The setting

Ladies and Gentlemen, my work over the past 30 years has centred on the struggle for equality and justice for Muslim women living in Muslim contexts.

I believe, one of the most profound challenges we as Muslims face today is the search for ways to live our faith in a world where democracy, human rights and women’s rights constitute the dominant ethical paradigm of the modern world.  In the 21st century, there cannot be justice without equality. It is as simple and undisputable as that.

As someone who believes that God is just, that Islam is just, I am outraged that so much injustice, cruelty, and violence are perpetrated in the name of Islam. I will not go into the long and depressing list of outrageous acts against women and children justified  in the name of Islam that occur daily  throughout the Muslim world, and against those who think, act, believe and behave differently, and the violence and senseless killings and other barbaric acts, with the rise of the Islamic State, Boko Haram, Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups. We are all too familiar with these depressing horror stories that surface in national and global press coverage on a daily basis.

What I want to do today is to give you hope and possibility – to share with you how much the world of scholarship and activism have changed in many Muslim contexts over the past 20 years or so – and changed for the better. I want to share with you the courage and the will of Muslim women, working with outstanding Muslim scholars, who are taking the lead to define how religion is understood and practised, and who are demanding that OUR experience of living Islam and being impacted by laws and policies made in the name of Islam give us the right and the authority to decide and shape what Islam means and should mean in our daily lives, and as a source of law and public policy in our countries.

Itis because women have borne the brunt of this suffering in the name of religion, that in many parts of the Muslim world today, it is women who are organized, and are at the forefront of our societies in pushing for change in the understanding and practice of our religion – to recognize equality and justice and to push for law reform to uphold these principles, and to end practices in the name of religion and culture that are harmful to us.

But of course bringing change is never easy. Those who have benefitted from the status quo are resistant to change and use all kinds of tactics to demonize and delegitimize the voice of change. Look at the constant attacks against Sisters in Islam. Our book, Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism, was banned because it supposedly was confusing the minds of Muslim women and was a source of public disorder! If only those men go to the supermarket and realize that women on a daily basis are faced with numerous choices, over what coffee to buy, what milk, what rice, what cereal. Making and weighing pros and cons of the wisdom of the decisions we make may be alien to some men, but not to women. Finding out that God actually says that men and women are equal before his eyes, that marrying one is best for you to prevent you from doing injustice, is music to women’s ears and a source of happiness, not a source of public disorder!

The reality is women’s lives throughout the world have changed. Our realities, our needs, our roles and status have changed. And yet, the understanding of Islam that those in authority use to govern our lives has not changed.

For many of us who have decided to engage with religion to fight for our rights, it is our utter faith in a just God and a just Islam that have made us embark on this perilous, but compelling public struggle to push for an understanding of Islam that recognizes the urgent necessity that we, women, be  treated as human beings of equal worth and dignity. Is that such a radical and unIslamic notion? Really?

We believe these principles and the ideals of equality and justice are intrinsic to the Qur’an and are also of course upheld in universal human rights principles that regard all human beings as equal. What could be more Islamic than the first article of the UN Declaration on Human Rights which states “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

The Challenge

So, how do we as Muslims reconcile the tenets of our faith to the challenge of modernity, of plurality, of changing times and circumstances? Today citizens, women, men, youth, are out in the streets clamouring for justice, equality, freedom, dignity, respect for rule of law. This clamour must necessarily include justice, equality, freedom, dignity and respect for women as well, for the simple reason that we are part of the human race, too.

So how can the teachings of Islam be reconciled with the realities and aspirations of living in the 21st century?

I want to draw your attention to the incredible efforts of many scholars and activists living in Muslim contexts who have been engaged in the production of new feminist and rights-based knowledge in Islam, and are creating a public voice at the national and international levels, pushing for the possibility and necessity of reform of Muslims laws and practices to uphold the principles of equality and justice. What they have been doing is to bridge the seeming divide between Islam and human rights/women’s rights and break that constructed binary – as if all the forces of evil are on one side and the forces of good on the other.

They are separating patriarchy from Islam’s sacred Text; their work transcend  ideological  dichotomies such as ‘secular’ versus ‘religious’ feminism, or ‘Islam’ versus ‘human rights’ or ‘Islam’ versus ‘women’s rights’; they show these dichotomies to be false and arbitrary. They point out that the real battleground is not between Islam and secularism or human rights or women’s rights, but between despotism and patriarchy on the one hand, and democracy and gender equality on the other.

It is this voice that today is challenging the ideology of intolerance, misogyny, conservatism and extremism that dominate the mindsets of so many of those in authority in the Muslim world today.

It is led by Muslim scholars and activists who advocate a review and critical re-interpretation of the exegetical and jurisprudential texts and traditions within Islam. This work places emphasis on how religion is understood, how religious knowledge is produced, and how rights are constructed in the Islamic legal tradition and how they can be reconstructed. It locates the production of religious knowledge in the socio-historical context of its time and asserts that given changing times and circumstances, new religious knowledge needs to be produced to deal with new challenges, questions and issues that the tradition had not dealt with.

What makes this work exciting is that it is done not just at the theological level, but also at the political and social levels. It is cutting edge work at the intersection of Islam, politics, law and gender.

The Path

Let me share with you the beginning of one group, Sisters in Islam in Malaysia, the group that I co-founded in 1987. Yes, it was that long time ago before anyone noticed the importance of Islam and its use and abuse as a political ideology.

