Lauryn Oates

 Review of Farzana Hassan's "Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today"

Farzana Hassan, former president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, set out to write a book that would, in her words, “challenge young Muslim minds”, urging a re-examination of “traditionally held views, often rooted in classical jurisprudence that have come to be part of the entrenched narrative of Islam.” Hassan has a lot of misgivings over this narrative, which she straightforwardly interrogates in her book, “Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.”
This is probably the right moment to disclose what I suppose constitutes a bias in reviewing a book about faith, which would be my lack of it—of the Mohammedan brand or otherwise. And worse, my atheism is not just personal, but political in that I am convinced that religion is frequently ridiculous, and often dangerous. I tend to agree with Sam Harris that religion is easily “the most prolific source of violence in our history” (2004). I can’t take seriously something I’ve seen no evidence for, and I agree with those who point out that there is much in the Qu’ran that is pretty near impossible to interpret in kinder light no matter how you twist it, from advocating violent jihad to blatant anti-semitism.
But as an insider to a community of faith, Farzana Hassan is espousing perhaps a more pragmatic approach in quelling the intolerance and fanaticism—and violence—that so often accompanies religious adherence. The worst excesses of religion are only likely to be shed when the cracks of light first beamed originate from the inside (with a healthy dose of exposure to the views of others to complement).
And so Hassan follows in the path of what is relatively recent trailblazing: Muslim women who refuse to swallow whole the version they are given of the faith to which they adhere, and who demand the right to question the dominant interpretations, and in some cases, to take on the re-interpreting themselves. It’s what American legal scholar Madhavi Sunder has referred to as cultural dissent, speaking out from within one’s cultural or religious community and in doing so, gaining agency in establishing what it means to be a member of a given cultural or religious community. For most of history, it’s been the men who decide this meaning and who establish the perimeters and the criteria of membership, while women are subject to rules that they had no role in creating. But some women are stepping forward to push those perimeters. And each one who does, makes it easier for she who speaks up next.
Religion is after all a fluid thing. While very old books occupy their dusty old thrones like the family patrons for the Abrahamic religions, it’s the living who breathe life into their faith and decide how verses put on paper so many centuries ago will find relevance and meaning in modern times. Hassan is troubled by what have become norms of Quranic understanding, but she is not ready to give up, and labours to draw out new understandings more applicable to the modern age. Efforts like this may be the best chance there is for the short-term in toning down the dogma that ensnarls many of those who profess to be of the faithful, whether in Pakistan or in isolated diaspora communities in Canadian cities.
It’s this intent that lets me see beyond what Hassan herself acknowledges could be construed as “a series of apologetics” when she calls, for example, for a revision of the traditional Quranic sanction to concubinage, suggesting new ways for the old verses to be seen so that they mostly condemn concubinage rather than endorse it. She explains,

suffice it to say that I favour this view above others simply because solutions to forms of modern sex-slavery must be sought from within the framework of Islam.

Clearly many secular methodologies need to be applied in abolishing modern sex-slavery and “the framework of Islam” has so far not saved very many women from sexual enslavement that I’m aware of. But when one is being victimized in the name of Islam, it can take the name of Islam to denounce this victimization systematically, at least within an Islamic community. No systematic denunciation is yet happening on a mass scale, but then again, there are not yet enough Farzana Hassans on the case.
Hassan similarly dissects other contentious Islamic maxims pertaining to women such as the received wisdom on women and divorce, polygamy, the infamous sharia notion that a woman’s testimony is worth half a man’s, wife battery, adultery, rape and a host of other bristling issues. For each, she carefully builds a case for a new reading of the old texts, recalling the context in which the rules were first declared and pointing out that the general norms advocated by the Quran should supersede specific instructions that were devised in 7th century Arabia with the intention of reforming a generally uncouth, misogynistic culture that pervaded at the time Islam was introduced.
It’s a similar approach as that taken by Muslim women activists in organizations and networks like Women Living Under Muslim Laws, the Women’s Learning Partnership, and the feminist Malaysian organization Sisters in Islam. And under the circumstances, it might be the most effective approach, yielding reforms more quickly than waiting for the men in power—whether in government or in the household—to miraculously reform themselves, giving up fundamentalist ideologies in favour of enlightenment and a more humane view towards the female gender. It could be a long wait.
The women and girls in so many parts of the Muslim world—Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others—who endure on a sizeable scale brutalities often justified in the name of religion including forced marriage, sexual abuse and rape, illiteracy, child marriage, and the denial of their most basic human rights, can’t afford to wait for miracles that will never come. They need change now, and that change can start in the voices of Muslim women who say: Enough. Let me read that for myself.
When women access those untouchable sacred texts themselves and when they find the courage to challenge the dominant interpretations, they can contribute to a reinvention of the faith under which they live, calling attention to the buried verses that could be used in favour of women's empowerment and challenging the standard interpretations of those verses used to justify women's subordination. It’s only fair that women too get to shape their religious and cultural communities, rather than merely being passive recipients of the dictates of preaching men.
So while I affirm my faithlessness, it’s the stubborn faithful who are willing to take on their own communities, to dissent from within, that give me hope for a future that is less bigoted, less militant and less tyrannical towards women. I applaud Farzana Hassan for her pioneering in bringing that future a little closer.

Send questions or comments to Farzana Hassan