Interview: Zainah Anwar on Islam and Muslim Feminism

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Dec 16, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Interview: Zainah Anwar on Islam and Muslim Feminism

by Yoginder Sikand

Based in Kuala Lumpur, Zainah Anwar, a leading Malaysian social
activist and intellectual, is one of the founding members of ‘Sisters
in Islam’, an activist group struggling for the rights of Muslim
women. She is also one of the pioneers of Musawah, a recently launched
initiative to build a global movement for equality and justice in the
Muslim family. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, she talks about
her vision for an understanding of gender justice in Islam and the
place of Islam within a democratic nation-state.

Q: You may not like being labeled, but how would you describe
yourself? As a Muslim feminist? A feminist who is also a Muslim? An
Islamic feminist?

A: I am a feminist. That is my foremost identity. But I am also a
Muslim, and so I have no problems calling myself a ‘Muslim feminist’.
I am very proud of my Muslim identity. I don’t see any contradiction
in being Muslim and feminist at the same time, because I have been
brought up with an understanding of Islam that is just and God that is
absolutely just, including in matters related to women and gender
relations. At the same time, I would hesitate to call myself an
‘Islamic feminist’. I find that term ‘Islamic’ too ideological. I
prefer to call myself a ‘Muslim feminist’, because the term ‘Muslim’
signifies human agency and how I, as a human being, understand God and
religion. Because of political Islam, there is a tendency to believe
that anything labeled ‘Islamic’ is the divine word of God, unmediated
by human agency and interpretation, which is not the case, if course.
Islam does not speak on its own, without human intervention. So, at
Sisters in Islam, we are trying to start using the term ‘Muslim’ more,
rather than ‘Islamic’, to emphasise the human role in defining what is
seen as Islam and what is not. For example, we prefer to use the term
‘Muslim Family Law’, rather than ‘Islamic Family Law’, to help Muslims
better understand that the call for reform is not a call to change
God’s words, but, rather, to change Muslim understandings of God’s

Q: Many Muslim feminists seek to articulate a gender-just
understanding of Islam based almost wholly on their reading of the
Quran, without taking recourse to the corpus of Hadith and fiqh,
possibly because the latter two sources contain prescriptions and
rules that seem to greatly militate against gender justice. How do you
relate to these latter two sources of Muslim tradition?

A: For me, as a Muslim, the Quran is the ultimate authority. Anything
that contradicts it, including in the corpus of Hadith and fiqh,
cannot be considered to be Islamic. Furthermore, I also believe that
the Quran is open to multiple interpretations, as a result of human
agency in seeking to understand the text. There is no final,
authoritative human interpretation of the text. Thus, the history of
Quranic exegesis is a story of a constant, and continuing, endeavour
of Muslims seeking to understand the word of God, a wondrous exercise
that can result in new meanings and perspectives evolving over time.
If you read a particular verse of the Quran you might derive a certain
meaning today, but, five years later, the same verse might suggest
something quite different or deeper. There is nothing as a static,
frozen interpretation of the text. Interpretations of the same text
can vary due to temporal and spatial differences, differences in the
class and educational background or the gender of the reader or the
sort of experiences the reader has been through and which informs her
when she reads the Quran. Thus, every understanding of the Quran by us
mortals is really simply an effort to understand it, rather than being
the absolute understanding, which God alone knows. To claim that a
certain understanding of the Quran—even if it be that of the most
well-known ulema—represents the absolute, final understanding is
simply fallacious. It is tantamount to the sin of shirk or associating
partners with God, because only God knows absolutely what God intends
to say and mean.

In other words, Muslim feminists argue against any monopolistic claims
on the part of anyone, including the ulema, of knowing fully the mind
of God, as revealed in the Quran. Every understanding of the Quran is
necessarily a partial, limited, and humble one, which cannot be
considered to be perfect or free from error. The great ulema of the
classical period were always conscious of this. They never said,
‘Islam says this or that’. It is ‘I’ who is saying or interpreting,
and ‘I’ could be wrong or ‘I’ could be right. Only God knows best,
they always ended. But, today, such acknowledgment of the humble,
fallible self no longer exists. The ideologues who claim to speak for
Islam always claim that ‘Islam says this’ or ‘God says that’, and
anyone who challenges this is at once accused of being against Islam
and God. This is tantamount to claiming to be the embodiment of God,
and is, in fact, a form of shirk.

