Suzanne Fields

Hundreds of thousands of women in pink and purple marched on Washington this week, many bearing placards and banners bashing George W. Bush, demonstrating "on behalf of women's lives."

Ten thousand miles away, hundreds of thousands of women in black from head to toe couldn't march if they wanted to, but they have a champion in the president of the United States. If they want to talk about "women's lives," they're well advised to do it in whispers.

Nevertheless, some of them can see a vision of democracy and decent treatment, if only dimly through the narrow slits in their abayas, the heavy black garment in which they must confine themselves.

The excitement of women in liberated Afghanistan, throwing off their chadors, has been plain for the rest of us to see. In Iraq, the Governing Council has agreed to set aside a quarter of the seats in the coming parliament for women. Like it not, and a lot of the men no doubt don't, this will enable women to speak up and out.

These women will be the exceptions in the Islamic world. Women now occupy only 3.5 percent of the seats in Islamic parliaments. Even where women have some representation and are cabinet officers, ambassadors, undersecretaries, governors, mayors, judges and hold lesser positions of leadership and management, they comprise only a fraction of what ought to be.

Islamic women have a heroine in Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian agitator for women's rights who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of women and children. She has felt the heavy hand of abusive male power in her home country.

Ebadi was one of the first women appointed as judge by the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, but she was purged when the radical Islamists came to power in 1979. She was told she could not work as a judge because she was a woman and such was forbidden by religious law. She regards the dress that Islamic men force on women as symbolic of control, and she appeared at a press conference in Paris last year with her head uncovered by the traditional scarf.

"What could be a simpler and a more fundamental individual right than to dress as one pleases?" asks Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian woman writing about "The Woman Question" in the Wilson Quarterly. The status of women in the Middle East, she says, is the "key barometer of progress."

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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