Muslim feminist seeks to educate journalists
Zainah Anwar gives lecture at UCLA on women's rights and Islam in Malaysia. (Photo by Kevin Matthews)

Muslim feminist seeks to educate journalists

Zainah Anwar, executive director of Sisters of Islam, pushes a message of diversity and progressivism within the framework of Islam

By Margaretta Soehendro
Managing Editor

Thursday, October 18, 2007

It has the feel of a routine: western commentators call for debate and reformation within Islam, for moderate voices to speak out, and western journalists continually pick up stories on what the extremists say.

Zainah Anwar, executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a Muslim women's rights organization in Malaysia, points to last year's flap over a remark by Sheik Taj el-Din al-Hilali, a senior Muslim cleric in Sydney, Australia. He likened women who don't wear hijabs, or headscarves, to "uncovered meat."

"We get so tired of being asked to respond to such stupidity and inanity. It's just one person speaking and it's the worst thing that that person could possibly say," said Anwar in an interview with AsiaMedia. "And of course that makes the news, and it's so tiresome that the rest of the Muslim community is being held responsible and held accountable and got to explain ourselves."

"And you know that guy is stupid."

A public intellectual and experienced reporter with a journalism degree from Boston University, Anwar brought her no-nonsense perspective to UCLA for an Oct. 4, 2007, lecture hosted by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies. About 70 people attended the public event.

Even before SIS published its first letter to the editor in 1990, Anwar knew the media would play a large part in the organization's mission of promoting the rights of women within the religious framework of Islam. Now SIS endeavors to affect a discussion usually dominated by men through its own weekly legal column in Utusan Malaysia -- previously, from March 2006 to July 2007, Anwar also wrote a biweekly column for The New Straits Times -- and through workshops and seminars for journalists. The group helps some reporters to overcome a cultural fear of discussing Islam for lack of the "credentials" to do so, she said.

"I feel very strongly that the role played by civil society groups, such as women's rights and human rights activists, and public intellectuals and the media will be key in bringing about the change in the terms of public engagement on Islam in many Muslim societies," she said at the event. "For this to happen, however, the public space to debate on Islam and Islamic issues has to open up."

What Anwar and SIS want everyone to know is that Muslim religious leaders and the ulema, Muslim scholars trained in Islamic law, are not the only ones who can articulate the tenets of Islam. The sanctioning of spousal beatings and polygamy comes not from God, she said, but from an interpretation of the Quran influenced by the cultural values and desires of male interpreters. It is about power and politics rather than divine will, she said.

"As feminists, as believers, and as activists, living with a democratic constitutional framework [in Malaysia], we decided to assert and claim our right to have our voice heard in the public sphere and to intervene in the decision-making process on the matters of religion that must take into consideration the realities of our lives and the justice enjoined by the Quran," said Anwar.

Anwar does not hesitate to describe herself as both Muslim and feminist. The Quran and women's liberation are compatible, she argued, and modernity and democratic values demand the sort of critical reexamination of Islamic texts and traditions that in fact has been taking place over the past 20 years. Cultural values were taken into account in the past for Islamic thought and should be still. If so, today the result would be gender equality on all fronts, she said.

Religious authority and political Islamists, however, use the Quran and exclusivity to silence dissenting voices, said Anwar. Currently, the dialogue is between Islamic elites and advocacy groups, but the circle must get wider. For Anwar, it's not just about Muslim women's rights, but about women's rights in general. It's not just about Muslims living under Muslim laws, but for Malaysia, the adoption of Muslim laws into public policy affecting everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs.

"For me, the hope for change lies in the growing voices of dissent against intolerant, oppressive and discriminatory teachings of the religion, the opening up of the public space, and the breakdown of the monopoly that the traditional religious authorities have over the discourse of Islam," said Anwar.

The self-fulfilling prejudices of western media only make the struggle harder, she added. Journalists looking for an authoritative, authentic Muslim figure or source routinely pass over progressive Muslims, she said. Authenticity is based on conservatism, on things like wearing a hijab.

"If you are a reasonable Muslim, you can't be Muslim. There's no difference between the western media's perception of Islam and the extremist's perception of Islam," she said.

But the greatest failure in coverage of Islamic issues, in Malaysian and international newspapers, is the narrow scope, Anwar said. Whether intentionally or not, reporters take the word of religious authorities as universal for Islam and convey the false impression of a consensus among religious scholars on articles of doctrine.

In the case of polygamy, most assume it is an Islamic right for men to marry up to four wives. Few people know that in the late 19th and early 20th century, Egypt's grand mufti Muhammad Abduh, along with other Egyptian ulema, interpreted the verse on polygamy as one that actually advocated monogamy as the ideal state of marriage. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the modern English interpreter of the Quran, shared this view. But according to Anwar, the International Institute of Islamic Thought, a private, non-profit group based in Herndon, VA, removed Ali's comments on the verse when it revised the translation in 1989.

SIS hopes its training sessions, press briefings and press releases can combat such misconceptions.

"What is really important is that -- well, we tell people scream and shout. Use the media. Get your voice heard and educate the media," said Anwar.


A videocast of Anwar's lecture at UCLA is available here courtsey of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. A webcast is available here courtesy of the Center of Southeast Asia Studies at UC Berkeley. The UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies has also provided the text of the talk she delivered.