Q: Muslim feminists are routinely accused of seeking to undermine, if
not defy, the authority of the ulema as authoritative spokesmen of
Islam, and of allegedly serving as fifth-columnists or ‘agents’ of the
West or of what are described as the ‘enemies of Islam’. How do you
respond to this charge?

A: We are not questioning the authority of the ulema because we want
to. What we are saying is that if someone’s interpretation of Islam
violates the norms of justice, which are so integral to the Quran, and
if this interpretation is then imposed on us as a source of laws and
public policies that are oppressive and discriminatory towards women,
then we, as citizens of a democratic country, must speak out against
this. If there are ulema who subscribe to a gender-just vision of
Islam, there would be no reason for us to disagree with them. We
would, in fact, have lent them our whole-hearted support. But, sadly,
there are very few such ulema on the scene.

If you want to take Islam into the public sphere, you can only expect
people to challenge you if they disagree with your views, especially
when your views are made into laws that govern the lives of citizens.
You cannot prevent others challenging you by using the argument that
only you know what Islam is, and that no one else has the right to
speak of, or for, it. This would, in effect, be tantamount to equating
your own views with that of God, a grave sin in Islam. Sadly, however,
that is precisely the tendency of conservative ulema and Islamist
radicals alike.

We are not claiming that ours is the sole, authentic, authoritative
interpretation or understanding of the Quran, which must replace the
interpretation of the conservative ulema or Islamist ideologues. As I
mentioned earlier, all interpretations are necessarily limited and
partial, at best. But what we are arguing for is the need to respect
everyone’s right—the Muslim feminists’, the ulema’s, the Islamists’
and everyone else’s—to seek to understand and interpret God’s word. We
are all on a journey of discovery of the intent of God’s word, and
this journey will never be complete. We are arguing for recognition of
this fact. We are arguing against the authoritarian tendency, sadly so
marked among many conservative ulema and Islamist ideologues, to
imagine that one’s own understanding of God’s word is absolute and
binding on everyone else and that this must be a source, if not the
only source, of law and public policy. In this way, they are, in fact,
limiting God to their own limited experience, understanding and

That said, I do not deny that the ulema and other religious scholars
do have their own roles to play. And I do believe that there are
principles within the rich heritage of Islamic jurisprudence that
render open the possibilities for re-interpretation to bring about
justice and equality in the modern world. What I am against are the
monopolistic claims and the insistence that law and public policy must
be based only on their misogynist and unjust interpretations, and that
those who disagree with them are to be labeled as anti-Islam, as
against God or as opposed to the shariah. This is what is turning
people against the Islamist demand for an ‘Islamic state’ and Islamic
law. It turns their project into a totalitarian scheme where there is
no democratic space for anyone else to differ and disagree.

Q: Does this mean that you are opposed to the notion of the ‘Islamic
state’, which is such a central pillar of the agenda of Islamist

A: If Islam is to be a source of law and public policy-making, this
has to come about as a result of democratic engagement, and cannot be
imposed on the people, as the Islamists demand. The modern
nation-state, with all its coercive powers, did not exist at the time
of the Prophet Muhammad. For self-styled Islamist groups to seek to
use the modern nation-state, with its massive coercive powers, to
force people to lead a life that they see as consonant with Islam—that
is to say, their own interpretation and understanding of
Islam—completely negates the Muslim heritage, which was characterized
by a tolerance of diverse schools of jurisprudence and theology that
themselves emerged from diverse understandings of Islam.

Another reason for my opposition to the notion of a so-called ‘Islamic
state’ is that this is used by many of its advocates simply as a tool
for acquiring political power. It is also a regressive ideology, in
the sense that, in the face, first of European colonialism, and, now,
continuing Western hegemony, it is a reflection of a hankering for the
times when Muslim political power was at its height. It is the
yearning of a defeated people, a dream of a people who know, but
perhaps refuse to recognize, that they are defeated by others. But
going back in time is not really the way to overcome the predicament
of loss, failure and defeat. It is not the way to acquire power and
ascendancy, because the world has so dramatically changed today.
Issues like human rights, justice, democracy, women’s rights are the
major ethical demands globally today. In the face of all this, the
sort of ‘Islam’ that conservative ulema and Islamists alike want to
impose, stridently totalitarian and vehemently against democracy,
human rights, minority rights and gender justice, is simply not the
answer. It is, obviously, and needless to say, unsustainable. In
Malaysia, even within the Islamist party PAS, there is now a debate on
which direction it should take—to stay firm on its demand for an
‘Islamic state’ ruled by the ulema or to democratize and modernize,
along the lines of the AKP model in Turkey. Hardliner ‘Islamic’ rule
will in the end miserably fail in providing the credible alternative
to the present global system that its advocates believe they are able
to offer.

