Revisiting the Islamic Spirit: Women at the 2009 RIS Convention: Part I

This is part one of a two-part series reviewing the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Convention. Stay tuned tomorrow for part two!

This year’s Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) Convention was held in Toronto from December 25-27, 2009.  Those of you who have been reading MMW for a while might remember my reflections on it last year (in which I praised the conference, but lamented the very small number of female speakers), and my reflections on the joint RIS-ISNA Canada conference that happened last summer (in which–get this!–I praised the conference but lamented the very small number of female speakers.)  This year’s convention was a significant improvement in many areas of the gender discussion, although there is still work to do.

Participants at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Convention.  Via the National Post.

Participants at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Convention. Via the National Post.

Before I go further, I want to be clear that this is always a very impressive conference, with a lot of inspiring speakers from very well educated scholars.  I always hear a big range of estimates of how many people attend, but I think this year’s attendance was around 15,000, which is pretty huge, and makes it a great way to meet other Muslims from here and abroad (including MMW‘s Safiyyah, who came all the way from South Africa!). A whole lot of people work hard every year to make this conference happen, and their effort is much appreciated.  I’m saying this because I want to make a distinction between pointing out the flaws or areas for improvement versus giving a negative impression of it altogether.  I loved the conference, and I’m glad I went, but none of this means that it can’t be pushed harder to include an even more representative roster of speakers.

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Tavakoli’s Triumph: Scores in Chadors

Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is not to side with either the government or the opposition of Iran, but to analyze the use of gender in a recent campaign.

Being a woman is considered so shameful that if you are an outspoken male opposition supporter in Iran, the press will release a picture of you wearing a headscarf and chador to humiliate you.

This is exactly what happened to Majid Tavakoli, a prominent student leader in Iran (image below). Tavakoli was arrested in last week’s student-led protests after he gave a speech urging students to reject “tyranny,” a call greeted by chants of “death to the dictator.”

The image of Tavakoli released to the press. Image via Fars News Agency.

The image of Tavakoli released to the press. Image via Fars News Agency.

Speculations have been going back and forth between pro-government and opposition media: no one knows if Tavakoli was arrested while disguised as a woman, forced to wear the clothing after being arrested, or if the photo itself was simply digitally altered. But the overreaching message is that women’s clothing–and by extension, women–was used to disgrace Tavakoli.

The contempt for women displayed in the shaming campaign is shocking. That women would be shown vindictiveness so publicly, in a country that is supposedly amongst the more progressive Islamic governments, is ironic – but steps taken by Iranian bloggers and other supporters who are participating in the solidarity campaign do provide respite from the bitter reality.

Even if Tavakoli did disguise himself as a woman, the fact that it is viewed as a shameful act and used to humiliate him is telling of the gender strata that exist within Iranian society. By depicting Tavakoli wearing women’s clothing, the media campaign sought to make him less of a man. Since men and women are thought to be opposites and have opposite traits (i.e., men are strong and hard, women are weak and soft), feminizing Tavakoi with a chador is intended to denigrate his masculinity. The intention was to underscore his value as a student leader and contribute to the demobilization of the opposition movement. Instead, a rather interesting development has unfolded.

Iranian men are showing their solidarity with Tavakoli by wearing headscarves and chadors. Photos of covered men are popping up on Facebook and Twitter and blogs. Not only are they showing their support for Tavakoli, but also for women, who, by inference, are on the bitter end of this campaign as the “lesser sex”.

Pulled from the We are Majid Tavakoli Facebook group.

Pulled from the We are Majid Tavakoli Facebook group.

The bold act by these men who have submitted their hijab photos may be reflective of a growing shift in perspectives of women amongst ordinary Iranians. This is a very positive sign that there are men out there who do not view women as shameful or less valuable human beings, and are willing to take on the very symbol of femininity (the hijab or chador) in solidarity with them. Although their primary reason for doing so is to support Tavakoli, the connotations of gender solidarity are too strong to ignore. Many of the male supporters themselves say that they stand with Tavakoli and with Iranian women.” Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at New York’s Columbia University, told CNN that he is

Proud to wear my late mother’s rusari, the very rusari that was forced on my wife in Iran, the very rusari for which my sisters are humiliated if they choose to wear it in Europe, and the very rusari that the backward banality that now rules Iran thinks will humiliate Majid Tavakoli if it is put on him — He is dearer and nobler to us today than he ever was.

