TIME feminism

Here’s the History of the Battle for Equal Pay for American Women

Equal Pay Day
Craig F. Walker—Denver Post/Getty Images Activists gathered on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol in downtown Denver, CO, to mark national Equal Pay Day in 2009

The fight for equal pay dates back to the Civil War

Based on national pay-disparity numbers, a hypothetical American woman would have to keep working until roughly April 14, 2015, in order to make the same amount of money as a man doing the same work would have made in 2014 — which is why the activist group the National Committee on Pay Equity has selected Tuesday as this year’s Equal Pay Day. Though the topic will get extra airtime today, the debate about equal pay is nothing new.

In February, 1869, a letter to the editor of the New York Times questioned why female government employees were not paid the same as male ones. “Very few persons deny the justice of the principle that equal work should command equal pay without regard to the sex of the laborer,” the author wrote. “But it is one thing to acknowledge the right of a principle and quite another to practice it.” The author noted that the U.S. Government employed 500 women in the Treasury department, but that they made only half as much as their male colleagues:

“Many of these women are now performing the same grade of work at $900 per annum for which men receive $1800. Most of them, too, have families to support; being nearly all either widow or orphans made by the war.”

That year, a resolution to ensure equal pay to government employees passed the House of Representatives by almost 100 votes, but was ultimately watered down by the time it passed the Senate in 1870.

In 1883, communications across the country ground to a halt when the majority of the workers for Western Union Telegraph Company went on strike, partly to ensure “equal pay for equal work” for its male and female employees (among other demands). The strike wasn’t ultimately successful, but it was a very early public demand for fair pay for women.

By 1911, significant progress had been made. New York teachers were finally granted pay equal to that of their male counterparts, after a long and contentious battle with the Board of Education.

In the 20th century, war was good for women workers. In 1918, at the beginning of World War I, the United States Employment Service published lists of jobs that were suitable for women in order to encourage men in those occupations to switch to jobs that supported the war effort. “When the lists have been prepared…it is believed that the force of public opinion and self-respect will prevent any able-bodied man from keeping a position officially designated as ‘woman’s work,'” the Assistant Director of the U.S. Employment Service said in 1918. “The decent fellows will get out without delay; the slackers will be forced out and especially, I think, by the sentiment of women who stand ready.”

Since women were doing work that men would ordinarily do, the National War Labor Board decided they should be paid the same: “If it shall become necessary to employ women on work ordinarily performed by men, they must be allowed equal pay for equal work.” The same thing happened during WWII, as more women worked in munitions factors and the aircraft industry. During the war effort, equal pay was championed by unions and male workers, although not for entirely altruistic reasons—they were worried that if women were paid less for the same work, management could dilute male workers’ wages after they returned from the war.

After the war ended, the demand for equal pay seemed to lose some steam. In 1947, Secretary of Labor Lewis Schwellenbach tried to get an equal pay amendment passed that would apply to the private sector, arguing, “There is no sex difference in the food she buys or the rent she pays, there should be none in her pay envelope.” But as veterans needed work after the war and women were increasingly expected to stay in the home, Schwellenbach’s bid was ultimately unsuccessful.

National legislation was finally passed in 1963, when John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Law into effect, overcoming opposition from business leaders and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who were concerned that women workers were more costly than male ones. When he signed the bill, Kennedy called it a “significant step forward,” and noted that, “It affirms our determination that when women enter the labor force they will find equality in their pay envelopes.” The next year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, origin, color, religion or sex.

There have been more legal wins for female workers since then. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 protected pregnant employees, and the Family and Medical Leave act of 1991 allowed parents regardless of genders to take time off. But despite the fact that women made up almost 58% of the labor force in 2012, they still made only 77 cents for every dollar a man made, according to the National Equal Pay Task Force. In 2009, President Obama chose the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as his first piece of legislation, which restores some protections against discrimination that had been stripped in a 2007 Supreme Court case, and incentivizes employers to make their payrolls more fair.

But progress is still slow. Last year, a bill that would have made it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who discuss their wages failed in the Senate.

