As director of Middle East Women’s Leadership Network, Shirin Taber has led major strategy sessions with world leaders from the United Nations, emphasizing gender equality, peacebuilding, and religious freedom. She also directs Empower Women Media and is the author of Muslims Next Door.
With an Iranian Muslim father and an American Catholic mother, Shirin has lived in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East. Her father allowed his wife to practice her faith, and after the death of her mother, an American neighbor led Shirin to Christ when she was 14. Notably, her father allowed Shirin to practice her own faith as a teenager, and adult woman. He never attacked her Christian faith, and now, several of her Iranian family members are also believers.
Furthering her education through the Zwemer Center at Columbia International University, Shirin came across the work of Vivienne Stacey, whose course, “Women in Islam” remains a popular online class. In that class, Shirin noted that Vivienne used laminated cards to teach women about Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of the UDHR states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” That includes Muslim women, whose personal choices are often limited, especially the choice to leave Islam.
Vivienne’s practice so impressed Shirin that she has become a strong advocate of human rights and religious freedom for women all over the world. Now, she uses digital media (short films, e-courses, and social media) to get the message across. Her plan for 2021 is to train 1,000 women to become religious freedom advocates and help shift cultures to see the merits of freedom on religion and belief. This, she believes, can change hearts and minds more easily than declarations or sanctions.
Why this is important
Following the atrocities and human rights violations as a result of WW2, 58 countries signed the UNDHR in 1948. Now, 150 nations subscribe to it, but Saudi Arabia refused to sign, saying it violated Islamic Law.[i] There, citizens must be Muslim, and apostasy is punishable by death. Nations like Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and China signed, but often do not live up to their commitment.
Sadly, the religious freedom granted to Shirin by her father is declining on a global scale. PEW research shows that throughout the world, religious hostilities peaked around 2012, most noticeably in the Middle East and North Africa, but even in Europe. In other words, 76 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high levels of restriction on religious freedom. Arguably, women suffer the most.
For example, kidnapping of Christian girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram, unspeakable abuse of Yazidi women by ISIS in Iraq, atrocities against Rohingya Muslim women by Burmese soldiers, and Christian and Hindu women being forced to marry Muslim men in Pakistan. The list could go on, but I have chosen to zero in on two very troubled areas of the world that may get much worse in the near future.
What China is doing to Muslim minorities, in general, is terrible. However, the worst violations are being inflicted on Uyghur women. Speaking at the recent International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., Tursunay Ziyawudun describes how she was imprisoned twice. She said,
“My experience in these Chinese camps has left indelible scars on my heart, and I have come to see it as my duty to be the voice for those people who are in the camps, those who died in front of my own eyes, and those who are being held unjustly in prison.” She went on to say that her second imprisonment was even worse than the first. “Life in the camp,” she said, “was one of constant fear as she could hear other detainees being tortured.” She said that on several occasions, the guards beat her and used whatever methods they wanted: “They raped another young woman in front of me and then they raped me.” She said the police “were always taking young girls off like this … sometimes they brought some of the women back near the point of death, and some disappeared … I saw some of them bleed to death with my own eyes.”
Ziyawudun explains that she was only able to speak of these experiences after arriving in America through the help of the U. S. Government and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
Another rapidly deteriorating situation is happening in Afghanistan with the most serious implications for women. The withdrawal of American troops is scheduled to be complete by August 31st, and the Taliban now control significant areas of the country (how much of the country is under Taliban control is debated, however, it is worth noting that Taliban officials claim that 85% of the country is under their control). Whatever the exact number is, few will deny that their dramatic advance is faster than anyone imagined, including the Taliban themselves. They recently captured major border crossings with Iran and Turkmenistan. According to the BBC, the “crossing is one of the biggest trade gateways into Iran, generating an estimated $20m (£14m) in monthly revenue for the government.” Former President, George W. Bush thinks it is a big mistake to pull out, especially because of what will happen to Afghan women and girls. I agree. Who can forget images over 20 years ago of Taliban beating Afghan women in the streets for not wearing a burqa?
What we can do
Fortunately, there is rising concern and consensus that something must be done to stop such religious oppression. The International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit (July 13-15) was held in Washington, D.C., and it was most encouraging to see the level of interest of people from different religions come together. Also, recently Muslims and evangelicals formed a partnership to strengthen relations. The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) represents 600 million Protestants in 140 countries. On the other side, the Institute for Humanitarian Islam, speaks for tens of millions. These efforts could help to reduce the violence, particularly against Muslim women. And it is worth noting that on July 14, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to ban import products from Xinjiang in Northwest China. It is believed that such goods have been manufactured with the forced labor of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups.
Shirin wants us to know that we can support women’s rights and religious freedom on a personal level, as well. One leadership course, “Live What You Believe,” offers e-course training. It is a direct outcome of U.N. and State Department declarations to counter religious-based violence and discrimination. It was created in partnership with Empower Women Media as an interactive media-based training series to help professionals to support freedom of religion. This is literally a global campaign that will include religious freedom in places like Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. There is no question that freedom of faith contributes to peacebuilding, gender equality, and business innovation.
As Christians we need to pray and trust Almighty God, particularly as we think about what is happening to Afghans and Uyghurs. God can use traumatic events to draw Muslims to Himself and we know this is happening in Iran. A recent article in Newsweek highlights how the rise of Islamic extremism following the 1979 Revolution in Iran pushed numerous Muslims to Christ. In reference to Muslim women, there are 800 million of them and that amounts to about one in every nine people in our world. God loves them and desires that all should have the right to choose their own religion.
[i] Al Bukhari, Vol. 4, Book 52, No. 260.