Women in Islam Journal - Issue 5 (English)

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SIHA Journal / Issue No. 5

Why Islamic Feminism? Muslim women's quest for gender justice within Islam

Trafficked on the Kenyan Coast Women survivors reflect on their experiences at the hands of human traffickers

From the Personal to the Political The struggle of Sudanese women in politics after the revolution

DOSSIER: Women in Revolution


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EDITORIAL 05 T hree Questions To: Anne-Laure Pierrelot

PEOPLE 06 F rom Education to Politics: An Affluent Life Journey Aisha Musa, Sudan Sovereign Council Member, narrates her journey 11 A ni Zonneveld: The Female Imam A reflection on women’s spiritual empowerment


14 I n Conversation with Zainah Anwar On growing up as a Muslim feminist in Malaysia

EQUALITY 18 B ook Review: Asma Lamrabet’s Women in the Qur’an Rereading the Qur’an from an egalitarian perspective 20 T he Midwife’s Struggle: The Challenges of Working in A Patriarchal Society Exploring the daily lives of Somaliland midwives 24 W hy Islamic Feminism? Why Now? Muslim women’s quest for gender justice within Islam


29 F orced Marriage: Sudan’s Graveyard for Girls Stories of vacant schoolroom seats and occupied prison cells 32 E xperiences of Women Without Children in Sudan Socio-economic impacts: Why is the blame always laid on the woman?

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS 37 T rafficked by al-Shabaab: Stories of Kenyan Women Returnees Women survivors reflect on their experiences of abduction and terror


42 O ver the Desert and Across the Sea: Women of African Origin in the Middle East and South Asia A legacy of prejudice and resistance borne by descendants of the African people sold into slavery 46 T he Gazelle A poem on endurance and resilience 47 O n Spaces of Resilience: A Message from Jerusalem Exploring agency and identity while growing up in the Armenian Quarter

THE PERSONAL AND THE POLITICAL 51 S elf-Critique of a Secular Feminist Learning about Islamic Feminism and genuinely listening to the voices of Muslim women

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55 F ilm Review: Jinn (2018) Thoughtful, gender-informed commentary on representations of Muslim women in the diaspora

57 P raying in Public Spaces: The Real Challenge for Pakistani Women The idea of purdah pervades women's invisibility in religious public spaces 61 A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance A mural from the Sudanese Revolution 62 M arital Abandonment: Women’s Stories from Sudan “I Feel Like a Forsaken Garden”: How society and the law undermine women’s needs 66 R eflections on She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak A scholar of Senegalese history connects with an anthology of 25 firsthand accounts of Nigerian women

PERSPECTIVES 70 M y Journey to Islamic Feminism By the Islamic feminist scholar known to the world as the ‘Lady Imam’ 73 S ocial Media: A Tool for Women’s Activism How online platforms present new and accessible advocacy opportunities in Somalia and Somaliland 76 O nline Trolling: A New Form of Sexual Harassment Uncovering digital gender-based violence in Somalia 78 W omen on Stage: Voices from Behind the Wall A story of hope from northern Sudan 82 R eligious Pluralism and Freedom of Belief in the Muslim World On Salafi Islam and suppression of religious pluralism, globalisation, and impacts on women’s rights


86 L augh with Me! Indonesia’s first female Muslim standup comic

DOSSIER: WOMEN IN REVOLUTION 90 R evolutionising African Political Society: The Contribution of Muslim Women to Socio-Political Development Powerful female figures and the struggle for gender justice are abundant throughout African history 94 I ndian Women Protest New Citizenship Laws: Joining a Global ‘Fourth Wave’ Feminist Movement India’s Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act


96 P hoto Story: Images from Khartoum Sit-In Highlights from the Sudan Women’s Protest and the civilian-controlled space created in the centre of Khartoum 100 “ If Not Now, When?”: Feminists at the Heart of Algeria’s Protest Movement Algerian women demand liberation from unjust family law, and a free, democratic Algeria 104 T he Sidelined Warrior Queens at the Heart of the Revolution Giving Sudanese women the recognition they deserve 108 F rom the Personal to the Political The struggle of Sudanese women in politics after the revolution

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EDITORIAL IMPRESSUM Editor Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) Editorial Head Hala AlKarib Editorial Coordinators Alex McCar thy, Suri Kempe Editorial Team Abdulkhalig El-Sir, Aisha al-Samani, Faith Sundby James, Kate Kingsford, Waha Ibrahim Proofreaders Ginger Johnson Translators Arda Aghazarian, Elise Aghazarian, Faisal el-Bagir, Faisal Gorashy, Mohammed Attiya, Mohammed Abdulhamid, Rasha Dewedar Contributors Abdifatah Hassan Ali, Alka Kurian, Amina Hersi, amina wadud, Duru Yavan, Elise Aghazarian, Eman Adam, Fatima B. Derby, Halima El Joundi, Hussein Saad, Iman Mounir, Imogen Sian Edwards, Kate Kingsford, Loes Oudenhuijsen, Madeha Abdella, Mariam Abdullahi Dahir, Romisa Elkarim, Safiya elSiddiq, Sakdiyah Ma'ruf, Suraiya Zubair Banu, Yusuf Timacade, Zahra Bajwa, Ziba Mir-Hosseini Art Alaa Satir, Almogera Abdalbagy, Alnour Suluman, Anne-Laure Pierrelot, Ayman Hussin, Enas Satir, Hussein Mirghani, Ibrahim Sayed, Imogen Thurbon, Nidal ‘Ageeb, Reya Ahmed, Salah Ibrahim, Sarrah El-Bushra, Ssali Yusuf, Ula Osman Design Tarek Atrissi Design ISBN ISBN 978-9970-929-11-5 These compilations are copyright © by their respective authors or SIHA. All editorial content and graphics may not be copied, reused, reprinted or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the authors or SIHA. Request for permission should be directed to: Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) SIHA Regional Office Plot 2A Lugogo Lane (Bank Village) - Naguru P. O. Box 2793, Kampala UGANDA For more publications, visit www.sihanet.org or email sihahornofafrica@gmail.com. To inquire about the Women in Islam journal, write to editorwomeninislam@gmail.com. Visit SIHA Network on social media: Twitter: @SIHANet Facebook: @SIHANetwork Instagram: @SihaNetwork Youtube: SIHA Network

DEAR READER, I remember from my grandmother’s tales that we used to name each year after the big event that happened during it. The year of cholera, the year of famine, the year of locusts, and so on. Following that tradition, 2020 has been the year of COVID-19, and we can say that the current issue of Women in Islam (Issue 5) is coming out during the year of COVID-19. This issue of Women in Islam draws on two remarkable years that broke our tradition of producing the journal on an annual basis since 2014. 2019 was the year of Sudan’s revolution, during which everything in Sudan was put on hold and the Sudanese people emerged after years of silence, breaking the boundaries of fear and revolting against 30 years of a brutal, militant Islamist regime. Sudanese women and men have embraced and contributed significantly to SIHA’s Women in Islam journal over the years; it was our duty to show respect and put everything on hold to support Sudanese women through that time. It was humbling to observe the masses of women flooding to the streets of Sudan to protest against injustice, inequality, and violence. The Khartoum sit-in was marked by a massive presence of women sharing the space equally with men. But women were also equal recipients of the brutality during the Khartoum Massacre, when hundreds of men and women protesters were raped and killed by military forces and the remaining factions of Sudanese political Islamists on 3 June. With 2020, the struggle continued… The COVID-19 pandemic has placed the Greater Horn of Africa region in critical condition, exposing years of stalled development and poor investment in the region’s population. Moreover, COVID-19 has exposed and deepened inequalities and gender disparities across the region. It has shown that women and girls do not appear to exist in budgetary records. Across the region, women continue to be among the poorest of the poor. Furthermore, COVID-19 has revealed that women’s subordination is a coordinated strategy that is legitimized by manufactured religious militancy that deploys discriminatory interpretations of religion and traditions, which are then adopted into our governmental systems. The year of COVID-19 has also unmasked the structural inequalities that drive violence in our world. It has exposed the elite men who think they are better than everyone else because of their wealth, the color of their skin, or their religion, and the women who are given token privileges in return for supporting these ugly structures. The shared lesson learned from the year of the Sudanese revolution and the year of COVID-19 is that we—as women, from all socio-economic backgrounds—must become politicized, beyond the entrenched inequalities of the postcolonial states we have inherited. I truly believe that, in Africa, one day in the near future, women will occupy places in leadership beyond our current despair. My hope is not an illusion; rather it is based on the intelligent, sharp, critical, and curious masses of young women whom I keep seeing in the most complex parts of this region. I see them during Sudan’s ongoing transition. I see them in the Somali region, in South Sudan, in Ethiopia’s emerging democracy, in Kenya, and in Uganda. I am confident that women in Africa will overcome the walls of prejudice that seek to distort religion, culture, and identity to subordinate and demonize us. In this issue of Women in Islam, we are presenting a rich compilation of two years’ worth of articles, collections, and reflections that speak to the intense sequence of events that have taken place in the region and around the world. This journal issue speaks to the realities of women’s leadership in the region. The Dossier highlights women’s engagement and leadership in political protests and acts of resistance and change. The journal showcases profiles of women activists for change within Muslim societies, such as Aisha Musa el-Said, a Sudanese Sovereign Council member; and Zainah Anwar, the co-founder and executive director of Musawah, the movement that addresses the importance of equality and justice in Muslim family laws. The journal also amplifies the work of women and men authors from all over the world, in addition to our regular contributors, all speaking to the unique questions and intriguing, intersectional realities of women living in or influenced by Muslim societies and cultures. Sincerely,


Women in Islam, 2021

HALA ALKARIB Editor-In-Chief

EMPOWERMENT There is an implicit assumption underlying many attempts to measure empowerment that we can somehow predict the nature and direction that change is going to assume. In actual fact, human agency is indeterminate and hence unpredictable in a way that is antithetical to requirements of measurement. Thus giving women access to credit, creating constitutional provision for political participation or equalizing educational opportunities are unlikely to be automatically empowering in themselves, but they do create the vantage point of alternatives which allows a more transformatory consciousness to come into play. The translation of these resources and opportunities into the kinds of functioning achievements which would signal empowerment is likely to be closely influenced by the possibilities for transformation on the ground, and how they are perceived and assessed. To attempt to predict at the outset of an intervention precisely how it will change women's lives, without some knowledge of ways of 'being and doing' which are realisable and valued by women in that context, runs into the danger of prescribing the process of empowerment and thereby violating its essence, which is to enhance women's capacity for self-determination. Kabeer, N. (1999), Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the Measurement of Women's Empowerment. Development and Change, 30: 462. doi:10.1111/1467-7660.00125

in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2020 are Muslim-majority countries. Research on the relationship between gender-discriminatory laws and women's empowerment has found that reforming discriminatory family laws is a prerequisite for achieving gender equality. Mala Htun, Francesca R. Jensenius, and Jami Nelson Nuñez. 2019. ‘Gender-Discriminatory Laws and Women’s Economic Agency’. Social Politics 26:2, pp. 193–222. Available at: https://academic.oup. com/sp/article/26/2/193/5303946

Anne-Laure Pierrelot Anne-Laure Pierrelot is a French illustrator and graphic designer, based in Paris. She began her professional career in the music industry and currently works in advertising. She finds artistic inspiration in music and travel, and developed her passion and skill for illustration through travel sketches. Her creations are colorful and incorporate vegetal themes. Among her influences are Penelope Bagieu for her social consciousness, the children’s author Claude Ponti for his imagination, and Matisse for his colorful collages. Her work can be found at www.studiocrocus.fr. “I am very proud to be part of this Journal, which aims to promote alternative and progressive discourses about Islam, religion and women. I have learnt on various topics that are not often covered, such as women’s sexuality in Islam. As a non-Muslim woman, I feel that these issues can be found in other religions as well, and it is important and too rare to read well-documented and objective articles about it. The topics discussed are complex but presented with an accessible format; they encourage discussion to improve the status of women. It is crucial to support media that are not afraid to cover sensitive topics. Designing an illustration for this issue gives meaning to my work.” Your piece is titled "A Natural Woman"; tell us about the inspiration behind it. “A Natural Woman” is an illustration of a strong woman surrounded by nature. The combination of themes goes beyond an aesthetic: Ecofeminism is a branch of feminism that examines the connection between women and nature. This illustration highlights the positive aspect of this connection; it emphasizes the link between the power of women and nature. The title is an homage to Aretha Franklin, and her song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. Despite being released in 1967, this track’s message is still relevant. With her powerful interpretation, she added a deeper meaning than the need for validation by a man. She sent a message of empowerment and self-love.” What role can art have in strengthening activism?

the most marginalised. Art-activism is a new way of doing politics, through spectacular actions, nurtured by the search of an aesthetic expression.” Are you spiritual in any way and does it affect or influence your art? “I don’t consciously think that spirituality has an influence on my art but I can’t really explain some of my influences and external inspiration. A certain kind of spirituality cannot be excluded, but I don’t define it. Sensitivity, emotions and feelings are definitely involved in the process of creation. Aside from the religious aspect, Muslim culture has an impact on my art, their ornamental patterns, culture and history is very inspiring. Linear patterns of foliage, calligraphy, or geometric shapes are timeless and still very modern. There are repeating elements, such as geometrical floral or vegetal designs, called arabesque, that are often used to symbolize the infinite nature of God. Some specialists believe that mistakes in repetitions may be intentionally introduced as a show of humility by artists who believe only God can produce perfection. I found this perception very sobering.”

WO M E N SIHA Journal / Issue No. 5


Why Islamic Feminism?

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Muslim women's quest for gender justice within Islam

Trafficked on the Kenyan Coast Women survivors reflect on their experiences at the hands of human traffickers

From the Personal to the Political The struggle of Sudanese women in politics after the revolution

DOSSIER: Women in Revolution

“Art is a powerful way of delivering a message by reaching the sensitive side of people. Artists can use their creativity to articulate the feelings of the society. Emerging artists who are audacious often stand in solidarity with

Women in Islam, 2021



Aisha Musa el-Said From Education to Politics AISHA AL-SAMANI is a journalist and writes for several Sudanese newspapers and websites including Madania News, and works with SIHA as a community liaison officer. Aisha is founder of the Center for Women Journalists Protection (Kayan Journalists), a member of the Sudanese Journalists Network and the Sudanese Female Journalist Network.

“I stand here today in front of the Sudanese people who stirred up the Great Sudanese Revolution, and I pledge that we will make every effort to lead our nation to safety. I stand as a representative of the women in my country, and I vow to work toward raising up this nation that has been holding our heads high. It is a dream come true for me to see that the universal remedy is now in your hands.” (Aisha Musa, standing in front of the Presidential Palace on the day of her inauguration—21 August 2019)

Aisha Musa el-Said was one of two women chosen in August 2019 as a member of Sudan’s Sovereign Council established to guide the country through the transitional period after the revolution. Aisha is an educational specialist and translator who, from a very young age, was at the forefront of the struggle for girls’ education in Sudan. Aisha al-Samani interviewed her shortly after her inauguration. Aisha was born in 1941 in the western Sudanese town of El-Obeid as one of eight daughters and two sons. Her father, Mousa el-Said, a school principal and teacher, had to travel frequently for work. In her younger years, Aisha moved with her parents and siblings between the cities of the western Sudanese Kordofan and Darfur regions, such as Nyala, ElFasher, Rashad, Abu Zibd, and El-Obeid. Girls Education Aisha recalls how, as the principal’s daughter, she attended primary school at a very young age at a school in Rashad, in South Kordofan. “The school was mixed, because there were no girls’ schools in the region. They had me sit on the couch next to my older sister. I vividly remember that some girls were far superior and got better grades than the boys. That kind of exposure became crucial for me. It asserted my self-esteem and boosted my confidence in my own abilities.”


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Aisha repeatedly highlights that both her mother, Nasra Muhammad Ibrahim, and her father encouraged her in her career. She mentions how passionate her father was about women’s education, and how adamant he was that his young girls must go to school. He also put them on the track of women’s activism. “When I was in middle school, the Sawt al-Mar’a (Woman’s Voice) magazine of the Sudanese Women’s Union came out. This magazine was available in El-Obeid and my father brought it for us consistently.” At the age of 15, she became a member of the Women’s Union, which became a major source of inspiration. “I learned so much from the pioneers of the Sudanese Women’s Movement. In addition to my father, they left a deep imprint on me. They taught me to work against the oppression and subordination of women and for their rights and empowerment, especially in the field of education. Over the years, I have never stopped working with the Women’s Union’s different branches on combating illiteracy.” Protests In 1955, just before independence, Aisha and her sisters participated in protests in El-Obeid for girls’ education. “During the last stage of primary school, as we were approaching secondary education, we went out in protests calling for opening a high school for

girls. Those protests become Sudan’s first-ever girls’ revolution. Our efforts and protests certainly did not go in vain. Several girls’ high schools were established in El-Obeid and Omdurman as a result.” In 1958, Aisha and other girls were admitted to the secondary level in Khartoum. “It was an event that had us receive a heroes’ farewell at El-Obeid’s railway station. We were even featured in the news! The late Fateh el-Nour, then editor-in-chief of Kordofan newspaper, wrote numerous pages about us. This achievement became a great incentive for us.” Teaching Career After completing her secondary education in Omdurman, Aisha joined the Women Teachers’ Institute and became an English teacher. “In my younger years I had never considered becoming a teacher. Yet my involvement in the field made me realize that teaching was exactly what I wanted to do. There were plenty of opportunities to shift my career path, but I found myself engrossed in the field of education and remained connected with children and youth—both young women and men. Education became my life mission.” Aisha relates how, through the British Council, she received a grant to continue her studies in the United Kingdom. This was considered an outstanding event at the time. “I was in our house in El-Obeid, when my little sisters came running from the street. ‘Aisha!’, they called out, ‘a Sir, a Khawaja, is asking for you!’ My uncle, relatives, and all the neighbours showed up to watch this foreign stranger, who had come looking for Aisha with news about an educational scholarship.” However, not everybody in the family was happy with a girl going abroad to pursue higher education. “My

uncle from my father’s side stood up against my travel abroad, but my mom defied him stringently.” Aisha returned to Sudan with a degree from the University of Leeds. She started working for the Ministry of Education and eventually became an Education Inspector. Later, she returned to the United Kingdom to do a Master’s degree at the University of Manchester. Faith Aisha does not think that her activism for women’s rights and empowerment is at odds with her being a Muslim. “I am a devout Muslim who believes in justice and equality and in having an undivided identity. I have to mention that my path for guidance and spirituality is Sufism. A path to which I got introduced in my family home. I come from a pious family. My father, may his soul rest in peace, was a great reader of the Qur’an, and also my mother was very religious. I always carry the prayer-beads with me, because I find it crucial to call the name of God. I have many friends who have different creeds and convictions, and among them I always feel proud as a Muslim.” Marriage While she was studying in Britain, Aisha met her husband Mohamed Abdel Hai. The story of their marriage illustrates the traditional gender and ethnic relations in Sudan at the time, and how these were under pressure of the modern age in the rapidly changing independent country. “In my role as Secretary of the Sudanese Students Society, I used to welcome the new student arrivals at the railway station, so as to introduce them to the town and take them to their lodging. That is where I met

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Aisha Musa el-Said, Artwork by HUSSEIN MIRGHANI

Mohamed. He expressed his surprise to see a young Sudanese woman carrying an umbrella while wearing the thawb, the traditional Sudanese gown. In fact, I have always worn my thawb, wherever I travelled in the world.” Together with a friend, she walked with Mohamed from the station back to the campus. A year later they were married. “His marriage proposal came as


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a surprise—most especially to me—a girl who had broken all customs and traditions and travelled to study in Britain.” But she was also infuriated to find out that Mohamed had written her parents to ask for her hand in marriage without first consulting her. “I remember how I angrily confronted him about that. ‘I am the person concerned here! You should have first proposed to me and gotten my approval instead of writing to my family and siblings without my knowledge!’”

Both families of Aisha and Mohamed at first objected to the relationship. “His family were the proud inhabitants of the capital Khartoum. They found it unacceptable for their son to marry a girl from El-Obeid. My family, on the other hand, considered Mohamed a stranger from the capital, while I was their cosmopolitan daughter. In the end, Mohamed’s persistence and my mother’s open-mindedness broke all the barriers. We got married and returned to Britain to pursue our Masters’. In those years, our four children were born—our eldest son Waddah, our daughter Shiraz, our son Mu’taz, and our daughter Reel.” When asked about her married life, Aisha gently lifts a tip of the veil. “As my late husband, may he rest in peace, was a well-known writer and poet, I suppose many people imagine our relationship to have been enchantingly romantic. But the truth is that my husband was a traditional Sudanese man. And I, on the other hand, was a stubborn girl.” Aisha’s husband Mohamed passed away in 1989, which was also the year of the military coup that brought the Bashir regime to power. “Life became very difficult in Sudan after 1989, so I moved to Saudi Arabia where I taught at the Language Institute of King Saud University for more than 13 years. When I returned to Sudan, I taught at various universities until I finally stopped teaching to dedicate my time to translation. I worked regularly in this field and established a considerable wealth of literary and poetic translations.” Candidacy for Sovereign Council “My candidacy for the Sovereignty Council was largely due to my recent work with MANSAM, Sudan’s

all-inclusive women’s groups that include young women whom I had taught.

“Those young women instilled in us the spirit of revolution, and we merged together in what became a wide intergenerational array of women whose ages ranged from 15 to 70.” “When the nominations were out, I found— through social media platforms—that my name was listed among the candidates for membership at the Sovereignty Council. I let them know that I was a worn-out elderly woman who had retired years ago, but upon seeing my name on the list several times after, I started to worry that rejecting this opportunity might jeopardise the participation of women. I therefore accepted this role in view of the need for us women to respond to our aspirations and to take part in leadership. “As a Member of the Sovereignty Council, I am fully committed to all women’s programs. I am a fervent believer in the rights of women to have equal opportunity and full participation, and for women to have the minimum share of fifty percent at all programs. We are fully aware of the subjugation of women, and we seek to eliminate violence and oppression against women, and to put an end to all laws that suppress women. “My priorities for action are the Sudanese Revolution’s and the Sudanese people’s priorities: freedom, peace, and justice. Those are the focus points for us to reach peace and stability, to find harmony and reconciliation, and to be accountable for the past and keep hope in the future. We must make amends for our situations so that we may achieve the noble principles on which our Great Revolution took off and dazzled the world. Women in Islam, 2021



“For the poor and displaced women, I dedicate my time and efforts. Truthfully, their pain and suffering are representative of the entire country’s sorrow. We must fulfil their rights through a fair judicial system and a fact-finding committee to look into each of their cases with great detail. The agonies of women are an emblem of the sorrow of Sudan and its people across the cities, in the capital, and in Darfur, the Blue Nile, the south of Kordofan, through the East, and in every spot of the country. It is a well-known fact that the women and people of Sudan are drained of all energy, and I pledged myself to do my absolute best to assist them. “I get my strength from God Almighty and from His power that is bestowed upon me. I am blessed to have a good health condition as a woman who is over 70 years old. I hold on to my stick and lean on it while hearing the little kids in the street calling me ‘grandmother’— ‘Here comes grandma!’ they say whenever they see me.


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“After I made my speech and took an oath here at this Palace, I overheard someone say: ‘What is this woman with that stick doing here?’ My stick and this type of provocation are a great source of persistence for me. I would like to point out to that young man that yes indeed, the revolution is a youth revolution, but there is also great wisdom in what our parents taught us. ‘If you think no one’s ahead of you, you’d better recheck where you are.’ People of all age groups have significant roles that complement one another. Our society needs both the young and old so that we may build a civil democratic state together.

