By Farzana Hassan-Shahid
24 November, 2006
As the chatter in the large illuminated hall of Westin Hotel New York subsided, I looked around me and saw a constellation of distinguished Muslim women eagerly await the start of the ground breaking conference on the rights of Muslim Women. They were, artists, musicians, scholars, poets and academics and they came in their colorful garbs, teeming with ideas to launch the formation of a new Shoora or advisory Council composed exclusively of women to interpret the 'Quran. A revolution was unfolding right before my eyes as the women eagerly debated the credentials of their colleagues.
As President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, I also highlighted certain issues that needed to be addressed by this auspicious group. The ones that came up most frequently were domestic violence, women's health and general equality for Muslim women under the law. A debate soon ensued on what exactly such equality meant. Each woman had a different story to tell and a unique perspective to offer. There was no mistaking the remarkable synergy in the room.
However, these highly erudite women were not only concerned with women's issues. They were concerned about terrorism, intra-religious tolerance for divergent views and the lack of democratic institutions in many Muslim countries. Throughout deliberations, a general feeling of projecting the tolerant and humane side of Islam resonated most, whether during formal presentations or informal exchange of ideas. The interfaith panel reiterated the common humanity that Muslim women shared with them, along with a feeling of sisterhood, transcending all barriers of race , creed class or religion.
Mukhtaran Mai, the Pakistani woman who was gang-raped as punishment for her brother's alleged crimes, spoke out with characteristic courage and dignity by appealing to all representatives that they must raise their voices against injustices.
Perhaps of great significance was the fact that the women present at the conference came with diverse opinions and understandings of their faith. Was there room for women's equality within Islam's ideological framework? Was secularism the answer to the rights of minorities so often violated in Muslim countries? Would Sufi Islam and its colorful manifestations occupy a genuine place within Islam? Such issues came to be debated with the utmost, civility, ardor and erudition.
Indeed there is an intra-religious dialog taking place among Muslims in an attempt to arrive at an understanding of Islam that can work for its diverse adherents. Respect of such diversity culminated in the "Wise" or Women's Islamic initiative in Spirituality and Equity, reverberating during the course of the three-day discussions.
There are more orthodox Muslims who may very well frown upon such initiatives, suggesting that exegesis can only be the wrathful and exclusive domain of a select few trained in the traditional methodologies of juristic endeavor. But one may rightfully ask, if faith affects all of us, shouldn't every one have the right to understand and interpret it?
Indeed some commented on how wonderful it was that Muslims were now mature enough to debate religious precepts without being labeled apostates or heretics. To that I commented, indeed there is an intriguing dialog taking place within Muslim circles, but it is there not because of fundamentalists, it is going on despite them, and that indeed is something to be commended.
Farzana Hassan-Shahid is a freelance writer and host of the Radio Program :Islam Faith and Culture.
[Farzana Hassan-Shahid is President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Freelance writer, public speaker and author of "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest" and host of the radio program Islam: Faith and Culture.]