Sisterhood is Islamic: an Interview with Daisy Khan

A month ago, in late July, over 200 Muslim women leaders and activists met at the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality conference in Kuala Lumpur. The women launched a Global Muslim Women’s Shura Council, an all-women’s advisory council that will promote women’s rights within an Islamic framework. The first action of the Shura Council was to launch a “Jihad Against Violence.”

I spoke with Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, (and member of the Religion Dispatches Advisory Council) about the conference and the worldwide Muslim women’s movement.

What’s the impetus behind the WISE conference? Its long-term goals?

It’s change through institution-building. One of the gaping holes that we’ve seen is that we have a very large constituency of Muslim women that are left unrepresented through institutions; so we don’t have an institution that really speaks for us, even though we are half a billion around the globe.

What do you see as the greatest obstacles to Muslim women’s advancement?

I was quite shocked that when polled, 93% of the women at the conference said the greatest barrier to their advancement was distorted religious interpretation.

That’s almost a consensus.

And I think that 97% said that women should be in the forefront of interpreting and becoming authorities on interpretation.

You have to organize in such a way: you have to create women who have the authority to interpret, and that requires a longer-term educational program, which we did launch and have already seeded here, called the Muslim Women’s Muftiyya Program. Basically a Muslim woman jurist, a scholar; a woman who would be able to look at religious text, interpret it, and give a legal opinion, also known as a fatwa.

And if a woman achieves that level of scholarship, is there any barrier to her authority being recognized?

No—the recognition, the authority, lies in her scholarship.

So in a way you could say that Islam is non-sexist in that if the individual achieves the correct level of learning, she has authority.

It has always been that way. Because of social pressures women have not entered that field, and this is the one area in which we want to revive this tradition. There has never been any objection to women being jurists. What we are doing is we’re just reviving the tradition of women being such authorities.

Are you getting resistance?

We have not really received resistance in this area yet because we are doing it in a very thoughtful way. But the consensus that we have heard is that women themselves, the constituency—and they’re grassroots women, very tapped into their local communities—they know what is needed. And given that, we do not believe that we will be resisted. In fact we believe we’ll be welcomed, because the world needs it.

It seems that in various different countries Muslim women are seeking specific change, and are making some big changes. What progress do you see being made on those fronts?

The challenges for Muslim women in different countries are different. Some who are living in conflict-ridden zones are literally working toward survival threats; for instance in Afghanistan. They are concerned about basic education of their children, they are considering home-schooling, they need assistance with how to maintain their basic standard of living.

Then we have countries like Iran where women are highly educated and want their rightful place in society. For them, the challenge is how to get more equal status within society. You have women in Turkey who are struggling to express their religion; they want that recognition. The landscape of the Muslim world is different and the challenges are different from region to region, country to country, because of the political instability or economic development of that country.

What we are trying to do through WISE is create a little bit of a level field through education, through a compact that we have signed as women that we must lift up the status of women throughout societies; and that there must be consistency of how women are to be seen and are to be treated in every society that calls itself Muslim.

Do you see any inherent conflict between Islam itself and full women’s equality?

No, actually we declare gender equality to be an intrinsic part of the Islamic faith. It’s something that people have long forgotten. And this is why we are stating our case from an Islamic jurisprudence point of view. We believe that Muslim women are worthy of respect and dignity. According to Islam, they’re legal individuals; they’re spiritual beings; they’re social people. These are all God-given responsibilities.

They are even responsible agents, so they are held accountable for their actions. They are free citizens. True, they’re servants of God; but they hold fundamental equal rights to exercise their abilities and talents in all human areas of activity.

And we can prove this through our scripture. This is not something we made up; this is not a 21st-century concept. Societies may have forgotten these concepts. We understand that some people may think that women have different roles. Different roles doesn’t mean that she is inferior. It just means that men have certain qualities; women have other qualities, but we are partners. This is how we’re referred to in the Qur’an. So we need to revive that.

As women, we have a responsibility to make our case; because if we don’t make our case, others won’t be able to. This is not to say that because we are equal it is in any way to be seen as a threat to other people.

We will need to educate people about what women’s rights are, and how when women exercise these, they become a very important part of society’s flourishing. We want women to be seen as assets, not as burdens anymore. This is critical because women represent half of the population, if not more, especially in the Muslim world. They are the glue that holds the family together. They are the glue that holds the community together, and ultimately a good woman produces a good child produces a good citizen produces a good future. So we want people to understand and recognize that women are central to the society flourishing.

They have always had a very high status in the eyes of the prophet. The Qur’an says that paradise lies at the feet of the mother, and what does that mean? Why does a mother have such a high status, and then people think that women are inferior? The two just don’t make sense—they’re not parallel. So we’re just remaking our case in such a way that it is accepted.

We did a test on several male scholars: we asked them to review this document and we were quite shocked at some of the responses we got. One of the imams said, “Not only do I agree with this entire thing, I’m also going to give a Friday sermon on this, and then I’m going to translate it into Urdu, and I’m going to have it sent to every madrassah so every young boy knows who women are and what their rights are.”