“My devotion is first and foremost to God Almighty, and to the rights of women after. We must work together to reach our goal for Sudan to become free, safe, and blooming.”


Ani Zonneveld: The Female Imam Ani Zonneveld is an imam, a musician, and an activist. As founder of Muslims For Progressive Values (MPV), she has spent years challenging conservative and misogynistic interpretations of Islam and going back to the roots of religion to rediscover its true egalitarianism.

In search of an Islam that was more affirming of critical thinking, Ani began organising meetings with other Muslims to talk about their religion. The popularity of these meetings made her aware that there was a great hunger for this kind of activism. In 2007, this led to the creation of Muslims for Progressive Values. MPV advocates freedom of expression, freedom of belief, women’s rights, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) rights. The inclusive, non-hierarchical Muslim communities she has helped create are now spread across eight cities in the US, Latin America, Canada, and Europe.

KATE KINGSFORD is a journalist and former editorial coordinator of Women in Islam journal.

Rethinking Muslim Identity

Photo courtesy ANI ZONNEVELD, USA

Ani was an award-winning songwriter long before she became an activist. From a Malaysian-American background, she began her career as a musician and still considers music and the arts essential to “humanising theology,” as she calls it. It was music that first led Ani into activism. After the September 11 attacks in 2001 and ensuing backlash against Muslims in the United States (US), she felt driven to begin a spiritual journey of her own, studying Islam and re-examining her own beliefs. This journey led to the creation of an Islamic pop music album, with songs that she hoped would remind American Muslims of their progressive religious heritage and counter prevailing stereotypes. But no Muslim stores would agree to sell her album. Islamic communities had become conservative, and found it hard to accept that music involving a woman’s voice and the use of instruments could be Islamic. Ani comments with indignation: “Since when was a female singing voice haram? When I grew up that was never an issue, and we’ve had centuries of Muslim women musicians and singers.”

Ani’s activist work has met with strong support, and equally strong resistance—even within her own family. Her sister is deeply opposed to the work she does, and the influence of Wahhabism in Malaysia has replaced the progressive values with which she was raised. “People are so rooted in an orthodoxy that is misogynistic and intensely patriarchal. You’re asking people to reassess their identity, and that’s not easy,” she says. In the wider world, Ani is often accused of promoting an “Americanised” form of Islam. When it comes to her advocacy of LGBTQ rights, for example, she’s frequently met with opposition from conservative Muslims. In response, she points out that homophobic legislation and discrimination in many Arab countries and other parts of the world today originated in the colonial period. And she strongly rejects the idea that her views represent an “American Islam.” The central message of Islam is egalitarianism and justice. For example, the first female imam was Umm Waraqa, who was appointed by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself. And the Prophet never discriminated against or punished anyone for being homosexual. From the other side of the ideological divide, Ani struggles to convince many secular feminists that a more inclusive, feminist understanding of Islam is

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In Tunisia, #ImamsForShe worked with progressive, local, female Islamic scholars by going to rural villages where popular beliefs are often conservative and local imams tell people that wife-beating is justified by Islam. In group workshops, people learned to question this kind of ‘authority’ with arguments from the Qur’an. By the end of the session, women and men were armed with what MPV terms ‘Islamic human rights language’—tools persons can use to counter misogynistic and violent interpretations of Islam. “You can see the change instantly, how their eyes light up. Even men are taken aback, and feel proud that Islam is non-abusive. They want to believe in an Islam that they can be proud of,” Ani says. Photo courtesy ANI ZONNEVELD, USA

helpful to the cause of women’s rights. “I was surprised by the pushback from feminist secular organizations in Tunisia. They said, ‘How dare you put Islam and human rights in the same sentence?’ My response was that you just have to go to the Qur’an to find those verses [in support of egalitarianism] and why wouldn’t you use those tools? Has secular language helped win the religious over? The last question is usually met with pin-drop silence.” The root of the problem is that both secular feminists and Muslim conservatives who oppose Ani’s work are starting from the same place—the idea that Islam is such an unchanging tradition that it cannot be understood from a more inclusive perspective. They may seem to be on opposite sides of the spectrum, but neither can accept her more radical approach that the Qur’an itself can liberate women by serving as a resource for human rights advocacy.


“This kind of understanding is what truly empowers people,” Ani says. In countries like Tunisia, where the majority of the population is Muslim, religion is a fundamental part of personal identity. It’s quite natural that people should wish to defend both their identity and their religious beliefs—but what sort of religion supports violence against women? When people realise that this is in no way part of Islam, that Islam promotes equality and social justice, then theology itself becomes truly liberating. #ImamsForShe in Burundi

International Campaigning

#ImamsForShe has been particularly successful in Burundi. In partnership with the Alliance of Imams of the North Corridor for Humanitarian Development (AICNDH)—a local group made up of 32 imams— this project has led to a series of workshops and an overnight leadership camp for young women called #ClubsForShe. Most importantly, it has also established a weekly radio show in the local language, Kirundi. The radio show, Woman in Islam, now reaches an audience of 9.6 million in Burundi and beyond.

Taking its inspiration from UN Women’s #HeForShe campaign, MPV launched #ImamsForShe, its first international program, in 2015. Beginning with grassroots activism in Malaysia, #ImamsForShe organised workshops in universities to challenge young people to question their beliefs and reassess their values. “Sometimes radicalism has seeped into the values of a culture so much that people don’t question it,” Ani says. In these workshops, participants learned how to think more critically about their own values.

The host of the radio show is Imam Khalfan, who is also president of the AICNDH and works closely with Ani in ensuring the curriculum for the show and related workshops promotes the values enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and is infused with ‘Islamic human rights language.’ At first, Imam Khalfan questioned Ani’s more playful approach that incorporates humour and comedy sketches. Today, five years later, young people who

Women in Islam, 2021

Photo courtesy ANI ZONNEVELD, USA

attended the first sessions often tell him that the skits are the part that they remember most clearly. Ani has witnessed this herself when she speaks in public and sings spiritual songs. She remembers one man standing up at the end of one of her presentations to tearfully confess he had hated Muslims and everything about Islam. But, after listening to her, his hate dissipated. “Hard hearts melt with music, and people become more receptive,” Ani says. Today, even the mufti of Burundi is a keen supporter of everything #ImamsForShe and #ClubsForShe has achieved in the past four years, and, thanks to support from the Wallace Global Fund, the programme has now been expanded to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The Imam In 2016, Omar Al Dakheel, a film student from Los Angeles, made a documentary about Ani, focusing on her work as a female imam and in creating inclusive Muslim spaces in the US. The film, "al-imam," was

highlighted by National Geographic and has received positive responses at the Cannes Film Festival and from viewers on Arab television channels. The 20-minute long film, available to watch online, opens with the beautiful serenity of Ani leading a mixed congregation of men and women in prayer. The contrast between this and what follows, as Ani reads a few of the comments posted under one of the videos of her female-led prayers, is shocking. They are death threats, online trolls who describe her as an “apostate” and “permissible for execution.” Such threats have become an everyday occurrence for Ani, but they have not deterred her from the struggle against religious extremism and patriarchy. Ani was pleased, but not surprised, that the film was so well-received in the Middle East and in many Muslim societies. “People want change. What we have is not sustainable, and people are coming to the realisation that there is a better Islam,” she says. “An Islam that is uplifting, rooted in love and compassion."


Women in Islam, 2021



In Conversation with Zainah Anwar “Well I’ve always been a naughty girl. I’ve always been rebellious, I’ve always been questioning and challenging and answering back to authority. I was never scared of authority, I don’t know why. I never understood gendered roles, I never understood why girls have to do housework and boys didn’t have to do housework—it just seemed so unfair to me.” Zainah Anwar is now a prominent figure in the world of Muslim feminism as well as a writer, speaker, and activist. In 1988, she co-founded Sisters in Islam, an organisation that works toward gender justice within the Islamic faith. Through Sisters in Islam, Zainah also co-founded Musawah, a movement focused on changing the dominant discourse on Qur'anic interpretation, to honour the equality and justice at the core of the sacred texts of Islam. I was fortunate enough to interview Zainah about what called her to take part in the creation of Sisters in Islam and Musawah, taking a bold stance for the rights of Muslim women. She shared a beautiful, inspiring, and honest collection of memories with me which have been foundational to the peace and clarity with which she understands her identity as a Muslim feminist. When Zainah was a young girl, she resented the fact that she had to do housework when her brother did not. From very early on, she saw the injustice of the situation and she never relinquished that certainty. She saw it during Eid festivals when whole generations of her family would get together, and yet it would be the women and girls of the family who would spend all day cooking and preparing the meal that everyone would enjoy. The entire time that she and the other girls and women in her family were hard at work in the kitchen, all the boys and men would be chatting, drinking coffee, reading newspapers, and talking about politics. And when they wanted something, they would order one of the women or girls to get it for them. Despite Zainah’s certainty that these circumstances were unfair, she still felt obligated to help her mother,


Women in Islam, 2021

because she knew her father and brother were not going to do it, and she could not bear to leave her mother to do all the housework alone, because this also felt wrong. That is when she realised that “this is why so many men are so inconsiderate, because from a young age, they have never been brought up to be considerate of others, while us girls have been brought up to help, to be considerate how your mother is tired if she has to cook alone, if she has to clean alone.” Although most other girls either did not see this injustice as Zainah did, or they did not have the courage to openly oppose it, she refused to stay quiet.

“I guess what I always had from day one was that innate courage to speak out and to question things that didn’t make sense to me.” She has continued to stand up and speak for justice throughout her life, both in her activism and everyday life. Zainah shared with me an example from an ordinary day when she was in Yemen with three friends, and they decided to go to a restaurant to eat. Unlike in much of Malaysia, the restaurants in Yemen are gender-segregated. When she and three of her friends were shown their seats in the women’s section, they simply refused. She said the women’s side of the restaurant was undecorated and ugly, yet when they went over to the men’s section of the restaurant, it was beautifully decorated with flowers and nice lighting. The restaurant staff tried to stop them, but Zainah and her friends took over a table in the men’s section and refused to move. Seeing the immovable resolution of the four girls, the restaurant staff had no choice but to abide. At first, Zainah did not link the gender discrimination she experienced to religion. “I was brought up as a Muslim who believed in a God that was just, in an Islam that was just. My mother never once justified that my brother didn’t have to do any housework because he

Zainah Anwar, Artwork by HUSSEIN MIRGHANI

is superior to a woman, to a girl, and that’s what God said. My mother never used religion, never used Islam to justify the different status of men and women in the family or in society. It was culture, it was tradition— religion was never ever used as a justification.” This is why the claims that Islam prescribes the subjugation of women always felt wrong to Zainah.

As a young adult in the 1970s, Zainah was in Malaysia when the Islamic revivalist movement began to gain steam. Political Islam began to reshape Malaysian-Muslim identity while also gaining greater influence over mainstream politics and society. During this period, groups like Darul Arqam and the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM) were

Women in Islam, 2021



formed and quickly gained popularity. Typical of the revivalist movement, ABIM and Darul Arqam pushed for a more repressive and exclusionary kind of Islam, modelled after international examples like those proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood. While these competing groups differed on political and economic points, their efforts to establish a new understanding of Islam in Malaysia succeeded in shifting the FAITH national discourse. This influence is evident in the SUNDBY Islamisation policies implemented by the United Malay JAMES is a National organisation (UMNO) under the Mahathir feminist advocate for inclusive and administration of the early 1980s. intersectional gender equality. She holds degrees in International Relations and the Social Studies of Gender, and currently works for the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, on the Advocacy & Communications team in Uganda.

The kind of Islam that was quickly gaining prominence and influence in Malaysia at this time came in stark contrast to the more tolerant and egalitarian Islam that Zainah had grown up with in her home and studied in her religious classes. She told me at length about how these large socio-political shifts in her country manifested in her daily life. She explained that the shift felt like a foreign imposition, which judged the Islam of Malaysia to be inferior to the Islam of certain prominent Muslim-majority states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. “Suddenly, with the rise of political Islam—which is really about politics, power and control—the Islam of Southeast Asia—the much kinder, much more accepting Islam where we don’t have a history of the hijab, didn’t have a history of segregation, don’t have a history of separating men’s and women’s spaces—suddenly all that became unIslamic, became labelled as ‘ jahilliyah Islam’ (‘Islam of the age of ignorance’).” “This outraged me, because this is not the Islam I grew up with, this is not the Islam I studied in my five years of religious education, this is not the Islam of Malaysia or the Malay archipelago in which Malaysia is located. This whole foreign idea of what Islam is entered this geographical space and labelled our Islam as ‘inauthentic’, as ‘bad Islam’, as ‘ jahilliyah Islam’.


Women in Islam, 2021

This is where we are at now in so much of the Muslim world—where our culture, our way of practicing Islam has been demonised.” Zainah reflected that at this point, she could have taken the path that many feminists have taken—the secular path. This path would have required her to throw away her religion and instead pursue gender justice only within a human rights framework. For Zainah, this path was utterly unthinkable. What came naturally to her as the solution was to go to the source:

“I really needed to open the Qur’an once again and read the Qur’an for myself without these patriarchal male interpretations getting into the way. We began to meet every week in my house to read the Qur’an, and find out for ourselves what the Qur’an says. That’s how my friends and I eventually went on to form Sisters in Islam.” Through weekly study sessions guided by Dr. amina wadud, Zainah and her friends—Dr. Norani Othman, Rashidah Abdullah, Askiah Adam, Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri, and Rose Ismail—began a critical reading of the Qur’an through a hermeneutical approach that opened a world of Islam that they could recognise: a world for women that was filled with love and mercy, and with equality and justice. Zainah recalled one of the group’s early moments of triumph while exploring what the Qur'an says on polygamy and domestic violence. The Qur'an, she said, recommends monogamy as the more certain way to ensure justice for both parties within a marriage. Zainah could very clearly recall her excitement at finding this passage and her impatience to share this information with everyone around her. The very next day, she tried to share the good news with her co-

workers. To her surprise, they would not even look at the Qur’an as she held it out to them, showing them the page and passage that she was referencing. Zainah’s male co-worker rubbished her claim. “He did not want to give up his male privilege,” said Zainah. In contrast, her female colleague was terrified at the prospect that the injustices she had endured were not, in fact, based on Islam. Zainah saw this pattern of fear and resentment from some women: “Some women felt that they were cheated; for 10, 20, 30 years of their lives they were cheated of a positive and constructive relationship with God and a religion that made sense to the reality of their lives.” Yet, there were other women who embraced the possibility of gender justice in Islam with open arms.

“The most comforting response I get is from young women, who say, ‘Finally I don’t have to choose between being a Muslim or a feminist.’” This is the truth that Zainah always carried within her, and that has been catalysed into a movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family through Sisters in Islam and Musawah: “I can be a feminist and I can be Muslim at the same time.” According to Zainah, this path, while completely natural for her, did not come without significant challenges and opposition from detractors. “Sisters in Islam has had a fatwa issued against us, our book was banned, and we experienced all kinds of attacks. We were attacked by the traditional ulama: ‘What are you talking about rights for women in Islam? You have no authority to speak on Islam, you’ve not been trained, you don’t speak Arabic.’ We were attacked by the political Islamists because our Islam doesn’t fit into their rigid mold of political Islam. We were attacked by secular feminists who said we’re dabbling

in a very dangerous field (religion) and questioned why we would be giving legitimacy to religion in the public space.” Yet, in the face of all these attacks, Zainah never wavered. “If these groups are against us, we must be doing something right, and something powerful, and something effective, if they think our existence is a threat to their control and authority.” About 33 years since its formation, Sisters in Islam continues to persevere. Zainah attributes this to the fact that the work of the organisation has resonance in society and makes sense to the realities of so many women. Zainah spoke with hope and passion about the opportunities for young Muslim feminists. Unlike in the 1980s, when very little feminist scholarship could be found, young Muslim feminists today have access to a whole world of Muslim feminist scholarship that “can be very liberating, and enlightening, and empowering.” In recognition of these opportunities, but also the many challenges, Zainah hopes that women and girls will listen to their hearts.

“What does your heart tell you? If your faith is an important part of your life and your upbringing, and who you are as a feminist, you can search for answers and solutions. Don’t feel forced to choose one or the other just because that’s what other people say you should do.” From the very beginning, Zainah could neither turn her back on her faith nor on her struggle for justice. She knew that when you open yourself up to finding justice within your faith, “that’s when you feel that comfort in your existence.”

FAITH SUNDBY JAMES, interview conducted by HALA ALKARIB

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BOOK REVIEW: Asma Lamrabet’s Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading

HALIMA EL JOUNDI is a Moroccan writer and filmmaker. She worked as a consultant for the Council of Europe in charge of human rights and freedom of speech activities. Her novel Rawah will be published in 2020.


A sma Lamrabet, Women in the Qur'an: An Emancipatory Reading. Kube Publishing, 2016. The book was originally published in French under the title Le Coran et les Femmes: une Lecture de Libération. Editions Tawhid, 2007


When Fatima Mernissi’s Beyond the Veil was published in 1975, the theme of women’s position in Islam began to ripple through many deceptively settled Muslim societies. Perplexed liberals and conservative puritans witnessed the blurring of lines between a feminist perspective that could ‘only’ exist in a secular form and a ‘non-negotiable’ Muslim legal tradition that ‘honours’ women in its own unapologetic way. This was the beginning of a ‘third way’ of Islamic feminism. Moroccan author Asma Lamrabet belongs to a generation of independent Muslim scholars and activists who were inspired by Mernissi’s pioneering work. For many, in Morocco and beyond, her writings pick up where Mernissi left off. Like her, she has a mind of her own and dares to challenge ‘certainties.’ Most importantly, she too believes that there is a third way. In her sixth book, Women in the Qur'an: An Emancipatory Reading (2016)1, Asma Lamrabet treats us to an exciting encounter with a Qur’an that speaks about and to women. People of all faiths and of none will discover the founding text of Islam in a new light of fundamental inclusiveness and gender justice—a defiant manifesto for liberation that ignited a shortlived anti-patriarchal revolution 1400 years ago, and which questions today, more than ever before, the contemporary mainstream discourses of both left and right. For so it was written: “...We have detailed the signs for a people who understand.” [Qur’an 6:98] When the Qur’an speaks of women it strikes a nerve, as any great storytelling should. But the Qur’an isn’t just any great storytelling. It is a sacred text where each letter, let alone word, is placed where it is for a reason. It is a book of guidance that sets down laws, builds character, and governs the spirituality of millions.

Women in Islam, 2021

Wouldn’t it be judicious then to think that Balkis, Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of Sheba; Hagar, Ibrahim’s deserted companion and single mother to his son Ismail; or Maryam, the embodiment of ‘feminine spirituality,’ are present in the narrative for a reason other than as supporting characters for a male lead?

Isn’t there more to these complex female figures who have been singled out and immortalized by scripture? Indeed! Asma Lamrabet would assertively answer. Beyond lessons and warnings, the representation of women in the Qur’an, through their tales of temptations, tribulations, fortitudes and vulnerabilities, is deeply evocative of the true position and place of women in Islam. A position that isn’t any different from that of men. The Qur’an fashions the human experience to speak to us—pattern-seeking beings—and to make us better able to face our condition, irrespective of gender, as equals before the indivisible One. Nothing proves this intrinsic equality in Islam better than the Qur’an itself when it addresses women directly. In Part II of her book, Lamrabet explores the inclusive language of the Qur’an that speaks to women and men on equal terms. It is a living text that acknowledges and documents women’s political participation and their role within the Muslim community’s public sphere. It interacts with women and responds to their demands to have their rights affirmed in a way that is unprecedented in the historical and cultural context of 7th century Arabia—or anywhere else, for that

matter. And yet the issue of women in Islam remains ambiguous and divisive. For centuries, scholars have failed to capture Islam’s revolutionary stance on women. They have confined legal rulings to literalism and to an understanding of the scripture that is frozen in time, culture and context, and blurred by a patriarchal legacy that prevails until today. They have reduced Islam to fiqh (jurisprudence) and have imprisoned fiqh within itself, providing adversaries of Islam with plenty of arguments to attack the Qur’anic message. To overcome this predicament, Lamrabet suggests taking a third way by revisiting—or, as she puts it, rereading—Qur’anic verses from an egalitarian perspective. She confronts the established exegesis and challenges the reader to question its rationale and critically reflect on how these verses are meant to be interpreted. In doing so, she vindicates the universalism of an Islam that has freedom, equality, and dignity for all humankind at its core.

To take the third way is to bear witness to and reclaim the egalitarian beginnings of Islam. To read Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading is to pay tribute to the Qur’anic narrative of equality and to the Muslim women within it who were, who are, and who will be—and along the way to uncover the meaning of the divine signs “detailed for a people who understand.”

HALIMA EL JOUNDI Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading | Kube Publishing Ltd

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The Midwife’s Struggle: The Challenges of Working in a Patriarchal Society Midwives play what may rightfully be called a vital role in society: delivering babies into the world. Yet, in Somaliland, their social status is low, and that is basically because they are women. Yousef Timacade investigates the daily struggle of midwives in Somaliland.

Badra Jibril, a 27-year-old midwife and mother of two children, seemed very tired when we first met. But Badra is used to being tired, and she smiled and gave me a warm welcome despite her weariness. Wearing a white gown and a red headscarf, with gloves on her hands, she agreed to show me around her workplace at the Maternal and Child Health (MCH) center in Hargeisa. YOUSEF TIMACADE is a law student at New Generation University, Hargeisa. He has worked for several NGOs and now works for the SIHA Network as Projects Officer.


Somaliland has one of the highest rates of maternal and child mortality in the world. A large number of doctors and nurses have fled overseas or to refugee camps in neighbouring countries after years of civil war, which also destroyed the health care infrastructure of the country. With this lack of skilled professionals in mind, midwife Edna Adan, together with the Somaliland Nursing and Midwifery Association (SLNMA) in 2002, set up the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital, with the goal of training hundreds of nurses and midwives and then sending them back to their communities.

used to walk for several kilometres and visit them in their houses. Regardless of challenges like this, Badra has always loved her work and was happy to help these women, knowing that she could empower them to make healthy choices about their bodies. “During my time in Qolbulale, I developed both my professional skills and the ability to work in challenging situations, learning how to assist natural birth in high-risk environments. I had the opportunity to use different approaches to midwifery, including the traditional skills of watching and waiting, supporting the woman and also letting her get on with the natural process of giving birth,” Badra says. Every day, Badra helps women during childbirth at the MCH center in Hargeisa. She supports them in caring for their babies as they recover and provides healthcare for women during their pregnancy. She also manages their antenatal and delivery needs and provides counselling on healthy lifestyles for women and their babies after delivery.

Badra is one of the graduates of these training programs. As a child, Badra wanted to be a doctor. But there is intense competition for places at Hargeisa University’s medical school and, during the year Badra applied, only male students were accepted into the course. Instead, she decided to study midwifery.

“No doubt, it’s hard work. But I feel good that I can provide the long-term care that every woman should have, and enjoy the connections I have built with women and their babies,” she says.

