by Gela Velasquez of WEAct 1325 Secretariat

Asian Development Bank Distinguished Gender Month Speaker Address: Dr Zainah Anwar


25 March 2015 —The Asian Development Bank marks International Women's Day and the 20th Anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action with the Distinguished Gender Month Speaker Address, delivered by Dr. Zainah Anwar, a founding member and Former Executive Director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), and the current director of Musawah, the SIS-initiated Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family.

Dr. Zainah Anwar, like many other Muslim feminists from around the world, works hard to show that Islam and gender equality are compatible. In her speech, she gave emphasis to the violence, injustice, cruelty, and discrimination experienced by women, justified in the name of Islam, throughout the Muslim world. She similarly highlighted the call for locating gender equality and human rights within the framework of Islam, allowing millions of women to embrace both their religion and gender equality, without forgoing their identities. Dr. Anwar also addressed some of the challenges ahead, based on local and international experiences, while exploring the final frontiers in the Muslim world for advancing gender equality.

At the beginning of her address, Dr. Zainah Anwar highlighted specific questions that confront women's groups all over the Muslim world and in the minority Muslim context today: If God is just, if Shariah Law is supposed to bring about justice then why do so many laws and policies made in name of Islam lead to injustice and discrimination against women? This question has been in line with the struggle women, particularly in the Muslim world, experience to end discrimination against them and face the challenge of the patriarchy in government and in society in general. While women experience violence, injustice, cruelty, and discrimination, the religious authorities and the most conservative forces within Islam dictate that these are justified according to the laws of Islam. These religious authorities are obviously unsurpassed in their knowledge and interpretative skills and have been traditionally educated to believe that their interpretation of Islam, being inherently unjust and patriarchal, is definite and eternal.

Muslim women, given the gender inequality experienced in their religion and after reading the Koran for themselves, have been taking the lead to make their voices heard. They have been advocating to end injustice and inequality and lead the way to define how the Muslim religion is understood and practiced. After reading the Koran, they discover the ethical message of equality and justice in Islam and began to question why the concept of equality is silent in the extrajudicial and juristic text of the religion, as well as the method in which such verses are used in the formulation of laws and policies, and the decision making process in the Muslim tradition. But of course bringing change is never easy, they realize that those who have benefited from the status quo are resistant to change and used all kinds of tactics to demonize and delegitimize the voice of change. Very often, Muslim women who demand justice and reform are told this is God’s Law and therefore not open to negotiations and change. To challenge/demand reform will supposedly go against the Shariah Law and relevant traditions of Islam.

One particular example stated were the Musawah women, who after reading the Koran for themselves, believe that these principles and ideals of equality and justice are intrinsic in the teachings of Koran and are upheld in universal human rights principles.

The Musawah women give importance to Article I of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” On a similar manner, they became aware of the numerous verses in the Koran that provide for an ethical version of Islam, advocating the absolute moral and spiritual equality of women and men. They were enlightened by the verses in the Koran that talk about the common and identical spiritual and moral obligations placed on all individuals regardless of sex; verses that talk about the equal relationship between men and women in Islam - being each others’ friend and guardians.

Moreover, there are verses in the Koran stating both men and women to enjoy what is just and forbid what is evil; to observe regular prayers; to pay their tariffs; to obey God and his messenger and that they will both be equally rewarded. These verses in the Koran are unequivocally egalitarian in spirit and substance and reflect the Koranic view on the relationship between men and women. This egalitarian existence also extends to human biology, verses on creation talk about the equality of creation: men and women are created equal – neither one comes before the other; one is not superior compared to the other nor a derivative of the other. This means that in God’s creation of human beings, no priority or superiority is accorded to either men or women. It is this ethical voice of the Koran which insistently enjoins equality for all individuals that has been largely absent in the body of political and legal thought in Islam today.

Another would be the experiences of the SIS co-founded by Dr. Anwar in 1987. Like many other women’s groups, it is the first hand experience of injustice, oppression and ill treatment of women that mobilized feminists to get together to address their concerns. The women of SIS experienced difficulties in exercising their rights in the context of the Islamic family law (difficulties in getting a divorce, sharing marital assets, custody and guardianship of their children, etc.). On a similar manner, the women of SIS felt powerless when they had to suffer in the face of silence as advised by the religious authorities - women were often told that they are inferior to men; that men have the right to beat their wives; that women must obey their husbands; and women must grant men their God given right to have two, three, or four wives and therefore it is a sin for a woman to deny him that right.

The above mentioned occurrences in the lives of the SIS women similarly led them to go back to the Koran. Through such, the women had the opportunity to read the text and discover words, messages and meanings that were never exposed in all the traditional education on Islam. As feminists and activists, SIS women began to assert and claim their right to have their voices heard in the public sphere and intervene in the decision making process especially on matters of religion. Through letters, publications, press conferences and quite a number of seminars, the SIS women took positions on contentious issues such as equal rights, domestic violence, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion, among others.

By advocating for their rights, and creating a space to speak out in public or in Islam, the women activists, whether from Musawa or SIS and other relevant groups, were often criticized by conservative scholars, Islamic activists and other authorities. The attacks, challenges and condemnations faced usually take three forms, namely:

  1. Critics undermine women’s rights to and legitimacy to speak on Islam by questioning their credentials – of not having been traditionally educated in religious schools
  2. Critics often accuse women of diverging from their faith by doubting the infallibility of God and His messages.
  3. Critics contend that is dangerous to offer alternative opinions and interpretations of the religion as this would confuse the religious leaders and Muslim community and lead to disunity. They say that there can only be one interpretation to be decided by the religious authorities and all citizens must abide by that interpretation.

Given the above-mentioned facts and challenges, Dr. Anwar pointed out that the human efforts in interpreting the Koran, mostly by religious authorities, has always led to diverse/different opinions within the Islamic tradition from the very start, thus resulting to emergence of different schools of law and interpretations. Dr. Anwar mentions that it is precisely because of this wealth in diversity that Islam survived and flourished in different cultures and societies. And yet in many societies today there are those who condemn those who offer alternative views on the traditional Islamic beliefs.

On a final note, Dr. Anwar’s address seeks to accentuate that a human understanding of the word of God/Allah is a human construct that is fallible and changeable. Therefore the role of human experience and intellect in the pursuit of the divine will lead to the production of the Islamic knowledge and Islamic laws that cannot be regarded as God’s law- they can change, be changed, criticized, refined and redefined. Unfortunately, however, the traditional Islamic education has brought about a blind/biased understanding and interpretation of the relevant Islamic laws. This rationale is based on the belief that the great scholars of the classical period of Islam who lived closer to the time of the prophet were unsurpassed in their knowledge and interpretative skills. Dr. Anwar highlighted that one of the fundamental challenges muslim communities face today is on reconciling the tenets of their faith to the challenge of modernity: how to deal with the neo-universal morality of democracy in human rights and women’s rights and defining Islam in the dominant ethical paradigm of the modern world.

At the end of the day, Dr. Anwar hopes that change in the interpretative aspects of Islamic laws can come from top in countries where islam is used as a source of law and public policy. She believes that every citizen: Muslim or non Muslim, expert or non expert, has a right to speak on matters of religion and how religion can impact their lives and rights. She similarly highlighted the role played by the civil society, human and women’s rights activists, and public intellectuals in bringing about change in terms of public rule in many Muslim societies.

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