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  • Promoting Women’s Rights in the Muslim World
  • Mahnaz Afkhami (bio)

In 1984, there appeared a volume entitled Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology, consisting of some 70 essays written by women from as many countries in every continent on the globe. 1 The project had been conceived in the early 1980s by Robin Morgan, an internationally known women’s-rights activist from the United States. The book’s contributors, all of whom were involved in the promotion of women’s rights and democracy, represented a great variety of cultures and came from diverse personal backgrounds. They were cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, teachers, lawyers, artists, poets, and political organizers. Uniting them was a belief that women had been treated badly everywhere, and that the reason this situation had been tolerated was that women had not been allowed to develop the kind of consciousness needed to change their social, economic, and political circumstances. The authors believed that, in most cases, the greatest barrier to women’s advancement was a complicated set of prohibitive injunctions that were woven into values women accepted as sacred. These women writers underlined the relationship between this maze of tradition and a social order that relegated them to second-class status at [End Page 157] home and in society. Their essays revealed their belief that historical circumstances had helped women achieve a kind of critical mass sufficient to bring about significant change in the lives of people around the world—not only those of women, but also those of men.

Soon after publication of the anthology, Robin Morgan invited the contributors to form the nucleus of an international organization that would work to promote the human rights of women around the world. In November 1984, 25 of them met in New York to discuss the possibility of establishing such a group. At the meeting, they affirmed the need for a permanent international feminist organization whose aims would be to generate useful theory and to spur national and international action. Their fundamental claim was that women’s rights are human rights. A decade later, at the United Nations’ 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, that claim was officially endorsed by the international community.

The 70 contributors to the anthology became the core members of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI), now based in Bethesda, Maryland. Soon afterward, SIGI established the Sisterhood Is Global Network (SIGN), whose membership is open to anyone interested in becoming an active participant in the campaign to promote and defend women’s human rights. The membership of SIGN has increased steadily over the years, and now exceeds 1,300.

The current membership of SIGI includes many articulate and influential women leaders from around the world. The group’s president, Maria Lourdes de Pintasilgo, is a former prime minister of Portugal; steering-committee member Gwendolyne Konie is Zambia’s ambassador to Germany. Other members include Nikki Coseteng, a senator from the Philippines; Shalumit Aloni, who was minister of education in Israel under the Labor government; Christine Delphi, Nawal el-Saadawi, and Marjorie Agosin, well-known literary figures from France, Egypt, and Chile, respectively; and Asma Khader, president of the Jordanian Women’s Union and a longtime advocate of women’s human rights.

The Institute is also in constant communication with many organizations and individuals in the United States whose interests and activities bear on human rights. In each of the past three years, SIGI has organized or cosponsored several major international conferences in the United States and abroad on issues of interest to women in the global South. These meetings have provided valuable opportunities for women leaders to analyze the prevailing conditions in their countries, exchange views, develop new strategies for change, and build consensus. 2

Objectives and Activities

The Institute’s main objectives are to inform women around the world of the basic rights guaranteed to them in the international human rights [End Page 158] conventions; to publicize incidences of the violation of women’s human rights; to encourage all women—regardless of race, culture, religion, class, age, sexual preference, or abilities—to work together to define and achieve common goals; to enable women from the global South to participate...

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pp. 157-166
Launched on MUSE
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