The fundamental question underlying this story is an age-old one: why are women viewed as lesser beings in traditional Islamic cultures (note: not in Islam)? This story reflects the macrocosm of the majority of Muslim societies, whereby women are marginalized and given a lower status than men in the name of “Islam”. Too often, in both the Muslim and non-Muslim world, women are the scapegoats and symbols for many things unclean and unwanted–from adultery to minaret bans–and this story is yet another sorry example of the depreciation and denigration of Muslim women.

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.

Authority, the Media, and Muslim Women

I have begun to read Khaled Abou El-Fadl’s Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women again. My first attempt was about two years ago while I was still finishing my Bachelor’s. The book is not easy to get through and the first time out proved to be a massive failure. This time is proving to be better, since I have more time to read it (although it is still proving to be difficult yet enjoyable to read). As we can tell from the title, a huge part of the book is dedicated to authority, as in who has authority to speak for what Islamic law says about a variety of issues, women included. A good portion of the book also deals with sources of authority and the types of authority that exist when it comes to Islamic law.

Reading Fatemeh’s post on Asra Nomani’s documentary that aired on PBS Monday evening as well Alicia’s post on the Sisters in Islam opposition and the struggles of Islamic feminists in Malaysia made me think once more authority in Islam. I believe that rethinking and challenging authority is at the heart of the recent wave of Islamic feminism that we have seen around the world. Muslim women the world over are challenging forms of authority that have often had a male face and used a patriarchal reading of Islamic texts (Qur’an and hadith literature) to justify gender oppression.  They also using traditional forms of authority, such as Islamic texts, to overcome gender oppression, bring about gender equality and create a feminism that has Islam as its heartbeat.

One of the most important tools in discussing, rethinking and challenging authority as it relates to Muslim women is the media (in this post, media will refer to the mainstream media as well as various forms of non-traditional media). As much as I have been critical of the mainstream media’s coverage of Muslim women in general, I cannot deny that it has allowed traditional authorities in the Muslim community (‘ulamah, imams, mosque boards composed mostly or entirely by men, etc.) to be challenged on their interpretation of women’s rights. The ummah has been forced to grapple with issues ranging from masjid accommodations for women and mixed gender salat to domestic violence and the texts traditionally used to justify it because the mainstream media has covered these issues.

When the media covers an event like Amina Wadud leading a mixed gender prayer, it does have the effect of making Muslims discuss women’s place in mosques. I remember when that event occurred and hearing so many Muslims say things like “Even if I don’t think women should lead salat, I wonder what the conditions are in masjids that would make her do that?” or “I don’t think women should lead salat but the accommodations for women in masajid leave a lot to be desired.”

Additionally, it did make a lot of scholars look at the place of women in masjids. While most may not have taken the position that women can lead the prayer, it did make a lot of them reaffirm women’s right to even be in a masjid and women’s to have equal access to masjids, something that was and still is sorely lacking in masjids around the world, the U.S. included. Watching Asra Nomani’s documentary on Monday evening, I admit that I was thoroughly disgusted with her tactics and confrontational style, but I also had to admit that in some way, her constant use of the media for her cause (which was vague, I admit) did make Muslims in her community think about their leadership and the role of women in the masjid in Morgantown.

This is just one example of the use of the mainstream media in challenging and reshaping authority. Non-traditional media has allowed Muslims to challenge authoritative views of women in Islam. From websites dedicated to moderate and progressive views to blogs like MMW, non-traditional media has provided a platform for Muslims to discuss traditionally authoritative views about Muslim women and to challenge them. Non-traditional media has made it easier for Muslims to discuss what Islamic texts say about women, whether we even want to accept certain texts that have traditionally been held as authoritative and more importantly, who has the authority to interpret those texts and who should have the authority to interpret those texts. We can now discuss issues like hadith literature typically used to oppress women, question them and even reject them on a much more massive scale. Non-traditional media has, for better or for worse, made it much easier for lay Muslim to challenge and even reject authority

The media will continue to play a vital role in the fight for Muslim women’s rights. One of the most important ways the media will achieve this is by encouraging Muslims to look at Islamic texts as well as those who interpret them. It will make those who interpret the texts and who do hold authority more beholden to lay Muslims; that is a good thing.

Mild Toxic Waste: Malaysian Women’s Television Programs

As I count the hours to the day I return to Malaysia, I’m compiling my notes and thoughts for a small research project on media images of women in the capital. But I’ve already started collecting preliminary data; my immense curiosity in the representation of Muslim Malay women in the current media took me as far as binging on toxic levels of Malaysian online television recently. So in a way, this post will serve as an introduction to an analysis of the popular trends affecting Muslim Malay women as depicted in the media in Malaysia today.

