Cutting Edge of the Islamic Revolution

Fri, Sep 16, 1994


The Washington Post / By Amy E. Schwartz / Newspaper clipping of the article (PDF)

Taslima Nasrin may not be “the female Salman Rushdie,” but the two besieged Muslim-born writers have more in common than the obvious (either could be killed at any moment by bounty hunters) or the quirky (each, for some reason, has written a novel called “Shame”). They also share considerable abilities to predict the near future. In Nasrin’s case, the future turned out to be Cairo.

Rushdie wrote about Muslim immigrants in Europe and the struggle between doubt and faith and was probably the least surprised person in Europe when anti-foreigner violence hit the headlines. Like him, Nasrin has hold of a subject, women’s status under Islam, where already raging debates have been stubbornly obscured from view by the tendency of commentators to see everything as a fight between adherents of a “religious” and adherents of a “secular” approach to life. This approach, of course, shortchanges the work of increasing numbers of serious folk who wish neither to reject their religion, the tradition and the moral rigor it stands for, nor to accept harsh limits on women as an inevitable part of the package.

Nasrin by all accounts fell squarely into this gap between secular and religious discourse when, as a doctor, she witnessed gruesome female health problems and spoke out against the family law codes drawn from the sharia, or Islamic law, that made them possible. Mullahs in Bangladesh instantly declared the criticism a heretical attack on the Koran itself and announced a death sentence, sending Nasrin into hiding and eventually to Sweden. Lost in the dispute over whether she’d been misquoted, though, was the question of whether there’s in fact a distinction between Koranic doctrine and the enormous forest of regulations on women that have grown up over centuries. It’s this relationship between established, supposedly orthodox practice and actual doctrine that’s been increasingly challenged by reformist scholars. (The most dramatic is probably female genital mutilation, which is described as Islamic by many of its practitioners but is now generally agreed even by traditionalists to have no basis in Islamic law.)

It’s unclear whether Nasrin is enough of a religious scholar to navigate this contested terrain. But plenty of other women in the Muslim world now can — and do. One surprise benefit of the Cairo contretemps was the international spotlight it threw on people, mostly women, engaged in that exact part of the argument — in particular the parallel battle within Catholicism. One long-active group that got a lot more attention than usual last week was Catholics for a Free Choice, which sponsored a news conference at the National Press Club attacking the Vatican’s position and asserting that it, not they, had “gone astray from the Gospel message of Jesus” by refusing to help alleviate female suffering.

Another indirect Cairo beneficiary was a small women’s human rights organization called the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, which just happened to have scheduled a two day conference at American University that weekend on “Religion, Culture, and Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World.” The event didn’t end up being entirely about Cairo, or about Nasrin either, but both were frequently and passionately invoked by a group that ranged from secular to head-scarved — and was about triple its projected size.

The conference bristled with Muslim women who in recent years have gone back to the texts — the Koran, the sayings of the prophet, the historical accretion of commentaries and law codes — the better to argue for rights with conservative clergymen on their own ground. The first serious work in this line came from the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, a prolific writer who got her PhD from Brandeis and now teaches at Mohammed V University in Rabat.

Mernissi, who came to Washington to speak at the conference and also to sign her well received novel/memoir, “Dreams of Trespass,” spearheads a working group of scholars (both male and female) that seeks to dig out and revive the parts of the Islamic tradition and Islamic jurisprudence that have served to advance, not limit, the rights of women. This material is scattered through the annals of law and commentary but is hardly known except to Muslim clerics steeped in the texts and sources — who have mostly been averse to citing it. Mernissi laid much of the groundwork for this effort in a 1987 book, awkwardly titled in English “The Veil and the Male Elite,” which has been banned in Morocco but is moving briskly in English, French and a variety of official and pirated Arabic editions.

Mernissi’s group is now trying to distribute a series of “dictionaries” of Koranic citations for those who want to argue chapter and verse with religious politicians on issues like education for girls, veiling and purdah (the custom of keeping women indoors from puberty till death).

For a practical description of the strategy, another conference participant offered war stories. Toujan Faisal, Jordan’s only female member of parliament, told a group of guests how, in her first election campaign, she was visited at home by three bearded fundamentalist clerics who cursed her and threatened physical intimidation if she didn’t withdraw.

“I shouted at them,” Faisal says with her politician’s laugh, “that if they were true Muslims they would know that the penalty for defaming a decent women was 80 lashed. I told them I would see them whipped — in hell. No, I can’t say it actually persuaded them. But they were so surprised that they hesitated, which gave someone time to go fetch one of my male relatives, who threw them out of the house.”

Not the most theological of riposts, perhaps, but it does suggest that the debate, while theological, is anything but arcane. On the contrary, the field is getting crowded with combatants of various skill levels — and no one, feminist or fundamentalis, should be surprised by the crowds. If Nasrin — or Rushdie, for that matter — were truly such lone and heretical voices, if they weren’t in fact unusually articulate exemplars of one side of a furious continuing argument, it’s unlikely that these search-and-destry, price-on-the-head vendettas would be worth the mullahs’ time.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

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