From Local to Global: Sisters in Islam and the Making of Musawah: A Global Movement for Equality in the Muslim Family



Sisters in Islam and the Making of Musawah: A Global Movement for Equality in the Muslim Family

Zainah Anwar

1. Herstory

It started with a question: if God is just, if Islam is just, then why do laws and policies made in the name of Islam cause injustice? This was the burning question that faced the founding members of Sisters in Islam (SIS) when we began our search for answers to discrimination against Muslim women made in the name of Islam.

There were eight of us, all active professional women in Kuala Lumpur, outraged at the persistent message of misogyny coming from preachers over the radio and television, and confronted with complaints from women, friends and strangers, about the misogyny they suffered at the hands of religious bureaucrats when seeking redress for their marital problems.1

It was in 1987 that we first met, looking at the problems surrounding the implementation of the Islamic Family Law and the difficulties women faced in accessing their rights under the law. But, as we went on, we realised that working with the law alone was not enough. In religious classes, talks over the radio and television, in interaction with those in the religious departments and Syariah Courts, women were often told that men are superior to women, men have authority over women, a woman must obey her husband, a man has the right to beat his wife, the evidence of two women equals that of one man, the husband has a God-given right to take a second wife and therefore it is a sin for a woman to deny him that right, that a wife has no right to say no to sex with her husband, that hell is full of women because they leave their heads uncovered and are disobedient to their husbands …

Where is the justice for women in all these pronouncements? This question, and, above all, the conviction that Allah could never be unjust, eventually led us back to the primary source of our religion, the Qurʾan. We felt the urgent need to read the Qurʾan for ourselves and to find out if the text actually supported the oppression and ill-treatment of women.

The process SIS went through was a most liberating and spiritually uplifting experience for all of us. We took the path of iqrā (‘read’, the first word revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, cf. Qurʾan 96:1) and it opened a world of Islam that we could recognise, a world for women that was filled with love and mercy, with equality and justice.

For us, it was the beginning of a new journey of discovery. It was a revelation to us that the Qurʾanic verse on polygamy (4:3) explicitly said ‘… if you fear you shall not be able to deal justly with women, then marry only one …’ How is it that one half of the verse, which says a man can have up to four wives, becomes universally accepted as a right in Islam and is codified into law, but the other half, which promotes monogamy, is unheard of – until women begin to read the Qurʾan for themselves. It dawned on us that when men read the verse, they only saw ‘marry up to four wives’. In that phrase, they saw the word of God that validated their desire and their experience. When women read the verse, we clearly saw ‘… if you fear you cannot deal justly with women, then marry only one’. These were the words of Allah that spoke to our fears of injustice. We understood that the supposed right to polygamy was conditional, and that if a man could not fulfil those conditions of equal and just treatment, then Allah said ‘marry only one’. In fact the verse goes on to say that ‘… this will be best for you to prevent you from doing injustice’. What further validation do we need to argue that polygamy is not an unconditional right in Islam, but is actually a responsibility allowed only in very exceptional circumstances?

It was empowering for us to read the Qurʾan through a feminist lens and to discover that our yearning to be treated as human beings of equal worth and dignity were rooted in our tradition, in our faith. We felt validated in our struggle. We were more convinced than ever that it is not Islam that oppresses women, but interpretations of the Qurʾan influenced by cultural practices and values of a patriarchal society, which regard women as inferior and subordinate to men. For much of Islamic history, it is men who have interpreted the Qurʾan and the traditions for us. The woman’s voice, the woman’s experience, the woman’s realities have been largely silent and silenced in the reading and interpretation of the text. This human silence was mistaken as the silence of the text, that is, as if God did not speak to women’s suffering and questioning.

