Last Monday, two Iranian women made history – they became the first Muslim women to climb Mount Everest.
Farkhondeh Sadegh, a 36-year-old graphic designer from Tehran , and Laleh Keshavarz, 25, a dentist from Zabedan, bring the total number of women who have reached the top of Everest to 102. Six Iranian men scaled the 8,850-metre mountain along with the women. But it is Farkhondeh and Laleh that have captured the most attention because their accomplishment is both a chance to celebrate and a sad reminder of the many mountains left for Muslim women to climb.
The first and most obvious mountain of course is that of sports for women in the Muslim world. Leila Bahrami, one of seven women who were part of the 21-member Iranian team that arrived in Nepal for the Everest expedition in March, told an American newspaper earlier this year that climbing the mountain would show the world the potential of Muslim sportswomen.
I have no doubt that Muslim women can excel at any sport. It has never been a question of talent but rather opportunity that holds Muslim women back. To their credit, some Muslim countries encourage sports for girls and women and have sent women to represent them at the Olympics.
Morocco is just one example. Its most famous sporting daughter is Nawal El Moutawakel, who was the first woman from a Muslim country to win an Olympic medal and the first Moroccan athlete to win gold when she became the 400-meter hurdles champion at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Nawal continues to make her country proud – the International Olympics Committee announced last year that she would head the panel evaluating the five cities bidding for the 2012 Summer Games.
But women in many other Muslim countries can only dream of Nawal’s success. Iranian women are undoubtedly celebrating their mountain climber’s historic achievements, but their country its first women to the Olympic just last year.
Over the past few weeks in Pakistan , women’s running has become more about politics than sports. On May 21, 300 men and women took part in a road race in Lahore , defying a ban on men and women running together.
Just a week earlier, police had beaten the runners and arrested dozens as soon as they crossed the start line. The ban on mixed running in Lahore was a result of pressure from an alliance of conservative religious parties. But President Pervez Musharraf has publicly backed women”s right to participate in sports activities alongside men in Pakistan and so on May 21, riot police were deployed to protect the race against Islamist hardliners who condemned the race.
Sports are not the only mountains that Muslim women must climb. Again let’s turn to Iran . Farkhondeh and Laleh’s record-breaking feat was welcome good news to Iranian women angered by the prohibition once again on women from running for the country’s presidency in forthcoming elections.
This is but one in a list of Iranian women’s complaints today. Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, highlighted many of them during a speaking tour in California in May. She could have been speaking about the plight of women in most Muslim countries, not just Iran , when she said that although 63 percent of university students in her country are women, they are denied social and political positions.
Muslim women today are the most educated they have ever been. Despite literacy rates that remain depressingly low in many Muslim countries, Muslim women are more educated than they were three or four generations ago. But how long will their countries continue to deny them the opportunities that their education has earned them?
I have devoted several columns chastising Muslim and Arab men for misogyny. Governments, husbands, fathers, brothers and sons cannot allow their conscience to rest easy until they challenge and change the often blatantly anti-women laws and traditions that continue to make the lives of too many Muslim women miserable. But I must also agree with Ebadi when she highlights the role of women in fighting sexism.
“Let us not forget that although women suffered from the culture, they helped nurture the culture. Let us not forget that any man who imposes discriminatory rule on women was raised by his mother.”
Ebadi also highlighted the direct relation between the status of women and democracy.
"Women are the last group able to reap the benefits of democracy, as though such concepts … were created for men and if there”s any left-overs, women can pick them up," she said.
Rights are rarely given – they are fought for and demanded. Iranian feminist groups have put up a good fight for a long time.
“Democracy is a historical process that must mature. The victory of feminist groups will pave the way for genuine democracy,” Ebadi said.
The essence of her message is that a country cannot develop its men and ignore its women. Such lopsided development is bound to fail – imagine trying to ride a bicycle with one wheel full of air while the other is flat. You will not get very far.
And so as we celebrate the arrival of the first two Muslim women at the peak of Everest , let us hope their achievement will help more women climb their own mountains.