'Gender Jihad' in the Service of Women's Rights
In both western countries and Muslim societies feminism and Islam are mostly regarded as irreconcilable opposites. Why are they not compatible?
Asra Nomani: Yes, I'm always hearing that view at my lectures. But as far as I'm concerned, the two go hand in hand. I think Islam was originally a feminist religion. The Prophet Mohammed was a feminist, like his first wife Khadija, his daughter Fatima and his wife Aisha. None of them allowed themselves to be pushed aside, and they all spoke their minds. I don't think Islamic feminism is an apparent contradiction.
Actually, I meet religious feminists all over the world – Mormon, Catholic, Maronite, Jewish-orthodox, Protestant. My experience is that women have to fight male power in Islam with the same dynamics as in all other religions.
When I mentioned your name to a colleague, the response was: Ah, gender jihad. What's it like to have such a tag?
Nomani: Well, very good, I must say. I'm very proud to be a soldier on this front.
And what is this soldier fighting for?
Nomani: For the rights of women, and at the same time for social justice. Women should not be the preserving jars of honor and purity. They should not be punished for their sexuality, by crouching in the backrooms and corners of mosques.
Women should not be gagged just because they bring men into temptation. These are all just control mechanisms to treat us as second-class citizens.
What's your view on the veiling of women?
Nomani: If you cover the face of a woman, it de-personifies her. The removal of the veil is a crucial element of gender jihad, because by doing this we dispel ignorance.
Now you've received support on this matter from one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam. Mohammed Sayed al-Tantawi, the Grand Sheikhk of Al Azhar University, has described the niqab (face veil) as un-Islamic and issued a ban at the Cairo seat of learning.
Nomani: Yes, it's very important to us if the Al Azhar University assumes a leading role in this. We need the leaders of the Islamic mainstream to at last inject some reason back into this religion. I'm really happy that al-Tantawi has tackled an ideology that really is terrifying.
What is the problem if someone wants to wear a face veil, even if it only leaves a slit to see through?
Nomani: That's exactly the kind of western political correctness that excuses the niqab as a woman's free choice. This attitude conveniently forgets that it is symbolic of a highly puritanical and dangerous interpretation of Islam.
This justifies violence against women and suicide attacks with an allegedly literal interpretation of the Koran and suggests that a Muslim should not make friends with Jews and Christians if at all possible.
One should remember that our churches are also not allowed to preach racism. Islam should be measured by the same standards. Members of the Ku-Klux-Klan can't collect their drivers' permits with hoods over their heads.
Many Muslim women would be appalled at what you say. They wear the niqab or the hijab (headscarf) with pride.
Nomani: The puritanical interpretation of Islam has presented the niqab and the hijab as a free choice. Young American women think they are strong and independent if they cover their hair or their faces. In doing so they overlook the fact that this is about the sexualization and demonization of women, who apparently distract men from the right path.
I've heard it said by many Muslim women that covering their heads acts as a kind of protection against the sexual advances of men.
Nomani: In Egypt, the Center for Women's Rights published a study in 2008 that showed that women adhering to the Islamic dress code suffered the most sexual harassment. I've experienced it myself, when I was in northern India, one of the most conservative Muslim regions. My hijab did not protect me from sexual harassment. That's a myth that's peddled, and women are taken in by it.
Al-Tantawi claims the niqab is just a tradition that has nothing to do with Islam. How did the niqab come to be associated with Islam?
Nomani: I'll give you an example of how that works. There are translations of the Koran from Saudi Arabia in which passages on the niqab have simply been added in order to sell it as something Islamic. It's the same with the hijab. It's made into an obligation, although it's all only based on interpretations.
What does the Koran say about female clothing? Are there rules on what women should wear?
Nomani: There is nothing decreeing that she must cover her face or hair. There is nothing about a shawl, a headscarf or a veil, nothing about a color, whether it should be pink or black. There is also nothing to say that the hands must be covered, or that she can only show her eyes. These are all the rules of men. In accordance with the interpretation that I think is the right one, a woman should simply be moderate in the choice of her clothing.
In editions of the Koran from Saudi Arabia, which has conducted a missionary campaign in the mosques of the world over the last decade, it's all very different, you say.
Nomani: Yes, and as a Muslim woman I feel very concerned about this. The Saudi Arabian government was able to internationally propagate – virtually unchecked – a rigid, inviolable and monolithic form of Islam.
As the country where the holy sites of Islam are located, Saudi Arabia produces Koran translations and distributes them to millions of pilgrims who travel to Mecca on the Hajj. The translations are sexist and intolerant.
I'm always receiving Koran translations that say I should not make friends with a Jew or a Christian and cover my face, apart from one eye that may remain visible. Another route is via the mosques that were founded all over the world.
So Saudi Arabia is responsible for the propagation of a strict interpretation of Islam. One could almost say it's a lucrative business, when one thinks of the war on terror and the increased price of oil, which is making Saudi Arabia richer than ever.
Nomani: That's absolutely right. And we're not holding the Saudi government responsible for its complicity in the creation of this dangerous ideology.
First it was exported to Pakistan, which is currently a haven for militant Islamists. Then representative congregations were set up all over the world. And I'm not talking about some villages in Pakistan, but about my home city of Morgantown in West Virginia.
How does that work?
Nomani: They take over mosques and teach Wahhabi and Salafi ideology, and the rest of the congregation has to fall into line. It works very well. The men grow beards of a certain length, otherwise they're not regarded as true Muslims. And the women wear veils.
But there must be a need for it somehow. Propaganda alone can't be enough. Is it about a sense of community, of fashion, of being cool?
Nomani: Of course there's a need for it. You're cool if you practice a religion that lies beyond western interpretations. That's why young women think they're rebels because they wear the hijab.
A broad-based fashion protest movement?
Nomani: I believe that religion here is a consumer goods industry. It's a business selling both conservative and liberal ideas within Islam. The industry also has a fashion division – an abaya (traditional Arab cloak-like overgarment) for 10,000 dollars in a boutique in the Gulf, pilgrimage clothing or discreet Islamic bathing suits available on the Internet.
In the liberal sector for example, this happens with T-shifts printed with slogans such as: "This is what a radical Muslim looks like." I'm continually astonished at what is sold as an Islamic product, and how.
Currently it's Islamic music. The funniest thing I saw recently was Islamic underwear. A G-string with the word 'bismillah' (in the name of Allah) visible on the back.
Whether it's a movement, or a fashion: it all has to come to and end at some point. How much longer will it go on for?
Nomani: I think the kind of Islam that wants to force women to wear a veil or a headscarf won't be around in 20 years. Mohammed Sayed al-Tantawi is one of the first leaders to say, indirectly, enough's enough. It's a good sign.
But do Muslim women have to suffer until then?
Nomani: For some time yet, that's for sure. But you must remember that it's not just the women who suffer, the men are also affected. The Taliban demanded that men looked, thought and behaved a certain way, otherwise they were not regarded as true Muslims. Control mechanisms don't stop at women, they are extending further and further.
The Taliban stealthily banished women from public life. In the end, this religious control culminated in the destruction of the Buddha statues. Do you think Tantawi had that in mind?
Nomani: I think he realized that it's not just about the veiling of women. At some point he could also become a target because he does not represent the same interpretation of Islam. It's not just a danger for women, but for us all.
Interview conducted by Alfred Hackensberger
© Qantara.de 2009
Asra Nomani teaches journalism at Georgetown University. She is the author of "Standing Alone in Mecca", of the "Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom", and of the "Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque".