State Dept. Trained 450 Imams on the ‘Compatibility of Women’s Rights and Islam’

Elizabeth Harrington | August 16, 2012 | 6:49am EDT
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Afghan women cover themselves as required by Islamic law. (AP Photo)

( – As part of its effort to combat “gender-based violence,” the U.S. State Department has trained 450 Muslim leaders (imams), using a curriculum focusing on the “compatibility of women’s rights and Islam,” according to a report released on Friday.

The report, “United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally,” was released by the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on Aug. 10, after President Barack Obama issued an executive order instructing government agencies to come up with a “multi-year strategy that will more effectively prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally.”

The report cites “anecdotal evidence,” gleaned form interviews and focus groups, to show how the imam training has helped, as follows (verbatim):

-- One religious leader from Herat (Afghanistan) explained that since participating in project trainings, when he presides over marriages, whether he officiates the wedding ceremony or not, he asks the age of the bride and for proof of her consent, and he uses the opportunity to publicly discuss the importance of the bride’s consent to marriage. He even reported stopping a marriage when he found out that the bride had not given her consent.

-- Focus group participants agreed that since their local imams have started discussing women’s right to education in Friday sermons, the barriers for women going to school have been reduced.

-- Several focus group participants recounted stories about women’s families providing them with a fair share of inheritance after the imams in their communities were
influenced by the curriculum and trainings.

-- Community members in the focus groups agreed that most imams have been speaking out about women’s rights in Islam, women’s inheritance rights, and condemning violence against women.

-- In some communities, wives of imams trained in the curriculum were using it to educate women in their communities of their rights.

But even as women gain fledgling rights in places like Afghanistan, the political establishment is working against them.

As the Associated Press reported in March,  Afghan President Hamid Karzai has endorsed a "code of conduct" issued by a council of clerics that allows husbands to beat their wives in certain cases and encourages segregation of the sexes. The rules also say women should not travel without a male guardian and they should not mingle with strange men in places like schools, markets or offices.

Asked about the code of conduct at a press conference five months ago, Karzai said it was in line with Islamic law: "It is the Shariah law of all Muslims and all Afghans," the AP  quoted him as saying.

Karzai's public backing of the repressive guidelines apparently was intended to pave the way for negotiations with the hardline Taliban.

Shari’a law

In manyIslamic nations, the harsh and unequal treatment of women stems, if not from politics, then from strict Islamic (shari’a) law.

In its 2011 report on Human Rights Practices for Afghanistan, the State Department noted that “endemic violence and societal discrimination against women and girls” remains one of the country’s most significant problems.

The human rights report cites forced marriages, child marriages, the practice of exchanging women to settle disputes, forced isolation, and honor killings as “customary practices” in Afghanistan.

Some observers point to verses in the Koran that justify discrimination against women in society.  For instance, Sura 4:3, sanctions polygamy, saying men can have up to four wives. “And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four,” the Koran states.

Another verse, Sura 2:282, indicates that a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man: “And bring to witness two witnesses from among your men. And if there are not two men [available], then a man and two women from those whom you accept as witnesses - so that if one of the women errs, then the other can remind her,” states

Last year in Afghanistan, a woman was left with the choice of 12 years in jail or marrying her rapist, press reports said. Women alleging rape must bring four witnesses in the Islamic country to avoid charges of adultery.

Zamzami Abdelbari, an imam in Morocco, issued a fatwa deeming necrophilia a religiously acceptable practice of Islam, according to the London Telegraph.

In an April 2011 speech to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that some Muslim women "have long enjoyed greater rights and opportunities," depending on where they live.

"All over the world we see living proof that Islam and women’s rights are compatible," Clinton said, noted that Muslim communities from Egypt to Jordan to Senegal "are beginning to take on entrenched practices like child marriage, honor crimes, and female cutting.

But -- without naming names -- Clinton warned about "some who are actually working to undermine this progress and export a virulently anti-woman ideology to other Muslim communities."

The U.S. government defines gender-based violence as violence that is directed at an individual based on his or her biological sex, gender identity, or how a person is perceived to follow socially defined norms of masculinity and femininity.

The State Department says such violence includes physical, sexual, and psychological abuse; threats; coercion; arbitrary deprivation of liberty; and economic deprivation.

Millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are poured into the effort:  For FY 2013, the State Department and USAID requested $147.1 million for programs addressing gender-based violence worldwide, an increase of approximately $30 million over the FY 2012 request of $117.2 million.

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