Reclaiming Inclusion of Sisters at RIS: Part One

Editor’s note: I would like to welcome Sharrae, MMW’s newest contributor!  Sharrae starts us off with a two-part post on the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference held in Toronto ever December.  MMW has covered previous RIS conferences in 2008 and 2009 (part one and part two).  Check back tomorrow for even more RIS-related coverage.

For those who attend, Reviving the Islamic Spirit is treated almost like a second Ramadan. Ramadan is when the iman boost is sought after, and the yearly RIS Convention in Toronto is when many find that it can again be replenished. This year was my first year attending the conference, which was celebrating its 10-year anniversary.

On the rare times when I encounter a female scholar or teacher, I can’t help but get overly excited. Two strong women strongly contributed to the weekend’s program. Ambassador Shabazz (Malcolm X’s eldest daughter) and Sister Tayyibah Taylor powerfully relayed their knowledge and experiences relating to how we can establish strong legacies for ourselves and end the systemic violence against Muslim women.

However, gender issues aren’t confined to only what’s said by the female speakers. Through seemingly trivial matters like seating, to comments laced with sexism, and the violence that tears our private realm apart, this post will seek to explore the gendered ramifications of other actions and words at RIS.


To nobody’s surprise, the seating was separated according to gender. I had no qualms about this, but I did take issue with how the seating, in terms of its placement in areas of traffic, hindered the acquiring of knowledge for single Muslim women. Positioned near the entrance to the main room, we sisters had to constantly endure people buzzing around to find seats, making it extremely difficult to focus when seated behind the first section. The circumstance reminded me of the mosque, where women are often pushed to the back, behind barriers of bars, walls or elevated on stifled balconies, far removed from the ability to attain knowledge and elevate our understanding. Whether or not these arrangements were intentional or not, such decisions suggest that a woman’s knowledge isn’t as obligatory or important as that of men’s.  Why must we have to suffer at every conference by being shunned to the poorest seats of the house and furthermore, why do men feel that they can sit in our section when the only seats left in the house were at the back?  Traces of “this is a man’s world” were definitely present in such situations.  Wouldn’t you think, as a man clearly being surrounded by hijabis, that you are in the wrong section?!  Miskeen!

Gender relations: Analysis of violence

On Saturday the day began with a session entitled, “From Margin to Centre: Rethinking Gender Relations” with Sister Tayyibah Taylor and Dr. Yassir Fazaga. Sr. Taylor, who related her recent travels to the state of Afghanistan, provided an in-depth analysis of the power structures between men and women that result in anti-woman behaviours. Her analysis would have made any feminist clap in agreement as she managed to utilize the teachings and traditions of Islam, thus, making the connection that Islam in itself can be understood as a feminist discourse all on its own.  Sr. Taylor acknowledged the discrepancy between the Quran, Sunnah and the practice within our communities. She asserted that women are viewed as commodities and are used to enhance men in this life. Central to her discussion, she provided five ways for better establishment of relationship with men and women through the rightly-named acronym PEACE (Purpose, Example, Awliyah, Contribution, and Equality).

Dr. Fazaga’s contribution to the topic was interesting in that it was focused more on how men and women should interact with one another. However, he duly noted that often times the West constantly refers to Muslim countries as oppressors against their women, completely ignoring that the three most populated Muslim countries (Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan) either have been, or are being, led by women. He also provided a comparison with the U.S. Congress and Senate, and Jordan’s parliament, reflecting that the latter has a higher female representation in their government than the former. Yet, the West seems to be transfixed on societies like Saudi Arabia that prevent women from driving. I appreciated his acknowledgement of the possibilities and examples of female leadership in the modern day.

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  • Dawud

    Wow. Really? Bad seating at a convention with thousands of attendees?


  • El-Farouk

    I note that RIS never invites women who are academic equals to the men or who hold similar ‘authority’ as the men. This is done purposefully so that the men do not have to compete or stand a challenge from women who are their academic and juridical equals.

  • Muslim

    Regarding seating, from what i recall women were sitting on one side of the stage and men were sitting on the other. The reason why women sit on the side nearest the entrance is so they don’t have to walk across the hall and their seats are near the entrance/exit. If it was the other way around people would give the mosque example where muslim women have to go around to the back entrance while men enter through the front. The noise issue is a downside for being near the entrance. Please note i am not defending RIS and i dont know their true motivations.

    My greatest issue with RIS is that it is an example of muslim excess and extravagance… and yes the Muslim 1%. We often complain about how there are crazy hotels going up around the harem or even at RIS they talk about living within your means, preservation and helping the poor. Tickets to RIS weekend conference costs $60 per person, for a family of 4 that is over $200. Streaming of the conference costs $20 per connection. The retreat which by the way was at the Royal York (Toronto’s best hotel where movie stars and royalty stay… and now sheikhs) was $150 per person. Many Muslim Families in Toronto live in poverty, and even for those who don’t often struggle to make ends meet. By charging them such high amounts you ensure that those who are poor and cannot afford it are unable to attain Islamic Knowledge. I understand RIS has bills to pay, but in all honesty the organizers need to look at where they are paying for need and where they are paying for extravagance. Our leaders can no longer talk about the poor in our community and go back to their hotel suite at the Royal York.

  • DI

    ^pwnage. True say.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Muslim – This is not the first time that I’ve heard about the scholarly extravagance, but I think people are too frightened of a backlash to speak out publically.

  • Muslim

    I am sorry if i took the discussion off topic. What I will say is that next year RIS organizers should sit down with community activists/leaders, specifically those who have been excluded from their events or feel they have been excluded (purposefully or not). Sit down with women leaders/activist, sit down with people who work with the poor or poorer communities and even those who are under represented in our communities (ie: those who are disabled, LGBTQ and ect). And ask them how can RIS include everyone and how can RIS ensure all Muslims, not just the elite gain knowledge and understanding of their religion.

    • sharrae

      I appreciate the points that you have made and agree with you entirely. I think it’s interesting that by trying to delineate from the traditional mosque model, the positioning of the sisters section, in my opinion was still problematic, but in different ways. In the mosque model, the fact that we are further from the congregation makes us at times susceptible to speak with one another, which I do feel is something that we need to work on irregardless of where we are situated in the mosque.

      Something that RIS does do is allow people to donate some money towards a cheaper ticket. An individual can donate $25 dollars that would go towards funding someone who for whatever reasons would not be able to pay the full price. However, I am not sure exactly how one goes about requesting a ticket and didn’t find that the information was easily available.

      I must note that I appreciate the work that was done by the volunteers, especially after witnessing some of the trouble that attendees were subjecting them too, in addition to the organizers who made RIS a possibility. Any criticisms of RIS are meant to be constructive. A means of improving a convention that has the ability to progressively enlighten and, as in its title states; revive the Muslim community.