Windows into Islam 2

Windows into Islam 2

The series of 6 blogs, “Windows into Islam”, are a compilation from many of my other writings and speaking on women who live under Islam, and the result of conversations with others who have done When Women Speak… I-view courses, and my friend and colleague Moyra Dale, who first used the concept of windows into Islam.

Windows into Islam come from a class I taught online in 2023 for the Lilias Trotter Centre.

Window 2: Piety Movement

In a study that I would highly recommend, Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood gives us this description: “Once a week, in the quiet heat of late afternoon, one can see a stream of women – either singly on in small groups – making their way up a narrow staircase tucked away on one side of the large … mosque complex … The women making their way discreetly to the top floor of the mosque are here to attend a religious lesson … delivered weekly by a woman preacher/religious teacher … between fifty and one hundred women sit for two hours in an air-conditioned room listening to Hajja Faiza provide exegetical commentary in colloquial Arabic on selected passages from both the Qur’an and the hadith.” (Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety. Princeton University Press, 2012)

Moyra Dale, in a separate study conducted in Syria describes this scene: “3:10 p.m. and all is fairly quiet upstairs in the mosque, though as always there’s an undercurrent of activity. I see four women just sitting, another one praying, and a few having their tajwid of the Qur’an heard. Three groups of young women, each eight to twelve people, are on the inner balcony sitting in circles, and there’s a computer class in the library. Children pass through rapidly. People stand upstairs in the ablution area, talking. A woman puts her bag at the end of the mattress I’m sitting on, steps back and begins praying. I’ve greeted a couple of women, sat with one for a little while while she practiced reciting. Anisah Huda sits in the front middle of the room, and others behind her.

“3:30 p.m. Anisah Huda begins dua prayers. A girl squats beside her to ask something—she nods, without stopping in the invocation, continues with another one. She asks “the sisters” to close the doors and windows and continues to whisper quietly. A woman is reading the Qur’an. Others are sitting with their palms open, or with prayer beads … There is silence, broken only by the noise of children upstairs, and Anisah Huda murmuring “Allah” about ten times.” (Dale, Moyra. Shifting Allegiances: Networks of Kinship and of Faith. Wipf and Stock, 2016)

Here we have women claiming a space that has been the domain of men for much of Islam’s history. These are spaces for and by women that open new opportunities for women to participate in the ummah and give an acceptable role within Islam. Bringing Islam into women’s everyday lives, a new generation of scholars and teachers has emerged. Piety movements have opened a new and inclusive religious space for women, confronting the ambivalence around women’s belonging.

Other movements of women can be found in places as diverse as Pakistan, Somaliland, among diaspora communities in the UK, Egypt, Syria, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, and I am sure many more places. The key aims of these modern movements are:

  • A desire to see religious knowledge influence the way life is organised in a modern world that is alienating faith from life
  • Give women authentic knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah so they can apply it to every part of their lives
  • Revive the humanitarian spirit of Islam in a peaceful and non-aggressive manner
  • Help women develop their personality, character and self-confidence
  • Prepare women for their future roles as wives, mothers, sisters and beneficial members of their society
  • Enable women to fulfil their desire to become ‘true Muslims’.

These aspirations and desires being expressed and addressed for and by women has shifted the focus for women, who are part of this movement, from outward form and structure to the experiential. As women pursue this life of devotion they are impacting Islam and their societies today. We see it in styles of dress and speech, standards about what is considered proper entertainment for adults and children, patterns of financial and household management, provision of care for the poor, how public debate is conducted, and transforming culture.

While there are these visible changes, there are also internal shifts in the discourses of Islam as women reread and reinterpret the texts of Islam and apply them to their everyday life and practices. Some women leaders give a range of interpretations and allow women to make their own application. We also see women more willing to challenge something they disagree with. Mahmoud describes interactions in a summer class discussing prescribed limitations on women’s interactions with males, particularly focusing on eye-contact between the sexes. One young woman found the limitations restrictive and untenable in today’s world and openly challenged the teacher, declaring that certain verses were not relevant today. Of interest in the exchange was the young woman’s use of a hadith to validate her position.

In her book, Moyra Dale notes a number of changes affecting Islam. Let me share two of those that I think are important. Firstly, ‘the growing presence of Muslim women teachers is offering Muslim women a new mimetic ideal, a new shape to their aspirations and identity’. They have new models to aspire to. The second is that we now see a shift from women’s faith being defined purely in maternal and familial terms to placing them in the line of succession to the caliphs in a role that mediates between God and his people. This is a titanic shift in women’s place within Islam, which this window invites us to look into.

Questions to explore:

  1. What ways do you see women gathering for religious activities in your community? Why?
  2. What opportunities does this create for the good news?
  3. What stories of women in scripture give insights/could you share with women who are seeking to deepen their faith

Good news for women

Women of the piety movement are perhaps, in unreached people group language, an unreached group, hidden because of their desire for a life of devotion. I think there is work for us to do on issues like hiddenness, piety and devotion. Our evangelical activism needs to adopt what a friend of mine, Cathy Ross calls women’s witness. This is mission carried out in weakness and selflessness, in women’s hiddenness and invisibility. At the same time we must ensure that we do not reinforce women’s oppression or socialization that diminishes their full identity and life in Christ.

We must also see the agency that these women have. We may not understand their actions or devotion, but we must be careful not to ignore their agency, the choices they are making to act in certain ways. Saba Mahmood says ‘Agency… is understood as the capacity to realise one’s own interests against the weight of custom, tradition, transcendental will or other obstacles.’

When Jesus interacts with the Samaritan woman he shows how the place of oppression becomes the fabric of agency. Acknowledging that she has been married 5 times and the man she is now with is not her husband becomes a place of revelation both to her own identity and need, and to who Jesus is. She cannot hide behind her brokenness, remain in isolation or stay socialized as the helpless victim. Jesus submits his need to the woman, voluntarily and in doing so releases a dynamic of agency for those who otherwise are subjects or even victims.

© When Women Speak … January 2024

CH spent nearly four decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and has returned as part of Interserve’s International Leadership. A co-founder of the When Women Speak… network, her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).

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