Far from the most progressive form of mainstream media, Malaysian television plays host to boring gender stereotypes in film, advertising and, most prominently, in women’s programs. Yet, it’s a place where women rule. The majority of programs, whether they’re dramas, sitcoms, or day-time talk shows, are aimed at women. Not only does this suggest that a bigger proportion of the TV audience is female, but also implies the fact that more women spend more time at home than men do.

Further, the growing visibility of women in hijab on television in recent years goes hand in hand with the glamorous and ‘sellable’ image of the hijab and the increased religiosity of the mass media. Personally, I find the diversity of Muslim women on TV a positive change, but when I watch two extravagantly-dressed women talking on a half-hour segment about nothing but pillows and mattresses, I begin to feel a disconnect between the image and the message: it’s all looks but zero substance.

Which brings us neatly to the consumerist and image-centric approach to Malaysian women’s TV programming and definition of modern femininity. To begin with, hotels, cellphone companies, fashion labels, and banks all feature as the major sponsors of such programs, indicating the rise of female purchasing power. Filming sometimes take place at shopping complexes and beauty spas to promote a range of products that stretches the imagination. “Newsworthy” items include a newly opened designer boutique in Kuala Lumpur. There can be no doubt that the love affair between merchandising and women’s programs plays into the beliefs and assumptions that Malay women are constantly preoccupied with shopping and image.

Just as important as shopping is being an amenable, obedient wife. An entire episode on Wanita Hari Ini (Today’s Women) was dedicated to the topic of wives who hold grudges against their husbands. When interviewing a group of elderly women for advice, all of them agreed that being disagreeable with their husbands was an act against the teachings of Islam, while one suggested the consultation of religious texts and rituals to find an “answer” to marital disputes.

Image via Wanita Hari Inis website.

Image via Wanita Hari Ini's website.

The same unproductive, non-confrontational approach to serious matters had also found its way into neutralizing the issue and effects of breast enlargement on Nona some time ago. I remember watching in both disbelief and disgust in the way boob jobs were promoted primarily for the sexual pleasure of married men; not a word about how natural it looks or how safe the procedure is, or a comment on the objectification of female bodies.

One of the main factors contributing to the dumbing-down of women’s programs is the broadcasting companies’ refusal to engage with challenging issues, resulting in half-baked discussions on what women really want to talk about like sex education and contraception, for example. Instead, TV producers make do with “major” topics like different ways to consume nutmeg and the nutritional value of oranges (as shown last week on Wanita Hari Ini).

The overwhelming amount of content viewed as “women’s issues”, which are limited to fashion, shopping, and marital relations, gives the impression that Muslim Malay women care little about the deeper and thought-provoking issues that pertain to their discrimination in the eyes of the law and society. But then, there is the view that Malaysia has achieved gender equality when we see more women with successful, high-flying careers, and a relative freedom to dress as we like.

And so women’s programs are seen as simply an aspirational extension to a material facade of success. But not far beneath all that superficiality, women in Malaysia are still expected to play a secondary role in all institutions – marriage, the family and the workplace. This has come to be reflected and propagated on television, the producer of cultural meanings and dominant images of women.

Announcing the Arrival of altmuslimah and Muslim Lookout

Salam waleykum, readers! I have lots of announcements!

altmuslimah, a kind of “sister” site to altmuslim, launched today. It’s a wonderful site that discusses gender and Islam in an intelligent, thoughtful way, and it’s put forth by many of the same people who are behind altmuslim, with one notable addition: me! I’m serving as associate editor to the site. I’ve also written a piece for the website’s launch. It’s a review of the movie AmericanEast. Be sure to check altmuslimah out!

Also, Sobia & Krista have joined forces to create Muslim Lookout, a website dedicated to “analysing representations of Muslims in mainstream Canadian media.” The site is still in development, but it will become a valuable resource for fighting Islamophobia in Canada, enshallah. We wish Krista and Sobia the best in this endeavor, and are pleased that they’ll continue to be part of the MMW family.

This doesn’t mean any changes for MMW, so don’t worry. We’ll still be operating as normal, and some of our posts might pop up over at altmuslimah and Muslim Lookout. But we’ll still be bringing you dedicated media analysis and news coverage five days a week!