Well-behaved women seldom make history

By Katrina Lantos Swett. 

Heretic. Rabble-rouser. Criminal. These words have been used and abused to describe many remarkable figures throughout history. Voltaire, when he used his unparalleled pen to demand that the clerical hierarchy of his day truly evaluate itself. Martin Luther, when he set out to reform a faith that he had dedicated his life to. And Martin Luther King Jr., when he issued a prophetic call to his country to fully respect the rights of all of its citizens.

Next month, the Lantos Foundation will proudly honor three courageous women of Muslim heritage who have chosen to make history, joining the ranks of those whom time has vindicated as righteous and brave agents of change. Rebiya Kadeer, Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are all cut from the same cloth as these towering figures of an earlier time. They, too, have been vilified, but we strongly believe these women will go down in history as bold leaders, audacious reformers and righteous rebels. As has been widely observed, well-behaved women seldom make history.

Like Martin Luther King Jr., a bold leader sometimes comes along at precisely the right moment with a vital message of respect and equality. That is the case with Rebiya Kadeer, the universally recognized "Mother of Uyghurs," who rose from childhood poverty in rural China to become one of China's wealthiest business leaders. Her accomplishments brought her to the attention of China's political elite and she was appointed to influential organizations and committees, including the National People's Congress. She was determined to use her growing platform to address the deplorable conditions facing her fellow Uyghurs, but her outspokenness soon became too dangerous for the Chinese government. Ms. Kadeer's appointments were revoked, her passport was confiscated, she was imprisoned and her family targeted.

Thanks to outspoken support by leaders in the West, including Rep. Tom Lantos, Ms. Kadeer was eventually released from prison. She fled China for the United States, seeking exile in a country where she could continue to fight for the freedom and basic human rights of the Uyghur people. Like Dr. King, Ms. Kadeer has her own dream: to be reunited with her family and people in her homeland, and to see the day when all Uyghurs live with dignity, freedom and respect.

Irshad Manji, like other religious reformers, presents that rare combination of deep faith and feisty stubbornness that has made her a bracing inspiration to millions and an irritation to others. A proud Muslim woman, Ms. Manji has courageously spoken out against what she perceives to be cultural Islamic norms that do not ring true with Koranic teachings.

Growing up in a strictly religious community, Ms. Manji was kicked out of her religious school for having the audacity to ask too many questions. Instead of conforming, she continued her studies on her own, determined to learn and grow, even without the support of her community. A decade ago, she founded Project Ijtihad, an initiative to renew Islam's tradition of critical thinking, debate and dissent, allowing girls like her to ask those important questions.

Like Martin Luther, Ms. Manji is asking critical questions at a critical time for those worldwide who share her faith: What do you want Islam to look like? Do you have the courage to be the change? For asking his questions, Luther was excommunicated. For asking hers, Ms. Manji — a self-described "misfit" — has received death threats and numerous times has been the target of mob violence. She is the founder of the Moral Courage project, which seeks to train and inspire individuals to exhibit the courage required to do the right thing in the face of fear.

Voltaire, the Enlightenment's passionate advocate for freedom of expression, conscience and belief, once said, "It is dangerous to be right in matters on which established authorities are wrong." Ayaan Hirsi Ali knows exactly what he meant. Ms. Hirsi Ali is a fierce advocate for women, for freedom of and from religion, and for the separation of church and state. These "dangerous" ideas have resulted in a barrage of fatwas and death threats against this soft-spoken hero whose life story is so daring that it seems to have come from the pens of the most talented writers in Hollywood.

Ms. Hirsi Ali fights for causes that should be unassailable to every civilized society: the safety of women and girls, the freedom and right to criticize cultures or religions that permit violence against women and girls, and the dissolution of oppressive theocracies. Ms. Hirsi Ali speaks about these causes from personal experience. As a child, she was subjected to female genital mutilation and ongoing violence within her family. As a young woman, she fled from an arranged marriage and sought asylum in the Netherlands where she rose from maid to member of the Dutch Parliament. When her collaborator on a film about the abuse of women was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by a jihadi, Ms. Hirsi Ali became a global icon of courage and defiance.

Her eloquent determination to defend freedom and enlightenment has made her a target of assassins but she is undaunted. Sadly, her personal bravery has not always been matched by those who should be her staunchest defenders, but there can be no doubt that this righteous rebel is fighting for our most fundamental values of freedom, equality and progress.

Each of the 2015 Lantos Human Rights Prize laureates has a brutally beautiful story, one that has caused her pain and struggle, and, figuratively and literally, put a target on her back. These three women of Muslim heritage have overcome crushing cultural obstacles to achieve greatness in their own distinct ways, and deserve much more than our recognition — they deserve our awe.

Published in the Washington Times on Tuesday, December 1, 2015.