Read TIME’s 1974 take on equal pay, here in the TIME Vault: Wages and Women

TIME feminism

Islamic Feminist: Duke Students Tried To Cancel My Speech. That Made It Even More Important.

American Muslim journalist and author Asra Nomani during Reuters interview.
Mike Segar—Reuters Asra Nomani during an interview in New York on April 6, 2005.

Asra Nomani is the author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.”

We must have critical conversations, especially if they make people feel uncomfortable

This past week, University of Michigan students watched American Sniper after the university first cancelled the film’s showing amid protests from an Arab-American Muslim student that the film offended her. The episode at Michigan was like my own painful experience at Duke University after a Muslim student group recently blackballed me.

Tuesday night, while Islamic State fighters gained new ground in Syria, I walked onto a stage at Duke University to argue for a progressive, feminist interpretation of Islam in the world. Staring into stage lights, I counted the number of people looking back at me: nine, not including my parents and son.

“I would have come here to speak to just one person. To me, it is simply a victory to stand before you,” I said.

Five days earlier, the Duke University Center Activities and Events had cancelled my talk after the president of the Duke chapter of the Muslim Students Association sent an email to Muslim students about my “views” and me, alleging that I have a nefarious “alliance” with “Islamophobic speakers” and noting that a Duke professor of Islam, Omid Safi, had “condemned” me. After I asked for evidence against me, the Center for Activities and Events re-invited me. A spokesman for Duke said the university regrets the misunderstanding.

This experience goes beyond feminism to a broader debate over how too many Muslims are responding to critical conversations on Islam with snubs, boycotts, and calls for censorship, exploiting feelings of conflict avoidance and political correctness to stifle debate. As a journalist for 30 years, I believe we must stand up for America’s principles of free speech and have critical conversations, especially if they make people feel uncomfortable.

By standing on stage, I was standing up to the forces in our Muslim communities that are increasingly using tactics of intimidation and smears such as “Islamophobe,” “House Muslim,” “Uncle Tom,” “native informant,” “racist” and “bigot” to cancel events with which they disagree.

These dynamics of silencing are often used against women such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born activist and author of a new book, Heretic. Brandeis University uninvited her from speaking after protests from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Students Association last year, and the Muslim Students Association at Yale University protested her speech at the university last fall.

Friday, organizers of a conference on women and gender at the University of South Dakota defied pitched protests to screen a documentary, Honor Diaries, about crimes Muslim women face, in the name of “honor.” The controversy has been “very upsetting,” writes Miglena Sternadori and Cindy Struckman-Johnson, the event organizers, and the controversy underscores the battle over whose voices are “authentic,” they say.

Last April, Honor Diaries wasn’t as fortunate as American Sniper at the University of Michigan when administrators there cancelled a screening after protests from the Muslim Students Association and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The protesters used a social media hashtag campaign #DishonorDiaries to discredit the film. The University of Illinois also cancelled an Honor Diaries screening after protests from the same Muslim groups. Zainab Zeb Khan, a dynamic Afghan-American activist interviewed in the film, says, “It was a nightmare.” She organized a successful substitute screening at a downtown Chicago theater to allow for dialogue and advocacy. “They are using the same tactics of shame and intimidation used to silence people in our traditional cultures. We can’t allow it,” she says.

Slurs have also been used by Muslims against Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, author of a new feminist manifesto, Headscarves and Hymens; Syrian-American physician and activist Zuhdi Jasser; Iranian-American writer Melody Moezzi, and many other writers and activists, in an attempt to discredit them inside our communities. “We don’t all need to share the same opinions in order to share the conviction that open debates and discussions within our communities are necessary and should be fostered,” Moezzi says.

In a statement provided to TIME, a Duke University spokesperson said, “Duke is strongly committed to free expression and open discussion of controversial issues…We regret that there was a misunderstanding among our students and staff that made it seem like Ms. Nomani was no longer invited to speak at Duke. Once we became aware of it, Duke immediately let Ms. Nomani know that she was welcomed to speak with our students and the larger community, which she did.”