Like many other women’s groups, it is injustice, oppression and ill-treatment that mobilized us Muslim women. Sisters in Islam first got together because of our deep concerns over the injustice women suffered under the Shari’ah system. As professional women and as activists, other women often approached us to confide their marital problems and the challenges faced when they approached the religious authorities to seek redress to their issues. We got together first to look into the obstacles women faced in accessing their rights under the Islamic Family law. The difficulties in getting divorce, maintenance, a share of the marital assets, custody of their children – all rights that existed under the law, but given the gender bias in the system, women faced an uphill battle whenever their husbands decided to challenge their claims. This was 1987.

We felt angry and powerless in the face of complaints by women that they had to suffer in silence confronted by disempowering advice from the religious authorities; hearing talks, again and again, in religious classes, over radio and television, where women were often told that men are superior to women, that men have authority over women, that a man has a right to beat his wife, that a woman must obey her husband, the evidence of two women equals to one man, the husband has a God-given right to take a second wife, and therefore it is a sin for a woman to deny him that right, that a wife has no right to say no to sex with her husband, that hell is full of women because they leave their heads uncovered and are disobedient to their husbands.

Where is the justice for women in all these pronouncements? It was this kind of questioning, and above all, the conviction that Allah could never be unjust, that eventually led us to go back to the primary source of our religion, the Qur’an. We felt the urgent need to read the Qur’an for ourselves and to find out if the Text actually supported the oppression and ill-treatment of women.

Given the audience today, a little bit of Malaysian history is appropriate. We actually first began to meet under the auspices of the Association of Women Lawyers. The then President, Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin, was my housemate. So the AWL Shari’ah sub-committee members and a few of us outside the association who felt strongly about the issue, met in my house to discuss the need to do something about the administration of the Islamic Family law. And we organized a conference with the Women’s department in the Prime Minister’s Office and the then Pusat Islam to raise all these problems and find solutions.

As time went on, some of us felt that dealing with law alone was not enough. If the Qur’an was used to justify discrimination against women, then it was incumbent on us to read and understand what the source of those laws and practices actually said. Thus the decision to open the Qur’an to read for ourselves and find out if God really meant to treat women as second-class to men. Surprisingly, perhaps not to you who have been trained as lawyers, the lawyers in the group dropped out of the study session, one by one. Noor Farida had left for England to head the Gender Unit in the Commonwealth Secretariat and only one lawyer from AWL remained in the study group that eventually became Sisters in Islam.

Let me tell you, this process that Sisters went through was the most liberating and spiritually uplifting experience for all of us. We took the path of Iqraq (“Read”) and it opened a world of Islam that we could recognize, a world for women that was filled with love and mercy and with equality and justice. Women’s rights were actually rooted in our tradition, in our faith. Those verses I listed out earlier were empowering to us as women who believe in our right to justice and equality, to be treated as human beings of equal worth and dignity. We were more convinced than ever that it is not Islam that oppress women, but interpretations of the Qur’an influenced by cultural practices and values of a patriarchal society which regard women as inferior and subordinate to men.

For much of Islamic history, it is men who have interpreted the Qur’an and the

traditions for us. The woman’s voice, the woman’s experience, the woman’s

realities had been largely silent and silenced in the reading and interpretation of the Text. The silence of that interpretive voice was seen as the silence of the Text. But when Sisters read the Text, we discovered words, messages and meanings that many of us were not exposed to in the traditional education on Islam that we went through in our lives.

For us, it was the beginning of a new journey of discovery. It was a revelation to us that the verse on polygamy (Sura an-Nisa, 4:3) explicitly said “…if you fear you shall not be able to deal justly with women, then marry only one.” How come one half of the verse that said a man can have up to four wives becomes universally known and accepted as a right in Islam and is codified into law, but the other half of the very same verse that promotes monogamy is largely unheard of.

It dawned on us that when men read the verse, they only saw “marry two, three or four”. They stopped reading, for in that phrase, they saw the word of God that validated their desire for and their experience of multiple sexual partners. But women continued to read the verse, and it clearly said, “… if you fear you cannot deal justly with women, then marry only one.”

Those were the words of Allah that spoke to our fears of injustice and heartache. We understood that the right to polygamy was conditional, and if a man cannot fulfill those conditions of equal and just treatment, then Allah said marry only one. And I haven’t even gone on to the debate on whether it is only orphans or war widows and in times of warfare that polygamy can be practiced – not in peacetime, and certainly not in marrying 21-year-old model/actress/singer all rolled into one that many men these days seem to want to take as a second wife.

In fact the verse ends by saying that marrying only one “…will be best for you to prevent you from doing injustice.” What further validation do we need to argue that polygamy is not a right in Islam, but is actually a responsibility allowed only in exceptional circumstances.

The question that arose was obvious to us: WHO decides which verse, which

interpretation, which juristic opinion, which hadith, traditional practice of the Prophet, would prevail and be the source of codified law in this modern world, to govern our private and public lives and punish us if we fail to abide, and which verse would fall by the wayside? On what basis is that decision made? Whose interests are protected and whose interests are denied? It was clear to us that the outcome of this process was more about power, privilege and politics rather than living the divine will on earth.

As feminists, as believers, and as activists living within a democratic constitutional framework, we decided to assert and claim our right to have our VOICE heard in the public sphere and to engage in the decision-making process on matters of religion that we believe must take into consideration the realities of our lives and the justice enjoined by the Qur’an.

Next up

  • The Challenge
  • Global Impact
  • The Way Forward

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