feminism · human rights · injustice · interview · islamic law · media · muslim women · politics · religion

Heroes and heretics

Islamic scholar Amina Wadud has been branded both a heroine and a  heretic.

Heroine for her academic framework for Muslims in legal and policy reform  around the world; heretic for leading a mixed gender prayer in New York in 2005  which made worldwide headlines.

The prayer session propelled the 58-year-old African American into celebrity  Muslim reformer status, a position the theologian does not seem entirely  comfortable with.

“I try to keep my sense of humour about it,” she said, speaking in Sydney  after engagements in Melbourne and Canberra.

“I didn’t play into it. I didn’t stoke the sensationalism of it.

“The time was a little bit comical but I could not live along those lines. I  like the basic parts of my life where you have anonymity.”

Asked if the controversy had obscured her long-time activism and scholarship  on Islam and gender issues, she said: “I regret things being obscured for any  reason. But I do not regret the prayer if that is reason why people obscure  things. People have not been pleased with my work for a long time. So the prayer  is just a ruse … and … excuse for not listening to what you have to say.”

Dr Wadud is the author of several books, including Quran and Women:  Re-reading the sacred text from a woman’s perspective and Inside Gender  Jihad: Women’s reform in Islam.

Her central thesis is that for centuries Islam has been interpreted by male  scholars which has obscured its essentially egalitarian ethos. This ethos, Dr  Wadud says, has inspired her reform work particularly around Islamic family  law.

While her religious detractors accuse her of heresy, other criticisms of Dr  Wadud involve the charge that she feeds into the never-ending contestation of  religious texts which has no purpose in the modern era within a secular  framework. However, her books have worked as a framework for Muslim activists,  particularly through lobby groups and her organisation, Sisters in Islam in  Malaysia.

One of Dr Wadud’s central ideas is that as a believer she accepts the  divinity of the Qur’an, however, its readings must always be open to scrutiny  and re-evaluation. This is particularly important if laws are to be based on its  precepts and have impact in the real world on women’s lives.

Born in the American South, in Maryland in 1952, to a Methodist preacher  father, Dr Wadud converted to Islam at university at the age of 20 after a brief  stint as a practicing Buddhist.

“I was a practicing Buddhist for a year,” she said.

“I came across Islam and it grew exponentially and I came to an understanding  of the universe that worked for me.”

The liberation theology of the black leaders of the civil rights movement and  her own upbringing also influenced her.

“My family situation was one where the relationship between social injustice  and faith was explicit. You do not oppress. Oppression is against God’s will,” she said.

“I grew up in the era of black consciousness. I lived in a transformative  time as a young person- you could hear and feel you had a certain sense of  social responsibility – a mandate to fight to remove injustice as it was being  established in the context of our lives as African Americans.

“I was brought up in the revolutionary spirit of justice and it was common  sense to transfer that in terms of Islam and gender justice.”

Dr Wadud, a devout and thoughtful woman, finds much of the hype around her  work distasteful, so much so that at one point she eschewed the label ‘feminist’  altogether.

“There are obviously large sectors of non-Muslim and Muslim population who  think Islamic feminism is an oxymoron,” she said.

“I am less concerned now about whether or not I make everyone comfortable in  terms of the self designation (of being feminist) than at another point.”

She said the term ‘feminism’ often led people to dismiss her work.

” … I feel a little bit more comfortable in my own skin being able to say  feminist. At another point [I would avoid the label] in order to avoid the  politics of the discussion and to avoid the marginalisation of my work into  those politics,” Dr Wadud said.

This perceived incompatibility is incongruous with her own study of Islamic  thought and philosophical thinking.

“They are limiting feminism from its own intellectual and political history,”  she said. “They are also limiting Islam from its own egalitarian  trajectory.”

Dr Wadud has found crowd hostility toward her more pointed in Sydney than  Melbourne, where the largely Muslim audience seemed much more engaged.

Her lecture this week at the University of Technology, Sydney, involved  several heated exchanges with young men.

“Some people in the Australian audiences, they come because they’ve heard  there is something wrong or bad or evil about me,” she said.

“They come because they will set me straight. When they get here and I don’t  say anything outrageous for them to pick up on – they make up stuff.”

Dr Wadud finds arguments with those who have not even read her ideas tiring  and is now focussed on reaching out to those who have.

“In the past I felt a much greater responsibility to be understood by as many  people as possible,” she said.

“You spent all your time trying to convert people who are absolutely  unconvinced about where you’re going.

“Then there are some people who are trying to understand certain things and  have a nominal level of agreement and maybe want to go further and engage with  your ideas. That’s a more interesting level to engage.”

There have been rumours of death threats, but Dr Wadud is quick to clear the  air.

“I never received any death threats,” she laughs.

“There was this thing where people got into saying I had death threats.  But  I never had anyone actually threaten me.”

From SMH

culture · human rights · islamic law · law · Pakistan · politics · religion

Pakistan’s traditional spirituality hijacked?

Every week sees a fresh wave of violence strike Pakistan. Just two days ago, a suicide car bomb in a crowded shopping street in the north-west town of Charsadda killed almost 20 people and injured dozens. It was the third such incident in three days. These follow blasts in Rawalpindi and Peshawar, which killed dozens in crowded marketplaces, the latter of which coincided with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit.

The violence has put many Pakistanis on edge, many blaming the country’s relationship with the US. They point to the loss of civilian lives in badly aimed drone attacks and a historical relationship that suggests the US looks after its own interests and should not be trusted.

