Islamic Feminists Transforming Middle East

Guests

Isobel Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet
Sakena Yacoobi, founder and director, Afghan Institute of Learning

Some Muslims hope to create political, economic and educational opportunities for women, while others condemn women's empowerment as anti-Islamic.

A new brand of feminism is taking hold in the Middle East and beyond. It's led, more often than not, by women.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

It's been proven, over and over again, in many countries, that when women have access to education, when they get economic and political opportunity, society - as a whole - benefits.

But in much of the Middle East, and in other countries, too, empowerment of women is often attacked as an alien, Western idea that challenges deeply held religious beliefs and cultural traditions.

In her new book, Isobel Coleman describes a different approach to the same end, how some Muslim women employ the Quran as an agent of change in what's called Islamic feminism. She argues that any movement that fails to place religious beliefs at its core is doomed, and she joins us in a moment.

We'll also talk with an activist from Afghanistan about the changing role of women there. Later in the program, questions about Jewish bankers and anti-Semitism. Michael Kinsley of The Atlantic joins us.

But first, we want to hear from Muslims in the audience and those of you who've been to Afghanistan. Are women's roles changing? How? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Isobel Coleman is also a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council of Foreign Relations. Her new book is called "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East." She joins us from their studies in New York City. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. ISOBEL COLEMAN (Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council of Foreign Relations; Author, "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East"): Thank you, Neal, it's great to be back.

CONAN: And let me anticipate some questions from our audience. Some might argue that there are aspects of Islam and some cultural traditions, too, that seem incompatible with equality for women.

Ms. COLEMAN: I think that's probably true, that there are aspects, if you read the Christian Bible quite literally, that pose challenges for women, and that's absolutely true of the Quran. There are passages in the Quran that pose challenges for women's rights within Islam.

But that doesn't mean that you can't still look at the text and contextualize them. What many of the men and women today are trying to do within Islam is argue that times change, and you have to read them differently. You have to think about them in the present, not only in the past, and find new meanings and new ways to circle that square.

CONAN: You describe this as, I think the word is ishtihad. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

Ms. COLEMAN: Yes, ishtihad, which is it's a legal process that has been within Islam for centuries, which is a process of intellectual reasoning -looking at the text and trying to work with the text to come up with answers to questions that are modern question that pertain to today and people's very real lives that they live.

CONAN: There is another school of thought, however, that what's needed to be interpreted in the Quran has been interpreted, and this is all settled by now.

Ms. COLEMAN: Indeed it is, and the book talks about the tension between these two schools, these two approaches, in effect. And you have very conservative, very narrow, traditionalist readings that prescribe a very narrow role for women in society, and you have much more progressive, open interpretations. And the book is looking at how those two different schools are interacting in today's modern world and duking it out, in effect, in countries across the Middle East.

CONAN: We want to focus, because we have a guest here who's very familiar with this work in Afghanistan, on that country, which is of course central to U.S. foreign policy right at the moment, along with Iraq and Saudi Arabia and some of the other countries you talk about. But since we have a guest from Afghanistan, let's focus there.

And we hear of an almost puritanical interpretation of Islam that informs much of the Taliban movement, which, of course, ruled Afghanistan for many years.

Ms. COLEMAN: Well, that is absolutely true. You've got a very conservative, very narrow, traditionalist perspective in Afghanistan, that prescribes the very harsh treatment of women.

I mean, the Taliban is really the worst of the worst when it comes to women. But you also have very open and modern and progressive thinkers in Afghanistan today, and unfortunately, both of these sides are really vying for position and control in that country, and women are very much on the front lines of the war that is taking place across these two sides.

CONAN: Well, let's introduce Sakena Yacoobi. She founded and directs the Afghan Institute of Learning, a nonprofit organization that provides health and education services to women and children in Afghanistan, and she joins us today here in Studio 3A in Washington. It's great to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. SAKENA YACOOBI (Founder, Director, Afghan Institute of Learning): Thank you very much, hi.

