WISE Muslim Women Standing Up

"Why don't moderate Muslims stand up and say something?" I've been asked frequently on my book tour in the last year. My response is, "We are, but not everyone is listening." Our media, for example, prefers to feature oppressed Muslim women, rather than the thousands of Muslim women advocating social justice or running for public office or promoting women's rights.

So I thought I'd write about an electrifying conference I just attended in Malaysia - the Women in Islamic Spirituality and Equality (WISE) conference. Along with over 200 other Muslim women from 55 countries, I attended panels and seminars, all focused on educating and empowering Muslim women and promoting their rights from an Islamic perspective.

Why an Islamic perspective? Promoting women's rights from any perspective is requisite. An Islamic perspective is just one of many avenues. But for Muslim women's rights, this avenue is crucial, because Muslim women need to know that their religion gives them rights that their patriarchal culture often takes away. Muslim women do not wish to abandon their religion in order to gain equal rights (and who does?). They want both. That's why we must promote women's rights as an Islamic imperative, not as a contradiction to Islam.

Unfortunately, in Muslim-majority countries, often what masquerades as religion is actually culture, tribal custom, patriarchy, or all three. Even worse, tribal and other authorities themselves gain power by framing their non-religious actions as religious. Given that most Muslim-majority countries have gained independence only in the last century and struggle with the same problems as the rest of the developing world - e.g., lack of education and poverty - it's no wonder that women suffer disproportionately.

Educating Muslim women to understand that Islam itself grants them equal rights gives them the tools to effect change. At the WISE conference, attendees shared stories of effecting change in their various countries, strategies they used, and methods they found most valuable.

For example, Eman, an effervescent Egyptian woman with blond-streaked hair, described her efforts to stop female genital mutilation (FGM) in rural Egypt. Primarily practiced in Egypt and parts of Africa, FGM goes back to the time of the pharaohs and predates Islam by a thousand years. It is not Islamic, and has been practiced by Egyptian Christians as well as Egyptian Muslims. FGM is cultural: the Saudis are against it; the Pakistanis don't do it; and overwhelming numbers of Muslims worldwide still have never heard of it. Designed to ensure a woman's chastity, FGM is now illegal in Egypt, and has been banned by Islamic legal opinions, or fatwas. Even so, it persists.

Eman, the executive director of an Egyptian NGO, traveled to rural areas to investigate why and how FGM occurred. Because FGM is illegal, villagers now take their daughters to barbers and midwives, for whom FGM is a critical source of income to barbers and midwives. Eman and her colleagues approached a barber who performed hundreds of these procedures and showed him the fatwas and the laws banning FGM.

Eman offered the barber a deal: stop this practice, put the fatwa in your window, sign a contract, and we'll fund the renovation of your barber shop so you get more business. He agreed, and for the price of a barber's chair (he'd been sitting people on the ground for their haircuts) a television, and a new paint job, his business is thriving and he is a new poster boy for the elimination of FGM. Hundreds of girls a year saved and the word against FGM is spreading - all for the price of a few hundred dollars.

Eman succeeded because she addressed the underlying motivation behind FGM: not religion, but economic incentive and ignorance.

Less dramatically, but just as importantly, Laisa - a Muslim lawyer from the Philippines -described how her organization persuaded Muslim religious leaders to assist in promoting equal rights for women. Together, they developed a handbook filled with rigorously researched sermons that promoted gender equality on the basis of Islamic scriptures. Laisa and her colleagues have been using this handbook to train other Muslim religious leaders in promoting gender-sensitive interpretations of Islam in the Philippines.

Laisa and Eman are just two of the many women working for equality through Islam. The Muslim world is increasingly populated with women's rights activists challenging patriarchal culture, tribal custom, and oppressive governments. They are taking back Islam, which - as so many people forget - clearly sought to improve the status of women.

Islam never held me back from being an American Muslim woman lawyer and writer. I was lucky enough to be raised in a free democracy with education and available opportunity - it is lack of these that holds women back. Islam should not, and does not, hold other women back, either.

The WISE conference is one example that proves it.