A Jihad Against Gender Oppression

by Ulises Mejias

Islamic Terrorism. Islamic Feminism. We find such terms thrown about carelessly in the media. But what does it mean to stick the word Islamic in front of terms like Terrorism or Feminism? This is one of the questions that Masjaliza Hamzah raised during the First International Congress on Islamic Feminism, which took place in Barcelona, Spain, from October 27th to the 29th of 2005. Ms. Hamzah, a representative of the Malaysian NGO Sisters in Islam, warned against the totalizing tendency of calling anything ‘Islamic.’ Just as terrorism is not a practice condoned by Islam or practiced by most Muslims (which raises the question of what we mean when we say Islamic Terrorism), there is no single feminist movement that represents all Muslim women, and in fact many Muslims would reject the label altogether while continuing to struggle against gender oppression. Rather than a weakness, the lack of a single or unifying ‘feminist’ identity among Muslims is evidence, I think, of a healthy respect for diversity, a kind of respect for diversity that is sadly lacking in many forums where Muslims get together nowadays, but that was very much on display throughout the Congress in Barcelona.

Barcelonabanner167What follows is not meant to be an exhaustive review of the Congress, but merely a collection of notes regarding some of the presentations (all characterizations of what the panelists said are my own, and I am solely responsible for any misrepresentations).

The Congress opened on Thursday October 27th with the intervention of various representatives from the government of Catalunya (a copy of the program can be found here), who welcomed the participants and spoke of the importance of the event. At this point, it became clear why the event was being held in Barcelona and not somewhere else in Spain (somewhere in the south, for example, where there is a stronger, although deeply buried, Muslim heritage). These civil servants not only exhibited a solid understanding of the key issues surrounding the Congress (freedom to reinterpret the texts; the rise of fundamentalism that is seen across all religions, not just Islam; etc.), but also recognized what was really at stake: Although Barcelona has been a somewhat insular city for most of its modern life (immigrants from Third World countries started to arrive only three decades ago), it now faces a huge influx of people from all over the world, including many Muslims. Unlike other cities which benefit from the cheap labor but turn a blind eye to the social issues that accompany migration and globalization (the consequences of which can be seen these days in the France riots), the city of Barcelona is special in that it recognizes —at least at the official discourse level— that the welfare of its immigrants is unequivocally tied to the welfare of society at large. Thus, Barcelona is intent on facilitating dialogues that promote the rights of its citizens across all identities and religions, and is particularly concerned about making sure that Muslims feel like they can be productive members of society, rather than fomenting the exploitation and alienation that gives rise to discontent and extremism. Part of Barcelona’s motivation is that it feels that Spain, of all the European nations, is uniquely positioned to help define the role of the modern European Muslim, given the 700 year history of Islam in Spain, a history that is about three times longer than the whole history of the United Sates (more on this later).

After these opening presentations, the Congress got under way. Abdennur Prado (one of the key organizers of the event) introduced the first speaker, Valentine Moghadam. Ms. Moghadam, the Chief of the Gender Equality and Development Section of UNESCO, provided a useful view of Islamic Feminism within the context of transnational feminist movements. By discussing the case of Iran in particular, she presented a picture of how secular and religious feminists, initially in opposition to one another (in respect to whether Islam oppresses or can serve to liberate women), eventually began to formulate a common discourse and found some ways to collaborate towards common goals. However, Ms. Moghadam also pointed out that feminism cannot be the sole solution to the many social problems that countries such as Iran face. For one thing, she pointed out, the task of reinterpreting religion in liberatory ways cannot be an enterprise that feminists from elite classes engage in while ignoring the needs of women from lower classes (although I think it can be argued that religious freedom is not unconnected to class struggles). Lastly, Ms. Moghadam argued that the Islamic reform movement was every bit as important as the Christian reform movement, with the exception that the former is being carried out by women.