CONAN: And would any kind of education or health services to women and children in Afghanistan be possible if it were not done in the context of the Quran?

Ms. YACOOBI: I think that as Isobel said, it is possible, but we will not get the profit of it, the benefit of it, because for many, many years, people really, they are, right now, especially, they are using Islam as a way to just get the woman to not be educated, not get advanced, and they are using Islam.

But in reality, I am so happy and so proud that Isobel's book is really a book that for us, as a Muslim, has really introduced the other side of the Islam, that is really so democratic, so open-minded (unintelligible). And is allow us, that all of us as a - the nation, they can look that see how much Islam give advantage to women. That men and women have equal rights and education, and woman can advance and from education change their life, change their status, by using, just exactly as Isobel said, verses from Quran.

And we can really see the impact of education on women, how it changed their lives. For example, I can give you an example of it.

CONAN: Please.

Ms. YACOOBI: I have been, for 20 years, working in Peshawar, Pakistan, and working inside Afghanistan, and working during the Taliban and (unintelligible) and trying to educate the women of Afghanistan.

And constantly, I have been providing different kind of program, from literacy to higher education, but at the same time, awareness. And when we provide women's right or human rights workshop for the people of Afghanistan, they are delighted. Because what we do, if we come around and say we are going to try to teach you woman's rights, of course they are not going to accept because that is a Westernized sort of a dialect.

But if we say we are trying to hear, Islam says that you have a right in education and such-and-such verses, or Islam gives freedom for a woman to really have a position, go outside and work. And Islam allows women to have a business, for example, or Islam allows women to be able to reason with their husband or brother, and here are the quotations. And when we give this kind of workshop, it's amazing to see how it's changed the lives of hundreds and thousands and thousands of women, and how the women become advanced. And...

CONAN: Yes, go ahead.

Ms. YACOOBI: Thank you. And that is the way that we have seen that all the time, that the advances of women, when they have a proper education, such as trying to look at it in the tradition and the culture and the religion, and get this all included and according to our religion, which allows us to do that is not threatening, and everybody wants to learn.

And right now in Afghanistan, today when you look at the women of Afghanistan from 80 years ago, it's a great change. It's a definite change. You could see it. I could see the impact of it.

Like right now, women are voting. Women are going to the workforce. Women are being social entrepreneurs. Women are doing many, many things because they have been allowed to get education, and this kind of education.

Once you provide quality education, and you really reason with them like, as Isobel said, ishtihar, and you give them the reason behind it, they really are involved, and also you can just communicate this with men.

Even sometimes people are asking me, are you educating only women? But right now, we are involving men, too, because the men are the ones who are really, that they said okay, some rigid men say this is not allowed by Islam. But once we bring them to the classroom and give them the workshop and give them the real quotation from Quran, we interpret with them, they see, and they are changing, and they are allowing their daughter and wife to come and learn from us.

CONAN: We're talking about the changing role of women in Islam throughout the Middle East, and specifically in Afghanistan. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Jamil(ph), Jamil with us from Olathe in Kansas.

JAMIL (Caller): How are you, sir?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

JAMIL: Yes, I was trying to say that as (unintelligible) said, that Islam is, as I said, is a universal religion. And most of the countries where it is practiced, people go by their cultural values, not by the religious values. And Western areas, especially in America and Europe, they bring it, they say that he is Muslim, and Islam doesn't allow them to do so, which is absolutely wrong.

Islam focused on education from the very first day. And in the time of the holy prophet, women used to work. Even the holy prophet's first wife, she was a businesswoman. And women participated along with the line of men in almost all sort of professions.

And that was 1,500 years ago. And in today's in some countries where they do not practice or where they do not allow the women to go and get higher education, it is not Islam that's stopping them, it is their cultural values. And it's just their (unintelligible) practice more than the religion, and that's what they do...

CONAN: That's what they do, I'm sorry?

