"Mohammed was a Feminist"

Asra Nomani takes her reform message beyond the United States.

When Asra Nomani became the first woman in her mosque in West Virginia to insist on her right to pray in the male-only main hall, she invited a barrage of criticism from Islamic leaders. But her actions also got her invited to the first International Congress on Islamic Feminism, held in October 2005 in Barcelona.

The conference signaled a shift in Nomani’s activism. From small-town marches in Morgantown, W.V., to a national campaign throughout the U.S., Nomani is now taking her place within the international movement for Muslim women’s rights. Having been raised in the U.S. she says, has given her privileges of education and access to resources that she can bring to a world-wide movement, but she’s quick to point out that these privileges do not set her apart from Muslim women in Africa and the Middle East: “There are different degrees of threat, but the dynamic of subordination that we face in our traditional communities is the same. In Nigeria, women face physical stoning; here they face psychic shaming and intimidation that can be just as brutal.”

But this movement will not follow in the footsteps of other feminist movements from history. Rooted in religion, the efforts of Islamic feminists are focused on reclaiming sacred texts by means of a progressive, contemporary interpretation that includes women’s rights. “Mohammed was a feminist,” Nomani says. She intends to prove the point through her newest project, the Islamic Dream, a web site devoted to Koranic analysis and interpretations from the leading Islamic scholars of the day, men and women, to create a go-to source for Muslims grappling with contemporary issues. “I’ve gotten hundreds of emails from people,” – from a Muslim woman in the U.S. in love with a Christian man to a man in Pakistan who is struggling with being gay – “asking what can I do?”

Mother Jones talked to Nomani on a Friday, after she attended prayer service at her local mosque with two other non-Muslim American women. Together, they stood shoulder to shoulder in the main hall, under the disapproving gaze of the men. In this interview Nomani reports back on the conference and explains the role American progressives of all faiths must play in the struggle for Muslim women’s rights. “The progressive movements in America are completely in sync with the progressive theology of Islam,” she says. “We need to mature and the larger American progressive community needs to mature with us.”

Mother Jones: Tell me a little bit about the conference. What was the motivation behind it?

Asra Nomani: In the history of women’s rights in America it was comparable to the Seneca Falls conference, which was a landmark for establishing women’s rights in the U.S. One big difference was that at the Seneca Falls conference, the women of America told the men that they could attend but had to remain silent. But this conference was organized and spearheaded by Muslim men who believe that Islam is being misrepresented when women don’t get their full rights in the world. It was so exciting to [be] at a place where we actually acknowledge this concept of Islamic feminism, because right now it’s still this taboo topic. People don’t want to acknowledge it as a legitimate concept.

MJ: Who was there? What was discussed?

AN: There were amazing activists and scholars from Indonesia to Mali, women that I’d heard about for years but hadn’t met face to face. When we came together, we embraced each other because we’re all good friends who are very much alone all the time in our communities, but very like minded. This was a crowd where we very clearly saw that much of what is put out in the world in the name of Islam is interpretation, not God’s law. It’s not divinely ordained, but really the creation of men. This is something we’re still putting out there in our communities that isn’t widely accepted. Islam is still considered by many people, including Muslims, to be monolithic. We’re challenging the many interpretations that create this monolithic entity.

Raheel Raza, a native of Pakistan, spoke about her work fighting religious arbitration courts in Canada that impose the sharia, Islamic law, on communities. She was very clear that she is not against the sharia, but she’s against the interpretations of the sharia that, most of the time, demean women. A woman from Senegal talked about having been in a marriage that was polygamous and suffered greatly from it. A woman from Malaysia talked about the work they’re doing on the ground refuting the theology and interpretations that allow polygamy. A woman from Mali talked about the work her organization does through a radio program educating women about their right not to have their clitorises cut off, the surgery that is imposed upon them in the name of Islam. An inspiring woman from Nigeria talked about the work that her organization, BAOBAB, does to get the imams, the prayer leaders of mosques, to open their minds to the concept of different interpretations.

MJ: How did this congregation of women activists inspire you?

