Waking Up to Gender Justice

Nazry Bahrawi

Posted Jun 11, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Waking up to gender justice

Was the recent controversial effort by a group of US Muslims in organising a female-led congregational Friday prayer a deliberate effort to engender a rude awakening about feminine issues in Islam?


Many in the Muslim world were recently shocked by the sheer audacity of US academic Dr Amina Wadud and members of the Muslim Wake Up! (MWU!) organisation, who staged a historic female-led, mixed-gender congregation prayer meeting in a New York church early in February. As probably expected by the organisers, protests came from all sectors of the global Muslim community.

On the international front, renowned traditional scholars like Qatari-based Yusuf Qaradawi and others have decreed it haram (impermissible), based on a careful inspection of Islamic juristic traditions. Recent developments suggest that this sentiment is shared and echoed by most conservative religious teachers and authorities in Southeast Asia.

In spite of the overwhelming reaction, Wadud and company can at least take comfort that no death fatwa, akin to Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 ruling on Salman Rushdie in response to the author’s controversial book The Satanic Verses, was publicly declared. Yet to say that this signals a growing maturity among modern-day Muslims is a dubious claim.

Just days after the contentious event, the MWU! website (http://www.muslim-wakeup.com) was unceremoniously “executed” _ brought down after suffering an onslaught of hacking attacks. Considering that some conservative clerics have declared the website sacrilegious and called for such acts to be corrected by upholding the Islamic notion of amar ma’ruf nahi mungkar (enjoining the good and preventing the evil), one could not rule out the possibility that the hackers could be overzealous tech-savvy individuals who believed that they were only piously performing their religious duties. Still despite the setback, the Web site is online again indicating a firm resolution from its members to further their cause.

To the critical observer, the furore surrounding MWU!‘s prayer meeting is telling of a key concern riddling contemporary Muslim societies _ the perennial notion of gender equality in Islam.

To the uninformed but well-meaning outsider horrified by tales of honour killings, gang rapes and prostitution in parts of the Muslim world, or religious edicts that are seen to be marginalising women _ like the permissibility for polygamy and compulsory veiling of females _ overcoming oppressive elements within the Islamic faith must seem like the final frontier.

Yet a deeper look would reveal that it is not religion that is the problem, but the human voice of the patriarch who is seen to have been dominating Islamic discourse over the last 1,400 years. Wadud is, in truth, part of the nascent 20th-century movement trying to weed out traces of the authoritarian patriarch within Islamic traditions, by interpreting the Qu’ran and Sunnah (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) in light of contemporary feminine concerns.

Others, like US-based sociologist Dr Ahmed Afzaal of Drew University, would say that the drive to establish gender equality in Islam is not a new movement, but one that began with the Prophet himself, considering that he was not just a religious figure but also a social reformer.

Today in the Muslim world, this movement is spearheaded by scholars like Fatima Mernissi (Morocco) and Asghar Ali Engineer (India), and championed by activists like Zainah Anwar (Malaysia), Siti Musdah Mulia (Indonesia) and most notably the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi (Iran). Not surprisingly, such individuals are viewed as heretics because of their efforts to challenge tradition.

Putting aside the controversy, one pertinent question remains: Has this symbolic act by members of the MWU! advanced awareness of gender inequality issues within the Muslim world?

Judging from the worldwide response, the answer veers towards scepticism. Even recognised progressive Muslim scholars were notably ambivalent. Commenting on the issue in The Jakarta Post recently, Ulil-Abshar Abdalla of Indonesia’s Liberal Islam Network, while signalling support for MWU!‘s novel initiative, mentioned that the question of female imams (prayer leaders) is not a serious issue while more pressing concerns involving Muslim women, such as domestic violence, are left unresolved.

Oxfam International’s recent findings in three tsunami-affected sites lend credence to Ulil-Abshar’s observation. The charity found that male survivors outnumber females by three to one in the predominantly Muslim province of Aceh. According to Ofxfam’s policy director, Becky Buell, in an interview with BBC News, there are already reports of rapes, harassment and forced marriages from the emergency camps at locations ravaged by the disaster.

Significantly, even Singapore’s Mufti Syed Isa Binsmit, while departing from Ulil-Abshar’s support for Wadud’s symbolic move, thinks Muslims should focus on more pressing social concerns. In a recent interview, he quoted youth delinquency and high divorce rates, both of which involve women, as priorities.

In light of the reaction to the female-led prayer meeting, it is reasonable to conclude that the MWU! initiative has single-handedly upped the ante in raising much-needed awareness on issues of gender equality in the Islamic world on a scale that has surpassed previous efforts, despite _ or perhaps because of _ the worldwide protests.

Frustrated by the slow pace of debate on the plight of women in Islam, members of the MWU! could have arguably borrowed the philosophy espoused by Kevin Spacey’s character John Doe in David Fincher’s 1995 movie Se7en: “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder any more. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”

In the wake of MWU!‘s “sledgehammer” blow, the litmus test for the Muslim world now is whether its members can move past discussions centred on rituals and openly engage others in tackling immediate social concerns where women are clearly victimised.

The writer is the managing editor of ‘The Muslim Reader’ magazine published in Singapore. Views expressed here are his own.

Originally printed in the Bangkok Post at http://www.bangkokpost.com/en/210405_Outlook/21Apr2005_out11.php