JAMIL: Yeah, that's what they do, I will say, in some part of northern Pakistan or Afghanistan. But again, it is wrong to say that Islam did not allow a person, regardless of the gender, not to get higher education.

CONAN: Let me ask Isobel Coleman to respond to this briefly. We have a short break coming up, but this is an issue, you address this issue of traditional customs versus religious beliefs.

JAMIL: Yes.

Ms. COLEMAN: Yeah, it's a very good point that Jamil is making. But the problem is that in so many countries around the world, tradition, culture and religion are conflated. And so you saw, for example in Afghanistan, there are deep cultural traditions, but the Taliban used Islamic arguments to justify those cultural traditions.

And it's much harder to change religion than it is to change culture. When you're doing something that's seen against religion, it's just very difficult to change it. It sort of stops people dead in their tracks. And so that is why women today are using Islamic arguments to fight back on those traditional and cultural aspects of society.

CONAN: Jamil, thanks very much for the phone call. Isobel Coleman's new book is "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East." More with her in a moment and more with Sakena Yacoobi of the Afghan Institute of Learning. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In her new book, Isobel Coleman takes us through Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and other predominately Muslim countries to meet Islamic feminists who are redefining the role of women within the tenets of Islam.

You can read about the lengths one group of Somali women went to keep a Mogadishu school functioning through a raging civil war in an excerpt at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Isobel Coleman's book is titled "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Woman Are Transforming the Middle East." Also with us, one of the women she writes about, Sakena Yacoobi, who founded and directs the Afghan Institute of Learning, a nonprofit organization that provides health and education services to women and children in Afghanistan, as she mentioned, to men, too, now.

If you'd like join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And let's go next to Fleet(ph), Fleet calling us from San Antonio.

FLEET (Caller): Good afternoon to you, sir.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

FLEET: I just returned from Afghanistan about two and a half weeks ago. I was on a three-week media embed. And one of the things I noticed pertinent to the discussion going on today is that the Afghani women, through exposure to American women in the military, some of whom are medical, some of whom hold command, some of whom are in food distribution and things like that, the observation I make is that seeing women empowered and holding authority and behaving normally, as we do, in two instances I know of has had quite an impact on the local populations.

CONAN: Give us a little bit more of what you're talking about. Go into one of those examples?

FLEET: Yes, I can. I was standing watching a MEDEVAC helicopter discharge the child that had been brought in from an injury sustained somewhere out in the field, and I'm not sure it was a military injury. It may have been just an accident, a broken leg or something.

And from once they rolled him on the gurney into the hospital, his parents were there. Ladies took charge of it from start to finish, and then I was lucky enough to see him come out about a week later. And his father, decked out in the entire Afghan costume, uniform, you know, their normal clothing, brought this discharge nurse a bundle of roses with his wife standing there nearby, in a full burqa, and the American nurse was in her scrubs. And the man presented her this bouquet of roses, and she put her hands to her face, and it was quite a poignant scene.

CONAN: Let me ask Sakena Yacoobi about that. Any change by looking at other examples?

Ms. YACOOBI: Well, a few see that, as this gentleman says, that women of Afghanistan are changing also. Also, men are changing. They respect women who are educated. They really appreciate the women who are educated if they understand that this women who are educated is according to our tradition, our religion and is not a threat to them and is really their lives are changing for better, their children are healthier, their family is better, their economic status is growing, like they are getting wealthier because they held a job.

And so, as a result, you could see that really, people are happy. And I could tell you that thousands of thousands, through our work, we have seen their lives change. And the men are really more and more sort of becoming like open-minded, and they are really joining the women's tasks because they feel like these women who are really are not a threat to our culture and religion, they are really 60 percent of our population. And you cannot ignore 60 percent of the population.

And really, as the previous speaker says, that is Islam allows women freedom, allows women education, allows women to really advance. And so (unintelligible) was the example of it.

