Big Stories

Feminism In Faith: Zainah Anwar’s Quest To Reinterpret The Qur’an’s Most Controversial Verse

By one common reading of the Holy Qur’an, a Muslim woman must choose between rejecting her faith and rejecting the notion of equality. This Kuala Lumpur-based journalist and activist has been working to find a third option.

Photograph by Sze Ning for BuzzFeed

If a Muslim woman opens up the text of the Holy Qur’an and leafs through its pages until she reaches chapter 4, which is titled “The Verse of Women,” and continues on until she reaches verse 34, she will find the following proclamation: “Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance — [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.”

Growing up in Pakistan, I remember reading the verse myself, from a copy of the Holy Qur’an that belonged to my grandmother. I remember my twisted set of feelings that followed — confusion, betrayal, and disappointment. Almost a teenager then, I had believed that the male domination of the society around me was a only a product of our culture, of tribal and patriarchal mores that belonged particularly to Pakistan and that could, with education and enlightenment, be changed. The tiny letters of the translation, set against the large Arabic calligraphy, told me something different. Unschooled in exegesis and the intricacies of translation or the human influences that can constitute it, I took it to be divinely revealed, as I did the text of the Holy Qur’an itself. I could not articulate it then, but it was as if the door of empowerment, whose light had been visible to me before, seemed suddenly dimmer.

Not long before I first read that verse in the late ’80s, a young journalist in Malaysia named Zainah Anwar was sent into the rural country on assignment to cover upcoming elections. Born in an urban Muslim family in Johor Bahru, Anwar had always been taught Islam as the basis for mercy and justice, and not as the means for subjugating women and girls. As a student in cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur’s multicultural milieu, she saw the country’s constitution as being part of a universal discourse of equality, applicable not only to the Muslim Malay majority, but also to Malaysian Hindus and Christians.

But, as she traveled to villages and spoke to the women inside small homes and farms, she began to question the relationship between Islam and feminism. She could see the toll that this male-centered interpretation of Islam, aptly summarized in verse 4:34, was having on ordinary Muslim women.

“In one case, a young girl came to me because her father had abandoned her mother and her siblings for nearly 20 years,” she says, still registering the shock she felt when she first heard the story. “Then one day, the man had shown up and demanded to be head of the family and to live in their house. When the mother had objected, the local religious scholar had told her that this was the man’s right and there was nothing that could be done to stop him.”

Even though we are chatting over Skype, her indignation at the helplessness of the women she met on that long-ago trip comes through. It was one of many stories she would hear about the necessity of women’s subjection to men being preached as a cornerstone of being Muslim. In the years to come I would also encounter the verse again and again, and discover it to be a lethal bullet in the arsenal of those who would paint patriarchy and male supremacy as essential to Islam.

And yet it was not simply a conservative interpretation of religion that had found adherents among Muslim villagers she encountered. Attached to the popularization of women’s subjection to men as a tenet of Islam was the political project of Malaysia’s Islamist party, PAS (Pan Malaysian Islamic Party). Staunchly anti-colonial, PAS sought to delegitimize feminism as an inauthentic idea stolen from the Western world. A good Islamic society, they preached, was one in which women did not seek equality, but willingly accepted submission to men. It was, after all, divinely ordained. In years since, PAS has won increased support in northern, predominantly Muslim Malaysian states. Among its promises to the population has been the establishment of Shariah, or Islamic law. In and around this time, other parts of the Muslim world were seeing similar legislation that sought to take rights back from women in the name of Islam.

At the same time, broadly speaking, a divide was growing between feminist and religious Muslim discourses. Some, especially in the West, have pursued the strategy of circumventing the obstacle proffered by 4:34 by trying to chart a route around it, focusing on speaking of gender equality in secular, human rights terms. At the furthest extreme, a figure like Ayaan Hirsi Ali renounced Islam entirely as a result of embracing feminism. On the other hand are positions held by conservative Muslim groups, which eschew any engagement with feminist ideas of equality or empowerment as contaminations in an Islamic life. Many Muslim women, those who are less activist and more devout or unable to access the often elite and urban discourse of empowerment, have remained under the shadow of the verse, believing per its literal translation that men are entitled to their complete obedience and are permitted to beat them if they do not provide it.

With a group of friends, Anwar, by now in her thirties, began reading the Holy Qur’an for herself. Motivated by the conviction that the religion they associated in their lives with justice and mercy could not be the basis of such misogyny, they wanted to see what exactly the Qur’an said. Those reading groups would be the beginning of Anwar’s long road toward creating an organization with the same goal — Musawah: A Movement for Equality Within the Muslim Family. Founded in 2009 after decades of fundraising and organizing, Musawah seeks to promote equality within the Muslim family by supporting feminist interpretations of the Holy Qur’an and of Shariah law. Against this ideological divide dictating that liberation lies in an abandonment of faith or the Islamist prescription that a devout Muslim woman must abandon the project of equality, Anwar and her organization hope to present a third option.

In the late ’80s, Amina Wadud, a Muslim and Qur’anic scholar, was coming to Malaysia to pursue her doctoral studies. When she arrived, Anwar and her group of friends extended an invitation to join their Qur’anic study group, and she accepted.

