Gender-Based Exclusionism at a Muslim Student Association - Part II
Posted Jul 11, 2003

Gender-Based Exclusionism at a Muslim Student Association - Part II

by Shabana Mir

Democracy and procedure

Many brothers felt that it is not permissible or acceptable in Islam since women should not sit together when discussing any issues with men. Others have argued that this is a matter that we have to base on the Shariah or Islamic jurisprudence and that even if we vote on it, it does not matter if the majority wins, since this American style of democracy does not pertain to us as Muslims. Rather we have to go with what is Halaal and what is Harmam [sic].Zuheir al-Shara, message on mailing list, 3/14/98

Ali Benhaj of the Islamic Salvation Front unequivocally rejects democracy as kufr, and Abul-Aגlaa Maudoodi describes Islam and democracy as irreconcilable (Tibi 11). The neo-fundamentalists at the CU MSA did not appear to have much faith in democratic procedures. After the debate on womens participation, it was clear that a vote would no longer be the decisive factor in this issue, because it did not produce results that were pleasing to the neo-fundamentalists. The impossibility of predicting their actions according to the pattern of accepted democratic procedure made it easier for the change-oriented group to become burned out.

Another incident illustrative of this contempt for procedure was the Fatwa-issue. When the community agreed on seeking fatawa on womenҒs participation, this procedure was not carried to its conclusion either. By the time the fatawa arrived, they were no longer in the forefront of our collective memory. Ashraf told me that a leading Saudi gentleman in the mosque, on receiving a Fatwa that went in favor of women, had tried to contradict the scholar in question, and did not convey it as it was to the community. All three scholars ruled in favor of womens participation on the highest decision making level in the MSA. Most of the community members never heard of these fatawa.

However, procedure could not be defied forever, as long as there was a group of persons monitoring and resisting their moves. On the evening of the election, a democratic process took over. This procedure ended up being the ultimate weapon against the neo-fundamentalist hegemony.

The role of MSA National

No…from what i can tell u from this year we didn’t really use MSA national very much.  We pretty much managed on our own. Җ Asiya, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

and finally, we had literally NO connection with the MSA national. there was no correspondence or interaction, and they did not provide us with any guidance whatsoever. i don’t think we felt they had much to offer us—either in the way of resources or organizational insights. ŖSultana, University of Chicago

Initially, I thought that our MSA was an anomaly that could be modified with reference to norms developed by MSAs or the MSA of the United States and Canada (MSA National). I learned that many MSAs function in the same wayand in many other unproductive ways. Dissenting, underserved, excluded and dissatisfied student membersחeven when they form the majority of the communityhave no recourse to an external body or to a set of norms developed by their peers (students). MSA National has not functioned as a body that provides such norms. It does not coordinate efforts in any effective way; it aims to provide certain services to MSA branches.

Before starting action, I consulted with current and former leaders and prominent individuals in the MSA. I was given two critical articles on the low level of womenגs participation in MSAs. A national leader in the MSA advised me to be wise and gradual. In other words, I was asked to not rock the boat too hard.

A young Canadian woman prominent in MSA feminismӔ offered to do something concrete, like write a letter to the Islamic Center. No other MSA National officer wished or offered to intervene in this matter. Apart from fraternal words of vague encouragement, no concrete support was offered. The MSA National for its campus branches laid down no binding principles of gender equality. In fact, at a later date, an MSA National Executive Committee member visited the CU campus to speak at an event hosted by the MSA. As mentioned earlier, MSA mailing lists, individual officers, and members websites have been known to patronize more conservative views on womenҒs participation, though opposite views are also occasionally given some space. No norms on gender equality are publicly accepted by MSA National as an organization.

How was change achieved?

Community versus hegemony

During the early stages of my strategy, I selected a group of individuals, male and female Muslim students at CU, whom I perceived to be progressive, enlightened as well as committed Muslims who would be interested in some level of involvement with the Muslim student group. I invited them privatelywithout sending out the traditional public invitation to a religious gatheringחto tea, cookies, a social evening, and a brief, friendly discussion of some Islamic texts.