During this initial process of studying and rediscovering our religious texts, we were lucky to have with us a theologian who had completed her Ph.D. thesis on the Qurʾan and women.2 Dr Amina Wadud, an African-American mufassira who was then teaching the Qurʾan in the Department of Revealed Knowledge and Comparative Religion at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, guided us in our reading and understanding of the Qurʾan and its message. We engaged in Qurʾanic hermeneutics, a model which looks at the socio-historical context of revelation as a whole and of relevant Qurʾanic verses, and we looked at syntactical structures and grammatical compositions within the text (how it says what it says), and at the whole text to understand its worldview. From this hermeneutical approach, we derived the values and principles that underlie the Qurʾanic message. It is these values and principles that are universal and eternal and that serve as our guide, rather than the cultural and historical specificities of the seventh-century Arabian context. This experience also gave Dr Wadud an opportunity to develop an interface between her theology and methodology and our experience of the socio-legal context and realities of lived Islam: the problems faced, the contradictions, the challenges of being Muslim women in a modernising society where Islam is increasingly shaping and defining our lives.

This was really the beginning of our struggle to stand up for women’s rights within the Islamic framework. Through our readings, through consultations and studies with Islamic scholars, theologians and jurists, inside and outside the country, we developed a framework and a methodology through which we could stand up and argue for justice and equality for Muslim women in contentious areas such as polygamy, equal rights, dress and modesty, obedience, domestic violence, ḥudūd laws, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and other fundamental liberties.

The work in the Malaysian context was all the more urgent in the late 1980s because women’s groups in the country had formed a coalition to campaign for a domestic violence law, to make domestic violence a crime. The Joint Action Group against Violence against Women (JAG), which was formed in 1985, had come up against opposition from representatives of the federal government’s Islamic Affairs Department, who asserted that such a law could not apply to Muslims because a Muslim man, it was claimed, had a divine right to beat his wife. Therefore, no man-made law could take that right away by making domestic violence a crime.

The verse cited to justify wife-beating was the Qurʾanic verse on nushūz (4:34), commonly interpreted as disobedience, which reads: ‘… As for those from whom you fear nushūz, admonish them, then banish them to beds apart and ‘strike’ them [aḍribuhunna, from the verb ḍaraba] …’ As Muslims brought up to believe in a just God and a just Islam, it was hard for us to believe that God could sanction any injustice, any oppression, any violence against women. Turning back to the original text of the religion and arguing for a nuanced and contextual understanding of the verse became an imperative. When we did our research, it was heart-warming to find that the dominant interpretation of 4:34 that justified domestic violence was inconsistent with the overall Qurʾanic ethos of justice and equality, compassion and mercy; that there were other, equally valid, interpretations of 4:34 that were not premised on allowing domestic violence; that the word ḍaraba was open to many different meanings; and that there was no hadith that reported any act of violence by the Prophet Muhammad against his wives.

2. Knowledge becomes action

Empowered and elated by the liberating message of the Qurʾan, we felt compelled to share our findings with the larger public, in order to break the dominant belief that Islam discriminated against women. We felt it was important that the Malaysian public, and Muslims in particular, become aware of the diversity of interpretations and juristic opinions that exist within the Islamic heritage. And we felt that if we, as Muslims, wanted Islam to be a source of law and public policy, there must be a public debate and discussion on these issues. But how best to do this when there were just eight of us, with no traditional authority and no access to the traditional platforms for religious teaching? The opportunity presented itself in 1990, when the Selangor Syariah Appeal Court in the case of Aishah Abdul Rauf v Wan Mohd Yusof Wan Othman decided that the husband did not have the right to take a second wife as he had not fulfilled all the four conditions under the Islamic Family Law to ensure that justice would be done.3

SIS decided to use this judgment to write to all the newspapers as a strategy to get our alternative voice heard in the public space. The judgment had led to much debate on whether the state had the right to impose man-made restrictions on what was supposedly a God-given right for men to practise polygamy. Many men were critical of the court judgment, but we wanted to welcome this judgment publicly and to explain our position on polygamy.

