The Women of Islam

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Students at Gulhane Military Medical Academy in Ankara, Turkey

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Muslim women are starting to score political victories, including election to office. In Syria 26 of the 250 members of parliament are female. In Iraq the numbers are 19 out of 250. Four Muslim countries have been or are currently led by women. In Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, they rose to prominence on the coattails of deceased fathers or husbands. But Turkey's Tansu Ciller, Prime Minister from 1993 to 1995, won entirely on her own.

Turkey is an exception to many rules. Women in Turkey are the most liberated in the Muslim world, though Malaysia and Indonesia come close, having hosted relatively progressive cultures before Islam came to Southeast Asia in the 9th century. In Turkish professional life women enjoy a level of importance that is impressive not only by the standards of other Islamic countries but also by European lights. Turkey's liberalism is a legacy of the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an aggressive secularist who gave women rights unprecedented in the Muslim world (even if he found it hard to accept women as equals in his own life). Last week the Turkish parliament went a step further by reforming family law. Previously, a man was the head of the household, able to make unilateral decisions concerning children. No more. The law also establishes community property in marriages and raises the marriageable age of girls from 15 to 18.

Around the Islamic world, women are scoring other victories, small and large. Iran's parliament recently compromised with conservative clerics to allow a single young woman to study abroad, albeit with her father's permission. Bangladesh passed legislation increasing the punishments for crimes against women, including rape, kidnapping and acid attacks. Egypt has banned female circumcision and made it easier for women to sue for divorce. In Qatar women have the right to participate in municipal elections and are promised the same rights in first-ever parliamentary balloting scheduled to take place by 2003. Bahrain has assured women voters and candidates that they will be included in new elections for its suspended parliament.

Saudi Arabia, the chief holdout, has at least pledged to start issuing ID cards to women. Today the only legal evidence of a Saudi woman's existence is the appearance of her name on her husband's card. If she gets divorced, her name goes on her father's card; if he's dead, her brother's; and if she has no brother, the card of her closest male relative, even if she scarcely knows him. Manar, 35, a Riyadh translator, thinks ID cards for women will make a real difference. "As long as you are a follower, you cannot have a separate opinion, you cannot be outspoken," she says. "Once you have a separate identity, then other things will come." For most Muslim women, there are many things left to come.

—Reported by Hannah Bloch/Islamabad, Amanda Bower/ New York, Andrew Finkel/Istanbul, Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi, Scott MacLeod/Riyadh, Azadeh Moaveni/Tehran, Amany Radwan/ Cairo, Matt Rees/Amman and Simon Robinson/ Sana'a

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