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Why Muslim Women Are Key to Tackling Extremism

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As we commemorate the 12th anniversary of 9/11 today, we continue to face turbulence, extremism and hostility between faiths, a continued legacy of that day's terrible events.

As the curator of Muslima, a new online exhibition about contemporary Muslim women, I can't help but wonder where are the Muslim women in our conversation about 9/11, about the future and about peace? Because I know that if they were at the heart of that dialogue, the world would be very different.

While curating the exhibition for the International Museum of Women, I spoke to Dalia Mogahed, the former Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. She told me that women -- as mothers, teaches, scholars and community leaders -- have a vital role to play in helping young Muslims to see that the Islam of the Qur'an and the ideology of Al-Qaeda are "opposing forces."

Yet this important message about women's roles is getting lost. A cursory glance at current events shows that in many Muslim countries ultraconservative thinking is gaining momentum. And while it's true that a religious trend is decidedly different from a terrorist group like Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, the attitudes towards women's rights and women's participation in society appear dangerously similar.

Once treated like second-class citizens, Muslim women are now entering an even lesser category: they're becoming irrelevant.

The most glaring example of this is the devastating reversal of fortune experienced by women in the wake of the Arab Springs. Yemeni journalist Atiaf Zaid Alwazir chronicled the uprisings in her home country, often photographing the injured and the dead, including children. As painful as this documentation was, she writes in her essay for Muslima that she persevered because she felt that "sooner or later freedom will prevail."

It's not possible to read Alwazir's words now without feeling the sting of the actual outcome of the uprisings: rather than more freedom, the rise of religious political parties in MENA countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Libya has meant new restrictions imposed on the very women who fought for political change. As unthinkable as it is, women now hold fewer seats in parliaments and in cabinets than before the Arab revolts or, even worse, they are fully absent.

In nearby Afghanistan, women are not only underrepresented in government but are currently at risk of being able to even enter polling stations to vote in the 2013 election. Polling stations are segregated between the sexes and female security officers are needed to oversee body searches. Although the elections are months away, it's difficult to muster up confidence that the government will make an honest effort to recruit the required number of female officers needed to ensure that women's voices are heard. The Taliban are no longer ruling the country but sexist attitudes continue to fester, disguised as Islamic doctrine.

In an interview with Muslima, Dr. Sima Samar told me that when she made history in Afghanistan in 2001 by serving as the country's first Minister of Women's Affairs, her "objective was not always to be in a position of power, but in a position where men could admit that women are also able to work as human beings." Not surprisingly, her tenure as Minister didn't last long. In 2003, she was forced to resign due to death threats she received for questioning conservative Islamic laws.

The challenge facing women in a number of Muslim countries today is virtually the same as before they took to the streets in the Arab revolts and before the new administration replaced the Taliban in Afghanistan: Women continue to battle their male Muslim counterparts to have full voice and dignity.

The crucial difference is that the optimism that energized many women during the massive political changes has turned to bitter disappointment. The Islam of the Qur'an and the ideology of Al Qaeda are indeed opposed to one another. But, so too, it seems is the Islam of the Qur'an and the Islamic ideology of the political parties.

The fact is that women understand -- and are key to confronting -- extremism because it is too often they who are the victims of it.

So what is the potential for tackling extremism and for building peace when Muslim women's voices are brought to the table?

As recent history has shown, when Muslim women stand side by side with men they are capable of toppling the greatest dictatorships. Indeed, my experience as the Muslima exhibition curator has shown me that many Muslim women are far from passive.

From frontline revolutionaries like Alwazir and Egyptian street artist SuzeeintheCity -- whose graffiti art helped propel the message of the Arab Springs -- to trailblazers like Dr. Samar and Noble Peace Prize winner Dr. Shirin Ebadi -- whose life work is to legally protect women and girls in Iran -- Muslim women are not only at the forefront of confronting extremism, but many are leading the charge to social change.

So as we commemorate 9/11, let's remember to invite Muslim women into the conversation about confronting extremism. Their full involvement may, in fact, be the answer to creating peace. Our world just needs to accord them rights, visibility and voice to allow that change to occur.