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New jihad for Muslim women: greater rights


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Muslim women from around the world gather in Barcelona Friday to issue a call to a battle for equal footing in the Islamic world -- one aimed at fighting against polygamy, domestic violence and a "macho" interpretation of Muslim Sharia laws.

The three-day international congress underscores a new reality: even as religious intensity is growing in parts of the Muslim world, "Islamic feminism" -- the name of the Barcelona meeting -- is gaining a tenuous foothold.

"We realized that a number of Muslim women's groups have been created in recent years to fight against discrimination and defend (their rights) within an Islamic context -- such as in Malaysia, Nigeria and Pakistan," said Abdennur Prado, a leading organizer of the Barcelona forum, first launched last year.

The advocates -- mostly well-educated, urban women versed in the Koran -- argue Islam must not be a pretext for cultural practices denigrating women, dictated by men with a monopoly on interpreting the Muslim holy book.

The meeting must "contribute to consolidating Islamic feminism as a transnational movement by putting in place a network of grassroots organizations working on the question of women's rights in Islam," Prado said.

Professors, Islamic experts, members of non-governmental organizations and Spanish feminists are among some 400 participants expected to attend the conference, organized by a local Muslim organization, La Junta Islamica Catalana.

"I'm going to see how feminists work within different contexts and what strategies they adopt to change sexist and discriminatory national laws and to play a role against extremist Islam," said Iranian participant Nayereh Tohidi, an expert on feminism and Islam in her country.

But like other Muslim feminists, Tohidi fears the struggle for greater rights will take time within a Muslim world of 29 nations and nearly one billion inhabitants. Tohidi's native Iran is a case in point.

"As in many other Muslim countries, women in Iran are faced with challenges and problems, particularly economic difficulties and unemployment that affect a growing number of qualified women," she said.

Iran's clerical regime is another hurdle. The government's "militaristic and anti-Western rhetoric is matched by appeals to put women in an even more traditional role," said Tohidi, who claimed Tehran was currently trying to put tougher political and social restrictions in place.

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AFP 021151 GMT 11 06

COPYRIGHT 2006 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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