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An Interview with Zainah Anwar

October 2012

As one of the founders of the Sisters in Islam (SIS), Zainah Anwar has been one of the leading feminist voices in the Islamic world for over two decades. Her advocacy work mirrors the mission statement of the SIS, which calls for an elimination of gender discrimination, increased public awareness of social justice issues, and a reframing of women's rights within an Islamic context. In this interview with Chrystie Swiney (The College of William and Mary), Anwar discusses the group's ongoing efforts, and how they have reached beyond Malaysia to influence similar movements in Muslim-majority countries.

Chrystie Swiney: How did you become involved with Sisters in Islam and what was it like to serve as its leader for two decades? What is to credit for your successful efforts to transform the organization from a small, domestic-focused NGO to a globally known and respected organization?

Zainah Anwar: I am one of the eight founding members of SIS. We really began with a question: If God is just, if Islam is just, then why do laws and practices made in the name of Islam lead to injustice? We were outraged that our religion was used to control and punish us in ways that make no sense to our realities. We were professional, financially independent women and yet we were told that we were inferior to men and we must be obedient and subservient. Many women were also complaining to us about their marital problems—be it domestic violence, polygamy, non-maintenance, philandering, abandonment. . .and yet when they went to the religious authorities to seek help, they were told to go home and be good obedient wives. It is the man's right to beat his wife, to take second wives, to demand obedience, to divorce his wife at will, and that if you were good Muslim wives, your husbands would not be treating you badly. This same message was reinforced on radio, television, preachings in mosques and private homes.

My faith in a just God is unshakeable. So we decided to open up the Qur'an again to see if God really said all these things. We are now reading the Qur'an as adults, with different experiences, different questions. It was a liberating experience for all of us to discover the message of equality and justice in our revealed Text. Our eyes were opened to the verses in the Qur'an that talked about love and compassion, justice and equality, about men and women being each other's friends and protectors, we both have similar obligations to God and we will both be similarly rewarded. So if we are equal before the eyes of God, how come we are unequal before men?

That was the beginning really. We met every week in my house to read and understand the Qur'an from a feminist lens. It was exhilarating. We then felt we must share our new understandings with the wider public. Muslims must know that the Qur'an preaches the message of justice, equality, compassion, love and mercy between men and women. We felt the best way was to use the media to make an impact. How do eight women with no traditional background in studying Islam break the hegemony of the traditional ulama on matters of religion and bring to public attention that there are alternative understandings and interpretations of the Qur'an. We decided to write letters to the editor in the daily newspapers as it gave us more space to frame our arguments and we would be able to reach a huge audience of the newspapers' readership. The first letter to the editor we wrote was on the practice of polygamy as an unconditional God-given right. And we called ourselves Sisters in Islam, because we wanted to make it clear that we were speaking as Muslims within the context of Islam. Needless to say, the letter, which appeared in several newspapers, caused a public debate. That was the first of many such letters that SIS wrote on a range of contested issues, including domestic violence, equality, dress and modesty, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, crime and punishment. Most importantly, what these letters to the editor [did] was to open the space for a public discourse on Islam and its place in public law and policy and expose Malaysians to diverse points of view in Islam.

I guess it was us breaking this hegemony of the patriarchs and traditional religious authorities on what Islam is and what it is not that was revolutionary at that time that brought us the national and international attention. That we had the gall to assert our own voice and create this culture of public debate, and that we speak of an Islam that can be empowering and liberating to women. Many then began to see us as a model group with a methodology that can and should be replicated in other similar Muslim contexts.

CS: How do you feel about the current plight of Muslim women worldwide? Has their status improved, remained static, or worsened over the past decade? If it has improved, what is to credit for such improvements; and if it has remained static or worsened, what is to blame? What do you foresee as the future trajectory for Muslim women around the world?

ZA: Of course the status of Muslim women has improved worldwide—in terms of women getting better educated, working, being financially independent, etc. But the problem of discrimination and worse still, the use of religion to justify this discrimination, remains huge in many Muslim societies, both in terms of law and practice. While women's groups in countries like Turkey, Tunisia, and Morocco have successfully campaigned for major law reform, others face a backlash and efforts at law reform in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Mali are met with tremendous resistance from conservative forces, both state and non-state. Women's groups demanding law reform to end discrimination against women in marriage, divorce, guardianship of children, inheritance and to criminalize domestic violence are told their demands are against Islam and against the will of God. Governments avoid their treaty obligations by using religion to justify their reservations and resistance to law reform to grant equality between women and men. Even if you have been successful at law reform, translating that law into practice remains a challenge as powerful forces within society, at the family, community, and institutional levels remain resistant to the legal changes.

It is a long struggle as women's groups, through public education and campaigns, build public support for changes in law and practice. In relatively more open Muslim societies, governments do respond to women's demands when there is public outrage. For example, in Malaysia, the government eventually conceded that the Domestic Violence Act which makes domestic violence a crime be applied to Muslims as well. Our campaign against further discriminatory amendments to the Islamic Family Law was successful in forcing the government to negotiate with us for more just amendments—although this new bill is yet to be submitted to Parliament.