So people see this as a welcome sign, because some male scholars and male imams need our help to make our case for them.

The women’s jihad against violence—let’s talk about that. First the goals?

We first started with domestic violence because that was something that we wanted to rid our communities of, especially when it’s done in the name of our religion. We wanted to make sure that we let everybody know that there is no justification for domestic violence.

That verse [4:34] people cite that claims that men have ultimate authority in marriage—what do you say about that?

I think the general consensus in that verse is that the purpose of marriage is to create harmony in the home; not to create this kind of discord and pain and suffering. The prophet was known to be the walking Qur’an. When he had a family dispute, he never struck a woman; in fact he was very respectful to women. He always walked away. So number one, there is no prophetic precedent.

So again, that’s a point where scholarship is going to help.

And that is where great minds can come in and say, “What does this really mean?” and Laleh Bakhtiar, a Saudi scholar, has gone through the entire Qur’an in analysis and said that daraba has several meanings: yes, one of them is “beat,” but it has also been translated as “go away.” So that seems to be the more appropriate one.

When you present that to women, they say, “Of course. That’s what it should be.” And that’s what makes sense, and that’s what the prophet did. So why was this verse translated differently?

So you started with domestic violence, that’s an important issue…

It’s an important issue, but what is really pressing right now for the entire global community—and most importantly for the Muslim community, because Muslims are getting impacted by violence more than anybody else—is violent extremism. We believe that violence is creating great suffering and pain everywhere. It’s not only devastating individual lives, it’s crippling entire societies. It destroys property, it’s impoverishing nations because there’s no economic development, and it’s violating the essential dignity of all humans. What it does to the future is even more dangerous, because it develops and generates a lot of mistrust and intolerance which poison an entire generation. It mars the name and reputation of Islam. Islam gets linked to terrorism and violence as if the two are so integrally married, and that’s bad for Islam.

And also, finally, it’s un-Islamic.

It’s un-Islamic because you’re not supposed to take an innocent life; that’s it! So why has it become the norm? The norm should be peace. Violence—when it has to be done—there is a process, there is an entire theory on what is just war, and those are all rules that have to be followed. Killing innocents is not part of that.

On the other hand, what peace brings: Human development is taking place, people are getting educated, minds are expanding. You are creating relative tranquility in the home. It increases wealth and builds prosperity in the nation.

It heightens respect and appreciation of others; you’re not suspicious of your neighbor, you have respect and tolerance for others. For us it also affirms that Islam truly is a religion of peace.

This is why we juxtapose the two against one another. Violence is bringing nothing—there is nothing in it, it has no solutions. And look at what peace can bring! Let’s pledge that we will join the movement, to take a pledge, to ask everybody to join this jihad against violence, or jihad for peace.

There’s a feeling that women have a special role or special opportunity to have a positive impact by taking leadership.

Yes. We decided to start it with the individual first. Each woman will take a pledge herself. Then she will extend that pledge to her family. Then that pledge they will continue to their community. So we would like to start this movement in Ramadan of this year, when it’s fasting month, and there’s also an international day of peace where we will ask people to create small gatherings where they can extend this pledge.

It’s such a resonant word, jihad, for both Muslims and non-Muslims. The decision to choose that word—what do you think about that?

We chose that word because we felt the word has been hijacked by others. The word, “jihad” is something that Muslims use in their vernacular as a way of saying “this is my big struggle, or my big challenge in life,” but it has been completely hijacked by people: the word has been distorted, it has only been given one meaning, and so we wanted to reclaim the word for ourselves and give it the true meaning, which is that it’s going to be a big struggle to even push away violence from our communities and to usher in an era of peace. We felt that a strong word like that would be important.

A question that might be a little trivial, but comes up in any discussion of modern Muslim women is the issue concerning dress, freedom of dress both ways. Is it something that comes up within your movement? Do you think it’s even something that needs to be talked about?

People have gone beyond the issue of dress, because there are more pressing issues; there are some women who are struggling to survive. We have to focus on big issues that really impact us all. We have to once and for all improve the status of Muslim women, how they are seen and how they are treated around the world.

There is a radical internal debate going on in the Muslim community that is not being recognized by anybody out there. It’s not even about projecting ourselves any more. It’s about who we are, and how we define ourselves as a global community. Where are we falling short? Where do we need to improve? We women, who are usually very secure in our faith; we are more nurturing, we are open to collaborating, we are prepared to have this discussion. We are not afraid to have this discussion. And we think it’s critical to have this discussion.

One thing that occurs to me is that a huge percentage of people in the world are Muslim; at least half are women. If all of those women’s lives can be improved, and if they can speak as a voice for peace, then that will also have a positive impact on the rest of the world.

It’s important that women begin to talk of peace and to resist collectively, because if we can bring together an ambiance where we talk to one another, we create a buzz for ushering in an era of peace. Islam actually means peace; so why shouldn’t we work toward peace?