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Sisters in Islam–Feminism within Traditional Confines

October 25, 2007 by  


By Geoffrey Cook, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

Berkeley–October 2nd–The full title of the director and founder of the Malaysian founder of the Sisters in Islam talk gave to her speech was “What Islam, Whose Islam? The Struggle for Women’s Rights within a Religious Framework…”

Our lecturer was Zainah, Anwar, the Executive Director of her organization and a recent nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is a prominent intellectual Feminist having formerly served on her country’s Human Rights Commission.

SIS (Sisters In Islam) is a Malaysian Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) committed to human rights and justice for women but within the framework of traditional Islam! Their programs promote legal rights within the rightful laws of Muslims — especially on the impact of polygamy and how it has clouded its rightful place on Family Law. For an Association that has so much influence in Southeast Asia, there are only thirty “card-carrying members” with a few male “fellow travelers.”

More conservative males will often attack her and her organization’s positions in Kuala Lumpur, but women are often the first societal victims of any culture; therefore, the feminine have come to the forefront of social change there and elsewhere in Asia. She asks how do we employ our faith to face modernity? It is contradictory to the Koran to “Say there cannot be [gender] equality.” Too often within the same revered stanza, of course, “There are verses that enforce inequality,” too. There are certain contemporary scholars who are advocating a re-examination of the controversial cantos. Whatever the situation, contemporary women should, also, read the texts for themselves. Many Feminists feel it is futile to struggle for female rights within the Muslim World, but, now, “More [woman] are fighting within the frame of their faith” within the Islamic paradigm while contesting for their and others human rights.

The inspired utterances of inspired script, for the most part, proclaim the parity between men and woman. There is an ethical and spiritual egalitarianism between the sexes in the scriptures of the Mosque. “There is no superiority…one from the other!”

Over the centuries, misinterpretation created repressive edicts. Further, “Women were excluded from the creation of the regulations.” Many Feminists feel that to struggle within the Muslim world is futile. Yet, now, “More [woman] are fighting within their faith” laboring in the Islamic paradigm while contesting for human rights.

They organized SIS in 1987, for “Where was justice for women?” Zainah states that we have to read the Koran for ourselves: “When Sisters read the texts [on our own]…[we] discover!”

The “Rights to polygamy are conditional…not a male ritual!” The Prophet [pbut] remained monogamous during his first wife’s life. Unfortunately, “The law is more about power and politics.” As a Feminist NGO, we must have a voice. We must advocate for more of our share from the Koran. We must be allowed to educate others and ourselves for a more progressive Islam! “The woman’s voice must be singled out” to offer advice on family law, for most of the male “authorities” are professionals (lawyers doctors, etc.) and lack a religious training.

“Human rights have been central to Muslims at all times.” Diversity of Islam is part of its worldwide attractions throughout history. Anwar feels women were depicted as sexual objects rather than spiritual beings. Laws must be refined outside the isolation of the contemporary context. Zainah Anwar is certain that Islamic debate is about to open up. “If religion is to be used in governance than everyone has a right to join the discussion.” Hope lies in dissent. “Public law is to be put up to dispute…how we live our lives in the world is a work in progress.”

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