“It was she who taught us the basics of Qur’anic grammar and textual exegesis,” says Anwar, “and all of us women, activists and Muslims, began to understand for the first time how so many of the interpretations that were being fed to us as ‘divine’ were in fact not so at all.”

What was being presented by many religious clerics as Shariah or Islamic law — the completely unassailable word of God — was in fact a compendium of interpretations and translations, nearly all done by men. Unsurprisingly, they often elevated men and left women as their subjugated partners. To do something truly revolutionary for Muslim women thus required taking back the realm of religious interpretations — 1,400 years of them. It seemed a gargantuan task, but unless it was done, future generations of Muslim women would again read the popular translations of verse 4:34 and believe that the male right to demand obedience from them, to discipline them was given by God.

As Anwar puts it: “There was no divine right to beat us or to have four wives.”

With Anwar’s positivity and can-do enthusiasm goading them on, the initial groups of women labored on, despite their small numbers and scant funding. First, they concentrated their efforts locally; they had founded an organization called Sisters in Islam in 1988. The organization focused on providing a counter-narrative to Malaysia’s Islamists. When Islamist parties won control of some of Malaysia’s states and sought the enactment of legislation that would punish illicit sex, Sisters in Islam began providing critiques both from a constitutional and an Islamic perspective. In rural areas, the group organized meetings and workshops so they could create awareness about the existence of alternative interpretations. In Malaysia’s universities, they encouraged young female scholars to engage in research that would provide alternative feminist interpretations of religious texts. When they found these already existing in other parts of the Muslim world, they translated and republished them, making them easily available in Malaysia.

It would take nearly two decades of exacting work, fundraising, planning, meeting, and strategizing before Musawah, the global organization, would be an actuality. The task was a big one and included connecting feminist Muslim scholars, scattered all across the globe, with Muslim activists in countries as widespread and disparate as Nigeria, Mali, Pakistan, Iran, Canada, and many more. In a preliminary planning meeting held in Istanbul in 2007, Anwar and other women gathered discovered just how difficult coming together would be — there were conflicts about organizational structure, mission statements, and just about everything else.

The women disagreed as to where the middle path of Muslim feminism should be. Some wished it to be more faith oriented, utilizing primarily concepts from within Islam. Others felt more affinity with secular feminism and thought the organization should be a purely human rights organization. All were activists, passionate and emotional, and while coming together as an idea was ever attractive, making it a reality, Anwar learned, was much, much harder.

Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their aftermath had only worsened the larger situation in terms of stoking a popular resistance toward Western ideas, which many argue includes feminism. In both cases, liberating Muslim women was used rhetorically to justify invasions, making the task of Muslim women defining their own way to liberation even more difficult than before. Orientalist stereotypes popular in Western countries further typecast Muslim women as forever subjugated and awaiting “saving.”

Anwar dresses simply, in tunics and slacks. She does not cover her head or veil, except if a situation demands or in certain countries. “Veiling or unveiling is not something that bothers me,” she says. “I do not mind covering my hair if it is needed.” The obsession over the veil as the center and signifier of all of empowerment, she asserts, is largely a Western obsession, a frame that obfuscates larger issues. Living in the Muslim world, and witnessing the problems Muslim women face in these contexts, her perspective is pragmatic, geared toward promoting an internal awakening in these societies rather than investing mostly in defending Islam to Western audiences.

In Malaysia, the efforts of Sisters in Islam have been repeatedly challenged by conservatives unaccustomed to having their religious pronouncements questioned or having the space of religious interpretation occupied by women. Before them or any of her other challengers, Anwar remains undeterred.

“We are used to police reports and criminal cases constantly being filed against us; it does not scare us — if anything, we know that we are successful in challenging them,” she says. As an example, in 2008, a book titled Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism was banned by the Ministry of Home Affairs of Malaysia for being “prejudicial to public order.” The edited volume had detailed how extremism adversely affected Muslim women’s lives. The case went all the way up to the Malaysian Supreme Court where, in 2010, the ban was finally declared invalid.

Musawah’s first official meeting finally took place in Kuala Lumpur in 2009. An ever-stalwart Anwar, now much older and also much stronger, took to the stage to welcome over 250 women and men who had come for the launch from over 50 countries. In Anwar’s estimation, there had never before been a gathering like it, and for her it was a poignant moment of hope and triumph. Her smiling, high-cheekboned face was aglow as she faced her audience and began to speak.

“Very often Muslim women who demand justice and want to change discriminatory laws and practices are told, ‘This is God’s law,’ and therefore not open to negotiation and change. To question, challenge, or demand reform will supposedly go against Shariah, weaken our faith in God, and lead us astray from the straight path. We are often accused of being Westernized elites, anti-Islam, anti-Shariah women who have deviated from our faith — our aqidah, and our iman is weak. Reports are made against us to the police, to the religious authorities, to take action against us, to silence us, to charge us for insulting Islam, to ban our groups. But we will not be silenced and intimidated.”

