ĎMuhammad was a feministí
Womenís rights in Islam: Interview with Asra Nomani
BY APRIL DEMBOSKY
When Asra Nomani became the first woman in her mosque in
West Virginia to insist on her right to pray
in the male-only main hall, she invited a barrage of criticism from
Islamic leaders. But her actions also got her invited to the first
International Congress on Islamic Feminism, held in October 2005 in
The conference signalled a shift in Nomaniís activism.
From small-town marches in Morgantown, WV, to a national campaign
throughout the US, Nomani is now taking her place within the international
movement for Muslim womenís rights. Having been raised in the US she says,
has given her privileges of education and access to resources that she can
bring to a worldwide movement but sheís quick to point out that these
privileges do not set her apart from Muslim women in Africa and the Middle
East: "There are different degrees of threat but the dynamic of
subordination that we face in our traditional communities is the same. In
Nigeria, women face physical stoning; here they face psychic shaming and
intimidation that can be just as brutal."
But this movement will not follow in the footsteps of
other feminist movements from history. Rooted in religion, the efforts of
Islamic feminists are focused on reclaiming sacred texts by means of a
progressive contemporary interpretation that includes womenís rights.
"Muhammad was a feminist," Nomani says. She intends to prove the point
through her newest project, the Islamic Dream, a website devoted to
Koranic analysis and interpretations from the leading Islamic scholars of
the day, men and women, to create a go-to source for Muslims grappling
with contemporary issues. "Iíve gotten hundreds of emails from people," Ė
from a Muslim woman in the US in love with a Christian man to a man in
Pakistan who is struggling with being gay Ė "asking what can I do?"
Mother Jones talked to Nomani on a Friday, after she
attended prayer service at her local mosque with two other non-Muslim
American women. Together they stood shoulder to shoulder in the main hall,
under the disapproving gaze of the men. In this interview Nomani reports
back on the conference and explains the role American progressives of all
faiths must play in the struggle for Muslim womenís rights. "The
progressive movements in America are completely in sync with the
progressive theology of Islam," she says. "We need to mature and the
larger American progressive community needs to mature with us."
Mother Jones: Tell me a little bit about the
conference. What was the motivation behind it?
Asra Nomani: In the history of womenís rights in
America it was comparable to the Seneca Falls conference, which was a
landmark for establishing womenís rights in the US. One big difference was
that at the Seneca Falls conference, the women of America told the men
that they could attend but had to remain silent. But this conference was
organised and spearheaded by Muslim men who believe that Islam is being
misrepresented when women donít get their full rights in the world. It was
so exciting to (be) at a place where we actually acknowledge this concept
of Islamic feminism because right now itís still this taboo topic. People
donít want to acknowledge it as a legitimate concept.
MJ: Who was there? What was discussed?
AN: There were amazing activists and scholars from
Indonesia to Mali, women that Iíd heard about for years but hadnít met
face to face. When we came together, we embraced each other because weíre
all good friends who are very much alone all the time in our communities
but very like-minded. This was a crowd where we very clearly saw that much
of what is put out in the world in the name of Islam is interpretation,
not godís law. Itís not divinely ordained but really the creation of men.
This is something weíre still putting out there in our communities that
isnít widely accepted. Islam is still considered by many people, including
Muslims, to be monolithic. Weíre challenging the many interpretations that
create this monolithic entity.
Raheel Raza, a native of Pakistan, spoke about her work
fighting religious arbitration courts in Canada that impose the Shariah,
Islamic law, on communities. She was very clear that she is not against
the Shariah but sheís against the interpretations of the Shariah
that, most of the time, demean women. A woman from Senegal talked about
having been in a marriage that was polygamous and suffered greatly from
it. A woman from Malaysia talked about the work theyíre doing on the
ground refuting the theology and interpretations that allow polygamy. A
woman from Mali talked about the work her organisation does through a
radio programme educating women about their right not to have their
clitorises cut off, the surgery that is imposed upon them in the name of
Islam. An inspiring woman from Nigeria talked about the work that her
organisation, BAOBAB, does to get the imams, the prayer leaders of
mosques, to open their minds to the concept of different interpretations.
