On May 22, the Independent Women’s Forum sponsored a panel at the National Press Club addressing the role of the U.S. in the liberation of women in Muslim societies. Criticisms of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq are not warranted because merely ‘a nanosecond’ has passed in the development of the post-war country said Iraq expert Rend Rahim Francke. The Iraq Foundation director, along with Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky and Women’s Learning Partnership President Mahnaz Afkhami, were the main speakers at the IWF’s well-attended, animated event.

The audience took away many insights into U.S. policy, including the following:

  • U.S. government-funded broadcasts to women in Muslim countries should have far more political substance and far less pop music and other light fare.
  • When wading into the debate about whether constitutions should separate ‘mosque and state’ in Muslim countries, the U.S. should stick to the values of its own constitution, the speakers said.
  • U.S. policymakers should not accept the argument that religious edicts that undermine women’s rights trump man-made law, the speakers said. Laws in Muslim countries can be written in such a way that women’s rights are fully protected. Such solutions are possible even in the troublesome area of family law, where religious texts appear to undermine equality by giving a man the right to divorce his wife but not vice versa, the speakers said. The solution in pre-revolution Iran, for instance, was to have the man grant his wife rights equal to his own when they signed a contract of marriage, Mahnaz Afkhami explained.
  • U.S. policymakers should avoid the specious conclusion that Muslims cannot be governed by democratically elected leaders. Polls show Muslims are overwhelmingly supportive of democracy, Afkhami said.
  • The U.S. government is committed to assisting women in Afghanistan, Iraq and throughout the region, and is continuing to set up programs to do so. The State Department prefers not to dictate the instruments that can be used for improving the position of women, Undersecretary Dobriansky said. While some countries in the region have advocated quotas for women in politics, the quotas don’t always get filled. Some countries such as Morocco prefer to stress the importance of women’s opportunity to participate in the workforce.

IWF is preparing a transcript of the panel moderated by Senior Fellow Melana Zyla Vickers and will make excerpts available to the public.