A ‘knowledge project’ searching for the egalitarian ethos in the Qur’an began as a questioning of the dogma of male supremacy in the Malaysian organization, ‘Sisters in Islam’ back in 1988. Zainah Anwar was one of originally eight women in that organization, and today she is the Head of a unique organization with global reach, called Musawah, ‘egality’ in Arabic.

Zainah Anwar is visiting KVINFO on what she finds is an extremely cold November day, coming directly from Musawah’s new seat in Rabat, Morocco.

“I was brought up in a patriarchal family in Malaysia but religion was never used to justify male supremacy. I never accepted it, I always questioned it. My mother would say it was culture. I always understood it was culture, not religion. To this day I can’t believe the abuse, I am outraged, I believe that God and Islam is just  and that Islam is about being good, respectful, kind. All this politics did not exist in my religious education.“

“Musawah - global Movement for equality and justice in the Muslim Family” is the full name of the organization running ‘a knowledge project’ in order to restore the egalitarian message of the Qur’an, enabling women to confront misogynous laws and restrictions in Muslim communities.

For Zainah Anwar this quest is also a personal one. Being herself brought up in a religious family, she went to Qur’an school in her childhood. Only when she was a grown woman was she confronted with discriminatory assertions that husbands have the right to beat their wives, to be their guardians and to have four wives. In 1988, she asked, along with seven other women in Malaysia: Where does all this come from? Is it really from the religion? For this reason they started to read the Qur’an, or for most of them to re-read it, now with a new motivation to understand.

Sisters in Islam

This group of eight women in Malaysia called themselves ‘Sisters in Islam’. Three of them, like Zainah herself, were journalists and probably for this reason they from an early point decided that their strategy would be to disperse their finding to the media. Two times a fatwa has been launched against ‘Sisters in Islam’ asserting them ‘deviant’ from the religion. 

About Muslim Feminism

Islamic feminism denotes a wave within the women’s movement in the Muslim world, which makes the case for women’s rights within the framework of the Qur’an and Islamic traditions.

KVINFO has no direct partnership with Musawah, but has previously supported a conference and a book about Muslim feminism, and cooperation with Muslim feminists is a part of several of KVINFO's projects. 

 

The quote from the Qur'an is taken from the English translation in Musawah's publication ”Men in Charge?”

Each time the response from Sisters in Islam has been to hold a press conference and create as much publicity and debate as possible. In Malaysia there is an Islamic court and in a parallel system a constitutional court. The latter has in both cases decided in favor of Sisters in Islam’s freedom of speech. Then why in the first place use religious arguments for gender equality?

“Islam has not gone away; it continues to affect our lives. It is important to intervene and ask: What is Islam? Whose Islam? We in ‘Sisters in Islam’ found that with radical Islam and the way Islam is used in public to legitimate unjust laws, we really had no choice. We had to use religion to confront discrimination against women. Reading the Quran again as adult was amazing. We asked ourselves, why are all the verses in the Qur’an which talk about egality not the source of laws regulating the man-woman relationship. How did this dominion marriage become the law in Islam?”

For believing Muslims the Qur’an is the highest authority in any dispute about what is Islamic or halal, allowed and in correspondence with Islamic values. As a central part of Musawah’s knowledge project, an edited book, “Men in Charge?” was published earlier this year. In their contributions in the book Muslim and non-Muslim scholars deconstruct and discuss two core concepts of Muslim family laws - quiwamah and wilaya.

The book is the result of several seminars where fundamental terms and understandings of Muslim family laws have been debated by scholars and activists. In family laws, although highly diverse across the Muslim world, quiwamah refers to men’s authority over their wives. Wilaya instead refers to male duty and obligation to act as guardians for related women including wives. In the Qur’an, however, only one of these terms actually exists, wilaya. Neither of them actually refers to the regulation of men –women relationships. Still those very terms have been established as having specific meanings which have paved the way for male supremacy in Muslim communities.

Breaking the knowledge monopoly

Since its inauguration in 2005 Musawah has been hosted by ‘Sisters in Islam’, but as part of a strategy to remain a truly global movement, Musawah was recently moved to another continent, to Morocco. The organization aims to be truly global in the sense that its message and activities have outreach to Muslim women on all continents in the world:

“Even in Morocco, we do not work at national level and we do not issue statements. We see ourselves as a movement that provide knowledge that enable local groups to advance. They do not quote us. They quote the scholarship, the knowledge and courage to engage in the public space. It is important to break the knowledge monopoly. Not only religious authorities know about Islam”

One particular verse in the Qur’an, verse 4.34, is generally accepted as the verse which confirms male authority in Islam. This verse reads: Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more [strength] than the other…” – and continues to establish that righteous women are obedient and if not they may be beaten lightly. Musawah does not accept that this verse supersedes several other verses in the Qu’ran which instead refer to the relationship between women and men as an egalitarian one:

“We are convinced by the many other verses and principles in the Qur’an that talk about women and men being friends, compassion. They are values that exist and that can push for equality for women. So why not use these principles to frame the marriage contract? Why should that single verse be the sole source?”