AN: What I could feel during this conference was that we are on the verge of a really great opportunity to bring all this really great work together and create a new approach for Islam in the world. Because women and men in communities all over the world right now are challenging interpretations. Now it’s time for us to bring it together so nobody has to start from scratch in any community. So what I introduced in my presentation was this concept that I called the Islamic Dream, where we would have a project to bring together all of these interpretations of Islamic law that are progressive and women friendly, and give people an alternative to the type of Islam that’s being practiced in the world in many of our communities.

Since then I’ve been working on trying to make that happen. It’s not like my activism before where if I just did it, it was a victory in overcoming my own fears and challenging the status quo. In order for us to really succeed in putting a new approach out there, we need to make it viable. So I’ve been getting a lot of advice from scholars and organizational folks in putting something like this out there. I’m hoping that over the next six months I can come up with a plan to get thinkers and scholars together under this very simple concept of tawheed, which is the fundamental principle in Islam of oneness. Tawheed is vital in ensuring that people are equal in this world and one person isn’t more privileged than the other. This is such an important and missing concept in a lot of our Muslim society where people denigrate women or denigrate people of other religions. Enough is enough with all of that.

MJ: In what form do you envision the Islamic Dream coming together?

AN: I know that this is the internet age and that’s how we can connect across this divide of loneliness that separates us. I got a letter from a woman who’s in love with a Christian man and she asks me, “Can I marry him?” I want to be able to refer people to a place where they can see clearly what the scholars say on this, in an interpretation that allows for plurality and progressive thought. In this instance we can bring together the many scholars that accept a Muslim woman marrying a Christian man without his conversion. This is still taboo in our community and there are so few resources available on the point. Or I get a letter from a gay man in Pakistan who says, “Can I be gay, or do I have to change?” And I could actually give him the resource and the interpretation that allow him to accept himself. That’s what I’m envisioning.

MJ: Who are the main people you have in mind as contributors?

AN: I’ve really been inspired by Khaled Abou El Fadl, a lawyer by training. He is one of the few scholars brave enough to come right out and acknowledge women’s rights to be imams, to both women and men. Reza Aslan, an Iranian immigrant who’s written a book called No god but God. He says very clearly that women are not obligated to cover their hair with a scarf, which is considered part of the Islamic code according to so many people. And he takes a brave stand in accepting homosexuality. Dr. Amina Wadud, the woman who lead the prayer in New York and Asma Barlas, another professor. They both have done these great readings of the Koran. Omid Safi, he has written a book on progressive Islam. In Malaysia, Zaina Anwar from Sisters in Islam. They’ve already challenged so much of the family law that denies women’s rights. Kecia Ali, she’s done really important work on sexuality issues in Islam. There’s a lot of really great work out there by great scholars of the day who are doing their piece of the pie. Now is the time to bring the pie together so that everybody can share it.

MJ: You mention a lot of men in your list. Do you think men have a particular role in Islamic feminism that is different from the role men have played in other feminist movements?

AN: It’s true that in a lot of western feminist movements, you see women working singularly from men. Suffragettes and the women’s rights movement in the 60s here, but when I think of the Islamic feminist movement, I think of a lot of men who are very much standing with the women. It really feels like in equal numbers. Women are catching up in the field because we were not given access to knowledge and encouraged into these studies and so these men are helping us and empowering us. They are men of conscience who are fed up with this assumption that they’re [entitled].

In our world the men stand with us. And they know that we need them and we know that we need them. Other men turn on them. They are ostracized, they’re mocked, they’re ridiculed. They go through their own hell for supporting us. But they back us up and we definitely are stronger because of it.

MJ: You’ve said before that “Intolerance toward women is like the canary in the coal mine for intolerance toward other people.”

AN: When we think about Islamic feminism, it is not just about women’s rights. It’s about a more progressive and tolerant expression of Islam in the world for all people. It’s about kindness and goodness to all people. Women’s rights is one aspect of it, it’s not the end-all, but I also think that the women’s issue is the strongest entry point that we’ve got to challenging extremism. You raise a woman’s issue and you get the backs of the conservatives up against the wall faster than just about any other issue in our community. It’s the fastest path that we’ve got to making change happen. If as women we stand up day in and day out, day after day, then we really force the extremists to confront their real ideas.