The gatherings were small, and were meant to be so. As mentioned previously, it appears to me that many persons who hold strict Islamic interpretations believe in the exclusive validity of their interpretations. Precisely because fundamentalists tend to bully modernists into defensiveness (Rahman, 230), I do not always see diversity in discussions as a plus. Occasionally it causes the less assertive progressives and independent-thinkers to clam shut, while louder upholders of the status quo hijack the opportunity for reform.

Over three to four socials, the occasions were pure opportunities for the reform-minded to gel as a group. I wanted the individuals to experience an alternative religious space where progressive (or any alternative) ideas could be voiced. I believe that creating such a concrete space is a powerful tool to work against the apathy of some students vis—vis reform. I believe that such apathy is often the consequence of hopelessness.

The reformers

Most of the women (on campus) wonӒt get involved in anything to change the MSA. -Sana, University of Maryland

I think there is also fear, especially i think on campus with the girls. Girls have to worry about their reputation a lot.  One little mistake can make you miserable your entire 4yrs.  I’ve seen it happen so many times with sisters.  With brothers too, but not as much for some reason ppl tend to forget about the brothers stories.  Guys have this one bad system of labelling Muslim girls.  There are several categories, one is the “hijabi”, your nice, quiet shy sister.  Next is the non-hijabi, no explanation needed.  The last is the “hojabi”ԅ -Asiya, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

I identify my allies as the reformers.Ӕ They identified with an inclusive and participatory rather than a hierarchical, control-oriented status quo.

Most men and women were disinclined to be in the forefront of the conflict. This was so for various reasons. Most women tend to seek consensus. They often flee conflict and confrontation. It is no surprise, therefore, that most religious women also give up the mosque, the MSA and other religious spaces to male leadership, and content themselves with subsidiary roles.

Often the women would refrain from insisting to be granted permission for whatever need was current, simply to avoid excessiveӔ contact with the brothers in the self-consciously gender segregated mosque environment. In such a segregated mosque, to seek out a brother might be perceived as forward, and to engage him in argumentation would not be appropriate feminine behavior.

Some men and women said that they did not want to speak badly of others or get involved in unpleasantness.Ӕ A struggle against injustice structures requires the protagonists to identify the injustice and to criticize the perpetrators. This calls for a certain degree of ability to engage in constructive conflict without giving up mid-way.

Tied Hands

[Its hard for women to speak up because] Usually people start laughing at the person or people who are speaking up and start throwing words around like drama queen or say she needs to lighten up or one that i think really hurts the person speaking up, when someone says “oh that was a take off your hijab moment.” ҖAsiya, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Email communication, 8/14/01

As illustrated by the invalidation of the womens agreement by the men at the great debate, the legitimacy of any decision taken by the women was never a given. To have any weight, decisions were always to be ratified by the men. This procedure was not instantaneous, and there was always a lack of transparency to it. The decision makers among the men were never all present before all the women when agreements among women were made and ratification was requested, so male accountability and visibility were low. The decisions were always conveyed by proxy; one woman might be informed by her husband of a decision made by the ғauthorities (the exact identity of whom was often not known) or a child might bring a message from the menԒs musalla to the womens.

MenҒs and womens invisibility added to a general sense of powerlessness on the part of women. The evening of the great debate, I felt that I needed to see what was going on in the menҒs musalla but this was not to be. We wouldas usualחsit in the womens musalla in the basement, watching the men on closed-circuit television, while they argued with each other and could not be intimidated by the power of our physical presence, could not see the emotion, the incredulity, the argument in our faces.

Conclusion and Policy recommendations

I see MSAs and MSUs as prototypes of neo-fundamentalist and progressive Muslim types. Unfortunately, It seems to me that to often, most ғMSAs and ԓMSUs cannot co-exist in co-operation. Neo-fundamentalist MSAs uphold their exclusive rights to represent the Muslim ummah. They believe that MSUs are wayward, excessively liberal, Westernized, and ԓbad Muslims. To them, progressive Muslims who wear Western clothing, are friendly with non-Muslims, and see shades of gray within Islamic interpretations, cannot possibly be authorities on Islam. They have compromised on Islam with the West, as it were, by not being extreme on religion.

