The Islam, Gender, and Reproductive Health conference series, sponsored by The Middle East Program and Environmental Change and Security Project, provides an in-depth look at the intersection of reproductive health and gender issues in the Islamic world, addressing the range of religious adherence to Islam and the impact of such diverse views on reproductive health policy and programming. The second meeting in the series, which is supported by USAID's Office of Population and Reproductive Health and the Interagency Gender Working Group, featured Dr. Asma Barlas of Ithaca College and Dr. Homa Hoodfar of Concordia University. They focused on how religion and policy affect and address the reproductive health needs of women in Islamic settings.

Dr. Barlas is a professor of politics and an expert on the Koranic roots of gender inequality. She focused on patriarchal versus feminist interpretations of Koranic verses, explaining practices such as polygamy, young marriage, gender preference, and honor killings. Dr. Hoodfar, a professor of sociology, has researched women's issues in the Islamic world, including women in the diaspora, female refugees, and reproductive health and family planning in Iran. Dr. Hoodfar addressed gender roles and personal status law in Egypt and Iran as they relate to family planning and education.

Dr. Barlas used text from the Koran to illustrate varying interpretations of passages about issues like polygamy, young marriage, age of consent, and honor killings. Barlas pointed out that the Koran's original audience consisted of 7th century Arab nomads, a patriarchal group that treated women as property. In the 7th century, the Koran was believed to improve the lives of women and orphans by encouraging men to take fewer wives and forbidding the custom of "inheriting" women against their will, among other practices. Barlas noted that subsequent interpretations of the Koran continued to be patriarchal, though many of the verses used to justify patriarchal customs and laws are single lines and verses taken out of the larger context.

Barlas critiqued Western interpretations that believe practices like polygamy and young marriage are based on lust. In fact, she argued, the Koran expressly forbids lust as a reason for marriage. She asserted that the Prophet Mohammad condoned polygamy as a way to care for orphans and commanded that it should only be practiced when a man has enough resources to support more than one wife and her children. She pointed out that though the Koran may condone young marriage, it does not require it. She also argued that the Koran expressly forbids female infanticide and inheriting women against their will, and establishes a woman's right to sexual desire. Barlas concluded with the observation that "one can not explain Muslim women's lives solely in the context of the Koran," pointing out that politics and economy, gender relationships, cultural contexts, and class are major factors affecting the status of women in any society.

Homa Hoodfar raised the question, "Why is reform of family law so vulnerable to rolling back?" She suggested that these laws were never popular or internalized. In the early 20th century, men and women led initiatives to reinterpret the Koran in a less patriarchal way, but these efforts seemed unnecessary after liberal states were established. As these liberal reforms failed, family law was rolled back. Hoodfar, who has researched family law in 28 Muslim countries, discussed Muslim women's evolving sense of rights: now women of all classes and education speak of rights as Muslims, women, and citizens. In Iran, Hoodfar found that informal women's religious gatherings, which once reinforced patriarchal attitudes, are now beginning to focus on women as individuals, encouraging women to see their own health as an important component of the family's health. This focus on "self" is a major shift in ideology, according to Hoodfar.

Hoodfar also concludes that men are key to improving women's reproductive health. Iran's family planning initiatives have been successful, partly because these programs focused on educating men as well as women. The government justified the need for a national family planning program by demonstrating that Muslim societies had a history of using family planning and that smaller families would help reduce economic hardships, among other benefits.

Hoodfar noted that most feminist interpretations of the Koran have not been documented. She is now working with national women's assemblies to provide them with Koranic research on the treatment of women and more "women-friendly" interpretations of patriarchal teachings.

Drafted by Jennifer Kaczor.