We felt the best way for us to create a public voice was through the daily newspapers, which reached a wide audience. We also made a calculated decision not to issue a press statement, but to use the ‘letters to the editor’ page, which provided space for longer statements. It was thus in August 1990 that the group officially and publicly became Sisters in Islam, when the eight of us decided to write a letter to the editor welcoming the Syariah Appeal Court judgment and providing an alternative understanding that polygamy is not a man’s right in Islam, but a responsibility.

It was a measure of the news-worthiness of the SIS voice that the letter was published in all four Malaysian mainstream daily newspapers in both English and Bahasa Malaysia.4 It generated a buzz: people were asking each other if they had read it and we proudly admitted to its authorship. The letter, of course, also generated its share of criticism from those who felt that questioning the practice of polygamy was going against God’s teachings.

3. No turning back

But there was no turning back for Sisters in Islam. We continued with our intensive weekly readings and research on the Qurʾanic text, tafsīr literature, Islamic law, Islam and women’s rights. We took classes with other scholars, including another visiting professor at the International Islamic University, the late Dr Fathi Osman,5 the Egyptian legal and Qurʾanic scholar, who was based in Los Angeles.

The focus of the research was to address two issues of urgent concern: equality between men and women and domestic violence. Convinced of the message of equality and justice in Islam, we decided to share our findings in two short question-and-answer booklets: Are Women and Men Equal before Allah? and Are Muslim Men Allowed to Beat their Wives? Given the complexities of understanding a religious text, and our mission to promote an understanding of Islam that recognises the principles of justice and equality, we felt it was important that we communicate with the general public in language that was easy to understand. The first booklet was intended to be a basic understanding of the message of equality in the Qurʾan and how human effort at understanding God’s intent in a patriarchal world has led to inequality. The second booklet was part of the SIS effort to build a Muslim public constituency to support the national campaign by the women’s movement to make domestic violence a crime.

By 1991, these two seminal question-and-answer booklets on women’s rights in Islam were ready to be launched publicly. There was some trepidation about revealing our identities to the public, as we were already being criticised in Islamist publications, especially after our second letter to the editor in 1991 on ‘Islam and women’s rights’, which criticised the misogynistic views of Haji Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual leader of the Islamist party PAS, who asserted that Islam granted men greater ability to lead than women, and that women were best suited to stay at home to look after their husbands and children.6

We knew by then that a struggle for equality and justice for Muslim women, which involved challenging religious orthodoxy and its message of misogyny, was going to be an uphill battle. We were ready to accept the natural consequence of this struggle – that we would be attacked and condemned as going against Islam, God’s teachings and Islamic law. But it was our knowledge and our conviction in a just God and a just Islam, and our outrage that our religion was being misused and abused to maintain patriarchy, that gave us the confidence to come out publicly and be identified individually.

We were lucky to have the support of the then minister in charge of women’s affairs, Datuk Napsiah Omar, who agreed to launch the booklets. The response was tremendous. Over 200 women and men from civil society, academia, government and business attended the launch and the one-day public forum on the rights of women in Islam. Many women told us how heartened they were to hear publicly, for the first time, of an Islam that spoke to their own sense of fairness and justice. The launch received wide media coverage and SIS work took off as the demands for our input on many emerging contentious issues intensified.

This was the 1990s, when the radicalisation of the Islamist movement in Malaysia, and the Islamist party, PAS, in particular, was at its height. In the 1980s, the party’s leadership had been taken over by radicals who demanded that Malaysia be turned into an Islamic state, with the Qurʾan and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad as the Constitution of the country. The success of the Iranian Revolution had provided an impetus to Islamist movements all over the world. By the mid-1980s, PAS was expounding the concept of an Islamic state led by the ʿulamāʾ; it declared the Malaysian Constitution an infidel document and the ruling party an infidel party for being in alliance with non-Muslims. The National Front Malaysian government responded by adopting its own Islamisation policy, using Islam as a source of legitimacy to face the challenge of an Islamist party that was undermining its rule by declaring it a secular government that acted against Islam.

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