Q: Muslim ‘progressives’ like yourself seem to argue that the right to
engage in creative, independent interpretation of Islam, or ijtihad,
is not, or should not be, the sole preserve of the ulema, but that it
should be democratized. On the other hand, the ulema argue that those
outside their circle do not have the right to engage in ijtihad as
they lack the necessary scholarly credentials in the Islamic
tradition. How do you view this conflict, which is really about
competing visions of religious authority?

A: I am most happy to be silent about religion if Islam is just in the
private sphere, between me and God. But we live in a country where
Islam is a source of law and public policy. Unfortunately, those in
religious authority who construct these laws do not recognize equality
and justice. They seriously believe God made men superior to women and
therefore men’s authority over women is eternal and divine. Never mind
the realities before their very eyes. There are some men who are
superior to some women and there are some women who are superior to
some men. But this belief in the inherent superiority and the
authority of all men over all women has led to laws and practices that
continue to discriminate and oppress women. I recognize the authority
of the ulema to use their scholarship to help draft laws made in the
name of Islam.  But what I am opposed to is the belief that only the
ulama and the Islamists have the sole authority to do this and that we
as citizens of a democratic state have no right to question and
challenge the injustice of these laws, in substance and
implementation.  What I am questioning is the use of one’s authority
of the authoritative text for authoritarian purposes.

Now, if no one among those who consider themselves ulema or mujtahids
is going to challenge this hegemonic agenda, then civil society will
have to stand up and speak out and protest. We are not engaged in
protesting against this simply to challenge the ulema. We are doing
this because their understanding of Islam impacts so deleteriously on
us, and so grossly violates our vision of Islam as a religion based on
justice. I, as a citizen of a democratic state, who has not gone
through a traditionalist education in Islam and do not speak Arabic,
still have the right to speak out, and seek to understand and
interpret my religion, because the conservative, misogynist ulema have
miserably failed to make Islam relevant to women in the 21st century,
to human rights, to social justice, to democracy. They have failed to
address the social aspirations for justice and equality of the people.
It is because of our experience of injustice, discrimination,
oppression justified in the name of Islam that we seek to claim our
right to understand our religion in ways that makes sense to our
realities. I believe in a God that is kind, just and compassionate. So
anything done in the name of Islam must be just and compassionate. It
is as simple as that.  We are doing this because as Muslims, we do not
want to have to abandon our faith in order to be a democrat, a
feminist, a human rights defender. We believe that equality,
fundamental liberties, freedom of religion, gender justice and so on,
do not contradict the teachings of Islam. The problem is our
understandings contradict the understandings of Islam of the
conservative ulema and Islamists, which they want to impose on the
rest of society. Why should they have the right to deprive me of my
right to love my God and love my religion?

If the ulema can provide me the answers that I am looking for, to
enable me to be a Muslim and a feminist, a democrat, a human rights
defender, then I’d rather they do that job. But, the sad fact is that
they simply are not doing the job. This is the challenge before them.
The answer is not to silence the dissenting and questioning ummah, and
to declare them as apostates, but to rise up and engage in dialogue in
the face of the huge challenges before us.

Let me come back to your point about the argument that is sometimes
put forward that ‘modernist’ Muslim scholars, including Muslim
feminists, do not have the necessary qualifications to engage in
ijtihad, and, therefore, do not have the right to interpret the
Islamic sources on their own. Let me say it again: if you want to use
Islam as a source of law and public policy, then every citizen has the
right to question and speak out. Public law and policy must pass the
test of public reason. If you don’t want any public debate, then you
must remove religion from the public sphere. Also, consider the
various Islamist groups here in Malaysia, and around the world
generally. Most of them are led not by traditional, madrasa-trained
ulema but by graduates of secular universities, mainly doctors,
engineers, science graduates. They have similar a secular educational
background as us. They are not experts in Arabic or in Quran, Hadith
and fiqh. They have not spent twenty years studying in madrasas or at
Al-Azhar. Yet, why is it that their claims to speak for and of Islam
and to engage in ijtihad are not similarly dismissed, as ours are? As
far as I can see, the only reason for this is that they say the
‘right’ things, the things the conservative ulema want to hear, unlike
us who dissent on a host of issues from the conservatives.

Q: How do you see the link or relation between secular feminism and
Muslim or even Islamic feminism? Can there be a synergy between them
for common goals and purposes, or are they mutually opposed?

