THE TWO INTERTWINED THEMES this film explores, of women’s place in the mosque in Morgantown (and implicitly of course of women’s place in Islam) and of Asra Nomani’s activism, raise a host of interesting and important questions.
Ostensibly, of course, the principle issues the film raises relate to the topic of “Islam and feminism.” In fact, though, the most interesting and important issues it invites us to reflect on I believe are those regarding the conditions in which we ourselves all live today in America, whatever our faith or no-faith, and the norms and assumptions that surround our lives.
It is these particular conditions, conditions deeply marked by the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath, that form the foundational context of the story which this film narrates, and it is these conditions, along with the story the film recounts, that are most worthy of reflection.
As Nomani tells us in her book (as well as in the film) her work as a committed Muslim and feminist began in 2002 when, in the wake of the murder of her friend Daniel Pearl in January 2002, and feeling “very much at odds with my religion” she set out to “sort out” its “contradictions” as regards its apparent endorsement of violence and its tolerance and indeed even endorsement, as Nomani believed, of grave injustices towards women.
IN THE LAST MONTHS OF 2001 the issue of the plight of women in Islam and Islam’s appalling “oppression” of women — along with Islam’s apparent proclivity for violence — were subjects that were on the minds of many in America. For a good many months as we went to war with Afghanistan the subject of women in Islam was a topic repeatedly featured in the media. Films and documentaries showing the sufferings of Afghan women under the Taliban were played and replayed on television. Our war against the Taliban was often portrayed as a war that was in part being fought for the cause of liberating Muslim women from the Taliban and their abusive treatment of women, treatment meted out in the name of Islam.
For many Muslims across the world today, in this era when women in many Muslim-majority countries have had the right to vote for nearly half a century or more (longer in some places such as Turkey, where women got the vote only a few years after American women got it) the Taliban’s claim that the crimes they were perpetrating represented correct Islam was not only ludicrous but also offensive. Here in America, however, where the majority of people are naturally unfamiliar with the broad history of Islam and women, the recurring media stories of Taliban oppression of women for the most part simply confirmed earlier notions — notions inherited from old imperial Europe — about Islam’s particularly appalling treatment of women.
Throughout those first months of war, images of women throwing off their burkas as American troops liberated their towns from the Taliban became emblematic in the media of American victories and of our liberation of Afghan women. Saving women from the Taliban and from “Islamic” oppression gave many people a sense of the deeply ethical groundings of this war. The theme of liberating the women of Islam through our wars continued to figure into the media coverage even of the Iraq war, despite the fact that Iraqi women — although indeed suffering under Saddam Husain’s regime along with Iraqi men — had been for decades now among the most highly educated, liberated and professionally active women in the Middle East.
SUCH WAS THE CONTEXT and this was the time, as images of women’s “oppression” in Islam were inundating our society, that Nomani committed herself to the work of struggling to reform her faith and her local mosque. Within just a couple of years of Nomani publishing her story a slew of other books appeared whose central themes similarly confirmed, even more forcefully than Nomani, the widespread belief in America of Islam’s particularly appalling “oppression” of women. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi appeared in 2003 as did also Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam, and Ayan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin appeared in 2006. All offered a starkly bleak view of Islam and women, and all became instant best-sellers: perhaps in part because they helped assuage people’s uneasiness with the wars that we Americans were now so deeply enmeshed in and seemed implicitly to offer confirmation that these wars were indeed necessary and fought for a good cause.
Such was the environment in which Nomani and other American Muslims found themselves. For the young in particular, coming of age in a time when the daily news consistently cast so dark a light on key aspects of their religious heritage and identity could not have been easy. For many in Nomani’s cohort of young professionals, these surrounding conditions caused tremendous angst and sparked intense debate and discussion as well as a variety of creative responses. It was in these times for example that, in addition to the publication of the books I already mentioned, the Web site Muslim Wake Up! was launched, dedicated to providing a venue for the younger generation of American Muslims to freely air their concerns and grievances and to critique Islam however they saw fit. A young filmmaker, Zarqa Nawaz, made a film in 2005 called Me and the Mosque (2005) exploring much the same issues as Nomani explored of women’s marginalization in mosques. Similarly intent on changing the status quo, Nawaz used a line of gentle persuasion in pursuit of her goal, in contrast to Nomani’s forthrightly critical and confrontational approach. There are many ways of pursuing women’s rights.
These are just some of the underlying factors shaping the nature of the discussion of women in Islam that has been underway in our society through the last few years. This film, too, of course, as well as Nomani’s activism, are themselves shaped by and part of this broader discussion. It is important, as we view the film and turn over in our minds the people and situations it presents us with, that we are aware of this larger web of events and meanings that critically affect the ways in which the subject of women and Islam is being discussed in America today. Included naturally in this wider web of shaping events are inevitably the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath and our ongoing wars in Muslim-majority countries.
