Gender equality in Islam faces rocky road, says activist

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March 17, 2009

6:11 PM

Islamic scholar and activist Zainah Anwar spoke to College William and Mary students in the Commonwealth Auditorium Monday night about inequality and injustice toward women and the family in patriarchal Islam.

As a Muslim woman, Anwar has dedicated her career to advocating for gender equality in the Islamic world. She founded and directed Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian non-governmental organization that seeks to educate women about equal rights and opportunities in the Muslim world.

Anwar recently left Sisters in Islam to direct a global movement and organization, Musawah. In Arabic, “musawah” means equality, and the organization’s goal is to “show how revolutionary Islam is in terms of women’s rights, pushing for family and women laws that support equality,” Anwar told the audience.

She argued that the Quran does not contribute to the oppression of Islamic women; rather, oppression comes from modern patriarchal Islam.

“There are tensions within the Muslim community as to whose Islam is the right Islam,” Anwar said. “Islam is increasingly shaping and redefining Muslim lives and it is women’s groups that are at the forefront of challenging Islamic political oppression.”

Musawah uses passages directly from and the scriptures of the Quran to justify gender equality.

“The verses of creation talk about the pairs of creation. The male and female must both be necessary; one does not come from another and one is not part of another. Superiority is not attributed to either men or women,” Anwar said. “The belief of some Islamists is that because men and women are not the same, they cannot be equal, but men and women complement each other and therefore have separate and distinct roles to play.”

Anwar said the Islamic gender equality movement faces a rocky road.

“Some say we do not have a right to speak on Islam because we have not been educated the traditional way and because we do not speak Islam and because we do not cover our head and do not impose western values on eastern ways,” she said. “[Some believe] it is dangerous to offer different interpretations of Islam because there may be a divide among the community that could lead to disunity.”

In the past two decades, Anwar said, many have challenged gender inequality in Islam.

“Scholars and writers and political actors are beginning to debate Islamic politics in the public,” she said. “The public space and debate about Islamic issues has to open up in order to begin the equality of women.”

Anwar also argued that gender inequality is a problem in many religions.

“The challenge is not just for Muslims, but for Christians, Hindus, and Jews,” she said. “The answers can be found within our faith if we strive for a more enlightened and progressive state in the changing times and circumstances.”

Anwar was the first speaker of a series funded by the Wendy and Emery Reeves Center for International Studies and the Program in Comparative Legal Studies and Post-Conflict Justice.

She spoke again at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law on Tuesday.

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