As I stood on the stage at Duke, just a wireless microphone tucked into my pink kurta, no barrier between the audience and me, I looked out past the stage lights and said: “There are many who want to make us invisible. But I am standing here today because I believe that, if we try, we can be invincible.” There are only two letters separating the two words, I told the audience: “nc,” the abbreviation for North Carolina, and it was appropriate that, there, in that state, I was rejecting invisibility and standing up for invincibility. An Indian-American Sikh feminist smiled and nodded her head in agreement.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

Watch Sarah Silverman Get Serious About Equal Pay

Tells women to "Ask4More" ahead of Equal Pay Day

Sarah Silverman is known for telling jokes that push the limit. But the comedian says that one particular topic evokes the most rage-filled response from critics: equal pay.

“That gets the most violent tweets back,” Silverman says in a video for Levo’s new Ask4More campaign, previewed first by People. It’s so odd. It’s just bizarre.”

To encourage women to ask for the salary they deserve, Silverman teamed up with Levo, an online resource for the career advancement of young women, to help push pay equality.

Read more at People

TIME feminism

This Is Why Women Are Dominating the TIME 100 Poll

Voting closes at 11:59 p.m. EST on April 10

Six women currently sit atop the TIME 100 poll voted on by readers, with all earning a larger percentage of the vote than either President Obama or Pope Francis.

CL of K-Pop group 2NE1 tops the list. The South Korean quartet has broken Billboard records, and CL is about to make a U.S. solo debut. Lady Gaga’s ‘Little Monsters’ fanbase have pushed her to No. 2 — ahead of actress Emma Watson, who became the United Nations Ambassador for the gender equality initiative He for She and is getting support from Harry Potter fans.

Several others in the top 10 have used their podium to speak out about gender equality this year.

Beyoncé, who graced the cover of last year’s TIME 100 issue, has built an even bigger following with remixes to tracks on her Beyoncé album and show-stopping performances at the Grammys and VMAs. During the latter, Beyoncé helped push the other the F-word into the spotlight by performing in front of a backdrop that simply read “feminist.”

Taylor Swift spoke about how Lena Dunham taught her about feminism and encouraged her fans who believe in gender equality to embrace the label, too. And another TIME 100 alum, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, won the Nobel Peace Prize. She is the first non-artist to make the top 10, thanks to her commitment to making education available to girls and women worldwide.

Barack Obama, Rihanna, Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama currently round out the top 10.

Cast your vote by commenting on any TIME Facebook post that includes #TIME100, or tweet your vote using the #TIME100 hashtag.

Voting closes at 11:59 p.m. EST on April 10, and the winner will be announced April 13. This year’s official TIME 100 list will be announced April 16.

TIME feminism

The Forgotten Link Between World War I and Women’s Rights

Peace Delegates
Library of Congress / Getty Images Portrait of American delegates to the International Congress of Women aboard the Noordam, 1915.

A century ago, the Women’s Congress met with the aim of revolutionizing a ravaged political landscape

History Today

 

 

 

This post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at HistoryToday.com.

More than 1,100 women from warring and neutral states gathered at The Hague in April 1915 for a special set of peace negotiations. They were not diplomats representing states and they were not present to press national demands. Most were unable even to vote in parliamentary elections in their own countries. They were feminists and pacifists and it was their commitment to these twin ideals that drew them together as conflict raged across Europe.

Their vision of a peace founded on gender equality, social justice and human rights did not bring the war to a close. Nor was it embraced by the male powerbrokers meeting in Paris in 1919 to conclude peace terms. Yet the Women’s Congress of 1915 is important because it reminds us that the First World War not only mobilized armies but nurtured alternative forms of politics, not least the politics of international cooperation and peace.

Who were the women at The Hague? They were mainly middle-class, well-traveled and experienced feminist activists, many with professional backgrounds and all advocates of women’s suffrage. They included the British lawyer Chrystal Macmillan, Aletta Jacobs, the pioneering Dutch physician, the Hungarian feminist Rosika Schwimmer and the trade unionist Lida Gustava Heymann of Germany. The US peace campaigner Jane Addams agreed to preside as chair of the Congress.