And so (unintelligible), his daughter, Isobel Coleman is talking in her book about it is that she was one model, role model for us. We can look to her, (unintelligible), as a role model.

So we really, if we go according to our religion. So we must, as a matter of fact, Islam really encourage you to have a better life and have a healthier life and to really get education. So once you do that, of course the men are reacting to that, and it is a beautiful example of it, that that man, how he could bring the flower to the woman because he could see how much this woman knowledge helped her child getting better.

CONAN: Her listeners should have been lucky enough to see Sakena Yacoobi's smile as Fleet was telling that story. Fleet, welcome home, and thanks very much for calling.

FLEET: Oh, I appreciate it, and I concur with what she said 100 percent. Thanks much. See you later, bye.

CONAN: So long. Let's go next to Nigad(ph). I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly.

NIGAD (Caller): (Unintelligible).

CONAN: In Miami. Go ahead please.

NIGAD: I'm thrilled to hear what the sister gave us, information about religion, Islam, but I will still 100 percent sure that we needed to teach our own children, our own women in Pakistan what the proper teaching of Islam. Unfortunately, most of the women, including me when I was a little girl, I read Quran in Arabic, and I was like, I read the Chinese.

And my opinion is strongly what she said. I agree with her. God allowed us, we have equal right according to God, and we are supposed to go study. And we have a it's an obligation of a man and a woman to go to school, but unfortunately, when I was a little girl, my mother said girls are born to be married, not to go to college. And I went to college, and I'm 100 percent sure that we should educate all the women because unfortunately, 58 percent of the women are illiterate in Pakistan.

And I wish, you know, I can relay this message to whoever is listening. Read Quran. Translate it into your native language because Arabic, it's a prophet language, but we do not understand. And once you have education, you have a power, and you can change the world around, not only Pakistani condition but the fear all over the world about Muslim people, which I feel ashamed sometime, and I bleed to my heart when somebody say, oh, Islam is a cruel religion.

Islam is not cruel. We are the evil, and we are the ignorant, and we are not very well educated. (Unintelligible) educated, it will change the world, and which I have written a book about it.

CONAN: Okay. Isobel Coleman, you talk about the importance of teaching not simply by memorization, by rote, but by actually learning how to read and to learn critical thinking.

Ms. COLEMAN: Yes, Neal, that's a great point. The one of the drivers, I think, of Islamic feminism today is the fact that more and more women are reading the texts for themselves. And as the previous caller just said that when she was little, growing up, she had to read it in Arabic. It was incomprehensible to her.

But today, you now have women who are reading the texts, reading the Quran themselves in study groups, with friends, even at their mosque with their local mullah in their local language, really engaging with the text, trying to understand it better and trying to understand what it really says and what it really means.

And there's much that is progressive and is accommodating for women in the Quran. There are parts of it that are not and that people are struggling with, but there is much that people can take away from the Quran that allows for a much more empowered role for women in society.

And I just want to comment on the previous question, too, about role models, about Americans being role models in Afghanistan, which I'm glad to hear that. But I will say that the most impressive role models there are the Afghan women themselves who have really taken on, at tremendous personal risks, very public roles.

Sakena is one of them. She is running clinics and schools all across the country. People admire her. They look up to her. Hundreds of thousands of women, and men, have been touched personally by her. And one of the graduates of her schools is a woman named Habiba Sarabi, who is now a governor. She is the only female governor in Afghanistan, in Bamiyan Province, and she's a very popular politician who really inspires both men and women across Afghanistan with her personal story.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call there from Miami.

NIGAD: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And I wanted to ask you, Sakena Yacoobi, one of the scenes that Isobel Coleman describes in her book is when you started in Peshawar, this was a great Afghan refugee camp, 20 years ago, the first person you approached was the mullah.

Ms. YACOOBI: Absolutely, yes. When I went there in the refugee camp, and I saw that all these (unintelligible) refugee are in the camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, in different refugee camp, and most of them, as I said about 60 percent of them are women, some of them, about maybe 40 percent of them are widow without a husband with the children sitting there. And they are not doing anything, and these young girls sitting in the camp and not studying and not learning anything.

