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Muslim women find their voice

Friday, 1 December 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

This is an article that was printed by the Chicago Tribune!  It is certainly helpful as we think about women’s voices and the ways in which our faith communities influence our voices!

Muslim women find their voice:  Conference to set up female advisory panel to interpret Islamic law

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
Tribune staff reporter

Published November 10, 2006

In what many scholars are calling a significant step, more than 100 Muslim women leaders will gather in New York City this month to launch an advisory council–one that could provide alternative opinions and become a voice for women’s rights in the traditionally male-dominated field of Islamic law.

The council, which hopes to build consensus on varying issues, comes on the heels of what appears to be a growing movement among Muslim women to seek empowerment.

Last year, an Islamic studies professor, Amina Wadud, led a mixed congregation in Friday prayers in New York City, creating an uproar across the Muslim world. Prayers on an Islamic holiday last January were conducted by a woman in Boston. And in the spring, a woman led Friday worship in Canada.

Two Muslim countries have also decided to take on the issue of women’s equality. In Morocco, 50 women imams were recently awarded diplomas by the Islamic Affairs Ministry. In Turkey, the Diyanet, or Directorate of Religious Affairs, appointed 200 state-paid female preachers. The Diyanet also announced in June that it would delete from the hadith, or traditional sayings and deeds of Muhammad, passages that discriminated against women or even subordinated them to men.

“What you’re seeing is the emergence of a feminist movement,” said Daisy Khan, organizer of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity, the conference next weekend that hopes to launch the women’s shura or advisory council.

More Muslim women are pursuing degrees in Islamic studies and Islamic law, she said, to the point where they feel comfortable adding a “critical and unique voice.”

Panel’s credibility questioned

Still, some experts wonder whether an advisory council for and by women will be accepted by men or the larger Muslim community.

“Credibility among Muslim leadership is the key issue,” said Laila Al-Marayati, spokeswoman for the California-based Muslim Women’s League. “If you have something that carries weight and could influence a community or generate change in behavior, then it would have value.”

One scholar, Emory University law professor Abdullahi An-Naim, insisted that the shura would be discredited simply because it’s being formed in the United States, whose foreign policy is heavily criticized throughout the Muslim world.

The conference is organized by the American Society for Muslim Advancement with sponsorship from U.S. foundations like the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The session is to bring together women from a wide spectrum–liberal feminists, moderates and conservatives–from America, Canada, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. The Muslim establishment will be represented by Ingrid Mattson, the first woman to head the largest Muslim group, the Islamic Society of North America. On the progressive end will be women like Asra Nomani, author of “Standing Alone in Mecca,” who wants to end strict gender separation during prayer.

In the absence of a pope or hierarchy, Muslims follow different schools of thought and when they don’t understand something, they approach an imam, a community leader or read books.

9th Century interpretations

Women scholars point to the 9th Century as a time in Islamic history when many Islamic rules and laws–derived from interpreting the Koran and hadith–were laid out by scholars who were mostly men. Those rules are now repeated by traditional imams or religious leaders. In Muslim countries that follow Shariah law, the problem becomes more profound.

“Muslim countries that are using the Shariah, the law that’s practiced is not pure,” said Irfana Anwer, executive director for Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. “They’re very biased and very discriminatory toward women. They don’t protect them.”

So, many Muslim women lawyers and academics are calling for the reinterpretation of those dictates and laws.

Groups like the Sisters in Islam in Malaysia, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, Karamah and the Muslim Women’s League at times have put that reinterpretation into practice, calling for a more humane treatment of women, but using the Koranic text to back their arguments.

“It’s a cross between theoretical feminism and Koranic feminism,” said Marcia Hermansen, an Islamic studies professor at Loyola University Chicago. “They want to keep the text as revelation, and they believe the meaning can be read as egalitarian and women-friendly. They know that’s the way to change minds in the Muslim world where people are deeply religious.”

The advisory council hopes to bring the local efforts into a more global body that could quickly issue a position when an incident unfolds like that of Mukhtar Mai in Pakistan or Amina Lawal in Nigeria. A tribal council sanctioned the gang rape of Mai in retaliation for an alleged sexual offense that her brother had committed. Lawal was sentenced to be stoned to death for an out-of-wedlock birth.

Khan, the conference organizer, hopes that during next week’s gathering a core of about six Muslim woman scholars can be selected.

It would be up to them to hash out opinions on various cases. The general body of the advisory council–the other women attending the conference–would then vote on each recommendation. The majority opinion eventually would be distributed globally.

Female scholars in shadows

Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said most Muslims are not aware of the work being done by women scholars studying Islam.

“Once they come together, their voices can be collectively known,” he said.

Legitimacy may, or may not, come later, he said.

“Some will accept it,” he said. “Some may not, and some may accept it halfway.”


These are some issues that may be addressed in a proposed advisory council for Muslim women:

Honor killings: How can Muslim women end the tradition of honor killings in some cultures? Such killings target women for alleged sexual or marital offenses. They often are carried out by family members, but perpetrators are rarely prosecuted in court.

Hudood laws: How can laws unfair to Muslim women be removed, such as the Pakistani penal code that makes it hard to prove an allegation of rape?

Dress: What is the obligatory Islamic dress for Muslim women? Some cover their hair, some don’t. Some cover their faces as well. In Britain, a teacher’s aide’s fight to wear the niqab, or face veil, drew criticism from Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Equality in the mosque: How can Muslim women have equal access to mosques? Often they are relegated to a back room, entered only through a side door. They cannot see the religious leader or imam, and at times cannot hear the sermon.

Women imams: Can Muslim women lead prayers for both men and women? In New York last year a female Islamic studies professor created a storm by leading a joint prayer.



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