2014 has been a milemarker for women, especially when it comes to politics. While Western women have taken a step forward, headlines suggest women in many Islamic countries have taken two leaps back.
In the West, Muslim activists have many women among their ranks, some of them artists, writers, reporters, educators and lawyers who want the world to know their vision of women in Islam. But women in many Middle Eastern countries have little or no rights or freedoms.
Aylin Kocaman is a Muslimah commentator with religious A9TV in Istanbul. She explains different understandings and practices of Islam evolved over time. "There is a new religion in the world It is called Islam...but it's not Islam whatsoever. And we are watching the results right now. People are killing all the time in the name of Islam. They've turned a religion of peace into a religion of hatred. A religion of war."
She notes many who call themselves Muslims hate Christians, Jews and even each other. "Women are being treated as second class citizens. They hate women. They hate animal species. beautiful houses, they hate flowers, everything!"
Kocaman contends that such ultra-orthodox are not true Muslims. Since 9/11, there has been an undercurrent of fear and mistrust among many Americans directed toward Muslim people. And it is Muslim people themselves who have been reaching out, primarily through social media, to reassure Westerners they are "one with us," although the fruits of their efforts are often bitter.
Marwa El-bially grew up in Guilderland. The 2010 graduate of Albany Law School who has represented area mosques explains Islam has always been open to interpretation. "Of course you're gonna have people who interpret it more strictly than others. I like to compare it to the U.S. Constitution. Just as we have people who strictly interpret it and say it doesn't really matter what time period we're in. And then you have others who are more flexible in the way that they interpret things."
Scholars note it is the variance in the weight of the word as it is applied to women and their role and society that has confounded some Westerners.
Militant Islam as practiced by extremists like al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS represents a small but influential slice of the Muslim population. The outrageous kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by terror group Boko Haram crystallized hardline Islam. Human rights lawyer, filmmaker and feminist Paula Kweskin encourages Muslims to speak out against others who commit attrocious and heinous crimes in the name of power, culture, tradition or perversion of Islam. "I think we need to reach out to our sisters, no matter where they are, no matter their culture or their religious background, and say that we believe in them, that we believe in women's rights, that we believe that girls should be able to get an education and that we can stand together and be empowered."
Can Muslim women BE effective leaders, alongside men? Community leaders, political leaders, even religious leaders? Some female leaders have emerged in the Middle East, including the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, but in the meantime, Saudi women are still forbidden from driving. Aylin Kocaman says there is an important leadership role for women to play. "Of course they can. They should be. The Qur'an clearly declares that, there's an example in the Qu'ran: the Queen of Sheba. She's the leader of a big state. "
Marwa El-bially adds the United States affords Muslim women unparalleled options. "We have the Bill of Rights and the Constitution that protects your ability to practice your religion freely, so I would say definitely you have great opportunities here to excel and a lot of Muslim women have done that."
Gallup research indicates Muslim women in the United States have carved out a comfortable niche: they are more educated than the average American woman, and enjoy more income parity with their male counterparts than any other group of women. Less than one percent of Americans practice Islam.