ING Celebrates Women’s History Month Week 3: Contemporary Muslim Women Political Leaders

Click here for week 1 and week 2 postings.

In the first week of our celebration of Women’s History Month we looked at a few of the thousands of Muslim women scholars and transmitters of Prophetic sayings (Hadith). In the second week we looked at early women rulers, philanthropists, librarians, and Muslim women in the military from the first century of Islamic history. This week we will take a look at contemporary Muslim women around the world, including heads of state, women in politics in the West, and women activists involved in the ongoing protests for democracy, human rights and dignity throughout the world.

Contemporary Muslim Women Heads of Muslim Populated Nations

The following five leaders’ home countries are among the largest Muslim-populated nations in the world, with combined populations of over half a billion people.

The Harvard-educated daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and founder of the Pakistan People’s Party, of which she became chairwoman in 1982 at age 29, Benazir Bhutto, was the first Muslim woman head of a modern state.She served as Prime Minister from 1988 to 1990, and again from 1993 to 1996. Her assassination after returning to Pakistan in 2007 ended her third bid for re-election.

A professor of economics with a Ph.D from the University of Connecticut and a post–doc from Yale, Tansu Ciller was first elected to parliament in 1991 before serving as Prime Minister of Turkey from 1993 to 1996.

The widow of former President Ziaur Rahman, Khaleda Zia served as Prime Minister of Bangladesh from 1991 to 1996 and again from 2001 to 2006, making her the longest serving prime minister of Bangladesh and the first woman to rule the country.

The daughter of former President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina Wazed was elected president of the Bangladeshi Awami League in 1981, before serving as Prime Minister first from 1996 to 2001, and again from 2009 until the present.

The daughter of former President Sukarno, Megawati Sokarnoputri entered politics in 1987 and was elected chairperson of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI).  She was elected vice president in 1999 and became president in 2001 after the removal of Abdurrahman Wahid. She served as president until 2004 when she was voted out of office.

Muslim Women Reform Leaders

Dr. Masoumeh Ebtekar was the first female vice president of Iran. She has remained at the center of the revolutionary movement in Iran, since 1979, and has occupied the highest level of political office to be reached by a woman in the country. She is a considerable force in the reformist movement in Iran, and one of the founding members of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front.

Dr. Merve Kavakçi was barred from a position in the Turkish Parliament for refusing to remove her hijab in 1999. Subsequently she moved to the United States and is currently a professor at George Washington University. She received her master’s degree from Harvard University and her PhD from Howard University.

Rebiya Kadeer is the leader of the movement for social justice for the eight million strong Uighur ethnic-population of China who was imprisoned in 2000 and now lives in exile in the United States. She is well known for her work in publicizing the plight of the Uighur ethnic group both in China and abroad.

Faezeh Hashemi is an Iranian politician and social activist known equally for in her role as a Majlis representative as well as the daughter of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. She has been a vocal advocate of the relaxation of the dress code in Iran even though she prefers to wear the chador.

Zahra Rahnavard is an author and critic of Ahmadinejad. She was the first woman to campaign on her husband Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s 2009 presidential campaign. She served as political advisor under President Khatami, and was the first female chancellor of Alzahra University after the Islamic Revolution.

Shirin Ebadi is a lawyer who, in 2003, became the first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She is the founder of Children’s Rights Support Association and has defended and supported the rights of children and women.

Dr. Hawa Abdi of Somalia has been nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize by the American Friends Service Committee for her decades
of humanitarian service to, and peace building work with thousands of Somalis fleeing civil war and, most recently, famine induced by the worst drought in 60 years.  Dr. Abdi, 63, and her two physician daughters, have provided medical care and refuge to those in need, regardless of clan, or religious or political affiliation through the Hawa Abdi Foundation. Dr. Abdi and her daughters were included in Glamour Magazine’s “Women of the Year 2010.”

