ABSTRACT

Over the years, one thing has become abundantly clear to Muslim feminist activists: there is strength in numbers. The Islamic feminist movement “Musawah” (meaning equality in Arabic) has responded to this principle by serving as a platform through which Muslim women activists across the Islamic world can reclaim the religion and the Qur’an for themselves (Segran, 2013). One question that deserves our examination is to what extent does Musawah’s approach to influencing Islamic jurisprudence and societal norms garner the support of Muslims across such a politically and geographically diverse spectrum? This paper will use a comparative analysis to measure the outcomes of groups like Musawah, Sisters in Islam, and Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), who all act simultaneously as research institutes and movement organizers. It will argue that by taking the bold step of relying upon both interpretations of the Qur’an/Islamic text in their materials AND international human rights standards in their pleas for women’s elevated societal status, Musawah appeals to a wide range of women’s rights activists, thus gaining more traction and recognition by NGO’s and IO’s (UCLA, 2009). Section one of this paper will examine Musawah’s establishment, and how its influence from some 50 countries, as well as women and men alike, gave it more credibility and helped create a set of internationally recognized goals for women’s increased political agency. The second section will examine the three major branches of Musawah (the Musawah Secretariat, the International Advisory Group, and the Working Groups), and how each serve as platforms for feminists of different skill sets to contribute to it’s framework for action (Musawah, 2013). The final section of this paper will 1) compare Musawah and it’s outcomes with those of groups like it (enumerated above), to further explore the effectiveness of this knowledge-based method and 2) highlight key accomplishments. My findings contribute to the understanding of the push for Muslim women’s rights in that it puts movements in conversation that are not necessarily staunchly juxtaposed, as in many analyses, but rather are on a larger political spectrum.

A MOVEMENT IS BORN

In 2008, a collective ‘final straw’ was drawn by the female Muslim population of Malaysia. In November of that year, it was ruled that the practice of yoga would be impermissible for all Muslims of the state, and a punishable offense for it’s women (The Guardian, 2009). The reason? An increasing fear that yoga was too rooted in the Hinduism to be a respectable practice for the matriarchs of Islamic households (Inside Islam, 2008). For many women, the law, which followed closely after a ban on women wearing trousers in the state or “imitating men”, brought about a mix of anger and vexation (The Guardian, 2009). They became outraged that intrusive rulings such as these could be made, while there was an overwhelming (and unanswered) call for action in response to the resurgence of domestic violence, and an apparent increase in the strength of unchecked, unilateral patriarchal control.

These grievances did not exist isolated in Malaysia; rather, they were widespread and remarkably similar across borders. Some three months later in February of 2009, hundreds of Muslims across the globe who had been in communication organized the first of many international meetings. The initial meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was attended by over 250 women and men from some 50 states, most notably South-East Asia, Turkey and Morocco (two Muslim-majority countries with [at the time] recent successful family law reform campaigns), Iran, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to share knowledge and strategies (Musawah, 2010). The participants at that meeting felt “a compelling need to build an international network of women’s groups in the Muslim world that have for decades been working on family law to share strategies, scholarship and best practices” (Wanted, 2009).

The 2009 meeting inspired the working-women’s organization “Sisters in Islam” to transform this vast and varied knowledge base into an official organization. The founding members determined that in order to gain traction and affect real change, the group would have to push beyond organizing rallies. According to legal anthropologist and Musawah founding-mother of Malaysia, Dr. Ziba Mir-Hosseini, such action could been seen as “more shouts into the void, yielding little action” (2009). Rather, activists decided that in order to have a true influence in the acquisition of musawah (or, equality in English) they would not only need to strive for solidarity in diversity, but serve as an Islamic- feminism[1] knowledge bank, of sorts.

