Windows into Islam 4

Windows into Islam 4

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.

Much of this blog comes from a Chapter I contributed to the book ‘Dynamics of Muslim Worlds: Regional, theological, and missiological perspectives’ edited by Evelyne A Reisacher.

Window 4: Social Justice and women activists

A parallel response to religious movements has been the growth of Muslim women’s activism. It is visible in large, international networks, such as Women Living Under Muslim Law (WLUML); in national initiatives like the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in Pakistan or Karama in Egypt; in grassroots projects like the Association for the Protection of the Environment (A.P.E.) working among the garbage collecting community in Cairo; and individuals like Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani in Pakistan, Tawakkol Karmen in Yemen, Razan Ghazzawi from Syria, Manal al-Sharif in Saudi Arabia.

Women’s activism is not new. Muslim women have a rich history of fighting for their rights, for positive social change, and for renewal of their communities. They have opposed the implementation of shari’a[1] laws, based on particular interpretations of the Qur’an and Ahadith. They have fought for independence, challenged cultural norms and traditions, sought constitutional and legal rights and protection, worked for the welfare of women who are marginalised and victims in their community. The early growth of women’s activism was linked to modernising projects and gained momentum during the colonial period.

When I talk of women’s activism I am referring to the range of activities which, in various ways, aim at empowering women and advancing their situations. Women approach their work through different lenses: as scholar-activists, lawyer-activists, rights-activists, philanthropic-activists, political activists, feminist-activists, and Islamic-activists. Their success or failure is regulated by their ability to frame the challenges before them in symbols and actions that demand others join their work. This is complex in contemporary Muslim societies where competing voices, history, power dynamics, identity issues, nationalism, religious conservatism and the global spotlight jostle to dominate how issues and solutions are framed. Strategies range from theological interpretations to radical rejection of religion, from individual strategies of personal assertion and career development to formal lobbying and – sometimes – armed struggle. Some put primacy on class struggle, others on other factors.

The use of religious discourses to frame activism has been contentious, because it is sometimes religion itself which makes challenging wrongs difficult. To challenge a law promulgated on the basis of religion is almost impossible. Others argue that sometimes religion must be used to divest laws and practices of their religious sanction. Political Islam seems to create a frame that many believe drives them outside of Islam to challenge for change.

Feminism is an even more contentious tool for framing demands for change. Being aligned with the West, and the cultural imperialism of some feminist discourses means there is a disconnect between these discourses and women’s daily lives.

Human rights, international conventions and the law are an alternate set of tools that are used by Muslim women activists to negotiate change. But human rights is described as a double-edged sword, with some suggesting it allows the West to intervene into the personal politics of global south countries.

Activism has undergone what some activists refer to as the ‘NGO’isation’ of activism. The term describes the ‘professionalisation’ and ‘projectisation’ of donor-funded attempts to promote change. Activists feel that it has detracted from their work[2] because of contests over resources, compromises in their agenda because of the agenda of donors, and marginalisation of the broader issues for women. At the same time, NGOs have brought significant shifts at grassroots levels for the daily lives of women. Microfinance projects in Upper Egypt have allowed a woman to raise buffalo calves, sell them and be able to pay for her daughters’ education, opening a new future for them. Literacy and health education programmes in Yemen have given women the opportunity to make significant choices about the way they manage their family and their own lives. Cottage industries among vulnerable women in prisons in North Africa have created changes in the prison system, given dignity to women and helped them become contributing members of their family.

Muslim women’s activism is an undeniable part of contemporary Muslim societies. Multi-dimensional, it is reinscribing the discourses of state, society and religion with an awareness of women, their abuse and marginalisation. It is creating a space for dialogue and action that confronts tradition, cultural and religious norms. Powerful political, social and religious structures are being moved by women’s multi-facetted challenges to their entrenched status. Grassroots interventions are empowering women so that they are becoming dynamic participants in their societies.

Questions to explore

  1. How do you see women in your community acting for change? What issues do you think they are most concerned about?
  2. What opportunities does this create for the good news?
  3. What stories of women in scripture help you speak life into these desires for change?

 Good news for women

The work of activists opens the door for us, God’s people, new doors of opportunity. They are creating spaces where activity and intervention are expected and experimented with. the changes that they call for resonate with the heart of the good news of the Kingdom of God; justice for the oppressed and needy, dignity for all whom God has created, inclusivity as fully participating members of society, improved social conditions for all, the welfare of the whole of society.

Justice and compassion are among the over-arching themes of God’s engagement with the world. The scriptures echo this theme again and again: Matthew 5:6, 6:23, 23:23; Micah 6:8; Isaiah 58:6-8; Isaiah 61; Acts 4:32-35; Galatians 2:10; James 2: 14-17. Christopher Wright argues that God shows us in Abraham that righteousness and justice are actions that we actually do, not just something we think about and theorise on. He suggests that the Old Testament words of righteousness and justice, when paired together, are best expressed as social justice. Contestations over the discourses of human rights and equality call for a new vision and expression of justice and righteousness, a renewed moral compass, one Christians should be well-placed to address. Rowan Williams has stated that you cannot have human rights without a Christian foundation. Human rights is a contested discourse, but the work of Muslim women activists calls for a fresh theology, and wrestling with the missiological implications.

[1] shari’a law is Islamic canonical law derived from interpretations of the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

© 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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