“I feel like someone opened a window into my mind and let in the fresh air. It feels so good!” The young Egyptian woman and I were among 250 activists and scholars from 47 countries brought together in mid-February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the launch of Musawah, a global movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family.
How lucky that young woman is, I thought. Just over 20 years ago, I felt as though I had to smash the window into my mind open myself, fists bleeding and bruised, to catch some of that fresh air. She’s in her mid-20s, I’m in my early 40s. When I was a little younger than she is now my family lived in Saudi Arabia, where I became a feminist at the age of 19. It was both a survival mechanism and a rebellion. And it was the first step on a journey, equally exciting and painful, toward finding my own Islam.
There were times on that lonely journey when it felt that I needed nothing short of mental somersaults to remain in a religion that discriminated against me, or at the darkest of times, seemed to hate me. What else was I supposed to deduct from centuries of male-dominated and too often misogynistic interpretations of Islam that for every page of a man’s obligations and duties wrote two for women. These misinterpretations took the faith far off the path that was set more than 14 centuries ago, when, we are taught, Islam gave women rights that made them the envy of women in Europe’s Dark Ages.
Where is the solace in a faith you feel hates you? Why would God create me as a woman and then punish me for it? Nineteen-year-old me was full of those questions which I didn’t dare put into words. I was terrified for even thinking them. I was pulling at a string I knew would leave too many taboos naked.
And so I scrambled for spiritual sustenance and found it in three of my earliest heroes – the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, the Egyptian-American Islamic scholar Leila Ahmed and the Sudanese-American scholar Abdullahi An-Na’im. Notice I include a man in there too. For a long time, I flatly refused to read anything written by Muslim men. They’d dominated the conversation for too long. But through the work of scholars like An-Na’im and the Egyptian Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, I learned that some men could be as feminist as the best of us!
Another signpost – attending the United Nations conference on women in Beijing in 1995 where the Iranian- American women’s rights activist Mahnaz Afkhami signed my copy of the book she had just edited called “Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World.” It brought together in book form many of my heroes in the way that Musawah would later bring them together in Kuala Lumpur.
Those early heroes prepared me well for an event four years ago exactly that I realize now was the last tug at the string of taboos. On March 18, 2005, Amina Wadud, an American scholar of Islam, became the first woman on record to lead a public, mixed- gender Friday prayer. For many of us 50 women and 50 men whom she led, it was one of the most moving moments of our lives.
What a thrill it was to stand before God as the spiritual equal of the male congregants – praying together, not behind the men and not in another room – with a woman leading us. Talking of fists and fresh air – for years I had been engaged in a seemingly endless bout over women’s rights with a male-dominated Islam, neither one of us able to deal that knockout blow. Amina Wadud dealt it for me. So no wonder when I met her again in Kuala Lumpur I was like a star-struck teenager.
And there I was marveling too at the sight of Zainah Anwar, Musawah project manager and former head of Sisters in Islam, the Malaysian organization that hosted the Kuala Lumpur conference that launched Musawah, which means “equality” in Arabic. She joined my constellation of stars when I saw a television profile of her in which she educated Malaysian women about their God-given rights in Islam as a way to empower them to stand up to judges, husbands and any other men who tried to use Islam against them.
When European women were mere chattel, Muslim women gained the right to inherit and own property. But now the descendants of those women who envied Muslim women in the 7th century have moved far ahead. Where is that spirit of the early days of Islam?
Ziba Mir-Husseini – another hero whose name at the top of an essay always signals fresh air – put it simply: There will be no justice for women as long as patriarchy is not separated from Islamic legal texts.
Wadud and Mir-Husseini are just two of many Muslim women scholars who are reinterpreting our religion. Their work throws down the gauntlet to 21st century Islamic legal tradition, which now has to meet the feminist challenge from within. It’s not anti- Muslim outsiders who are demanding change, but us women who at Musawah celebrated the years we had worked at baring our taboos.
We are not alone of course. Orthodox Jewish women and Catholic women are also demanding to clear the deck of misogyny and patriarchy. In her new book “Taking Back God: American women rising up for religious equality,” Leora Tanenbaum takes you on a tour of that struggle.
One of her interviewees, and another hero of mine, beautifully summed up the efforts of us women who won’t stop wrestling with and for our faith. “A pearl is a precious thing. It’s created as a result of irritation by sand,” Francis Kissling, a longtime activist for reform in the Catholic Church’s position on women, sexuality and reproduction, told us at Musawah. “We are all millions of grains of sand that will create pearls of the future.”