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For Muslim Women, a Careful Script to Combat Violence


Egyptian women protesting sexual harrasment and violence.
Inspired by social-media discussions on sexual harassment in Egypt, a group took the conversation to the streets of Cairo and formed a "human chain" in May 2012. FATMA ELZAHRAA YASSIN/UN WOMEN

The saddest stories told by vulnerable women in villages or slum shacks across the developing world most often involve violence or subjugation that they must bear because they don’t know how, or don’t have the means, to escape a bad situation. In the poorest countries, women talk of being assaulted or intimidated at home, in the marketplace and in refugee camps where they have gone for protection from conflict, taking with them hungry children on the verge of starvation. They are trapped in misery.

In June, the Women’s Learning Partnership, which groups and supports 20 organizations in the developing world, mostly in Muslim countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, published a comprehensive guide to tackling persistent violence through a calibrated series of lessons beginning at home and ending with a global perspective.

The 242-page book, “Victories Over Violence: Ensuring Safety for Women and Girls,” is described as a practitioner’s manual that moves, step by step, from case studies built on real-life stories from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Malaysia and the United States. Through local group discussions, women can learn that they are not alone in their suffering and that remedies are at hand – though for many they may be distant hopes because even laws and prohibitions where they live may not be enforced, if they exist at all.

“Moreover, in most countries, women have less access to the political and legal systems than men,” the guide says in its introduction to the book, intended for discussion leaders who are encouraged to assemble community groups. Cultural practices, restrictions imposed by religion and traditional male dominance are barriers. That is common knowledge among global women’s networks and UN Women, an agency that has put a high priority on promoting access to justice and legal assistance, but such concepts are not always articulated in a local setting.

Economic conditions add to the hurdles. “Sadly and bluntly stated, living a life free of violence costs more money than many women have or can earn in a marketplace biased against them,” the manual says.

The methodology of “Victories Over Violence” is clear-cut and practical. Women gather under the guidance of a local discussion leader and consider cases that may have relevance to them in their own situations. They also learn about such “new” issues as verbal or psychological abuse or homophobia – topics not in the open, or even understood, in many societies. Whatever the situation, women are encouraged to respond to questions that are intended to provoke conversation and debate. For example, a story about sexual abuse in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake prompts the questions (among others): “Can a woman’s clothing and/or behavior incite a man to rape? Why or why not?” They are questions debated almost everywhere, in both the global North and South.

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Participants in group discussions are told of concrete model remedies in concise segments that would not be difficult to translate into local languages. (They also learn about CNN Heroes from the story of Anuradha Koirala  in Nepal, who was recognized for her antitrafficking work, and they are prodded to think about heroes in their own lives.)

Discussion leaders are supplied with an exhaustive catalog of international conventions and a long list of further reading suggestions. Relevant UN Security Council resolutions, in particular governing women in conflict, are included, along with texts of other pertinent international agreements.

The Women’s Learning Partnership, based in Bethesda, Md., was founded by Mahnaz Afkhami, an Iranian-American who has worked for years with women from Islamic societies trying to make their voices heard at home and abroad. She has promoted female writers and intellectuals from Islamic nations whose concepts of feminism have local cultural roots not always understood or appreciated by feminists in richer countries, and gathered them together from time to time to share their thoughts and experiences.

Afkhami is the author, with the political scientist Haleh Vaziri, of the “Victories Over Violence” guide, the latest of a series of publications to educate women in skills they need to take leadership roles in their communities or in politics – how to run for office, for example — or just to become aware of what is happening in the wider world of women. A book published in 2001, “Leading to Choices,” with its focus on women in Muslim-majority countries, has been translated into 20 languages.

“When I was conceptualizing the leadership manual many years ago we thought once the English prototype was tested in various settings, each country would choose local narratives to replace the international ones,” Afkhami said in an e-mail message. “Much to our surprise, everyone wanted to keep most of the scenarios from other places because of just that fact. They all wanted to engage in specific problem-solving with an understanding of the similarities in the condition of women across cultures.”

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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