WISE Reflections on Muslim Women’s Leadership

WISE Reflections on Muslim Women’s Leadership November 3, 2011

This year the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) held its third global conference in Istanbul Turkey. The conference, titled “WISE: Muslim Women Leaders at the Frontlines of Change,” lasted just four days, from October 14 to October 17, 2011.  It included panel discussions, debates, and training sessions.

WISE Conference Participants. Photo via the WISE Conference Flikr page

This year’s conference was centered on the topic of Muslim women’s leadership. “A Woman’s Place in Islam – Views from Turkish Women” was just one of the featured panels. Interactive case studies, such as “Muslim Women who Sparked the Egyptian Revolution,” featured stories and accounts from Muslim women who played an vital role in the Egyptian revolution. Among those present to give their account of the Egyptian revolution was 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz, creator of the now-famous Youtube video that called on Egyptians to take to the streets in peaceful protest on January 25, 2011.

Conference participants included more than 180 Muslim women from 45 countries, representing different areas of expertise. These women represented Muslim women scholars, activists, writers, politicians, artists, religious and spiritual leaders, civil society leaders and even those who helped ignite the Arab Spring. Among the participants were the familiar names of Tayyibah Taylor, Editor-in-Chief of Azizah Magazine, and Dr. Ziba Mir-Hosseini, founding member of Musawah Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family. All were present to contribute to educating and empowering Muslim women through an Islamic perspective.

The WISE Conference is an enterprise born from the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), a New-York based nonprofit that aims to, “elevate the discourse on Islam and foster environments in which Muslims thrive.” ASMA founder and director, Daisy Khan, suggested that the location of the third global conference in Turkey was deliberately chosen because it “has a rich history of pluralism. If it shares that with the world, it can have an impact on how we reshape our world. Turkey presents a model for how you can be both secular and Muslim…”

With this model of a pluralistic pursuit of truth, the WISE conference transpired, answering the question that was at the very heart of this gathering: does the religion of Islam exclude women from leadership roles?

Conference participants told their stories of challenging social, legal, and “religious” barriers to leadership.

Kholoud Al Faqeeh, judge in the Shariah Court of Ramallah and the first female Shariah court judge appointed in Palestine, spoke of fronting the antagonistic reaction of men who would walk into her courtroom and say, “Oh my God, it has come down to this. We have a female judge.”

Sophia Abdi Noor. Image via the WISE Conference website.

Sophia Abdi Noor spoke about how she underwent female genital mutilation (FGM) at a young age and was forced into an early marriage. In 1997, Ms. Noor became the first woman from the region to seek political office; however, her nomination was cancelled due to “religious” arguments that a woman cannot lead a Muslim community. She fought back by working to change the Kenyan constitution to reinstate inheritance rights for women, and her story prompted Parliament to make the practice of FGM in Kenya a criminal offense. Ms. Noor has since become a member of Kenyan’s 10th Parliament and is the first Muslim woman nominated Member of Parliament

Laila Bugaighis, a consultant obstetrician and gynecologist and Chairwoman of the National Protection Against Violence Committee (NPAVC), spoke of her experience working with Doctors Without Borders in Libya, shortly after the revolution broke out in mid-February. She said that pre-revolution, female survivors of rape had to go the police in order to get a certificate to be medically examined. If the survivor was pregnant, she was not offered an abortion. As Bugaighis told the conference,“Now [a rape victim] can come directly to us and we will protect her confidentiality. We can help her to have a safe abortion. Before, most [rape] survivors would never come and talk about being raped.”

Laila Bugaighis also said about the role of women in the Libyan revolution:

“We want to be treated equally. We respect men; they are half of the society but we’re the other half. In Islamic societies, women are always pushed behind. In Libya, education is free for all. We have hundreds of educated women—academics, doctors, judges, lawyers.”

The participants sought to answer the question of women’s leadership in Islam by consulting Islamic texts, discussing what verses of the Qur’an, hadiths, or examples from the Sunnah of the Prophet support or allow for Muslim women to seek leadership roles. Also discussed was the presence and legitimacy—if any—of barriers to Muslim women seeking leadership roles, erected by countries in the form of “religious” laws, through religious leaders, or as a result of patriarchal society structures.

The consensus among these educated women was that Muslim women should not be barred from any leadership positions. The WISE Shura Council, a council of Muslim women scholars, activists, and specialists who critically review and interpret Islamic legal and religious texts and practices and publish their interpretations, approved of this conclusion.

Daisy Khan said about Muslim women seeking leadership roles,

“If they seek it and want it, it will be justified Quranically, and it will be justified in regards to Islamic tradition…Islam empowers women. I’ve learned that gender equality is an intrinsic part of my religious community and my faith. I want to share this with others. Otherwise, we can come to believe that the religion is the problem, while in fact religion can offer solutions.”

The varied stories of conference participants empower Muslim women to exercise their full Islamic rights through advocating for Muslim women to hold positions in areas where they can directly challenge legal, social, and “religious” barriers to their attainment of leadership roles. Yet, perhaps the greatest merit of the WISE conference is that it creates a space for Muslim women to find equality and justice within their religious texts, traditions, and beliefs.

You can now go online to find videos of the WISE 2011 Conference as well as a list of this year’s participants and other media covering the conference.

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