Prominent Muslim Women Demonstrate Power of Islamic Feminism to American University Students
By Brianna Curran
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University (AU) and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK, convened his class on the World of Islam on Sept. 18 to discuss Women in Islam. Introducing the session he explained that while he could talk of the subject the best speakers are women themselves. His guest speakers were Madam Ambassador Shaista Jilani of Pakistan, Dr Amineh Hoti, Executive Director of Pakistan’s Center for Dialogue and Action, and Ambereen Shaffie, a Pakistani-American environmental attorney, who all shed light on their experiences as Muslim women and discussed the importance of interfaith dialogue and educational development for women in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Each of the speakers are distinguished Muslim women who have made significant contributions in spreading religious tolerance and women’s rights. Dr Amineh Hoti is the co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations (CMJR) at the University of Cambridge, as well as the Executive Director of the Society for Dialogue and Action, the first center in Pakistan to offer courses on diversity at the university level. She discussed the vitality of facilitating interfaith dialogue as a means of spreading tolerance and equality between men and women, in Pakistan in particular. She emphasized the importance of education as a means of understanding the “other,” as it is society’s only way to achieve peace. Dr Hoti closed by saying, “It is a real privilege for us as speakers to be here, but also for this platform to be here where people of different faiths can come together. Dr Ahmed is playing a key role, because one of the biggest misunderstandings is women in Islam.”
Madam Ambassador Shaista Jilani, wife of Pakistani Ambassador to the US Jalil Abbas Jilani, emphasized the strength and respect that is given to women in Islam, which receives little attention in the media. She discussed the Pakistani community’s drive to increase educational access for women and girls in rural societies following the attack on Malala Yousafzai, and the ever-important role of women in Pakistan. Jilani also noted the emphasis placed on education in Islam, and the Qur’anic duty of all Muslims to seek knowledge in the world. After graciously thanking the class, Madam Ambassador shared her experiences of the visit, saying, “I loved the class. This was my first time visiting a class to speak, and I truly enjoyed interacting with such brilliant students.”
International environmental attorney and Fellow at the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute Ambereen Shaffie took care to explain the intrinsic feminism that exists within the Qur’an, highlighting the value of women’s work in the home, women’s right to inherit property, and the significance of the family of the Prophet Muhammed in the development of Islam. For example, Ms Shaffie discussed Khadija, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife and the first Muslim in Islam, who was a prominent businesswoman in her own right. That the Qur’an explicitly grants equality and rights to women is a concept often overlooked by Western media outlets, Shaffie explained. However, Shaffie noted that it is important to change the existing paradigms surrounding women in Islam, so female Islamic scholars can continue to educate people on the rights to women granted through the religion’s doctrine.
Following the speakers’ opening statements, Ambassador Ahmed opened the discussion to questions from the students. A lively discussion ensued, with students inquiring about the difference between tribal customs and the laws set forth in the Qur’an. The importance of separating the two, Shaffie said, is imperative. The fusion of tribal law with Islam has created a new identity, in both positive and negative ways. On the one hand, this relationship has led to an immense and beautiful diversity within Islam. On the other, many tribal customs, such as honor killings and female genital mutilation, have become falsely equated with Islam, a connection which has led to the spread of Islamaphobia and the impression that Islam treats women poorly. Madam Ambassador Jilani added that education plays a key role in differentiating between tribal law and Islamic law. It is important for Muslims to read the Qur’an and become educated on the religion itself, so that they can recognize the role of tribal culture on their local customs.
As a young American woman focusing on peace and conflict resolution strategies in the Middle East, it was incredibly enlightening for me to hear the speakers talk about their experiences as Muslim women. In the US today, we are constantly bombarded with misinformation about women in Islam, and there is very little emphasis placed on differentiating tribal law from the religion itself. However, the strong and successful women on this panel taught me that if we take the time to look at the foundations of Islam, we will find examples of feminism and equality everywhere.
In the wake of several examples of Islamaphobia in the US, like the arrest of 14-year old Ahmed Mohammed in Texas and recent anti-Muslim sentiments expressed by several Republican presidential candidates, it was inspiring to see the enthusiasm of young American students extending a hand to the Muslim community and seeking to understand the foundations of Islam. The panel discussion revealed to Ambassador Ahmed’s students that only through interfaith dialogue and through productive discourse about Islam and society can we spread tolerance and peace, and seek answers to the problems of today’s greatest religious and political challenges.