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A Conversation in Bangladesh about Religion and Women’s Roles

A Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs Report


Secular and religious perspectives on gender roles and the meaning of women’s rights vary in different societies and can be a focus of considerable tension. Development practitioners often argue that women’s equal rights, including girls’ access to education, employment, and health care, are so fundamental that they amount to a litmus test of serious commitment to social progress. But lingering doubts are often framed in religious arguments.

In May 2015 a student discussion group in Dhaka, Banghadesh was joined by guests including Zainah Anwar (Malaysia), Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir, and Nani Zulminarni (Indonesia). It offered a rare opportunity for renowned Islamic scholars and activists to discuss their interpretations of scripture as a basis of public policy. They explored issues of women’s empowerment and religion. How is Islam used to construct legal rights and social obligations for women and men on issues like polygamy and women’s mobility? What of the rising impact of progressive Islamic scholarship? Where do human rights come into the picture?

This following article distills an extended discussion that can be found here.

Zainah Anwar – Photo: Berkeley Center

Zainah Anwar – Photo: Berkeley Center

Zainah Anwar: In countries where Islam is used as a source of law and policy, everyone should have a right to engage with religion, to define it, to shape it, to respond to it. Think about it not as theology, but as public law and policy. The issue is the right to define Islam, codify it into law, and set out compliance. That is an ideological and political struggle. The source of that law may be divine, the Qur’an, but the human engagement with divine text is not divine; it’s human made, it’s constructed, it’s fallible, and it might be wrong or right.

The fourth caliph, Ali, placed a large copy of the Qur’an on the table and commanded it to speak, informing people of the law. Of course the Qur’an cannot speak. Ali’s point was that the Qur’an speaks with human intervention. Interpretations are no longer God’s words and they are fallible, changeable. The product of the engagement with the divine text is human constructed, not divine law. We have a right to engage, to critique, to reform. Many wonderful, rights-bearing, forward-looking juristic principles exist from classical times; classical jurists dealt with the circumstances on the ground and developed principles within the tradition to rethink, reinterpret, and reformulate, and to serve the public interest.

The groups I helped to co-found, Sisters in Islam, and the global movement Musawah (which means equality in Arabic), claim that ordinary Muslims have the right to speak up on matters of religion. In Malaysia, Muslims have been pummeled on radio, television, and neighborhood lecture sessions, with “this is divine law and therefore it cannot be challenged.” Classical scholars always said: “this is my opinion – I may be right, I may be wrong, only God knows best.” Real knowledge makes you humble and open, because the effort to understand God’s word is an eternal effort. When you claim the authority of God you confer that authority on yourself, abusing the text. This needs to be challenged.

We should be proud of diverse traditions that allow for change. Amidst diversity in the tradition and in today’s daily realities, especially the profound changes in women’s lives, who has the authority to decide? Why must we always choose the most misogynistic, cruel, punitive opinion in the tradition to turn into law, when there are many other, more progressive, more egalitarian opinions? The issue is really political will.

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir – Photo: Berkeley Center

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir – Photo: Berkeley Center

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir: Many feminist activists and colleagues see the hadiths, teachingsas problematic for gender justice because of the many misogynistic passages. We all, including women, should participate in tafsir to interpret using our own feeling and imagination.

Arabic is a gendered language and uses mostly male pronouns. In the Qur’an and hadiths, commands or provisions are directed to men. For example, “those who believe in Allah and do good things will enter paradise and will have their purified wives”—literally, wives. Even prayers, dua, are in very male language. A husband invites his wife to intimate relations. If the wife refuses, the hadith says an angel will curse her. In Indonesia we direct every hadith directed to men also to women. The hadith “the wife should obey the husband,” must also say “the husband should obey the wife,” because this obedience keeps the family relationship based on mutuality and love.

Nani Zulminarni – Photo: Ashoka.org

Nani Zulminarni – Photo: Ashoka.org

Nani Zulminarni: A challenge for Indonesian Muslims is that we don't speak or read Arabic. I read the Qur’an, but understand it only by reading the one translation the government allows. In rural areas the preacher says women must do this and that; wives must obey husbands. There is no discussion. You cannot question the Qur’an. We just listen. Television preachers with huge followings use misogynist, hierarchical interpretations, influencing the way people live.

