“We can be Muslim and feminist!”

Zainah Anwar is the director of Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. She was also a founding member and former executive director of Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian non-governmental organization working on women’s rights within the Islamic framework. She was recently awarded the United Nations Malaysia Award 2019. sister-hood asked her some questions about her work.

Congratulations on the award. What did it mean to you? How will this help your work going forward?

The award is heart-warming. Not just for me personally, but for Sisters in Islam especially given the endless challenges to our very existence. In spite of the attacks against us, and all the attempts to silence us, it’s uplifting to know that there are many others, not least the United Nations, who believe in the critical importance of our work in today’s world of violence, intolerance, identity politics, and hatred for others; where patriarchy still reigns, not least in the name of religion, culture and tradition. The work that we do is a source of hope to many people in Malaysia – and globally – who are invested in what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century.

Zainah Anwar receiving the UN Malaysia Award in 2019.

What are the achievements over your career that have meant the most to you?

I must say my proudest achievement is certainly being a co-founder of two ground-breaking women’s rights groups, Sisters in Islam in Malaysia, and Musawah, the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. SIS and Musawah are pioneers in a movement which is today called ‘Islamic Feminism’. Islamic feminism reconciles religion and rights in a world in which women would otherwise be forced to choose between being a feminist and a Muslim. Musawah’s work on knowledge building, capacity building and international advocacy bridge this binary. We can be Muslim and feminist!

You’ve described a literary and liberal upbringing. How do you think that impacted upon your decision to dedicate your life to challenging injustice?

Perhaps it was the constant exposure to information, to knowledge – an obsession with reading and listening to the news, on the hour, by the hour, that opened up my mind. I Ioved learning about new things – and always questioned things that didn’t make sense to me. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I never understood why I should be punished for asking questions.

I didn’t decide to dedicate my life to fighting injustice; it was just a natural evolution. I was a feminist from a young age, a rebel who questioned everything that made no sense to me: like why I had to do housework, while my brother did not; why 2πr is the circumference of a circle; why Stamford Raffles was the founder of Singapore when there was already a Sultan and a Malay community living along the Singapore river. In the same way, it did not make sense to me that men were considered superior to women, that men could beat their wives, or that women must obey men. Because God said so? How could God be God if God were unjust? In my mind that was just not possible. I questioned. I read more and more to understand better, and I acted to make sense of my faith in a just God given my own reality.

You challenge unjust laws attributed to Islam through reinterpreting sacred texts from a feminist perspective. What are the challenges involved in that?

Well, for a start women like me who challenge the ways Islam is used to justify injustice and discrimination against women are told that we have no authority to talk about Islam because we don’t know Arabic, we have not spent our lives studying Islam, we don’t wear the hijab, we are westernised feminists, etc, etc. I have a simple response to that. If you don’t want women like me to speak out, then take Islam out of the public sphere. It’s as simple as that. But when we live in a country that uses Islam as a source of law and public policy, often in punitive and discriminatory ways, then everyone has a right to speak about how religion is interpreted, and how it is codified into law to govern the lives of citizens. You can’t tell us ‘Islam is a way of life, Islam has all the solutions,’ and then confer on yourselves the sole authority to decide what Islam is and what it’s not. That’s despotism.

Zainah speaking at Sisters in Islam’s international conference, Islam Unsurrendered: Women Rising Against Extremism.

Women opposing prejudicial Muslim family laws often face pushback from religious and secular authorities. How can this be countered?

Knowledge is power. We must speak out. We must get our voices heard. Our experience of living Islam and of being impacted by unjust Islamic laws and practices enforced by authorities who claim to speak in the name of God gives us the absolute right to speak out. How do we change mind-sets and understandings if only one voice – the patriarchal authoritarian voice of Islam – is heard, while others are silent, or silenced? At the same time, we must be prepared for the backlash. That is par for the course. Build alliances with other groups, other activists and progressive scholars who are willing to stand up for you should you be attacked.

You moved from Sisters In Islam, a Malaysian network, to Musawah which is global. Why did you choose to expand the range of your work so widely?

While SIS is a Malaysian group that worked within the Malaysian context, our impact was global. When we went public and wrote our first letter to the editor on the issue of polygamy in Islam in 1990, there was really no other group in the Muslim world that was speaking out on Islam from a rights-based perspective. As we grew, there was a great deal of interest in our work – and a great deal of opposition as well, of course. I travelled to many feminist meetings at the regional and international levels and everywhere women’s groups in Muslim contexts were talking about the resistance they faced in reforming family law. Often they were told their demands for equality and justice were against the teachings of Islam. Many of us did not know how to counter that argument, beyond using the human rights framework to argue for the possibility and necessity of reform. But that was not enough, because religion was important to the women they were trying to help – and yet they had no answers when their demands for change were demonised as un-Islamic and against God. Religion was not going away, and some of these women’s rights activists felt it was time that they learned to understand Islam better and to reconcile religion and rights in ways that made sense to the realities of women’s lives, in order to build support for their demands for reform.