And finally, yes, of course Nomani’s activism — and generally the way in which the subject of women and Islam figures today in the American public and media conversation — marks another and quite new chapter in the already long and evolving story of Muslim women and feminism, just as it is part too of the long and evolving story of American feminism.
In terms of Muslim feminism, Nomani is heir to a long history of activists and writers going back to Halide Edib Adivar of Turkey and Huda Sharawi of Egypt, who worked for women’s rights in the early 20th century. The pursuit of rights for women among Muslims, men as well as women, goes back to the late 19th century. Thus the history of feminism among Muslims does not stretch quite as far back as American feminism, which emerged about half a century earlier. Still, Muslim feminism too by now has a long and venerable as well as a richly varied history, a history well worth exploring.
In relation to American feminism, Nomani’s work is most reminiscent perhaps of Mary Daly in her struggles with the Catholic Church in the 1960s and Judith Plaskow’s feminist work in relation Judaism in the 70s and 80s. At the same time, the fact that Islamic “oppression” of women has been such a prominent theme in the public discourse of our wars in Muslim majority countries, as well as the fact that Muslims in America in these years have been a minority distinctly under a cloud, makes Nomani’s often clearly media-conscious activism very different from theirs. Such factors will be part in the end of how people will view and analyze Nomani’s work and they do impart a certain ambiguity to it compared to her predecessors. For instance, Nomani tells us that her goal is to make equal space for women in the mosque and generally to reclaim Islam for women, goals with which I am naturally deeply sympathetic, and yet watching the film and the interactions and language we are presented with, I found myself uncertain by the end as to what exactly her objectives were.
One final thought. Among the most interesting figures in the film, although they appear only briefly, are Nomani’s parents. Growing up in India, and both now devout Muslims albeit in very different ways, they were raised within the ethos of the old-world Islam of their era, arriving and settling in America as young adults. As Nomani’s book details, they unhesitatingly welcomed home their daughter, unmarried and pregnant, and have in every possible way ever since stood by her and supported her and her son. This little vignette alone invites reflection as to the varieties of ways in which devout Muslims can practice their faith and understand their ethical responsibilities.
Leila Ahmed holds the Victor S. Thomas chair at the Divinity School, Harvard University. Appointed the first professor of women studies in religion at the Divinity School, she is the author of several books including Women and Gender in Islam. She is currently completing her book The Quiet Revolution exploring themes in women and Islam in America in our time and following out international connections.
The Global Islamic Feminist Movement
by Yvonne Haddad
The liberation of Muslim women has for several centuries been on the agenda of Western governments and Christian missionaries. It has been utilized as justification for military campaigns ranging from the nineteenth century Barbary Wars in North Africa to the recent war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. This Western agenda has produced a backlash unleashed by traditionalists and Islamists against Muslim women engaged in liberalizing traditions and customs pertaining to gender relations in Muslim societies. They are accused of being complicit in Western efforts to undermine Islam. Meanwhile, advocacy for women’s rights is increasingly being built into Islam itself, as evidenced by a growing international feminist movement spiritually and intellectually rooted in the faith.
The liberalization of laws governing women’s lives in the Muslim world has been the project of a select group of both Muslim men and women for over a century. Their efforts have increased opportunities in education and employment for women. They have brought about changes in legislation regarding personal status laws that affect the lives of Muslim women in such areas as divorce, polygamy and the legal age for marriage. The greatest changes have been implemented in the two secularist states of Turkey and Tunisia. Their crowning achievement is the election of several Muslim women as head of state: Tansu Ciller in Turkey, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Khalida Zia and Shaikh Hasina in Bangladesh and Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia.
Islamic feminism is the latest phase in the struggle for women’s liberation in the Muslim world. While some have dismissed the term as an oxymoron, it has become the identity of choice for some Muslim scholars and activists both in the United States and overseas. It was coined in the 1990s, in the milieu of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, whose slogan was “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.” The conference challenged traditionalists and Islamists who saw a necessity to defend Islamic societies against what they perceived as the renewed Western agenda to undermine Islamic societies after the collapse of the Soviet Empire by promoting such “abominations” as premarital sex, abortion and the gay lifestyle.
Islamic feminism has been applied to the work of a group of scholars in the American academy who seek to address the role of women from within the heritage of Islam. They include Amina Wadud, Riffat Hasan, Amira Sonbol, Asma Barlas and Nimat Hafez Barzangi. They also include the first woman to translate the Qur’an into English, Laleh Bakhtiar. Their efforts fall in contrast to the activism and advocacy of other Muslim women who seek change through recourse to secular ideas as well as those who attack the faith as misogynist at its core. Asra Nomani and Irshad Manji are seen by some as representatives of the former category, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan as examples of the latter. Instead, the Islamic feminists have sought to reconcile the religion with feminism. They do not question the validity of the Qur’anic text as eternally valid guidance for all humanity, but have reservations about the patriarchal interpretations characteristic of traditional societies.
