Women and children flee South Sudan

In a lecture this Thursday (11 October), Professor Akbar Ahmed will draw attention to the plight of women in countries caught up in the war on terror. He will argue that in failing to support them, we are in danger of creating a new generation of terrorists.

People forget that millions of people around the world are both Muslim and moderate, integrated into mainstream society and leading worthwhile lives.

Professor Akbar Ahmed

One of the world’s most eminent scholars of modern Islam will be giving a public talk in Cambridge this Thursday (11 October) on the challenges facing Muslim women post 9/11.  Professor Akbar Ahmed, who has a distinguished career in diplomacy and academia, is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington DC and currently Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies.

In his lecture – Gender, Security and Inter-generational Conflict in Muslim Societies Post 9/11 – Professor Ahmed will argue strongly that the governments of countries caught up in the war on terror need to work alongside western nations to help women regain and strengthen their public and private roles. This advance can be achieved only by confronting the barriers that continue to prevent women from fulfilling their potential and by bolstering women’s rights.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Professor Ahmed will draw attention to the daunting problems that many Muslim women encounter on a daily basis in war-torn countries where communities collapse as a result of conflicts that take men away from home and threaten the often fragile security of the families left behind. Many women live with the prospect of having to migrate at any moment, with no notice, in order to protect their children. This turmoil results in a collapse of formal education.

Professor Ahmed is able to draw on a range of personal and professional experiences in tackling these issues. He grew up in a Muslim family in northern Pakistan and was educated in a Catholic boarding school.  He studied history and then anthropology at university in the UK. Joining the civil service in Pakistan, he became an administrator in the tribal areas in Pakistan which border Afghanistan, an experience that gave him an insight into the different perspectives of people living in remote rural areas where clan loyalties remain paramount.

He later became Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland, a role he describes as “fascinating but challenging” as he sought to build bridges between different faiths and, in particular, encourage a greater understanding of Islam in the West. Highly creative, he has written a number of books, plays and poems that characteristically explore the universal human themes of identity and exile, loss and hope. He has also worked extensively with the media. His Discovering Islam was the basis of the six-part BBC television documentary Living Islam. Broadcast eight years before 9/11, it was heralded as a landmark series in fostering a grasp of the richness of Islamic culture and its complexity.

While working at some of the world’s leading universities – among them Princeton, Harvard and Cambridge - Professor Ahmed has chosen to confront some of the most intractable issues facing the world today. In particular he has explored questions related to faith and conflict, his research leading him to tackle areas of huge sensitivity in terms of tensions between communities.  In the wake of 9/11 Professor Ahmed and a small team of researchers embarked on a journey around America which resulted in a documentary and accompanying book looking at the ways in which the terrorist attacks affected the ways in which the country’s seven million Muslims were seen by their fellow citizens. Journey into America revealed the deep prejudices etched into the attitudes of many of those interviewed.

“Views of Muslims tend to fall into two stereotypes: on the one hand there is the image of the suicide bomber out to kill and on the other hand there is the image of the individual who rejects Islam altogether. In reality, Muslims who pursue violence are relatively few in number. What people forget is that millions of people around the world are both Muslim and moderate, integrated into mainstream society and leading worthwhile lives, working quietly to counter extremism. Their voices are seldom heard in the media which means that they are to all effects invisible,” said Professor Ahmed.

Professor Ahmed has now turned his attention to the under-reported plight of women in the many places around the world caught up on the war on terror – and particularly those living in rural and tribal areas.  A forthcoming book, The Thistle and The Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a War on Tribal Islam, looks at the ways in which these areas are ensnared by both tribal and global politics. In it, he argues that the war on terror has become effectively a war on women – largely from poor and vulnerable communities - in countries such as Afghanistan and Yemen.  Women have become marginalised and their rights eroded by the chaos around them. Disempowered, they are unable to provide a stable environment and positive role model for their families.

“Abandoned by men, many women flee from country areas to the nearest suburbs, simply to survive and feed their children. The children they struggle to bring up in these diminished circumstances, far from their traditional homelands and without male role models, are particularly vulnerable to being recruited into violent causes. On top of this there is a horrifyingly high incidence of rape of women by soldiers which is pretty much government policy in terms of what is regarded as acceptable in quelling insurgence and meting out punishment,” said Professor Ahmed.

“What these women have to cope with is unthinkable in western terms: their men are becoming suicide bombers or disappearing to fight far from home, their communities are being hit by drones that kill many innocent people as well as terrorists, traditional tribal conflicts are continuing. It was a huge shock to discover that many women in these circumstances have described their lives as 'living with 9/11 every day'. It’s a distressing description as clearly 9/11 was a terrible act of violence and a tragedy that affected many thousands of people – but it’s one that we ignore at our peril.”

The lecture, which is open to all, will take place in the William Mong Hall at Sidney Sussex College from 5pm to 6.30pm, followed by refreshments.

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