By Farooq Sulehria
Islam awaits reformation. But will it be a woman playing the
'Martin Luther'? Perhaps. Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Megawati
Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, and Khaleda Zia and Haseena Wajid in
Bangladesh have successfully challenged patriarchy in the political
arena. Benazir deserves a special mention, having been voted to
power by working class men and women in Pakistan despite a vicious
campaign launched by mullahs in the name of Islam. A mullah at
Lahore's royal mosque even issued a fatwa declaring that those
voting for her People's Party would be risking hell.
Benazir Bhutto made history in 1988 by becoming the first woman
to head a government in a Muslim state in modern times. In Muslim
history, however, there were already examples of women heads of
government. Razia Sultana in India ruled the Muslim empire (1236-40),
while even the Egyptian clergy accepted Sultana Sharjat ul Durr
of Egypt as queen (1249-50) -- only the Caliph in Baghdad opposed
her crowning. A Friday sermon was pronounced in Sultana Sharjat's
name and she had coins sealed in her name as well.
Contemporary 'elected Sultanas' have disillusioned their respective
voters, certainly, yet it was a step forward for Muslim women
when some of them held prime ministerial slots a position
that no woman has yet achieved in countries like Sweden and the
USA, that otherwise boast about their women's liberation.
Having challenged political patriarchy, Muslim women have begun
questioning male dominance in matters of religion. Clerical masculinity
is not Islam-specific. The cardinals at Vatican are still waiting
for a 'divine' command before they will vote a woman to pontiff.
Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are no exceptions either. So when
Dr. Amina Wadud, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University,
led a Friday prayer on March 18 in New York City, she ventured
into a male domain. Again, this was not the first such example
in Muslim history, but the event caused an enormous amount of
controversy. Not because Wadud transgressed Islamic teachings
as an Islamic scholar, she herself knows perfectly well
that a Muslim woman led prayers in the lifetime of the Prophet
Mohammad (upon Him be peace). Still the venue of the event drew
protestors holding placards: "Mixed-Gender Prayers Today,
Hellfire Tomorrow" and "May Allah's curse be upon Amina
Ignorant of their own history, the protestors were in fact not
defending Islam, but opposing a change that the Muslim world desperately
needs. Perhaps it's too early to say that they were fighting a
lost battle -- such assertions sound ultra-optimistic at a time
when religious extremism is on the forward march. Still, Amina
Wadud did cause ripples in otherwise stagnant waters. And she
is not alone.
In neighbouring Canada, Irshad Manji has declared herself a 'Muslim
refusenik' and refuses to hide her lesbian identity. Her book
Problem with Islam is a bad polemic lacking scholarliness and
is full of Islamophobic statements. She goes awry in particular
when it comes to the Palestine question. In her attempt to challenge
anti-Semitism, she herself becomes an anti-Arab racist.
Yet she dares to challenge myths foisted upon Muslim women in
the name of religion. Irshad Manji is not ready to stay silent:
"It might appear ridiculous that someone who's not a theologian,
a politician, or a diplomat (in any sense of the word) has the
chutzpah to comment on what could be done to reform Islam. On
occasion, I myself have felt presumptuous just thinking about
it -- but only on occasion. I don't care to 'know my place'. Change
has to come from somewhere. Why not from a young Muslim woman
who's got no investment, emotional or otherwise, in defending
the status quo?"
But before Amina and Irshad, Taslima Nasreen attracted worldwide
attention when her book Lajja (Shame) was published. Her Bangladeshi
origin makes her a familiar name in the Indian sub-continent.
Not so unfamiliar in Sweden either, where she lived in exile for
a while. Taslima earned the wrath of the faithful when in her
Shame she questioned the rationality of conjugal principles 'discriminating'
women in the name of religion. Unlike Amina Wadud and Irshad Manji,
Taslima Nasreen declares herself a non-believer. She was dismissed
as a fame-seeker when in her biography, she portrayed some famous
Bengali "men of letters" as sex monsters. She earned
the wrath of both right and left. Regardless of her literary merits
and demerits, a subject better left to literary critics and readers,
Taslima dared to raise questions many do not ask anymore in the
Muslim world. For this, she was demonised as a female 'Salman
Rushdie', with many a mullah issuing fatwas declaring her an apostate.
Meanwhile, another Muslim woman scholar, Asra Nomani, is expressing
her determination to lead prayers at the campus of Brandeis University
outside Boston, USA. She says, "The woman-led Friday prayer
in New York City was not a one-day event. It marked a watershed
moment from which there is no turning back." (www.asranomani.com).
True. The feminisation of Islam will not just lead to Islamic
'Protestantism' merely but will also create more public space
for women. And this is precisely what the "religious right"
is afraid of.