The veil, the Koran, and the Muslim women's movement

Muslim women who want equal rights are turning to Islam’s primary authority – the Koran. It’s a smart strategy.

In Islam, a woman who chooses not to wear a head scarf in public has a strong defense: the Koran. Nowhere does Islam’s primary text mandate that she cover her head.

A Muslim woman, then, should have the freedom to cover her hair – or not. But that is not the case in a country like Saudi Arabia. The Koran also supports a woman’s right to own and inherit property, to be educated, and to choose her husband – but not all societies in the Muslim universe of 1.5 billion people recognize these rights.

The disconnect lies in the interpretation of Islam, done for centuries by men. In the interest of achieving gender equality, Muslim women activists and scholars are challenging the male interpretation. Wisely, they are using the Koran to do it.

Much authority in the Muslim world stems from scholarship, and so Muslim women have become Islamic scholars. Their work of the past 20 years has shed a new light of equality on texts in the Koran. They challenge, for example, the patriarchal interpretation and enforcement of the idea that males are the guardians of females and responsible for their morality.

These scholars are spreading the word in books, in conferences, and on the Internet. Grass-roots groups in Islamic countries are turning to them for guidance – and learning to use the Koran themselves to argue for greater rights.

Slowly, “Islamic feminism” is producing results: a 2004 sea change in Moroccan family law that recognizes men and women as equal; female judges in sharia courts in Jordan, Syria, Malaysia, and Indonesia; women leaders in mosques and women teachers in Islamic religious institutions.

This may be the most intellectually active time for Islam since the Middle Ages. Scholars of both sexes are challenging controversial Islamic practices going back centuries.

For three years, for instance, a group of 80 Turkish scholars has been reexamining Muslim traditions in the hadith, which is based on the sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad. The hadith governs behavior, from war to personal hygiene. The scholars plan to publish six volumes that reject many controversial practices in the hadith, including honor killings and the stoning of adulterers.

Earlier this year, a group of 250 activists and scholars from 47 countries gathered in Kuala Lumpur to launch Musawah (equality in Arabic). The group aims to bring equality and justice to Muslim family law in legal systems around the world. Their activism is based on rights found in the Koran.

Islamic feminism faces strong resistance from the faith’s conservatives who want to preserve the male interpretation of Islam. But the movement’s roots in the Koran give it a better chance at changing attitudes than a transplanted women’s liberation movement from the West. In the end, the Koran may be an Islamic woman’s most direct route to equal rights.

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