Before coming to Hargeisa, Badra had worked in Qolbulale, a small border village about 10 kilometres south. During her time there she assisted in a number of home deliveries. When women did not have any means of transport to come to the health center, she

Every day Badra comes face-to-face with some of the key issues affecting women’s reproductive health in Somaliland. Access to contraceptives is extremely restricted in the country because a woman needs her husband’s permission to use them. In most cases,

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On the Frontline of Social Problems

men do not wish to limit their families, and do not allow their wives to use contraception, even when they already have several children. “We need to make efforts to educate men about these issues, as well as women,” Badra says. Abortion is illegal in Somaliland, and when women ask Badra to assist in ending an unwanted pregnancy, she can only advise them to go to Ethiopia, where the practice is legal. But for many women in this situation—often young, unmarried girls who have been sexually abused by a family member—travel is impossible. Faced with the choice of having the baby and being socially ostracised, or having an unsafe illegal abortion, some choose the latter. Badra has seen women admitted to the hospital after a home abortion has gone wrong, often with serious complications. A Heavy Workload Although a large number of midwives at Edna Adan Maternity Hospital were trained and the health infrastructure has been enhanced, little attention has been paid to the well-being of the midwives themselves. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), grassroots, government and international initiatives are coming together to put midwives center stage in reproductive health programs in countries like Ethiopia and Somalia.1 But for these efforts to succeed, investment in midwifery must be sustainable, covering more than just the initial training. Badra appreciates the efforts of the government, but she also has her reservations: “Yes, the government did a lot. With Edna Adan they trained hundreds of midwives and they built big hospitals which offer a range of services for free or at an affordable price. But so far, our psychological and physical problems as midwives haven’t been addressed.”

The long shifts and intense workload of midwives in Somaliland mean that they experience considerable distress, both psychological and physical. According to Badra, long working hours mean that midwives often develop backaches and prolapsed discs. Some of them have even had miscarriages due to the heavy lifting involved in their work. They rarely have time to eat or rest, and always go home exhausted. Their dedication to their work means that even after a shift ends, midwives continue thinking about their patients. This affects their own family lives. Halimo, a 42-year-old midwife, says: “I work more than I’m supposed to because I just can’t leave while there are so many women who need my help. And even when I go home, I still think about the patients. I have no time to follow up on my children’s studies, I have no time for household tasks, and I don’t even have enough time for my husband.” The heavy workload and stressful working conditions often affect midwives’ personal and family lives, but there is no support network in place to help them deal with these challenges. Underpaid and Undervalued In addition to the physical and mental pressures of the midwives’ work, they suffer from being undervalued and underpaid. Despite the crucial tasks they perform and their importance to the community, they receive few financial incentives to keep working. They are not compensated for working overtime, for example, or for extra travel costs they may incur when working late. Midwives are not as highly paid as doctors, and are certainly not paid enough given the stressful nature of their work. Badra says: “My husband is a high school teacher. I believe that our work is at the heart of community services, and yet we both earn the same amount of 990,000 SL shillings [equivalent to around


Priya Shetty, “More Midwives Needed to Improve Maternal and Newborn Survival”, Bulletin of the World Health Organization 91, 2013, 804805. https://www. who.int/bulletin/ volumes/91/11/13021113.pdf

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Male nurses and lab technicians, who are also paid hardly enough to survive, can usually supplement their incomes with extra work at private clinics and pharmacies. This is not an option for midwives, however, who already work such long hours that they have little time to spare to find other sources of income. Sometimes Badra earns a little extra money by giving independent care and advice to pregnant women and new mothers, and, if requested, performs the less drastic form of female genital mutilation (FGM) known as sunna.2 Otherwise, any spare time she has is spent looking after her own family. Gender Inequality: The Root of the Problem Midwives in Somaliland are regularly blamed when something goes wrong during a birth, although it is almost always beyond their control. In the case of stillbirth or maternal death, the relatives of the patient hold the midwife responsible, while the doctors or administrative staff often take the family’s side rather than supporting the midwife. This lack of respect within society, and even among their colleagues at the health center, is one of the hardest challenges of all— and it is based on the fact that they are women. People generally treat male health workers at the hospital with great respect, whether they are doctors or nurses. Women—female doctors as well as midwives and nurses—suffer the reverse side of this social prejudice, and their patients often lack confidence in their medical knowledge. Both nursing and midwifery are traditionally considered to be women’s fields, since any work related to childcare or domestic work is associated with women in Somali culture. As such, it is undervalued, and midwives are not treated with the respect accorded to other medical professionals. Badra, Photo by YOUSEF TIMACADE

100 USD]. We can hardly afford to pay the bills. I don’t think any woman would become a midwife for the money.” Many midwives feel demoralised because of their low salaries. They also receive few opportunities for further training, mainly because they are too busy in their respective wards or because male nurses are given priority.


Women in Islam, 2021

But midwives are often unable to deliver certain services not because they are unprofessional but because they lack resources. There is not enough equipment in the hospital for the number of women who need assistance, meaning that midwives often have to ask patients to bring their own. During delivery, for example, a woman may need intravenous fluids, catheters, or some kind of drugs, while the midwife or doctor needs gloves. In many

cases these are not available, and it is the midwife—not the doctor—who must tell the woman’s family to go out and buy these things themselves. This has a very negative effect on the way people perceive the midwife, as they often assume that she is trying to make money from selling this equipment, failing to understand that the hospital simply cannot provide these resources. Halimo explains the social stigma that she and other midwives have to deal with: “All our hard work is undermined. We are often verbally abused by our clients, and we don’t get the reputation we deserve from society. They don’t know the importance of the work midwives do. No midwife would want a woman to die or would be happy for any woman to lose her baby, but relatives of the patient do not understand— they always blame us, and our supervisors are always on their side.” The pressure that they are constantly under means that, on occasions, a midwife may behave rudely towards a patient, creating further tensions and misunderstanding. If they were better supported, however, this would happen much less frequently. With more time, less stress, and more respect, midwives would be able to provide higher quality care. Public awareness and understanding are an essential step towards this. If there were more knowledge about reproductive health among the general population, people would have a greater appreciation for the important work that midwives do. This would also reduce the number of difficult cases that midwives have to deal with. For example, many women try to give birth at home and only go to a health center if they begin experiencing problems, by which time it may already be too late. Midwives themselves are working towards educating communities, but they need more support. “We sometimes go out and talk to the community, especially the IDPs [internally displaced persons] to let them know what to do at the right time to avoid complications,” Badra says. Another key issue that must be addressed is the gender inequality in Somali society, which makes male relatives—usually a husband or father—responsible for a woman’s healthcare.

“A lot of women die after being refused emergency operations by their husbands, who say ‘Let us wait, she will deliver by the will of Allah!’” Halimo says sadly. Gender inequality and the detrimental effects of a patriarchal culture lie behind so many social challenges in the region, including maternity services, where health centers are under-funded and midwives suffer discrimination and lack of support. Despite all of these setbacks, midwives save thousands of mothers and children each year in Somaliland. In addition to promoting knowledge of sexual and reproductive health, enhancing the welfare of midwives is therefore a crucial element of women’s rights, both in terms of healthcare and social equality. Women and girls deserve the right to decide who to marry, to choose when to have children, and to have control over their own bodies. Midwifery is part of all this. A midwife may play an essential role during childbirth, but, beyond this, she provides a more holistic range of care throughout a woman’s life. The way a society treats its midwives mirrors its respect for the rights of women.



Type I FGM, in which the clitoris is excised, is commonly referred to as sunna. It is less extreme than Type III, commonly practised in the Horn of Africa, in which part or all of the external genitals are removed and the outer lips are sewn together. No form of FGM, however, is required or endorsed by the Qur’an or other mainstream Islamic source texts.

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Why Islamic Feminism? Why Now? At least until recently, justice was the business of Muslim scholars (ulema). They examined its roots in Islam’s sacred texts, defined what it requires and permits, its scope and its manifestation in laws. As for gender rights, their conception of justice was determined by a strong patriarchal ethos. For example, take these two statements: ZIBA MIRHOSSEINI

“The fundamentals of the Shari‘ah are rooted in wisdom and promotion of the welfare of human beings in this life and the hereafter. Shari‘ah embraces Justice, Kindness, the Common Good and Wisdom. Any rule that departs from justice to injustice, from kindness to harshness, from the common good to harm, or from rationality to absurdity cannot be part of Shari‘ah.”1 “The wife is her husband’s prisoner, a prisoner being akin to a slave. The Prophet directed men to support their wives by feeding them with their own food and clothing them with their own clothes; he said the same about maintaining a slave.”2 Both statements were made by the same scholar, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292–1350 CE)—a reformist in his time and now a source of inspiration for some contemporary Islamist groups. The first statement, in my view, succinctly captures what Shari‘ah is about: justice, kindness, common good and wisdom. The second statement reflects the consensus of classical jurists as to what justice requires and permits in marriage. Similar conceptions of justice and gender rights are to be found, of course, in other religious traditions. Gender equality is a modern ideal, which has only recently, with the expansion of human rights and feminist discourses, become inherent to generally accepted conceptions of justice. But what presents Muslims with a distinct problem is that the source of family law and gender norms is still classical fiqh rulings, expressed either in partially reformed and codified laws or in cultural norms and practices. These rulings uphold a patriarchal model of family, treat women as second-class citizens, and place them under male authority.


Women in Islam, 2021

The religious legitimisation of patriarchy has been the subject of heated debate since the early 20th century. The debate continues to be tainted with the legacy and politics of colonialism and orientalist narratives of Islam. Broadly speaking, feminist participants in this debate form two broad camps. The first are those who consider religion to be inherently patriarchal and see engagement with it to be a futile and incorrect strategy. The second group comprises those who see such an engagement as essential for a viable and meaningful challenge to the hegemony of patriarchal interpretations of Shari‘ah. By the 1990s, this second group (among which I include myself) had acquired the label of ‘Islamic feminists.’ They argue for the necessity of a brand of feminism that takes Islam as a source of legitimacy and confronts patriarchy from within the tradition. In what follows, I sketch why such a feminism emerged and what it has to offer.

The struggle for gender equality is part of the larger struggle for social justice and democracy, which in Muslim contexts is enmeshed in an intricate dialectic between religion and politics. For a feminist project to bring sustainable change, it must recognize this fact, and develop arguments and strategies that can effectively rupture the tenacious links between patriarchy and despotic politics which sustain unjust laws and structures. This is not possible without questioning the hegemony of those who claim to speak in the name of Islam when defending patriarchal interpretations of the Shari‘ah. Let me elaborate. One of the central challenges that Muslim women face in their struggle for equality is how to address, in a meaningful and systematic way, the gap between modern notions of justice in which equality is inherent and those that underpin laws regulating established understandings of the Shari‘ah in which individuals are accorded rights on basis of their faith, status and gender, as found in classical fiqh rulings.

Artwork by IMOGEN THURBON, Spain


Ibn Qayyim alJawziyya, I’lam alMuwaqqi’in ’an Rabb al-‘Alamin. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, 1955, Vol. 3, p.1


Quoted in Yossef Rapoport, Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 52

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To address this gap, we need scholars and activists who can work together to bring fresh perspectives on Islamic teachings, and to explore common ground with advocates of human rights and feminism. They must tackle two blind spots in approaches to gender issues in Islam and human rights. On the one hand, scholars of Islam are largely unaware of the importance of gender as a category of thought analysis. They oppose both feminism, which they understand to mean women’s dominance of men, and human rights, which they see as alien to Islamic tradition. On the other hand, some feminists and human rights advocates have little knowledge or appreciation of religious categories of thought and religion-based laws, rejecting them as antithetical to achieving gender equality. However, the vast majority of women whose rights they champion are believers and live according to the teachings of Islam. Thus, effective change can come only through a meaningful and constructive engagement with those teachings. In order to abolish patriarchal laws and customs among Muslims it is not enough, and sometimes it is counterproductive, simply to dismiss them as anachronistic or to attack them on human rights grounds only.

In other words, to achieve sustainable and deeprooted change, we need dialogue and consensus; we should demonstrate the injustices that arise from patriarchal customs and laws based on the pre-modern interpretations of the Shari‘ah and offer defensible and coherent alternatives within a framework that recognizes equality and justice in Islam. Far from mutually opposed, I argue, approaches from Islamic studies, feminist and human rights perspectives can be mutually reinforcing. This is particularly the case in mounting an effective campaign against gender discrimination in Muslim contexts, where the linkage between the religious and political dimensions of


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identity is strong. This linkage is not new—its historical roots are deep and are also a legacy of the colonial era— but it took a new and distinct expression in the 1970s with the resurgence of Islam as a political and spiritual force. With the end of the colonial era, the rise of secular and despotic regimes in Muslim countries and their suppression of progressive forces left a vacuum that was filled by Islamist movements. These movements, strengthened dramatically by the success of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, accelerated with the subsequent perceived defeat of communism, and received further impetus with the rise of the neo-conservatives in the United States. The American response to the events of 9/11—in particular the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003—put Muslim women in the crossfire. Both invasions were partially justified in the name of ‘freeing Muslim women,’ yet with orientalist understandings of the latter that were reinforced by much-publicized writings such as those of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji. The way out of this predicament is to bring Islamic, feminist and human rights frameworks together. This is the only option that we have in the present context, where we are faced by an apparent choice between the devil of Islamists, who want to impose patriarchal interpretations of Islam’s sacred texts, and the deep blue sea of Western neo-colonialists, who pursue a hegemonic global project in the name of enlightenment and feminism. But is this possible?

Can we ground our claim to equality and arguments for reform simultaneously in Islamic and human rights frameworks? Can there be an egalitarian interpretation of Shari‘ah? If so, how are we to understand those passages in the texts that appear not to treat men and women as equals?

It is here that the new wave of reformist thought and feminist scholarship in Islam has something to offer. Following and building on the work of earlier reformers, thinkers such as Fazlur Rahman, Muhammad Arkoun, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Abdolkarim Soroush and amina wadud contend that the human understanding of Islam is flexible, that Islam allows change in the face of time, place and experience, and that Islam’s tenets can be interpreted to encourage both pluralism and democracy. But instead of searching (like earlier reformers) for an Islamic genealogy for modern concepts like gender equality, human rights and democracy, they place the emphasis on how religion is understood and how religious knowledge is produced. They do not reject an idea simply because it is Western, nor do they see Islam’s textual sources as providing a blueprint or built-in programme of action for the social, economic, and political problems of the Muslim world. What they give us is ethical guidance and principles for the creation of just laws. The Qur’an upholds justice and exhorts Muslims to stand for justice, but it does not give us a definition of justice. Rather, it gives indications of the path to follow towards justice, which is always time-bound and context-specific. To understand the Qur’an’s direction, these thinkers contend that we need a critical reassessment of the entire Islamic intellectual tradition—theology, ethics, philosophy and jurisprudence. Using the conceptual tools and theories of other branches of knowledge, these thinkers have built on the work of previous reformers and developed further interpretive-epistemological theories and reform strategies. Chief among them are the distinctions between religion (din) and religious knowledge (alma‘rifah al-diniyah), and between the changeable and the unchangeable (mutable and immutable, accidentals and essentials, descriptive and prescriptive) in the texts. They seek to discern the Lawgiver’s aims (maqasid) and the changes these aims would have led to in the course

of time, and to locate both the sacred texts and the rulings that the classical fuqaha derived from them in their historical and political contexts.3

Islamic feminists are part of this new trend of reformist thought. They are re-inserting women’s concerns and voices—which were silenced by the time that the fiqh schools emerged—into the processes of production of religious knowledge and law-making. In this sense, they must be seen as part of the larger struggle for the democratization of the production of knowledge in Islam and for the authority to interpret its sacred texts. There are, of course, those who are unsettled by the search for gender justice within Islam. They argue that such feminists face ‘equally authentic’ interpretations of the sacred sources and, unable to ‘oppose the divine will,’ will be defeated by the impossibility of judging those whose interpretations are correct. This is a defeatist kind of objection. Authority is not the same as authenticity. Feminist voices and scholarship in Islam seek engagements with proponents of supposedly authentic but patriarchal legal traditions, convinced that their own arguments are better grounded in both those traditions and in the sources of international human rights law. And above all, convinced that any Islamic authority that denies justice as it is understood today, cannot be authentic and should be challenged. In many ways it is the notion of ‘Shari‘ah’ that is the problem. In modern times, when nation-states have created uniform legal systems and selectively reformed and codified elements of classical Islamic law, and when new forms of political Islam have emerged that use Islamic law as an ideology, one of the main distinctions in the Islamic tradition has been distorted and elided. This is the distinction between Shari‘ah and fiqh. In Muslim belief, Shari‘ah is God’s will as revealed to the Prophet


For the relevance of new Muslim reform thinkers to gender equality see: Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality: Between Islamic Law and Feminism”, Critical Inquiry 32 (summer 2006), pp. 629-45; and Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani and Jana Rumminger (eds.) Men in charge? Rethinking Male Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition. London: Oneworld, 2015.

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ZIBA MIRHOSSEINI is a legal anthropologist specialising in Islamic law, gender and Islamic feminism. She is a founding member of Musawah, the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. She has published books on Islamic family law in Iran and Morocco, Iranian clerical discourses on gender, the revival of zina laws and Islamic reformist thinkers. She also co-directed two award-winning documentaries on Iran: Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway. In 2015, she received the American Academy of Religion Award for the Public Understanding of Religion.


Muhammad. Fiqh, jurisprudence, denotes the process of human endeavour to discern and extract legal rulings from the sacred sources of Islam, that is, the Qur’an and the Sunnah (the practice of the Prophet, as contained in Hadith, Traditions). This distinction, which underlies the emergence of the various jurisprudential schools in the tradition, and, within them, a multiplicity of positions and opinions, has immense epistemological and political ramifications. It allows contestation and change; it enables us to separate the legal from the sacred, and to ask basic questions such as, how do we know what the Shari‘ah is? How do we know what we know about gender rights in Islam? Who decides what ‘Islam’ says or mandates? The distinction is therefore crucial to the arguments of committed feminists who choose to locate their feminism within Islamic tradition. Let me end by saying that the close link between theology and politics can be a double-edged sword. It has been one of the main obstacles that Muslim women

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face, but it can also have the potential to be a significant and effective means for challenging patriarchal laws and unjust structures. Since the 19th century, Muslim women’s quest for equality has been hostage to various political forces and tendencies. Paradoxically, the rise of political Islam in the latter part of the 20th century, and the politics of the ‘War on Terror’ in the present century, have shed new light on how ideological dichotomies such as ‘secular’ versus ‘religious’ feminism, or ‘Islam’ versus ‘human rights’ have masked the real site of the battle—the conflict between, on the one side, patriarchal and authoritarian structures, and, on the other, egalitarian and democratic ideologies and forces. If we recognize this, then we can aspire to real and meaningful change and begin to transform the deep structures that have shaped our religious, cultural and political realities.


Forced Marriage: Sudan’s Graveyard for Girls

AISHA AL-SAMANI is a journalist and writes for several Sudanese newspapers and websites including Madania News, and works with SIHA as a community liaison officer. Aisha is founder of the Center for Women Journalists Protection (Kayan Journalists), a member of the Sudanese Journalists Network and the Sudanese Female Journalist Network.

Noura Hussein will be 19 years old this year. She is currently serving a five-year prison term inside the Omdurman Women’s Prison. Noura was initially sentenced to death, by hanging, in 2018 for killing her husband after he raped her. She had been forced into marriage at the age of 15. When she refused to have sex with her husband, he raped her as his relatives held her down. When he attempted to rape her again the next day, she stabbed him to death. The case attracted widespread attention on social media. The combination of advocacy by feminist organisations through the campaign Justice for Noura and international pressure led the Sudanese Supreme Court to overturn her death sentence. Noura’s case threw a spotlight on the issues of forced marriage and marital rape in Sudan, where the legal age of marriage is only 10 years of age, and marital rape is legal. Noura is not the only young girl forced into marriage every year in Sudan. In Sudan, 10 percent of girls are married before the age of 15, while 38 percent

are married before they are 18 years old. Some of them have been able to liberate themselves, while others remain trapped in a marriage they were forced to accept. At the heart of the problem lies the concept of male guardianship, which is commonly used in Sudan to sanction men’s authority over women. It is enshrined in Sudanese law under the Sudan Muslim Personal Law Act of 1991. Men are seen as protectors and providers of their families, and in exchange women are required to obey and submit. The political Islamist regime that ruled Sudan for 30 years was keen to set and enforce laws and regulations that allowed men to be guardians of women in their families, regardless of their age. This, among other things, gave men the absolute power to decide who a woman—or young girl—would marry and when.

Women’s Lived Realities S, who is 20 years old, tells Women in Islam about her cruel experience with forced marriage:

S I was forced into marrying my cousin when I was 16 years old. He was chosen by my father because he was doing well financially. When I said ‘no’ to my father, my mother told me that, if I refused, I would bring shame to her house. So I maintained my silence, thinking about my mother. I had to stop school in my first year of high school. I was forced into marriage after that. My husband took me to live with him in his mother’s house, and this is when my suffering began. I was made to work all day in the house: cooking, washing the dishes and clothes, and other additional housework. I would also be sent to his brother’s house to do the same chores. I was denied my right to education. My husband told me that girls should not go to school after marriage. “You now know how to write and read, that is enough,” he said. “If you want to work, I can find you a farm where you can do planting and harvesting.”

Not going to school was my biggest trauma. It multiplied my hate for the man I was forced to marry because I felt like he had destroyed my life.

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EQUALITY After one year of marriage, I could not endure it. I returned to my family’s house and announced that I would never again return to my husband and his family house. I was pregnant with my first child at that time, but that did not stop me from wanting a divorce. Since my family lives in a rural area, personal status issues are dealt with informally through mediation by family members. I was given three conditions to divorce: to pay money to my husband and his family, to eventually give them my child, and to not get married for 10 years. I agreed to all of these terms only because I wanted to end the suffering I was going through. After two years of suffering in that marriage, I finally got my divorce. After that, I sat for the entrance exam to university. I scored 73 percent and was accepted to study at the University of Bahri. My child was 3 years old. I left him with my mother and went to Khartoum to study. As soon as I started travelling to study, my husband’s family took away my child. I decided to leave university and dedicate my time to raising my child. I asked my father to help me get my son back but he refused, saying that since I had left my husband, the child would be in my husband’s custody. This is a known tradition and children are taken away from their mothers in the case of divorce, regardless of the child’s best interest. My continuous efforts at bringing back my child failed. I thought of seeking redress in court, but my father said that our tribe did not go to court, adding that women who did are bad women with a bad reputation. My son is now 5 years old. He still lives with his father’s family and I meet him only when they allow it. As for me, in our traditional tribal community, a divorcee is considered inadequate; cursed even. I am not allowed to participate in social events and activities, including marriage ceremonies and marital henna ceremonies—even if the person getting married is my brother. In wedding parties, divorced women must dance far away from the newly married couple, because there is a popular belief that divorced women bring negative energy that may affect the newly married couple. I am happy about my divorce, despite the humiliation that I had to endure in society and the reality of losing my son. I was able to finish my education and protect my sisters from experiencing a similar fate. Continuing my education at university has given them ambition, and a willingness to continue their education.

According to Awadia Mahmoud Koko, who is the Chair of the Multipurpose Women Cooperatives Union, early marriage such as described above by Noura and S, is a form of violence practiced against women. “I personally experienced it when I was a student in the sixth grade. At that time, I did not realise it was a form of violence. I just thought it was a father’s right to decide this. But that did not make me feel any less sad when one of my classmates was forced out of school. The head of the school tried not to let Nimat, an outstanding student, leave school and enter the graveyard of early marriage. Despite the efforts of the school’s director, Nimat’s father refused to let her continue studying and threatened to divorce her mother if she didn’t marry the man he had chosen for her.” Awadia notes that in her mother’s village in Kordofan, girls aged 12 and 14 years old are being forced into marriage. Nonetheless, early marriage remains a popular practice even for those living in the capital. Poverty is a major factor in marrying off girls quickly, in order to reduce family expenses. Sometimes, a father


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pays his debts by forcing his daughter into marriage. “I myself committed the same mistake due to poverty. I was imprisoned because I failed to pay a bank loan that was given to the women of our union,” Awadia confesses sadly. “This was when I feared for the future of my daughter and agreed to her marriage at the age of 17. I still regret this decision every day.” According to lawyer and legal activist Ahmed Sibir, the Sudan Muslim Personal Law Act of 1991 is the first law governing family affairs in Sudan. “It is a bad law,” he says, “even compared to personal status laws in other Muslim-majority countries.” “The worst part about this law is that its sources are not known and it is not suitable for the life of the women and the society. The law clearly provides a very cliché definition of marriage—as a ‘forever contract’ between a man and a woman allowing them to benefit from each other in lawful ways. This definition ignores the objective of marriage, which is to form a family, guided by the important values of affection, love,

Photo by AYMAN HUSSIN, Sudan

mercy, and equality within the marital relationship. The legal definition limits the idea (of marriage) to the concept of a paid sexual partnership (through the use of dowry),” says Ahmed Sibir. “The law also imposes the concept of male guardianship, making it a condition for marriage. Women are denied the right to equality and to choose their partner. We also notice that while the marriage contract is supposed to be between a man and a woman, a woman is replaced by her male guardian in the actual undertaking of the marriage, thereby making the contract between two men. It is also a bad law because it allows the marriage of young girls at the age of 10 years old. This leads to dangerous consequences, with a lifelong impact on girls’ physical and emotional wellbeing, which in turn damages society as a whole.