MJ: How did this congregation of women activists
AN: What I could feel during this conference was that
we are on the verge of a really great opportunity to bring all this really
great work together and create a new approach for Islam in the world.
Because women and men in communities all over the world right now are
challenging interpretations. Now itís time for us to bring it together so
nobody has to start from scratch in any community. So what I introduced in
my presentation was this concept that I called the Islamic Dream, where we
would have a project to bring together all of these interpretations of
Islamic law that are progressive and women-friendly, and give people an
alternative to the type of Islam thatís being practised in the world in
many of our communities.
Since then Iíve been working on trying to make that
happen. Itís not like my activism before where if I just did it, it was a
victory in overcoming my own fears and challenging the status quo. In
order for us to really succeed in putting a new approach out there we need
to make it viable. So Iíve been getting a lot of advice from scholars and
organisational folks in putting something like this out there. Iím hoping
that over the next six months I can come up with a plan to get thinkers
and scholars together under this very simple concept of tawheed,
which is the fundamental principle in Islam of oneness. Tawheed is
vital in ensuring that people are equal in this world and one person isnít
more privileged than the other. This is such an important and missing
concept in a lot of our Muslim society where people denigrate women or
denigrate people of other religions. Enough is enough with all of that.
MJ: In what form do you envision the Islamic Dream
AN: I know that this is the internet age and thatís
how we can connect across this divide of loneliness that separates us. I
got a letter from a woman whoís in love with a Christian man and she asks
me, "Can I marry him?" I want to be able to refer people to a place where
they can see clearly what the scholars say on this, in an interpretation
that allows for plurality and progressive thought. In this instance we can
bring together the many scholars that accept a Muslim woman marrying a
Christian man without his conversion. This is still taboo in our community
and there are so few resources available on the point. Or I get a letter
from a gay man in Pakistan who says, "Can I be gay or do I have to
change?" And I could actually give him the resource and the interpretation
that allow him to accept himself. Thatís what Iím envisioning.
MJ: Who are the main people you have in mind as
AN: Iíve really been inspired by Khaled Abou El Fadl,
a lawyer by training. He is one of the few scholars brave enough to come
right out and acknowledge womenís rights to be imams, to both women and
men. Reza Aslan, an Iranian immigrant whoís written a book called No
god but God. He says very clearly that women are not obligated to
cover their hair with a scarf, which is considered part of the Islamic
code according to so many people. And he takes a brave stand in accepting
homosexuality. Dr Amina Wadud, the woman who lead the prayer in New York,
and Asma Barlas, another professor. They both have done these great
readings of the Koran. Omid Safi, he has written a book on progressive
Islam. In Malaysia, Zainah Anwar from Sisters in Islam. Theyíve already
challenged so much of the family law that denies womenís rights. Kecia
Ali, sheís done really important work on sexuality issues in Islam.
Thereís a lot of really great work out there by great scholars of the day
who are doing their piece of the pie. Now is the time to bring the pie
together so that everybody can share it.
MJ: You mention a lot of men in your list. Do you
think men have a particular role in Islamic feminism that is different
from the role men have played in other feminist movements?
AN: Itís true that in a lot of western feminist
movements you see women working singularly from men. Suffragettes and the
womenís rights movement in the í60s here. But when I think of the Islamic
feminist movement, I think of a lot of men who are very much standing with
the women. It really feels like in equal numbers. Women are catching up in
the field because we were not given access to knowledge and encouraged
into these studies and so these men are helping us and empowering us. They
are men of conscience who are fed up with this assumption that theyíre
In our world the men stand with us. And they know that we
need them and we know that we need them. Other men turn on them. They are
ostracised, theyíre mocked, theyíre ridiculed. They go through their own
hell for supporting us. But they back us up and we definitely are stronger
because of it.
MJ: Youíve said before that "Intolerance toward women
is like the canary in the coal mine for intolerance toward other people."
