A radical approach to women's rights

Posted by James Whitehead Regional Programme Manager for Oxfam in the Middle East

13th Jul 2012

Radical Muslim clerics might be the least likely people to speak out against the injustices facing women in the Arab world. Yet in the patriarchal society of Jordan, religious leaders are challenging this perception and boldly speaking out to help combat violence against women.  

In Irbid in northern Jordan, the call to prayer reverberates against the backdrop of the shelling from across the Syrian border, where forces pound nearby towns. Sheik Adnan Aban Asal's Friday sermon echoes through the loudspeakers and reminds me of the cacophonous harangue which we hear repeatedly in the media - a stereotypical radical cleric in full flow to his followers.  But Sheikh Adnan is not a typical radical cleric. Adnan uses the Koran as an entry point for talking about women's rights - that's radical for many of the people who hear his message.

For Adnan, many challenges still exist as barriers to women's rights in the Middle East. Many men continue having children until they have a son, and some girls are still married at a young age. Women are often excluded from jobs and limited in where and when they can travel. Many women face violence in the home, and in rare cases there are still honour killings when a young woman is killed by her own family for bringing shame.

"How would you react if you knew a man was beating your sister?" Adnan demands to a small group of men who have gathered to hear his sermon. "Think of your wife like a sister and consider how you are treating her!" Adnan goes on to say that violence against women is 'haram' (forbidden) and quotes an Islamic saying demonstrating the need to show respect and dignity to women.  Adnan smiles and says that the Islamic way is that a man should be a servant in his home, and that he leads by example with his own family by helping in the home.

Adnan's radical approach is a part of a new initiative, kick started by a local organisation called the 'Sisterhood is Global Institute' supported by Oxfam, which works on women's issues in the Arab world. It aims to bring together diverse groups of men from local communities to challenge injustices on women's rights. Adnan is part of the first group of men from his community who are hoping to change deeply entrenched views on women's rights. The men come from all walks of life - some are young, others are older but all have similar messages. 

Working with men on women's rights issues is a new idea in Jordan. Oxfam has to work in a way which goes with the grain of local culture and supports local organisations who have a vision for how their society can develop. The aim is not to become a clone of the West but foster a vision of society where women are consistently treated with dignity and have a say in matters that affect them.

Back in Irbid, it's hot outside and as we sit together I ask the group if the change that's needed is in the mind or the heart. The discussion goes back and forth - some say if you reason with people then the heart will change but others argue that if men don't believe in these issues then no amount of reasoning will convince them.  

I realise that change of this nature is never easy or straight forward. Yet this new group of men are keen to engage with others in their community and have great ideas. They now have plans to spread the message with lawyers, judges, policemen, businessmen and tribal leaders - anyone whose actions can have huge consequences on the lives of women and girls.

I come away knowing that change does happen but it often has humble beginnings.  Next year the 'Sisterhood is Global Institute' will begin developing a national level awareness campaign engaging men in stopping violence against women. Every step counts and as I think of Adnan I am thankful that he helped change some of my prejudices.

Blog post written by James Whitehead

Regional Programme Manager for Oxfam in the Middle East

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