Seeking Equality for Women in Islam


KUALA LUMPUR: “I think one of the most profound challenges we as Muslim face today is the search for ways to live our faith in a world where human rights, women’s rights and democracy constitutes the dominant ethical paradigm of the modern world. In the 21st century, there cannot be justice without equality. For me, it’s as simple and undisputable as that,” exclaimed Zainah Anwar at Islam and Liberty Network’s webinar on Saturday, 31st March 2018.

Zainah Anwar, who is currently the founding Executive Director of Musawah, the Sisters in Islam (SIS)-initiated global movement, stated that women have bear the brand of suffering in the name of religion, that in many parts of the Muslim world today, it is women who are the organisers and at the forefront of our society, pushing for change in the understanding and practice of the religion to recognise equality and justice, and to push for law reform to uphold these principles. However, bringing change is not easy.

Resistance to equality for women

In reality today, we see women on boards and management positions whom are actually increasing productivity, efficiency and profit margins. We see women who are both protectors and providers for their families. Why is it that society have no problems embracing new technologies and advancement in science and medicine but when it comes to embracing women’s demands for equality and justice, suddenly there is so much resistance? The man, as the head of the household, has the right to beat his wife, has the right to divorce his wife at will, has the right to demand for obedience, has the rights to four wives and has the right to double the share of inheritance even if he has fail to provide and protect his family. These are the values that Muslim women are told to be the word of God hence, they cannot be questioned let alone challenge or changed. Zainah Anwar believes that such allegations are untrue and that there are principles and ideas of equality and justice intrinsic in the Quran which upholds the universal human rights principles that regard all human beings as equals. What could be more Islamic than the first article of the United Declarations on Human Rights which states “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. If we are all equal in the eyes of God, why are we not equal in the eyes of men?

Why SIS was created

Zainah Anwar then explained the work of Musawah and SIS (the Malaysian NGO that gave birth to Musawah) and the incredible efforts of activists and scholars who have engaged in the production of new feminists and based knowledge of Islam in creating a public voice at the national and international levels, pushing for the possibility and necessity of reform of Muslim laws and practices to uphold the principles of equality and justice. What Musawah has been doing is to bridge the seeming divide between Islam and human rights and 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. This movement is led by Muslim women activists working closely with scholars to advocate a review and critical reinterpretation of the jurisprudential text and traditions within Islam. Their works place emphasis on how religion is understood, how the root of knowledge is produce, how rights are constructed in the Islamic legal tradition and how they can be reconstructed. What makes this work exciting for Zainah Anwar is that it is not just done at a theological level but it is a cutting-edge work at the intersection of theology with law, politics and gender.

What SIS does

The group Zainah Anwar co-founded, SIS, has been engaging in creating a public space and a public tradition of debate on matters related to religion since 1988. They take the position that in a country where Islam is use as a source of law and public policy, every citizen has the right to participate in how the religion is understood and used to make laws and policies to govern the lives of the public. Unfortunately, these laws and policies are very often in ways that discriminate against women and violate fundamental liberties. SIS conducts regular studies sessions and training to build knowledge on rights based on the understanding of Islam that uphold justice and equality for women. They write letters to editors, issue press statements and embark on campaigns to challenge laws, policies and statements that use Islam to justify discrimination against women. They also run a legal clinic that deals with over 800 cases a year providing women with gender sensitivity legal advice to enable them to access their rights under the Islamic family law. What SIS had achieved over the years is really to break this triangle hold and hegemony over matters of religion in society where traditionally women have been brought up to believe only the ulamas and religious scholars have the right to speak on Islam. SIS takes the position that any state that wants to rule in the name of Islam must have their impact on laws, policies and practices be open to public scrutiny and pass the test of public reason.

Launch of Musawah

In 2007, SIS led the initiative to form Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. Given the frustration and opposition Muslim women activists faced in trying to push for reform of discriminatory Muslim family laws and the issue of women’s rights in Islam, Musawah felt that it was high time that those who have, for decades, struggle against patriarchs and governments society in their private life, come together and create a very collective international public voice demanding their rights to equality and justice. Musawah, which means “equality” in Arabic, was launched in February 2009 in Kuala Lumpur with over 250 participants from 47 countries including 32 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). What Musawah brings to the larger women and human rights movement and the Muslim world is an assertion that Islam can be a source of empowerment and not a source of oppression and discrimination. It is also an effort to open new horizons for rethinking the relationship between Islam and human rights, equality and justice, and an offer to open a new constructive dialogue where religion is no longer an obstacle of equality for women but a source of liberation, a collective strength of conviction and courage to stop governments and patriarchal authorities and ideological non-state actors from the convenience of using religion and the word of God to silence demands for equality. In addition, Musawah is a space where activists, scholars, decision makers working within the human rights or Islamic framework can interact and mutually strengthen our common pursuit of equality and justice.