According to their objectives, Musawah strives toward global equality in the context of Muslim women by 1) Building and sharing knowledge that supports equality and justice in the Muslim family, using a holistic approach that combines Islamic principles and jurisprudence, international human rights standards, national laws and constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination, and the lived realities of women and men; 2) Building a critical mass of organizations, groups, and individuals that support, use, and promote the Musawah Framework for Action and are empowered to engage in the public discourse on Islam and women’s rights; and 3) Supporting the work of human rights mechanisms as well as groups and individuals working with these processes at the international, regional, and national levels to advance equality and justice[2] in the Muslim family. (About Musawah, 2010)

 By offering interpretations of holy texts such as the Qur’an and Hadiths, Musawah established for itself a legitimacy that cannot be denied. It’s analyses and scholarly works are intended to show how “the tenets and interpretations of justice in Islam naturally lead to gender equality and family laws that uphold women’s rights.” (Inside Islam, 2009). It also takes the unique and, ultimately high effective approach of not specifically defining what is acceptable/ valid forward movement for women’s liberation. Because it serves such a wide audience of current and aspiring activists, Musawah’s mission statement explains that:

“social progress can be measured by a range of benchmarks because they vary depending on the daily context of each woman’s life and more broadly, by her country of origin as well. In the past, such developments have included alternative and progressive interpretations of the Qur’an, and today those interpretations have been applied to change the practices, traditions, and laws that impede social equality. Such applications include legal reforms but also a range of social reforms like access to media, job opportunities, marriage age, and maybe even yoga classes.” (Wanted, 2009)

MUSAWAH’S BRANCHES AND FRAMEWORK FOR ACTION

As explored in the previous section, Musawah utilizes a holistic approach in order to create a framework of action conducive to influencing Islamic jurisprudence, international human rights standards, national laws and constitutional guarantees of equality, and the lived realities of women and men. As Margot Badran explains, the group’s dedication to influencing Islamic jurisprudence in particular allows for transformation of what is considered secular feminism into Islamic feminism, and then into the Muslim holistic feminism that Musawah was largely successful in establishing (2011). This holistic approach lends itself to Musawah’s exploration of diversity, not only of women’s needs by region, but of approaches to Islamic feminist activism. Because of the varied nature of these approaches, Musawah has divided itself into several branches to ensure that women of virtually all skill sets find a place in the push toward equality.

I find that the International Advisory Group, the Secretariat, and the Working Groups each play a vital role in supporting not only Musawah itself, but the women who serve it. Each subset strives to achieve solidarity in diversity by bringing activists of divergent skill sets and thought processes into the same space, reminding them that under one ummah (faith), they shall overcome patriarchal control in their lives, attaining agency to use however they see fit. In particular, the working groups’ dedication to framing their Qur’anic interpretations in a more neutral lens allows the Secretariat and IAG to use their baseline understanding for a wide range of policy/ training (as exemplified in the key accomplishments section). Below are analyses of each branch, and their role in Musawah’s mission:

1. International Advisory Group (IAG): The Face of Musawah

This branch was established after the planning committee for the 2009 inaugural international Muslim women’s rights meeting was dissolved. It is dedicated to policy and executive decision making (Musawah, 2014). It is comprised of representatives from 15 member states, who serve on a rotational basis to ensure that there is no stronghold majority established by states or regions being over/underrepresented. The member states use a macro regional approach to better strategize and direct Musawah’s efforts on a global scale, strengthening its overall reach. Members of this branch are asked to serve as the faces of Musawah, as they represent the organization at international forums, guide global meetings, advise the secretariat, and polish the overall image of the group by strengthening programming and implementation thereof. For those like current IAG executive director and founding member, Zainah Anwar, this branch’s utilization of legal education to help come to an egalitarian understanding of Islam based almost wholly on their readings of the Quran keeps more outspoken, policy driven Islamic feminists to lend their skills to Musawah’s cause. (Wanted, 2009)

2. The Secretariat: Musawah’s Managers

Though not as immediately visible on the international stage, the secretariat is crucial to Musawah’s operation. These officials are entrusted with all administrative duties,  as well as maintenance of the group’s records. They also play the vital role of organizing the group’s hundreds of resources (i.e., manuals, essays, NGO publications, etc.) into a concise and easily navigated database (UCLA, 2009). Officers work tirelessly to ensure that resources are translated, and properly cited in other works. They are also tasked with advising the working groups in order to ensure that resources are made available across the globe.