Progressive Muslims (or ԓmodernists, as Rahman calls them) tend to be ԓon the defensive against the aggressive revivalist. Conservatives, on the other hand, are suspicious of modernists as being really inspired by Western liberalism, and therefore prepared to ԓsell traditional Muslim values. Yet there was nothing wrong with the modernistsԒ borrowing from Western cultural patterns, since every growing civilization does this, and this is how Islam expanded beyond Arabia (230).So, when the דreformers of the MSU urge the MSA to open up for women, to permit men and women to work together, and to work on campus as well as in the mosque, the MSA conservatives react by waging war against them for bringing in Western (and therefore anti-Islamic) practices into the ԓpure community. It grows worse when MSAs witness gender equality in MSUs, and willfully act in opposition to them.

MSAs desire to obliterate MSUs, whose existence is a challenge for MSAs. Unless MSUs operate from a position of strength, MSAs tend not to wish to co-operate with them. Their view of Islam is a singular and exclusive one. All others are innovators and misguided.

Higher education is an important stage for American Muslims, as for all young adults. Patterns established at this stage may remain influential for life, whether for men or for women. It is for this reason that, to higher education administrators, I would recommend that they support progressive elements that facilitate the development of Muslim student cultures supportive to women. This may appear to be an unwarranted taking of sides by ԓsecular authorities within a minority sub-culture. However, from the perspective of gender equalityԗan important goal for Muslimsit is a positive step.

I would also recommend that MSAs at universities undertake self-criticism in regard to their inclusion of women in all activities and in all levels of power. This may be an initially difficult task: the culture of many MSAs is male-oriented and is not sensitive to female ways of work, thought and speech. Unfortunately, many male members of MSAsחperhaps like many other American malesare דclueless about what women feel, and do not spend very much consideration on this. The responsibility for opening up MSAs to women fully rests on both men and women, but since women have been excluded for a long period of time, men will need to expend more effort on encouraging women and on discouraging neo-fundamentalists who are inclined to employ a variety of psychological and other strategies to exclude women.

Most importantly, MSAs should clearly articulate their goals to include women in all spheres and in all levels of power. They should declare their commitment to actively opposing exclusivist trends, instead of trying neutral strategies that send out vague messages.

I believe that it may be very important for the growth and maturing of MSAs to distance themselves from their non-student communities in an organizational sense. This should not necessitate any reduction in fraternal feeling or of inter-generational affection. It should merely mean that persons at different stages in life and immersed in different cultures should not impose their will upon others. Mentoring and advisement should continue; however, the American-born and bred youth should learn to develop an American Islamic culture that retains the solidity and strength of its immigrant and indigenous sources, while never allowing these sources to reduce American Islamic culture to hierarchy and stagnancy.

MSA National should once and for all decide where it stands and withdraw support from gender exclusive ways of thought and practice. Though founded by international male students, it should, like Tariq Ramadanԗthe grandson of Hassan al-Bannafind independent inspiration from its American home. This may imply delivering policy statements, including specific notes on holding executive power and engaging in activities, and even declining to provide full membership or certain privileges to MSA branches exclusive of women. It should certainly mean that MSA National officers should refrain from visiting campuses on the invitation of gender-exclusive executive committees.

As a community, instead of raising an undifferentiated דIslamicness, more attention needs to be paid to educating Muslim men and women in gender equality in Islam. Few of our religious leaders and scholars have adequateԗsometimes anyawareness of the necessity of gender equality and justice. Few of those who do have some awareness of the same have the courage to speak out about the injustices committed by imams, MSAs, and other male community members. Even many of our liberal intellectuals are too inclined to overlook gender inequalities within our community. Our MSAs will be the future of our community. It is with fear that I predict that our Muslim community, more visible in mainstream society, will be light years behind the larger society in terms of gender equality if present trends continue. Surely we cannot be content with producing a generation that includes too many boorish men insensitive to gender issues and too many women who may be no longer willing to identify with this community. This poses dangers to the Islamic identity of numberless American women, dangers that have borne even fruit before our time. This situation also challenges the simple notion of Islamic justice. And most importantly of all, there is little faith in God where there is little justice. As the Qurגan reminds us: And do justice; that is closest to God-awareness.Ӕ