KUALA LUMPUR -
The Second Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and
Equality (WISE) conference kicked off on July 16 2009 with high
Eminent women from all walks of life
and all corners of the globe gathered to brainstorm ideas on how
to improve conditions for Muslim women across the world. Artists,
musicians, writers, authors, journalists and activists brought
along their passion for gender equality - and for their cherished
faith - to the event in the hopes of improving the lives of their
less fortunate Muslim sisters.
Among the 250 or so attendees was the
pioneer feminist theologian Amina Wadud, acclaimed Islamic scholar
and author Asma Asfuruddin, award-winning journalist Mona Eltahawi
and of course the host, Daisy Khan, the Executive Director of the
Yet, despite the glamour and glitz,
and despite the conference's aspirations of being an edifying
experience for its participants, something seemed amiss.
Throughout the conference, I could not help feel uneasy that
things were headed in the wrong direction when it came to
articulating a true vision for women's equality in Islam.
For example, I was quite taken aback
by the volumes of defense for the hijab and burka. Respecting
women's choices to adopt such attire is a long-standing argument
in defense of the practice and it often surfaced in discourse at
But in respecting the choices of a
few, defenders of the hijab ignored the severe curtailment of the
choices of others who are often forced to adopt such headgear.
Nonetheless, it was only this narrow focus on the choices of a few
that came to be touted during the conference, the veil was
glamorized to a point where it almost seemed like a defense of
misogyny and patriarchy.
What offended me even more was the
terminology employed to project a supposedly moderate message of
Islam. An exercise with an express purpose of showcasing a more
tolerant and moderate Islam was steeped in Islamist cliches. The
usual Islamist words like "jihad," and "shura" flashed across the
conference hall as if one were still living within a medieval
At the close of the conference, the
organizers extended an open invitation to commentators and writers
on Islam to join the ranks of the existing members of the
fifteen-member Shura Council, which includes a Canadian Muslim
Described by WISE organizers as a
"project of reclamation, consultation, consent and consensus", the
Shura Council would render opinions on religious matters from time
to time after deliberation and consultation, quite reminiscent of
the retrogressive Wahabi Shura Council of Saudi Arabia.
From the outset I was clear about not
joining the Shura Council. Apart from being opposed to the
institution as a vestige of medievalism, I also questioned its
potential to deliver sound and unbiased judgement on issues
related to misogyny and extremism in Islam.
My main reason however, for not
joining the council was that any message claiming to preach
tolerance and moderation should have shunned the nomenclature of
the extremists. Regrettably, WISE felt compelled to seek
vindication for its positions in Islamist rhetoric.
With such undertones, I wondered if
the conference would achieve the objectives it had originally set
to achieve. For the most part, the narrative of the conference
simply repeated the tired apologist arguments of gender equity
rather than true equality for Muslim women.
An occasional glimmer of hope emerged
in some pronouncements, such as the reference to the "relativity
of fiqh" in delivering more benign interpretations of the Quran,
but at no point was the idea of secular governance even suggested
as a possible means to achieving gender equality in the Muslim
For Muslim women to move forward
towards reform, an acknowledgment is now overdue that sharia
wholly and blatantly discriminates against their very essence. No
longer can polygamy, hijab or segregation be defended, for these
entire institutions reek of patriarchy, sexism and misogyny.
It is my sincere hope that the next
WISE conference will be open to some of these ideas and
suggestions and march forward towards solving gender issues in
Muslim countries with a far better grip on what actually ails the
Islamic world in its treatment of women and minorities.
Farzana Hassan is the author of
Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today
Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest: An
Integrative Study of Christian and Muslim Apocalyptic Religion
(MacFarland). She is the former president of the Muslim