x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Guiding light for gender progress

There is an abundance of effort spent on educating the West about Islam, but not as much, it seems, on dispelling misconceptions about the religion among Muslims.

KUALA LUMPUR // There is an abundance of effort spent on educating the West about Islam, but not as much, it seems, on dispelling misconceptions about the religion among Muslims themselves. A women's initiative in Malaysia hopes to change that. The ambitious "shura council", to be announced today in Kuala Lumpur at the second conference of the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), aims to reinterpret the traditionally patriarchal take on the Quran, Sunnah and Shariah law, for Muslim communities all over the world.

"Shura is a tradition within Islam," said Daisy Khan, head of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, referring to the Arabic word for "consensus". "And our aim is to be a guiding light, representing not just scholars, but activists and historians and anthropologists and other grassroots. And we don't want to stick to scholarly work, but to distil it into language everyone can understand, and transform it into action."

Ms Khan said that although the programme was ambitious, it was rooted in tradition. "Sure, WISE is bold," she said. "But we consider our initiative to be authentic to the Islamic tradition. We are not in any way contradicting Islamic teachings here." The conference, Muslim Women: Building Institutions, Creating Change, has brought together 15 female Muslim academics and activists to serve on the council - people who know first-hand about the challenges women face in their communities. Attended by more than 200 female scholars, community leaders and activists, the conference also envisiages the establishment of a fund for grass-roots initiatives supporting Muslim women, and a web portal where Muslim women worldwide may go for help and advice on social and religious issues.

As an example of how the new council could help, Ms Khan mentioned the case of a Pakistani-American woman who needed to be reassured that Islam did not require forced marriages, and that she had a right to choose her own spouse. "She is now 35," Ms Khan said. "She ran away from her Pakistani family at age 18 because they wanted to force-marry her to a relative in Pakistan." The woman was born and raised in the US, a country, Ms Khan said, in which education about Islam is lacking.

"She found me somehow, and when I told her nothing in Islam allows forceable marriage, she was shocked," Ms Khan said. "She said she had always been told otherwise, and that was the excuse everyone used to try to force-marry her off." Under the framework for the council, women would be able to submit queries through the web portal. The council would offer religious reasoning to help them assert their rights under Islam. The council also would mobilise intervention, if necessary, using non-governmental organisations, counselling centres and shelters.

"It's a safe ether space for women to meet and discuss," Ms Khan said. Ambreen Qureshi, charged with setting up the portal, recounted an ongoing project that she expects will be replicated many times. "We collaborated with activists in Egypt, and the target was a barber," she said. "He used to perform illegal female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision. "Through a grant from WISE, we paid him to stop. Then we helped him refurbish his barber shop, and now he makes more money than before."

The entire effort cost about $2,000 (Dh7,300), she said, and it is now replicated throughout other barber shops in Egypt. Ms Qureshi is now seeking local collaborators in Afghanistan and Pakistan to combat domestic violence. Though the council does not plan to issue fatwas in the near future, it is developing its own curriculum of Islamic studies and recruiting women to be its future muftis: "a jurist for the 21st century who understands contemporary challenges and international law within an Islamic context," Ms Khan said.

In time, she said, there would be shura members in every country who understood local law and customs and could address specific issues affecting women in their communities. The members would act as the arms, eyes and ears of the council, disseminating information to the locals and sending back information to the council about conditions and challenges in the community, as well as implementing plans of action.

WISE is funded by the UN Population Fund and MDG3, a fund managed by the Dutch Foreign Ministry to improve the condition of women. Ms Khan estimated the annual budget at around $1.5 million. A WISE poll repeated periodically since the first conference in 2006 has consistently shown a majority of Muslim female activists concerned about the interpretation of Islam. That notion again prevailed in the latest poll, taken over the weekend, which showed 74 per cent of the attendees citing "harmful religious interpretations" as the biggest challenge facing Muslim women.

But they were also overwhelmingly optimistic about the future, with 85 per cent saying they were hopeful or very hopeful that positive change would happen for Muslim women, 72 per cent saying change was already happening or would unfold in the next five to 10 years, and 86 per cent saying they saw themselves as important or very important to bringing change. Those attending the conference were enthusiastic about the prospects for success.

"I was very surprised to see all these Muslim women," said Marfua Tabhta-Khodgaeva, 65, a writer from Uzbekistan and author of Between the Slogans of Communism and Laws of Islam. "My country is very secular, and here I met so many Muslim women who are practising." She said one of the main challenges facing women in her country was the infiltration of "random" imams from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other places.

"They come with their own interpretation and say that women should stay home and cook and reproduce and do nothing else," Ms Tabhta-Khodgaeva said. "So I am very happy to see many Muslim women who are comfortable like this with Islam. We will work together." The council will operate this year under an umbrella campaign called Jihad Against Violence that grapples with everything from female circumcision to domestic violence and terrorism.

"The history of Islam has been interpreted as violent," said Afra Jalabi, 40, a council member who studied anthropology and political science. "But if you look closely, and you reinterpret it, you find it is so fundamentally non-violent that in certain cases it forbade Muslims to fight in self-defence." The American Society for Muslim Advancement is co-hosting the conference along with the Cordoba Initiative, a forum for inter-faith dialogue, and WISE. The four-day event will end tomorrow.