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Can Muslim Women Be Feminists?

The Malaysian Muslim feminist Zainah Anwar

Rabat – The word “feminism” in Muslim countries often raises tensions. Many people believe that Muslim women cannot be both religious and feminist, claiming that the fundamentals of feminism are absolutely opposed to those of Islam.

According to prominent Malaysian Muslim feminist Zainah Anwar, nothing could be further from the truth. Morocco World News met with Anwar, who is also the executive director of Musawah, a Malaysia-based global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, in Rabat to discuss gender equality within Muslim communities.

What do you think about the idea that women cannot be both feminists and Muslims?

This is actually a common problem in many Muslim countries, where many people will tell you that you cannot be both, a Muslim and a feminist. Musawah is trail blazing in telling the world, and especially young Muslim women today that indeed they can be both – Muslim and feminist.

It is because so much of the discrimination against women today and the resistance to demands for law reform is justified in the name of Islam that led me and my friends to engage with the religion, to find if it truly is unjust to women. For Sisters in Islam (SIS) the organization that I co-founded some 30 years ago in Malaysia, polygamy was one of the first issues we had to deal with. As Muslim women, we were led to believe that Islam allows men to marry 4 wives. But we know how much unhappiness and injustice polygamy brings. It did not make sense to us that this could be what God, the Just, intended for women. We decided to go and read what the noble Quran is saying about polygamy. And for the first time we realized that the same verse that allows men to marry four, states clearly that “if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many wives) then marry only one.”

Thus, how come marrying two, three or four women is universally acknowledged as a man’s right, while the command to marry only one wife if the man is not able to be fair, is not? Who decided that marrying two, three, or four is the law of Islam, while marrying only one is not? I think the real issue is the question of who has the right to decide which verse should become a source of law and practice and which one should be pushed aside and ignored. In this process, whose interest is promoted and protected, and whose denied?

Obviously, it is men who are in power and in authority who choose polygamy over justice and kindness, who use their own interpretation of the Quran to justify their desire for multiple sexual partners. This led us to think about the issue of authority. Who has the right to interpret the Quran?  Who has the right to choose which interpretation will be used to govern our lives. 

Do you think that women’s voices are heard regarding this issue?

In every democratic Muslim country where Islam is used as a source of law and public policy, everyone has the right to speak out and to contribute to how Islam is understood and how it is used to regulate our lives. We all have the right to debate, to question, and to challenge whatever causes injustice in our lives, what more when it is Islam that is used to justify that injustice. This is one of Musawah’s main objectives: to come up with a rights-based understanding of Islam that is rooted in the principles of justice and equality and kindness, all universal principles entrenched in Islam. Anything that is done in the name of God must be just. Any interpretation that leads to injustice for me cannot be Islam.

Do you believe that Islam is a misunderstood religion?

Absolutely. On one side, we face Islamophobia, with non-Muslims saying Islam is a religion that promotes terrorism, violence and discrimination against women. On the other side, we have Muslims themselves who reinforce these stereotypes by proclaiming their unjust actions in the name of Islam. They loudly claim that women and men are not equal, and that men are always superior to women. In reality, some men are better than some women and some women are better than some men.Women are not genetically programmed to be inferior to men.

Can you explain your point?

The patriarchal misogynistic “Islam” that has been taught to us doesn’t match reality and does not make sense to women’s lives. There is a disconnect between the ideology, the law, and the reality of women’s lives. Women today are educated, they work, they are leaders, they are financially independent. And yet, we still hear on television, radio, and in mosques that women are inferior to men. This does not make sense. Muslim family laws still discriminate against women on the basis of this ideology. But the reality is that women today are also providers and protectors of their families. Families today need more than one income to survive. And yet the law does not recognise this reality and still assume that only the man is the provider and on that basis he is privileged and accorded rights women do not get. And when the men fail to provide and to protect, he does not lose any of his privileges.

What we are struggling for is not for women to take over from men and be the dominant person in a relationship. What we want is marriage as a partnership of equals.

What is your message to non-Muslim people who claim that Islam encourages domestic violence against women?

The challenge that we are facing is that many Muslim countries reinforce this patriarchal misogynistic understanding of Islam. I do not blame non-Muslims for having this misconception about us when we have leaders who oppose women’s efforts to criminalise domestic violence by saying this is against Islam. We need the Muslim world to take the lead in promoting gender justice, instead of being behind the rest of the world and then justifying it in the name of Islam. If we are true to our faith which granted women revolutionary rights that did not exist in the seventh century, we really today should be at the forefront of the women’s movement.