Change is inevitable. It's untenable for patriarchs and misogynistic Islamists to remain blinded by the real changes galloping before their eyes. In the end the disconnect between law and reality will break. More and more women are speaking out, organizing, and demanding their rights. As the democratic space opens up in many Muslim countries, women are fighting for their voice and their realities to shape the decision-making process and for law to reflect the change in society.

CS: Tell us about your work since leaving Sisters in Islam. What has your work involved, and what are your current aspirations and goals?

ZA: I am very much involved with SIS as a member of the Board. I am just no longer its Executive Director. I now lead Musawah (equality in Arabic), the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. It is an exciting movement that brings together scholars and activists working on issues of equality and justice in Muslim contexts. Currently, we are undertaking a massive knowledge building initiative on the twin concepts of qiwamah and wilayah, commonly understood as mandating male authority over women and children in Islam. We have commissioned ground-breaking papers on the Qur'an, Fiqh and Hadith to enable us to fully understand how the idea of the male provider and protector developed and how we can deconstruct this in the context of equality and justice in the 21st century. Accompanying this research is a Global Life Stories project in twelve countries that will document the lived realities of women as they negotiate and circumvent the demands of male authority and deal with the myth of the male provider and protector. It is really exciting work because we as activists and feminists are producing new knowledge to break the binary between Islam and women's rights and expose the disconnect between law and reality.

Our work in international advocacy is also making waves. We did a major report on CEDAW and Muslim Family Laws: In Search of Common Ground which examined mounds of documents submitted by 44 countries to the CEDAW Committee. We critiqued the way governments use Islam, Islamic law, and the Muslim community that is supposedly not ready for change to justify why their reservations to Article 16 on Marriage and Family in particular cannot be lifted and why they cannot respond to demands for law reform. The report is now a major resource for the CEDAW Committee, NGOs working on shadow reports and others looking for more critical and constructive ways to engage with governments and their use of religion to justify discrimination against women.

CS: You are on record as stating that the Quran, as well as the Hadith, are tools for women's empowerment. Certain Muslim theologians and scholars nevertheless cite passages from the Quran and the Hadith to perpetuate the degradation of women, such as the passages pertaining to polygamy and the right of husbands to (according to certain individuals) beat their wives. How can both views co-exist? Are the Islamic holy sources working for or against female empowerment? If so, how?

ZA: Any Scripture is open to diverse interpretations. The answers you get depend on the questions you ask. It's amazing that until today, there is this common belief that a man's right to polygamy is divinely mandated, that he has a right to discipline his wife, to demand obedience, that a woman's witness is only worth half of a man, that hell is full of women because they disobeyed their husbands and left their heads uncovered. Where is the justice for women in such pronouncements? It makes no sense to the realities of women's lives and the devastation women feel when their husbands take second wives, when they are beaten, when they must obey against their will and sense of well-being and self-worth.

I believe the Qur'an is open to multiple interpretations. There is no final, authoritative human interpretation of the Text. The history of Qur'anic exegesis is a story of a continuing endeavor of Muslims seeking to understand the word of God, a wondrous exercise that can result in new meanings and perspectives evolving over time. If you read a particular verse of the Qur'an you might derive a certain meaning today, but, five years later, the same verse might suggest something quite different or deeper, because you have changed, something has happened in your life that brings a different experience to your engagement with the Text. There is no such thing as a static, frozen interpretation of the Text. A frozen Text is a dead Text. So if the message of the Qur'an is supposed to be eternal, interpretations of the same Text can vary due to changes in time and circumstance, differences in the class and educational background or the gender of the reader or the sort of experiences the reader has been through and which informs her when she reads the Qur'an. Thus, every understanding of the Qur'an by us mere mortals is really just a humble effort to understand the word of God to help us lead a life according to God's guidance. To claim that one's understanding of the Qur'an represents the absolute Truth is tantamount to the sin of shirk, of associating partners to God. Only God knows absolutely what God intends to say and mean.

In other words, Muslim feminists argue against any monopolistic claims on the part of anyone, including the ulama, of knowing fully the mind of God, as revealed in the Qur'an. The great exegetes of the classical period were always conscious of this. They never said, "Islam says this or that". It is "I" who is saying or interpreting, and "I" could be wrong or "I" could be right. Only God knows best, they always ended. But, today, such acknowledgment of the humble, fallible human self no longer exists. The ideologues who claim to speak for Islam always claim that "Islam says this" or "God says that", and anyone who challenges this is at once accused of being against Islam and God.

The verse on polygamy says marry two, three or four. A man reads this verse and finds that it validates his experience and his desire for multiple sexual partners. But a woman is not happy with this assertion and she opens the Qur'an to read more. And lo and behold, the very same verse goes on to say that if you fear injustice, then marry only one, and that this would be best for you in order to prevent you from doing injustice.

The obvious question then is how come marry two, three or four is universally known and accepted as a divine right of men, while marry only one gets left by the wayside? Who gets to decide which should be a source of law and which should be ignored? This is question of power, authority, and privilege. What women are claiming today is that their voice, their experience of living Islam gives them the authority to speak out and shape how Islam is understood and used as a source of law and public policy. In the 21st century there cannot be justice without equality. It is as simple as that.

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