Dscn1801_1 The next panel on Diversity and Feminism included academic and activist speakers. Professors Mary Nash (Ireland) and Lidia Puigvert (Spain) provided useful introductions to key Islamic concepts for the mostly non-Muslim, Catalan- or Spanish-speaking audience, while Raheel Raza (Canada) and Masjaliza Hamzah (Malaysia) provided insights into some of the struggles that Muslim women are engaged in. Ms. Raza, the first woman to lead a mixed gender prayer in Canada, gave a short history of Muslims in Canada, and a very helpful summary of the Sharia (Islamic law) debates in that country, an issue she has been researching for a while and is publishing a book and producing a documentary on. On this issue, Ms. Raza exemplifies the complex relationship that Muslim women have with Western feminism. While secular Western feminists have adopted an anti-Sharia position (and are happy to prescribe that position to their Muslim ‘sisters’), Ms. Raza —who does not call herself a feminist— says she supports Sharia, as long as it is a form of Sharia that is not frozen in time and defined only by an elite group of men. After all, she argues, the arbitration systems and religious tribunals that Muslims were going to take advantage of to ‘impose’ their Sharia are the same that other religious groups, including Jews and Mennonites, have been taken advantage of in Canada for decades. Are we then saying that a civil right offered to other religions should not be offered to Muslims, simply because they are Muslims? Of course, Ms. Raza points to the horrendous handling of the affair by the media as part of the reason why the public in Canada reacted so strongly against the ‘threat’ of Sharia. Instead of inviting public debate, the media sensationalized the issue and indirectly suggested that the outcome of Sharia would be that every Canadian woman would be forced to wear the veil. To conclude the panel, Ms. Hamzah —whom I have already quoted at the beginning— eloquently mixed theoretical insights with a personal account of what polygamy had meant for her grandmother.

The highlight of the presentations on Friday the 28th was, in my opinion, the panel on Progressive Muslims with Ahmed Naseef and Dr. Amina Wadud (both from the U.S.). Mr. Naseef, perhaps better known for his work with Muslim Wakeup!, spoke about the attacks on Muslims’ civil rights in the U.S. as well as the phenomenon of the ‘mosqued’ v. ‘un-mosqued’ Muslim communities. According to surveys, only 7% of U.S. Muslims attend mosques regularly (compared to about 70% of Christians who attend church). Mr. Naseef suggested that this is because the men who run the mosques have lost touch completely with the changing demographics of Muslims in the U.S. In other words, the strict, sexist, hellfire-and-brimstone, West=Satan version of Islam served up in most of North America’s mosques does not appeal (fortunately) to many Muslims. Thus, Mr. Naseef warned of the increasing ideological gap between the Muslim leadership and the average Muslim. To this I would only add that we do not want to recreate that gap in the Progressive Muslim movement.

Or are progressive Muslims not going far enough? Amina Wadud, the first woman to lead a mixed congregation of Muslims in prayers in the U.S. —and by now an internationally recognized figure— warned that a lot of the progressive Islamic discourse still supports some forms of patriarchy. She gave a couple of examples of distinguished progressive Islamic scholars who, when pushed, still dismiss the issue of gender as outside of their sphere of concern. Dr. Wadud spoke candidly about her own journey in Islam, at one point indicating that in her research she decided not to waddle through centuries of patriarchal discourse but went straight to the Qur’an. She also indicated her reluctance to be labeled a feminist, although she recognized that this is probably unavoidable in the media (sure enough, at least one Spanish newspaper the next day was calling her a Muslim Feminist). To her, a gender discourse that tries to eliminate the sacred is unacceptable, which is why she defines herself as pro-faith and pro-women. Another important point in her argument was that extremists and progressives actually do share some points of convergence, mainly a shared sense of the value of truth and rationality. This seems to suggest that there should be a way for the two camps to have a dialogue, if they so willed. Dr. Wadud was then asked to lead the Friday prayers. This historic event, in which I proudly participated, has been covered in Muslim Wakeup!

