Pushing the boundaries on Islam and women

Alia Shuaib recently rolled her sleek, white Jaguar to a stop at a red light. A woman tapped at her window, and asked, "Are you that doctor?" When the red-headed Dr. Shuaib acknowledged who she was, the woman spat on her.

It was not the first time she was made to feel like the neighborhood pariah. Another woman recently pulled her hair in a supermarket check-out line. And many of Shuaib's colleagues at the university where she teaches don't want to speak to her in public.

The philosophy professor, writer, and painter was convicted of blasphemy against Islam earlier this year for insulting God. The offending verses are contained in her collection of poetry entitled, "Spiders Bemoan a Wound." She writes that she dreams of "passing the secret map of God." In another, she compares an apple to a woman's figure.

She was sentenced to two months in prison in January. But two months later, an appeals court overturned the prison term and ordered her fined instead.

In the court of public opinion, however, the trial continues. And Shuaib accuses those who've tried to prosecute her - Muslim ultraconservatives - of turning her into an "intellectual leper."

Her doctoral dissertation, completed at the University of Birmingham in Britain, is a study of the Koran's references to women's bodies.

Islam's holy book, she says, never mentions that women must be covered with shapeless robes and headscarves, worn by the majority of women here. Pants and long sleeves, she says, also fulfill the Koran's admonition to women to dress modestly and "to draw their veils close around them."

"I've read the Koran over and over, and this [hijab] is not mentioned at all. This came from other cultures," says Shuaib, nodding at passing students draped in black cloaks. "I'm trying to prove that the Koran gave women their rights and valued them highly, but when we come to real life, we see the opposite."

Her fiction, a collection of poetry and short stories, has touched on themes of sexuality and lesbianism.

In one poem entitled "Before Desert," for example, she describes the "nakedness" of an apple appreciating its own body.

Literature aside, Shuaib's appearance is also a pageturner. Although she sticks to long skirts and button-down white shirts on work days, her dyed-red hair and the Winona Ryder pixie give her an irrepressible air of style - foreign style.

"Everyone's telling me, 'It's too Western and European, you'll be a bad influence on the girls,' " says Shuaib, mussing her short locks for a moment in the rearview mirror as she zips across campus.

Shuaib comes from a well-to-do family - a liberal Lebanese mother and a Kuwaiti father who encouraged her academic career. "I was brought up learning the Koran by heart. But my study in philosophy taught me to ask questions and to be daring," says Shuaib, who lives here with her two-year-old daughter.

Though they may not approve of her lifestyle choices, the students have only praise for her teaching; Shuaib's ethics class is oversubscribed. Inside the classroom, students self-segregate, with young men - the minority - sitting along the back wall, leaving many empty rows between them and the women. Virtually all of the boys wear long white robes, or dishdasha, and shoulder-length white headcoverings. A few young women are dressed like urban teenagers ready for a night on the town, with carefully blown-out hair-dos, high heels, and made-up faces. The rest, about 80 percent, wear some form of hijab, while seven of them are also covered with face veils, leaving only their eyes exposed.

"She has a very open mind," says Wadha al-Shamari, one of those who keeps her face covered. "It doesn't fit in with our society and our religion, but I love her class because it gives me a chance to talk about my opinions. I can separate the class from her writings, which, of course, I don't agree with."

Shuaib says it is a challenge to teach students whose faces she can't see. "It's confusing for me because I can't watch their reactions. On a few occasions, I've asked to see their faces [in private], otherwise I don't know who's taking the test."

More than 100 students came to court with her when she had to appear during the blasphemy trial. She's also received e-mails from around the Arab world offering her support, particularly, she says, from neighboring Saudi Arabia. One Kuwaiti web site discussing the controversy over her work attracted many fans, but many foes as well.

Indeed, the ultraconservatives who filed the blasphemy complaint against her say they won't give up their efforts to have her punished.

"We are trying her ideas and not her personally," says Abdal Razzak Al-Shayji, a leading Islamist and the assistant dean at the university's School of Islamic law, who has a five-inch-thick file on Shuaib. "What is going to stop people from going over our red lines? How can I accept someone who insults God?"

"In Islam, anyone who insults God must be killed," he says. "In my personal view, a big fine would be better. By imprisoning someone for even a day, you make a hero out of him."

Shuaib says she is now faced with a dilemma: Stay here and quiet down, or return to England and work freely. "A poet cannot be charged for having an imagination," she says. "Living here, you postpone your abilities. In this society, honor is everything, and mine has already been scratched."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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