Quiet revolutionaries: women’s rights and Islam

A few miles outside the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur, tucked away in a quiet suburb, sits a grand detached house cloaked in shrubs and plants. The house is out of place on the quiet residential street, its prettiness framed by grim iron gates and CCTV cameras. But the ramped up security is a necessary precaution against regular death threats for the Muslim activists using the house as an office.

Behind their iron-gated office, Sisters in Islam (SiS) work to promote equal rights for women based on Islam’s fundamental principles of equality, justice and freedom. While in Europe we obsess over what Muslim women wear, in some Muslim majority countries, these women are quietly building on a long tradition of feminist thinking within Islam.

SiS’s biggest battle is against the discrimination of Muslim women in Malaysia (where 60% of the population are Muslim) under the country’s dual legal system. While non-Muslim women are legally protected against discrimination as set out in the federal constitution, Muslim women are subject to Syariah law.

Though their work often attracts anti-SiS fatwas, death threats in Friday sermons and police reports accusing them of crimes against Islam, Norani Othman, one of the founding members of SiS, remains unfazed. “We got hate mail in the eighties and nineties…saying we would be punished in the next world,” she says. “At least for the moment they are threatening us with punishment in the next life, not this one.”

A lively, tireless woman, Norani has spent her life as a sociologist and academic steeped in the study of Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and is defiantly confident that there is such a thing as women’s rights within the framework of Islam. She scornfully refers to these “stupid men” who know very little about Islam, yet use it to stymie women’s progress.

“One the early things I wrote that shocked,” she says, “was that the Prophet Muhammad could be regarded as one of the early feminists. He promoted the rights of women to inherit and to participate in the contract of marriage.”

SiS began in 1987 as a weekly informal gathering of professional Malaysian women, airing their grievances about the growing injustices meted out to women in the name of Islam. They were especially angry about the patriarchal attitudes prevalent in Malaysia’s Syariah courts. Sisters in Islam was officially launched soon after with two controversial pamphlets entitled ‘Are men & women equal before Allah?’ and ‘Does Islam allow men to beat their wives?’

At this time, Malaysia had begun to veer from its liberal approach to Islam – the country’s Islamic family law was once considered one of the most progressive in the world – and to follow the path of other Muslim-majority countries towards conservatism. Soon the government of Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad began to pander to conservative agenda; changes to family law particularly affected women’s rights. One of SiS’s early victories was the campaign against the exclusion of Muslim women from the protection of the Domestic Violence Act (itself hard fought for).

But nearly 20 years later, Malaysian Muslim women still do not enjoy the same rights as men or their non-Muslim sisters. If a Muslim woman wants to get a divorce, she must seek approval from the Islamic courts, whereas her husband has the right to simply say ‘I divorce you’ and that’s that. “It is quite burdensome for the wife,” says Rozana Isa, a young SiS activist. “In cases of domestic violence the onus is on the woman to prove that she has been beaten up and show that a police report has been filed.” It took one woman seven years to get the courts to approve her divorce.

The problem is the disproportionate power given to religious authorities, argues Norani. And the reason for such practices in a country considered “moderate” is poor religious education; Children are forced to chant the verse of the Qur’an rather than engage in critical thinking, she says. “Many modern Muslims are ignorant of their religion. They have never been taught about the history and life story of the Prophet. They don’t have the basic cultural literacy of their own religion … [but] they accuse us of being western minded and anti-Islamic.”

Sisters in Islam are not alone. Across the world, Muslim women are increasingly taking up arms – or in this case the Qur’an – to revolutionise Islamic thought to turn the tide against conservative attitudes towards women. In each country, and even within countries, the experiences of Muslim women vary enormously, but academics have noted a trend of women becoming politicised through Islam, but in a way alien to the violent rhetoric of extremists that has gripped world attention since 9/11.

Musawah (meaning equality), a global network of activists from 47 countries, has been set up to promote “equality and justice in the Muslim family”. These activists exchange ideas and strategies to combat outdated attitudes. It makes our work a lot less lonely, says SiS activist Rozana.

Professor Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian American expert on women and Islam, described at a recent lecture, how she began to change her mind about the potentially regressive consequences of political Islam when researching her latest book. Spurred on by the fear that the spread of the Hijab in the west was a sign of the growing influence of a fundamentalism hostile to American values of democracy, equality and tolerance, she was surprised when her theory unravelled when interviewing young American Muslims.

“The ways in which both Islamist and American ideals, including American ideals of gender justice, seamlessly interweave in the lives of many of these younger generation is present in both sexes, but with regard to gender it is significantly more pronounced among women.

“For this had been the truly remarkable decade as regards women’s activism. Perhaps the post 9-11 atmosphere in the west, which led to intense scrutiny and criticism of Islam, including with regard to women, spurred Muslim Americans into this corrective activism.”

She adds: “This then was the final irony. It was they Muslims of Islamist heritage and not us, the seculars and the non-Islamist Muslims, who were now in the forefront of the struggle for equal rights including in relation to Islam and gender.”

Isobel Coleman, a fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, charts this struggle in her recent book ‘Paradise Beneath her feet – How Women are Transforming the Middle East’. The book documents Muslim women fighting for equality in the most conservative Muslim societies: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Like Sisters in Islam, they regard equality and justice for women as a central tenant of Islam.

But change is often slow to come. SiS has been forced to devote much of its time fighting court cases against politicians and other groups. They recently won an appeal against a government decision to ban their 2005 book ‘Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism.’  And an Islamic youth group has started legal action contesting their use of the word ‘Islam’ in their name. Norani Othman admits that there is still a lot of work to do. “I am sorry if I sound like an angry young woman even though I’m in my fifties,” she sighs. “I’m fed up and impatient. I have had to grapple with this for 25 years.”

This article first appeared on hackeryblog