect a democratic elected Muslim government to abolish Sharia, so they have to find a way to sustain Sharia and at the same time sustain democracy.”
Verveer highlighted the fact that Muslim women are calling for a change and expressing their needs.
“The fact that so many women say to me that they are tired, frustrated and depressed shows this change,” Verveer said. “They say that their religion, which they hold dear and means everything to them, is being hijacked by others, whether by extremist or male patriarchal interpretations.”
According to Verveer, the women are prevented from fully practicing their religion.
“This is keeping them from being what they believe that they can be, which is being empowered, faithful and religious” Verveer said. “They have now moved to a place where they are not rejecting their religion, but rather recasting all of those values that interpreted what is right for them, in ways that they are not true to their roots or what they see as their religious identity.”
Ingrid Glitz (SFS ’18), who attended the event, said she appreciated the openness of the discussion.
“This was one of the best panels that I’ve been to since I got here in Georgetown,” Glitz said. “The speakers were extremely knowledgeable and provided an interesting insight into the issue of gender inequality in the Muslim world.”