Sisters in Islam

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.”

Read more…

story-20140110162730-ratnaosmansis2

Ratna Osman’s beaming smile. Photo from Malaysia Tatler magazine.

 

Advertisements

The thin veil of equality

I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmitted into a power that can move the world.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Sex. Religion. Money. Politics. These are the subjects which are traditionally known as taboo subjects at the dinner table. I agree that sometimes it’s far more pleasant to skirt around controversial and potentially explosive topics for the sake of a nice meal and some chit-chat. But by avoiding such issues, it creates a very superficial version of ourselves and in its own way, it can lead to censorship and oppression.

I am an admirer of Irshad Manji. She is a Muslim who considers herself a reformer of the Islam that is practised widely today, the version of Islam that we see on the news, that we see in a veiled woman, that we see under Sharia law. In her book, ‘The Trouble with Islam Today‘, she calls on Muslims to lead not in reforming the Islam that is held in the Qur’an but rather for Muslims to reform themselves. She turns to the practice of ijtihad, a commitment to critical thinking on the context, application and interpretation of the Qur’an. What should be a religion of justice, of equality, of seeking knowledge and of peace has been twisted and distorted into one of violence, of literal interpretation, blind submission and of fear. She writes:

The Trouble with Islam is an open letter from me, a Muslim voice of reform, to concerned citizens worldwide – Muslim and not. It’s about why my faith community needs to come to terms with the diversity of ideas, beliefs and people in our universe, and why non-Muslims have a pivotal role in helping us get there.” – “That doesn’t mean I refuse to be a Muslim, it simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah.

Irshad Manji is Muslim. She is Canadian. She is a journalist. She is a feminist. She is gay. She is not afraid. She is awesome.

She has received death threats, her apartment windows are bullet proof, she does not carry a mobile phone. She has been called “the devil in disguise”, has been subject to vilification and vitriol, but her love for God keeps her going. She recognises and is grateful for the freedoms that are granted to her living in Canada, which are denied in many Muslim or Muslim majority countries. Would she suffer the same treatment if she were a man?

I am blessed to live in a free society, where my views can be considered and contribute to the conversation. As a woman, I am considered as an equal here; a value which is prized in the Qur’an, and promoted by the Prophet Muhammad.

Islam is often regarded as a religion which treats women as second class citizens. I have been to Muslim countries where this is indeed the case. But I’ve also been to Muslim or Muslim majority countries where this isn’t the case, my country of Malaysia, for example. So is it the religion that teaches the discrimination, or is it the culture? Take the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s view on women. He regarded a woman as an ‘unfinished man’. Women were incomplete, and secondary to men, playing a passive role. As the ‘enigmatic philosopher’ Albert Knox writes in Jostein Gaarder’s ‘Sophie’s World’: “Aristotle’s erroneous view of the sexes was doubly harmful because it was his – rather than Plato’s – view that held sway throughout the Middle Ages. The Church thus inherited a view of women that is entirely without foundation in the Bible. Jesus was certainly no woman hater!” As Lesley Hazelton acknowledges in ‘The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad’, it was the all-male clerical elite who ruled after the Prophet’s death: “These men became the gatekeepers of faith, elaborating the principles of islam (emphasis added) into the institution of Islam, often by projecting their own conservatism onto the Qur’an itself.

But as we see daily, in the media, and in our own lives, women in the West also suffer at the hands of the male elite, who aren’t clerics. They are our bosses, our peers, our neighbours, even our friends. Sexism and misogyny exists in our Western world. Women still don’t get equal pay to their male counterparts; they are still subject to sexual harassment in the workplace; women “can’t play football”; they are raped by their husbands or boyfriends; they are told to shut up because they are stupid; they get killed for speaking their views, or because they weren’t attracted to a guy, as what happened in the recent Isla Vista murders.

This week, an acquaintance labelled me an apologist for inviting him in person to discuss our religious or non-religious beliefs. It happened as a result of me posting the story of an inter-faith place of worship in Berlin on Facebook, something which I welcome and champion. He commented that the monotheist faiths are “Great lies” and criticised them for their treatment of women. Upon my response to his comment, willing him to discuss our views in person, he subsequently blocked me on Facebook and ended our acquaintance. The irony of a person speaking out against the treatment of women preventing a woman from challenging his views.

In her remarkable article, “Our Words Are Our Weapons: The Feminist Battle of the Story in the Wake of the Isla Vista massacre”, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that violence against women and abuse of power – from being cut off at the dinner table to murder – should be viewed as a slippery slope, not as incidents independent to one another: “That’s why we need to address that slope, rather than compartmentalizing the varieties of misogyny and dealing with each separately. Doing so has meant fragmenting the picture, seeing the parts, not the whole.”

The Facebook incident has stirred in me a greater question around the treatment of women: that whether such treatment derives from religion or mainstream culture, we need to talk about it.