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.