Malaysia: Muslim Sisterhood Sisters in Islam Empowers Feminist Muslims

International Museum of Women

IMOW: You are the founder of Sisters in Islam (also known as SIS) in Malaysia and were at its helm for twenty years before stepping down. SIS exists to bring justice to women as accorded to them by the Quran. What first inspired you to create this organization?

Zainah Anwar: I am one of the eight founding members of Sisters in Islam (SIS) and became its founding Executive Director when we finally set up office in 1998.

SIS began with a question: If God is just, if Islam is just, why do laws and policies made in the name of Islam create injustice? This was the burning question the founding members of SIS confronted when we began our search for solutions to the problems of discrimination against Muslim women justified in the name of Islam.

We actually began meeting in 1987 with the Association of Women Lawyers to look at the problems women faced in accessing their rights under the Islamic Family Law. But as we went on, we realized that working with law alone was not enough. So much of the discrimination and anguish women suffered were blamed on Islam, the source of the law.

Where is the justice for women in all these pronouncements? How could a just religion say all these things about women? There is a disconnect between our faith in a God that is just, a religion that is just, and what we are being told by supposed authorities on the religion. What killed me most was to hear all these women crying and complaining about their miserable lives and their disappointment that they found no solution when they turned to the religious authorities for help, and then at the end of it all, they sigh in resignation, “but what can we do, that’s what Islam says”.Women told us how they went to the religious authorities to complain about their marital problems and were told that it was their husband’s right to take a second wife, to beat them, to demand obedience, to demand sex.

They were told to go home and be good Muslim wives and their husbands would then treat them better. Women were confused and upset with the kinds of messages they heard over radio and television and in talks on Islam they attended at private homes and mosques—that you can never say no to your husband’s demand for sex, even if it’s on a camel; that even if your father is dying and you are just upstairs with your husband and he forbids you from being at your father’s bedside, even if he is calling for you in his dying breath, you must obey your husband and stay upstairs; that hell is full of women because they have disobeyed their husbands and have left their heads uncovered.

I was outraged. I went to religious school for five years in the 1960s. I never, ever heard such misogyny in the name of Islam. I’ve always understood that women were treated differently due to culture and tradition, never Islam. To be confronted as an adult that oppression and ill-treatment of women could be justified by God’s teachings was such an assault to my faith.

I could have turned my back on Islam like many Muslim feminists do and declare that there can be no liberation and justice for women in Islam, or in any religion, as many believe. But that was never an option for me because of my upbringing and my utter faith in a just God. 

We felt the urgent need to re-read the Quran to discover if the Text truly supported the ill-treatment of women. This need also became the more urgent because the women’s groups in Malaysia were campaigning to make domestic violence a crime.  The government religious representatives were saying that such a law could not apply to Muslims because a Muslim man, they claimed, had the divine right to beat his wife, and no human law could deny him that right.

This was really when we decided that enough was enough. We needed to go back to the Quran, to study it for ourselves, to ask it questions and search for answers that make sense to the realities of our lives.

What’s revolutionary about SIS is that it turns to the Quran and Islam to advocate women’s rights. Many people reading this might find that surprising or even counterintuitive. But let’s look specifically at the Quranic verse used to justify polygamy to give an example of what you do.

Yes, that was a major “Aha” moment for us when we first began to re-read the Quran with feminist eyes. One of the common complaints we were hearing from women at that time was the injustice of polygamy. Many women did not even know their husbands had taken second wives! Many complained that their husbands did not maintain them or their children after taking a second wife. The pain of deceit and betrayal was unbearable for them. And yet, when they complained about this to the religious authorities, they were told polygamy was a right in Islam and they have no right to object. Even the pain they felt was delegitimized because as good Muslim wives, they were told they must accept their husband’s supposed right to practice polygamy. 

So when we decided to read the Quran again to find out what exactly it says about all these issues that cause grief to women, the message on polygamy was one of the first we dealt with.

With the guidance of Dr Amina Wadud, a Quranic scholar, we learnt about the socio-historical context of revelation, how to read the Quran and understand its message holistically and not in isolation, how to understand what is specific to the context of 7th century Arabia and what is universal and eternal.

Engaging with the verse on polygamy was most liberating and empowering for us at that early stage of our study and questioning. It was a revelation for us that while Surah An-Nisa 4:3 says a man may marry up to four women, it goes on to say that if you fear you cannot do justice, marry only one and that will be best for you!! Here was God directly addressing women’s fear of polygamy. And yet while the whole world knows that Islam allows a man to have four wives, very few know that the Quran says monogamy is better for you.

