Last weekend, my husband and I made the six hour drive to the coastal city of Durban, to attend a series of lectures and seminars by Professor Tariq Ramadan. In an earlier post, I reviewed Ramadan’s latest book, Radical Reform. I certainly appreciate Ramadan’s work, and feels he is one of the very few contemporary egalitarian Islamic scholars.
One evening of the conference was dedicated especially to women’s issues, as the rather simplistic poster advertisement points out. “To work or not to work?”, and “what are my rights and what my responsibilities?” were supposed to be the themes of the evening, but according to Professor Ramadan himself, this binary vision, which reduces womanhood to roles and functions, undermines the very essence of femininity. Instead, Ramadan focused on motivating and encouraging women–throughout the entire the weekend–to become more involved in shaping discourse about ourselves, and most importantly, to stop upholding a “victim mentality”.
He stressed the importance for South African Muslim women to carve out an Islam which is uniquely South African for ourselves, and not to try to “Arabize” ourselves, whether in dress, or otherwise. That said, Ramadan is a strong advocate of the hijab, or as he calls it, the khimar, which can be loosely translated as headscarf. He maintains that no women should be forced to wear it, or remove it, but that it is a decision based on individual faith, and should be adapted to fit the cultural norms of specific communities.
A particularly touchy issue within the South African Muslim community is that of women and the mosque. By and large, women are not catered for and not permitted to enter the majority of South Africa’s many mosques, and to a large extent, the women themselves believe they have no right to such access, due to an Islamic educational system that has perpetuated this for decades. Professor Ramadan was extremely vocal and critical of this, even in his Friday sermon, which he delivered at one of South Africa’s oldest mosques, the Grey Street mosque. Incidentally, he spoke at this mosque because it does grant access to women.
Another topic affecting South African Muslim women is the ongoing battle for recognition of Muslim marriages. In the two-part series I wrote in May on the issue, I mentioned how the process has been derailed because of some segments of the community that believe a Muslim Marriage Act is against Shariah. Professor Ramadan tackled this issue, lending his full encouragement to the enactment of such a bill. He addressed criticisms such as “the act takes away my right to polygamy” and “a Muslim girl can marry at any age after puberty, setting the age limit to 18 is un-Islamic”. He raised the points that just because the bill regulates polygamy (which, according to him, is an exception in Islam, not a rule) does not mean it is anti-Shariah. He also expressed his support for raising the minimum marriage age to 18, as he recently did regarding the same law in Morocco, stating that the community needs to look at the best interests of the girls and women, not the literal meaning of the scriptural sources.
On the international front, given that his visit coincided with the Sarkozy-burqa fiasco, Ramadan was very critical of the whole issue, at the same time maintaining that the niqab/burqa is not an Islamic principle or duty. During the course of the weekend, he also touched on the tragic murder of Marwa el Sherbini, admonishing the German state for allowing it to happen. Professor Ramadan does not hold back his punches, and strongly criticized the situation of women in Muslim majority countries, especially in where he calls the “petrol monarchies”, citing examples like women not being able to drive, expressing his outrage with his French-accented English quip, “what is this?”.
Professor Ramadan echoed much of what he wrote about in his book Radical Reform, but it was interesting to hear him apply it to the South African context.
The organizer of the events, The Institute for Learning and Motivation South Africa (ILM-SA), was founded and is run by the highly efficient and inspirational, Fatima Asmal. Her quest to provide stimulating and educational programs for the community, has brought upon her, at times, attacks by people who feel that it is not her place as a woman to be so involved. She however, maintains her dignity and poise, continuing her meaningful work, despite all this. Asmal mentioned that whenever ILM-SA hosts a conference or seminar, she makes sure that there are special programs for women and the youth, two sectors of Muslim society which she feels have been severely neglected. I asked Fatima about her thoughts on Professor Ramadan’s overall message to Muslim women:
Like his (Ramadan’s) message to everyone else, his message to women was profound. He gave them courage and confidence. He taught them to look within themselves first before they looked outward, and essentially this is what we should all be doing, but which we – as women living in a Muslim community, many sectors of which undeniably try to deny us of many of our rights – tend to lose sight of. But he simultaneously encouraged them to move away from that doormat mentality which has become the trademark of so many Muslim women living in communities marred by negative cultural practices. I can’t speak for everyone who attended the programme for women, but I feel that many women left the event, their heads held up high, imbued with a new and rejuvenated sense of confidence about who they are and what they can offer the world as Muslim women.’
After the intensive four day conference, I am certainly an even more ardent fan and follower of Tariq Ramadan’s work than I was before. I know that many people disagree with his ideology, and controversy seems to follow him wherever he goes, but I think that his practice of dialogue and engagement with all viewpoints is one we can definitely implement here, in any discussion that follows.