Muslim Women “Warriors”

International Women’s Day (March 8) is a good time to reflect on the efforts of women of faith to reform or repeal texts and practices within their religions that contribute to women’s inequality or oppression.

For those of us in the United States and Europe, of Christian and Jewish traditions, the effort has focused on reinterpreting texts, working for the inclusion of women in ministry, for non-sexist language, and for the elimination of violence against women. The effort has not been easy; Christian and Jewish women still have a long way to go and we’ve experienced a fair amount of derision and even lost jobs, but none of us has actually risked our lives or ended up in jail as a result of this work.

Some of the most prophetic among us have found some acceptance. The Philadelphia Eleven, Episcopal women who were “irregularly” ordained in 1974, ushered in regular ordination by 1976 and the consecration of the first woman bishop, Barbara Harris, in 1989. Roman Catholic women began ordaining themselves in 2004 after an initial irregular ordination by a male bishop in 2002.

While these women (who number about 50 priests and five bishops) have been excommunicated, they are living proof that the institutional church has only the power we give it. They go about the business of ministry and service with skill and good grace.

Increasingly, Buddhist women have been seeking full ordination within the various branches of Buddhism. In Korea, Taiwan, and China, Buddhist nuns have been fully ordained for centuries, in an unbroken lineage back to the Buddha. In other countries and branches of Buddhism, the practice of fully ordaining women has not survived. Buddhist women have organized for ordination, and these are increasing. Thai Theravada Buddhism, which is linked to the state, has been most resistant to these ordinations, and Tibetan Buddhism under the Dalai Lama has been considering reviving the tradition, but as of today, no final decision has been made.

Muslim women—and feminists—are following a different and complicated path. This was brought home last month when I participated in a five day international conference in Malaysia which brought together 250 women from 47 countries, many of them predominantly Muslim with strong links between religion and state. The conference launched the Musawah Movement, a loose network of Muslim women’s groups working to ensure that Muslim family law recognizes and operationalizes the equality of women within the family. Muslim feminists are as diverse as other feminists which was reflected throughout the conference; Muslim feminism is not new. This conference, for example, was the result of 20 years of research and advocacy by a Malaysian group called Sisters in Islam (SIS). Zainah Anwar, the coordinator of Musawah (equality in Arabic) said:

Musawah is in some ways a vindication of a long and difficult struggle to find liberation within my faith and to translate into action my utter belief in a just God. This is the last frontier in the feminist movement to break the theological stranglehold of the patriarchs that prevents Muslim women from enjoying equal rights.

For Sisters in Islam finding liberation in their faith has involved a two-prong strategy: theological education and political advocacy. SIS takes religion seriously. In its early years, SIS reached out to Islamic scholars, studied the Qur’an and came to adopt a modernist methodology of interpreting the Qur’an and the Hadiths. Those of us with less knowledge of Islamic scholarship are unaware of the fact that since the mid-19th century (and before), Islamic scholars have offered modernist methodologies of interpreting Islamic texts that have been developed independently but share some characteristics of modern biblical interpretation.

Abdullah Saeed, the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at Melbourne University and a conference speaker, offered a methodological framework for interpretation that included understanding the Qur’an as a text influenced by the history of the time in which it was written and requiring analysis of how it was and is received as an element of legitimacy. He notes that progressive scholars and classic modernists in Islam emphasize “core Islamic values of justice, goodness and beauty” and engaging both Islamic tradition and modernity on the issues of human rights, social justice, gender justice, and pluralism.” It is this tradition that Sisters in Islam and Islamic feminist scholars including Norani Othman, Fatima Mernissi, and Riffat Hassan have engaged.

Not all at the conference (nor in the broader Muslim feminist community) are in sync with a theological approach to Muslim feminist advocacy. There was loud grumbling on the second day of the conference from feminists who want nothing to do with religion. For them, the task of Muslim feminism is to secure pluralism and democratic legislation in Muslim countries, based solely on human rights theory and treaty obligations.

Zainah Anwar weighed in on this approach in an opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune:

The decision of so many activists to ignore religion has had undesirable consequences. It has left the field wide open for the most conservative forces within Islam to define, dominate and set parameters of what Islam is and is not.

Anwar makes sense. In many Muslim-majority countries civil family law is based on Shariah. To try to change those laws without addressing its underlying religiosity and offering a respectful but different understanding of the Qur’an is unlikely to succeed. Moreover, in some countries where Shariah is not accepted as civil law, Shariah courts exist within the Muslim community and Muslim women are urged by their families to take issues of family law to these courts rather than civil courts. There have also been efforts by Muslim conservatives in the UK and Canada to pass legislation that would make Shariah courts the legal arbiters of family law for Muslims. These moves have been opposed by Muslim women and human rights advocates although some mainstream political leaders have naively assumed that recognition of such religious courts was an act of respect for cultural diversity.

Shariah is already interpreted differently from country to country, used and abused to justify practices that limit women’s human rights. Women are stoned to death and imprisoned for adultery, and even for reporting rape. Custody laws, which automatically award children to husbands, keep women in abusive marriages. In some countries, women can be divorced without their consent and with no provision for support. So-called honor killings go unpunished; girls’ education is limited or forbidden; women are beaten with impunity by husbands, fathers and sons.

One moderator of a “talk show”-format session, in which women leaders described their personal efforts to change conditions for women, called them “warriors.” In some quarters of feminism and religion, such a word would raise hackles. We are a “kind and gentle people.” But in other circles we combine a fierce sense of bravery and rage, a willingness to do battle for women with the instruments of reason, scholarship, and compassion in pursuing justice and equality. Let us celebrate all the strategies women use to survive and thrive.