3. Working Groups

Musawah’s working groups are the bread and butter of the organization, so to speak. They produce virtually all of the group’s materials, and support communications activities (Musawah, 2014). They are divided into four groups:

  1. Knowledge Building: This subset focuses on developing i) papers covering jurisprudential

(Qur’an, fiqh, and the hadith), historical, philosophical, sociological, and ethical aspects of qiwamah (responsibilities of the men) and wilayah (that which is governed, therefor very loosely translated into the rights of women)  that have been commissioned from experts from a variety of disciplines ii) understanding of how qiwamah and wilayah appear in state laws and policies, and how this relates to national constitutions and international treaty obligations. iii) works regarding socio-economic realities, based on quantitative data; and iv) life stories of women collected by Musawah Advocates using a qualitative research documentation process. (Musawah, 2015). They also provide accessible legal briefs to explain to the lay-reader both Islamic legalese and traditional Muslim family law. The purpose? To create “A new understanding of qiwamah and wilayah in line with contemporary notions of justice, equality, ethics, individual freedoms, and dignity, as well as the lived realities of Muslim families today.” (CEDAW, 2015). The Knowledge Building working group lends itself to being accessible to feminists of all careers, be they professors or housewives, because they seek a sundry of stories for their resource base.

  1. Capacity Building: This group focuses on expanding Musawah through creating and teaching

new curriculum. They conduct national- and regional-level courses for women’s rights activists and policy makers, and are in charge of curriculum development and training the trainers to help build a pool of resource personnel (Mulki, 2014). These talented activists use the materials developed by their counterparts in knowledge building in order to actually take Musawah’s message of equality directly to the people, creating opportunity structures through which women are both educated and empowered to more effectively self-advocate.

     3.   International Advocacy: The IA group focuses its energies on gaining traction and legitimacy in the eyes of feminist IO’s like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Their mission is to increase the visibility of the advocacy work Musawah is doing to bring equality to the Muslim family, and to garner international support from non-Muslim actors. They accomplish these goals by i) assessing possible entry points for advocacy in relation to regional and international bodies and mechanisms (Musawah, 2012), and ii) maintaining engagement with NGO partners to continue the dialogue surrounding Muslim family and marriage laws.

     4. Communication and Outreach: At it’s core, Musawah relies most heavily on networking.

Without a team dedicated to outreach, alliance building, and strengthening communication, all of the research and resources at the organization’s disposal would completely go to waste. Therefore, it is the role of the communication and outreach working group to ensure that Muslim women’s voices are projected to the global stage. First, they work alongside members of the Secretariat to ensure that communication is effective and accessible, and which requires a commitment to translations/ emphasis on clear language, sensitivity to information and communications technology access in resource-poor contexts, inclusivity in the form, structure, and content of communications, respect for confidentiality; and positive messaging that conveys the belief that change can happen and that people can be active agents in their lives (Wanted, 2010). Without their dedication, Musawah would not be able to establish a stable core of engaged activists to shape the movement, its knowledge-building, or it’s advocacy (Musawah, 2009).

IT WORKS: MUSAWAH IN COMPARISON TO SIMILAR ORGANIZATION

Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), Sisters in Islam, and Musawah all share one common theme: they are knowledge based Islamic feminist organizations, each dedicated to helping Muslim women gain equality in their homes. Interestingly, each of these groups has had very similar actors at the forefront (i.e., Zainah Anwar of MalaysiaAmina Wadud of the United States of American, and Askiah Adam of Iran), which offers some explanation as to why, despite appealing to different demographics, each of these groups has been able to use a now tried-and-true method of organizing Islamic feminist movement. American Islamic feminist and philosopher, Amina Wadud, contends that each of these groups’ success is reliant upon three factors: 1) documentation and education, 2) communication, and 3) organization (Inside Islam, 2014).

  1. Documentation and education: Each of these groups has a dedicated knowledge base of sorts,

whose purpose is to collect data from scholarly sources and average Muslim women across the globe.

  1.  Organization: None of these movements would be successful without members who utilize

the research done by the documentation team to create curriculum, train activists, and spearhead efforts to meet with NGO’s and IGO’s to promote women’s societal equality.  

  1. Communication: All of the organizations feature a communications team, who work tirelessly

to advocate on a global stage using the materials from the documentation team, and the curriculum and methods presented by the organization team. As the faces of each organization, this team is crucial to preserving their images.

