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February 8, 2001 Homa Hoodfar supports Muslim women around the world



Anthropology professor Homa Hoodfar.

File photo

by Marie Valla

Anthropology Professor Homa Hoodfar has spent three years bringing together the experiences of Muslim female activists and her own teaching and research. The result is a handbook called Building Civil Societies: A Guide for Social and Political Activism.

It was written with Nelofer Pazira and published by the Women Living Under Muslim Laws network (WLUML), of which Professor Hoodfar is an active member.

“We had received appeals for help from people in the developing countries who weren’t too sure how to write protest letters,” Hoodfar explained, “and at the beginning, we wrote back to them individually. But the number increased. We decided we wanted something clear, simple — a guide on how to write protest letters and much more.”

The WLUML was started in 1984 by a group of exiled women, and Hoodfar, who was born in Iran, joined them. By the time of the Beijing women’s conference, a decade later, the WLUML had more than 2,000 contacts with NGOs in most of the Muslim countries. Its primary goal is to create links between women and women’s groups in the Muslim countries and communities.

Homa Hoodfar’s handbook is about education and an alternative form of politics. In it, she says that politics is not just something for old men. It’s about the redistribution of resources and social justice. “If you define it this way, a lot of people, including women, are interested in participating.”

If Muslim women hope to change the way things are done, they need to get together. The failure of Benazir Bhutto, once Pakistan’s prime minister, is clear evidence that a woman alone cannot change the whole structure by herself, Hoodfar said.

She advocates an activism that goes beyond changes of government, and says it is essential to improve society as a whole. This is why she makes a distinction in her handbook’s title between political and social activism.

“Look at Afghanistan,” she said. “In the 1970s, a group of young, highly educated men, with the best of intentions, took over the government. Well, they tore apart the country, and now, with the Taliban, the situation is worse than at any time in history before.”

For Hoodfar, who has been teaching at Concordia since 1991, scholarship and activism are rooted in her desire for social change.

“I started my research on women in shantytowns when I was 16 and still in high school in Teheran,” she said. “It was before I even knew what anthropology was.”

An important part of Hoodfar’s work has been devoted to changing the image of Islam in the Western world. The media coverage of the flogging of Beruya Magazu, a Nigerian Muslim girl who was flogged 100 times for having had (probably forced) extra-marital sex, still makes Hoodfar grind her teeth in anger.

“Support should have been given to local human rights associations,” Hoodfar said. “We should have made them look important internationally and [not simply complained to] make ourselves feel good.”

She says the press didn’t ask the right questions. “Instead of saying it’s barbaric‚ they should ask Nigerians, who have been Muslim for a very long time, why they suddenly declared the sharia [Islamic jurisprudence].”

Hoodfar puts her faith in the younger generation around the world, and said she’s happy about Concordia’s decision to let students apply to have their final exams deferred so they can demonstrate at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April.

“In the past three years, there have been changes in the student body,” she said. “This gives me hope.”