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Friday, April 24, 2009

In Quest for Equal Rights, Muslim Women’s Meeting Turns to Islam’s Tenets

From the New York Times

February 16, 2009

In Quest for Equal Rights, Muslim Women’s Meeting Turns to Islam’s Tenets


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The religious order banning women from dressing like tomboys was bad enough. But the fatwa by this country’s leading clerics against yoga was the last straw.

“They have never even done yoga,” said Zainah Anwar, a founder of a Malaysian women’s rights group called Sisters in Islam.

Ms. Anwar argues that the edict, issued late last year by the National Fatwa Council of Malaysia, is pure patriarchy. Islam, she says, is only a cover.

It was frustrations like those that drew several hundred Muslim women to a conference in this Muslim-majority country over the weekend. Their mission was to come up with ways to demand equal rights for women. And their tools, however unlikely, were the tenets of Islam itself.

“Secular feminism has fulfilled its historical role, but it has nothing more to give us,” said Ziba Mir-Hosseini, an Iranian anthropologist who has been helping to formulate some of the arguments. “The challenge we face now is theological.”

The advocates came from 47 countries to participate in the project, called Musawah, the Arabic word for equality. They spent the weekend brainstorming and learning the best Islamic arguments to take back to their own societies as defenses against clerics who insist that women’s lives are dictated by men’s strict interpretations of Islam.

“We are trying to develop a new language, offer it to the world and use it,” said Marwa Sharafeldin, an activist from Egypt.

Ms. Anwar, the main organizer, said her group was almost alone when she started it 20 years ago, but now it is one of many. “It’s a movement whose time has come.”

The repression comes not from the Koran, the women argue, but from the human interpretation of it, in the form of Islamic law, which has ossified over the centuries while their globalized lives have galloped ahead. So they are going back to the original text, arguing that its emphasis on justice makes the case for equality.

“Feminist Islamic scholarship is trying to unearth the facts that were there,” Ms. Mir-Hosseini told a room of eager activists Sunday. “We can’t be afraid to look at legal tradition critically.”

She referred to the work of Muslim intellectuals, like Nasr Abu Zayd of Egypt and Abdolkarim Soroush of Iran, reformers who argue that the Koran must be read in a historical context, and that laws derived from it can change with the times. Their ideas are controversial, and both are in exile in the West.

Ms. Mir-Hosseini argues that Muslim societies are trapped in a battle between two visions of Islam: one legalistic and absolutist that emphasizes the past; the other pluralistic and more inclined toward democracy. She said that in Iran reformers were gaining ground, but that President Bush’s antagonism toward the country ended up strengthening hard-liners there.

“It’s really a struggle between two world views,” she said, adding that time was on the side of the women.

It was the rise of political Islam that brought the women together. As Malaysia’s progressive family laws began to be rolled back in the late 1980s, Ms. Anwar and several other women formed a Koran reading group.

“There is an understanding that mullahs know best, that you cannot speak,” Ms. Anwar said. “Muslim women’s groups are coming out to challenge that authority.”

Some scholars argued that the effort sounded unrealistic and would have no impact, mainly because it appeared to ignore more than a thousand years of Islamic legal scholarship and practice. Religious authorities are the only ones with the power to interpret laws, and circumventing that well-entrenched system would require replacing it altogether.

“This kind of argument is being made at the margins of the Islamic world,” said Bernard Haykel, an expert on Islamic law at Princeton University. “It has shape and form, but no substantive content. There’s no real way of actually bringing about these changes.”

But others made the case that change, though incremental, was happening at the grass-roots level in a number of Muslim societies. Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who attended the conference, argues that women’s movements are making progress, as girls’ education levels increase and the Western world is a click away on satellite television. Women are even taking positions in religious institutions, she said: a woman has headed the Shariah College at Qatar University.

“It’s a slow shift,” said Ms. Coleman, whose book on the topic, “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: Women and Reform in the Middle East,” is to be published by Random House in 2010. “It’s just beginning to come together as a movement.”