The law also denies girls the right to education and a childhood.” At the time of writing this article, Sudan is in the midst of an uprising against the Salafi political Islamist regime. Sudanese women are participating and contributing actively and equally alongside men, standing up against the injustice and discrimination imposed by the fanatics. Sadly, gender-discriminatory laws remain in effect, and young girls in Sudan are still forced into marriage and raped in the name of ideology and religion.

AISHA AL-SAMANI Translated from Arabic by RASHA DEWEDAR

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Experiences of Women Without Children in Sudan SAFIYA EL-SIDDIQ is a freelance journalist working in the field of media and human rights. Her research interests include the representation of women in Sudanese media. She is a member of the Sudanese Journalists Network, Sudanese Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), and is a co-founder of the Sudanese Female Journalist Network.

In my small village, we were preparing for my youngest sister’s wedding. All the women in the village had gathered in our house to prepare the Sudanese bridal fragrances and perfumes as part of the wedding traditions in Sudan. Many practices and rituals are conducted with care by women from the family, as well as other families, and a lot of women are required for these complex and exhausting processes. At one point, Zainab, one of our neighbours, started to pour the delka1 mixture from one container into another. As soon as she started handling the delka, though, all of the women shouted at her to stop. “Why are you doing this, Zainab?” my eldest aunt asked, warning her, “Do you want to jinx the bride and the groom since you are a barren woman?” Zainab left our house sad and heartbroken.

through their role of giving birth, so that the position of the family and the tribe may be strengthened. By comparison, men are in charge of the social aspects of society as well as passing down culture and traditions from one generation to the next.

The majority of Sudanese society still believes that childless women are a source of bad luck. These women, for instance, are not allowed to participate in the complex Sudanese wedding rituals and traditions such as the henna ceremony—a ceremony considered symbolic for stimulating fertility for the newly married couple. Childless women are also forbidden from participating in gertig.2 These women are also not allowed to carry newborn babies, nor participate in early land harvesting activities. Society considers the inability to give birth a source of shame, and an issue unique only to women, and not to men.

A.J. tells Women in Islam that her sister was bullied and harassed for not giving birth after five years of marriage. Meanwhile, relatives encouraged her husband to take a second wife. As a result, she suffered from severe psychological distress. “My sister suffered from social isolation, and everyone battered her with questions about her childlessness,” A.J. said.

All Sudanese cultures value women according to their ability to give birth. Polygamy among men is generally encouraged to allow for the birth of more children. Furthermore, men who have only daughters are given permission by society to seek another woman for marriage as an attempt to secure sons. The resolve to marry fertile women is based on the Islamic Hadith: “Marry women who are loving and very prolific, for I shall outnumber the peoples by you.”3 Thus, many believe that the value of women is only realised


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Like in many traditional and rural societies, there is also an economic value to having many children. In Sudan, the birth rate remains high, despite the rising poverty rate and drop in rural economic activities. Moreover, the preference is for women between the ages of 16 and 25 years old to marry, as women above 30 years are deemed unable to give birth to many children.

Women’s Experiences

N.M. tells Women in Islam that she too suffered years of stress during her first marriage. She attended a lot of consultations with Sheikhs and ‘spiritual healers,’ and had to drink and apply on her skin certain herbs. This is in addition to numerous visits to doctors’ clinics. She adds that despite all these efforts, she was stigmatised by the women in her family as well as her husband’s, and labelled as a woman who did not want to give birth. According to N.M., “Everyone got involved in my personal life. Some of them spoke openly about my age and the fact that I am a working woman, which, according to them, lowered my chances of giving birth. When it became clear that the inability to have children in our family was due to my husband’s medical condition, our marriage fell apart and I asked

Photo by AYMAN HUSSIN, Sudan


A skincare-routine mixture used by the bride to soften her skin, homemade by women.


G ertig is a Sudanese wedding tradition practiced among communities living by the Nile River. It is made through a series of old rituals, including the use of palm/ dates leaves and milk as a symbol of good luck. These rituals are believed to bring good luck, money, and children.


Ḥad ī th: Sunan Abi Dawud 2050; Source: https:// sunnah.com/ abudawud/12/5

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for a divorce. At that point, I was attacked and accused of being ungrateful and faithless.

“Had the tables been turned, my husband would have been entitled to leave me and marry another woman, or divorce me and take custody of our children, had we had any. Where is faith in the midst of these contradictions? Where is justice?”

Economic Aspects of Childlessness Social expert Abdalrahim Ballal believes that traditional communities determine a woman’s worth based on her ability to get married and give birth. Women who are not married or bear children are left in a vulnerable state. Labelled as ‘barren,’ these women face many economic problems in addition to social stigma. This is evident in communities with weak social protection mechanisms, that instead rely heavily on family ties. Women who do not bear children are regarded as a burden to the family. They are forced to rely on family support, which brings with it much humiliation and the feeling of being a burden on others. A husband who has taken on a second wife may feel pity for his first wife, but she is still relegated to living on the margins of the family, with little to no role in both the family as well as the community as a whole. In the case of a parents’ death, single childless women are also regarded as a burden, in particular women with no jobs or sources of income. In the context of Sudan, where many families are experiencing severe economic distress, it is more difficult to rely on others. In particular, this opens up childless women, especially those with no jobs who are living in rural areas, to isolation and marginalisation. Families perceive such


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women as a huge burden, especially in times of a housing crisis as well as growing social and economic disruptions.

The Social Implications of Not Bearing Children Whether a woman chooses to remain childless or is unable to give birth because of a medical condition (hers or her husband’s), she is still belittled. In such cases, society often justifies the marriage of a second or third wife. Women’s rights activist Manal Abdalhaleem says that reproduction is considered the foundation of marriage, and, as such, women who do not give birth are faulted and rejected by society. In such situations, women are often pressured to accept their husband's marriage to another woman for the purpose of having children. According to societal norms, this is considered just. If the wife does not agree, she lives the rest of her life neglected by her husband. Moreover, women in Sudenese society do not have regular sources of income. Often, women have no choice but to accept co-wives in order to survive. In some cases, the wife’s family members conspire with the husband. They advise the wife to accept polygyny, arguing that any children of that second marriage will be her children too and that the compromise will not leave her empty-handed. Manal says, “This proves that a woman’s worth is determined by her ability to reproduce. Childless women hold no place in society and are always pitied and looked down upon. If it is the husband who is infertile, the wife is forced to accept this reality and the violent injustice perpetrated against her.” Until recently, it was only women who were told to see the doctor if they failed to get pregnant. It was

considered preposterous that men were incapable of impregnating women since the ability to reproduce was connected to a man’s sexual prowess and abilities. Subsequently, many men refused to go to the doctor. Fortunately, scientific advancements in childbirth and child-bearing has given women some muchneeded justice. The inability to give birth is no longer considered solely a woman's responsibility. Undoubtedly, the issue of childless women has gendered economic and social effects. Manal, however, notes that there is a shift in the current generation’s perspective on marriage.

“Young married couples who have built their relationship on understanding and agreement tend to suffer less from societal interventions. Their relationships are not as often centred around the primacy of reproduction.”

Rights of Women without Children “To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth; He creates what he wills. He gives to whom He wills female [children], and He gives to whom He wills males. Or He makes them [both] males and females, and He renders whom He wills barren. Indeed, He is Knowing and Competent.”4 This verse, says Sheikh Mohamed Hashim AlHakim, conveys that such matters are determined by Allah and are not connected to a person’s good doings. Several prophets never had children. Prophet Isa did not marry or have children. Aisha, wife of the Prophet Muhammad, also did not give birth during her lifetime, yet, she went on to play many integral roles in society.

In Islam, women must not be neglected or divorced for not bearing children. Moreover, a woman's request for divorce should not be considered a negative reflection on her faith. Husbands should provide and help their wives according to the teachings of Islam. However, women continue to bear the repercussions of prejudicial attitudes against childlessness. For example, some young women are married to older men only to be divorced before the husband’s death at the request of the husband’s family with the aim of excluding the woman from any inheritance. This is prohibited under Islamic law, for the Prophet’s companion, Uthman ibn Affan, did not divorce under similar circumstances and granted his wife her due inheritance. Islam gives women the right to inherit, including women who do not have children. According to Islamic law,5 a wife inherits one-eighth of her husband’s belongings (property). Nevertheless, some families continue to deny childless women the right to inherit, justifying it by saying these women have no children to care for. While the Islamic tradition accords childless women many rights, the Sudanese legal system does not recognise their rights before, during and after a marriage, including the right to maintenance and inheritance. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of reproductive rights recognises the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Furthermore, the WHO insists that couples and individuals should be able to receive relevant and sufficient information and means to enjoy these rights. This includes the right of all to make decisions


Holy Qur’an, Surat Ash-Shuraa [42: 4950]: https://quran. com/42/49-50


EDITOR’S NOTE: As codified in Sudanese law, based on the body of jurisprudence ’ilm-al fara’id from the commonly used Qur’anic verse on inheritance.

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concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion, and violence. Lawyer-activist Muna Abu-Algasim agrees: “According to this definition, women are fully entitled to decide on matters of childbirth as well as access to safe abortion. But the Sudanese law and legal system— despite the fall of the Islamist regime—is based on the ideology of Salafist Islamism, where the punishment for women who get pregnant outside of wedlock varies between death, flogging, and/or imprisonment. Moreover, abortion is considered a crime with similar punishments, unless the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. The law does not recognise reproductive rights.” In conclusion, the weakness of the Sudanese state, combined with the absence of fair laws to protect women who do not bear children, are among the main reasons behind discrimination against women in


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Sudan. There are many tools from within the Islamic legal tradition that provide for the just treatment of women regardless of their child-bearing status. These tools can be utilised to reform laws to recognise and mitigate the economic, social and legal impacts of women being unable or not wanting to have children.

So the question remains: Why does society continue to perpetuate injustice against childless women? This discrimination will continue unless women become aware of and demand their rights, support each other, and firmly stand against the negative culture feeding gender discrimination.



Trafficked by al-Shabaab: Stories of Kenyan Women Returnees Kenya’s coastal region kindles a paradoxical blend of tourism and violence. The beautiful coastline is seen as Ground Zero for recruitment of male youth to join al-Shabaab, the Somali-based armed group. As a result, it has become the epicentre of the Kenyan government’s counter-terrorism efforts. The shadow of violence from both sides—extremist groups and security forces—falls across the idyllic palm-lined beaches.

AMINA HERSI is a human rights practitioner and campaigner. Her focus and area of specialisation is understanding the gendered impact of redefining security.

The stories of Sarah, Malaika, and Maimuna1 are typical in areas controlled by al-Shabaab. All three were young women when they were abducted by al-Shabaab, and forced into sexual enslavement and domestic labour in camps around the Somali border. Like many women from poor villages in this region, their opportunities had been limited by financial insecurity and none of them had finished secondary school. This intersection of vulnerabilities left them easy targets for members of extremist groups. In addition to the risk of being trafficked, women on the Kenyan coast suffer shocking treatment at the hands of government security forces. Counterterrorism operations entail arbitrary raids, for example, and women are often beaten and abused while being questioned about the whereabouts of their husbands or sons. If a raid happens at night, no one in the house is given time to get dressed, so women can be publicly humiliated. Many people, particularly those living in precarious economic circumstances, live in constant fear of both militant extremists and security forces.

The Impact on Women


These are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the women.


ODI annual report 2015-2016. 2016. https://www.odi. org/sites/odi.org. uk/files/long-formdownloads/annual_ report_2016.pdf.

In 2016, while working as a campaigner with an international human rights organisation, I travelled to Mombasa to conduct interviews on the impact this has on women: wives, mothers, sisters and daughters who have been left alone after their male relatives were subjected to enforced disappearances and extra-judicial executions for being suspected ‘terrorists.’ We also came across a number of women returnees—

women who had first been kidnapped or trafficked to Somalia or neighbouring regions, and had later returned home. These women were victimized twice over. They had suffered terrible physical and psychological abuse, often over long periods of time, but were unable to report this crime or seek justice. On top of this, they continued to experience stigmatisation and isolation when they returned to their own communities. Sarah, Malaika, and Maimuna were three of these women, and their personal testimonies exemplify the trauma suffered by women who escape their traffickers. Economic disempowerment and lack of education— rooted in underlying gender inequality—were two of the factors that had contributed to their victimisation at the hands of al-Shabaab. In low-income homes in Mombasa, as well as in other parts of Kenya, boys are given priority when it comes to education. This has long-term consequences for girls and young women, increasing their vulnerability to early and forced marriage, abuse, child labour and trafficking.2

Amnesty for Returnees The Kenyan government declared an amnesty for returnees in 2015, including a policy of rehabilitation and reintegration. In practice, however, there has been no discernible shift in the government’s methods of dealing with terrorism. Security agencies continue with enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings, despite the amnesty announcement. Instead, there is pervasive fear as returnees are targeted both by security agencies and by al-Shabaab for

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desertion. Community or faith-based groups which could play a role in rehabilitation are afraid to become involved, since they could be suspected of providing material support to the ‘terrorists.’ As a result, women like Sarah, Malaika, and Maimuna find it almost impossible to reintegrate into their communities. A culture of silence hangs over women who have been abducted, trafficked and abused, exacerbating both the physical and psychological trauma they face. The combination of social stigma and fear of security agents means that female returnees almost never report their enslavement and sexual abuse.


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Women as Activists Some activists are working to change this and to help survivors. Tima Mohammed is one such activist who works in several coastal communities supporting returnees to truly rehabilitate. She works with women’s groups to bridge the gap between communities and the police. Tima believes that the solution lies in rebuilding trust. Both men and women run the risk of being labelled a ‘terrorist’ if they speak out against injustices against them, so they remain silent. “We must reach a point where we are able to air our grievances without fear of reprisals,” she says.

But she adds that the biggest challenge for her and for other women working with returnees is their culture. She works within communities where hierarchy and gender roles are clearly articulated and enforced through customary norms. Where women are supposed to be seen and not heard, and public life is reserved for men. Women’s personal safety and psycho-social well-being are often neglected both during and after conflicts, and this is particularly true when a conservative culture imposes silence in response to sexual violence and trauma. In her line of work, the fact that she’s not only a woman

but also separated from her husband makes Tima’s work even harder, especially with men. However, working to support Sarah, Maimuna, Malaika and other women to heal and reintegrate has enabled Tima to build trust among new returnees and emerge as a leader herself. Lasting progress for women of the region depends on people like Tima, who work at a local level to change the culture of stigma and silence. Yet a real resolution can only come from government action to tackle the root causes of extremism, and the will to work in cooperation with coastal communities.

Sarah Sarah dropped out of secondary school at 17, unable to finish the final year due to financial difficulties. A year later, she was abducted. A couple my family knew came and told my mum there was work in Malindi. We were all so excited we didn’t even ask what work it was. My family is poor and getting a job was very important for me. The next day they came and got me, and we set off to Malindi in a matatu [shared taxi]. The taxi stopped between Malindi and Kilifi and the man got off and bought the three of us sodas. I believe he put drugs in mine because after that I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I was blindfolded in a small house I didn’t know. I was very scared. It was deep in a forest. The first night there, I was raped. Once he was done, he told me my job was to cook food and to live there. Sarah was forced to cook for the men and was repeatedly raped by many of them. She lived there for a year and describes her time with them as “hell.” When she realised she was pregnant, she risked everything to run away. She spent several days in the forest, terrified of being recaptured by her abductors or killed by wild animals. I kept running until I came across an old man who asked what I was doing in that area. I didn’t want to tell him the truth and told him I was lost. I asked him to help me with the fare home and point me to the nearest village.

I told my family about what had happened, and soon after I had my child. They were very surprised and are embarrassed about what happened to me. They said I should not tell people because it would bring problems for all of them with the neighbourhood and the police. They did not accept my child into the family. The needs of a child are really many, and I am struggling to manage it all by myself.

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Malaika Malaika is a petite girl with shy eyes. She was afraid to make eye contact, and she spoke softly as she narrated her story. She had been raised by her aunt and dropped out of secondary school after her boyfriend enticed her with promises of financial security. He told her that he and a friend had both found well-paid work elsewhere and persuaded her to go with him. The three travelled past Malindi and then stopped, got out of the car, and began to walk. Her boyfriend told her it was a shortcut. I was worried that we had to walk. In the morning, we walked to the edge of the ocean where a boat was waiting for us. We got in and went to Somalia. When we arrived, he took me to where other sisters were. I thought that was just the culture because we were not married. But I never saw him again after that day.

There were many Kenyans, girls and women—over 70 girls that I met. We had to wash clothes, cook food, and at night or late in the evening men would come and pick us up and take us with them. I was raped every day by different men. Some would beat me to release their stress, and I was injured several times. I still have a back injury. I stayed there for a year and a few months. All I wanted to do was run away but I didn’t know how, because I was in a different country where most people didn’t speak any languages I knew. Finally, Malaika made the decision to run away. She left in the middle of the night, and spent the first two days completely lost, not knowing which way to go, until some fishermen agreed to help her get home. But she did not find the welcome and support she had expected. When I explained to my aunt what had happened to me, she kicked me out and told me I could not stay with her anymore. If this is how my second mother received me, I thought, then how will the police react if I report it to them? I have kept this secret for a long time.


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Maimuna Maimuna’s experience was slightly different from the others, and she seemed calm when we spoke, not showing any outward signs of anxiety. Maimuna married at a young age, probably still in her early teens. A few months after she got married, in early 2013, her husband told her that he’d found a job near Mombasa. He left, telling her he’d send money when he could. Then, shortly after, he called her from a private number and told her he wanted to take her on a honeymoon now that he could afford it. The destination was a surprise, and he told her to keep the plans secret. He told me to go to Malindi, where I would find two of his friends at the bus station. There was a white car—he gave me the number plate—and his friend and his girlfriend were waiting for me. They introduced themselves and told me that my husband had sent them to get me. The drive was long, and I kept falling asleep. When I awoke, I was in the forest with many men and women, but my husband was not there. I was one of the youngest there and was handed to an old lady. This woman took me under her guardianship. She protected me. She refused when men tried to sleep with me and she did not beat me into working although she beat other women. I stayed there for approximately three months. The men kept asking the woman why she treated me differently from the rest and threatened to come back and put an end to the preferential treatment. A day later, the old woman woke me up and told me to follow her. She took me through the forest until we reached a road.

A matatu stopped and she paid my fare to travel all the way to Mombasa. When I asked her why she was helping me, she said, ‘You are as young as my daughter.’ When Maimuna reached Mombasa, she went to her parents’ house and told them what had happened. They were understanding but told her not to tell the police because they were afraid of what would happen to their families. They took her to counselling and with time she was able to share her experience with her husband’s family, who accused her of lying. They refused to believe he was capable of what he’d done.


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Over the Desert and Across the Sea: Women of African Origin in the Middle East and South Asia All over the Muslim world in the Middle East and Asia, there are communities of African descent, whose origins mostly go back to the historical practice of slavery. British historian Imogen Edwards is researching these communities, who have largely escaped the world’s attention. Women in these communities often played vital roles as both custodians and innovators of culture.

IMOGEN SIAN EDWARDS is a researcher who was previously employed by the SIHA network to promote its social media. Her academic interest focuses on the historical and contemporary interactions between Africa and the Middle East.

When Tanzeela Qambrani was elected to local government in 2018, her achievement went almost unnoticed to anyone outside Sindh province in Pakistan. Qambrani is a Sheedi1: a person of African descent whose ancestors were brought to the Middle East and South Asia as slaves. Her very name denotes her origin; Qambar was a slave freed by Ali, the fourth Caliph, and is a common last name to signal enslavement and manumission. Not only is Qambrani the first person of African descent to be elected to this position, but she may be one of the first people of African ancestry to hold a position of political power across Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Palestine, Iraq, and several other countries where these ethnic groups continue to live. Ethnic groups of African descent are often marginalised in South Asia. Racism towards Africans has historical roots that stem from centuries of stereotypes and oppression. Their slave backgrounds add to this stigma, and in countries where racism and class discrimination are still barriers to success, they are often barred from educational opportunities, relying on agricultural work and other low-income occupations. This prejudice is further compounded by a new wave of African migration to South Asia. Unfairly associated with criminality and job theft, this has created a layer of xenophobia towards all people of African origin. Tanzeela Qambrani also represents the intersectional dimensions of discrimination—women like her often experience gender inequality in addition to this racial-social prejudice. Across the region, men usually fill the roles reserved for people of ethnic or religious minorities. In Iraq, for example, there is little


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support for African-Iraqis to be recognised as a group deserving of legal recognition, such as Armenians and Turkmens, so they are left without any political representation. In Palestine, African-Palestinians are doubly disenfranchised by the Israeli Occupation and their skin colour. Furthermore, in countries that often prefer lighter skin tones, women are disbarred from favourable marriage and job prospects as they become victims of colourism. Yet women like Qambrani—and their African legacy—continue to shape the Middle East and South Asia. Their cultures preserve a precious heritage and also influence the wider cultural sphere, even as their histories are (sometimes intentionally) erased. Their cultural influence plays an important role in spirituality and music; they are transmitters of knowledge and storytellers of lives lived hundreds of years ago. In this way, they are the keepers of a collective African memory.

Where do these Communities Come From? It is extremely important to remember that Africans are not “new” to Asia—for thousands of years they would have migrated and settled in the region—and that these communities are “foreign” to this region (especially those lands adjunct to the African continent) is to be disavowed. Merchants, sailors and royalty from Africa have travelled throughout the Middle East and South Asia for at least two thousand years. Whether for pilgrimage or for business, they settled in new lands, building

families, transnational networks of commerce and houses of intellectual production. Slavery, however, was also prevalent in this period, driven by the need for cheap labour but also by consumerism, given that it became fashionable to own an African slave. Slaves were transported for months, sometimes years, across deserts and seas where they suffered physical and sexual abuse. When they arrived, they were stripped of their language and culture, and forcibly assimilated with new religious and cultural identities. In the Middle East and parts of South Asia, it was considered permissible to enslave East Africans due to their non-Muslim background, and even those who were Muslim—such as Somalis, Sudanese, and people from the Swahili coast—were viewed as idolaters and exempt from these protections. The racist stereotype of Africans as savages in need of education was a prevalent attitude, not dissimilar to the one employed by Europeans to rationalise the slavery of Africans in the Americas. In the eyes of their masters, enslaving Africans and transporting them to the empires of the Middle East and South Asia was done to bring them to enlightenment.

