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Islam on the Internet
Part II: Muslim Women Breaking Down Barriers on the Web

Listen Listen to Davar Ardalan's report on Muslim women on the Internet.

Noorin Khwaya, pictured here with her husband and four children, runs a successful Web-based business out of her home, TwoMuslimGirls.com.

March 23, 2002 -- For many Muslim women, the Internet has become a safe portal where traditional notions of the ideal Muslim woman can be tested, expanded, and re-created. As NPR's Davar Ardalan discovered, there is a dynamic exchange taking place online, where a Muslim woman can be a traditionalist or an iconoclast, a homemaker or an entrepreneur.

The "neutral ground" of the Internet allows many Muslim women to learn about their rights within the religion, without the usual cultural or traditional barriers -- barriers, for example, that prohibited Afghan women under the Taliban to educate themselves or go to work.

Ardalan met one woman who personifies the "cyber Fatima" trend. In many ways, Noorin Khwaya is a traditional Muslim woman who chooses to wear the Islamic veil and stay home with her four children. But she's also the CEO of a thriving home-based Internet company -- TwoMuslimGirls.com -- selling traditional garb over the Internet.

Women in Islam

The first person to convert to Islam, back in the 7th century, was a wealthy businesswoman named Khadijah. She was also the wife of Mohammed, the founder of Islam. Mohammed is said to have encouraged women to participate actively in business, community decision-making -- some say even combat.

However, Samer Hathout, co-founder of the Muslim Women's League in Los Angeles, says today Muslim women don't necessarily have the same status Mohammed granted them centuries ago.

Women, she says, suffer from centuries of misinterpretation of Islamic tradition. But these ideas are being challenged on the Internet. The Muslim Women's League Web site posts background articles analyzing women's inheritance, marriage, divorce and political rights under Islamic law and tradition.

Khwaya says that before the Internet, many Muslim women would give money and a shopping list for traditional clothes to anyone traveling to an Islamic country -- and never get the exact size or color they were looking for. So she teamed up with a friend and founded a company that designs and manufactures Islamic clothing.

In the first two months of operation, Khwaya says her Web site saw a 500-percent rise in demand. "I have people in places you wouldn't even imagine Muslims would live," she told Ardalan. "I have Iowa, Idaho, North Dakota. The majority of my customers are Muslim converts -- American women that have become Muslim."

Noorin is a convert herself. Her husband, Mohaddin Khwaya, says running a Web site from home allows his wife to tend to her primary responsibility of taking care of their children. And the money is hers to keep.

Sakina Yakoubi, right, leads a class for Afghan refugee women in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Photo: Afghan Institute for Learning

"Islamically, it's the duty of the man to earn for the family and to provide for the family," he told Ardalan. "So in that sense, whatever money she earns and whatever money that she had inherited or she brings with her she gets to keep. According to basic Islamic law she is entitled to all her income."

The use of technology to empower women isn't limited to the United States. With help from the Women's Learning Partnership, based in Bethesda, Md., Sakina Yakoubi is helping Afghan refugee women to access the Internet and get computer training.

"The computer programs have been very... effective," Yakoubi told Ardalan by telephone from her learning institute in Peshawar, Pakistan. "These women really need to have access to that -- because Afghanistan (doesn't) have books, they don't have (a) library... so right now the Internet is the only source of education that they can get."

Islamic families nationwide are part of the growing trend in homeschooling. Muslim schools can often be scarce outside of large cities -- and that's the inspiration behind MuslimHomeSchool.com, founded by Cynthia Sulaiman as an online resource for parents that includes lesson plans, parental advice, and even suggested art projects for kids (example pictured above).

So far, Yakoubi says her institute has trained 110 Afghan women in bookkeeping, management and accounting.

Mahnaz Afkhami of LearningPartnership.org says most Muslim countries adhere to Islamic laws, or sharia -- but some have a stricter interpretation of the laws than others. Through online discussions and bulletin boards, Afkhami said women "learn from each other... so communication is a consciousness-raising vehicle."

At MuslimWomenStudies.com, Dr. Mona Abul Fadl says she's carrying on the legacy of Muslim women -- the first Islamic university, she tells Ardalan, was founded by a woman, Fatimah al-Fihriyya.

She plans to transfer the course work in Muslim Studies at the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Science to the Internet. By allowing women to take Muslim studies courses online, she says, the Internet becomes the new madrassa, or Islamic school -- a school open to all Muslims.

Links to Sites Heard on This Segment

TwoMuslimGirls.com
Online catalog of Muslim women's clothing, based in Florida.

Muslim Women's League
The group's goals are to counter the "high rates of illiteracy, poverty, violence, exclusion and other problems" Muslim women often face across the globe, by focusing on religious solutions.

Women's Learning Partnership
An international non-governmental organization funding education and technology training for women, primarily in the Southern Hemisphere.

Afghan Institute for Learning
An educational outreach program sponsored by Michigan-based Creating Hope International teaching Afghan refugee women.

MuslimWomenStudies.com
Online curriculum at the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences.

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