Musawah contribution

Since 2009, Musawah had gained an international reputation for its ground-breaking work on knowledge building, capacity building and international advocacy.  They challenged patriarchal interpretation of the Syariah (shari’ah) from within Islamic tradition, linked scholarships with activism to bring new perspectives on Islamic teachings, as well as inserted women’s voices and concerns into the production of religious knowledge and legal reforms in a Muslim context. Musawah uses a holistic framework, the Musawah Framework for Action, that integrates Islamic teaching, universal human rights standards, contemporary state constitutions and law, and live reality of women to argue for the possibility of reform. Their latest knowledge building project of Qiwamah and Wilayah looks at concepts in the Islamic legal tradition that mandates male authority over women and with the research done, they produced publication titled “Man-in-charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition”. The book received remarkable dreviews from major Islamic scholars and within a year of its publication, at least 20 universities in 7 countries are using the book in various Islamic studies courses.

Capacity building initiatives by Musawah

Musawah also engages in two other key areas: capacity building and international advocacy. Their seven days short course called “Islam & Gender Equality and Justice” exposes women’s rights activists and policy makers to how knowledge was produced in the Islamic tradition which is by examining the methodology and conceptual tools used to build the interpretive narrative in Islam. The course is aimed largely at women’s rights and human rights activist who already have an understanding on gender and human rights but have little understanding of these topics from and Islamic perspective. “The only Islam they know of is the patriarchal Islam they grew up with and based on this, many of them have rejected the possibility of engagement of this religion as a source of reform and empowerment,” argued Zainah Anwar. Over the past two years, Musawah had conducted seven regional trainings for activist from over 20 countries in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Many found this course life transforming as they now know that it is possible to be a Muslim and a feminist. It renews their faith in the possibility that Islam can be just to women like them who wants to remain in the faith and still stand up for equality and non-discrimination.

International advocacy

In the area of international advocacy, the third area of Musawah’s work, they engage deeply with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) process. They did a major research on CEDAW and Muslim family laws, critically examining how governments from major OIC countries use Islam to justify reservation and noncompliance to treaty obligations. They critic the approach and offer the Musawah’s Framework for Action as an approach that reconcile Islam with women’s rights and provide the conceptual legal tools and language to argue for the possibility for equality, justice and reform of Muslim family laws. Today, Musawah regularly submits thematic reports on Article 16 on marriage and family relations whenever key Muslim states report before the CEDAW committee. Musawah’s interventions in the CEDAW process had led to changes in language and concepts used by the CEDAW experts for their constructive engagement with governments that declare that they cannot change their discriminatory personal status law because they are God’s law and therefore divine law. However, they are today regularly told by CEDAW committee members that this cannot be possibly so, pointing out to the diversity of laws in Muslim countries that provide for better rights and protection for women all on the basis of Islam.

Examples of Reform

Why does Tunisia ban polygamy? Why does Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon allow women to include in her marriage contract that the husband cannot take another wife and if he breaches this term, she is entitled to a divorce? Why does Morocco have an equal minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls at 18? Why do Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco and Tunisia not require a woman to have a wali or guardian in order to get married? Why do Turkey and Tunisia recognise a mother’s equal guardianship of her children? Zainah Anwar exclaims that the issue is not that there cannot be reform, equality and justice for women because these changes are indeed taking place in the Muslim world. The issue is whether the governments and those in authority have the political will to end discrimination against women. According to her, the arguments for reform are there within our constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination on the basis of gender where many Muslim countries have this provision article in their constitution within the human rights principles that many of the countries subscribed to when they agree to be a part of the international system.

Terminology used by Musawah

Before concluding her opening speech, Zainah Anwar shared a few key terms that Musawah uses to argue for the possibility of reform towards equality and justice. Firstly, Musawah makes the distinction between what is Syariah, Fiqh and state law. Syariah literally means “the way” or “the path”. Syariah is God’s revelation to the Prophet as embodied in the Quran encompassing ethical values and principles to guide human in the direction of justice and right conduct. “No person, no institution has the authority to claim certain theme and understanding defined here. Only God possesses perfect knowledge,” she stressed. This lead to the development of Fiqh which means “understanding”. It is the process by which humans attempt to derive and listen to the Quran and the Sunnah on the basis of the Prophet. The classical Muslim juries developed rigorous methodologies and principles to establish a legal system that they believe could best reflect the divine will and yet, none of them ever claimed certainty over their opinions on their rulings. Certitude belongs only to God. While Syariah is fix, Fiqh is changeable. Much of what is freely label today as Syariah law is actually Fiqh, a human construction. It is on the basis of Fiqh that many Muslim governments codified the law to regulate marriage and family. Polygamy is banned in Tunisia, permitted with conditions in countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and permitted without restrictions in some other countries. These decisions and conditions on the same issue are based on different Fiqh opinions and understandings. The result of a decision to choose one Fiqh opinion over another to codify the law of a land for all Muslims to abide by is not a divine law but a state law passed by human beings sitting in legislative bodies, not God.

