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Training Afghani Imams to End Violence Against Women

Posted: 02/21/2012 10:02 am

On Nov. 17, 1999, the world witnessed a horrific image: An Afghani woman named Zarmina was dragged through a soccer stadium and killed by the Taliban. As a Muslim woman, the outrage that I felt was indescribable. Islam teaches hope, mercy and love and in no way condones the violence depicted on my television that day. The outrage that I felt propelled me to do something. Therefore, in 2005 I founded the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality & Equality (WISE) to address gender inequality in Islam.

In 2010, WISE, partnered with an Afghani WISE woman, to pilot an innovative program, the Imam Training Program to End Violence against Women (ITP), which clarifies distorted and patriarchal misinterpretations of the Quran. Through ITP, we trained 50 of the most respected imams in Jalalabad and Kabul on the five absolute rights provided to women in Islam: Education, Inheritance, Marriage, Property Ownership and Social Participation. We decided to train imams since Afghan communities deeply trust and respect them -- even the Taliban.

Last month, I sent our WISE Program Manager, Fazeela Siddiqui, to Afghanistan to conduct an on-the-ground assessment of our pilot program. I was inspired by the stories that she recounted upon her return; they painted a far different picture than the tragic stories that I have continually heard. Below is a moving account of Fazeela's field visit.

I met with many courageous Afghani men and women who value progress and are strident advocates for women's rights. Afghanis told me that their communities are willing to partner with Americans to bring about progress, insofar as their cultural and religious mores are respected. Yet the international community (which includes American NGOs) does not work within a human rights based framework that utilizes Islamic principles. Therefore, very few NGOs have been able to traverse the proverbial Afghan cultural and religious wall to bring about social change. Conversely, by changing hearts and minds through training imams on women's rights within an Islamic framework, we American-Muslims have been uniquely able to catalyze progressive and sustainable change in Afghanistan.

I was moved by an imam focus group that I conducted with seventeen of the most eminent imams from Kabul province. These imams graciously traveled long distances to sit with me to discuss the effectiveness and challenges of the ITP-EVW. Upon arrival, an imam who was hesitant about my presence -- An American-Muslim-woman-lawyer who did not apologize for being American -- looked me in the eyes with a stern face and said, "We are worried when the rights of women come from the West, from a non-Islamic perspective. We will fight against this. But, if the[se] rights come from the Quran, we welcome ideas and we will listen to what you have to say." Concerned that I was offended, a project associate immediately leaned over and whispered in my ear, "We Afghanis are a proud people. We are one of the only nations in the world that has never been conquered. Therefore, we do not want other nations' values imposed on us." Another imam chimed in and said, "You only hear the most tragic stories. [These stories also] outrage and sadden us. They are inexcusable crimes that have nothing to do with Islam or our belief system. But for some reason they are viewed as the norm around the world."

An imam who was appreciative of my presence smiled and stated, "We are a Muslim nation, we respect the Quran, yet we have a major lack of understanding of the Quran." He further stated, "We left our original teachings, which is why we have problems ... Women were deprived of their rights due to cultural and tribal rules that dominated. Through this program, we are slowly opening to a new understanding of the rights of women in Islam." Another imam recounted a story of an elder man who had just heard the imam's khutba (sermon) on marital rights. This man was so disturbed that he held the imam by his collar and cried, "No one can help me. Time is gone. I have committed all sorts of violence against my daughters. I took the Walwar (bride price) for each of their marriages, I stopped them from getting education and I forced them into marriages. They are suffering every day because of my wrongdoings. Why weren't you talking about this before?" The imam replied, "It is not too late; we have a younger generation to bring up." After hearing this, the eldest imam in the room, who appeared to be in his mid-80s, reminiscently replied, "The Quran is 1,500 years old and at the time of revelation, it was the most progressive book that addressed women's rights. We were more advanced about women before others even thought about the issue."

Even though the imams were familiar with women's rights in Islam, many of them told me that through the program, their knowledge had grown and they felt equipped to discuss women's rights with their congregations -- despite receiving death threats. The imam who was hesitant with me in the beginning of the meeting had kept silent for the majority of our two hour meeting. Right when we were ready to end, he decided to speak again and said, "In the beginning, congregants would stand up in the middle of Friday khutbas on women's rights and scream, 'You are propagating Western words.' But we stood our ground and responded, 'These are not western words, this comes directly from the Quran and Hadith.' This program gave us courage. It helps to know that all of us imams are doing this at the same time." The hesitant imam ended the meeting by reassuring me, "If you are truly willing to work within the framework of Islam, with no ulterior agenda, we are truly excited to work with you." He then smiled at me and said a prayer -- "May all Muslim women around the world find their united voice in equality as provided by our faith."

We are increasingly trusted since we are able to meet Afghanis where they are at, honoring and working within their traditions. For example, instead of staying at a compound or hotel, Fazeela was invited to stay at an Afghani home throughout her trip. The American public often asks what the American-Muslim community is doing to end violent extremism and change the situation of women in Afghanistan. Here is our answer. Fazeela's trip confirms that Islam is not the enemy, extremism is. American-Muslims can traverse the formidable walls that have been built by religious fallacies. We can do this by addressing misinterpretations of our faith while simultaneously exploring its beauty and strengths. While viewing pictures and listening to Fazeela recount her Afghanistan trip, my team and I looked at each other across the board room table and we were speechless. We wondered why our country has failed to implement similar programs and utilize its best asset -- American-Muslims. Which brings me back to Fazeela's field notes:
After the imam focus group ended, I sat in the program office to drink tea and hovered over a space heater for warmth (Nothing could have prepared me for the frigid weather in Afghanistan, not even growing up in Buffalo, N.Y.). While looking over my notes a program officer looked up from his computer and said, "The U.S. government should not have spent billions [on the war], they should have spent millions and involved the imams [with regards to women's rights] and everything would have been different today." He then wistfully looked into the distance, shook his head and went back to work.

Follow the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality on Twitter: @wisemuslimwomen.