The natural question that arose to us was how come marry four, became a source of law and seen as a divine right of Muslim men, while marry one is ignored and women who demand a ban or restrictions on polygamy are demonized as Muslims who go against God’s teachings? How did the Muslim community come to that? Where is the justice of Islam in the practice of polygamy in today’s world? Who decided one half of the verse is legitimate and will be a source of law and practice, while the other half is silenced and forgotten?

We did more research on the socio-historical context of the verse’s revelation. That verse was revealed in the context of wars in the early years of Islam when many children who were orphaned were exploited for their property. The verse was revealed to protect the interests of orphaned children and widows, not to legitimize men’s lust for multiple sexual partners. Further research showed us a Hadith where the Prophet objected when his son-in-law, Ali, wanted to take a second wife because he said what would hurt his daughter, Fatimah, would also hurt him.

It was an exciting journey for us to discover the richness of Islamic history and the diversity of interpretations and juristic opinions. We wanted to create another public voice that speaks of an Islam that upholds equality and justice, which reflects the kindness and compassion of God in our everyday living.

There were just eight of us. How do eight women who are not recognized as having the authority to speak on Islam create that space?  We decided to use the media as our platform as we knew this was the fastest way to reach a wide audience. So we decided to write a letter to the editor on our position on polygamy and collectively called ourselves, Sisters in Islam. That was in August 1990. Our letter was published in the four major mainstream newspapers and we created such a buzz. Everyone was wondering who we were. The rest as they say is history.  

There are so many verses that are misinterpreted and used against women to justify that women shouldn’t drive or be educated or that they are inferior to men. Do any of these restrictions and beliefs have any basis in Islam?

First of all, there is nothing in the Quran that denies a woman’s right to drive, to be educated, or to be treated as equal to men. There are of course verses that have been misinterpreted to justify all these forms of discrimination and ill-treatment of women.

The important thing to realize is that any Scripture is open to diverse interpretations. The answers you get depend on the questions you ask. It’s amazing that until today, there is this common belief that a man has the divine right to marry four women, that he has a right to discipline his wife, to demand obedience, or that a woman’s witness is only worth half of a man. It makes no sense to the realities of women’s lives today and the devastation women feel when their husbands take second wives, when they are beaten, when they must obey against their own sense of well-being and self-worth.

I believe the Quran is open to multiple interpretations. There is no final, authoritative human interpretation of the Text.  As mere mortal beings, we should be humble in trying to understand the word of God. The history of Quranic exegesis is a story of the continuing endeavor of Muslims seeking to understand the word of God. For me, it is a wondrous, endless journey that can result in new meanings and perspectives evolving over time. If you read a particular verse of the Quran you might derive a certain meaning today, but, five years later, the same verse might suggest something quite different or deeper, because you have changed, something has happened in your life that brings a different experience to your engagement with the Text. A father who believes in the superiority of men is confronted with the reality that it is his daughters who are doing better in school than his sons, who have stable jobs, and who are taking care of him financially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually in his old age, while his son is nowhere to be seen. We have met such men who realized that the son they wanted is actually in their daughters. This life experience forces them to rethink how they engage and understand the Text and what it says about women and men. 

You are a prominent Muslim feminist. What do you say to those who say you can’t be a feminist and a Muslim – that the terms are contradictory?

Attend a training by Sisters in Islam or Musawah! Really, it is life transforming. Many feminists who understand feminist theory and human rights principles have little knowledge of Islam beyond what they are taught and told by the misogynists in religious authority and the political Islamists who abuse religion to get into power or maintain power.  They accepted that misogynistic Islam as the “gospel” truth and based on that they reject Islam and declare that there can be no justice and no liberation in religion.

For us in Sisters in Islam, it is the ethical vision of Islam which advocates the absolute moral and spiritual equality of women and men that inspires us. We find this in verses such as Surah 33:35 (on common and identical spiritual and moral obligations placed on all individuals regardless of sex); Surah 3:195 which declares that men and woman are members, one of another; 2:187 which describes Muslim men and women as each other’s garments; 9:71, the final verse on the relationship between men and women which talks about them being each other’s ‘awliyya -protecting friends and guardians - and the obligations for both men and women, to enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil, to observe regular prayers, zakat (tithe) and obedience to Allah and his Messenger and they will be equally rewarded. These verses are unequivocally egalitarian in spirit and substance and reflect the Quranic view on the relationship between men and women.

