Page last updated at 17:24 GMT, Monday, 27 October 2008

Fighting for Muslim women's rights

Some of the world's leading Islamic feminists have been gathered in Barcelona for the third International Congress on Islamic Feminism, to discuss the issues women face in the Muslim world.

Some of the women taking part in the conference explained the problems in their home countries, and where they hoped to make progress.

ASMA BARLAS, Author, Pakistan

Religions always come into cultures, they don't come into abstract and pure spaces. Islam came into a very patriarchal, tribal and misogynistic culture. One of the deepest damages to Islam has been its reduction to "Arabisation".

Pakistani women protest
Islam is influenced by the culture of the country it enters

I'm not going to say that the Arabs are particularly misogynistic in a way that nobody else is, but I do think there are very particular traits and attitudes towards women that have crept into Islam.

I have a friend who has been studying the interface between what he calls the Persian models and the Arabist models of Islam in the subcontinent and surprise, surprise: the Arabist models are misogynistic, authoritarian, unitarian and the Persian models are much more plural and tolerant.

This is a fight on two fronts - on the one hand we are struggling against the kinds of oppression dominant in Muslim patriarch societies and, on the other, Western perceptions of Islam as necessarily monolithic, and confusing the ideals of Islam with the reality of Muslim lives.

If we read the Koran as a totality rather than pulling out random verses or half a line, that opens all kinds of possibilities for sexual equality.

RAFIAH AL-TALEI, journalist, Oman

Oman is relatively liberal, women are free to choose what to wear, and can choose their jobs and education. And the law does not require us to wear any particular form of clothing. But there are strong social and cultural factors - coming from the fact that we are in Arabia - that limit women.

Sharia is fair, but it is the wrong interpretations that are the problem. Male judges often don't understand the principal goals of sharia

As a journalist, it has not been hard for me to work among men, but it has been hard for some of my colleagues whose families told them this was not "appropriate" work for them.

The biggest difficulties are the social and cultural factors, and some aspects of law. For example, women who marry a foreigner cannot pass on their nationality to their children, whereas men in that situation can.

Religion is not an issue in our struggle, although there are problems with family law about divorce and marriage status. Omani laws are based on sharia law. Sharia is fair, but it is the wrong interpretations that are the problem. Male judges often don't understand the principal goals of sharia. We feel the law is fair, but ends up being unfair for women because of how judges interpret it.

Cultural and social factors often get mixed up with religion. Educated women can be more empowered and separate the two, but many don't dare challenge the conventions.


NORANI OTHMAN, Scholar-activist, Malaysia
I don't think it is any more difficult to be an Islamic feminist than a non-Muslim, or secular feminist.
A Muslim woman in Malaysia in a textiles shop
Asian Muslim states have very different traditions to Middle Eastern countries

Feminists in general have to face up to political and cultural obstacles, to achieve our objectives of women's rights. Even Western feminists have had a similar history - having to engage with certain religious beliefs not conducive to gender equality.

Perhaps the only distinctive difference peculiar to Muslim feminists is that we are caught in the cross-currents of modernisation and a changing society, due to a modern economy on the one hand and the global resurgence of political Islam on the other.

Political Islam wants to impose a world view about the gender order that is not consistent with the realities and the lived experiences of Muslim men and women in contemporary society.

Our detractors would hurl empty accusations at us - calling us Western, secular or anti-Islamic

There is a difference between South East Asian Muslim countries and the ones in the Middle East - culturally we are less patriarchal, we can always respond to our detractors by pointing out we don't have the cultural practices that they do.

Our detractors would hurl empty accusations at us - calling us Western, secular or anti-Islamic.

Our arguments are rooted within Islam - we want renewal and transformation within the Islamic framework. They don't like that.

We have a holistic approach, seeking gender equality within the Islamic framework, supported by constitutional guarantees. We see that these are not inconsistent with the message of the Koran, particularly during its formative stages. We have to understand the history and cultural context and extract the principle that will be applicable in modern times.

SITI MUSDAH MULIA, Academic, Indonesia

In my experience, I find that it is very difficult to make Indonesian Muslim women aware that politics is their right.

In Indonesian society, politics is always conceived as cruel and dirty, so not many women want to get involved, they think it is just for men.

According to the [radicalist] Islamic understanding, women should be confined to the home, and the domestic sphere alone
We try to make women understand that politics is one of our duties and rights and they can become involved without losing their femininity.

Personally, I'm non-partisan, I'm not linked to one political party because, in Indonesia, the political parties often discriminate against women.

I struggle from outside the political sphere to make it women-friendly, to reform political parties and the political system.

One day, I hope to be involved more directly, if the system becomes more women-friendly. We have passed a law about affirmative action and achieving 30% female representation, but we won't see if it is implemented until after 2009 elections. We are waiting.

In Indonesia, some groups support us, but some radical groups oppose what we are trying to achieve. They accuse me, accuse feminist Muslims, of being infidels, of wanting to damage Islamic affairs.

According to their Islamic understanding, women should be confined to the home, and the domestic sphere alone.

AMINA WADUD, Academic, United States

There are many more conversations going on today between different interpretations of Islam. Some interpretations are very narrow, some are more broad, principled, ethically-based.

Unless we have sufficient knowledge about Islam, we cannot bring about reform of Islam. I am not talking about re-interpretation, I am talking more about gender-inclusive interpretation.

Turkish woman protesting for headscarf
Islam and feminism are not mutually exclusive

We have a lot of information about men's interpretations of Islam, and of what it means to be a woman in Islam. We don't have equal amounts of information about what women say it means to be a good woman in Islam.

Now it's time for men to be active listeners, and after listening, to be active participants in bringing about reform.

There is a tendency to say that it is Islam that prohibits women from driving a car, for example, when women drive cars all over the world except in one country. So then you know it is not Islam. Islam has much more flexibility, but patriarchy tends to have the same objective, and that is to limit our ability to understand ourselves as Muslims.

I have always defined myself as pro-faith and pro-feminism.

I do not wish to sacrifice my faith for anybody's conception of feminism, nor do I sacrifice the struggle and actions for full equality of women, Muslim and non-Muslim women, for any religion. Islamic feminism is not an either/or, you can be Muslim and feminist and strive for women's rights and not call yourself a feminist.

FATIMA KHAFAJI, Consultant, Egypt

In Egypt, Islamic feminism is a way for women activists to reach a large number of ordinary women in the villages and in urban low-income areas, using a framework of Islam. So there would be a reference to Islam when talking about women's rights. Experience has shown that that is an easy way to get women to accept what you're saying.

Not many women get information about women's rights easily, so you have to counter what has been fed to them, to both men and women, from the strict, conventional, religious people who have more access to women.

They have their own idea of women's rights in Islam - that is, patriarchal, still limiting opportunities for women. But women have been receiving this concept for ages, through the radio, TV, mosques, so the challenge is how to give them another view, of enlightened Islam, that talks about changing gender roles. It's not an easy job.

Sexual harassment is happening because men think the control of women's bodies is a matter for them

Historically, in Egypt in the feminist movement, there have been both Muslim and Christian women. It has never been a problem. Unfortunately nowadays, it has become a problem. Religious discrimination has been dividing people very much. We have to think carefully about how to supersede the differences.

With family law, we're aiming to change the philosophy of the law itself. Traditional family law puts women down. I can see this whole notion of "women do not have control over their bodies" in so many laws, in the penal code and family law. For example, sexual harassment is happening because men think the control of women's bodies is a matter for them. Even the decision whether to have children is the decision of men. This whole notion has to be changed in a dramatic way if we are really going to talk about women's rights in Egypt.

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