A: I think the sort of feminism that will work in a given context
depends on contextual factors, and so there is indeed a possibility,
and even a need, for different forms of feminism to collaborate on
common issues.  Given the rise of political Islam in most Muslim
countries, secular feminism today faces a brick wall.  Perhaps it can
work in some contexts where women are up against an authoritarian
state that claims Islamic credentials and uses its own version of
Islam to marginalize, even oppress, women. But in Malaysia, many
Muslims still fantasise about this utopian Islamic state. Given the
socio-political context, our struggle for equality and justice has to
be justified in ‘Islamic’ terms for the Malay Muslims. But we believe
that any understanding of Islam as a source of law and public policy
must also be grounded as well in human rights principles, our
constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination and our
lived realities today. We do not live in a vacuum where Islam can be
exercised in a vacuum. We pose a challenge to the Islamic state agenda
of the Islamists because we speak for gender justice in the name of
Islam itself, which is something that resonates with every Muslim
woman who has suffered some form of oppression or discrimination in
the name of her religion.

In such a context, for us to provide an understanding of Islam that is
gender-just is a great source of empowerment for Muslim women because,
all along, they have been taught that a good Muslim woman is one who
meekly obeys her male guardians and suffers in silence because this is
what Islam is supposed to be.

To return to your point about possibilities of dialoguing with other
streams of feminism, let me say that Sisters in Islam is at the
forefront of a global initiative to bring Muslim women activists
together to build a movement for equality and justice in the Muslim
family. We are generating hope among many Muslim feminists, those who
work with religion and those who work just within human rights
principles. What we bring to the women’s and human rights movement is
the possibility of Islam as a source of liberation and empowerment,
not a source of oppression. We believe it is important to ground our
demands for reform of the discriminatory Islamic family law and
practices within a holistic framework that include Islamic arguments,
Constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination,
international treaties that our governments have ratified and the
lived realities of women and men today.

Q: Numerous Muslim feminist groups across the world, including
Sisters-in-Islam, are dependent on foreign, especially Western,
institutional funding. Why is this so? I ask this question
particularly since their source of funding opens them to the charge of
serving as ‘agents’ of non-Muslim forces that are portrayed as engaged
in a ‘conspiracy’ to undermine Islam.

A: It is strange that although Islamist groups, too, get funding from
overseas, no one levels the same sort of criticism against them. If we
Muslim feminist groups are ‘tools’ of the West, the same could also be
said of Muslim governments across the world that are so dependent on
Western countries and Western-dominated institutions for aid. If our
Muslim critics are so concerned that we should not have to take
recourse to Western organizations for funding, why don’t rich Muslims,
like the Gulf Arabs drowning in petrodollars, ever assist groups like
us? We would be happy to accept their aid as long as they do not
interfere with our work. But, of course, they will not aid groups like
ours.  The reason is simple: they do not believe in equality for

I would like to make it clear here that our donors do not interfere at
all with our functioning. We draw up proposals, set the agenda, and
set it before potential funders, who, if they provide us with money,
do not at all meddle with the way we go about doing the things we do.
We just have to be accountable for the money we spent.

That said, I must also add that we are now beginning to approach more
local donors so that Malaysians have a greater stake in our work, with
which they have become increasingly familiar in recent years. In fact,
every attack against us is an opportunity for us to open up the space
for us to be heard. Because of this, the support for our work has
grown, as there is greater awareness of the significance of our work
to Malaysia’s survival as a democratic multi-ethnic country.

Q: A major problem that ‘progressives’ face is that they seem to be
dialoguing among each other, preaching to the already ‘converted’,
without being able to reach out to others, particularly the
‘traditionalists’ and ‘conservatives’. Do you at Sisters in Islam face
the same sort of problem?

A: I think the situation varies in different countries. In Indonesia,
for instance, some of the most progressive Islamic thinkers are based
within traditional Islamic institutions. Several Indonesian scholars
associated with pesantrens or traditional Islamic schools have worked
on issues such as human rights, religious pluralism, and gender
justice, and are in the forefront of the movement for greater
democratization. In their case, it appears that the deeper their
understanding of Islam, the greater is their commitment to genuine
democracy. One reason for the Indonesian case is that Islam has
remained largely outside the purview of state authority and control.
Some of the largest Islamic movements in the world are based in
Indonesia, such as the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah, and,
because they have developed independent of state authority, they are
among the leading voices for democracy and social justice in the
country. Interestingly, they are also opposed to the setting up of a
so-called ‘Islamic state’ in Indonesia. Perhaps this is because they
have a long history of struggle against dictatorship. This must have
forced them to re-examine their own understandings of the relationship
between Islam and politics, being wary, from experience, of any form
of dictatorship. They seem very aware that an Islamic state would only
impose one understanding of Islam on every citizen and this would lead
to totalitarian rule and totally undermine the pluralism of Indonesian
society. I am amazed to have met so many democracy activists in
Indonesia from the pesantrens and Islamic universities who openly
declare their opposition to the idea of an Islamic state and shariah
rule. “Islam social” yes, “Islam politics”, no, they declare.