Muslim Women Politicians in the West

A European nation is also presently governed by a Muslim woman. President Atifete Jahjaga of Kosova, elected in April 2011 is the first woman woman and the youngest person to be elected president. She was previously Deputy Director of the Kosovo police.
Additionally, there are a growing number of Muslim women who hold political positions in Europe and other Western nations. We will highlight a few of them.

Baroness Sayeeda Hussain Warsi of South Asian background, is the first Muslim woman to serve as minister in the British cabinet, appointed in 2010 by Prime Minister David Cameron. At the age of 40, with a degree in law, she also co-chairs the Conservative Party.

Mobina Jaffer is the first South Asian woman to serve in the Canadian Senate, where she was appointed in 2001. A practicing lawyer with a degree from London, she has served in numerous positions, including Chair of the Canadian Committee on Women Peace & Security, Vice-President of the Liberal Party of Canada and President of the National Women’s Liberal Commission.

American Muslim Women in Government

In the United States, there have been a few Muslim women appointed to governmental positions. One of the first was Laila Al-Marayati, a Palestinian-American physician and activist. She was appointed to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom by President Bill Clinton, serving from 1999 to 2001. She previously served as a member of the US State Department’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad.

Dalia Mogahed is an Egyptian-American selected by President Obama to serve as an advisor on the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She is the Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, which conducts research and statistics on Muslims throughout the world and co-author with Dr. John Esposito of Who Speaks for Islam?

Currently serving is Farah Pandith, a Persian-American who was appointed as the first Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the US Department of State in June, 2009 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Before that she served as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the United States Department of State.

In June, 2011, Lebanese- American Azizah Y. al-Hibri was appointed by President Obama as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Dr. al-Hibri is a Professor of Law at the University of Richmond and founder and president of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, in addition to numerous other accomplishments in her long and illustrious career.

Women Leaders and Activists in the Arab Spring

Tawakkol Karman was one of three recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace prize, making her the first Arab and Yemeni, second Muslim woman, and at 33, the youngest Nobel Peace Laureate. Her activism predates the Yemeni Revolution with her work as a journalist and human rights activist who co-founded “Women Journalists Without Chains” in 2005 to advocate for more freedom of the press. Since 2007, she organized weekly protests, and with the Arab Spring became a vocal force in the Yemeni uprising.   She has vowed to run for President if she was allowed in Yemen, although at the time she has still been unable to register for any form of election which are currently under tight control by the current government in Yemen.

Asmaa Mahfouz is an Egyptian activist and one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement who uploaded a video blog in which she calleds for people to join her in Tahrir Square on January 25th. The video blog went viral and today many credit her for sparking the protests that lead to the Egy
ptian Revolution.

Suhair Atassi is a prominent Syrian political activist who ran a forum named after her deceased father called the Jamal Atassi Forum group on Facebook which called for political reforms in Syria. Suhair was arrested last March 16 in Damascus at the beginning of the Syrian uprising for peacefully protesting along with fellow activists. Since then, thousands of Syrian women have been detained, raped, tortured and killed.3:55 PM 3/13/2012

Zaynab al-Khawaja, 28, is an avid social media activist and blogger from Bahrain who is the daughter of a jailed human rights activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. She has been arrested herself repeatedly during the protests in Bahrain where she has been targeted because of her high profile and her popular English language tweets @angryarabiya. She was most recently arrested in February after refusing to leave a sit-in after riot police dispersed the protestors and she was detained for me more than a week.

To read more about Muslim women activists, explore the list of 150 Fearless Women in the World, which includes 30 Muslim women!

ING offers a presentation entitled Muslim Women in the U.S. and Around the World that is suitable for high schools, universities and colleges, and community organizations. The presentation examines some of the common stereotypes about Muslim women before discussing Qur’anic teachings that emphasize the equality and dignity of women. The presentation also features surprising data from recent polls and describes notable Muslim women in history and today. To schedule a presentation about Muslim women, please contact [email protected] or request the presentation online.

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