Secondly, Musawah looks at the categories of law in the Muslim legal tradition: ibadat (rules that regulate the relationship between humans and God where there is little room for disputation) and muamalat (rules that regulate relationship of humans with one another). Much of the debate and contestation going on now in the Muslim world on women’s rights in Islam are muamalat laws where juries for over 1000 years ago have favoured human reason, human experience and digression to serve the wellbeing of society depending on time. “It was a principle established over 100 years ago, it is not a new invention of westernised feminist living in the Muslim world,” emphasised Zainah Anwar.

Thirdly, Musawah invokes the rich and sophisticated juristic concepts and tools in the Muslim legal tradition that made reform possible. The principles of maslahah (public interest), khilaf (differences of opinion), istihsan (choosing the best opinion in the interest of equality and justice), and istislah (choosing the best opinion in the interest of public good). “How do we apply these principles to solve the problems and issues we face in the context of the 21st century in order to ensure justice is done? Or do we continue to be resistant to change in reality on the ground and shun aside all that is rich and good in the Muslim tradition?” asked Zainah Anwar. Despite the risk to their lives and liberty, Muslim women today are asserting that if Islam is to be used as a source of law and public policy, then everyone has the right to speak up on the religion and how it is understood, practice and codified into laws. Their experiences as living Muslim in the Islamic context give them the authority and the right to speak and to shape, define and influence what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century.

Feminism in Malaysia

The webinar was attended by several individuals from different countries whom were given the chance to participate in a Q&A session. Dini Hairuddin from Malaysia said the notion of feminism has not been fully embraced in Malaysia. Therefore, she asked what would be the ideal way to educate the society that feminism is very much needed in the context of matrimonial decision without coming across as a radical activist. “If you want to bring change, you will be labelled. Especially if you’re a Muslim woman and declare yourself a feminist,” answered Zainah Anwar. She mentioned that in her trainings, she will always tell the activists to be prepared for such attacks if they are to engage in these kind of work as change does not come on a silver platter. “A woman who doesn’t have a voice is the most appreciated women. A woman who has a voice and stands up for their rights and justice in the name of religion and it challenges the patriarchal misogynist interpretation of religion will be accused of being a radical. So just live with the accusation,” added Zainah Anwar. Also, she recommends being a part of a group like SIS as it is important to have friends and supporters around when speaking up on issues.

Women Ulama

Lyana Khairuddin from United Kingdom asked if having more women ulamas help in progressing women’s rights within Islam or would this only reinforce conservative patriarchal notions. Zainah Anwar answered that she loves the idea of having more women ulamas. She once attended a conference in Indonesia whereby there were 500 women ulamas present. Many people are not aware of the work in Indonesia due largely to the language (Bahasa Indonesia). However, it should be known how amazing these women ulamas are as they are the women at the very grassroot level, speaking out about women’s rights in Islam, ending child marriages and going against domestic violence. These women whom are trained in religion, attended the madrasa, studied religion, taught Hadith and taught Fiqh are the one standing up for women rights and are not westernised feminist by any stretch of the imagination. These are the women who knows the realities of incidents happening on the ground, how much women are suffering and how much harm these misogyny that is justified in the name of Islam is causing these women. With their knowledge of Islam and the realities happening on the grassroot level, they felt the need to organise a network to speak out on these issues that discriminate against women. Zainah Anwar found that having women ulamas who have direct contact with women on the grassroot level to teach them their rights, to stand up against child marriage and to stand up against the husbands’ desires for a second wife extremely empowering.

Female Genital Mutilations

Khatija Barday-Wood of United Kingdom voiced her concerns on female genital mutilations (FGM) becoming more prominent in the Muslim world and asked if Musawah has a plan of action to stop this. Zainah Anwar explained that Musawah mainly engages with the tradition through family law and personal status law and does not deal with every single issue. However, the methodology of interpretation that Musawah adopted has enable women’s rights activists working in many different issues to apply Musawah’s methodology into their framework or actions to argue for the possibility of reform towards equality and justice. For instance, GAMCOTRAP – a women’s rights group in Gambia working on the issue of FGM, uses Musawah’s methodology, approach and knowledge to fight against FGM. Isatou Touray, the President of GAMCOTRAP, was not aware that FGM is not in the Quran but an African tradition till her first training with SIS in 2006. Recalling to a constructive dialogue session she attended in Geneva recently, a Malaysian Attorney-General Chambers’ representative justified FGM as an Islamic practice which caused an outrage among certain CEDAW committee members. The Egyptian committee member responded by quoting the Sunni Fatwa by the Islamic Al-Azhar University whereby FGM is considered haram. Therefore, Zainah Anwar stressed how important knowledge is. Reading and research is extremely important to know if an issue has its roots in Islam and the Quran.