I organize women heads of the family, mostly widows and divorced women. They are stigmatized, excluded from the social system. Other women fear they will flirt with their husbands. Men look at them as sex objects. This is influenced by interpretations and understandings of women in Islam: the concept of the good Muslim woman who must marry and obey her husband even if he is violent. They must stay at home even if the husband is absent. Men go for years to Malaysia as migrant workers, never sending money, news, nothing, but women still consider themselves married, as does the community; they cannot make decisions for themselves, the children, or represent their family; they are not considered the head of the family.

Student question: A scholar helping me read the Qur’an stated that every religion is equal and we should not judge one another; and that if you are a Muslim you have the authority to pass ahead of a non-Muslim. Can you explain this?

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir: Islam has been dealing with contradictions since the beginning, when the Prophet was there to resolve them. Now we have no Prophet to resolve these contradictions. The Qur’an is only 1,000 verses but interpretations become 1,000 volumes. Everyone can have their interpretation, but the human responsibility comes when you choose one interpretation to implement in real life.

Classical scholarship said that the real Islam is only known by God, but there are ways to say one thing is closer to the truth than another, meaning more Islamic. Some scholars say all interpretations are Islamic, and divine. God intended that the Qur’an be interpreted by humans in some kind of diversity. We should respect them all even if they are cruel or problematic. Religious interpretation is like science: it evolves.

Zainah Anwar: We live in a sea of interpretations and choices. When you go to the supermarket, we have choices of coffee, milk, and soap powder, but never complain that it’s confusing. But people say profuse interpretations confuse Muslims and lead them astray. The principles of faith, believing in God, the Prophet, the angels, praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan – I don’t challenge. But faith is between you and God; it’s up to you to choose which scholar or interpretation to believe. Its fine to have thousands of classical texts with all kinds of interpretations, because in the end it’s between you and God.

But then the state comes into the picture, adopting one interpretation and punishing you when you don’t believe it. Within the modern democratic state, public law and public policy must be open to public reason. If the public doesn’t agree, you must use principles of justice, of equality, and non-discrimination, your constitutional principles of freedom of expression; your international obligations, the human rights treaties that we sign, must all come into play. It cannot be “this is Islamic law and therefore it cannot be challenged or questioned.”

Student question: I read in the Qur’an that only Muslims go to heaven; others go to hell. Would God really send Mother Theresa to hell?

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir: One verse says if you’re not Muslim, you will go to hell, but another says, those who believe, Jews or Christians, will enter paradise as long as they do good things for people.

Zainah Anwar: The fundamental belief etched in your heart about God helps you decide what is right and what is wrong in this sea of interpretations and understandings and fatwas and pronouncements. The most important guidance is a sense of justice and fairness.

Sisters in Islam began because of questions of injustice, laws that discriminate against women, fatwas being issued, speeches over radio, television, talks at private homes, populist ulama saying misogynistic things. What’s said in the name of Islam doesn’t match the realities of our lives. We began to look at discriminatory Islamic family law and its implementation. We heard complaints from women – a man has a right to four wives, a man has a right to beat his wife; women sigh and say “but this is what Islam says so I have to accept it.”

We needed to go to the source of the law, the teachings, the Qur’an and try to understand it. It’s about knowledge in Islam. You don’t need a degree in Islamic studies or a degree in Arabic. But you have to start reading. Incredible scholarship is now available. Our booklets have been translated into many languages – Are men and women equal before God? Do Muslim men have a right to beat their wives? Islam and polygamy, Islam and family planning. We use letters to the editor columns of newspapers to address polygamy, domestic violence, equality, women’s right to work, dress. We conferred the authority on ourselves, not waiting for the religious authority, because this affects our lives.

You need to strategize what is possible within your own context. The space is sometimes very dangerous, but we must begin somewhere, because if not we’re basically giving up, letting radical misogynistic mullahs say whatever they want. Many political leaders are basically cowards and legitimize cruel, punitive, misogynistic opinions, unchallenged. You must engage with scholarship; knowledge will give you the courage to speak out and stand your ground when you come under attack. You’re students, so read! And always question.