Zainah Anwar - In search of what Islam really says
The nation’s leading Muslim feminist activist explains what drove her to open the Quran and search for answers to what it means to be Muslim and feminist.
I AM an eternal optimist. I cannot believe that anyone would not want a world where everyone is treated as a human being of equal worth and dignity. I don’t understand why this should be a problem. I don’t understand how anyone can use God to justify injustice and oppression of half of the human race. And yet, religion, be it Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, is often used to justify discrimination against women.
I remember when I first decided to re-read the Quran with feminist lens. I wanted to know if God truly regarded women as inferior to men, if God really said a man had a right to beat his wife, a right to take four wives, a right to demand obedience, a right to force a woman to submit to his sexual commands. I was tired of listening to women complaining to me of their miseries in marriage, and then sighing in helplessness, “but that’s what Islam says”.
I was brought up with an utter faith in a God that is just. Any gender discrimination I suffered was always understood to be due to culture and tradition, never religion. The idea that injustice towards women can be justified in the name of God is an affront to my faith.
The rise of political Islam in Malaysia in the 1980s where a return to “authentic” Islam means Muslim women must be treated as inferior to men, and demands for equality and justice for women were regarded as alien western values, drove me to open the Quran and to search for answers to what it means to be Muslim and feminist.
For me, this was the most liberating and spiritually uplifting experience. I remember to this day the excitement I felt when I discovered the verse on polygamy ends by saying, “if you fear you cannot do justice, marry only one; that will be best for you to prevent you from doing injustice”.
That was the word of God that spoke to me as a woman who felt the pain of friends whose husbands or fathers took second wives, as a woman who could not understand why polygamy is seen as a man’s right given the destruction it causes to family life.
I brought the Quran to the office to share my excitement with colleagues. One friend, a philanderer, refused to read the verse for himself. He said I was talking rubbish, it was not in the Quran. I shoved the Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation under his nose and asked him to read Surah an-Nisa, verse 3. “Look, look, read it,” I said. He adamantly refused.
I was stunned. My God, your philandering ways as you scout for a second wife cannot be undermined in any way, not even by a verse in the Quran, I thought.
I then brought the Quran to another colleague and told her what the verse said and asked her to read it. I waited in anticipation as she fixed her eyes on Verse 4:3. She pushed the Quran back to me and said she was scared.
“What do you mean you are scared?” I asked.
“It’s so different from what I’ve been told.”
“But this is the Quran,” I said. “Aren’t you interested to know what it says?”
She was not, and she did not want to discuss it any further. And there I was bursting with rage that the phrase marry “two, three or four” is universally known as a man’s right in Islam, while marry “only one” is unheard of.
That was in 1989. I was reading the Quran with seven friends in weekly study sessions, led by the Quranic scholar, Dr Amina Wadud, who was then teaching at the International Islamic University.
The group that met in my house after work every Monday eventually became Sisters in Islam.
Given the example of the responses from my two colleagues, we knew from the start it would be an uphill battle to change mindsets.
But it is the knowledge and the conviction in an Allah who is just, in an Islam that is just and liberating to women that compelled us, with conviction and courage, to stand up and speak out of a different vision and understanding of Islam – one filled with kindness and compassion, with love and mercy.
In those days, we were campaigning for a law that would make domestic violence a crime. But the religious authorities were saying that such a law could not apply to Muslims because in Islam a man had the right to beat his wife.
Women were calling us up about their deadbeat husbands who had not given any maintenance to the children, who had taken second wives and neglected the first family, who had beaten them in the morning and demanded sex in the evening, who had refused to appear in court for divorce and maintenance cases.
Kelantan had been taken over by PAS and its new Mentri Besar was giving interviews that women should stay at home and be good wives and mothers.
How could we just keep quiet and not do anything. But how best to spread this message of equality and justice in Islam? We had no access to mosques and suraus, nor radio and television.
There were just eight of us, all women, all western-educated, and only one could speak Arabic. How do we begin to challenge a 1,400-year-old tradition of misogyny justified in the name of religion?
We hit the brainwave of using the media to write letters to the editor as a strategy to create a public voice and a public presence of a group of women claiming the justice of Islam. And the opportune time came in the case of Aishah Abdul Rauf v Wan Mohd Yusof Wan Othman in 1990, when the Selangor Syariah Appeals Court ruled that the husband did not have the right to take a second wife as he had not fulfilled the four conditions under the Islamic Family Law to ensure that a polygamous marriage would be just and necessary.
As controversy brewed over this progressive judgment, SIS wrote its first letter to the editor to welcome the judgment and shared with the public its view that polygamy was not a right in Islam, but allowed only in exceptional circumstances.
We presented a methodology where a verse should be understood through the context of its revelation, where all the text on a particular subject is looked as a whole to understand the trajectory of the message, and from this more holistic approach in understanding the Quran, values and principles of the message are extracted.
So ground-breaking was the letter that all four mainstream newspapers in English and Bahasa Malaysia published it. The rest as they say is history.
And today, Sisters in Islam leads a global initiative called Musawah, the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. It brings together hundreds of activists and scholars in the Muslim world and in minority Muslim contexts to build a public voice of Muslim women and men demanding equality and justice.
We assert that in the 21st century, there cannot be justice without equality. It is as simple and, yes, as joyous as that.
Zainah Anwar now leads Musawah, the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. She was the founding executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS) and a former member of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. She writes a monthly column, Sharing the Nation, in the Sunday Star.