The situation is very different in Malaysia, where the state has much
greater control over the Islamic discourse, and Islamic education and
scholarship have evolved to serve state power. And over the past few
decades with the rise of political Islam, what is being taught and
propagated is an ideological Islam to serve the interests of those who
demand for an Islamic state and shariah rule.

Q: Despite Muslim, particularly Malay, groups being actively
patronized by the Malaysian state, and despite the rhetoric of
Malaysia being a ‘model Muslim state’, why is it that the level of
Islamic intellectual discourse in Malaysia remains so limited?

A: It is sad, but undeniable, that Malaysia lacks a vibrant
intellectual tradition. The contrast with neighbouring Indonesia, for
instance, is really stark. I think one reason for this is the sudden
and enormous economic growth in Malaysia, which has made us a very
materialistic people. Everyone here seems so busy with pursuing
material accumulation that the intellectual scene appears so
stultifying. One good indicator of this is the fact that there is no
faculty of philosophy in a single Malaysian university! No one sees
the usefulness of philosophy in life. The focus of our universities is
not to encourage critical or innovative thinking, but, rather, to
churn out people with degrees who can fit the so-called ‘development’

agenda, which is based entirely on material acquisition and
consumerism, which has come to be regarded as the key measure of one’s
worth.  Consequently, intellectual activity or social activism has
come to be regarded as something unrewarding, subversive even.
Questioning the state can invite its wrath. Not surprising, then, our
intellectual scene, particularly among the Malay Muslims, is pathetic.
Since the Malay middle-class is so dependent on the state for its
economic fortunes, it is hardly surprising that few of them would be
willing to risk challenging the state, including the state’s discourse
about Islam, which is largely very conservative. State patronage of
the Malays has led the community to become very complacent. When life
for them is ‘good’, they believe, why rock the boat, or push away the
hand that feeds them? The government has also instilled in them the
need to feel grateful to it for the material prosperity that they
enjoy and that, therefore, they should desist from anything that might
even remotely seem critical of the state and its ideology.

This tendency is buttressed by aspects of traditional Malay culture,
which is feudal and hierarchical, which teaches that those in
authority are always right and must not be challenged. It stresses
conformity and frowns on questioning and dissent.

But this is now slowly changing, after the March 8th elections which
saw the ruling party lose five state governments to the opposition.
People are far more critical and questioning now. Thus the ever more
open contestations on all issues, including Islam. We cannot be
silenced anymore.

Q: You, along with colleagues from various countries, recently set up
a platform, called Musawah, to galvanise the struggle for gender
justice in Muslim communities world-wide. What sort of work does
Musawah envisage for itself in the coming years?

A: Musawah was launched last February to a roaring welcome from Muslim
women activists and scholars from 50 countries. Over the next few
years, we are focused on knowledge-building and movement building.  We
are about to start a research project on the Qur’anic concept of
qawwamah or men’s authority over women, which lies at the core of the
unequal construction of gender rights in Islam. It is through this
concept of qawwamah that women’s subjugation is rationalised,
sustained and operationalised. The legal rights that emanate from this
concept not only put women under male authority, they give men the
right to terminate the marriage contract at will, to control their
wives’ movements, to polygamy, and to other inequalities in the
family. Given the changing realities of women’s lives today, the fact
that women are also providers and protectors of their families, how
can we re-understand and re-construct this concept so that equality
and justice between genders and in the family are ensured? This is
what we want to focus on.


At the international level, we plan to intervene with international
organisations with regard to laws in place in many of our countries
that restrict or contravene the international treaties that our
governments are party to, especially on the issue of women’s rights
and CEDAW. Musawah as a knowledge-building movement will concentrate
on developing a body of knowledge on different issues related to
Islam, women’s rights and human rights, that can help inform activism
and legal and social change in Muslim communities worldwide.

For more details about Sisters in Islam, see

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social
Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School,