Many traveled to the Netherlands at personal cost, encountering hostility from the patriotic publics of the belligerent nations. In Britain, anti-war campaigners were placed under official surveillance. As a result, only 20 of the 180-strong British delegation were issued with passports and even they found it impossible to cross the North Sea due to military operations. The three British women who reached The Hague had either traveled some weeks earlier or went by a different route.

Taking a stand against the war was, furthermore, a difficult experience emotionally for many of the delegates. They found themselves in conflict with suffragist comrades who chose a different course, seeing the war as an opportunity to prove themselves loyal citizens and hence convince their respective governments to grant women the vote.

After four days of discussions and debates, the Congress agreed a set of 20 resolutions encompassing practical proposals for immediate negotiations to end the war, as well as fundamental principles for a permanent peace. Among the latter were the right of self-determination for all peoples; the creation of an international authority to arbitrate disputes and advance constructive cooperation between nations; and an end to ‘secret diplomacy’ conducted behind closed doors and without democratic accountability.

Women’s rights were central to this blueprint. All delegates wishing to attend were required from the outset to pledge their support for women’s suffrage, which the Congress organizers saw as inseparable from the objective of peace. A just world free of conflict, they argued, was impossible to achieve unless women were allowed to take their place alongside men as equal citizens. Enfranchisement, they claimed, would make peace more likely because of the role that women played as mothers in creating the life which war extinguished. Women, in the words of Jane Addams, ‘who have brought men into the world and nurtured them until they reach the age for fighting, must experience a peculiar revulsion when they see them destroyed, irrespective of the country in which these men may have been born’.

Despite the efforts of Addams and others to win support for their proposals after the Congress had closed, both women and their concerns were marginal to the negotiations in Paris in 1919, led by the victorious powers. Not one woman was appointed as a formal representative of her nation at the Peace Conference and while a small contingent of feminists traveled to Paris to lobby the official delegates, their demands fell on deaf ears. The US President, Woodrow Wilson, briefly raised the question of women’s political representation with his fellow plenipotentiaries, but few wished to see women’s rights recognized as a legitimate matter for international agreement. Where the Hague women saw peace and gender equality as fundamentally interlinked, the great powers in Paris were anxious to keep them separate, with women’s citizenship firmly under the control of national governments.

Given this failure, why is it worth remembering the 1915 Women’s Congress at The Hague? The history of seemingly lost causes can tell us a great deal about how power works and, in this case, why women remained peripheral to international politics and diplomacy for so much of the 20th century. Today, the United Nations Security Council passes resolutions about women’s inclusion in conflict resolution; governments host summits on rape as a weapon of war; and powerful non-governmental organizations ensure women are given a voice in debates about human rights, development and security. But history shows us that these achievements have been hard fought and won. They stand as testament to the efforts of generations of feminists who worked to make women’s rights an international, and not just a national, concern.

It would be too simplistic to draw a line of continuity between the Women’s Congress of 1915 and today’s policy debates. Much took place in the interim to reconfigure the global women’s rights agenda, from interwar Fascism and the Cold War to the fall of European empires and the rise of new superpowers at the century’s end. Nonetheless, at this moment when the legacy of the First World War is uppermost in the public mind, it is worth reflecting on how that conflict produced, through the voices of the women who gathered at The Hague, an analysis of the modern world in which gender equality, social justice and peace were intertwined. It is an analysis which endures a hundred years on.

Helen McCarthy is Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary University of London.

TIME politics

Exclusive: Read a 9-Year-Old’s Letter to Obama About Putting a Woman on U.S. Currency — and His Response

Image courtesy of Kim B., Sofia's mother Sofia, the girl who wrote to Obama asking him to put a woman on U.S. currency

"Why don’t women have coins or dollar bills with their faces on it?"

The little girl who asked Obama last year why there aren’t any women on U.S. bills has finally gotten a letter back from the President — and she’s invited to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.

President Obama made waves last year when he mentioned he had received a letter from a little girl asking him to put some women on U.S. currency, which he called a “pretty good idea.” That letter was from Sofia, a Massachusetts girl who was just finishing third grade at the time.

