Monday, May 12, 2008

Zainab Al-Suwaij Speaks at the AWARE CENTER on “A Special Model for Muslim Women in a Modern Society”

Zainab Al-Suwaij Speaks at the AWARE CENTER on “A Special Model for Muslim Women in a Modern Society”

By Kevin Stoda

Speaking on the topic, “A Special Model for Muslim Women in a Modern Society”, Zainab Al-Suwaij visited both Kuwait University and the Aware Center Kuwait this first week of May, i.e. just 10-days prior to national elections, when Kuwaiti women are hopeful of gaining their first seats in parliament.

At the AWARE CENTER, Al-Suwaij was introduced as co-founder and executive director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), an organization founded in the wake of 9-11 to give a voice to Muslims and a basis for intercultural communication & dialogue in the USA. Al-Suwaij is also very active in the development of women’s awareness and democratic training in Iraq.

An American citizen, Al-Suwaij had had to flee Iraq in 1991 after taking up arms against Saddam Hussein, alongside others from the Basra region in the wake of the First Gulf War.

Besides working for a women’s empowerment program in Southern Iraq, she also writes articles for the New York Times and other popular dailies in the U.S.A.


Zainab Al-Suwaij began her lecture at the AWARE CENTER in Surra, Kuwait by noting that regardless as to whether the topic is “Islam in East or West” or “Politics in the Middle East” today, “The discussion always turns to women.”

She added, “The same goes for the topic of Human Rights, which also turns to the status of women.”

“Western Scholars definitely have a different focus than do Scholars in the East, though,” Al-Suwaij continued, “Islamic scholars look to (1) women’s issues in the Sharia and in tradition, (2) our religious book, and (3) how we deal with women.”

In contrast, “in the West women’s rights and concepts of universal rights, fall into one pile when we are discussing women’s issues.”

In Iraq, meanwhile, discussions of these issues often fall into matters, like headscarves and ‘Islamization’ today. Al-Suwaij explains, “This is because as far as ‘feminism in Islam’ is concerned, there is in Islam no feminism [in the Western sense], simply women’s rights.”

On the other hand, as Al-Suwaij has many female Kuwaiti friends involved in electioneering in Kuwait and other Gulf countries these days, she notes, “Women in the Muslim world are becoming more and more integrated into the political realm. The Era now seems to be one where women are seeking rights without respect for how it affects Islam and culture.”

Al-Suwaij extrapolates, just as with most any universal faith, “Islam is adopted generally at a personal level, but no one applies every facet of it to his life [i.e. 100%].”


Al-Suwaij explained, “As the new Iraqi government and constitution were being debated after 2003, there were many different views on these matters and on the role of women. For example, some conservative women see a ‘woman’s role as teacher only’. Meanwhile other conservatives are bit more active politically. That is, while they may be retrenching [traditional roles of men], they are often still involved politically. Other women demanded the quotas of 25% for women in the new government”

However, Al-Suwaij also observed that even as some women stood on the political sidelines during the debates over the government and the creation of its constitution, many observed with clarity that they “would soon have no role in Iraq” if they didn’t more actively allow their voices to be heard.

“At first, some women had been uninterested in the process of government and elections. Many boycotted conferences on voting, empowerment and women’s issues because they only wanted their own [male] imams to lead them,” said Al-Suwaij.

So, Al-Suwaij invited the imams to attend.

The AIC speaker shares that once one imam, i.e. leader of these boycotting female teachers arrived. He then approached Zeinab Al-Suwaij and asked what she was teaching these women.

Al-Suwaij explained that she was simply discussing their rights and how they can improve their social and economic development within their communities.

That particular imam stated somewhat coldly, “Women don’t do that here. They should focus on charity work and education.”

Al-Suwaij countered, “In two of Mohammed’s[PBUH] wives, Aisha and Khadija, we find the roles of economic and political development leadership--in terms of helping women understand their rights within Islam.”

In stating her case, Al-Suwaij referred to the businesswoman whom prophet Mohammed had married. Her name was Khadija, and he actually had worked for here before and after they were married.

After Khadija died, another wife of Mohammed’s was Aisha, who was very active in carrying out the early writings, interpretations of the Koran, and on teaching Muslims how to practice or live out their lives as Muslims.

The imam then replied, “I didn’t think of it that way. Go ahead and teach them what you are doing!”


Unlike in Kuwait and in some other Gulf states, women in Iraq were involved in the writing of their new state constitution. This is how they received a 25% quota for representation in parliament.”

