“You must be responsible for what you do, as well as for what you don’t do.“
– Seyran Ates, muslim feminist
During a visit to Malaysia last year, I was very fortunate to spend some time volunteering at Sisters In Islam, an NGO that advocates the rights of muslim women predominantly in Malaysia, with many networks across the muslim world.
I came across them through an article on Facebook that a friend had posted. I can’t quite remember its content but I remember feeling particularly heartened by what they were saying. They were muslim women who believed in reform in Islam, as well as the application of critical thinking and common sense when it comes to the practice of Islam. They appeared open, liberal, spiritual and erudite. I knew that I had to contact them.
It was through my voluntary work that I met and got to know Ratna Osman, the then Executive Director of SIS. My first proper occasion with her was going to Australia Day celebrations just beside the Petronas twin towers, right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. It was during the car journey that she told me a little bit about her life story, that she had gone from a path of extremism to one of reform. Those few minutes of listening to her encouraged me to later interview her for Together magazine.
If you have followed my blog over the years, you probably know that I am very much an admirer of Irshad Manji, whose work in trying to prevent Islam from being hijacked by extremists has put her life at risk. Thus through SIS, I learnt about other incredible muslim feminists, like the American Amina Wadud, who led Friday prayers of a mixed gender congregation, and the Iranian Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who writes and teaches extensively on gender equality in Islam. These women, Ratna Osman, and Sisters In Islam give me hope. Their voice, intellect and courage are much needed in this time when we are asking, what does it mean to be muslim?
Perhaps my tardiness at uploading my articles comes at an opportune time. This week I met Seyran Ates, a German lawyer of Turkish decent, at a debate on the integration of migrants. She has written books on Islamic reform, one notably called ‘Islam needs a sexual revolution‘. At 21 years of age, she was shot in the neck because of her work at a womens’ shelter. Today, she lives under police protection. Her devotion to show the moderate, tolerant, peaceful side of Islam is worth more than her own life. She believes that she has to take on the responsibility of being a role model, not only to young muslims (and in particularly female ones) but also to the rest of society. Next year, she will open a mosque in Berlin.
This week’s blog post is dedicated to the sisters in Islam: the women like Ratna, like Seyran, who despite the rise in extremism, don’t give up on their faith, and work even harder to understand it and tell us about it.
The interview with Ratna Osman is my first ever interview for the magazine. Of all my articles, it is the one I am most proud of. Read the article in full online, or it is also on p. 44 of the magazine. Below is a short extract to get you started.
Until next week, happy reading!
Sisters in Islam: In search of peace – Gemma Rose learns about Ratna Osman’s journey from extremism to reformism
The first thing I notice about Ratna Osman – the Executive Director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a Muslim women’s NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – is her hijab, or tudung in Malay. It’s not quite a hijab in the traditional sense where only her face is left uncovered. Rather, her hair is covered in a wrap leaving her whole neck visible. Ratna has worn the headscarf since the age of 15. “I used to say that once I reach 50, I’ll take it off because then I would be considered an old woman,” she recalls to me, “but now that I’m approaching 50, I still think I’m quite young!” she giggles. Her beaming smile is the second thing I notice. It’s broad, complemented by dimples, on a face that exhibits much warmth and hospitality. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever take it off,” she reflects. “It’s become part of my identity.”
The headscarf remains a controversial issue in Muslim majority Malaysia, where it is not compulsory. In her youth, Ratna felt ostracized from her peers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, for covering her hair. “I was part of a small minority wearing it at that time,” she explained. “I was laughed at, jeered at, made uncomfortable. A teacher told me to take it off because it was an obstruction. Most of my close friends stayed away from me. It was quite a lonely world,” she says. “Now, it’s the other way around.” She refers to cases where Muslim girls at school have been harassed for exposing their hair. “And I feel for those who are not covered. They have the right to dress as they are because I believe in the freedom of choice, and that nobody needs to dictate to another human being. Only God can do that.”
Ratna Osman’s beaming smile. Photo from Malaysia Tatler magazine.