 What measures should be taken to diagnose these common misconceptions?

We need to bring to the foreground scholarship and activism that stand for the possibility and necessity of equality and justice for women in Islam.  In the Muslim world today, women are at the forefront of reform, pushing for a new understanding of Islam. This is exactly what Musawah is doing: producing new rights-based knowledge in Islam, and questioning the patriarchal assumptions that men are superior to women and have more rights, that they are our guardians and are entitled to our obedience. That they can beat their wives and get away with it. All these misogynistic ideas that we have been fed are now being challenged by scholars and activists in the Muslim world.

Do you believe that some Qur’anic verses are inferior to women in terms of inheritance?

There are a few verses in the Qur’an that are used to justify women’s inferior status. But there are differences in opinions and interpretations regarding any verse in the noble Quran, like what I have mentioned before regarding the issue of polygamy. In the end, it is about who has the power to decide and to interpret the verses. There are incredibly empowering verses in the Quran about justice and equality and compassion between men and women, that men are women are each other’s friend and protector. Why can’t these verses be the source of values to frame the relationship between men and women. Those interpretations used to justify discrimination against women are man-made decisions. So far it has privileged men because it was interpreted by men.

Do you think that women are on the move to challenge these issues?

Women’s lives today have changed. They are no longer passive recipients of knowledge. Women are now challenging these issues. They read the Qur’an for themselves, learn about the construction of knowledge in Islam to understand the legal tradition in order to fight misconceptions. It is sad that until today, so many positive principles and values in Islam are still being ignored, such as love and compassion (mawaddah wa rahmah), serenity (sakinah), dignity (karamah), consultation and mutual consent (tashawur wa taradi), justice, fairness, and equity (‘adl, qist, insaf), kindness (ihsan), and that which is commonly known to be right (ma‘ruf).

Why aren’t these principles used in law and practice? How can beating women be a principle of Islam? How can supporting child marriage be a principle of Islam? I totally find it outrageous that so much harm is caused in the name of Islam. 

How did you become interested in feminism?

I never understood why men are treated differently than women, just because they are men. That did not make sense to me. For instance, at home when we were children, my brother never had to do housework. And I have never understood why. I was taught by mother to cook, to make beds, and to clean the house, while my brother did not do any of that. I always protested that this was not fair. From young, I always   questioned whatever did not make sense to me. So when the discrimination against women is justified in the name of God, I felt compelled to question this as well. I grew up believing in a just God and a just Islam. Discrimination against women was culture and tradition. To say that it is Islamic is an affront to my belief in a just God.

What do you think of Morocco’s stance regarding women rights?

Morocco’s Mudawannah (personal status code or family code) is regarded in the Muslim world as a very progressive piece of legislation. The Moroccan family code was inspiring for Musawah as it grants both men and women equal rights in the family with both being responsible for the wellbeing of their family. If Morocco can reform the family law in such a way, why can’t other Muslim countries do it? Morocco’s Mudawannah is a milestone. The campaign and the framework used by women groups in Morocco to ground their arguments for equality between men and women in Islamic teachings, human rights principles, constitutional framework and the lived realities of today inspired Musawah’s Framework for Action.  

If you have to deliver a message to women around the world, what would be this message?

I always ask women to stand up and speak out because if we do not speak up and stand up to face the challenges confronting us, nobody else will do it for us. I also stress the importance of acquiring knowledge. It is knowledge that will give us the courage to stand our ground when we are attacked. For we will be attacked as going against Islam. But this is the 21st century. There can be no justice without equality in today’s world.  It’s as simple as that.

What are Musawah current and future projects?

We have just completed a knowledge building project on rethinking the concept of  men’s authority over women in Muslim legal tradition, with several publications to push for the possibility of reform towards equality and justice. We continue to  strengthen  women’s voices at the regional and international levels with our short course on Islam and Gender Equality and Justice (I-nGEJ). And we engage critically with the UN system to hold governments accountable to their treaty obligations, in particular on their commitments to CEDAW.

We are excited about our work and the hope it brings to many people, especially young women. We believe that we represent what it means to be Muslim in today’s world.  

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