Reading the Quran in Kuala Lumpur may ultimately prove much more revolutionary than reading Lolita in Tehran.
Two decades ago, a small group of women of letters in Kuala Lumpur—journalists, lawyers, academics—grew frustrated by the rise of political Islam here and their inability to challenge it. Regressive laws began curtailing the rights of Malaysian women, and yet women were told they could not question the laws because they were “Islamic,” and thus indisputable.
Undeterred, the women decided to read the Quran for themselves. Fortuitously, the African American theologian Dr. Amina Wadud had just arrived to take up her first teaching job at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur. Wadud was fresh from completing her dissertation on a feminist interpretation of the Quran. The women began meeting weekly, with Wadud leading the Quranic study group.
Within two years, the “book club” grew into “Sisters in Islam.” Resembling modern-day Tom Paines, Sisters published a polemical pamphlet provocatively titled, “Are Muslim Men Allowed to Beat Their Wives?” Invoking reasoned arguments over Quranic verses and interpretations, they challenged Muslim male leaders’ claims that the newly proposed domestic violence law should not apply to Muslims. (The subsequent Malaysian Domestic Violence Act of 1994 applies to all Malaysians).
Today many continue to ask: What do the Quran and Islamic Sharia law say about women? Last week I came to Kuala Lumpur to see the launch of a global movement to reinterpret Islam from within. More than 250 Muslim feminists from 47 countries are here for a five-day conference organized by Sisters in Islam. Like Sisters in Islam, the women gathered here, including journalists, scholars, and grassroots community organizers, are using Islamic feminist reformist arguments to counter discriminatory laws and practices back home. The women, from Afghanistan, Gambia, Indonesia, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, and even Saudi Arabia, to name just a few of the countries represented here, have come to learn and share the best arguments to use as ammunition against religious mullahs or conservatives who argue for the status quo. The New York Times covered the meeting in today’s paper.
The women claim their right to read and interpret Islam for themselves. As the founding director of Sisters in Islam and the organizer of the meeting, Zainah Anwar, declared at the opening of the conference, “we are all experts here” with the authority “to think, to feel, to question what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century.”
A particularly moving moment came when Dr. Isatou Touray, a reformer from Gambia who was circumsized at the age of 11 without ever asking questions, shared her shock upon first reading the Quran herself as an adult and discovering that “there is no mention in the Quran of” any such requirement.
The revelation led Touray to found the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP). She says that some 75% of girls in Gambia, between birth and age 12, are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) in the name of Islam. But reformers’ protests are beginning to penetrate, she says. When they raise the fact that the Quran is silent on this practice, religious leaders have no reply and in fact have stopped making religious arguments for the practice, she says. That opening makes it easier to counter FGM with arguments about girls’ and women’s health and sexual freedom. In 2007 several communities in Gambia publicly condemned FGM.
The meeting in Kuala Lumpur formally launches a “global movement” called Musawah—“equality” in Arabic—to reform Muslim family law, in particular. The recent successful reform effort in Morocco stands as the guiding example. In 2004 Moroccan feminists working with a broad civil society coalition succeeded in upending a decades old discriminatory and oppressive Muslim family law. The old law enshrined husbands’ authority over their wives and unequal rights to divorce.
The Moroccan activists pioneered a holistic approach to law reform, contesting the old measures on four levels: as violating Islamic principles, national Constitutional law, international human rights law, and as conflicting with the lived realities of Moroccan women in the 21st century. The new family law, which is still expressly “Muslim,” now recognizes husbands and wives as equals, sets an equal minimum marriage age for women and men, and provides equal rights to divorce.
The movement launched this weekend in Kuala Lumpur seeks to harness the holistic strategy for change successfully employed in Morocco for use by reformers throughout the Muslim world. Women thus make rights arguments simultaneously as Muslims, national citizens, citizens of the world, and as women with particular lived experiences that must be acknowledged by law.
This strategy of reform within Islam remains controversial, especially among many avowedly “secular” feminists, many of whom are here at the conference. At the same time, as I argue in a draft book supported by a Carnegie Corporation, “cultural dissent” is a critical strategy for bringing about cultural and legal change. The reformers expose pluralism and dissent within Islam to demystify the experts (putting debating mullahs on Muslim satellite t.v.), network and share successful arguments and strategies (especially religious arguments) at meetings like this one, and declare women’s right to participate democratically in remaking cultural and religious meaning themselves. I published a Yale Law Journal article called “Piercing the Veil” on similar efforts to negotiate the impasse between religion and women’s human rights in international law.
Yakin Ertürk, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, delivered a Keynote Address here in which she similarly recognized the need for women to deconstruct culture and religion in order to fight violence against them. “Violence is not only about protection and prosecution, it is about prevention,” Ertürk said. Women must “constantly engage with our cultural and religious daily lives to demystify” them, “creating a public discourse where we really unpack some of the taken for granted discourses that come back as oppressive practices on women.” You can read Ertürk’s influential report exploring the links between culture and violence against women here.
Anwar, the intellectual force behind Musawah, will be coming to the Law School later this spring for a conference on “Democracy and Gender Equality in the Muslim World” jointly organized by Martha Nussbaum and me on May 8-9, 2009. Other women intellectuals and activists present here in Kuala Lumpur this weekend, including Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Mahnaz Afkhami, will also be coming to the May conference at the Law School.
Islamic fundamentalism is a global phenomenon. So, too, is this movement to counter the hegemonic discourse on what it means to be Muslim. This movement, too, has grand ambitions. “Can we dare hope that within the next 10 years,” Anwar asks, “that 25 more Muslim countries in the world will join Morocco in recognizing marriage as a partnership of equals, where we will have the equal right to marry, to divorce, and to the custody of our children?”