Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Conference Begins

Today the International Women's Forum Cornerstone Conference Building Bridges Breaking Walls, with five hundred women from forty-five countries gathered in Amman, Jordan, began at last. The event actually started last night with a reception at The Citadel, part of the ruins of the old Umayyad palace. Although my new acquaintances and friends and I had been much looking forward to it, the party was a bit of a disappointment, despite the Bedouin tent, the Arab music, and the hundred or so Middle Eastern carpets under our feet. Perhaps we had been affected by "the dread Orientalism" and were therefore expecting something more unusual and exciting than such affairs back home. However, I must report that the reception was nearly the same as any rather boring law firm/business cocktail soiree I have attended in California--the same cold canapes, the same shifting from foot to foot (carpeting over rubble makes treacherous footing) while making small talk--but all without alcohol, in this instance. Perhaps I am being too severe--after all, the view from the hilltop out over Amman was lovely, and in such a low wattage city Venus was amazingly bright on the low horizon. As the president of IWF and the president of IWF-Jordan gave their opening remarks, we heard the muzzein's call to prayer from a mosque on a hill across the city. When I stop to think about it, I wonder why the two women did not wait to speak until prayertime was done (and it is the same time every evening). It was an odd congruence of circumstance. Also, the security presence struck my (perhaps overly-imaginative) mind as paltry. As the full membership of IWF-Jordan stepped onto the podium, a well-aimed stinger missile could have taken out a significant proportion of the movers and shakers among Middle Eastern women. Perhaps I shouldn't mention such a thing--but if you can't say what's on your mind in a blog, where else?

This morning the conference itself began in parallel lackluster, with a particularly fatuous Maya Angelou poem about the "singing river" and the "wise rock." (You have to wonder if Maya has ever spent any time in the wilderness.) However, the morning quickly unfolded in a series of dramatic moments that, to my mind, are a paradigm of the disjunction between the way Muslim women and "liberated" western women see the world. The morning was so exciting that I am blowing off my afternoon bus tour to Madaba (been to Madaba, had enough of bus tours) to send you my impressions.

The first session, which all we women attended, was Islam, Democracy and Modernization, designed to address the question (among others) whether western models of democracy are appropriate for the Muslim world. The key speaker, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, was a no-show; therefore, the husband of Reem Abu Hassan, the president of IWF-Jordan, took his place at the last minute. Initially, I was disappointed, for Dr. El Fadl is one of the few jurists in the world fluent in both Islamic law and American law. The other panelists were Dr. John Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown, and Dr. Samira Al Khawaldeh, chairperson of the English Department at Al Zaytoonah University, Jordan.

Perhaps because I am an American, I thought that the most articulate speaker was Dr. Voll, who gave us more insights than I can repeat here. He talked about how "democracy is not a particular book you pull off the shelf and read the rules for." And certainly as an Islamic scholar he was and surely is sympathetic to a religious world view; in fact, he made a good case for secularism as just another form of religion. He said that secularism has become the conservative establishment, threatened by the increasing questioning of the assumption that secularism is a good thing. "I know better than believers what is best," Dr. Voll said, in describing a secularist's position. But in fact, Dr. Voll pointed out, religion has not disappeared as expected from the modern world, and he spoke a bit about his recent meeting with the Prime Minister of Norway, who is an evangelical Christian.

Then the moderator asked Mr. Hassan, who got a law degree from Harvard and practices law in Amman, about sharia law. Mr. Hassan, an utterly charming and self-deprecating man, replied that one thing distinguishing Islam from other religions is that it is not just a religion but a way of life. "In some interpretations of Islamic law we went astray but in some we hit the target," Mr. Hassan said. He talked about his experience at Harvard, and how it was actually an Infidel professor (many laughs) who encouraged him not to measure either himself or his culture against western models but to try to find the rules appropriate for his own society. Nevertheless, Mr. Hassan said, "we are always being measured against a western model of some sort."

Dr. Khawaldeh spoke last. With the opacity I have discovered from my reading is common in Muslim thought, she said that "Islam means equality and human rights." She averred, as Mr. Hassan had before her, that "everything good is part of Islam." Like many educated women in the Islamic world, she maintained that under sharia women have complete freedom and human rights.

The session opened to questions, and many of the women in the audience were skeptical. Pressed about sharia on women's rights (divorce, child custody, inheritance, etc.), Mr. Hassan self-deprecatingly admitted his ignorance of the details, the finer points of the laws--surprising, to my mind, considering he is a lawyer. Mr. Hassan's justified the Islamic inheritance laws by saying that although a wife may get less than sons, sons (and daughters) always take care of their mothers. The western members of the audience were having none of this paternalism. First a lawyer and then a parliamentarian from Toronto spoke about recent attempts of Muslim immigrants in Canada to get sharia incorporated into Canadian law. "The initiative was resoundingly defeated," the Canadian said. "Did we Canadians make the wrong decision?" Mr. Hassan's reply, in essence, was "yes." He went on to say that in a future attempt, if the Canadian Muslims handle the legislative process with more finesse, likely they will succeed. It was not the content of the sharia laws themselves, Mr. Hassan was saying, but the way they were clumsily introduced into the Canadian legislative process, that was at fault.

Quickly, the questions degenerated into impassioned personal statements. "All religions discriminate against women and we women should forsake them!" (Russian IWF-er) "There should be no religion in government! Democracy can only be secular!" (Mexican IWF-er) And so on, and so on. Finally, Rebecca Solti, an American?Englishwoman? who has lived in Jordan for thirty years, took the mike. In a torrent of testimony on the generosity and integrity of the Arab people, Rebecca spoke on and on and on--clearly, she had not had a chance to express herself before. My new acquaintance from northern Ireland and myself exchanged a remark sotto voce--why do women's meetings always ramble to a close?--it was becoming embarrassing--when Ms. Solti brought us all up short. "Thousands of elderly French people died in that heat wave two summers ago. That would never have happened in Jordan! Here, like elsewhere in the Muslim world, children look in on their parents all the time and take care of them!"

Sharia continued the subject of the day. In my next session, Faith, Identity and Co-Existence, the specific subject was the expression of faith through art and culture. The panelists were Dr. Janet Soskice, a Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge, who has just written a book on St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai; Dr. Maria Rosa Menocal, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and an expert on Islamic Spain; and Dr. Minwer al-Meheid, a Saudi art restorer and architect who spent many years restoring the minbar Saladin brought to Jerusalem and a fanatic broke into thousands of pieces in 1969. As soon as the question part of the session began, two American women immediately launched into questions about sharia laws and women's rights. Nissreen Haram, a young Jordanian woman and lawyer, stood. Exasperated, angry, she shouted "you western women! Dr. al-Meheid gives a stunning presentation on Islamic art and none of you ask him any questions! It's all sharia! sharia! sharia! with you! You are so narrow-minded, you can never see past that one issue to the totality of our culture!"

Later, in the hall before our next event, another new acquaintance, an IWF-er from Michigan, smirked to me. "What do they think--that we are going to ignore women's rights?"

I suppose it is a question of where you place your a priori. For so many IWF-ers from the West, women's rights is the article of faith. For many Muslim women, it is Islam. It looks like breaking down the walls, much less building a bridge, is going to take a lot of work.

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