Enslavement and Resistance In the Ottoman, Qajar, and Mughal empires, enslaved men were forced to perform a range of tasks, from the manual labour of date-picking to the translation of commercial documents. Some used their talents to reach positions of power. One Habeshi (Ethiopian) slave named Malik Ambar even became Regent of the Deccan Empire in India in the late 16th century. Other young boys were forcibly castrated before the age of 12, permitting them to work in both male and female private spaces. These eunuchs carried out clerical work for their masters and were also instructed in a variety of other subjects. For example, in the Ottoman, South Asian and Qajar empires, they were the architects of state and had direct access to the ruler.2 However, their lives were of untold suffering as they endured debilitating afflictions from their operation and hormonal restrictions, as well as emotional isolation. Enslaved women were sold as concubines in harems. Ethiopian and Somali women were the most coveted, as

reflected in their purchase price, which was higher than other African ethnic groups. In the household, their duties included cleaning, attending to the women and children as nannies and maids, and sexual servitude. There is also evidence that they were prized for their storytelling and musical abilities, even in relatively recent years. Baroness Haleh Afshah confirms in her memoirs that a freed slave in her household used to recite versions of the Iliad from memory.3 Children of the forced relations between female slaves and their male masters were, in theory, recognised as full heirs of their fathers and were considered free at birth. In reality, however, many of these children were rejected as being tainted by their slave and ethnic origins. The children of African slaves were the possession of their master’s children, controlled by peers barely older than themselves. Sometimes they were playmates, but often they began work at an early age and could be sold for profit and sent far away from their families.

Yet with any story of suffering, there is a parallel tale of resistance. The Zanj Rebellion of 869-883 in Iraq is the most famous, when East African slaves led a revolt against the Abbasid Caliphate in protest against intolerable conditions in plantations and salt flats in southern Iraq. More recently, the role of African women in rebellion is being brought to light. In the Ottoman Empire, many women would petition judges for their freedom, even writing to local newspapers about their plight. This action was mirrored in Iran, where they would reject their masters’ demands and run away, gathering in homes of free women of African descent for protection. Such activism is seen prominently today, not only in individuals like Tanzeela Qambrani but also in the grassroots organisations seeking official recognition for their ethnic groups. In the 19th century, internal reform and (somewhat duplicitous) pressure from Britain meant that there was a slow curtailing of slavery. Manumission and the complete abolition of the practice occurred in the early 20th century throughout the region with the establishment of nation states.4 But this legal freedom was often unsubstantiated without meaningful liberation; freed slaves were not provided reparation for their enforced servitude and so struggled to survive


Also known as Siddi in India.


Hathaway, Jane. 2018. The Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Harem: From African Slave to Powerbroker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-10.


Afshar, Haleh. 2000. "Age, Gender and Slavery in and out of the Persian Harem: A Different Story." Ethnic and Racial Studies 23, no. 5: 908.


Toledano, Ehud. 2007. As If Silent and Absent Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 10. Mirzai, Behnaz. 2017. A History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran, 1800-1929. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 6.

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financially whilst facing ongoing social discrimination. In Turkey, they were resettled in lands around Izmir, while in Iran, India and Pakistan they stayed close to the coastal areas where they were first offloaded from slave ships. Today, these groups are labeled Siya (black), abeed (slave), Afro-Turks, Bandaris, Siddis, Sheedis and other names, depending on the location.5 They retain a clear narrative of African origin, and many take pride in finding official recognition for the oral histories passed down through their families for centuries. Tanzeela Qambrani, for example, traces her lineage to Tanzania. Her sister married a man from Zanzibar, arriving full circle to their roots. For families like Qambrani's, much of the routines of daily life—from spiritual practices to the spices they cook with—are directly inherited from East Africa.

The Wind that is Present Wherever the Music is Heard


These labels should be treated critically; some are a Western imposition and associated with simplistic racial binaries, while others are used pejoratively.


Ferguson, Michael. 2010. “Enslaved and Emancipated Africans on Crete.” In Terence Walz and Kenneth M. Cuno (eds.), Race and Slavery in the Middle East: Histories of TransSaharan Africans in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Mediterranean. Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, pp. 171-95.


Baghoolizadeh, Beeta. 2018. Seeing Race and Erasing Slavery: Media and the Construction of Blackness in Iran, 1830-1960. PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, pp. 189.


The role of women in spiritual practices can most clearly be seen in the Zar ceremonies of southern Iran. Zar originates in Ethiopia and East Africa, and as it migrated it mixed with Shi’ite and Sufi rituals. Here people gather in praise to sing, clap and play instruments to welcome a celestial wind, the Dingomaro. A critically acclaimed film of the same name showcases the leader of the group, Zar-Mama. She alone knows when the wind will come, and her followers wait patiently for her signal.

In Ottoman Turkey, women would hold lodges to practice Zar, also known as Bori, where they used traditional medicines that included Sufi elements. They could either heal or curse, gift fertility or ruin, pronounce love or loss. So renowned were their abilities that people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds from across Ottoman Anatolia would visit their homes to access their services. Furthermore, in Ottoman Crete and Anatolia, African women would lead religious processions.6 In Polycarp, the local shrine to a Christian saint was also visited by Muslims, and the local African-Turkish community incorporated their own traditions of music, drumming and dancing before ending the day by slaughtering a

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calf. Today, the Dana Bayam festival still takes place every year. In Pakistan, Sheedi Pakistanis gather once a year for four days at the Shrine of Mangal Pir near Karachi for the crocodile festival. Here, mothers pass on their traditions to the younger generation using a blend of chanting and music to revere their patron saint, culminating in the feeding of these large reptiles. This is a major event in the year where thousands travel vast distances. Across the border in India, Hindu, Muslim and Christian Siddis make the same efforts to preserve their culture from being eroded by globalisation and Hindu nationalism.

Drumbeats Across the Ocean Music and dance are an essential part of the heritage of these communities. Sheedi music is sung in the main languages of the

The unique rhythms of East Africa have travelled across continents and become a powerful indicator of cultural belonging. Melodies and beats from the Horn of Africa are still heard in modern Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan. region in South Asia, primarily in Baloch, Sindhi and

African diaspora. Famous singers of African descent such as Ettab in Saudi Arabia and Esmeray in Turkey have made their mark as artists. Esmeray even released a song called “13.5” where lyrics speak with pride of her origins.

Resisting a Legacy of Prejudice As the Black Lives Matter movement has gripped the world at the time of writing, this movement has rocked the Middle East and South Asia. Vibrant discussions regarding anti-Blackness have ignited public discourse, with conversations around blackface and slurs (such as abid) given the rebuke that has been long overdue. The Free Iraqi Movement in Iraq has resurged after the assassination of their leader; this political movement that seeks to gain political representation is being fueled by global discussions of discrimination against African-descended people. Artwork by SARRAH EL-BUSHRA

Gujarati, and these tunes can be heard during social occasions such as funerals and weddings. Yet Somali, Swahili and many other African languages also make an appearance in these songs. In Iran and Turkey, loanwords and phrases from East Africa pepper Farsi and Turkish. Call and response features prominently, an echo of the storytelling form common to many African societies where audience participation becomes an essential part of the experience. In Gujarat, the Siddi practice goma involves drumming, dancing and singing, and at its climax participants enter a trance and are blessed by Sheedi saints of the past. The ngoma drumming style of Central and East Africa can be clearly heard in regions around the Indian Ocean. Even the instruments themselves can be traced back to Africa; the method of the drums’ construction remains the same. Musical styles that have been directly influenced by African music are Khaleeji in the Gulf and Bandari music in Iran. In the 1970s, Bandari music (a funkbased genre evolving from African-Iranian folk music) was one of the most popular sounds in Iran. In a country where, just a hundred years ago, African-Iranians had to enter the mosque through a separate door due to racial prejudice,7 this music raised the profile of the

People of African descent still struggle for equality in Middle East and South Asian countries, while racism remains a constant blight on their lives. From daily acts of low-level aggression to serious physical violence, their safety is often at risk. Their ‘blackness’ or ‘Africanness’ excludes them as ‘other,’ and they are frequently accused of being foreigners in a country where their ancestors were forcibly settled. Moreover, their slave origins create a class demarcation that is not easily escaped, even through burgeoning economic success.

Women, facing discrimination on the grounds of gender as well as ethnicity and slave origin, have an uphill battle. As they fight for inclusion, women such as Tanzeela Qambrani provide beacons for other women of African origin. Most important are the unknown women who have played vital roles as custodians of culture, but go unremembered. Robbed of their identity, enslaved African women gathered fragments of their past cultures to create something new, even though their legacies still remain in the shadows. From these modes of innovation, they have enriched both their own communities and the wider societies in which they reside, passing on their enduring resilience to the next generation.


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The Gazelle

EMAN ADAM, translated from Arabic by Muhammad Abdulhamid

As a wild deer she loves freedom and adores the meaning of love softens the solid heart and stuns the world. In plains and meadowlands hedged by greed she stands as a bright ambit of light giant steadfast robust creative with a cordial face and a genial word. Despite the ordeals in the darkness of nights on roads all leading to desolation with her sense of discernment and her heart, which is a homeland she breaks all the chains overwhelms hindrances conquests the ordeals. Like a candle she spreads the sweet fragrance of sacrifice ascends to heaven with Taha and crucified with Jesus.

Artwork by SALAH IBRAHIM, Sudan

EMAN ADAM is a Sudanese writer and poet who uses art as a tool for social change. She works at the Sudanese Association for Peace and Cultural Trends (SOPAT). Several of her poems have been published in national newspapers.


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On Spaces of Resilience: A Message from Jerusalem We live in complex spaces. Worlds transcending limited worldviews. Worlds that create a drive in us to rise up and challenge control and misrepresentation. How do we find agency? Where does resilience come from? I will try to answer based on the experience of a space I grew up in: the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. The history of Jerusalem, the complex narratives that weave together the city, has long been one of power struggles constructing identity, geography, language and social relations. Over the years, Orientalists, invaders, missionaries, journalists, academics and pilgrims have tended to impose identities on Jerusalem based on their own interpretations and often binary projections. Local inhabitants have reconstructed such projections at times, deconstructed them at other times and often produced a hybrid space of resilience in between. In my faith in the connection struggles between women in the Horn of Africa with women in the Middle East and Armenia, I will share some of those experiences.

Identities: A History of Difference The Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem is believed to date back to around the 4th century CE and is located in an area of Jerusalem where people speak the local dialect of Western Armenian (an Indo-European language), in addition to other local languages like Arabic, English and sometimes Hebrew. The yearly cycle follows an ancient Armenian calendar that is not used anymore in other countries including Armenia. According to that calendar, Christmas is celebrated on 18 January and the new year starts on 14 January. A lot of events in community life follow that calendar and the rhythm of other religious and cultural festivities and political reality of life in Jerusalem. In many projections, Christians are portrayed as a unified minority group battling to survive against Islam. This is a simplistic view of history. In Jerusalem, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and other places in the world,

battles labelled as political tend to be very much related to relations of power and control in general. For example, there were periods after the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 (that discussed the nature of Christ) when tensions took place between what came to be known as “Oriental churches” (Armenians, Syriacs, Copts, Eritreans and Ethiopians) and nonOriental ones. Oriental churches were blamed of heresy and were strongly persecuted by non-monophysite Christians in some periods. Archives of the Armenian community of Jerusalem refer to decrees by different leaders, including one believed to be issued by the Prophet Mohammed himself who, according to local tradition, was believed to have called for the protection of the Armenians of Jerusalem following a visit by forty members of the Armenian community members to Mecca in 626 AD. Many years later, in the first quarter of the 20th century, thousands of Armenians from what is now Turkey (and where some Armenian towns and villages existed) flocked to the Levant, including the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem, seeking refuge after the deportation and genocide of over a million Armenians at the hands of nationalist Turkish Ottoman authorities. In that period persecutions took place against Armenians by nationalist Turks because of who they were (i.e. not Turkish), their social, political, geographic and economic status and their calls for political and social reform. At this point in time my own family enters the story three of my grandparents arrived in Mandate Palestine as refugee orphans in the 1920s. They were hosted by the ancient Armenian families that had existed in the Armenian quarter before that, and by compassionate local inhabitants, most of whom spoke Arabic. Together with other refugee orphans they started new lives. Soon, there were known pharmacists, teachers, tailors, shoemakers, goldsmiths, hairdressers, artists and pottery makers of Armenian descent. In their own way, they added to the cultural fabric of Jerusalem and mingled with its different seasons and episodes. They sought to preserve the language and some traditions.

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Photo by JOOINN

All kept transforming, mingling with the local culture of Jerusalem. A lot of first generation Armenians still remember the kindness of the local inhabitants after their refuge, most of whom were Muslim, maybe because Arabs had also suffered from the last periods of the Ottoman empire. After a while, my maternal grandfather married my grandmother, a Palestinian woman from Bethlehem.


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The new space that my orphan grandparents moved to did not cease to change. Injustice did not stop affecting Jerusalem after the Armenian Genocide. There was the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, followed by the Palestinian dispossession in 1948 (known as Nakba), the war of 1967 and the continuous conflict. A lot of Armenians in Jerusalem lost their homes as a result. Some Armenians also did not feel comfortable with Zionism or with neoOttoman patriotism in the 2000s and the tumultuous

wars in Africa, the Mediterranean and the Caucasus. In parallel to that, there was the daily life, identified by moving in between and beyond all those dilemmas.

Geographies of Resilience When I think of resilience and spaces during this period of extreme upheaval, my paternal grandmother comes to mind. She was born on the border between Turkey and Syria, to a bereaved genocide survivor who had lost her other children. At the age of 12, a couple of years after moving to Jerusalem, it was arranged that my grandmother would marry another orphan child against her will. As a young mother she decided not to stop reading and to learn sewing dresses. Not long after, she became one of the first women in East Jerusalem to open her own dress-making shop. She soon organised fashion shows and trained other women to sustain themselves. She believed that a society does not change except if women take the lead. She believed that all women and bodies are unique, and that a dress should be altered to fit a body, not the other way around. Her affirmation was driven by the experiences of her own life which required questioning, getting up, daring, learning, drawing boundaries and constantly challenging herself and the society.

Language For children my generation growing up in East Jerusalem in the 1980s, a revolutionary mood was in the air. We had to go to university passing checkpoints, and frequently endure body searches, walls, shooting and tear gas. Year after year, we paved paths that would enable us to cope with political and social violence and continuously reconstruct rituals related to our concept of home. One of my personal daily rituals has been my love with the Arabic language. In addition to the inherited Armenian spoken at home mixed with some English and French, I have found a sense of belonging in the Arabic language. As a child, when school was closed for many days in a row as a result of conflict, I found refuge

in Arabic books. I came to experience a hybrid sense of Arabic. The Arabic I hoped to live with was one that welcomes everybody in the region to be who they are (including their local dialects and ethnic languages) and connect with one another. It is one that encompasses revolutions against patriarchy and injustice, and celebrates differences. A language that emphasizes compassion and mercy as core values. A language that I hope will expand and challenge exclusivist, misogynist and corrupt claims. A language that I hope will transcend limited Orientalist projections on Arabs and Muslims. I can live that home wherever I like, previously as a Sociology teacher in the Palestinian territories, and nowadays as a teacher of Arabic in the University of Amsterdam Language Institute (UvA talen). I find myself living that conception of home, and hoping to reconstruct, with all the challenges involved.

Social Relations: Conflict and Coexistence To the outside world, Jerusalem is often portrayed as either a beautiful holy city or a conflict zone torn apart by competing religious ideologies. In reality, it is infinitely more complex. Growing up in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem I realize that Jerusalem is neither this nor that, neither here nor there—it lies in a space in between which is full of paradoxes. The same applies to my view of the Arabic language. In such between spaces as these, the structures of exclusion often fail to exclude, as people stroll from East to West, from North to South and back again, challenging binary conceptions of geography, authority and oppression. Many Armenians in Jerusalem feel Armenia is their home in addition to the Christian, Muslim and Jewish Quarters of Jerusalem. In these spaces, words from different languages meet and mix. Communities complain about each other and bicker, struggle to exist, while at the same time coexisting. Christians join Muslims for Iftar during Ramadan and Muslim children celebrate installing Christmas trees in public spaces. Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike hope for a blessed rainy year

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in the season of the Jewish feast of the tabernacles and Palestinian olive harvest. Palestinian workers enjoy oriental music in Hebrew by Jews of Moroccan and Yemenite descent. Christian families, as well as Muslims, feel threatened when the military attack worshippers in Al-Aqsa mosque, since it represents an attack on what they believe is sacred space and ELISE AGHAZARIAN geography. And in hidden corners of the Ultrais a Palestinian Orthodox Jewish Mea Shearim neighborhood, some sociologist Orthodox Jews protest the military establishment and and writer express compassion to Palestinians. of Armenian descent. She has taught sociology at Bethlehem University and translates books and articles (English to Arabic). She is currently based in Amsterdam where she teaches Arabic at the University of Amsterdam Language Institute. She has served as the Arabic content editor on SRHR themes in Radio Netherlands Worldwide (2013-2017) and in research and consultation in the Palestinian Territories. She also assists the Global Orthodoxy Project at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies in Radboud University, Nijmegen.


When Social Uprising Meets Personal Struggle Growing up with Armenian genocide survivors and with other Palestinian Jerusalemite women, I have learnt that resilience—whether individual, social or political—is not easy defined. It involves a constant struggle between rising up, and falling down. It is about coming to the point when you cannot take injustice and instead recognize your power and boundaries. It is about believing in your legitimate right to a better life, sense of worth and connection to others who are going through similar struggles with genuine solidarity.

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Personally, I closely connect to recent political revolts that have spread from Tunisia, Egypt, Armenia, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon where citizens have demanded a better life that involves an alternative public space. Conservative regimes seek to militarize public space and emphasize ethnic divisions. They also impose a patriarchal language and propaganda. Colonialism and neo-colonialism is also very much present. Both exert a limited worldview based on awakening simplistic nonreflective worldviews, misogyny, racism, patronization, patriarchy and exploitation on different levels. To live in a space of resilience is to find yourself often dancing between despair and hope. This work takes courage - the courage to view one's vulnerability as power, especially when exposed to violence, and the courage to connect and rise up. I salute sisters in Sudan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Palestine and Armenia and everywhere undergoing such struggles. We have year after year alternated between accepting the status quo, quietly deviating from it, and again challenging it outright. While sometimes the reality may feel like despair, at other times the quest for continuing resilience becomes an active and productive force. In the meantime we also enjoy what we are doing, and continue connecting and producing a resilient space and language.



Self-Critique of a Secular Feminist Duru Yavan is a feminist human rights lawyer from Turkey. In this article she reflects on her own secular identity, and on how she changed her mind about Islamic feminism.1

“To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable.”2 —Sara Ahmed I grew up in Turkey in a very secular family, with the idea that Islam was a threat to our way of life. I remember listening to stories about Muslim men who reject gender equality, Muslim men who force women to wear the headscarf, Muslim men who force little girls to marry old men, Muslim men who forbid their daughters to go to school. In the end, I understood myself as a secular feminist in a Muslimmajority community that was becoming more and more conservative every day. And since I was always very angry with these Muslim men who were trying to restrict our lives, no matter what, I tried to keep Islam away from my life, as much as possible—until the day I started to hear the voices of Muslim women hidden within those stories. Learning about Islamic feminism and genuinely listening to the voices of Muslim women for equality forced me to review my feminist strategy. In his famous book The Art of War, the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu says that a good strategy is based on three sources of knowledge: knowing yourself, knowing your opponent, and knowing the terrain.3 So I think that as feminists, we should constantly ask ourselves these three questions: Who are we? Who are we fighting? and Where do we fight? Islamic feminism changed my answers to these questions dramatically.

Who are we? Listening to the Voices of Muslim Women My grandmother was the only person in our house who defined herself as Muslim, performed salaat every day and prayed before sleep. Once I asked her—since, as I understood it at the time, the Qur’an says that men

are allowed to beat women—how could a woman follow such a book? She simply replied, “This is not the real Islam.” I could not accept this answer at all because, ultimately, some men who call themselves Muslim were beating women and justifying it by referencing Shari‘ah. What did it change if this were not the ‘real’ Islam? Almost fifteen years later, I finally understand what my grandmother had tried to tell me: that fiqh and Shari‘ah are different. While Shari‘ah refers to Allah’s immutable divine law, fiqh refers to its human scholarly interpretations. The understanding of gender in traditional fiqh is therefore also man-made, shaped by patriarchy, and my grandmother was just a Muslim woman trying to follow the ideals of Shari‘ah in a patriarchal, male-dominated social system. A social system in which—contrary to my previous belief—men do not need fiqh to justify their acts of violence and discrimination against women. A social system in which my grandmother, as a Muslim woman, is the other of the other. Unfortunately, it had taken almost fifteen years for me to hear her voice as a Muslim woman. I am still not sure whether there is only one correct interpretation of Shari‘ah or, even if there is, whether it is the one that my grandmother once believed. What I do know is that my grandmother’s beliefs about Islam and her struggle as a Muslim woman disappeared, because nobody ever listened to her.

I missed the chance to be a part of her struggle, to listen to her understanding of Islam and her experiences as a Muslim woman. The first thing I realised when I started to study Islamic feminism was that the subjects of the stories


This short article has been written as a reflection paper for the course of ‘Islamic Law and Human Rights’ given by Professor Ziba Mir-Hosseini at New York University in 2017


Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2017, p. 2


Sun-Tzu and Samuel B. Griffith, The Art of War. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964

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about Islam I heard in my childhood were always men, and women were just the objects in these stories. Since I was so angry about those Muslim men, I was unable to listen to the voices of Muslim women—probably hidden somewhere in their daily lives, in their anger, in their prayers, rising day by day behind the manmade walls. I found this very problematic, because feminism itself is grounded in the importance of participation, of listening to and accounting for the particular experiences of women, especially those on the margins of power.4 Much of feminist criticism of human rights movements has in fact focused precisely on the tendency to exclude women’s experiences and voices. I had, in a sense, excluded Muslim women’s voices and experiences from the women's rights debate too. I had simply considered them as victims who obey patriarchal rules—objects that I could help liberate— not as my companions in a common feminist struggle. Sadder still, through focusing on the patriarchal face of Islam I had never seen the women’s struggle hidden within it. In a way, I allowed those Muslim men and oppressive religious governments to overshadow the Muslim women’s struggle against them; a women’s struggle, which perhaps uses different words, concepts, methods and frameworks, but which is triggered by the very same feelings of injustice and resistance.

Even though Muslim women do not use exactly the same notions as secular feminists, their struggle starts the very first moment they recognise the asymmetric power relationship between women and men, the very first moment they feel injustice, and the very first moment they resist in their own way, with their own words. As a feminist, I now understand that it is crucial for


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me to give an ear to these voices, in order to identify who I am really fighting.

Who are we fighting? The Patriarchy as the Real Enemy In Turkey, the country where I was raised, ‘women’ have become a terrain of contestation in the ongoing power conflict between secularists and Islamists. During my youth, a strong conservative government challenged the strict secular institutions and policies of modern Turkey. Each and every day, I watched how my life as a secular woman, step-by-step, became increasingly restricted. The government condemned abortion, for example, as a form of genocide by referencing Islam. It regularly emphasized that “women are not equal to men” and accused feminists of failing to understand the special status that Islam attributes to mothers. On the other hand, however this was a period of liberation for Muslim women in Turkey. Thanks to the abolition of governmental prohibition of the headscarf, a large proportion of Muslim women started to go to university and to work in the public sector. I believe that these asymmetric changes in the lives of Muslim and secular women created a real tension. The narrative that exclusively blames Islam for the oppression of women, that considers religion as an obstacle to women’s rights, and that suggests that women must leave the Muslim faith as the only way out of oppression, became common among secular women in Turkey. This misconception about the inverse relationship between women’s rights and religion created the illusion of the impossibility of the coexistence of these two worldviews. Islamic feminism, however, shook the

very foundations of this narrative by promoting gender equality within an Islamic framework, and claiming the possibility of a normative reconciliation between Islam and women’s rights. I think this intervention of Islamic feminism in the gender equality debate drew attention to the hidden, insidious discrimination against secular women in modern life and in this way helped us to remind ourselves of our real enemy—the patriarchy.

and make my own decisions about relationships, I was totally free. But this was not true. Because even though I did not have to wear a headscarf, I had to contend with socially accepted beauty norms that idealise thinness, youth, and whiteness. I could go to university, but I was always one step behind my male classmates. I was able to choose whom to be in a relationship with, but I had to face the reality that these modern, secular men were also using violence against me.