Their discourse requires a re-examination of the Qur’anic text, which had been the private domain of male scholars. They have scoured the narratives of the life of the Prophet Muhammad for parallels to be promoted as models of liberation. They have challenged Islamic jurisprudence derived from patriarchal readings of the Qur’an, examining legal precedents and court decisions in order to reconstruct history. Some have focused on reinterpreting Qur’anic verses used by traditional scholars to formulate laws that discriminate against women, especially in a marriage context. Their revised interpretations affirm the grounding of women’s rights in the immutable Qur’an, rendering it a divine mandate for humanity, impervious to misogynist attacks. They have dubbed their efforts a “gender jihad.”
These efforts have resulted in the emergence of an attractive feminist lifestyle that is both modern and Islamically validated. It is an alternative to a secular liberal feminism criticized as succumbing to the changing whims and values of a West that has declared war on Islamic cultural values — and an alternative to the constraining dogmatic adherence of Muslims to traditionalism. These feminists believe that Islam as a dynamic and inherently flexible faith calls its believers to reinterpret its teachings to address changing times. They affirm that the Qur’an is the pioneering text; unlike other scriptures it promotes women’s rights. They resolutely refute all allegations that its text defines an Islamic society that favors a patriarchal system privileging men over women.
In the process they have developed a Qur’anically grounded platform of liberation based on a select number of verses. They affirm that the Qur’an clearly states that man and woman were created from one soul. Thus the Qur’an does not sanction the submission of one gender to the other. Others have grounded their feminism in the core teaching of the Qur’an about divine justice and compassion that are the essential characteristics of God and thus incumbent on human beings. God’s justice would not tolerate unjust (and unequal) treatment of women. For others, equality is the essential core of the Islamic faith; it is the essence of tawhid, the oneness of God and the oneness of the umma, the worldwide community of Muslims. Still others ground the equality in the concept of khilafa, God’s commission to humans — both male and female — to be his agents on earth, to nurture creation, to construct a civilization and to bring forth a just society.
While the scholars are producing theological and exegetical reflections on various verses of the Qur’an in order to bolster their claims, globalization and the revolution in communications has made it possible to create activist Islamic feminist networks that collaborate on various projects. These include national organizations such as Sisters in Islam (SIS) in Malaysia and BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights in Nigeria, both of which came into existence in response to the re-Islamization policies of the 1990s that increased segregation in society. Their goal is to provide counterarguments to impede policies that could roll back liberalized legislation that benefited women.
Globalization has also fostered transnational organizations. Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) has focused its energies on the project of reforming the laws of Muslim states in order to make them accord with the “spirit of the Qur’an.” In a London conference they sponsored in 2002 on “Warning Signs of Fundamentalisms,” they discussed the growing tide of religious fundamentalism among Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims that were eroding the rights and freedoms of women. They were alarmed that “the Vatican, Syria and Iran have voted consistently on the same side of international forums. They noted that collaboration with other individuals and organizations who share their concerns, whether religious or secular, has proven helpful to their cause. They count among their recent achievements the promulgation of the Moroccan Civil Code, the new draft of the Family Code in Indonesia, and the divorce laws in Egypt.
Several International Islamic Feminist Conferences organized by the Junta Islamica Catalana of Barcelona have brought the various groups together. During their first meeting, participants reaffirmed a Muslim woman’s right to freely access the mosque. These conferences bring together various theoreticians and activists to reflect and strategize; they also energize and spur them on to work to restore what they believe to be the original intent of the message of Islam.
In the post-9/11 environment, ordinary Muslim women have found themselves propelled into the limelight as the representatives of Islam. A growing number of professional women began wearing the hijab (headscarf) and attending mosque functions. Some mosques organized study groups to reflect on Islam in the modern world and how it can be presented to fellow Americans. Several Islamic organizations issued guidelines to their constituents to engage women in their activities. See for example the Islamic Society of North America’s “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers: Working Together to Reclaim Our Heritage.” This increased engagement on the grassroots level has built on the advances of the Islamic feminist movement and undoubtedly will inspire further work in years to come.
Yvonne Haddad, Ph.D., is Professor of the History of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Professor Haddad’s fields of expertise include twentieth-century Islam; intellectual, social and political history in the Arab world; and Islam in North America and the West. She is the co-author of Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today.
Tags: Amina Wadud, Amira Sonbol, Asma Barlas, Asra Nomani, Ayan Hirsi Ali, gender and Islam, Interpreting the Quran, Irshad Manji, Islamic Society of North America, Laleh Bakhtiar, Nimat Hafez Barzangi, Riffat Hasan, Wafa Sultan