AN: When we think about Islamic feminism, it is not
just about womenís rights. Itís about a more progressive and tolerant
expression of Islam in the world for all people. Itís about kindness and
goodness to all people. Womenís rights is one aspect of it, itís not the
end-all, but I also think that the womenís issue is the strongest entry
point that weíve got to challenging extremism. You raise a womanís issue
and you get the backs of the conservatives up against the wall faster than
just about any other issue in our community. Itís the fastest path that
weíve got to making change happen. If as women we stand up, day in and day
out, day after day, then we really force the extremists to confront their
MJ: In what ways do you think US Muslim womenís
concerns differ from Muslim women in Africa and the Middle East?
AN: I think that we donít have as much threat to our
physical and economic livelihood as women in other parts of the world. But
the continuum is the same. The pressures on women to fit into a certain
image of a good Muslim girl is the same. The controls and rules are the
same but there are different degrees of it. So in America a father will
threaten a daughter that he will disown her if she marries the American
boyfriend and in Pakistan she faces acid thrown on her face. The power
dynamic is the same, it just expresses itself differently.
MJ: What role do American Muslim women play in the
international Islamic feminist movement?
AN: Personally, I get so much of my inspiration from
women in other countries so I donít feel like we are the leaders and I
donít agree with the notion that Americans can accomplish more or do more.
These women are so far ahead of where we are as American Muslims in
affirming and asserting their rights in the world. But I do think that
what we can uniquely do here in America is mobilise and galvanise a lot of
these ideas and resources. Itís a war of ideas. We are very well supported
in this country, by institutions, academic and non-profit, that are
already in the field, endorsing womenís rights and tolerance. We have
skills and resources from growing up in America, to raise funds or build
websites or publish papers or develop big picture plans. We can publish
op-eds in newspapers that get wide circulation to send strong messages out
to the world. The women in other communities have been the pioneers in
this work. Theyíre putting out newsletters and guidebooks and media points
but I believe that a lot of the war right now is on getting the ideas out
there through books and newspaper articles and interviews. In America
weíve got the machinery to do that.
MJ: Some critics have charged that Islamic feminism is
unduly influenced by western social trends. And yet women from the
congress in Barcelona say that this is a movement coming from within
Islam. Do you think that itís strictly one or the other or could it
possibly be both?
AN: Talk to me 20 years ago and I had a complete sense
of illegitimacy as an American Muslim. I felt like I wasnít authentic. But
I donít understand and I donít believe or subscribe to this idea that I
donít have a right to speak as a Muslim because Iím an American. I donít
speak Arabic but Osama bin Laden does and I donít consider him a more
authentic Muslim than I am. Being Muslim is to accept and honour the
diversity that we have in this world, culturally and physically and
linguistically because thatís what Islam teaches, that we are people of
many tribes. I think the American Muslim experience is of a different
tribe than the Saudi Muslim world but that doesnít make us less than
MJ: In that sense, when you look ahead to your idea
for the Islamic Dream, why is collaboration among women from different
countries so important?
AN: I think thereís probably going to be a lot of
differences when it comes to implementation because that is going to be
uniquely cultural. Communities are all going to evolve differently from
each other but at the conference we hit just about every hot button issue,
like homosexuality and women imams, capital punishment, terrorism, sex,
and I think in all of these, thereís consensus out there. Whatís going to
have to get worked out is developing where thereís common ground and then
allowing places where thereís difference to get worked out over time.
MJ: And what about women and men who are not Muslim.
What role do they have, if any?
AN: One of our greatest challenges here in America (is
that) progressives donít always stand with the progressive Muslims because
in the interest of freedom of religion and civil liberties and political
correctness they donít want to offend cultural choices by Muslims. I know
that people have gone to these interfaith sessions at different mosques
and they see that the women end up in the basement but they donít want to
challenge anyone because they think, "Oh, well this is your way."
But weíre standing up for women in the community and weíre
saying, "This isnít our way, this isnít the right way, this isnít
the Islamic way," and yet itís really hard for people who think of
themselves as outsiders to weigh in. We have to evolve all of us. When we
stand up against sexism and prejudice in a Muslim community, weíre
standing up against ideas, not an entire group of people or the whole
faith. We have to mature and the larger American progressive community
needs to mature with us. Progressive Americans need to know that they
really are needed in this struggle to encourage more inclusive and
tolerant expressions of Islam in this world.
(April Dembosky is a freelance writer and former editorial
fellow at Mother Jones magazine. This article appeared in December