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The refuseniks of Orthodoxy

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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 Wadud."

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." (

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.

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