Understanding of women’s rights in Islam

Aira Azhari from Malaysia asked Zainah Anwar why does she think there is such poor understanding and scholarship of women’s rights in Islam in the highest corridors of power in Malaysia. Is it because they really believe Islam allows these injustice against women or is it just a refusal to learn the religion? Zainah Anwar responded that there are many reasons, one of them being ignorance. According to her, many of those in the highest corridors of power are only exposed to the traditional, patriarchal, misogynist Islam that was lost in translation and lost in the 21st century. However, there are some who speaks up on reform and reinterpretation but it stops at the door of women’s rights. That is what she means by misogynist and patriarchal as it is their personal interest that is challenge and going to be undermine. They believe that if change actually takes place whereby women are treated as equal to men, it means that a woman’s gain is a man’s loss. To Zainah Anwar, the world would be a much better place to live in if all citizens have the freedom and opportunity to be the fullest they can be, but instead, some in authority or privilege positions feel threaten. Another reason would be politics. It is very convenient to identify religion or race as a threat for dominant parties to stay in power. When SIS started in the late 80s, there was hardly any scholarship on Islam and women’s rights. Today, the scholarships coming from Muslim scholars living in both the Muslim world and the West are very rich. The knowledge is out there if one seeks for it. Therefore, Zainah Anwar believes that it is really the lack of political will.  “That’s the problem with Malaysian authority. They really don’t believe in equality. If they believe in equality, certainly there are many arguments in Islam that they can use to support the reform of discriminatory laws. The Constitution provides for equality and non-discrimination – they can use the constitution. They are signatory to CEDAW – they can use the international convention and live realities of women,” exclaimed Zainah Anwar.

Suri Kempe from Malaysia asked why it is that women’s bodies are always the first point of contention to show how “Islamic” a government or authority is. Zainah Anwar replied that it is because women’s bodies and women’s presence in the public space is so visible. Giving an example from a personal experience, she said that she was told many times that her actions and words are right but the problem is that she does not wear a hijab with some claiming that wearing a hijab would make her more accepted. “It’s really just one reason after another to basically demonise and delegitimise you,” stated Zainah Anwar as she felt that the very physical presence of women in the public space is the easiest to target.

Challenge for activists

Ayemen Fatima from India expressed that as Muslims who support such open ideas of liberalism, they are often personally attacked for the way they are following the religion. She then asked what is the best response to such a situation. To this, Zainah Anwar said to approach the text from context, as what Musawah does. She advised to not go straight into a battle of verses which is a mistake most people do. It is better to first identify the problem or issue (such as polygamy, domestic violence, child marriage, FGM, etc) one is confronting before leaping into a debate. “When they call you a liberal for believing in women’s rights or that polygamy should be restricted or banned, say no. I’m a Muslim who believes in justice, who believes that God is just, who believes in the principles within Islam such as justice, equality, dignity and compassion,” exclaimed Zainah Anwar.  Therefore, she finds knowledge extremely important. With adequate knowledge on the teachings of Islam, it is easier to argue for liberalism. In Musawah’s training, participant were urged to read and get familiar with the versus in Quran and the rich Muslim legal tradition that allows one to justify for change. All in all, Zainah Anwar thinks that we need to change the terms whereby we use proofs to support and not just be defensive.

Islam and Liberty Network (ILN) held their third webinar of the year with Zainah Anwar as the guest speaker. ILN’s CEO, Ali Salman, was the moderator for the session. Zainah Anwar spoked on “Seeking Equality for Women in Islam” whereby she stressed on the importance of knowledge, the spirit of empowerment and the duty of those in the higher authority such as religious and state authorities. She believes that Islam is a religion that recognises and is for equality for all, not taking gender into consideration. “This work, engaging with Islam to justify treating women as human beings as equal worth and dignity, is very controversial. However, it is very Islamic even if there are many who does not agree. I do not know where their [understanding of] Islam comes from but it is certainly not the Islam we believe in. The Islam and God we believe in is just,” she stated. The webinar was joined by participants form Malaysia, Singapore, India and the United Kingdom.

*To watch the full webinar, please visit our YouTube channel here.

Reported by: Isabel Loke

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