While it is true that culture and religion are often cited as justifications for denying women a range of basic rights, including the right to travel, rights in marriage and divorce, and the right to property, the oppression of women is not a phenomenon particular to any one culture or religion. The oppression of women originates from the underlying bias of a patriarchal society, and patriarchy remains an existing force all around the world. The oppression of women persists despite the different forms, social contexts or religious expressions it takes.5 Islam may be one of the tools that patriarchy uses for its own ends, but it is not the cause of women’s oppression. However, the narrative of blaming Islam alone for the oppression of women, while only focusing on Islamic forms of oppression, overlooks secular sexist practices, since these are often understood as ‘personal choices.’6 This approach therefore creates an illusion about secular women’s freedom and allows patriarchy to hide behind the glamour of modern and secular lifestyles. This approach prevents us from fighting against the patriarchy, our real enemy.

I think that, in modern life, the oppression of women is more disingenuous, hidden and latent. And it is even more difficult to recognise, confront, articulate and fight against.

As a secular woman growing up in Turkey, I felt for a long time that because I was not ‘forced’ to wear a headscarf, or because I was able to go to university

Islamic feminism, in a way, held up a mirror to me as a secular woman; it helped me confront my illusion of freedom and more clearly identify the secular forms of oppression and discrimination against women.

Where do we fight? Fighting in Solidarity with Muslim Women I have strictly rejected using Islam as a framework and working with a religious discourse in my struggle for gender equality, because I have never identified as Muslim. However, Islamic feminism has shown me that I am not ‘the only child of the family’. It has taught me the importance of context and of the myriad intersectional identities of women in this global battlefield. I have therefore realised that, while determining my own strategy as a feminist, I should take into account the fact that every woman in the world lives in different conditions and fights against different expressions of patriarchy—and at the same time against different faces of racism, homophobia,


Tracy E. Higgins, “Anti-Essentialism, Relativism, and Human Rights”, 19 Harvard Women’s Law Journal 89, 1996


Tanya Monforte, “Radicalizing Women’s Rights Internationally”, Critical Legal Thinking 19, October 2017, available at: http:// criticallegalthinking. com/2017/10/19/ radicalizingwomens-rightsinternationally/



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transphobia, xenophobia and remnants of colonialism.

A genuine feminist struggle requires disclosing all kinds of asymmetric power relationships, including those embedded in the feminist movement itself. DURU YAVAN is a feminist human rights lawyer from Turkey. Her professional experience has been focused on impunity culture, particularly strategic litigation efforts for holding state officials accountable for serious human rights abuses and on the protection of human rights defenders.


I have realised that my strict secular strategy, which represents a sharp break from religious discourse, may worsen concrete situations for some women and render their struggle invisible, while also damaging the solidarity between us. It is now a ‘must’ for me to be in genuine solidarity both with Muslim women who live in different social and economic situations, and with women in Muslim-majority societies who want to live secular lives. For a long time, unfortunately, I saw Islamic feminism through the lens of the compatibility of Islam with feminism. But maybe this is not the right

Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “‘Beyond ‘Islam’ vs ‘Feminism’”, IDS Bulletin, Vol. 42, Number 1, January 2011, p. 69


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question. Maybe it is time to go beyond the issue of compatibility and reformulate the discussion in terms of the importance of the contribution of the Islamic feminist movement to the women’s rights debate.7 For this contribution is a crucial one. Islamic feminism provides an opportunity to clearly define patriarchy by deconstructing the traditional, patriarchal interpretation of Shari‘ah, and thus enables us to uncover secular forms of patriarchy at the same time. Furthermore, it has the potential to defuse the tension between secular and Muslim women and to enable a more inclusive feminist movement. I now believe that the socio-political context may require using the Islamic framework at different levels, and this may be the only way to both stand in solidarity with Muslim women and to reveal the hidden forms of patriarchy in other societies.


Film Review: Jinn (2018) Jinn is a 2018 film directed by Nijla Mu’min and starring Zoe Renee, Simone Missick and Kelvin Harrison.

SURAIYA ZUBAIR BANU is a doctoral researcher at SOAS University of London focusing on gender, sexuality, law and religion in northern Nigeria. She has worked with feminist organisations in South Africa and Sudan. She is currently based in London, UK.

Stories of Islam in the African diaspora are often overlooked, underplayed, or flat-out erased by the media, even as they continue to be celebrated in the marginal spaces black diasporic Muslims thrive in. This erasure isn’t for lack of material. Our stories range from the beautifully mundane to the arrestingly epic. From the little dramas of the hours spent at Islamic school to the historic battles against slavery and oppression fought by black Muslims around the world. And these are just the true stories. Our myths and legends extend even further. Sometimes rooted in the African past, other times fed by the energies that have been expended in new worlds, not just in struggle (although there has been that) but in the creation of new realities. The best of our stories don’t play it safe. This is especially true for stories of black Muslim women. Our lives are often characterised by fight, and the really interesting stories arise out of the spaces carved out by our weapons—bravery, hilarity, obstinacy. The contexts in which many black Muslim diasporic lives are lived means that these are rarely the stories that get told. The media’s eagerness for “diverse” faces and “authentic” experiences does not translate to cinema that does justice to our histories or realities, much less our fantasies. Popular productions of black stories are still most often in the hands of white creators, whose dedication to papering over unpalatable truths tends to trump original artistic expression. Muslim characters are rarely the focus on-screen, and stories centered around black Muslim women are nearly unheard of.

centered around a young black girl’s increasingly fraught relationship with her mother, and to a lesser extent her first forays into love and sexuality. The story of a young girl, Summer, is given incredible warmth and life by actress Zoe Renee. The plot follows Summer’s reaction to the recent conversion of her mother (Simone Messick) to Islam, and the effects this has both on their relationship and on Summer’s sense of self.

Jinn, directed by Nijla Mu’min steps in to fill this void. The film is a traditional coming-of-age story,

It is a visually gorgeous movie. The use of colour is thoughtful and evocative throughout, particularly

Jinn | Sweet Potato Pie Productions, 2018

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in scenes in which Summer connects to the world through her own body. The sensuousness and delight of her discovery are conveyed to the viewer through vivid purples, blues and pinks with a warmth that rivals but never overshadows Zoe Renee’s acting. The cooler creams and greens of the mosque scenes, and the brighter more realistic palette used to show Summer and her friends in their day-to-day lives, gives the movie a sense of energy and immediacy. Yet the story ultimately suffers from its failure to fully explore any of the many elements of young black Muslim life it touches upon. The ingredients for a teen drama, for example, are all there: high school setting, social media, friendship, jealousy and rivalry. So are the ingredients for an explorative love story, or family comedy. But these are all background to the idea the movie chooses to focus on—the question of Summer’s identity. This focus descends too easily into cliché. The theme is announced in a classroom in which students are asked to write essays about their own identities, provoking internal monologues on Summer’s part about what exactly this term might mean to her. Contemporary idealisation of identity and its counterpart, diversity, has corporatised and flattened conversations about who we are into exercises in representation. Rather than exploring what people actually do with (or through, or despite) their identities, the focus becomes simply having one. The issue isn’t that identity isn’t important, but that it isn’t itself a story. It isn’t an insight, a point of view, or a personality. The core of Summer’s identity struggle seems to be deciding what to put in her social media bio, and what implications this will have on how she presents and markets herself. The film is self-aware about this, and deals implicitly both with the ways in which identity is often tightly wound up in aesthetics and the ways in which this plays into concerns about personal branding. As a matter of plot and character development this theme sometimes falls flat. The most relevant major plot point—a controversial Instagram selfie—tells us relatively little about Summer or her communities, and even less about the relationship between them. The episode is just thought-provoking enough to suggest that there might be complicated dynamics at play, without giving the viewer much


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substance or motivation to consider what those are. On a purely visual level, in the interrogation of aesthetics, Islam and black girlhood come alive. I’m thinking in particular about the many scenes that are dominated by Summer’s hair. Covered or uncovered, it is a character in itself, shot lovingly and with purpose. The debates around black women’s hair and the “right” way to wear it have become stale over time, as have conversations in a similar register about Muslim women and hijab. Here, the film manages to breathe life back into these discussions, in large part by making it obvious how moralizing dims and falters against the thick reality of black women’s hair, just as it does against the architectures of headscarves and headwraps. The flip side of the movie’s successful look into certain kinds of Islamic aesthetics is that engagement with Islam ends there. Passing references to “truth” and “belonging” are the only real reasons given for the mother’s decision to convert. Summer’s interest in the religion is similarly restricted to a vague acquiescence that a bit of “worldliness” might be a good thing, and that some “spirituality” might be helpful in art school. There is no investigation into why this religion—why Islam? Forget the difficult questions about faith in a God who has been silent for centuries or about the possible meanings of a life spent in service to God. Despite its flaws, there are numerous moments in which the movie sparkles. Moments of humor, where the experience of growing up Muslim in the Western world is mined for its ridiculous content. The anecdote about the Uncle who joined a Muslim bakery that became known for “killing Nigerians and journalists” is the kind of dark comedy that could be used to portray difficult realities. Moments of love also shine through, despite dialogue and plotlines that don’t quite do the characters justice. Summer’s relationship with her mother is fraught but caring, and the movie does a wonderful job of showing how possessiveness and control can shake even the steadiest parent-child relationship. These moments give clues as to what black diasporic Muslim stories could be if they focused less on identity as a standalone issue, and more on almost anything else.


Praying in Public Spaces: The Real Challenge for Pakistani Women Driving down the historic Mall Road of Lahore is a form of time travel. It is a reclamation of our past values; a part of Lahore that strongly holds on to its culture, traditions, grandeur and history of unfettered resistance. I drive past the Lahore High Court into the narrow roads of an adjoining area to my workplace. The law firm is flanked by a mosque, Masjid-e-Nimra, on one side. It is Friday and I see all my male associates leaving for jummah (Friday) prayers. A swarm of men head towards the mosque as the sound of adhaan calls the believers to pray. The believers—all believers, everyone, all men and women. But there is not a single woman in sight. And then I think to myself: why are women so absent from this part of the religious canvas? The history of Pakistan has been marred with political and religious interplay that has impacted the dynamics surrounding the public participation of women in the country. The most debilitating impact of this interplay was in 1979, when General Zia-ulHaq promulgated several religious ordinances that largely focused on policing the conduct of Pakistani women. The notion of purdah (curtain) called for a clear demarcation of the public and private domains in order to separate women from the world of men. An overarching policy of the moral regulation of women subsumed the national agenda. What followed was the displacement of women from the public domain into the enclosed spaces of the private sphere.

Artwork by REYA AHMED, India

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ZAHRA BAJWA is an aspiring human rights lawyer, currently working as a researcher on legal policy. Her areas of interest are environmental law and women’s human rights.

The veil had become the national identity of the Pakistani woman. Purdah was no longer a notion dictating national policy; it was the new norm. And just as every power-hungry regime faces a backlash to its authority, so did General Zia’s. Women rose in rebellion, challenging those norms. The Women Action Forum (WAF) was one of the few organizations that triumphantly displayed resistance in the face of political oppression. It was during this time that the famous Iqbal Bano, a classical singer, emerged as an iconic figure who stood in open defiance to the regime. In 1985, when Iqbal Bano sang Hum Dekhenge (We Shall Witness) written by the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, she became forever etched in history as the woman who embodied resistance in the face of fascism. Bano’s version of the poem has become widely revered as the early tidings of a mutiny, orchestrated by the voice of a woman—the very subject that the newly enacted laws were made to subjugate. Time is the greatest healer, and since the 1980s the overbearing restrictions which had relegated women to the spaces of their homes have eased, at least to some extent. As a Pakistani woman, I can travel alone in the urban centre of Lahore, where I live. But social disparity takes a toll on development when such changes take place in selective areas only. In my grandmother’s village, a two-hour drive from Lahore, this disparity manifests in public spaces. Walking down the road alone may not be an insurmountable task, but being stared down by judgmental gazes is certainly a byproduct of the independence I claim when I choose to be unaccompanied by a male relative. Sure, remnants of the State’s past exist, but today I see women battling for public space, reclaiming what was once theirs, filling all the negative spaces created at the behest of gender segregation. Yet religious structures are far too reliant on gender segregation


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where the Muslim woman has been marginalized as the Other. Many mosques in Lahore seem to be the exclusive domain of men alone. Mosques located in pocket neighborhoods are devoid of any praying space for women.

Local frameworks have not adequately addressed the issue of creating reasonable and inclusive public spaces for everyone within the religious discourse. While many malls in Lahore have prayer areas exclusively for women, this is not enough to fill the void created by the lack of spaces in mosques. Because mosques are not only religious institutions, but are equally important structures for social space and community. Symbolically, a mosque not only binds Muslims in a tightly knit community, but also confers on them a sense of belonging. Excluding women from mosques also excludes them from this community, from this belonging. When the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) migrated to Makkah from Madinah, the first task incumbent upon Muslims was to create a foundation for community building. The Prophet’s Mosque was created not just as a centre for religious activities, but also as an educational institution and a social support centre for the Muslims who had migrated from Madinah. There are numerous reports that attest that women did venture to mosques to attend salah prayers during the time of the Prophet. While there is no religious obligation for women to pray in mosques, that alone cannot be used to preclude women from a space that is central to their cultural and religious identity. In addition to creating more inclusive religious spaces, women must also be allowed to partake in

managerial roles in mosques. Islamic history shows numerous examples of women who not only occupied space within the realm of religious activities but also served in pioneering roles on the political forefront. For instance, Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, served as a scholar and authority on the knowledge of Islam after the Prophet’s death. Her contributions to Islamic jurisprudence have been tremendous. Another notable figure is Hazrat Hafsa, who was the only person entrusted with the master copy of the Qur’an for safekeeping at a time when preserving the authenticity of the Book was of utmost importance after the Prophet’s death. Today, the women of Pakistan have successfully ventured into legal, political and educational institutions. Nevertheless, the idea of purdah, at least in the religious sector of the public sphere, has rendered their presence nearly invisible.

The negative space created by a lack of female involvement in mosques in Pakistan speaks volumes about the gender discrimination levelled against women. This lack of female participation can be, in part, attributed to the smaller and inferior spaces allocated to women as praying areas in mosques. With an overbearing message of preferential male treatment enmeshed within its layout, the mosque becomes predominantly associated with a hegemonic structure of male dominance. An exception to the traditional structures of mosques might be the Badshahi Mosque located near Lahore Fort or the Grand Bahria Town Mosque located in a residential town area, where thousands of men and women come in congregation to offer Eid prayers. But offering Eid prayers twice a year

is not enough to brush away the structural inequality that exists; praying spaces for women in the public domain are not a priority. While the adage of women staying within private circles is reminiscent of a traditionalist interpretation of Islamic edicts, a modernist take on these principles advocates for gender equality as the essence of religion. This is reflected in the current revolutionary stances taken by a few Islamic scholars, for instance amina wadud, who led mixed-group prayers for men and women in the United States and United Kingdom. Internationally, we are witnessing changes in the areas of praying spaces worldwide: women-only mosques have been created in various countries (for example in France, Germany and China) where there are also women imams (prayer leaders). But this begs the question of whether such mosques have helped bridge the gap in gender inequality, or simply reinforced a hegemonic norm of patriarchy by cementing notions of gender segregation. The constitution of Pakistan clearly stipulates religious freedom for all its citizens. In this context, the State of Pakistan may have achieved formal equality as it does not expressly bar women from mosques. But while formal equality is a superficial indicator of a country’s development, it fails to factor in the multiple intersectional identities or circumstances that may render a certain group vulnerable despite the appearance of equal opportunities. In order to establish a level playing field for everyone, states must take affirmative measures to raise the status of the underprivileged. For instance, in the case of religious freedom, a more holistic definition of this right would include greater accessibility to religious facilities. Religion is an important part of a person’s identity and culture.

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When women are denied the all-encompassing right to religious freedom, they are also stripped of their right to self-determination.

In fact, marginalization is the fruit of a social mindset that has been heavily reinforced by patriarchal rhetoric in the face of political maneuvering.

In this regard, the State fails to achieve substantive equality as the women of Pakistan continue to live at the precipice of marginalization. Additionally, in creating gender-neutral laws that pay little heed to this marginalization, the State indirectly discriminates against women.

Lahore truly is an enigmatic place—its monuments bear testament to its resilience to innovation, to an underlying mindset that has fallen prey to a political ideology. Be that as it may, I am hopeful of changing times. Maybe the exquisite canvas of Masjid Nimra will soon be complete, and just like its name—nimra, female leopard—this mosque will become a symbol of feminine courage and resistance.

An exclusionary state policy simply reinforces the narratives of a biologically determinist justice system, relegating women to the private sphere based on the physical difference between the sexes.


In contrast, it is evident from examples in early Islamic history that the exclusion of women from the sociopolitical and religious landscape does not derive from the Shari‘ah.

A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance | Mural and photo by ALAA SATIR Sudanese women's participation in the uprising was huge, but in order to join the movement, most had to fight a deep-rooted system that starts at home, a system that wouldn’t allow them to be part of so many things.This reminds us why our fight might be a tiny bit more complicated than our male counterparts and why resistance became our natural status, because besides fighting an Islamic military dictatorship, we are also fighting a social order determined to assign very specific roles to fit us all. A system that is not only picking our fights for us but, despite our differences, is happy to squeeze us into a very narrow perspective of what womanhood should look like. So it’s not surprising at all to see women at the forefront of a revolution; we had plenty of practice way before the 19th of December. ‫لم_تسقط_بعد‬# ‫تسقط_بس‬# #sudanrevolts Instagram: @alaasatir


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Marital Abandonment: Women’s Stories from Sudan MADEEHA ABDELLA is a defender of women’s rights, human rights and a political affairs writer.

Marital abandonment is a common issue that women experience and struggle with in Sudan as well as other Muslim-majority countries. It has a deep impact on women's lives, including their physical, emotional and mental well-being, in addition to broader societal consequences that affect their communities and future generations. The issue is often overlooked, making it all the more important to tell these women’s stories. While the women interviewed for this article come from varying socio-economic situations, they share a common narrative of being abandoned by their spouses.

Who Are Abandoned Women?

Alaa Zuhair AlRawashdeh / Asmaa Yahya Khalil Al-Arab. Characteristics and Problems of Abandoned Women in Jordan Karbala University Scientific Journal Volume VII - Third Issue Humane 2009, p.182


I bid. p.18.


Sudan Muslim Personal Status Act (1991)


According to Sudanese lawyer Ali Alsaid, while the law gives women in such circumstances the right to apply for divorce, it does not allow the court to enforce the divorce when the husband’s whereabouts are known. In this case, the court’s responsibility would be to inform the husband that his absence is proven, and he must report to the court and either reunite with his wife or divorce her. If the husband is unresponsive or his whereabouts are not known, the court is entitled to enforce the divorce within a timeframe the court deems suitable.

Abandonment or Absence: A Legal Approach

The court recognises marital abandonment insofar that harm has been caused and can be proven by the wife, and can then legally enforce the divorce. Nevertheless, the law does not specify the time period for which the husband’s absence may be considered as abandonment—it could be three months, six months, or years. This is why the wife must testify under oath in court that she has suffered damages from the abandonment and fears temptation of engaging in another relationship outside of marriage. In contrast, the law defines the period for marital absence to be one year or more. Regardless, even if absence is proven, the court cannot enforce the divorce if the husband agrees to reunite with his wife.

The concept of abandonment is not recognised within Sudanese law. The Muslim Personal Status Law speaks to issue of absent husbands, where women are given the right to demand divorce through a legal procedure under Article 179 that is grounded on a husband’s inability to provide, or his absence whether to a known or unknown location. The only part of the law which addresses women’s capacity for divorce in the case of her husband’s absence after a year is in Article 188, which states that for a wife to be eligible

Despite the similarity in the harm caused by marital absence and marital abandonment, the Supreme Court distinguishes between and deals differently with “divorce due to damages caused by abandonment” and “divorce due to absence.” The court believes that abandonment can be dealt with in the event the husband agrees to end the abandonment by agreeing to return. But the wife is then held hostage by his promise. Ali Alsaid observes that this is degrading to women by stripping them of their dignity.

The term ‘abandoned women’ describes married women (mostly with children) who are subjected to the injustice of being the last item on their husband’s priority list, if on it at all.1 Abandonment is defined as the act of going away or leaving. Men who leave and travel to a known place and life and do not return are known as absent men.2 It is important to distinguish between ‘abandonment’ and ‘absence’, however, the Muslim Personal Status Law (1991) in Sudan does not differentiate between the two.


for divorce, she “must swear to prove damage from a husband’s absence and fear of temptation.”3

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Why Husbands Leave Many studies have been done on marital abandonment in Muslim-majority countries, and the challenges that women face. For example, a study in Jordan showed that poverty as well as the inability to provide for their families are among the main reasons men abandon their wives and children. According to a study in Bangladesh, it was revealed that poverty, polygamy, the absence of family support, education and job training, and drug use are among the main reasons behind marital abandonment.4 In both studies, both women and their children experience social, economic, and psychological problems as a result of being abandoned by their husbands. The women I met and interviewed from Mayo, DarAlsalam, and Jabel Awliya shared similar reasons for being abandoned. Housewives, small local market vendors, and unregistered midwives, all told the same story - their husbands left either due to economic reasons or polygamy. Periods of marital abandonment varied from several months to 15 years. From time to time, the husband might reappear and then disappear again. This has left these women financially vulnerable, since child support is not forthcoming, and this economic uncertainty increases the psychological burden they experience.

Most of the marriages described above occurred when the women were young—13 or 14-years-old— while their husbands were 30 years of age or older. Early marriage means that girls’ education is cut short, which does not leave them with many options for employment in the future. Girls’ options are even further curtailed if she becomes pregnant and becomes a mother at a young age. In some cases, these young girls become the second or third wife in a polygamous marriage. As these are usually arranged marriages, both husband and wife often do not know each other before the wedding ceremony takes place.

Nora, one of the women I interviewed, said, “My husband does not know how to talk softly. I never heard any word of love from him.”5 This leads to the absence of emotional harmony, which is one of the main reasons for instability in the marriage and the husband’s subsequent disappearance. Moreover, husbands often abscond and disappear instead of going through the divorce process. Traditionally, divorce is seen as shameful, and husbands are therefore encouraged to take on another wife instead. Additionally, men who neglect and


Alaa Zuhair AlRawashdeh / Asmaa Yahya Khalil Al-Arab - Characteristics and Problems of Abandoned Women in Jordan Karbala University Scientific Journal Volume VII - Third Issue Humane 2009, p.194


Nora, interview at home, DarAlsalam, Khartoum, 13 December 2018.

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abandon their women are not held accountable by the society or law. Another woman said her husband left when she began disagreeing with him about their daughters’ education. After that, he accused her of turning their children against him, and began treating her badly. Soon, he married another woman and brought her to live in the same house. Her husband only provided for her and their children once she took him to court.

‘I Feel Like a Forsaken Garden’ The women I spoke to revealed their stories with much difficulty. Taja, in her early 40s, said, “I feel like I am a forsaken garden. Feelings are like plants, they need to be taken care of every day. Sometimes I get depressed and other times I get sick with fever. I wonder why I am in this position. My life is full of suffering.”6


Taja, interview at home, Mayo, South Khartoum, 8 December 2018.


