Isobel Coleman On Women, Islam, and Reform in the Middle East

| Apr. 13, 2011

“When you only invest in half of your population,” said Isobel Coleman, Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, “you are going to suffer economically.” The economic effects of the Middle East’s gender gap were a reoccurring theme in Coleman’s April 5 talk entitled Women, Islam, and Reform in the Middle East.

Coleman said that, historically, women in East Asia and the Middle East faced similar access issues but East Asian governments worked hard to close the gender gap, and with good results. Today, she said, half of the self-made millionaires in China are women. If the Middle East had done the same, she continued, GDP across the region would be 1% higher. So why has the Middle East lagged behind?  Coleman says women’s rights have been conflated with several “–isms” that conflict with religious and cultural norms in the region, like feminism, westernism, and colonialism. She went on to describe how, despite the obstacles they face, women in the region are working to engage religious entities by promoting progressive interpretations of Sharia, or Islamic law, which protect women’s rights.  And, in general there are positive trends. More women are going to college, illiteracy among women is declining, though still very much an issue, and we are seeing many more women working in media, covering stories that men previously ignored or simply could not cover in the same way. The United States, said Coleman, can best help improve women’s rights in the region by promoting an environment in which debate about them can occur. This could include funding educational programs and research opportunities that advance different religious interpretations or new laws protecting women.

In addition to her work with the Council on Foreign Relations, Isobel Coleman is author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East. The April 5 event was co-sponsored by the Middle East Initiative and the Women and Public Policy Program.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Janka, Noelle. “Isobel Coleman On Women, Islam, and Reform in the Middle East.” , April 13, 2011.

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