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Islam, Culture and Sexism: What needs to change?

“We want [women] to be critical and analytical and decide for [themselves].” Aisha Rahman, KARAMAH executive director

On October 13th, 2015, the U.S. Institute of Peace hosted a documentary screening of the PBS documentary “Gender Equality in Islam” followed by a panel discussion titled “Islam, Culture and Sexism: What Needs to Change?” The panel featured: Aisha Rahman, Lynn Kunkle, Manal Omar and Susan Hayward and was moderated by Bonnie Erbe.  After watching a short segment of the documentary, the panelists joined the stage for a discussion about Islam, culture, and sexism.

“Giving women a platform to speak in their own voices”

Explaining the reason why the El Hibri Foundation funded the production of the documentary, Ms. Kunkle said: “The issue of Islam and women is one of the more contentious areas of misunderstanding and misperceptions. The dominant perception about Islam is that it is authoritarian, anti-women and paternalistic.” Ms. Kunkle stressed the importance of distinguishing between Islam and Muslims. “Islam is a tradition and a set of beliefs, values and ideals while Muslims are inheritors of the tradition who are striving to implement those ideals,” she explained. By supporting KARAMAH and “Gender Equality in Islam,” the El Hibri Foundation is giving Muslim women a platform to speak in their own voices.

Aisha Rahman said that KARAMAH’s Law and Leadership program (LLSP) offers Muslim women such a platform. KARAMAH believes that the first step to affect change is education. “We don’t just tell [women] what Islam is. We want [them] to be able to listen to what the others say and be critical and analytical and decide for [themselves] if it makes sense for [them].” Moreover, LLSP provides participants with sisters who share the same knowledge and determination to transform the society they work in.

“Our greatest asset is Islam”

Answering Bonnie’s question whether KARAMAH adopts a gentle approach with men, Ms. Rahman said that “the gentle approach is the Islamic approach.” To engage men in advocating for gender equity,  KARAMAH adopts an approach that is deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition and it draws its authority by referring to the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Ms. Rahman added that it is pursuant to the gender equitable Islamic model which encourages both men and women to be engaged in learning about their religion that KARAMAH offers educational programs to both genders. Moreover, KARAMAH believes that male allies are very important in women’s rights’ advocacy.

Ms. Rahman spoke about the world’s lack of knowledge of Islam. Islam is gender equitable and in fact favors women over men in many areas. Despite this, the reality in society is quite different. This is a direct result of a lack of education of Islam. While the Islamic tradition is abound with inspirational female models. ( Sayyidah Khadijah was a successful entrepreneur and Sayyidah Aisha was one of the first scholars in Islam who taught both men and women about their religion) some religious institutions are nevertheless discriminating against women.

Ms. Omar spoke about how she was personally influenced by four women she called “the four founding mothers in the American Muslim community.” One of these women was KARAMAH’s founder Dr. Azizah al-Hibri. Ms. Omar said that she grew up accepting and repeating what she was taught without questioning until these women shaped how she approached learning about her own religion from a spiritual perspective and later shaped her work in social justice and peace building. Ms. Omar added that one of the problems related to religious education especially among immigrant families is that it is influenced by culture and patriarchy and that once you learn what Islam actually says about women’s rights, you feel liberated. She also said “quoting UN resolution 1325 or CEDAW doesn’t have the same traction … the way you are when you are quoting religious texts.”

Ms. Hayward stressed the importance of “engaging with religion within a larger effort for gender equality … because women and religion are interconnected.” Ms. Hayward stated that many social scientific studies have been done showing that women are more religious than men across religious traditions. Gender discrimination, she added, comes from simplistic understandings of institutional leaders and clerics, often men, who solely shape the tradition based on “superficial understanding of what religion is and how it is formed and transformed through history.”

All panelists agreed that listening to women and lifting up their stories shall empower them. They also agreed that we should strive against silencing religious voices and give them space to offer their perspectives.

See this event’s pictures here.