Habiya, interview at home, Mayo, Khartoum, 8 December 2018.



Another wife, Habiya, noticed her husband’s constant absence from the house, saying he was busy with work. She found out later that he had another wife and children. When she confronted him, he left the house and did not return. After six months, she decided to request for a divorce by the court. Her husband then started to show up at the house from time to time. She says,

Haram, interview at home, DarAlsalam, Khartoum, 13 December 2018.

“I became the first [wife] against my will only to maintain a stable environment for my children even though this hurts me so much, because I am neither a wife or a divorcee.”7

Habiba, interview at home, Mayo, Khartoum South, 8 December 2018.


Fatima, interview at home, Mayo, Khartoum South, 8 December 2018.


Ali Alsaid (lawyer), interview at office, Khartoum, 13 December 2018.


Fatima Babikir Mahmoud, Sex, Sexuality, and the Exploitation of Sudanese Women, Institute of African Alternative, London, 2nd print, 2012.


Yet another wife, Haram, tells me, “My husband used to be absent a lot. I later found out he had relations with many other women. He also used drugs, and so I kicked him out of the house, especially because he did not care to provide for my basic needs. He does not respect me. I am poor now, and because of my frail health I can no longer work like I used to.”8 Habiba, who is in her mid-30s, says of her husband, “He is married to another woman, so he abandons

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me for months. Sometimes I cry and other times I get angry. My henna and beauty are worthless.”9 A woman in her mid-40s, Fatima observes that, “a woman is full of emotions, but all women are scared to express themselves because they will be slut-shamed.”10

Where Society Stands on Marital Abandonment Usually, families support their abandoned daughter financially if the husband does not provide for them. Nonetheless, guardianship remains with the husband. Despite this, families are often reluctant to take the matter to court for fear of a bad reputation. Women’s fear of social stigma is among the main reasons behind the low number of abandonment cases in Sudanese courts. In the state of Khartoum, the number of court cases does not exceed 10 per year.11 The dominant perception in Sudanese society is that women's needs are only materialistic. This perception is validated, in society’s eyes, when women request for what is known as ‘compensation right’ in cases of polygamy or an extramarital affair. In addition, women often avoid filing for divorce due to abandonment because of the sensitivity of sex-related topics. Prominent Sudanese feminist and professor of economic and political science, Dr. Fatima Babikir, observes that women in Sudan are reluctant to express their sexual needs in court. Women are raised to believe that sex is a matter for men, and they are trained not to show their husbands their need for sex or enjoyment thereof.12 It is difficult for women living in traditional societies—such as the Sudanese society—to express the deep emotional and psychological damage that occurs as a result of marital abandonment and the denial of sexual life. Many women subjected to marital abandonment fear they will lose much in pursuing divorce. Yet some hold their husbands accountable nonetheless, by requesting the court for a divorce, requesting financial support, and retaining custody of children as a way to ensure

economic security and social acceptance.

Limited Options Most abandoned women find it challenging to remarry due to the trauma from the first marriage, and the effects on their children. Protecting their children is one of the strongest reasons behind why women endure the psychological, emotional, and financial burden of abandonment. One woman, H.M., noted that, “My eldest son cannot stand meeting his father, he even avoids speaking to him in the house.”13 The cruelty these women faced in their marriages might not stop them from loving again, but many have reservations about acting on it. Fatima said, “The person I wanted to be with from the beginning reappeared in my life. I thought about divorce, but I stopped for fear of my children suffering if I had new children with him.”14 Haram also said, “I consider getting married to a second man disrespectful to my children. Honestly, after my first experience, I do not want to be in a relationship with any man.”15 Amna on the other hand said, “I loved a man, but I was scared of an extramarital relationship, which would give me a bad reputation because women are always watched and monitored by society.”16 “Marrying a second husband can bring so much trouble. Some men do not respect their wives’ children and do not care for their feelings. Some of them insist on performing sexual intercourse with no regard to the presence of the children. A neighbour of mine told me her second husband did that. There are also stories of girls who were sexually harassed and raped by the mother’s new husband. This is why I discarded the idea of marriage from my head,” said Taja.17

Improving Women’s Lives through Law Reform There is some hope for legal reform to address these women’s lived realities. Lawyer Ali Alsaid argues that

Article 186 of the Muslim Personal Status Law (1991) must be amended to enable the court to enforce divorce without giving authority to the husband (similar to cases of missing or imprisoned husbands). In both cases, the court issues a divorce for the wives of husbands who are missing or imprisoned for more than one year. The court must also have the ability to issue the divorce immediately once abandonment is proven, without giving the husband the opportunity to intervene since the damage has already been done. The Sudanese Organisation for Research and Development (SORD), which focuses on women’s rights, has proposed a new family law for Sudan. The proposed law includes a definition of damages within marital abandonment, where ‘damages’ comprises “physical damages, loss of financial resources (money), emotional damages, or any other type of damage known to and recognised by most people. The types of damages from either ‘abandonment’ or ‘absence’ are listed separately. The proposed law enables women to get a divorce after six months of a husband's absence or abandonment. This law would also recognise marital infidelity, polygamy, and incompatibility due to the absence of emotional or psychological harmony as among legitimate grounds for divorce. A draft study on domestic violence conducted in 2019 by Dr. Samia Al-Nagar from the Ahfad University for Women shows that 13 percent of women in the study saw their husbands’ intentional neglect of their sexual needs as a form of violence. Clearly, it is necessary to understand what constitutes women’s suffering to create laws that recognise and address women’s lived realities.



H .M. interview at home, DarAlsalam, Khartoum, 13 December 2018.


Fatima, interview at home, Mayo, Khartoum South, 8 December 2018.


Haram, interview at home, DarAlsalam, Khartoum, 13 December 2018.


Aman, interview at home, DarAlsalam, Khartoum, 13 December 2018.


Taja, interview at home, Mayo, Khartoum South, 8 December 2018.

Women in Islam, 2021



“She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak” Reflections from a Scholar of Senegalese History Attention to gender and issues of sexual dissidence are increasing in Africa. Whether in the form of mediatised attention whereby sexual dissidence becomes framed as a scandal that signals the supposed moral decay of society, or in the efforts of local and international organisations to increase acceptance of diverse gender and sexual identities (captured in the Western—but increasingly globally circulating—LGBTQI+ acronym), debates about gender and sexuality are everywhere.

family members, new friends or mentors in university or work settings, queer people are not reviled by everyone. J.P., a transwoman who recounts in the anthology the support she received from a woman who taught her numerous practical skills and encouraged her to be bold about who she was, stated simply “She called me woman.”2 She was the first person to call J.P. woman, even before J.P. was ready to do so herself. The significance of this event is highlighted in the name given to this important work.

Despite a heightened visibility of such debates, they are generally conducted about queer people rather than with them. She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak redresses this tendency. An anthology of 25 first-hand accounts of Nigerian women, She Called Me Woman offers a glance into a wide variety of identities and identifications. The women included in this volume are cisgender and transgender1 women, lesbian and bisexual women, religious, spiritual and atheist women, and women living in Nigeria and its diaspora. The wide variety of voices is refreshing in a world in which much of the talk about ‘homosexuality’ (often used as a catch-all term for all gender and sexual dissidence) remains centered around cisgender gay men.

In order to reconstruct the debates on queerness from the vantage point of queers themselves, the editors collected 25 stories from women. The narratives show more than simply what it means to be queer. They show what it is to be young, ambitious, Nigerian, human—with all of the challenges and hopes that these categories symbolise. These narratives manage to convey the message that there is much more to people than their sexuality. As B.W. puts it: “Our sexuality doesn’t define who we are. We have terrible people who are straight, and we have terrible people who are homosexuals… Sexuality has a minute part to play in being a good person.’

She Called Me Woman complicates the widely held view of an unambiguously homophobic Africa that emerges from the public debates, in which both sexual rights activists and conservative religious and political authorities advance a moral project towards the incompatibility of the queer and the African, Christian, or Muslim subject. The title of the book refers to the recognition and support that queer people often receive from people in their environment, despite also facing incomprehension and judgment from others. Whether they are long-time friends or


Women in Islam, 2021

She Called Me Woman illustrates the various challenges that life brings for people growing up in Nigeria and in Nigerian families. It highlights the importance of financial independence to acquire (partial) social independence. As O.W. iterates in her story, “The moment you do something with your life, nobody cares about your sexuality.’’3 It furthermore describes the mosaic of identities that women have and navigate. As stated by N.S., “I claim certain identities depending on the audience—when I need to make visible, for good reason, certain experiences and perspectives or when I do not want to claim certain experiences and struggles that people assume.’’4 It also

shows how women are confidently both queer and religious:

“Allah is full of mercy and forgiveness. I know now that God did not make a mistake in allowing us to love men and women and that the silence of the Qur’an on this matter says a lot.’’5 The strength of the book lies in the candid narratives of balancing personal desires with societal and family expectations. Of particular importance to navigate through life as a queer person seems to be the skill of discretion. Secrecy about one’s same-sex intimacies is neither absolute, nor everywhere—women carve out spaces where they can live, share, and discuss their same-sex relationships. It is upon this point that I want to link She Called Me Woman to my own research6, conducted on the ways in which young women in Senegal navigate their same-sex intimacies. In Senegal, discretion is captured in the notion of sutura. Sutura is a central value in Wolof—the largest ethnic group in Senegal, as well as Senegal’s lingua franca—morality. Sutura connotes discretion, modesty, privacy, and protection. It functions as a mechanism of social inclusion and exclusion, whereby persons whose bad deeds are exposed can be excluded from the community. Sutura is a skill that is transmitted and continuously learned and reworked to navigate through life successfully—particularly regarding sensitive topics like sexuality. It indicates an active asset, as it is something that constantly needs to be guarded and worked for in order to live a morally acceptable life. It is thus an essential part of gender and sexual normativity in Senegal, although it relates to

She Called Me Woman: Nigeria's Queer Women Speak | Cassava Republic Press, 2018

many other aspects of social life as well. Not respecting the value of sutura leads to shame, for you as well as for your family. What is interesting about this mechanism is the condition of exposure; a bad deed that is not (made) visible to others does not lead to exclusion. Here lies the opportunity for dissent whereby sutura can


Cisgender refers to one’s gender identity being in accordance with one’s sex assigned at birth. Transgender refers to one’s gender diverging from the sex one was assigned at birth.


Mohammed, Azeenarh, Chitra Nagarajan, and Rafeeat Aliyu (eds.). 2018. She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak. Abuja and London: Cassava Republic Press, pg. 27.


Ibid. p. 109.


I bid. p. 94.


I bid. p. 316.


Oudenhuijsen, Loes. 2018. ‘You Have To Know How To Play, Otherwise They Will Catch You’: Young Women and the Navigation of Same-Sex Intimacies in Contemporary Urban Senegal. Master thesis, Leiden University.

Women in Islam, 2021



be exploited to create space for expressions of nonnormative behaviour. As my Senegalese interlocutors demonstrated in a variety of spaces where I followed them—at home with family, on the football field with friends, walking through the neighbourhood, and at work—knowing how to make use of the productive silences of sutura allows them to bend the rules and manage both their same-sex relationships with loving family bonds, and success at school or work. A certain cleverness to navigate the norms and expectations without compromising your personal desires too much is required. As one of my interlocutors aptly put it: “You have to know how to play, otherwise they will catch you.’’

women. Instead of seeing such acts as surrenders to heteronormativity, we should see them as acts of social navigation that open up opportunities elsewhere.

And so my interlocutors had various strategies to conceal their same-sex intimacies. Lafia (aged 23 in 2017) was known at home and by her friends for exclaiming ‘private life!’ (vie privée!) with a big smile whenever someone asked her something about her love life. This response was always received by others with a smile and some sign of appreciation. Not being too vocal about your sexual life is highly valued in Senegalese society, particularly for women. Likewise, Hawa (aged 29 in 2017) covers her head with a scarf whenever she visits her father, to conceal her shaved head. Knowing that her father does not appreciate her shaved head, she covers her hair to maintain respectability as a woman. And Nabou (aged 25 in 2017), a football player who never wears anything other than shorts and trousers, wore a dress to her grandmother’s funeral, a sign of respect to her grandmother and her family.

For example, my interlocutor Yaye (aged 26 in 2018) was committed to promoting women’s football as a legitimate activity for women, as well as seeking to educate girls on how to properly behave, on and off the football field, in order to obtain more respect from others. As stated by Yaye: “The girls didn’t know what private life [vie privée] was before… it is important that they know sutura and proper behavior. Some girls like to walk with their trousers below their buttocks. How can you expect someone to respect you then? Some girls just do not understand that not everywhere is the football field. I try to teach them the difference between private life and public life.’’ With her efforts, she shows how adhering to the norm of sutura in her eyes enhances one’s respectability as a football player, while simultaneously defending the football field as a legitimate space for women to frequent, a space that only tacitly represents a queer space.

By being discreet about their involvement in samesex intimacies, women can uphold their status as good women, and maintain their sutura as queer


Women in Islam, 2021

Because most queer persons in Senegal master very well the ethical practices of sutura in their public performance, they manage to create space for themselves in (more) private domains by creating new queer spaces through organising clubbing and birthday parties, as well as negotiating their presence on the football field.

Through the careful tactics of maintaining sutura, women create ample opportunities for queer

relationships. Sutura does not just mean that other people around these women do not know about these relationships. Sutura means that as long as women’s practices do not become nominalised or labelled as sexual, or queer, that others are not required to take a moral stance. El Hadj, the coach of a Dakarois football team, decided not to mingle in the affairs of the football players: “I wonder every day why the girls are like this. I don’t understand it at all [...] but I don’t get to ask them why, there’s not really a chance to. And besides, it’s none of my business.’’ What my Senegalese interlocutors and the narratives of Nigerian women demonstrate is that the challenge is not so much about hiding their same-sex intimacies by all means, but rather about knowing how to make use of the ambiguity of normative frameworks like sutura. In She Called Me Woman, Nigeria’s queer women may speak, but much more often queer women

do not speak. Queer women’s silence is easily taken as proof of their oppression, and of the impossibility of expressing and enacting same-sex desires, or of the incompatibility of it with being a good African and a good Christian or Muslim. However, it is important to distinguish how different types of silences coexist, and to understand their relevance not simply in maintaining taboos, but in offering alternative ways to give shape to non-normative behaviour.7 Speaking out against restrictive gender and sexual roles happens in various tacit ways.

Sometimes the solution may be to not speak back, but to seek the spaces beneath the discursive level of debating sexual rights, taboos, and culture.



is a PhD candidate at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University. Her current study entitled “Religion, normativity, and its gendered contestations: ‘wicked’ women in Senegal from 1950 to the present” aims to uncover historical transformations and continuations of gender norms in Senegal.


A rnfred, Signe (ed.). 2004. Re-thinking Sexualities in Africa. Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute.

Women in Islam, 2021



My Journey to Islamic Feminism In March 2005, amina wadud1 made international headlines when she broke Islamic custom by leading a congregation of American Muslims in prayer as a woman. Since then, she is often referred to as the ‘Lady Imam’. Dr. amina wadud is a professor of Islamic studies in the United States and widely regarded as a pioneer of Islamic feminism. Here she tells the story of her developing insights.

I am an Islamic feminist. It has not always been so. This is the story of my journey.

DR amina wadud is a Musawah Advocate, a retired Professor of Islamic Studies, and Visiting Researcher to the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, USA. She is best known as the ‘Lady Imam.’

My personal decision to enter Islam at the age of 20 has determined my life. As an undergraduate student at university, I pronounced my shahadah (affirmation of faith) in 1972 during the height of the Women’s Studies movement across academia in the United States. I only attended two such courses, and did so because I wanted to showcase Islam. An overachiever, I often turned the required 10- and 15-page paper assignments into 20 and 30 pages to provide elaborate evidence of Islam’s commitment to women and family. This topic was new to my professors, so they evaluated me on the thoroughness with which I engaged the subject. However, neither they nor I had a critical edge on Islam. In graduate school for Islamic Studies, with a focus on the Qur’an and its tafsir [exegesis], I became one of those Muslim women who said: “We do not need anything from (Western secular) feminists. They can keep their feminism. We have Islam.” Furthermore, as an African-American woman who chose to wear hijab, I opposed dominant feminist discourse because it centered on white, middle-class women’s realities. (Years later, with the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, this was illustrated by the fact that western feminism became a major component in the rise of Islamophobia.) Towards and during my Master’s and PhD studies, I no longer took courses in Women’s Studies, although I did read extensively about women, gender and sexuality. This has continued throughout my professional career. In 1989, I joined the International Islamic University in Malaysia as Assistant Professor. My first year there I was funded for a research project entitled ‘In Search of Pro-Faith Feminism.’ I took to task such Muslim


Women in Islam, 2021

Intellectual greats as Fatima Mernissi and Nawal alSa’adawi for their secularism borrowed from dominant Western feminist paradigms. Later, back in the US as an Associate and then Full professor, I continued to challenge what I considered problematic discourses of feminism for Muslim women. My scholarship on gender was distinguished by the faith perspective. This antagonism towards secular Western paradigms stayed with me through to my retirement in 2006. Three years after my retirement, in February 2009, the Musawah global movement was launched in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The new movement celebrated Muslim women’s scholarship and activism in this profaith trajectory, with 250 women and men from various countries in Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and from Muslim minority contexts in Europe, North America and Australia. Among the participants were many people I had worked with during the previous two decades. During the weeklong sessions, I felt a rush of joy and excitement—my past was colliding into my future. Our struggles were confirmed by our presence together. Islam belongs to us. We take it on our own terms. We fulfill the Musawah mandate to make changes in policy, culture, law, art and spirituality within the context of our own realities as Muslim women and citizens of the modern nation state. The Musawah launch was also the place when I came out as an Islamic feminist.

How did I get from a critical rejection of feminism, in general, to accepting the accolade that says I am one of the major architects of Islamic feminism? This meeting of Islam and feminism was only possible by challenging the rubric of both for their

entrenched definitions and exclusive applications. Islamic feminism is defined by the intersection of Muslim women’s lived realities using a gender critical analysis of sacred sources. It is not only about the women I had been working with, working for and thinking about, but also about how to approach canonical texts through the realities of these women. When I entered Islam nearly half a century ago, it was clear to me that Islamic intellectual thought had a long and varied history. This expansive intellectual diversity was in stark contrast to the narrative I received at the mosque where I took my shahadah. There, the main focus seemed to be on my personal political decision to cover my hair and wear longer clothes than the American norm. Other than a small booklet on how to perform prayer, they left me to my own devices for the path I would take. When I was introduced to the Qur’an, however, I fell in love. It was only an English translation but it gave me the determination to read it in its original Arabic. The next academic year, I began a formal study of Arabic that would continue for the next 10 years, including moving to Libya after my first degree. During my graduate studies, I returned to North Africa to pursue advanced intensive study of Arabic in Egypt. I immersed myself in the language because of my love of the Qur’an. Eventually, my PhD would focus on Qur’anic Studies and tafsir. The study of hermeneutics presented me with a curious dilemma, much like the one of Umm Sallamah, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace). She asked outright if the Qur’an was equally intended for women although it seemed to address and privilege men by the language it used. Her answer was revealed in the well-known verse in Surah al-Ahzab (55:35) which aligns the masculine plural form with the feminine plural form for all significant virtues and characteristics of the believer in Islamic cosmology. My studies of the Qur’an were exclusively under the direction of men. This should not have been a problem, but it was. For example, during my year of intensive Arabic studies I took tuition with a Qur’anic studies professor of Cairo University. I had a deep emotional reaction to his interpretation of the absence of sexual

rights and bodily integrity for concubines. No matter how I shaped my concerns, he would defend himself by citing his expertise. Later, I understood that my questions about methodology were related to larger questions of authority within a discipline. I did not understand my professors’ reading of the text, and could not accept the way he explained it. He took this as a challenge to his expertise. But I am a descendent of slave women, who were routinely raped by their masters and sometimes by other slaves. I needed to understand if this was condoned by the Qur’an. My professor kept insisting that a concubine was the possession of her master. This contradiction between his reading as a privileged male scholar of the Qur’an and my student reading as a woman and descendent of slaves brought me to a new level in my intellectual and spiritual development. Although I was still in love with the Qur’an, I was not equally in love with centuries of commentary on the Qur’an. When I learned that all these commentaries were written by men, and that Islamic history has no record of women’s voices, ideas and experiences with regard to the meaning of the Qur’an—neither in full nor in part—until the 20th century, it occurred to me that something was missing from a legacy that is more than a millennium long.

Does it make a difference if the Qur’an is only interpreted by men? In cultures that continually distinguish between women and men, it is logical to assume that it does. My next question drove my doctoral studies: What can we do now about the absence of women’s voices in these most vital interpretive traditions? My first book, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (1992), was drawn from my PhD dissertation in Qur’anic studies. It’s a small book, now considered a classic text of Islamic feminism. When I wrote it, I was still holding onto a conflicting location between Islam and feminism. Soon after its publication, however, my perspective began to shift. One of the earliest and by far the most significant shifts came while attending the Global Forum on Women in Beijing in 1995. Two opposing Muslim women’s voices dominated these meetings.


D r amina wadud prefers to spell her name without capital letters

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One, which I call secular Muslim feminist, was clearly opposed to the use of Islam in any discussions about policies over women and gender equality. The other voice, which I call Islamist, was adamant that Islam was preferred over all other systems of thought. Three things stood out. First, these voices did not speak for Sisters in Islam—the organization that I had co-founded in 1989. Second, while opposing each other they agreed on one thing: you cannot have both Islam and feminism, or even human rights. Third was the best-kept secret: the undoing of their dominance rested on this one assumption. Both perspectives defined feminism as secular and anti-religion, and both defined Islam only in patriarchal and hegemonic terms. The construction of Islamic feminism would confirm the need to take agency in defining these terms in a dynamic, intersectional way that embraces lived realities of Muslim women in all their complicated, contradictory and messy forms. After claiming this agency, we began to assume authority in our own definitions of both Islam and feminism. Feminism means women are full human beings. All humans are equal. Women do not need the permission of men to be equal. We were granted our full dignity and equality by Allah at the time of our creation. The purpose of human creation is to be khalifah: a moral agent of Allah in Allah’s creation, the Earth. In classical times, justice was understood in the context of inequitable distribution across gross difference. Today, however, justice must include equality. Equality is not sameness; it is honor and dignity within our distinct differences. These ideas about the essence of what it means to be human were what I came to through five decades of loving and studying the Qur’an. Islam is a process by which a human being (female and/or male) turns toward the highest spiritual ideal or ultimate Reality (called Allah) in engaged surrender. Engaged surrender is felt in the heart as a


Women in Islam, 2021

matter of faith, understood in the mind as a matter of consciousness, and put into action with the whole body. Actions are the most important dimension and can only be judged by Allah. Furthermore, Islam is built upon its foundational monotheistic principle— Tawhid. The Tawhidic paradigm demonstrates that faith in One God/Allah requires equality and dignity between all humanity on a horizontal line of reciprocity. The Tawhidic paradigm is foundational to social justice from an Islamic perspective. It is also the cornerstone of Islamic feminism. Thus, Islam as a way of life requires full humanity for women, or feminism. Using and critically analyzing Islamic sources to dismantle gender hegemony is essential to Islamic feminism as a methodology in addition to a perspective. An Islamic feminist critical lens uses the context of Muslim women’s lives as a rubric for understanding texts. It puts context over texts. Today, Muslim women voices have reached a critical mass. We are unwilling to relinquish the definitions of either Islam or feminism to any who cannot incorporate our lived realities. We do this to help create new policies within our individual nation states and at the international level. In the 20 years between co-founding Sisters in Islam in 1989 and the launch of Musawah in 2009, a more gender-inclusive definition of Islam and the radical integration of Islamic core values into feminism have helped to construct the arena of Islamic feminism. It not only confirms that women are equal before Allah, but also constructs new knowledge in order to create an active and spiritually ripe reality of Islam that helps dismantle all inequalities in gender relations. Thus, Islamic feminism is the most dynamic way to perceive and experience Islam. It is open to all people of conscience, female and male, and permits all Muslims to live within their dignity as Muslims.