There have been some successes. In Morocco, sweeping changes of family law in favor of women went into effect in 2004. Critics argued that it was possible only because the country’s king approved it, but Moroccan activists said it never would have happened if they had not spent years lobbying and formulating legal arguments, some of them based on Islamic tenets.

That has had ripple effects. Elaheh Koolaee, a professor from the University of Tehran who formerly served in Iran’s Parliament, said that Iranian women had been watching the Moroccan example and that a Muslim success was an invaluable tool. “It’s important for us to show positive experiences from within Muslim societies that are not from the U.S. or Europe,” she said.

Ms. Mir-Hosseini said she believed that change was coming, and that it was just a matter of when.

“There’s so much tension and energy there now,” she said. “It will be a flood.”

Op-Ed: Islam, Virgins and Grapes

The New York Times

April 23, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist

Islam, Virgins and Grapes

In Afghanistan, 300 brave women marched to demand a measure of equal rights, defying a furious mob of about 1,000 people who spat, threw stones and called the women “whores.” The marchers asserted that a woman should not need her husband’s consent to go to school or work outside the home.

In Pakistan, the Taliban flogged a teenage girl in front of a crowd, as two men held her face down in the dirt. A video shows the girl, whose “crime” may have been to go out of her house alone, crying piteously that she will never break the rules again.

Muslim fundamentalists damage Islam far more than any number of Danish cartoonists ever could, for it’s inevitably the extremists who capture the world’s attention. But there is the beginning of an intellectual reform movement in the Islamic world, and one window into this awakening was an international conference this week at the University of Notre Dame on the latest scholarship about the Koran.

“We’re experiencing right now in Koranic studies a rise of interest analogous to the rise of critical Bible studies in the 19th century,” said Gabriel Said Reynolds, a Notre Dame professor and organizer of the conference.

The Notre Dame conference probably could not have occurred in a Muslim country, for the rigorous application of historical analysis to the Koran is as controversial today in the Muslim world as its application to the Bible was in the 1800s. For some literal-minded Christians, it was traumatic to discover that the ending of the Gospel of Mark, describing encounters with the resurrected Jesus, is stylistically different from the rest of Mark and is widely regarded by scholars as a later addition.

Likewise, Biblical scholars distressed the faithful by focusing on inconsistencies among the gospels. The Gospel of Matthew says that Judas hanged himself, while Acts describes him falling down in a field and dying; the Gospel of John disagrees with other gospels about whether the crucifixion occurred on Passover or the day before. For those who considered every word of the Bible literally God’s word, this kind of scholarship felt sacrilegious.

Now those same discomfiting analytical tools are being applied to the Koran. At Notre Dame, scholars analyzed ancient texts of the Koran that show signs of writing that was erased and rewritten. Other scholars challenged traditional interpretations of the Koran such as the notion that some other person (perhaps Judas or Peter) was transformed to look like Jesus and crucified in his place, while Jesus himself escaped to heaven.

One scholar at the Notre Dame conference, who uses the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg for safety, has raised eyebrows and hackles by suggesting that the “houri” promised to martyrs when they reach Heaven doesn’t actually mean “virgin” after all. He argues that instead it means “grapes,” and since conceptions of paradise involved bounteous fruit, that might make sense. But suicide bombers presumably would be in for a disappointment if they reached the pearly gates and were presented 72 grapes.

One of the scholars at the Notre Dame conference whom I particularly admire is Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, an Egyptian Muslim who argues eloquently that if the Koran is interpreted sensibly in context then it carries a strong message of social justice and women’s rights.

Dr. Abu Zayd’s own career underscores the challenges that scholars face in the Muslim world. When he declared that keeping slave girls and taxing non-Muslims were contrary to Islam, he infuriated conservative judges. An Egyptian court declared that he couldn’t be a real Muslim and thus divorced him from his wife (who, as a Muslim woman, was not eligible to be married to a non-Muslim). The couple fled to Europe, and Dr. Abu Zayd is helping the LibForAll Foundation, which promotes moderate interpretations throughout the Islamic world.

