Last month 100 Muslim women leaders from over 25 countries gathered in New York to launch Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity. The group aims to create an international Islamic feminist council to address gender disparities in Muslim communities around the world. Yesterday I called Daisy Khan, the Executive Director of ASMA Society, a Global Fund grantee, and one of the organizers of the conference, to discuss the project.
Liv Leader: Tell me a little about the goals of the conference.
Daisy Khan: The goal was to bring together a global forum of women who are activists, academics, artists, or [involved with] professional NGOs that have committed themselves to the advancement of Muslim women -- in Muslim majority countries as well as western countries.
LL: There are clearly a great diversity issues affecting Muslim women in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, and in the West. What were some of the main issues that these women have in common?
DK: Because there was such a diverse group of people coming from such diverse countries, it became evident that the challenges for Muslim women are different. A lot of it has to do with the cultural readiness of a country to promote women's participation in politics or religion.
Creating a platform that speaks authoritatively from a religious standpoint - that became the number one [priority.] There is not enough participation in the religious area to determine our future. We must get rid of violence against women in all forms: honor killings, other types of domestic violence and war.
LL: Were all of the women at the conference practicing Muslims?
DK: I would say the majority of them. Some came from a very conservative strand who are very entrenched in the mosque and in the community. Others have a different relationship on the spiritual trajectory, but they certainly identify themselves as Muslim women. They may not be practicing, but they are very concerned about advancing and speaking about their faith.
LL: I can understand that whether a woman is religious or not, she would have a very strong Muslim woman identity. What was it about the conference that made the participants want to organize a women's rights council in the context of religion?
DK: I think that many women, whether they identify with women's issues or not, many women at the conference are activists in reclaiming their faith. There is the progressive movement [of Islam] which seeks a very progressive understanding of Islam and claims that Islam gave women rights fourteen hundred years ago and those [rights] need to be claimed. There's a lot of passion and energy around the rights which have been given by God, and snatched away by man. Divinity has given it, but somehow man has taken it.
LL: As a woman who is on the forefront of this movement, do you think there is a resurgence in Islamic feminism or is the rest of the world just beginning to notice what has always existed?
DK: Muslim women have always had a private relationship with their God. Because we don't have a hierarchy and an intermediary, [Islam] allows for people to have a direct relationship with God. But what is happening now is that there is active participation of women who are educated, who are coming out of the West and the East, who are willing to add their voices to the table.
I think that this resurgence is coming at a time when [women's] voices are so desperately needed and this is why you're seeing and hearing about women actively engaged in this kind of discourse. I think the time has come for women to speak out and to add their unique voice to the challenges that lie ahead for the entire community.
LL: So the next step for you is to create this leadership council. What do you think will be some of the social justice issues the council will address?
DK: There are different challenges in different countries, but our focus needs to be on seeking social justice in the legal framework of Islam. Islamic law calls for men and women to be educated equally. There is a precedent in our faith to seek knowledge and to seek education. To end violence in the name of honor. We would fight [against] the marginalization of women, because in Islamic law a women is not only a legal entity, she is a social person. She is given the right to be a social person, a right to be a talented person, she has the right to be a free agent because she has been given free will. And there are all these rights she has been given by divinity itself and these rights are not being granted.
The playing field is not level. We've had five women who have been heads of state, but in some countries women don't even have the basic right to education. So we would try to level the fields because there such a misapplication of Islamic law in different countries. It is the same law, but there is such a misapplication. Has culture become so strong that it is actually violating religion itself?
LL: What has been the reaction from the Islamic establishment to your initiative?
DK: The best news is that there have been no threats. It means that we're not coming across as a threat, we're coming across as a solution that the community desperately needs.
We did not get any threats from the establishment, which shows that the time for something like this has come. There is desperation for women's voices to be heard because there is such a large constituency of highly educated women all over the Muslim world who need to be galvanized. We need a solution that comes from within the tradition. To me the real test of this is what are next steps are and who will join us.
LL: Are you open to having men involved in your movement?
DK: We would like to, but initially we did not want that because it would draw attention to the men. People would be curious about the men who are supporting this and the media would pick up the story and once again we would be taking attention away from the work women are doing [and instead focusing on] the amazing men who are joining the women's movement.
LL: How does Islamic law function in a state where there are another set of laws?
DK: Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia - theses are the three countries where you have an application of Islamic law that gets blended with civic law. In Malaysia you have two sets of laws, you have the opportunity to go to the Sharia court or you can go to the civic court. In Pakistan where you have certain kinds of laws, like rape laws, that already have policy that is blended with religious law.
LL: Will the priorities of your council be to change religious law in countries where state law and religious law are closely connected?
DK: We have to think about how to go about this. What is the most effective way to create a change? The most effective way is to create a change through the backdoor diplomacy channels, to make recommendations to governments about what Islam says. [And argue that] you are not protecting the rights of women and you can't call yourself a Muslim country until you do this. Sharia calls for the protection of all citizens, of all women.
LL: What is the role for people who want to respect and support the work you are doing?
DK: The support that has already been lent has made this possible. By supporting us at the time when we needed to launch this initiative and coming forward to support us financially, with contacts, and informing the general public about what we are doing.
There is material support, there is moral support and then there is just knowing and understanding that Muslim women are on a trajectory similar to Christian and Jewish women in this country that were fighting for their basic rights of education, voting rights and property rights. To some extent we are at that stage and to understand and to let us create our own path of what we think is going to have a long-term sustainable impact.
The Global Fund really helped us connect with great people out there, who are already your grantees, who are already doing really amazing work and those people who came to our conference have become some of the staunchest supporters of this initiative.
Daisy also sent us a list of recommended books on Islam, women and feminism -- the titles in red are her favorites.