So it was devastating to me, and that was one thing that really I decided at the time that how we can - we change their lives? And the only way that we could do it, through education. And if you want to implement education at the time, it was a time that even the majority were against education.

So what happened? We went to a mullah, and we really said that this is the best way, through the community and through the leader, which is in the time - the mask - the mullah is the leader of that community. So I went through with my group. We went there, and for months, we trained this mullah to be a teacher and how to teach. Of course, he was...

CONAN: People thought you were crazy.

Ms. YACOOBI: Absolutely. I mean, they thought I'm out of my mind. How a mullah could teach? But you know what? When you have a plan, a very organized program, which means teacher training new methodology students in that technique and teaching critical thinking. And when you train somebody like that, it's -everybody get involve. The mullah got involved, the family got involved, everybody want to teach.

And as a matter of fact, in a matter of three months, from, like one-tenth, we get to see one-tenth and we have 300 students in one compound. And after that, we have, like, in a matter of one year, we have 25,000 students in different school. And that was the way it went. And it's picked up from there. And since then, we have trained 18,000 teachers.

And as Isobel said, we are not just telling them to read Quran. We teach them how to read Quran then interpretation and to understand that. And what does Quran says? Quran is all about right, about democracy, about justice, about equality, about advancement. That is the way that Quran teaches us if we really understand that. If we don't understand and we read in Arabic, we will not be accomplishing anything and we just, like, follow whatever they said to us. And when they want to abuse us and submissive women in Afghanistan, the way that they abuse them so they listen in whatever they say, they listen to them and that was the way it went.

And now, you can communicate with the women, as Isobel said, looking like a woman like Habiba Surabi. And looking like Habiba Surabi, many of them lawyer, doctor, engineer right now.

We have, of course, the situation in Afghanistan is very bad. Poverty is there. People don't have a job. People are really suffering right now. Security is not there. But if you really compare the life of the woman from eight years ago to now, it's like I can just tell you that 90 percent is changed. Of course, maybe people will argue with me that still people have problem. Yes, we do have problem because it's not easy task and it takes time. It takes time the way that we took 30 years off this war to people who are devastated. It takes us a longer time to reimprove our life.

But sure enough, by having a guidance like Quran and using Quran as our guidance, and we will have much, much better life and we will be much happier because we also - we practice our religion and tradition, and we also educate ourselves.

CONAN: Sakena Yacoobi, founder and director of the Afghan Institute of Learning. Also with us, Isobel Coleman. "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East" is her new book. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next Lookiman(ph). Lookiman, am I getting that right?

LOOKIMAN (Caller): Yeah. Lookiman.

CONAN: Go ahead - in Columbia, South Carolina. Go ahead please.

LOOKIMAN: Yes. My point is this, that everything your guest is saying, everything sounds okay. That's according to Islam. But my point is this, just look at it this way. You don't want to get all this education at the expense of (unintelligible), at the expense of what Islam say.

CONAN: You don't want to get your education at the expense of what Islam says?

LOOKIMAN: Yes, sir. Because many of these country that is being colonized by the British or the Western...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

LOOKIMAN: ...and the education system is based on the Western system. So like in Islam, there is education (unintelligible). But in this coast, they don't have that. So some of the people that opposed some of these students from going to school is not because they don't want them to go to school, but because it's about - because of your religion. It's a way of life. It's not just a religion. And she says, you can't say something like democracy is Islam. It is not. Democracy is the will of the people. Islam is fully submission to the will of Allah. So it's not the same thing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

LOOKIMAN: So you have people like these, teachers read the Quran, but they don't really understand it. And they don't want to go on shows and start talking all this stuff. You need to understand it. It's a way of life. A lot of people...