Because SIS wereregarded as pioneers in this area of work, many looked to us to initiate this movement. So I formed an international planning committee to work out how best to launch such a movement, drawing on contacts in academia and activism from around the world that I had made over the decades. Thus Musawah was launched in Kuala Lumpur in 2009, bringing together over 250 activists, academics and policy makers from 48 countries. It was an exhilarating moment. There was a real thirst for the work we were doing. As I said then, nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

Zainah Anwar speaking during the Musawah Global Campaign for Muslim Family Law Reform: South and Southeast Asia Workshop.

Which women would you say have achieved the most in terms of challenging sexist laws and practices in the Muslim world?

The Moroccan women’s movement and their achievement in the reform of the Moudawana was certainly a direct source of inspiration. If Morocco could reform its family law to regard marriage as a partnership of equals, why couldn’t the rest of the Muslim world? Their strategy in developing a framework for reform that located the arguments at the Islamic, human rights, societal and legal levels inspired SIS when we developed our Guide to Equality in Muslim Family Law. It also inspired the Musawah Framework for Action.

What are the biggest problems facing women in the Muslim world today – and how can they be addressed?

Where do I begin?! For a start, we face a political leadership that doesn’t care for democracy and fundamental liberties and a religious leadership that uses the authority of God for authoritarian purposes. These two centres of power collude to maintain dominance and suppress demands for change. Without that democratic space and culture within Muslim societies, how can a democratic, progressive Islam develop? Many women today are saying enough is enough. We are not waiting for change to be delivered to us on a silver platter. Change has to come from the bottom. We are taking the bull by the horns, and using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. We are developing ground-breaking feminist knowledge of Islam to question the issue of male authority in the Muslim legal tradition, to develop new ethics and jurisprudence on marriage as a partnership of equals, to build the capacity of activists and policy makers to promote an understanding of Islam that upholds equality and justice and to argue for the possibility of change. We challenge the ways that governments use Islam to justify discrimination against women and resist feminist demands for law reform.

There is a great need and a great deal of interest in the work that we do. We need to build and galvanise these voices for change and arm them with the knowledge to assert their authority to speak out on Islam and women’s rights, and on the urgent necessity for reform in the ways we understand Islam and how it is used as source of law, public policy and practice to govern our lives.

How do you generate women-centric interpretations of Islam?

We approach the text from context. The context of our daily lives, the discrimination and abuses women suffer, and when we complain we are told this is what God says and therefore we must accept our fate. But I will not accept this. It is my utter faith in a just God that drives me to do this work and to search for answers from within my faith.

The answers you get from the text depend on the questions you ask. A man seeking to legitimise his desire for multiple sexual partners reads the Qur’an and sees ‘marry two or three or four’ and stops there to proclaim that this is his God-given right without shame. The injustice and suffering of women and children in polygamous marriages makes me look for a different answer. I open the Qur’an and discover that the very same verse goes on to say that ‘if you fear you cannot be just, then marry only one, and that is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].’ The voice of God addresses women’s fear of polygamy. Who decided that one part of the verse is the word of God to be made a source of law and practice, and that the other part of the verse that says marry only one wife is ignored and silenced? Whose rights and privileges are protected, and whose are denied? Who has the authority to decide which interpretation is right and should be codified into law?

These are some of the questions that we constantly ask in our search for solutions to the discrimination women face justified in the name of Islam. We, as women impacted by Islamic laws and practices, very often in discriminatory ways, have the right and the authority to speak out and challenge the ways religion has been abused to justify patriarchy.

What are the next moves for you… and for Musawah?

We are entering our second decade next year. Our focus will be on amplifying our voice at the global level and accelerating our impact on the ground. We will be bringing together activists, academics and policy makers from the MENA region, South and Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa to galvanise public support for the urgent necessity of Muslim Family Law reform, towards equality and justice for women. We have been doing research and writing policy briefs to make the case for reform. We will launch this campaign in 2020, and link it to a wider global campaign on Equality in Family Law across regions, religions, cultures and traditions. We are embarking on a research initiative on building new ethics and jurisprudence on Muslim marriages as a partnership of equals. We are raising funds to turn our life-transforming course on Islam and Gender Equality and Justice into an annual global institute. Lots of exciting plans to look forward to, bringing change to the Muslim world! We welcome all those interested in our work to join us to build a truly global movement to actualise what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century.