This egalitarian vision also extends to human biology. The verses on creation of men and women talk about the characteristic of pairs in creation (51:49, 53:45, 78:8, 50:7, 22:5, 36:36). Since everything created must be in pairs, the male and female must both be necessary, must exist by the definition of createdness. Neither one comes before the other or from the other. One is not superior to the other, nor a derivative of the other. This means that in Allah’s creation of human beings, no priority or superiority is accorded to either man or woman.

So if we are equal before God, why are we unequal before men? Why can’t all these verses form the basis of values and laws to shape the relationship between men and women? The Muslim world desperately needs a paradigm shift on how we regard and treat women. If we had been true to the message of the Quran, we really should be at the forefront of the feminist movement today!

Let’s talk about what you’re currently doing. You’re now the director of Musawah, A Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family. Can you briefly describe this organization and what it does?

Zainah Anwar

Musawah (which means equality in Arabic) is the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. Initiated by Sisters in Islam, it was launched in Kuala Lumpur in February 2009, bringing together some 250 activists and scholars from 47 countries working on issues of equality and justice for women living in Muslim contexts.

What Musawah hopes to bring  to the larger women’s and human rights movement is an assertion that Islam can be a source of empowerment, not a source of oppression and discrimination; an effort to open  new horizons for rethinking the relationship between human rights, equality and justice, and Islam; an offer to open a new constructive dialogue where religion is no longer an obstacle to equality for women, but a source for liberation.; a collective strength of conviction and courage to stop governments and patriarchal authorities, and ideological non-state actors from the convenience of using religion and the word of God to silence women’s demands for equality; and a space where activists, scholars, decision makers, working within the human rights or the Islamic framework, or both,  can interact and mutually strengthen a common pursuit of equality and justice for Muslim women. 

Musawah is responding to the urgent need expressed by many Muslim women activists to understand Islam better in order to engage in a public discourse to reshape the meaning and place of religion within their societies. It is responding to the concerns of women’s groups working on women’s rights in Muslim contexts who faced attacks and demonization by Islamists and patriarchs who accuse them of going against Islam. Many did not how to deal with these attacks strategically. They had heard of Sisters in Islam and wanted to learn from us how we were able to create this public space and public voice of Muslim women asserting the necessity and possibility of change in Islam.

It is in this context that Musawah emerged to bring together activists and scholars to build a knowledge-based global movement. It is developing feminist knowledge in Islam, and with knowledge comes the authority and courage to speak with conviction in the public space to promote and demand for equality and justice in Islam and an end to the use of religion to justify discrimination against women.

What can the younger generation of women (and men) do to help change that discrepancy and bring about advances in women’s power?

Start young, and make a conscious decision to treat women as human beings of equal worth and dignity. And let me guarantee those young men out there that they will actually feel better about themselves. Young women must make this demand of their men friends and partners—seriously discuss values, roles and responsibilities before plunging into marriage, and set a high standard on what love, commitment, and family mean to both partners. I just met a young Malay Muslim man, a very successful entrepreneur, who told me he has transferred everything he owns to his wife and daughter and gives his monthly income to his wife to manage. He takes only a small portion for his daily needs.  I asked why? He said he is aware that the Islamic Family law that governs his marriage privileges men. He and his wife talk about her insecurities over this. About how he could take a second wife without her knowledge or agreement, how he could divorce her at will, without cause, how his male relatives could inherit more of his assets than his wife. He talks about the fact that his father is a cheat and if he were to die tomorrow his father has a right to inherit from him, to the detriment of his wife and daughter. He believes building trust is very important for a stable marriage and by transferring his wealth to his wife and daughter now was one way he could contribute to that trust building within a legal framework that is discriminatory and a society that remains patriarchal.

I am always heartened when I see such young men, men who consciously take steps to reorder society in just ways.  I think changing the terms of the relationship between men and women in the family is necessary to eventually end discrimination against women in the public sphere. A man who does not believe in discriminating against his wife and daughters at home is also a man who believes that women should not be discriminated against in public life.

What sustains you to keep going despite the opposition and the many struggles?

Optimism. Optimism that the world is changing, men and women are changing and those most resistant to change will perish.

You have so much support from our viewers to continue to do the work you’re doing. Tell us how we can get involved with SIS or Musawah. What do you need us to do

Read, speak out, spread the message. Knowledge is truly power. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Visit our website where you will find different ways you can get involved and be part of the growing Musawah community. Do especially share with us your work on Muslim family law reform and on larger issues of equality and justice in Muslim contexts. We can include your news in our quarterly e-newsletter Musawah Vision, put it up on Twitter and Facebook and share your work across our network.