CONAN: Let me - we're running out of time here, so let me ask Isobel Coleman to comment on this. I think one of the things that Lookiman is talking about is the overlay of Westernized influences in the educational systems of many countries, not just Afghanistan, in the traditional educational systems.

Ms. COLEMAN: That's - the countries that actually I write about in the book, some of them have never been colonized. I mean, Saudi Arabia, Iran, they've not been colonies of Western powers. And the fact is that their educational system - Afghanistan today is really from scratch educational system.

And I'm not sure that colonial influence is really the problem today. I think that in many respects, there are very strong traditions in cultures as we've been talking about.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. COLEMAN: And that those traditions and cultures have this religious overlay that prevents change. And today, there are people in these countries who want change and they recognize that the power of the religious establishment is very, very strong, and they have to argue from within an Islamic perspective to push that change forward. And that's what you see happening more and more.

CONAN: Lookiman, thanks very much for your call. We just have a minute left, Isobel. And getting back to your argument, that if it is not within the context of Islam and those beliefs, it is doomed to failure.

Ms. COLEMAN: Well, maybe that's a little too strong. I think that there are secular people in all of these countries, but - and there's secular ways of life and there's secular education.

CONAN: But you're write about the next generation being more religious than the current one.

Ms. COLEMAN: Yes, absolutely. But when you move out of urban areas into the countryside, I mean, Islam is the touchstone of daily life. And if you cannot find ways to promote change that is consistent with people's views on Islam, then you're really trying to push a rock up a hill. And I found this all over the region where I travel.

You can meet very Westernized secular people in the cities and you leave the cities and suddenly it's like you're going back in time. And you have to - the people who are trying to promote change understand that and they're really trying to work within the system as opposed to against it.

CONAN: We'd like to thank our guests, Sakena Yacoobi, founder and director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, a nonprofit organization that provides health and educational services to women and children in Afghanistan. She was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Thank you very much for your time.

Ms. YACOOBI: Thank you.

CONAN: And Isobel Coleman, author of "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East." You can read more about Mogadishu's so-called kitchen mamas and how they negotiated with warlords to feed thousands of civilians through Somalia's civil war in an excerpt at npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'Paradise Beneath Her Feet'

Cover of 'Paradise Beneath Her Feet'
Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East
By Isobel Coleman
Hardcover, 352 pages
Random House
List price: $26.00

WHY WOMEN MATTER

The Payoff from Women's Rights

A mother is a school. Empower her and you empower a great nation. — Hafez Ibrahim, Egyptian poet (1872-1932)

Across the dusty Mogadishu courtyard, the Somali women shouted instructions to each other as they cooked, adding their voices to the already considerable din — dogs barking, babies crying, the occasional staccato of distant machine-gun fire. The temperature hovered around a hundred degrees, and although a tattered tarp provided some meager cover from the searing sun, it also trapped the scalding heat from the kitchen fires. Orange flames licked the bottom of the giant makeshift pots provided by the Red Cross — fifty-gallon drums cut in half, with handles welded onto the sides for maneuvering. The women used long poles, like broomsticks, to stir the mush inside, a bland but nutritious concoction of rice, beans, and oil. Sweat poured down their faces. The smell of perspiration, food, and woodsmoke was pungent.

Outside the burned-out building, a guard stood by the doorway. The drooping flags of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent stirred occasionally in the faint breeze off the Indian Ocean. By late afternoon, a line of people began to form, and soon it was hundreds deep — mothers with babies on their backs, gaunt-faced children waiting listlessly by their parents' sides, a few young men chewing khat leaves, a natural stimulant that suppresses hunger but also makes them high. When the guard blew his whistle, the line moved slowly forward, flip-flops shuffling in the dust. The poorest were barefoot. The guard made the young men leave their Kalashnikovs at the door.

Inside the courtyard, the volunteer "kitchen mamas" worked efficiently, slopping the mush into whatever containers people carried — a cup, a plate, a ripped carton. Dipping in with their hands, the Somalis ate quickly. The bold colors of the women's direhs — their long, billowing traditional dresses — brightened the otherwise dismal surroundings. Remarkably, they somehow managed to keep their petticoats out of the dust.

