It's hardly news that the Muslim world is under the global microscope and is embroiled in a fierce inter-faith and intra-faith struggle. Every day Muslim issues are fodder for the daily news: The problem of extremism, the hijab controversy in Europe, the emergence of an “American Islam,” and the struggles (and triumphs) of Muslim women to exercise the rights that their religion grants them.
It is the latter issue that led the ASMA Society (American Society for Muslim Advancement) to gather more than 100 of the savviest, smartest, most motivated, and influential Muslim women from around the world for the first Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity (WISE) conference. They met on a November weekend at a hotel in New York’s Times Square to gather courage from each other, create a positive change in the Muslim world, and develop a women’s council to issue religious opinions.
Beliefnet’s Islam editor Dilshad D. Ali attended the conference and offers reflections on the weekend in this blog.
Saturday, Nov. 18
8:30 a.m. Under the Microscope
All the influential Muslim women I’ve ever wanted to meet are in this conference hall for two jam-packed days of networking, speeches, arguments, dialogue, and brainstorming. One look at the list of panelists (everyone from Baroness Uddin, the first Muslim women to be elected to the British House of Lords, to Ingrid Mattson, the Islamic Society of North America’s first women president, is here) and the things they will be discussing, and I know that something big is about to happen.
The women are excited and ready for the long day ahead. One thought permeates the room: Let’s get it on.
11:40 a.m. Agreeing to Disagree
Here’s a fact non-Muslims may be unaware of: Muslims don’t all practice their religion in the same way. I’m listening to a fascinating group of Muslim women leaders discussing ways to empower yourself. And on the stage sits Ingrid Mattson, the recently elected first women president of the Islamic Society of North America. She has described her rise to the top, but the questions she's fielding have little to do with women's self-empowerment.
Since becoming ISNA’s president, Mattson has received praise from most Muslims for her trail-blazing achievement. But she's also had her share of detractors from some Muslim women, who feel her more conservative stance on female imams and women-led prayers doesn’t make her the best example of a progressive Muslim woman.
But Mattson is a pro at answering a question without stoking controversy. When a questioner asks her to share her beliefs on female imams (Mattson doesn’t support the idea), she points the audience to her position paper online, and explains that she bases her viewpoint on the sunnah (practices) of the Prophet Muhammad.
The audience is getting nervous, knowing that this could turn into a showdown between progressive and moderate feminist ideas. The next woman asks Mattson to explain her views on women leading mixed-gender prayers (she opposes it), and Mattson again successfully deflects controversy by urging the conferees to agree to disagree: “Some women lead prayer, others choose not to. Can we be okay with it? Women should be allowed to have the same success and failures.
“I just want a level playing field,” Mattson says. I couldn’t agree more.
1:30 p.m. Practical Spirituality?
So much of what the women here are grappling with here is exhausting and draining. And so a session on spirituality with six noted Sufi Muslims seems just the ticket to helping the conference participants replenish their spiritual well.
The Sufi scholars on stage almost seem like they live in a different, ethereal world. They look like they’re high on God, and they want to help us achieve that feeling. Do they know some spiritual secret that we don’t?
As women line up to ask questions of the panelists, Fareena Alam, managing editor of England’s Q-News magazine, poses a question that ignites the women while mystifying the Sufi scholars: “[Muslim] youth in England are angrier and angrier. And the word on the street is ‘Don’t join a gang, become a terrorist.’ " How do we reach out to these kids? Alam asks.
After Alam, another woman ups the ante by asking the Sufi scholars, "How do we develop practical spirituality to help us in our daily lives?" Here’s a real problem: Can we reach disenfranchised Muslim youth with practical spirituality? How do we teach youth that Islam is a tolerant, loving, spiritual religion?
The Sufi panelists recite beautiful passages in melodious voices and list names of influential Sufi scholars and masters for us to study and emulate. But it’s not the answer that Alam, and the rest of the women, are looking for. Alam later says to me that Sufi meditation, though nice, is not going to make a difference with angry Muslim youth. “We’ve got to figure out how to show them a different way,” she says.
3:40 p.m. The Hijab Controversy
I look at the schedule, and all it says is "ijtihad," which means exercising personal judgment on issues based on the Qur’an and sunnah. But it’s a loaded word, because every Muslim does ijtihad with varying results.
Take the matter of the hijab. Daisy Khan, the conference organizer, is the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. She doesn’t wear hijab, and has said in interviews that she made that decision after doing ijtihad and coming to the conclusion that she dresses and acts modestly without having to cover her hair.
For others, doing ijtihad of those verses in the Qur’an and the hadith passages that pertain to modest dress has resulted in the choice to wear a headscarf (or a burkha, or even a niqab, or face veil). And this brings up an interesting dilemma: One woman asks the panel of Islamic law and Qur’an scholars for their opinion on the by-now well-known comment of Jack Straw, a member of British parliament who last month said the face veil is a “visible statement of separation and of difference” and asked women visiting him to consider removing it.
Panelist Ziba Mir Hosseini, an Iranian anthropologist and expert on family law, reveals to the conference participants that “I agree with Jack Straw.” Even more surprising, half of the audience breaks out in applause. Wearing the niqab impedes communication, Hosseini says, adding that if someone in her classroom is wearing one, she asks the student to remove it. When a woman goes to Mecca to perform the Hajj, her face must be uncovered, Hosseini points out.
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.
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.