But why are these the most integral elements in these groups’ success, and more importantly, are they effective? By promoting the spread of non-partisan knowledge/ understanding of the Qur’an, rather than taking a partisan approach, these organizations yield more meaningful discussion, and are able to help women of differing political or even Islamic ideologies (i,e., traditionalist vs. secular leaning households, etc.) recognize the commonalities in their desire for equality. Such widespread support has given these groups quite a bit of leverage, which they use to continually be recognized by larger organs/ NGO’s as critical actors in the global push in feminist discourse, whose voices must be heard in session. So even though a group like WLUML, whose focus is largely on those living under Muslim-majorities and, thus, Islamic jurisprudence, serves a different demographic than more diversity driven groups like SIS and Musawah, they all are able to establish very similar solidarity and knowledge driven models that, ultimately, prove to be successful across borders.

KEY ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Musawah continued to gain traction/popularity past the initial meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Some of it’s key accomplishments include 1) Organizing a series of workshops on egalitarianism, lay-person scholarship building, and reading gender from the Qur’an in 19 designated subregions; 2) Being invited by the U.N. to speak on CEDAW expansion, and early, child, and forced marriages, as well as their proposed policy reform on marriage contracts, divorce, and mahr; and 3) Publishing and widely circulating literature on the systemic divergences between Shari‘ah and personal status laws, guardianship and custody, and biological destiny (Wanted, 2009) (Musawah: The Journey, 2015)

According to a 2011 study by Christian Science Moniter, approximately 72% of those surveyed in some 15 countries took the stance “non-neutral, positive” when asked how they felt about the work that Musawah was doing (CSM, 2011). Their strides toward combining Qur’anic interpretation and human rights initiatives have proven effective on a wider international stage.

CONCLUSION

        This paper’s aim was to examine the extent to which Musawah’s approach to influencing Islamic jurisprudence and societal norms garnered the support of Muslims across a wide political and geographical spectrum. What I found is that by using non-partisan interpretations of Islamic law as it’s basis for action, Musawah is able to attract Muslim women and men alike, who may have otherwise been turned off by more polarized and/ or Westernized feminist discourse. Additionally, it’s works can be utilized in virtually all Islamically governed countries, as it focuses on Islam and human rights on a large scale. It’s working groups, secretariat, and advocacy group work together by utilizing a holistic approach to promote the notion that equality is not merely a “Western” ideology; rather, according to Musawah’s teachings, the very nature of the Qur’an suggests that gender and familial equality is fundamental to the religion. This approach is clearly highly effective, as similar research and interpretation based Islamic feminist discourse has existed in the forms of WLUML, Sisters in Islam, and now Musawah for nearly four decades, wielding tremendous influence over the positions on feminism held by state governments and NGO’s alike. With a strong commitment to attaining true freedom/ autonomy for Muslim women across the globe, and careful planning to ensure inclusivity of thought processes, Musawah has effectively achieved its goals of 1) promoting solidarity [for Islamic feminist measures] through diversity, and 2) influencing global action in favor of Islamic feminist action by using undeniable religious texts.

WORKS CITED

Al-Sharmani, Mulki. Feminist Activism Women’s Rights: And Legal Reform. Zed Books,

Limited, 2014.

Anwar, Zainah. Wanted: Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family. 2nd ed., Musawah.

Badran, Margot. “From Islamic Feminism to a Muslim Holistic Feminism.” IDS

Bulletin, Wiley-Blackwell, 11 Jan. 2011,

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Muslim Family Laws: In Search of Common Ground | Equality in the Muslim Family,

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Christian Science Moniter. “The Veil, the Koran, and the Muslim Women’s Movement.” 11 Dec. 2011

Fabian, Rhonda. “Kosmos Interview | American Muslim Voice Founder, Samina Faheem Sundas. Kosmos Journal, Dec. 2015,

MacKinnon, Ian. “Islamic Ruling Bans Malaysia’s Muslims from Practising Yoga.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Nov. 2008,

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Madison, 13 Aug. 2014

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Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 13 Mar. 2009

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Together, Worlds Apart, Men and Women in a Time of Change.

Daugherty |


[1]A feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm, heavily reliant upon the Qur’an and other Islamic texts.

[2]  Gender justice, equity, and equality are often used either together or interchangeably in Musawah’s works. Though similar, it is important to understand the nuance behind each term:

Gender equality: ensuring that the different behaviour, aspirations and needs of women and men are considered, valued and favoured equally

Gender equity: ensuring fair treatment for women and men socially, economically, financially, etc.

Gender justice: fighting against the discriminatory standards that lead to unjust action against the less dominant gender (i.e., the gender pay gap or domestic violence)

 

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