Al-Suwaij clarifies, “Later, as the constitutional elections came, some more women became involved. However, after the elections even more women and women’s groups began to speak out at the point when a bill was introduced into the legislature that would have thrown out Iraq’s civil code and the notion of women’s rights dating in that country to 1948. The intention of the representative was to replaced the Civil Code with Sharia or Islamic law.”

“Suddenly, both the most conservatives and liberal women joined in a single loud voice, indicating that they would have none of that!” Al-Suwaij later explained, “The civil code in Iraq requires a man to ask his first wife before getting married a second time--and thus creating a polygamous marriage.”

Women in Iraq did not want to see this right nor their other long held civil rights trampled on by a reversion to the Islamic code.

Al-Suwaij noted, “Meanwhile, both in Iraq and in Kuwait women are getting more and more involved in elections.”

Women were first allowed to vote in Kuwait as of 2006, but in Iraq they have been active for decades.


“The need to bridge the gap between Islamic and Western views is needed everywhere. Therefore, I am happy to see a place like the AWARE CENTER flourish in Kuwait.” Al-Suwaij continued, “The American Islamic Congress focuses on this—as well as teaching Westerners about Islam and Islamic issues. In addition, the AIC focuses not only on rights but negative issues, such as ‘honor killings’ and female genital mutilation. [We cannot] leave these issues in the background.”

One way the AIC in the Washington, D.C. area does this is through its monthly invitations to the various U.S. congressmen to meet with and learn from a variety of Islamic speakers.

“However, clashes continue among East and West. This is why we are inviting women to more-and-more offer their own voices and narratives in terms of presentations, speaking and writing.” Later, Al-Suwaij noted, “We hold annual contests, whereby we cull the world for young Islamic female writers to tell their story and the story of [empowering] women and rights groups in their communities. We take 50 of these articles and publish them in an annual document. Then we invite the writers for training and mentoring.”

As well, both the AIC and Zainab Al-Suwaij’s other organizational activities in Iraq and elsewhere focus on helping Westerners to move past their stereotypes of Islam and their own reality. The speaker told the story of how, when women she worked with in Iraq learned that the highest representation that women in the USA have ever held in the Senate and House has been at most 10%, they looked at each other in amazement and asked, “And, this is Democracy???”

Al-Suwaij said that men are also involved in the issues of rights and women, too.

Finally, she concluded her presentation by noting that the lack of balance in the western view on Islam and on the Middle East have left a strong negative impression which the West needs to get over.


One member of the audience, a Kuwaiti male, spoke up.

He indicated, “It has never been Islamic law that women do not hold rights. These ideas come from tribes and tribal traditions, some imported into Islam after several hundred years. Moreover, around the world, Islamic female leaders have governed in countries as diverse as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia in recent decades.”

This Kuwaiti continued, “The problem here is that it is a ‘man’s world’. In contrast, Islam, gives many rights to women!”

The speaker, Zeinab Al-Suwaij concurred, but added, “Certainly, the limitations that are put on women’s rights, whether religious or tribal, are nonetheless real ones. This is why women are now pushing for those rights.”

One female Kuwaiti-American spoke up next, “Some women in Kuwait do very contradictory things. They campaign loudly against women’s rights and vote against the rights of others. Yet, those same women are, in fact, using those rights [that they protest against].”

This Kuwaiti-American continued, “These women should shut up and go home if all they want to do is take away the rights of others—and oppose others using their rights!”

Zeinab Al-Suwaij again concurred, “All women have voices and [do] use them. Women need to recognize this. The problem is that so many women’s voices are not heard. The model I am suggesting [for women] is a more balanced model than has been common [in the West, especially].

“If we look at the women’s movement in Kuwait in the 1970s and again compare it to the movement today, we see distinctions that show a balance. In the 1970s, the women’s movement here was more affected by the language, images and clothing attire found in the West. Nowadays, the focus here is on balance among their own cultural and social identities. One sees this in the clothing and in the language used in electioneering.”

One final Arab listener spoke up and asked what Al-Suwaij advocated for younger women in Kuwaiti society today.

Al-Suwaij stated, “They need to find a voice.”

“This is one reason we collect writings from all over the world and then mentor women on how to tell their stories internationally and locally. We teach them a bit about organizing and ask them to share about their particular living and working contexts.We also promote interfaith dialogues. In Kuwait people need to ask how they can realize a balance, i.e. that would be different from how women communicate and carry out their programs of development and rights.”

“We also need to move beyond stereotypes, including such questions as ‘Do you always wear your hijab?’—a question used by profilers at the airport all the time--and [graduate to more developed] relations among the differing peoples and faiths”


American Islamic Congress,

“A New Guide to Muslim Interfaith Dialogue”,

“Zainab Al-Suwaij”,



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