“I was studying Ann Hutchinson, who stood up for women’s rights,” she says. “Almost everyone who chose a boy, on their poster they had pictures of different dollar bills or coins with their person on it. So I noticed, why don’t women have coins or dollar bills with their faces on it?”

Sofia, now 9, knew immediately what she had to do. “I just came home from school and said, ‘I need to write to the president.’” Sofia’s mother provided her letter exclusively to TIME:

Kim B. (Sofia's mother)
Image courtesy of Kim B., Sofia’s mother

For a while, Sofia didn’t hear anything back from the President. She says she “sort of forgot about it” until her dad showed her the President had mentioned her letter in a speech. “I was really excited about it, because I thought that maybe it would actually happen,” she says.

In the months since Sofia wrote to Obama, a campaign to put a woman on the $20 bill has gone viral. The W20 movement is hosting an online poll so the public can vote on which woman should replace Andrew Jackson. The group plans to petition Obama and the Treasury Secretary to make it happen. Almost 220,000 people have voted in the online poll so far. And Sofia, who is now in fourth grade, is a junior ambassador for the campaign.

MORE 10 Countries That Put Women on Cash Before the U.S.

Even though she’s a longtime fan of Ann Hutchinson, Sofia wants to see Rosa Parks on the $20. “What she did was really important,” she says. “If it wasn’t for her, we’d still be segregated today.” She got her whole class to vote in the online poll, and her third grade teacher got her class to vote as well.

Last month, Sofia finally got a personalized letter back from the President, along with an invitation to attend this year’s White House Easter Egg Roll. Here’s what President Obama wrote to her:

Unknown-1
Image courtesy of Kim B., Sofia’s mother

“The women you listed and drew make up an impressive group,” Obama wrote. “And I must say you’re pretty impressive, too.”

“I’ll keep working to make sure you grow up in a country where women have the same opportunities as men, and I hope you’ll stay involved in issues that matter to you,” he continued. “If you keep focusing in school and trying to help others whenever you can, there are no limits to what you can accomplish.”

Sofia wants to be a teacher or a scientist when she grows up — after a younger friend was diagnosed with cancer, she decided she wants to study cures. But she also has some advice for other kids her age who want to make a difference. “Write a letter to somebody important,” she says, “because something could happen and it could actually change.”

Read next: The Campaign to Get a Woman on the $20 Bill Is Picking Up Steam

TIME feminism

Pay Cheerleaders What They’re Worth

The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders perform during the game between the Cowboys and Detroit Lions at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Paul Moseley — MCT/Getty Images The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders perform during the game between the Cowboys and Detroit Lions at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Marina Adshade is a professor of economics at the Vancouver School of Economics a the University of British Columbia and the author of "Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love." David Berri is a professor of economics at Southern Utah University. He is the lead author of "The Wages of Wins" and "Stumbling on Wins."

It's time to guarantee cheerleaders are properly compensated

How would you like it if there were beautiful women whose only job was to keep you entertained? Women who kept their bodies toned to your exact specifications; spent thousands of dollars on their hair, makeup and clothing so they always looked their best for you; and had invested in years of training to do complicated acrobatics designed to bring you joy. Now add to this fantasy that these women brought you hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits and you give them almost nothing in return. Sound like a fairy tale? It should be.

For decades, National Football League teams have skirted the issue of paying cheerleaders fair wages by acting as if cheerleaders were not their employees. This despite the fact that cheerleaders work 42 weeks a year, practice several times a week, attend corporate and charitable team events, are photographed for promotional media and paraphernalia, and, of course, entertain fans during games.

In court case after court case, teams have argued that because cheerleaders are independently contracted through third parties, the multi-billion dollar organizations whose business interests they promote are not obliged to pay them anything close to compensation required by state labor laws. And in court case after court case, judges have disagreed and ordered teams to pay their cheerleading squads millions of dollars in back wages.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers recently agreed to pay up to $825,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by cheerleaders who were paid just $100 a game. Prior to a lawsuit settled last September, the Oakland Raiders were paying their cheerleaders an hourly wage of just $5. Now, after the $1.25 million settlement, the Raiderettes can look forward to the same income as the team’s other minimum-wage employees.