MJ: In what ways do you think U.S. Muslim women’s concerns differ from Muslim women in Africa and the Middle East?

AN: I think that we don’t have as much threat to our physical and economic livelihood as women in other parts of the world. But the continuum is the same. The pressures on women to fit into a certain image of a good Muslim girl is the same. The controls and rules are the same, but there are different degrees of it. So, in America, a father will threaten a daughter that he will disown her if she marries the American boyfriend and in Pakistan she faces acid thrown on her face. The power dynamic is the same, it just expresses itself differently.

MJ: What role do American Muslim women play in the international Islamic feminist movement?

AN: Personally I get so much of my inspiration from women in other countries, so I don’t feel like we are the leaders and I don’t agree with the notion that Americans can accomplish more or do more. These women are so far ahead of where we are as American Muslims in affirming and asserting their rights in the world. But I do think that what we can uniquely do here in America is mobilize and galvanize a lot of these ideas and resources. It’s a war of ideas. We are very well supported in this country by institutions, academic and nonprofit, that are already in the field endorsing women’s rights and tolerance. We have skills and resources from growing up in America to raise funds or build websites or publish papers or develop big picture plans. We can publish op-eds in newspapers that get wide circulation to send strong messages out to the world. The women in other communities have been the pioneers in this work. They’re putting out newsletters and guidebooks and media points, but I believe that a lot of the war right now is on getting the ideas out there through books and newspaper articles and interviews. In America we’ve got the machinery to do that.

MJ: Some critics have charged that Islamic feminism is unduly influenced by western social trends. And yet, women from the congress in Barcelona say that this is a movement coming from within Islam. Do you think that it’s strictly one or the other, or could it possibly be both?

AN: Talk to me 20 years ago and I had a complete sense of illegitimacy as an American Muslim. I felt like I wasn’t authentic. But I don’t understand and I don’t believe or subscribe to this idea that I don’t have a right to speak as a Muslim because I’m an American. I don’t speak Arabic, but Osama bin Laden does, and I don’t consider him a more authentic Muslim than I am. Being Muslim is to accept and honor the diversity that we have in this world, culturally and physically and linguistically, because that’s what Islam teaches, that we are people of many tribes. I think the American Muslim experience is of a different tribe than the Saudi Muslim world, but that doesn’t make us less than anyone else.

MJ: In that sense, when you look ahead to your idea for the Islamic Dream, why is collaboration among women from different countries so important?

AN: I think there’s probably going to be a lot of differences when it comes to implementation because that is going to be uniquely cultural. Communities are all going to evolve differently from each other, but at the conference we hit just about every hot button issue, like homosexuality and women imams, capital punishment, terrorism, sex, and I think in all of these, there’s consensus out there. What’s going to have to get worked out is developing where there’s common ground and then allowing places where there’s difference to get worked out over time.

MJ: And what about women and men who are not Muslim. What role do they have, if any?

AN: One of our greatest challenges here in America [is that] pogressives don’t always stand with the progressive Muslims because in the interest of freedom of religion and civil liberties and political correctness, they don’t want to offend cultural choices by Muslims. I know that people have gone to these interfaith sessions at different mosques and they see that the women end up in the basement, but they don’t want to challenge anyone because they think, “Oh, well this is your way.”

But we’re standing up for women in the community and we’re saying, “This isn’t our way, this isn’t the right way, this isn’t the Islamic way,” and yet it’s really hard for people who think of themselves at outsiders to weigh in. We have to evolve all of us. When we stand up against sexism and prejudice in a Muslim community, we’re standing up against ideas, not an entire group of people or the whole faith. We have to mature and the larger American progressive community needs to mature with us. Progressive Americans need to know that they really are needed in this struggle to encourage more inclusive and tolerant expressions of Islam in this world.