October 29, the last day of the Congress, included many interesting conversations. First, Leyla Bousquet (France) and Asma Barlas (Pakistan/USA) participated in a discussion on Qur’anic Hermeneutics. Ms. Bousquet offered an interesting analysis of certain passages in the Qur’an to elucidate the role of Mary (mother of Jesus) as a prophet and as a spiritual leader. For her part, Ms. Barlas (disclaimer: my wife) suggested a method for how the Qur’an can be read as a liberatory text. Starting from the position that religious knowledge is socially constructed (a result of a specific methodology and historical context), Ms. Barlas echoed al-Ghazali’s statement that it is neither universal nor sacred. Therefore, what Muslims read the Qur’an as saying depends on who reads it (historically, mostly men), how it is read (by means of what method) and in what contexts (mostly, patriarchies). In other words, the Qur’an does not privilege men over women, it has merely been read that way. Ms. Barlas then proposed an alternative methodology for reading the Qur’an in a holistic way, as a hermeneutic totality. The principles for this method of reading the Qur’an are derived from the Qur’an itself, and from an understanding of God as represented in the scripture: first, that God is One, and God’s sovereignty is One (thus, men cannot share God’s rule); second, that God is just, and does not transgress against the rights of anyone (thus, God cannot favor a system like patriarchy that transgresses against women); and third, that God is unlike anything created, above sex and gender (thus, references to God as He are bad linguistic conventions, not accurate descriptions of God’s being). Ms. Barlas also made it clear that she resists the label ‘feminist’ for herself. According to her, the problem with feminism is that it has secularized the idea of liberation (religion is seen as oppressive, and it is assumed therefore that believers are not free). As a result, some feminists —just like the Muslim conservatives they criticize— confuse the Qur’an with its patriarchal (mis)readings.

Dscn1810The next two panelists were Zainah Anwar (Malaysia) and Asra Nomani (India/USA). Ms. Anwar described the important work that Sisters in Islam is doing in Malaysia, and Ms. Nomani talked about her personal struggle to confront patriarchal Muslim traditions that negate the sexual rights of women, segregate women in mosques as if they were second-class believers, and prescribe a greater degree of social stigma and criminalization for women’s sexual misconduct than for men’s (Ms. Nomani has also published an article about the Congress on the Washington Post).

[Pictured to the right: Asma Barlas, Amina Wadud and Zainah Anwar]

The Congress then came to a close by proposing a series of preliminary conclusions (scroll down), which the organizers invited everyone to expand on. These include:

  • Islamic feminism is an emergent reality which must be seen as an alternative to the dominant sexist readings.
  • This form of feminism derives from the Koranic revelation and is based on the conviction that the Koran does not justify patriarchalism.
  • Islam can liberate women and change their current status. But for this, the doors of ijtihad (interpretation work) must be opened, taking into account the context of 21st century societies.

I would like to end by offering some personal reflections on the importance of attending this Congress on Islamic Feminism in Spain, of all places. As you probably know, 1492 marked not only the beginning of the colonization of America by Spain but also the termination of the project of expulsion of all Muslims and Jews from its lands. Spain has a very complicated historical relationship with its 700 years of Muslim presence, which is now portrayed as a period of resistance against the Muslim invaders. The rejection of its Muslim heritage decisively shaped the new Spanish identity, down to its cuisine and the personal appearance of its citizens, and equally important, in its attitudes towards the people of the New World. But while all occupations are problematic, I think the Spanish are too quick to forget what was accomplished during the time Muslims ruled large parts of the south. Not only did Christians, Jews and Muslims manage to live together with some degree of peace and respect during most of that time, but culturally they thrived, to the extent that al-Andalus became known as ‘the ornament of the world.’ The devotion at that time to knowledge and learning (one of the libraries in Cordoba contained over 400,000 books at a time when other libraries in Europe contained no more than 400), and the openness to diversity even when it comes in the form of contradictions, is something that we all need to rescue. In my mind, at least, my presence there as a Latino Muslim convert served as a double reminder of a troubled Spanish past —rejection of Muslim identity on the one hand, American oppression on the other—, but hopefully also as a sign of possible new beginnings grounded in new relationships to our pasts.

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