In California, legislation proposed by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez in January would require professional sports teams to recognize cheerleaders as their employees and pay them at least the state-mandated minimum wage. Gonzales, herself a former collegiate-level cheer athlete, has said that it hardly seems fair to pay cheerleaders, with all their specialized training and the risk of physical injury, less than the staff selling beers in the stands.

So are cheerleaders only worth the minimum wage? Standard economic theory indicates that in free markets, workers are paid their value to their employers. Anything less is worker exploitation.

Eric Smallwood, senior vice president at Front Row Marketing, has estimated that the TV appearances of cheerleaders on game days alone are worth about $8.25 million to the NFL, or $317,000 per year for each team in the league. Cheerleaders also provide value by promoting ticket sales and promoting the NFL brand.

So why are they paid so little?

According to National Federation of State High School Associations there are almost 400,000 individuals participating in high-school level cheerleading in the United States. Opportunities for professional cheerleaders are limited, however, given that there are only 26 NFL teams that currently have cheerleading squads (the Buffalo Bills disbanded its squad after a lawsuit last year). This suggests that the supply of cheerleaders exceeds demand. Such a labor market hands bargaining power to the employers, allowing them to negotiate down wages.

You might be wondering why this isn’t a problem for other athletes, many of whom are well paid for their contribution to their teams despite the fact that they face fierce competition from other would-be players. Historically, this had been a problem, and the only reason we no longer hear about it is that those players fought for the fair wages they are paid today.

In the first half of the 20th century, many professional sports leagues used their bargaining power to limit the pay of athletes. In the latter half of the century, though, many restrictions on player wages were eliminated leading to significant increases in player pay. For this reason, the share of its revenue that Major League Baseball paid to its players increased from 17% in 1956 to 53% in 2012. Over the same period, the National Football League increased the share of its revenue paid to players from 32% to 52%. Even the English Football League has had to increase the share of its revenue it pays to players, up from 38% in 1958 to 76% in 2013.

Studies indicate that similar stories can be told today about student athletes at American colleges and universities.

Perhaps you think that cheerleaders aren’t really being exploited for the same reason that people in the past didn’t think players were being exploited: because these athletes really love to play their game. Or perhaps you think that cheerleaders should be willing to work for very little because there are other benefits to the job, such as access to other employment opportunities or even better marriage markets. So what difference does it make if sports teams exploit their workers?

Worker exploitation has nothing to do with how much someone likes their job, or how much that job improves a worker’s other prospects, or whether or not the job can help her fulfill other life goals. If the NFL genuinely wants to address the perception that it has no respect for women (who make up 45% of its fan base), one place to start would be to guarantee that the women who do the most to promote the brand are properly compensated.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

Shailene Woodley Still Adamant She’s Not a Feminist

"To me it’s still a label"

Shailene Woodley still doesn’t consider herself a feminist.

Last year, Woodley told TIME she was against the use of the term as “I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance…My biggest thing is really sisterhood more than feminism.” Promoting her latest film Insurgent, 23-year-old Woodley posed for NYLON’s April cover and elaborated on her evolving thoughts on feminism:

“The reason why I don’t like to say that I am a feminist or I am not a feminist is because to me it’s still a label. I do not want to be defined by one thing. Why do we have to have that label to divide us? We should all be able to embrace one another regardless of our belief system and regardless of the labels that we have put upon ourselves.”

MORE: Shailene Woodley on Why She’s Not a Feminist

She also objects to the media scrutiny of everything she says. “I mean, if we spent as much energy focusing on the genocide that’s going on right now in parts of Africa as we spent on that one article, think about what we could accomplish,” she said, although it was not immediately clear from NYLON’s excerpt to which article she was referring. “Change is not going to come from focusing on the small things that actors say.”

[NYLON]

 

TIME feminism

Muslim Women Are Fighting To Redefine Islam as a Religion of Equality

Woman reading the Koran.
Getty Images Woman reading the Koran.

Carla Power is the author of If The Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran.