It was the summer of 1991, and Somalia was embroiled in a full-blown civil war, a war that tragically continues today. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the fighting, and as drought compounded the already tenuous situation, famine ran rampant. Relief groups struggled to provide aid, but thousands of people were dying by the day. Red Cross efforts to feed the hungry were largely thwarted by widespread looting. Convoy trucks were routinely attacked and robbed by rival clans who used the food to feed their own militias, or to barter for weapons, while the women and children starved. By some estimates, a quarter of Somali children under the age of five perished during the famine. As Geoffrey Loane, the director of Red Cross efforts in Somalia at that time, recalls, "This was not the finest hour for Somali men."

Somali women, however, rose to the challenge. Loane, a soft-spoken Irishman, smiles remembering how the women of Mogadishu came to him with a plan to get food to the starving people. "They proposed a solution, a practical solution totally in keeping with their local culture. Rather than transporting big shipments of food to large feeding centers, which only encouraged the looting, the women suggested we help them set up communal kitchens in neighborhoods across the city. The Red Cross would supply them with firewood and water, and run a constant stream of small loads of food to them via donkeys. They would immediately cook the food and serve it to the hungry, averting starvation and eliminating the food's cash value. We thought it was worth a try. Before we knew it, the women had totally taken charge. They set up more than three hundred of these communal kitchens, run by kitchen committees comprised of twenty to thirty women. Each of these kitchens was dishing out between one and two thousand meals, twice a day. They became the lifeline of Mogadishu."

The kitchens took shape in the rubble of destroyed buildings — what was left of the whitewashed villas that once graced Mogadishu's palm-tree-lined streets. Even the city's elegant mosques, a tribute to its historic past as a great trading port, had not escaped the ransacking. Once the Red Cross was on board, the women negotiated with the warlords to appropriate space for their communal kitchens. Some of these kitchens even had links with local schools, where meals provided an incentive for both students and teachers to continue attending classes even during the brutal chaos of the war.

Andrew Natsios, the United States' special coordinator for Somalia relief efforts at the time, remembers going into Mogadishu at the height of the fighting and, to his amazement, stumbling upon a functioning school in the middle of the civil war. There were at least ten classrooms full of grammar-school children. How is that possible, he wondered? Though he had been told that all the schools in Mogadishu had been shut down due to the fighting, in truth some thirty thousand kids were still attending classes. The formal education system had collapsed along with the government, but the women had devised a way to keep the schools functioning. The kitchen mamas were using some of the food aid to pay the teachers in a makeshift food-for-work program. Natsios recognized the effectiveness of this grassroots effort, and the United States started giving small grants not only to the Red Cross, but to several women-led local organizations that were focused on keeping the schools running. The results were spectacularly successful for many months until the warlords caught wind of the transactions and began robbing the women's groups to finance their militias.

"These women were incredibly determined and courageous," remembers Loane, the Red Cross director. One in particular stands out in his memory: Dhabo Issa, a tall Somali woman with a commanding presence and fiery temper. The Red Cross hired her to manage the complicated logistics for the kitchen program in the southern part of the city. Loane's eyes sparkle recalling Dhabo Issa's grit: "She was a pearl of pearls." But when I ask him what became of her, his smile fades. As the famine receded and the kitchens were closed, the women lost what little power they had garnered. After the "Black Hawk Down" fiasco, when U.S. troops were fatally dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, international support for the peacekeeping effort disappeared. "The last I heard," sighs Loane, "Dhabo Issa had become a refugee in London, working as an office assistant. I felt like saying to her boss, 'Man, don't you know who you have photocopying for you? This woman deserves a Nobel Prize for her kitchen work.'"

Excerpted from Paradise Beneath Her Feet by Isobel Coleman. Copyright 2010 by Isobel Coleman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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