By Atia Abawi, NBC News Correspondent
KABUL, Afghanistan – In a country where underage marriage is common, education for girls is limited, and, according to the U.N., at least 90 percent of women suffer domestic abuse, “feminism” is not a word frequently tossed around.
Long after the fall of the Taliban, some strides have been made, but women continue to be treated like second-class citizens in some Islamic nations like Afghanistan.
One of the biggest struggles has been to teach Afghan society that Islam in fact promotes equality for women, and that the misinterpretations stem from cultural, not religious, ideals.
Since 1998, Imam Yahya Hendi, an American imam, has traveled to over 60 Muslim and non-Muslim countries to share his views and knowledge of Islam.
“In so many places I have become the ‘feminist imam,’” said Hendi as we recently sat down to chat at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
He’s met presidents, villagers and religious scholars of all faiths. It was an orthodox rabbi he befriended in Sydney, Australia who first gave him his nickname.
“I think it is a title I have to be proud of and it means a lot to me.”
Woman are equal in the Quran
Hendi believes that many Muslims and non-Muslims alike misinterpret the religion because they have not truly informed themselves on the teachings of the Muslim holy book, the Quran.
During his current trip to Afghanistan, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Hendi met with Afghan students, religious leaders and officials sharing his perspective after decades of educating himself not only on Islam, but also on Judaism and Christianity.
“Islam would consider Judaism and Christianity as partners in this family – human family. [The Prophet] Muhammad considered these religions complementing one another, not at odds with one another.”
During his group sessions in Afghanistan he explained that in Islam, women are equals not only in theology, but also in law, ethics and morals.
“Muslims speak a lot about how Islam is for women. My challenge to Muslims – if that is the case, and I think that that is the case – is how can we translate theology into practice.”
Hendi has actually issued a fatwa against abusing women in which he quotes examples from the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad to bolster his argument that violence against women has no place in Islam.
In the fatwa, Hendi wrote, “Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, made it very clear that the beating of the wife is harm and prohibited.
"Do not beat the female servants of Allah";
"Some (women) visited my family complaining about their husbands (beating them). These (husbands) are not the best of you."
During his time in Afghanistan, Hendi told crowds that if the country wants to move forward, it must empower women and make them an equal part of the educational and social-political system of the country.
“Islam should not – must not – be used as an excuse to force women to their homes,” he said. “There’s nothing that Afghan women cannot do.”
Advice: Be leaders
In a country dominated by political and religious extremists the imam said the reactions to his message were generally positive, but that there are still lots of roadblocks.
“Some imams and mullahs told me, ‘Imam, you are right, but we cannot say this publicly because we will be killed by the Taliban.’”
His advice to the religious leaders was to be what they are meant to be: Leaders.
“What makes a leader a leader is his or her ability to be courageous. To stand up or take a stand.”
Hendi told the Muslims he met with to look at Islam differently, and to look at Judaism and Christianity differently.
Able to recite prayers and their meanings from the Torah, the Bible and the Quran, Hendi believes the divisions among the religions are made by humans who practice them – not the teachings.
“We all need to challenge ourselves and go out of the box and understand the other from within, not from without.”
From Sept. 11 – Sept. 25 Hendi and a group of other imams, rabbis and priests will be driving a ‘Caravan of Reconciliation’ around the US. Their group, Clergy Beyond Borders stop at cities, from Washington, D.C. to Chattanooga, Tenn,, to promote peace and understanding.