Tired of being told their religion dictates subservience to men, Muslim women are reclaiming Islam for themselves

Anyone learning about Islam from the headlines alone might think it was a faith powered by violence, inflexible laws, and sexism. In Nigeria, the extremists of Boko Haram kidnap schoolgirls to use as sex slaves and suicide bombers. A manifesto distributed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) allows girls to marry at age nine and states that women should work outside the house only in “exceptional circumstances.” It’s not only extremist movements that treat women as second-class citizens, but also Western allies in the fight against them. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving, or Egypt, where a husband can divorce his spouse without grounds or going to court, options denied to his wife, most Muslim countries run on the premise that men have a God-given authority over women.

But Muslim women are fighting back. While despotic governments and extremists battle for power, Islamic scholars, community activists, and ordinary Muslims are waging a peaceful jihad on male authority, demanding what they say are God- given rights to gender equality and justice.

From Cambridge to Cairo to Jakarta, women are going back to Islam’s classical texts and questioning the way men have read them for centuries. In the Middle East, activists are contesting outdated family laws based on Islamic jurisprudence, which give men the power in marriages, divorces, and custody issues. In Europe and the United States, women are chipping away at the customs that have had a chilling effect on women praying in mosques or holding leadership positions. This winter, the first women-only mosque opened in Los Angeles.

These efforts are localized and diverse. But all are part of the multi-faceted struggle in today’s Islamic world between fundamentalist rigidity and a pluralist, inclusive faith. “We represent hope, hope for the future, and for what it means to be Muslim today,” said Zainah Anwar, director of the global Muslim women’s organization Musawah—Arabic for ‘equality’—at a recent conference in London. “Do we want to choose ISIS? Or do we want to choose musawah?”

Anwar was addressing a packed auditorium at the University of London’s School of Oriental and Asiatic Studies for the release of a powerful new weapon for Islamic gender warriors: a book examining how a single verse in the Quran became the basis for laws across the Islamic world asserting Muslim men’s authority—and even superiority—over women. In Men in Charge?, scholars tackle what Musawah has dubbed “the DNA of patriarchy” in Islamic law and custom: the thirty-fourth verse in the fourth chapter of the Quran, among the most hotly debated in the Islamic scripture. The English translations of the verse vary, but one popular one conveys the mainstream takeaway: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend their property [for the support of women.]”

For centuries, male jurists have cited 4:34 as the reason men have control over their wives and the female members of their family. When a wife doesn’t want to have sex, but feels she should submit to her husband, this sense of duty derives from the concept of qiwamah—male authority—derived from Verse 4:34. When a Nigerian wife reluctantly has to agree to her husband taking a second or third wife, this is qiwamah in action, notes the book. The concept of qiwamah “is one of the most flagrant misconceptions to have shaped the Muslim mind over the centuries,” Moroccan Islamic scholar Asma Lamrabet writes. “It assumes that the Quran has definitively decreed the absolute authority of the husband over his wife, and for some, the authority of men over all women.”

While the overall message of the Quran is unchanging, say Muslim reformers, new generations must find their own readings of the sacred texts. As it stands, Islamic fiqh, or jurisprudence, was largely forged during the medieval period, when women’s roles and the concept of marriage and male authority were very different. Why, they ask, should the way that 10th-century Baghdadi men read the Quran dictate the rights of a 21st-century woman? To the reactionaries who charge that these reformers are deviating from Islam, Islamic feminists point out that there is a difference between Islamic jurisprudence—a man-made legal scaffolding developed for the specific conditions of medieval Muslim life—and the divine law itself, which is eternal, unchanging and calls for justice. It’s not the Quran they question, but how particular interpretations of it have hardened into truth. “The problem has never been with the text, but with the context,” legal anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini told the Musawah seminar.

For activists battling for reform of discriminatory laws, there’s hope—at least on paper. In 2004, Morocco redrafted its family law code to state that husbands are no longer the heads of the household and marriage is a matter of “mutual consent” between husband and wife. But even ten years on, “the results are very weak, because of the mentality here,” Lamrabet conceeded. She once addressed a group of male religious scholars about equality in the Quran. “It was like an inquisition,” she recalled wryly. “Everybody was standing up, and saying, Qiwamah [male authority] is here to demonstrate that there is no musawah [equality] in our religion!”