The Obama Administration finds itself dealing with partners in both Pakistan and Afghanistan who do not have the strong mandate of their people, with Hamid Karzai’s recent win in a one-man election in Afghanistan, and Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan, who as widow of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has benefited from a Bhutto stranglehold on the ruling Pakistani People’s Party despite being mired in corruption. The shadowy standing of the two leaders threatens the legitimacy of the partnership.

The current Administration has done well in bypassing the leadership and attempting to reach out to the people through cultural dialogue with frank meetings with media professionals and students. Clinton’s visit wearing a billowing blue dupatta to a Sufi shrine in Islamabad moved many and represents in many ways the true spirit of Pakistani spirituality, which has been hijacked in recent years with the rise of extremism.

In the past 10 years, I have seen a steady shift to the right. The folk spirituality of Pakistan, traditionally involving a mixture of Islamic Sufism and saint worship, has given way to a more puritanical form of Islam, which shuns Shiite Muslims and other minorities. Weddings are increasingly segregated and without the traditional Pakistani music and dance that make them so lively. The dupatta, a deliciously sheer piece of cloth worn with colourful shalwar kameez as part of the traditional dress, have given way to burqas and niqabs in certain areas.

The contradictions that lie at Pakistan’s fractured soul are emblematic of its very origin. Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a secularist and English-trained lawyer, initially used religion as nationalistic rallying cry and political tool for the creation of Pakistan. This backfired badly with Pakistan fighting for its national identity ever since. The question being if Pakistan was created in 1947 as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims than why should it not also be an Islamic State? The historical Jinnah in Pakistan has been transmogrified into a pious, sherwani wearing “Quad-e Azam” or “Great leader”. This image is a far cry from the man found in the Jinnah museum in Karachi who was fond of his suits and cigars.

This is symptomatic of unease with which Pakistan has dealt with the religious question. It seems it does not have the ideological courage to be either an Iran or Turkey but will settle for being both and something in between.

The majority of Pakistanis are moderate, this can be seen in elections where Islamist parties have consistently received a small minority of the vote. If ideologically speaking, Pakistanis are scattered, the building of institutions will be a bulwark against excesses. The lack of education, health, literacy and poor state of women’s rights have put Pakistan at the risk of a kind of national myopia.

Democracy depends as much on the healthy state of an informed public as a free election. The rise of the lawyer’s movement, which protested against former military dictator Pervez Musharraf ‘s move to force out Supreme Court justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in 2007, to the creation of community run police-citizen patrols to deal with law and order issues show that the Pakistani people have developed ingenuity to deal with its social problems despite an ineffectual state apparatus. A government whose only occupation seems to be to repeatedly fund and create militant groups it quickly loses control over and an obsessive rivalry with neighbour India.

Pakistanis can only dream of the possibilities of not struggling under the weight of this monstrous disability.

islamic law · muslim women · review · women's rights

Review: Quran and Woman

Tariq Ramadan once said, “We are in dire need of a constructive critical reassessment of the Islamic discourse and understanding on women.”

Crucial to this was “a new perspective that… will read the sacred texts with fresh eyes (including those of female scholars).”

Enter 1- Dr. Amina Wadud the American Muslim scholar and controversial author of “Quran and Woman: Rereading the sacred text from a woman’s perspective. ”

Her book is revolutionary precisely because it’s not revolutionary. She is no wishy washy “progressive” but a true scholar and woman of faith.

Continue reading “Review: Quran and Woman”

islamic law

Tariq Ramadan- Islam’s John Stuart Mill?

An interesting blog special in The Washington Post where leading Muslim thinkers, politicians, and religious leaders were invited to blog about their opinion on the three most controversial and politicised issues in modern Islamic polities- apostasy, jihad and women’s rights.

From Egypt’s Grand Mufti to the ideologues of Hezbollah and the lofty towers of Cambridge and Georgetown- the blog special succeeded in representing the diversity of Islamic opinion, life and practice around the world.The variety of responses on the “muslim woman” question was very interesting.
Continue reading “Tariq Ramadan- Islam’s John Stuart Mill?”

divorce · injustice · islamic law · law · muslim women · struggle

Living in Limbo Land

A never-published investigative feature where I explore the problems faced by Muslim women in gaining an Islamic divorce in Australia and the anguished limbo status these women face in getting their rights recognised by a legal system which ignores their cultural and religious concerns.


Nuzhat’s Story

Nuzhat Mukhtar* sits on the lounge of her Sydney flat gesturing for me to eat. Her twenty- one year old son Junaid walks to the kitchen and brings out a smorgasboard of dishes- Turkish pizza, profiteroles with cream, cherry topped cake, three bottles of soft drink, as well as plates and glasses.

She won’t talk until I eat at least one gargantuan slice of Turkish pizza.

Her son sits beside her supportively his somber face creased with worry.

Nuzhat was eighteen years old when she came to Australia as a new bride from Pakistan in 1982. Within three months she knew there was something drastically wrong with the marriage.

“The place I came from was a medium type of family and here where I come was very strict. At home there was no TV, no radio, no bed, no nothing. I was not even allowed to go on the balcony without covering myself completely. Everything was changed for me so much…. But I tried,” recalls Nuzhat.

The fact that she was unable to communicate or seek help from anyone in her new country was particularly difficult.

“In couple of months it was so bad that I was really badly homesick. And I was losing weight heaps, within 3 months time I was thirty- seven kilos. I could not say anything to anybody . Hardly anybody here was Pakistani and could speak my same language,” says Nuzhat.

This reality for women stuck between two different cultural systems is not uncommon. Many women cope with the abuse in silence, reluctant to seek help or advice. The situation is heightened when religious considerations come into play, changing the dynamics of marriage and divorce proceedings.

Continue reading “Living in Limbo Land”