Since then, Musawah has taken on the task of evaluating all the so-called “Islamic” laws and practices being implemented in Muslim countries and critiquing them from not only human rights perspectives and feminist perspectives — but from an Islamic one, as well.

In 2012, at a meeting of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, also a founding member of Musawah, gave a presentation where she called the male-centric interpretations of verse 4:34 “the DNA of patriarchy,” which “enshrines the supremacy of men over women” by making it the man’s responsibility to provide for women. The accompanying paper, published soon after, took to task existing translations of the verse, arguing that they’re in fact man-made interpretations, not translations. They argued that the concepts of wilayah and qiwamah (guardianship and obedience) had to be challenged because they were made by man in relation to human desires for control and power.

Musawah is not limiting itself solely to questions of textual exegesis. One report, which its members presented at the 55th session of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in Geneva last year, took to task the Afghan government on the issues of spousal equality, minimum age of marriage, forced marriage, and polygamy. Using the concept of maslahah, or “public interest” from Islamic law, it argued that the government of Afghanistan must forbid polygamy, provide mothers with equal custody rights, forbid the practices of forced marriage and child marriage, and end provisions that allow for the arrest of women if they run away from their husbands. The Islamic jurisprudence that prevented such actions, the report argues, relies on opinions of classical jurists that no longer apply in contemporary circumstances, and which failed to fulfill the Islamic law requirements of justice and were being used to deny women rights and dignified choices in life. Thus the Afghan government violated not only the human rights principles set forth by CEDAW, to which Afghanistan is a signatory, but also the principles of Islamic law.

In the CEDAW/Afghanistan report, Musawah follows the same model of naming and shaming countries used for decades by transnational human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The novel aspect lies in their use of feminist interpretations of Islamic law to do so. As Anwar envisioned long ago, the previously separated spheres of Islamic law and human rights advocacy are hence brought together to create a new platform. Its existence does not equal its dominance, however, or even its consideration by the powers that be, in this case the religious clerics in Afghanistan who are arguing that polygamy, child marriage, and domestic violence are all permitted in Islam. How to make their Muslim feminist critiques stick, gain popularity, and edge out other long-existing ones is the question that Anwar and the women of Musawah face as their next challenge.

Anwar is blunt in enumerating the hurdles that remain before Musawah and the idea of Islamic feminism as a global discourse. While Musawah may be able to bring together a few hundred or at best a few thousand women under its reformative umbrella, conservative Muslim revival movements — such as Farhat Hashmi’s Al-Huda International Welfare Foundation, which was first founded in Pakistan, and the dakwah movement Malaysia — are both able to command far larger followings. Instead these groups favor teaching their adherents that a willful acceptance of submission is an expression of religious devotion and also an example of female agency.

Anwar’s answer to them is simple: They are political projects that have made Islam an instrument to facilitate their rise to power, and while they seek to create pliant female subjects, Musawah seeks to create feminist ones. Her determination radiates through her response: “They are looking for power.”

A confident woman with a prominent public profile, Anwar is also an exceedingly humble one, taking care to emphasize again and again that Musawah is a collaborative project and the result of the hard work of many women, even as she is the one sharing its story with me.

As we discuss her story, Anwar talks sparingly of herself, except when prodded. Her own recalling of achievements is consistently preceded by an encompassing, inclusive “we.” She seems hesitant to provide personal details. I learn only by pressing her that, for example, she is not married.

I cannot help but wonder whether her reticence is owed to the scrutiny applied to the personal lives of Muslim women who have chosen to take public positions regarding religion. That tactic — discrediting a woman’s public work as activists by pointing to her personal choices — is one with which I am personally familiar. I sense her reserve stems from something else. A radical overturning of the private into the public as a means of breaking boundaries is not Anwar’s strategy.

There are arguments, mostly in the West, regarding Muslim feminism — disagreements over whether the tradition has existed for thousands of years in the lives of Muslim female queens, scholars, and notables or if it’s being read on to Islamic history contemporarily. In countries like mine, I believe, the battle is more proximate, and losing it imputes significant abridgments in women’s lives: being unable to go to school, have a job, choose a spouse. Creating a movement that applies to all of these varied contexts in which Muslim women live is a tall order. Not long after I speak with Anwar, I’m back in Pakistan, where the government is engaged in peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. One of the chief demands from the Taliban side is a ban on women leaving their homes without a male guardian.

Musawah supports a new translation of verse 4:34 of the Holy Qur’an by the Muslim scholar and Boston University professor Kecia Ali. In her discussion of the verse and the translation, Ali points out that the three most controversial words in the verse, “qawammun” (previously translated as “guardians”), “qanitat” (previously translated as “obedient ”), and “nushuz” (previously translated as “disobedient”), must all be left untranslated. These words require interpretations, Kecia Ali — and Musawah — hold, and interpretations require taking positions on issues that are open to debate. It is in this last task, the opening of debate and the provision of a vocabulary to do so, that Zainah Anwar’s particular and Musawah’s larger potential contribution lies. Whereas earlier, Muslim women confronting 4:34 may have been isolated in their interaction with its meaning, they now have a platform to speak, to connect, and to disagree with others on the same journey as their own.

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Photograph by Sze Ning for BuzzFeed







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