Ladies and gentlemen, I am really honoured to be standing here today to give the 4th Raja Aziz Addruse Memorial Lecture. Thank you to the Bar Council and Steven Thiru, and the Organising Committee,  for this brave invitation. I give talks and lectures all over the world, but it is not often that I get invited to give such a public lecture to a big and particularly important audience in Malaysia. So thank you for this honour, not least because it is in the name of a man I have always admired, the late Raja Aziz Addruse – a man of integrity and honour, a man who upheld the rule of law, who was passionate about human rights, who had the courage of his convictions.  And not least, a man who believed that no matter how tough the battle is, we must never give up – to stand up and speak out for what is right and what is just. So thank you once again for this honour.

Ladies and Gentlemen, when I began to speak publicly of finding equality and justice in Islam over  25 years ago, a common response was, “Why bother?” Muslim feminists told me it was a waste of time, a losing battle because Islam, in fact, all religions are inherently unjust and patriarchal: for every alternative interpretation I could offer to justify equality, the ulama could counter with 100 others. And it is their voice that is recognized as the voice of authority on matters of faith, not mine.

The secularists said it was a dangerous enterprise, as I was giving legitimacy to the position of religion in the public square. Religion is private between you and God and should have no role to play in public life, let alone in public law and policy. To argue that religion can be a source of good and a source of justice is to give strength to the place of religion in public life. Religion must remain personal, and be delegitimized in the public sphere.

And the human rights activists felt it was wrong to engage with religion as the fight for justice and equality can only and should only be fought through a human rights framework, through UN conventions and universal principles. This is our area of strength that the ulama and Islamist activists do not have,  and we should focus our struggle within only this universal framework.

All fair arguments, but, I do not believe they are strategic. This decision of so many human rights and women’s rights activists to ignore religion has been harmful to the larger human rights movement and democracy building, not least for all us living in Muslim contexts. Religion has not gone away from public life. And to continue to wilfully ignore religion, its importance to the lives of citizens and the so many women we claim we want to help, and its use and abuse in politics and public law and policy, is I believe irresponsible and self-defeating.

Let’s get real here. We do not live in a country where there is a separation of religion and state, let alone religion and politics. The reality is we live in a country where religion, and in this particular context, Islam, is a source of law and public policy.

And yet, for too long, we have left the field of religion and public policy wide open for the most conservative and authoritarian forces within Islam to define, dominate and set the parameters of what Islam is and what it is not. They decide what a good or bad Muslim is, they dictate how to be a good Muslim woman, wife and daughter, and then prescribe laws and policies that keep us women, in particular, shackled as second-class Muslims, and indeed, third class citizens. For at the top of pecking order would be Muslim men, then non-Muslims, men and women, and then only Muslim women who certainly have less rights in this country than their sisters of other faiths.

Then, when we protest, they shut us up, because, they say, we have no authority to speak on Islam.

Yet, Islam, in their own words, is a way of life. Islam has all the answers. Islam is the solution. But how can Islam be a way of life, contain all the answers to all that is wrong in our lives and our society, and yet we – those who are directly affected by Islamic laws and practices – have no say in it?  No right at all to define what Islam means to us? We are supposed to just listen and obey? How can it be relevant to our lives when too many of those who question the orthodoxy are intimidated into silence? How can it be a tenable solution when many are persecuted in the name of religion, and in some countries, even killed, beheaded, stoned to death, hands and feet cut off?

As a Muslim woman who believes in an Islam that is just, and a God that is just, I am outraged how the religion I love, the God I love has been hijacked by authoritarian forces who have turned it into a faith I cannot recognize. An authoritative God, an authoritative Text has been abused for authoritarian purposes.

What are the choices before us? I could turn my back on religion, as so many Muslim feminists and human rights activists have done all over the world. Forget about Islam; let’s focus our struggle for equality and justice from within the human rights framework only. However, I am a believer and turning my back on God was simply not an option.  I felt compelled to understand my religion better, to ask questions, to search for answers to reconcile the supposed disconnect between my faith and my realities. Why must I choose between being a Muslim or a feminist, a Muslim or a human rights activist?  Or for that matter, why should you, if you are a lawyer, choose between being a Muslim or a lawyer who believes in justice and equality, a Muslim or a judge upholding the rule of law and the Constitution as the supreme law of the land?

These are the questions I ask. I believe these choices we are asked to make are false binaries, constructed to divide us for political purposes, for an ideological project. Let us be clear about that. This is not about Islam. It is about politics, power and privilege.

So we can keep a blind eye, turn our back or as responsible citizens, we can engage, understand. My friends and I chose to make the effort to read, to learn, to open our minds, and our hearts, to the possibilities for beauty, justice and equality in the sacred Text.

And that was what the group  I co-founded, Sisters in Islam, did. Read, (Iqraq) the first word God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). That was in 1987, almost 30 years ago. That’s how long we have existed! For us, opening the Qur’an once again with feminist eyes, was a revelation. It was the most liberating experience for us to discover numerous verses in the Qur’an that provide for an ethical vision of Islam, advocating the absolute moral and spiritual equality of women and men.

Verses such as Surah 33:35 on common and identical spiritual and moral obligations placed on all individuals regardless of sex; Surah 3:195 which declares that men and woman are members, one of another; 2:187 which describes Muslim men and women as each other’s garments; 9:71, the final verse on the relationship between men and women which talks about them being each other’s ‘awliyya -protecting friends and guardians – and the obligations for both men and women, to enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil, to observe regular prayers, pay the zakat (tithe) and obey Allah and his Messenger and they will be equally rewarded. These verses are unequivocally egalitarian in spirit and substance, and reflect the Qur’anic view on the relationship between men and women.

This egalitarian vision also extends to human biology. The verses on creation of men and women talk about the characteristic of pairs in creation (51:49, 53:45,78:8, 50:7, 22:5, 36:36). Since everything created must be in pairs, the male and female must both be necessary, must exist by the definition of createdness. Neither one comes before the other or from the other. One is not superior to the other, nor a derivative of the other. This means that in Allah’s creation of human beings, no priority or superiority is accorded to either man or woman. These are incredibly empowering verses in the Qur’an.

So, if we are equal in the eyes of God, why are we not equal in the eyes of men?

What happened to the ethical voice of the Qur’an which insistently enjoins equality of all individuals? which insistently enjoins justice – even if it means going against your own personal interest, or your parents or your relatives? How did this voice become silent, and  largely absent in the body of political and legal thought in Islam? When women decided to read the Qur’an for themselves, they discovered this ethical message of equality and justice in Islam. They began to question why this voice was silent in the exegetical and juristic Texts of the religion and in the codification of the teachings of the religion into public law. Who decided that these verses in the Qur’an shall be put aside? Why couldn’t these egalitarian and compassionate verses be used to guide the laws governing marital relations in Islam? Who decided the verses that could be read as discriminatory towards women be the source of law and public policy?

In making these choices, whose interests are served, protected, and advanced, and whose interests are shunted aside? Is this really about living the will of God on earth as these men in authority would like us to believe or is it more about how the word of God could be used, should be used, to perpetuate patriarchy and dominance and resist the changing realities galloping before their our very eyes?

Next up,

  • The Setting
  • The Challenge
  • The Path


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