"This was inspirational. I got the same goose bumps at the rally the day Mandela was released," grinned Waheeda Amien, a founder of Shura Yabfazi which works to empower Muslim women in South Africa, at the close of the five-day launch of Musawah: a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family last week.
"It speaks to the true you that combines your identities as a feminist and as a Muslim woman," commented Hadil el-Khouly, a young Egyptian activist who coordinated the young women's caucus at the event.
"For young women especially these battles are very personal: most young women are living at home, have to fit in with society, face pressures to get married. Musawah takes you out of the isolation"
"When I began reading and looking for answers, I used to think there were only one or two other women who thought like me. Now I know there are millions!" laughed Shaista Gohir, Executive Director of the Muslim Women's Network-UK, gesturing towards the Kuala Lumpur conference hall filled with some 250 women activists and scholars - and a handful of men - from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and countries of the North.
For one young Uzbek woman who cannot be named for her own safety, "We solved the issues of the laws decades ago. We have the laws. For us the question is the implementation. So I could relate to some of the experiences: like Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia where the laws are in place and we now need to tackle inequality at home."
But for Raissa Jajurie of the Alternative Legal Assistance Centre in the Philippines it is a very different story: "We are a minority group in Mindanao. With the armed struggle going on, it is difficult to look into gender issues among the Muslims, but we are nevertheless taking baby steps. Musawah has inspired us to look at the various possibilities and given us the tools to work with."
Yet the similarities were clearly visible, in particular the misuse of culture and religion to deny women full citizenship and equality in the family. As United Nations Special Rapporteur Yakin Ertürk put it in her keynote speech, "Culture has become the new stage for global wars. Women stand at the centre." However, the participants in our debate were keen to challenge the dominant understanding which pits human rights against culture: "This meeting has added value to the women's movement with its approach of bringing fiqh [Muslim jurisprudence] and universal human rights together," noted Ghada Shawgi of the Khartoum Human Rights Centre, Sudan.
Several participants came from countries such as Iran, Mauritania and Uzbekistan where women's rights activism and public opposition to state gender policies can carry a heavy personal price. Others, such as 31-year old Nassirou Zahara Aboubacar, one of only two women on Niger's Islamic Council, occupy positions of recognized public authority in their countries.
Many women present, especially from North Africa and South Asia had previously used purely secular strategies. But as senior Egyptian feminist Amal Abd el-Hadi explained, "I need to learn now to demystify religion and these claims." Demystification and indeed ‘desacralization' of supposedly divine edicts was also a demand from participants who have long been feminists working within the framework of religion. We have many women leaders but the problem is that their interpretation of the Qur'an is what the religious men tell them. This has got to change first," pointed out Djingarey Maiga, from Femmes et Droits Humains in Mali.
As Special Rapporteur Ertürk commented: "There is a growing convergence around human rights values, whatever their source may be." This holistic framework combines Islamic principles, international human rights, national guarantees of non-discrimination, and analysis drawn from lived realities.
In many ways, a new way of thinking about gender relationships and the family requires new ways of movement-building, and some of those involved in the initiative believe Musawah offers just this. "A lot of feminist organizing is driven by elites. I see Musawah's emphasis on people's daily lives as an opportunity for women at the grassroots to take the lead. It's really about how they see things in their Muslim contexts," says Asma'u Joda from the Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment in Nigeria.
Despite the pressure of media interest and the sheer excitement of the event, the participants refused to be pushed into premature campaigning. "The end of this meeting is not a programme of activities and a structure: we need to build a foundation before we construct the house," commented Musawah Planning Committee member Kamala Chandrakirana from Indonesia.
Nevertheless, one concrete outcome was a clear rejection of the proposal from the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) to produce an alternative to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Another development at the launch was the forming of Musawah caucuses in Africa and among minority communities in the global North, both designed to bring regional perspectives to national campaigns and to the global movement.
Although the focus remains on family laws, the synthesis firmly placed Musawah in its wider context. It acknowledged the impact of conflict, authoritarianism and occupation on rights within the family: "We need democracy so there is space to discuss the role of Islam in our public and private lives," noted Rabéa Naciri of the Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc. All the many other women's rights initiatives in Muslim contexts, the struggles of women in other religious traditions to reform their laws, and the global human rights movement were likewise represented at the event.
Identifying itself as a ‘knowledge-building movement', Musawah (whose name means ‘equality' in Arabic) not only bridges diversities in terms of context and approach to women's rights but also seeks to bring rights activists and Muslim scholars together as part of the process of generating new approaches to equality and justice in the Muslim family.
The launch was the first time that such a large number of women's rights activists from Muslim contexts and scholars had been brought together. Speaking on behalf of the international planning committee of 12 academics and activists from 10 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Zainah Anwar of Sisters in Islam, Malaysia said, "We hope this will strengthen the arguments used by activists as well as encourage Muslim scholars who support human rights to continue their research. Both of these groups face heavy opposition from some religious groups who claim that ‘non-expert' activists have no right to reinterpret Muslim family laws, and who dismiss the scholarship of those who deviate from patriarchal interpretations."
See also Home Truths in the Muslim family