How to impact women's lives

Confronting the general understandings of the religion is in itself a huge task. It may be another and much more difficult step to actually make new understanding impact on the lives women live today? Zainah Anwar:

“The next and difficult step is to reconstruct and understand the new realities of family life in context of justice. Here the jurisprudence still underpinning Muslim societies and justifying male authority must be confronted. Theory alone is never enough. At a theoretical level, many progressive interpretations that can push for change and for reform to take place can be found. Those in power are of course not interested in them. Therefore it is important to engage with theory. Appealing to justice is not enough. In most countries there are constitutions stating that citizens are equal. This has definitely proven not enough, and neither are human rights enough alone. We need to take multiple paths and approaches to confront discrimination and injustice. For reform to take place, the knowledge and conviction are both important elements”

Musawah is hosting a course for 25 Middle Eastern participants, “Islam & Gender equality and Justice” in late 2015 in Morocco. Just like previous courses hosted by Musawah, the course will be addressing ‘the knowledge gap’ on Islam and the rights of women. Most Muslim women, not trained in Islam tend to have this knowledge gap. Musawah’s strategy of knowledge building is to enable Muslim women to present a counter image of women’s rights in Islam on the basis of which to speak up about justice for women in their own societies.

“The training is for participants who have often turned their back on Islam. However, when Islam is still a part of your identity, you are not comfortable with what you see. In our training we have cutting-edge resource scholars such as Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Wadud Amin who are able to demonstrate how gender-biased laws are constructed. Many gender activists know the human rights agenda and feminist perspectives but they don’t know Islam, so it is a life-changing training for them”

The need for re-interpretation of core concepts relevant for Muslim family laws in Muslim majority countries is a difficult a task. The presentation of this re-interpretation as relevant for Muslim women who are protected by the civil laws in European or US societies may be even more difficult?

“We are here in Denmark to find partners. Local groups implement the programme, not us. I have often noticed how strikingly similar the kind of discrimination that Muslim women face in the US and European environment. In Britain we went on trips around the country and we found a very similar discrimination. In fact Muslims in Muslim majority countries tend to be far more progressive, where in Europe, for instance, they identify more rigidly with their Muslim identity. So we find that Musawah’s work is very useful in a place like Britain – and in the US and Canada, all these places. Muslim women need the training, but for women in those richer countries it is difficult to find funding for it. Musawah’s knowledge project is funded by the Ford Foundation, UN Women and OXFAM, but the local organizations have to raise their own funds, e.g. to get training.”

Which liaisons for feminists?

Feminism is certainly important to the work and understanding of Musawah but also for Sisters in Islam. As Zainah Anwar sees it, the organization is filling out a niche among women’s groups:

“Our strength is that we do not want to be like other women’s groups who already know about human rights and feminist principles, so why would we? There are other groups that already have the expertise, but they have left a gap that we fill out. We do not see ourselves moving into other areas, only as the issue relates to Islam.”

The polarization found in the Middle East between on the one hand secular and the other religious political wings, does not exist in Malaysia. Even though the Muslim creed forms one basis of ‘Sisters in Islam’, another is constituted by feminism. In fact ‘Sisters in Islam’ constitutes an active part of the feminist movement in Malaysia which has formed an umbrella organization.

“Approximately 10 women’s group work in an umbrella network on a range of issues – women and work; rape; harassment – and we try to find the Islamic perspective on these issues.

Danish-Arab Partnership Programme

KVINFO's programme in the Middle East and North Africa is financed by:

 

Nevertheless there are limits; Sisters in Islam do not liaise with anyone regardless of conviction. Thus Islamic activist women are not included in the umbrella organization:

“We think you have to believe in equality. But we do engage with Islamic women. You cannot be blind to the change taking place in from of your eyes – Islamic women and youth becoming more open-minded and willing to discuss. Some of their activities are more open. We also engage with students of Islamic universities. When a fatwa was issued against Sisters in Islam, four members of parliament from Islamic parties fully supported our case.”