Marching under the banner of a new “gender jihad”, Islamic feminists from around the world this weekend launched what they hope will become a global movement to liberate Muslim women.
The meeting, which drew women from as far apart as Malaysia, Mali, Egypt and Iran, set itself the task of squaring Islam with feminism. That meant not just combating 14 centuries of sexism in the Muslim world, participants said, but also dealing with the animosity to Islam of many western or secular feminists. They insisted that many of the fundamental concepts of equality embraced by feminism could also be found in the Qur’an.
“Gender jihad is the struggle against male chauvinistic, homophobic or sexist readings of the Islamic sacred texts,” said Abdennur Prado, one of the meeting’s Spanish organisers.
Those readings had been provided by Muslim scholars who, over the centuries, have been almost exclusively male. “Male chauvinism is the destruction of Islam as a well-balanced way of life,” Mr Prado said.
One of the leading voices was that of Amina Wadud, an African-American theology professor who provoked outrage in parts of the Muslim world when she led a mixed-sex congregation for Friday prayers in New York earlier this year. She said her commitment to change was born from her faith, two decades studying the Qur’an and the realisation that “horrific things were being done in the name of religion”.
With issues to address such as the stoning to death of women, polygamy and the legal inferiority of women in some countries, progressives at the meeting admitted there was a long climb ahead.
The greatest danger was the spread of the radically conservative, Saudi-backed schools of Islam. “They don’t want to go forward, they want to go back,” said Prof Wadud, who also led mixed prayers at the Barcelona meeting.
Raheel Raza, a Canadian of Pakistani origin who has followed Prof Wadud’s example and led mixed-sex prayers in Canada, said it was not easy to break the mould. “I already have a fatwa against me. I don’t want to be murdered on the street,” she said.
British Muslims were strikingly absent from the conference, which was led by western converts and emigrant families. Ghettoisation and the influence of Saudi-trained preachers were blamed for driving some second-generation immigrants in western countries into the hands of fundamentalists.
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