Not as it’s practiced in most places now. But the mood at Musawah is optimistic. At the United Nations, Musawah’s Anwar reminded the Commission on the Status of Women that Muslim women don’t need to choose between Islam and equal rights; while 4:34 is invoked by sexists, there are many more passages calling for justice, and a sound Quranic tradition saying that all humans are equal as God’s creations. In London, Anwar asked the crowd of Muslim women a fundamental question: “If we are equal before the eyes of God, why not before the eyes of men?”

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME China

Five Feminists Remain Jailed in China for Activities the Government Supports

India China Activists Detained
Altaf Qadri—AP Indian women's rights activists wearing masks of five women's rights activists formally detained in China after Women's Day crackdown, hold placards with their names, to express their solidarity and demand their immediate release, in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The line between dissidence and social activism grows ever murkier

It was supposed to be a celebration. This year marks two decades since the world came together in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women. Participants in that event — including keynote speaker Hillary Clinton — set an ambitious global blueprint for gender equality and women’s rights. It was a landmark moment for the women’s movement, and a point of pride for China as it stepped, gingerly, toward post-Mao reforms.

But as meetings to mark the “Beijing+20” anniversary close Friday in New York, things are looking bleak. In the run up to International Women’s Day and the Beijing+20-themed conclave, China detained 10 women for planning activities to celebrate the occasion. Five of those women — Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan and Li Tingting — are still in detention. Their lawyers worry they will be charged with “picking quarrels and creating a disturbance,” an Orwellian turn of phrase used to jail government critics.

The ruling Communist Party has long taken aggressive measures to silence opposition voices, censoring the Internet, banning books, and jailing dissidents. For much of the past decade, though, the line between “dissident” and “critical voice” — that is between prison and the freedom to live your life — was, with exceptions, relatively clear: Do not openly oppose one-party rule. Avoid the “three T’s” (Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen). Don’t take to the street.

However, since coming to power in 2012, Xi Jinping’s regime has taken an even harder line, jailing those who speak out on matters not related to party control or the three T’s. (See, for example, the case of Professor Ilham Tohti, or jailed lawyer Xu Zhiyong.) There are new no-go areas, including the politics of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and calls for government transparency that do not originate from the government itself. Until this month, if you kept a low profile and did not plan protests, you could speak publicly on issues like gender equality and LGBT rights.

Now, advocates fear that too has changed. The women arrested in Beijing this month were not advocating for the overthrow of the Communist Party. In fact, they were, separately, and in their respective cities, simply planning to distribute pamphlets and raise awareness about issues the Chinese government supports: gender equality and combatting sexual harassment. These activists did not organize political rallies, but rather used performance art to challenge societal views.

Their arrest in coordinated raids ahead of International Women’s Day “suggests an escalation of Chinese government paranoia,” says Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. “I don’t see how they would have posed any threat to the government in any way — and they did not even carry out the activities. Even under Chinese law, I do not see what they are guilty of.”

That has other feminists worried. The five women are active on a variety of issues, including stopping sexual violence, ending street harassment and promoting gender equality and LGBT rights. Their detentions sent a broad cross section of people, including friends, acquaintances and allies, into hiding, terrified that the merest trifle might now see them caged.

That is not to say people are silent. Their ongoing detention has generated an unusual amount of public support from social groups, students and academics in China, as well as expressions of solidarity from nearly every corner of the earth, and spawned a social-media campaign to #FreeTheFive. Some feminists have floated the idea of a boycott of Beijing+20 events, though there are no firm plans as yet. From the sidelines of the meeting in New York City, Charlotte Bunch, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, filmed herself reading a statement in support of the jailed women. “We expect more from China,” she says. “The world is watching and waiting for an end to this injustice.”

Waiting, indeed. Though U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted her support for the activists, foreign governments and U.N. agencies are, for the most part, staying quiet. Perhaps they don’t want to politicize the matter in the off chance they could still be released. Or perhaps, 20 years after the historic Beijing conference on women, the world no longer expects more.

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