“The Islamic reformation started as early as the 19th century,” notes Dr. Abu Zayd, and, of course, it has even earlier roots as well. One important school of Koranic scholarship, Mutazilism, held 1,000 years ago that the Koran need not be interpreted literally, and even today Iranian scholars are surprisingly open to critical scholarship and interpretations.

If the Islamic world is going to enjoy a revival, if fundamentalists are to be tamed, if women are to be employed more productively, then moderate interpretations of the Koran will have to gain ascendancy. There are signs of that, including a brand of “feminist Islam” that cites verses and traditions suggesting that the Prophet Muhammad favored women’s rights.

Professor Reynolds says that Muslim scholars have asked that conference papers be translated into Arabic so that they can get a broader hearing. If the great intellectual fires are reawakening within Islam, after centuries of torpor, then that will be the best weapon yet against extremism.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Picture of the Week: Islam's Soft Revolution

Couples gather in the evening on Cairo's Qasr el-Nil Bridge.
Olivia Arthur / Magnum for TIME

Lover's Bridge

Couples gather in the evening on Cairo's Qasr el-Nil Bridge. Though there are no chaperones present, there are police, and public dispays of affection are not allowed in general. Couples who retire to a more private park nearby are watched by a man with a whistle.

Related Article.

Young Adults 'Don't Want to be Defined by Gender, Orientation'

From USA Today - April 19, 2009

Young adults 'don't want to be defined by gender, orientation'

By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

CHICAGO — Sexual orientation and sexual labels. Gender crossing and
gender bending. These aren't X-rated or adults-only topics but rather
subjects that young people talk about as they figure out where they
fit in, said a panel of experts at a weekend conference of the Council
on Contemporary Families here.

"Youth are saying they don't want to be defined by gender or
orientation," Chicago psychologist Braden Berkey told those attending
a panel on "Gender in the Next Generation" on the final day of the
conference Saturday.

Berkey is founding director of the Sexual Orientation and Gender
Institute at the Center on Halsted, which opened in 2007 to offer
support services and programming for the area's lesbian, gay, bisexual
and transgender community. He talked about the evolution of sexual and
gender labels and how young people today are trying to dissolve them.
He says the terms created in the early days, such as lesbian, gay,
bisexual and transgender, are giving way to other descriptions, such
as polygender or multisex. Young people, he says, reject narrow gender
definitions and say they don't want to be defined by their sexuality.

However, a presentation by sociologist Barbara Risman of the
University of Illinois at Chicago suggested that for the
middle-schoolers she's studied, attitudes about sexual orientation are
less open-minded, especially for boys. She says these boys fear the
label "gay."

Among boys, "homophobia in middle school is used to police gender," she says.

In-depth interviews with 43 students at an urban middle school in the
Southeast found vast differences between the sexes.

"Today, girls are free to do sports and be competitive. No one thought
they had to play dumb to get a boyfriend. The women's movement has
done great things for middle school girls," she says.

"It's another story with boys. I feel like we're in a time warp. We
have not dealt with men and masculinity in a serious enough way," she

"Boys police each other. There's no room not to do anything not
traditionally masculine."

Risman says it's important not to generalize the findings to most
American children, but she says the fact that boys are labeled quickly
suggests that this is a developmental stage. The study, she adds, was
limited by many rules requiring parental permission for contact with

Risman says it's the stigma of homosexuality that looms among young
boys. Being emotional or caring too much about clothes or liking to
dance are reasons that boys give for describing someone as "girlish,"
she says.

Berkey suggests that we're living in a "post-gay world" where gay
celebrities can hawk products that traditionally have been marketed as
attractive to the opposite sex. He suggests that society has advanced
to the point that companies don't worry about anti-gay bias when
seeking spokespeople for products. As examples, he mentioned openly
gay actor Neil Patrick Harris as a spokesman for the traditionally
male Old Spice deodorant and lesbian talk show host Ellen DeGeneres,
who is a spokeswoman for Cover Girl cosmetics.

Find this article at:

Valentine's Day Across the Muslim World (2012)