Women protesting in Benghazi, Libya, in 2011 against the Qaddafi dictatorship (Ryan Calder)
Throughout the Muslim world, a groundswell of feminist sentiment is growing among women who are seeking to reclaim Islam and the Koran for themselves. For decades, many women believed they had to choose between their Muslim identity and their belief in gender equality. It was an impossible choice—one that involved betraying either their faith or their feminist consciousness. Four years ago, a global movement called Musawah—“equality” in Arabic—began to make the case that women can fight for justice and equality from within Islamic tradition. For many Muslim women, this came as a revelation.
Musawah was spearheaded by twelve women, from countries as diverse as Egypt, Gambia, Turkey and Pakistan, who spent two years laying out the movement’s guiding principles. It was officially launched in 2009 at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur that brought together 250 Muslim activists, scholars, legal practitioners and policy-makers from forty-seven nations. The organization is currently based in Malaysia, but will periodically move its secretariat and leadership council from country to country. At its core, Musawah operates on the belief that Islam is not inherently biased toward men: patriarchy within Muslim countries is a result of the way male interpreters have read Islamic texts. With this framework for action, Musawah empowers women to shape the interpretations, norms and laws that affect their lives, then push for legal reform in their respective countries.
Around the world, Musawah’s members uphold its mission by producing educational materials, fighting for legal provisions and advocating for women’s rights alongside local NGOs. Their work relies on two main tools: progressive interpretations of the Koran and international human rights standards. Musawah’s approach is modeled on a Malaysian organization called Sisters in Islam, which works with Islamic scholars to produce workshops and books that explain that Islam does not mandate injustice. Zainah Anwar, one of Musawah’s key architects, founded Sisters in Islam in 1988 and has made it an important political and religious force in Malaysia. According to Anwar, many Muslim women spend their entire lives believing that their oppression is justified by Islamic teachings, such as the concept of a husband’s authority over his wife. For years, she has gone into rural towns to show women that Islam supports gender equality. “When they are exposed to this new knowledge, they feel duped,” says Anwar. “All these years, they believed that their suffering in the form of abandonment, polygamy and beatings was all in the name of God.”
Marina Mahathir, an AIDS activist who works with Sisters in Islam and Musawah (and is the daughter of Mahathir bin Mohamad, Malaysia’s former prime minister), says she has met many women who refuse to protect themselves from getting HIV from their husbands because they believe that any attempt to do so—not just by refusing sex or leaving their homes, but even by insisting on condom use—would be wifely disobedience, or nushuz, denounced in Islam. To convince them that escaping a dangerous marriage is not against God’s will, Mahathir worked with scholars to find Koranic justification for leaving one’s husband under exceptional circumstances. According to progressive scholars, the concept of iddribuhunna, which has traditionally been interpreted as “to beat,” also means “to go separate ways” and can serve as confirmation that it is sometimes permissible for a woman to end her marriage.