Tariq Ramadan Speaks to South African Women

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.


The poster for Tariq Ramadan's women's issues meeting.

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.

I managed to sneak in a question regarding the role of Muslim women in the media. Professor Ramadan expressed concern about the current trend to objectify Muslim women, and stressed the importance of us becoming more visible in the media.

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.

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  • Amina Ebrahim

    I totally agree with TR stressing that we should not try to “Arabize” ourselves. We sometimes don’t notice it as we perceive it to be fashionable and perhaps even think that it is the right thing to do…

  • http://www.tasmiya.com Tasmiya

    So was the same message given to mixed audiences? So often I see well meaning scholars telling women about their rights and how wonderful they are etc etc. and then not addressing these things to the men as well.

    I don’t mean this to sound like a ‘victim’ and I agree with him totally on that, only that the only way women are going to get a voice is if the men shut up once in a while and actually listen.

    The message (and I mean the SAME one) needs to be given to both men and women, not just telling women how powerful and influential they are and leaving it at that.

  • Safiyyah

    yes certainly, over the course of the weekend, he spoke to men and women together about the need for women to be more involved, more female scholars, more women in the mosques etc. in fact, even in the friday sermon, he told the men that they need to create space for the women! all this is good and fine, but its women who need to step up and take the reigns, not let men be the one to “give” it to them!

    @amina – agreed, but i think if someone finds something fashionable, theres no problem with wearing it, as long it doesnt become the symbol of the “right” kind of Islam. e.g. I would wear an abaya as often as a jelabiyya or turkish scarf… because i like how it looks, not because its the only way to be muslim.

  • Sha’ista G

    Nice post Safiyyah. I really like the rejection of the binary vision of “to work or not to work”.

    In terms of “arabization” I think it is a reflection of a community that is for the most part a good few generations removed from their country of origin, grappling with their Islamic identity in a Western society without a home-country they relate to for guidance. In this, Arab identify is conflated with Islamic identify because Arabia is the cradle of Islam. However, the key is for South Africans to carve out their own identity in terms of dress if they want to, but to definately carve out their own identity in terms of discourse. For many years Islamic discourse in South Africa has been shaped by ideas imported from other countries with no consideration for the differences in challenges faced by South African Muslims. I hope the influence of scholars such as Tariq Ramadaan assists in inspiring South African Muslims to shape this discourse further within their context.

    I also like that he told men to create space for women in mosques.

  • http://blog.hichamaged.net/ Hicham

    Thanks Safiyyah for the review. Prof Ramadan, from my point of view, is among those elite who deal with women issues from the perspective that they are ‘women’ not ‘female’ as majority do, unfortunately.

    Of course he doesn’t need my credits :D however it seems that some ‘arabized’ mentalities aren’t aware of what he calls for just because of the narrow vision that think that Islam came for Arabs only! C’mon!