But it is Asifa Qureishi, an assistant professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in Islamic and U.S. constitutional law, who makes the most telling remark on the hijab debate. “I don’t like women’s dress being a topic of public debate at all. This debate makes me sad,” she says, adding that the true problem is that a non-Muslim made this into a matter of public debate, when Muslims themselves should have been hashing it out.

4:34 p.m. A Qur’anic Interlude

Laleh Bakhtiar, whose English translation of the Qur’an (the first done by a woman) is due out in the spring, brings the session of ijtihad to a close by discussing what she learned about the Qur’an through personal study. Take the controversial verse 4:34. Conventional translation of it reads, “Husbands who fear adversity on the part of wives, admonish them, leave their bed, and beat them.”

But how could the Qur’an instruct men to beat their wives? Bakhtiar asks. After consulting numerous Muslim scholars and conducting her own in-depth study, she concluded that the Arabic root word “drb” (which has always been translated to “beat”) also means “to go away.”

So she translated the verse to be “Husbands who fear adversity on the part of wives, admonish them, leave their bed, and go away.” Now that’s major ijtihad. “We must deal with inconsistencies in the Qur’an,” she says, because the Qur'an is not wrong. The mistakes come, Bakhtiar says, in how we interpret it.

Sunday, Nov. 19
10:15 a.m. Mukhtaran Mai and the Rape Laws of Pakistan

Her story is known around the world. In 2005, Mukhtaran Mai, a poor, illiterate woman, was gang-raped by four men in her village of Meerwala, Pakistan by orders of a local village council as revenge for a crime her young, barely teenaged brother allegedly committed. After the brutal rape, she was forced to walk nearly naked through the streets of her village to her home.

Mai wanted to kill herself, but her mother restrained her. So, in her darkest moment, said her translator, she went to the police to speak up, knowing that there was a death sentence on her. But instead of being killed, the local imam took up her case and denounced the attack in the Friday khutba (sermon).

She has become an international phenomenon, revered by many for her courage, strength, spirituality, and forgiving nature. Her very presence humbles the women at the conference, especially in light of the recent news that Pakistan is voting to amend its strict shariah rape laws.

Mukhtaran Bibi (as she is affectionately known) sits quietly under the hot lights on stage wrapped in a black shawl. She wears the cloak of international attention with grace, but as if she would rather be back in her village of Meerwala building the girls’ schools and health clinics that is now her life’s work.

She just speaks a few words of encouragement to the roomful of powerful, educated Muslim women: “Our only hope is the fight for justice. End oppression with education. To remain ignorant is a crime. To remain apathetic is a crime. It is a crime to avoid oppression. To remain silent about a crime is a crime.”

I am not the only one in tears. She can teach Muslims and non-Muslims more about religious conviction and forgiveness than most imams, priests, rabbis and gurus.

3:30 p.m. A Shura Council

The conference is nearing its end. It’s time for the women to take what they’ve learned and brainstorm the form, function, and purpose of the women’s shura council they hope to develop. This council will be comprised of Islamic scholars and will issue opinions on any question based on research of Islamic scripture--the idea being that this particular council will work hard to offer unbiased Islamic opinion reflective of the religion’s support of women. The women divide up geographically: Africa, Europe, Middle East, and two North America groups.

The discussion is loud and boisterous; the energy is crackling. Everyone has a different idea on how to proceed. Should the council be run by women, or should men be involved? Should geographic regions be represented? How many people should sit on the council? What will be their qualifications? What kind of weight will their opinions hold? These things cannot be decided in an hours’ worth of brainstorming, but it is a significant start.

The European contingency issues a challenge: This project is bigger then just the ASMA society, they say, and the most important thing now is to take the enthusiasm of the conference participants and maintain it in the virtual world as the council takes shape over the next year.

So what will come of this council? And more important, if it does get off the ground, will the opinions of a women’s shura council hold weight in the Muslim world? I’m skeptical, but also hopeful in the powerful energy of these women. If Muslim feminism is simply the push to realize the rights of equality already promised by Islam, then these women will work tirelessly to get the job done.

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