RELGION: The rise of Islamist feminism
Saad S. Khan

May 27, 2005

Friday, the 18th of March, 2005, shall be remembered as a watershed in the Islamic discourse on the role of woman in religious life, as the first-ever Friday congregation was led by a Muslim woman scholar that day.

The woman prayer leader, Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University, was considered a heretic by many, as she challenged the halo of sanctity around the male-centric, and in some cases, misogynic constructions of Muslim religious teachings.

Right or wrong, Wadud went ahead with leading a Friday congregation of around 100 faithful, evenly divided into men and women, in Manhattan, New York. The venue of the prayers had been changed over and over again, as three mosques refused to host the event and the administration of an art gallery backed out for fear of a bomb blast.

Wadud did not budge and finally the congregation was held in an Anglican church hall, under heavy security. Some 15 demonstrators protested outside, calling the congregation a mockery of Islam.

There are many issues of jurisprudence involved in this issue: Can a woman lead the men in prayers? Can she deliver a sermon? Can she recite the azan (prayer call), and if so, can she do it without wearing the hijab (Muslim headscarf), as was the case in this event? Can men and women pray together, intermingled, instead of standing in separate rows?

Wadud`s answer to all these questions is a clear affirmative. And the presence of scores of Muslims standing behind her in Manhattan alone shows that there is a significant minority opinion among Muslims in the West who share her understanding of the Koran.

As expected, swift was the criticism from a vast cross-section of the Muslim world. From the president of Libya to the shopkeeper in England, voices were raised in blasting the event. Many religious scholars also joined the chorus of disapproval. The Islamic Fiqh (jurisprudence) Academy, or the IFA, an affiliate of the Jeddah-based Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), came out of its slumber and strongly condemned the congregation as `religious heresy`.

Many Islamic scholars have opined that special mosques for women can be built in which only women can lead prayers provided the azan is recited by a male Muslim. Others, such as prominent Pakistani cleric Israr Ahmad, believe that at an all-women mosque, there should be a woman muezzin.

Sheikh Mohammed Al Tantawi of Al Azhar, the Islamic world`s leading institution of religious study in Egypt, wrote in Cairo`s Al Ahram newspaper that Islam permits women to lead other women in prayers, but not a congregation with men in it, because `when she leads men in prayer ... it`s not proper for them to look at the woman whose body is in front of them`.

It appears that for Sheikh Tantawi the issue is more of men being able to look at a woman`s body than woman being religiously or spiritually incompetent to be a prayer leader.

Wadud bases her case on traditions from the Prophet Mohammed. `The issue of gender equality is a very important one in Islam and Muslims have unfortunately used highly restrictive interpretations of history to move backward,` Wadud said before the service started. `With this prayer service we are moving forward. This single act is symbolic of the possibilities within Islam.`

Asra Nomani, author of a widely-selling book on women in Islam, Standing Alone in Mecca, is another Muslim woman who is working to improve what she believes are women`s rights in Islam. She began by trying to break a gender barrier by filing a discrimination complaint against the mosque founded by her father 23 years ago for asking women to enter by a side door.

Last year Nomani, 39, her mother and niece entered the mosque through the front door and began praying in the main room. Some men then broke off the service and tried to convince them to leave. She not only complained to the police but also involved the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She was then notified by e-mail that the mosque`s executive committee has received a petition signed by 35 of 135 fellow members seeking her expulsion. She refused to accept expulsion.

Nomani, who is an Asian-American of Indian descent, is also a single mother. Although Islamic cultural and legal paradigms rate chastity very highly, for Asra Nomani, being a single mother is not something to conceal.

When Nomani traveled to Mecca she developed a strong antipathy to the Wahhabi school of thought. She claims that when she studied Islam, she found that the Prophet was the first feminist in Islam. She says that her love for the Koran and for the prophet grew as she learned more of the rights that Islam accorded to women 1,400 years ago.

Another outspoken Muslim feminist happens to be a proclaimed lesbian. Canada`s Irshad Manji, also of South Asian decent, and the author of The Trouble with Islam, sees no contradiction in being a practicing Muslim and an overt homosexual at the same time. She is also a supporter of Israel.

Feminism in Islam is not an altogether new phenomenon. Tahira Qurat-ul-Ain of Iran, Fatima Aalia Hanim of Turkey and Zainab Al Fawwaz and Aisha Taimuria of Egypt all rose to prominence in the late nineteenth century.

The twentieth century saw the rise of Zainab Al Ghazali Al Jubaili of Egypt, the only female scholar in history who has written a tafseer (exegesis) of the holy Koran and Nazira Zain Al Abideen of Lebanon. But not all twentieth-century Muslim feminists invoked Islam. Actually, the views of such female writers as Tasleema Nasreen of Bangladesh, Nawal Saadawi of Egypt and Fatimah Mernissi of Morocco have often been so outrageous toward Islam that religious edicts have been issued calling for their deaths.

It is also a fact that most contemporary Muslim scholars who espoused traditional conservative views about women, such as Hassan Al Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Maulana Muwdoudi, Hassan Al Turabi, Imam Khomeini and Rachid Ghannouchi, were either Western-educated or had close exposure to Western societies. They considered Western society too permissive and decadent and felt that the future stability of Islamic societies depended largely on the preservation of Islam`s traditional views on marriage, home and family.

Many Muslim feminists in the West now claim - with Nomani and Manji being exceptions - that they are not against traditional family views, but want to oppose patriarchal notions of shame and honor that have nothing to do with Islam. They also register their protests against forced marriages, restrictions on education and careers and female genital mutilation (FMG), as practiced in many Muslim communities. There are also women who argue that the veil is not necessarily a means to protect women, being instead a cause of sexual excitement for male eyes.

Muslim feminists can no longer be written away as morally corrupt women who have no knowledge of Islam. This had been the modus operandi of some Muslim scholars to discredit women rights activists within the Islamist framework. This approach can hardly be expected to work any longer. After all, many of the women are making their case on the basis of arguments from the Koran and Sunnah.

`If the Koran is fully comprehended,` Wadud writes in her book Women and Koran, `it will become a motivating force for women`s empowerment`.

One needs to recognize and underline the importance of rational and freethinking in Islam. No single school of thought in the wide spectrum of opinions about the status of women in Islam may be entirely correct. A gender-neutral and gender-sensitive understanding of the text is, therefore, called for.

Muslim women in Europe are ethnically, culturally and ideologically diverse and complex groups, and so are the feminists among them. This is a time when we must put our heads together and find solutions through dialogue and, as the Koran stipulates: `argue with them in a way that is nice`, that is, debate with people who see things differently.

Islamic feminism is now a reality, as is feminism in other religions, Christianity included, where the ordainment of female clerics has taken place in the recent past. The late Pope John Paul II was staunchly opposed to the ordainment of women priests as is the present Pope Benedict the XVIth. But the fact is that the women worldwide are now questioning the status that had been accorded to them by religion and culture throughout history.

Saad S. Khan is an Oxford-published author and a widely read analyst on Islam, politics and governance in the Muslim world.