DR amina wadud

Social Media: A Tool for Women’s Activism Social media has great potential for women’s empowerment and activism in conservative societies. Medical doctor Mariam Abdullahi Dahir from Somaliland can testify to this from her personal experience as an activist against female genital mutilation, or FGM.

Being an outspoken woman in the Somali context is difficult. Women in Somalia and Somaliland are dominated by a patriarchal culture, full of inequality, and with a constant threat of violence. Being an activist and trying to change these repressive social norms is a huge challenge. In this context, the most effective way to reach people and raise awareness is through social media. One of the issues on which my work as an activist focuses is FGM (female genital mutilation). Somalia and Somaliland have the highest prevalence of FGM in the world, with an estimated 98% of women and girls aged from 15-49 having undergone the practice. It is internationally recognized as a human rights violation and a form of gender-based violence, and is a marker of deeplyrooted inequality between men and women. FGM harms the health of women and girls, as well as violates their physical integrity and right to be free of inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment. There are no health benefits to FGM, and in some cases it is the direct or indirect cause of death in young girls and women. Many organizations are fighting to end this practice, but awareness-raising has typically focused on educating girls and elderly women. However, men remain the driving force behind FGM, since it is mainly practiced to preserve girls’ virginity. One of the central struggles in changing social attitudes is how to reach more people who continue to promote FGM in their communities, men and women alike. Social media is now playing an essential role in this effort.

Safe Spaces for Women’s Voices Social media has changed the face of activism worldwide, but in societies like Somaliland it is

particularly important. Despite its negative-side—it is unquestionable that trolling and online harassment are serious issues—it remains the best tool for a woman and activist such as myself, who lives in a conservative community where there are few other platforms where women can speak out and share our ideas and opinions. Sometimes it’s our only option. In my country, women don’t have access to journals, magazines, or other traditional forms of media. These platforms are all owned and managed by men. Social media, on the other hand, has none of these traditional gatekeepers and is open to everyone. Of course, there are risks, and many women who raise their voices online are silenced as harshly as they are in the real world. One young female activist received so much online abuse as a result of her posts that her fiancé broke their engagement. Nevertheless, it remains the only place where women’s voices can be heard at all. In a context where women’s voices have long been silenced, social media has helped many women to speak out and find the courage to tackle oppressive social norms. I have seen this in action in my own campaigns, particularly using WhatsApp. At some point, I decided to start a WhatsApp group for sharing ideas and working with young girls who have progressive opinions but feel too afraid—with good reason—to express them in public. These girls felt safe to speak out in the group. We discussed their ideas and found ways of turning them into action, helping them take the next step with their families, friends, and other networks. With this kind of mentoring and support, many of these girls have developed into activists and leaders. In addition to our guidance, they were there to support each other, knowing they were not alone.

DR MARIAM ABDULLAHI DAHIR is a medical doctor from Somaliland. Passionate about gender and human rights issues, she has been advocating to end FGM in Somaliland since 2012. In her medical practice, she treats many survivors of FGM, and has educated and empowered girls and women through her activism on social media.

This is true not only for young women but for youth

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more generally, since the views of young people are not often taken seriously. Creating the space where they can listen to each other and collaborate helps them build confidence and learn from each other.

Translating Online Activism into Real Change

My Facebook page and Twitter profile, which I use to campaign against FGM, have large numbers of followers. They help me project my own voice farther than it could ever go in the offline world. Young people can read the information I post and share, learning about the issues. I focus on reaching these young people, the change-makers of the future, to help them think for themselves and question the beliefs that prevail within their communities.

For many people, social media is where they begin to question their long-held beliefs on topics like FGM, and also where they can come together to build networks that become real-life campaigns. When we are organizing outreach work to go into communities and raise awareness, we post on the Facebook group to find volunteers. Most of the time, there’s far more responses than we expect. This shows how many youths have the courage to follow the example of others and stand up for social change. This gives us huge encouragement as activists. Within one generation, it may be possible to change outdated and harmful social norms.

My Facebook group is full of examples of how young people’s minds have been opened, prompting some to change their lifestyle and in some cases to become social activists. One young woman who joined the group began with a very different attitude towards FGM, the values she had learned from her mother: “FGM is your pride, and you should never touch it until marriage.” She herself was suffering from complications related to FGM, although at that point she herself did not yet realize that this was the cause. When she learned that I was a doctor, she wanted to

Online campaigns have also led to many new professional relationships for me, as a number of young men and women have asked me to act as their mentor. After engaging in online activism, they want to understand how best to use their talents and become effective activists. This has created a group of trained social media campaigners who also engage in offline work, as we work together to build campaigns and then visit villages and communities to raise awareness about FGM. We are currently working to engage with decision-makers to make FGM illegal, as

Fighting FGM on Facebook and Twitter


discuss her symptoms with me in private. She told me that she’d even dropped out of university because she got ill so often and experienced so much pain. When I told her that the only cure was to open the FGM, she refused at first, for fear of the shame if her family found out. Later, however, she engaged in conversation with other young women in the online group, listened to their views, and finally decided to do it. As a result, she recovered from her illness and could finish university and begin building a life for herself. It is these stories that motivate me to continue speaking out about this issue by creating spaces for discussion.

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Somaliland is currently one of the few countries where it is not yet criminalised. Social media has helped me build networks with youth and young women in the communities that we aim to reach. Many social media users have sent me private messages in response to my posts, telling me how inspired and motivated my work has made them feel. In one case, a young woman who followed my campaign on Facebook approached me when I went to her village in the west of the country, on the Lughaya coast. She told me that I'd inspired her to start raising awareness among others in the village, and showed me the results of her work—many women had listened to her and decided to stop cutting their daughters. Moments like this make me feel very proud. The respect and positive feedback that I get online encourages other users to take the message seriously, and also helps me engage with decision-makers. Many of these figures follow me online, and put the information I share into practice when formulating new policies. And it enables others to reach out to me. To give an example, the organisers of the Hargeisa International Bookfair recently invited me to facilitate a panel discussion about youth and social development, including the issue of FGM. This was a huge event to be part of, and helped spread messages that I continue to advocate online.

Social Media: Learning to Swim Both online and offline, an activist needs to be persistent and resilient. The world of Facebook and Twitter is like an ocean—with patience and vigilance, you can learn to swim. If you use social media wisely, with the emotional intelligence to stay calm in the face of whatever your opponents throw at you, you can help change a community.

There's nothing bad about negative reactions to online posts. When I see a reaction, whether positive or negative, I know that the message has reached someone and that they've thought about it. The response is only the smoke, while the fire has been lit inside them. It shows that you are reaching people, and that even those who are against you today may understand what's better for them and their community tomorrow. In conservative cultures, women face red tape everywhere, and can do nothing without the approval of men.

However, social media gives us, as women, the power to reach out to others and speak about the issues that matter to us without having to ask anyone's permission. Years ago, when I was campaigning against FGM offline, the subject was completely taboo. Today, with the help of social media, this is already changing. Learning to swim through the ocean of social media means knowing your allies, knowing your opponents, and staying resilient and committed to reaching your goals. My advice? Learn about the issue you want to change, every angle of it, both good and bad. Stay informed, and if you feel exhausted just take a break; it helps to rethink and reshape your strategy, and you'll see how people on social media look forward to hearing more from you when you're back online. And remember you're never alone. You may be the first to break the ice, but others will join you. As the African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”


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Online Trolling: A New Form of Sexual Harassment If you were thinking that the patriarchal system exists only in the traditional social sphere, then you need to look more carefully at what’s been happening in the online Somali community. Social media has simply become an extension of our conservative society, and the same traditional male-dominated culture in the real world has been transformed into the online world. This time it’s even more dangerous.

Social media is a space for building relationships and bridges that can play a particularly valuable role in a society like Somalia, divided by clan lines and invisible borders. But it has now turned into a weapon used against women and girls, simply because of their gender. ABDIFATAH HASSAN ALI is a blogger, human rights defender and co-founder of Digital Shelter, a local initiative that promotes digital rights and internet freedom in Somalia. Twitter: @IamAbdi5

Online harassment, cyber bullying, abusive comments and physical threats against women have become commonplace in Somalia over recent years. For example, a young girl was attacked online for posting a picture of herself wearing slim-fitting clothes, even though she was fully veiled and in full Islamic dress. Another was trolled for several days because she posted a picture of herself wearing a headscarf with half of her hair visible. Reading the comments, it’s as though the trolls have become ‘authorities’ who can dictate the do’s and don’ts to women in the online world. Women posting non-hijab pictures even face death threats; they are called everything from prostitutes to apostates, which leaves them vulnerable to physical attacks in the real world. What makes matters worse is that most trolling attacks come from anonymous accounts, allowing abuse to flourish in an unbelievable way. Most are based on misogynistic and sexist attitudes while others are directly, personally, insulting. For instance, offensive comments on body shape and appearance follow whenever women post pictures of themselves. Salma (not her real name) is among the popular social media personalities in Somalia. She lives with the constant battle against trolls and hate speech comments every time she posts something on her Facebook feed. “When I post a picture of myself on Facebook, there


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are two groups of people commenting on my post. Those who sexually harass me, commenting on my body shape, and those who insult me for dishonouring Somali culture by exposing my body like that.” One anonymous Facebook user wrote: “You are a shameless person, don’t you have parents who discipline you? Are you exposing your body so that you can attract more men? You are a dead person.” This is the kind of comment Salma has to read whenever she posts a picture. One time, an anonymous account posted her picture with her phone number and a text saying: ‘I am a 22-year-old single girl and I’m looking for a date.’ Salma received more than two hundred calls and text messages, and it kept on and on until she changed her phone number. “I had to deactivate my account for two months. I couldn’t take the pressure of those messages coming to me.”

Apart from dealing with these daily threats and online harassment, women experience extreme trauma that forces them to either quit using social media or deactivate their accounts for weeks or months. Social media can function as a democratic space where everyone is able to voice or express their opinions regardless of their gender or background. But this is not always the case for Somali women. They are being virtually controlled on online platforms just as they are controlled in real life. The irony is that men often use social media as they please, without being bullied or harassed: their offline freedom has been replicated in the online world.

In February 2018, Somali Women Journalists (SWJ)—a non-profit female journalists’ association— released a report on the challenges faced by female journalists working in Somalia. One of the key findings of this research was the problem of sexual harassment. The organisation’s chairperson, Farhia Kheyre, who is also a renowned local journalist, faced an online trolling attack that lasted more than three months. One of the most appalling aspects of this was that most threats were coming from female trolls, including other female journalists who felt they were ‘defending the honour of Somali girls.’ Farhia was simply trying to expose the truth when no other female journalists dared to speak out, and for doing so she was accused of extortion and abused in deeply offensive terms. Her character has been almost literally killed on social media. Trolls achieve two things in their brutal online attacks: first they shame someone, and eventually they silence him or her. What’s more worrying is that police in our country have no clue about this. They don’t even consider it an offence, and have virtually no way of tackling cybercrime. And when women share the issue with their family members or friends, they are told to remain silent and ignore their harasser, which only empowers the harasser to continue. Artwork by IBRAHIM SAYED

The Internet is a magnificent platform which gives equal space to everyone to express their views, build networks, and share ideas and moments of their lives. But unfortunately, it is also notorious for encouraging people to behave in this outrageous manner, and in our patriarchal society it's women who bear the burden of this unfortunate reality. Misogyny is widespread across all social media platforms, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and

beyond. Trolling women is now becoming a serious crisis in a society that already mistreats women under cruel and intolerant laws that privilege men. There is a fine line between abusive online behaviour and freedom of expression on the Internet, and it should not be abused by men who would certainly never want their own sisters to be the victims of such a crime.


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Women on Stage: Voices from Behind the Wall ROMISA A. EL KARIM, founder of AFRIKANUS, Creative Director for Africa Live Network and a prominent women rights enthusiast. A social entrepreneur who aspires to inspire women to design their own paths in making an impact for livelihood, future and developmental purposes.

“I love to read books,” she said. “I am free to imagine things.” “And I love flowers!”, another interrupted. “I would open up a flower shop if I could. I’ve loved flowers since I was a little girl.”

The desert sun dazzled through the palm roof. As I sat on the sand, I felt it shimmer and coalesce over my skin. I was in awe of the way these women’s eyes glistened when they told me of their dreams and triumphs. Were these the same women I had met just three weeks ago? They had changed from shy and silent to outspoken. As we sat there, knitted together, they shared their varied opinions on love, men, society, Sudanese culture, Islam. Through the deep and open conversations with these village women, I had come to realize that we were all playing a tune that society had orchestrated for us as women. Our melody was composed of the stories we shared with one another. As a young Sudanese woman recently returned to her homeland, I had been appointed as a coordinator at one of Sudan’s first major international events. The Karamkol Festival, first held in 2017 and organized by the Swiss Initiative, was designed as a platform for youth and international cultural exchange. The location was a remote northern province, home to one of Sudan’s most illustrious literary figures, the novelist Tayeb Salih. Because of my involvement in women’s rights advocacy, I was coordinating what became known as the Dar al-Anissa, the Women’s House. My main task was to encourage village women to take part in the festival to make sure their voices were heard, and to understand their challenges so we could find ways to support them. But to my dismay, and without realizing


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it, I found I had embarked on a journey of my own that led me to a deep self-evaluation, to building stronger human connections, and to reflections on what it means to be a Muslim woman in Sudan. Unlike most young women from my country, I have had the humbling privilege to experience other cultures, to learn new languages, and to see something of what makes the world the way it is today. I’m used to being ‘the foreigner.’ While studying in Brazil, I’d started a social project for young women, particularly women of African origin, helping them with issues of self-esteem, body image, and racism. It had been a place of connection and of storytelling, as they created beautiful handmade pieces of fabric that expressed their thoughts and feelings and knitted them together into a work of art. I’d talked about Africa, about getting away from the misconceptions and stereotypes about our great continent. But after a long time abroad, I’d felt the need to go home and engage with Sudanese women from the various regions of the country. I wanted to create educational opportunities for girls and to remind women that they’re capable of making something from their lives.

I wanted to be a leader who encouraged Muslim girls to learn, lead, decide for themselves, and to thrive. Working with women in Sudan, I’d asked them about their aspirations for themselves, for their children, and for society—not to change them, but simply to listen. We’d created strong bonds of friendship, to the point where they’d ask me about my love life. Not that this question is anything unusual, as it’s the standard conversation with every Sudanese khaltu (auntie). But the remarks they made afterwards made me reflect on my own experiences in a way I hadn’t before. They

told me that, in their eyes, I didn’t seem to have many challenges. After all, I was a young woman who was free to travel around Sudan, to explore the outside world, with no husband to answer to and a father who had instilled her with confidence. As I saw it, I’d faced all sorts of challenges simply because I wanted to be myself in a society where women don’t lead. And I’d met so many strong women, full of hopes and aspirations, who had to bottle up their true selves, even in the place they call home. It had left me with a great sense of responsibility to amplify their voices, to help young girls believe in endless possibilities, to keep listening to their beautiful often tragic stories that sometimes kept me up at night.

This particular story is about a remarkable incident that happened one evening at the Karamkol Festival. About a moment full of potential for women’s empowerment, that was lost behind a wall, with three women sitting there silenced. And about how, later, that wall came down. The sun was setting in the desert sky with grapefruit hues of pink and orange. It was going to be a special evening, a night of poetry, music, laughter. Events like this don’t happen very often in this particular part of North Sudan, so you can imagine the excitement and the traces of nervousness. There would be international guests, and also people from other nearby villages, all curious to see what the night would bring. I sat next to a colleague as the light hit the palm trees, forming patterns like the northern lights. And, finally, the music began. The master of ceremonies came onto the stage, welcoming everyone and telling us about the acts. He was energetic and bold, stamping from one side of the


stage to the other. Everyone enjoyed it, relishing his confident performance. I was elated to realize that a woman would direct this performance, speaking in front of a mostly male audience. But where was she? I wanted to see her, this woman who was so beautifully delivering her messages. I looked from side to side, hoping for a glimpse of her. “Where is she?” I asked my colleague. After a moment, we realized it must be a recording and looked around,

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baffled, to see if anyone else felt as bothered by this as we did. No, not at all. Everything seems to be going according to plan, and no one found it strange.

“I didn’t know if the men would approve of this. So, I just hid, since I didn’t want to cause any problems,” the first replied.

Then I spotted a woman speaking on the microphone, almost out of sight behind a wall. It wasn’t pre-recorded after all, and the presenter was very much present. Yet hidden. I can’t explain the emotions I was feeling. I needed answers.

The second, who was much younger, said, “Well, I saw that she didn’t go out on stage, so I didn’t either.”

Why was she hiding behind the wall? Was it her choice? Did someone tell her this was one of the conditions of being a presenter?

I thanked them for their time and we exchanged contacts.

During the break, I got up and tried to find the answers for myself. I asked the organizer of the event if I could go behind the wall and talk to the woman, and he encouraged me. “Yes, Ms. Romisa, of course. You don’t need my permission, keep up the good work you’re doing,” he said. With no idea what I was going to say, driven only by my deeply unsettled feelings at what I’d seen, I went backstage. To my surprise I found not one woman behind the wall but three! I introduced myself, and found they were women from a local town who presented a radio show. After a little conversation, I asked if they minded me asking them something. “Please don’t answer if you don’t want to—I’ll understand,” I told them. With a warm smile one told me to go ahead, and the others nodded. “Why are you behind this wall? Was it your choice?”


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The third added, “My family doesn’t support me in what I want to do.”

As I went back to my seat, I realized how much Muslim female representation matters. What will become of our society if we continue to silence and hide our women? I felt as if I was unravelling who I was, and who those women truly were. My colleague looked at me as I sat in silence, my throat clogged. The second part of the festivities began, and I felt rage consuming my whole body. Then, all of a sudden, one of the women walked boldly onto the stage! I had to look twice, but yes—it was the very same woman I’d just spoken to. Did that just happen? I wondered. What made her walk onto the stage like that?

What happened next made me feel like a desert flower in full bloom after the rain.

I raised my head to see all three women dragging their chairs onto the stage. They had gone from hiding behind the wall to proudly presenting themselves to the audience. I knew then that our conversation had triggered something in them, enough to make them show themselves as the bold, strong women they truly were. I felt elated by this turn of events, yet I was left with questions. Why would people disapprove of a woman being on stage? Is this something about the female voice in Islam, and the tug of war with the society and culture we live in? Is a woman’s voice always unnecessarily sexualized? Islam, as I understand it, does not place any obstructions around women’s voices and self-expression. But these women, who spoke so confidently, were still silenced by a wall.

tradition and religion to rationalise their ideas. As a society, we have not questioned or challenged them, these longstanding ideas about gender roles and expectations that have held back women’s progress. The crucial question is: what form does oppression take in everyday life? We must ask ourselves why we continue to silence women in the name of religion when this is not part of Islamic teachings. This question, however, should be answered by women themselves. We must continue speaking to women and listen to them, and we must understand that being a Muslim woman does not mean being hidden or silenced.


This image is a deep-rooted and powerful one. What kind of role model does this provide for our young girls? More specifically, what does it say about how Muslim women are seen in our society? I believe that coming out from behind that wall marks a blackand-white contrast between the current condition of women in this region and who they truly want to be. Furthermore, we should bear in mind that this kind of discursive or physical repression does occur in our communities and is blindly ignored, just as the audience watching that evening ignored the women’s invisibility during the first half of the performance. Sometimes this is simply due to an unconscious bias, as—unaware of these women’s needs—people use

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Religious Pluralism and Freedom of Belief in the Muslim World Religious pluralism, freedom of belief, and atheism are sensitive topics that cannot be thoroughly addressed without understanding the existential changes that swept the world amid globalisation after the fall of the Soviet Union.


Sudanese writer, translator and researcher who lives and works in Australia. He is a freelance journalist with a background in the social sciences and a particular focus on political Islam and progressive Islamic thought.

The emergence of liberalism after the Cold War occurred hand-in-hand with a tremendous technological revolution, which saw the rise of the Internet as an unprecedented communication tool. This made it impossible for certain groups to sustain their isolation or protect their cultural specificity religion was no exception.

The spread of social media platforms and the liberal values embedded within—for instance, individual freedom, freedom of faith and gender equality—were sufficient to shake many deeply rooted values that had endured from force of habit and the absence of real threats. This is especially true for conservative patriarchal societies, where religious and ruling authorities have traditionally worked together to create and maintain the dominant narrative of Islam within the state, and strictly controlled any attempts by individuals to put forward any alternative interpretations. Globalisation served to destroy many barriers, abolishing monoculture and central values, and previously identified communities’ perceptions. Globalisation continues to deny any space for differences or individualism.


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This has coincided with the acculturation of several forms of art—music, cinema, television, etc.—wittingly working to disseminate postmodernist values and dissociate what has been formerly perceived as the truth, even by Western standards. This can be easily observed through the appearance of elite issues and taboos like women’s status, minorities’ rights, religious freedom, and homosexuality, in public discussions on social media. Political regimes had little with which to fight back against the infiltration of these forms of coercive globalisation into Islamic conservative communities— except religious discourse. This gave, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood a golden opportunity to present itself as the ultimate salvation for both Islam and Muslims. Religious discourses extended and started to build on the idea of ‘threatening technology’ by using the Internet to counterattack globalised values. Moreover, political Islamist groups often took this idea one step further by seizing political authority, executing Islamic policies and strategies that cut across every aspect of life, and cutting off secularism. On the other hand, Islamists’ recurrent failures complicated the situation, making globalisation rather appealing, especially when talking about issues like the rights of women and minorities. Here, advocating for those rights became a legitimate, vital goal that justified struggle and sacrifice, and the echo of previously prevalent religious discourses started to fade.

Nevertheless, we should not forget the fact that Muslim communities have a history with secularisation that dates back to Western colonization in the eighteenth century. The modernisation of political, educational, and cultural systems along with the emergence of the nation-state has no doubt contributed to the collective mind and made secular values more prevalent. At the same time, we should also not overlook legal pluralism between Shari‘ah Courts and statutory courts, intentionally imposed by colonialism in Muslim communities that later led to political crises and structural limitations. It is worth noting that the discourse on women’s rights has always been a significantly influential global rhetoric. Cultural, intellectual and creative discourses, promoting this pattern, have been very efficient in infiltrating conservative societies to the extent that some religious institutes have been forced to undertake reforms on jurisprudence (fiqh) relating to women’s rights. For instance, Tunisia reformed its personal status laws even before globalisation became as powerful a tool for change as witnessed today.

Current transformations witnessed by Muslim communities are proof that hiding behind cultural specificity is no longer possible. Globalisation’s unparalleled power in penetrating religious and cultural barriers leaves no one untouched, even Saudi Arabia. Despite its economic capacity that has been key in many regional and international

decisions, it couldn’t escape the overwhelming current flowing through the Internet and social media channels. Naturally, women’s rights became a pressing issue in such a conservative, nomadic society as Saudi Arabia, which used to represent religious purity through it's adoption of Wahhabist ideology. The rebellious Gulf women in general, and Saudis in particular, were not representing a novel phenomenon, but through previous—often violent—censorship by both religious and social authorities their voices had been muted. In a way, the international community had also contributed by keeping silent and acting collusively, when they depicted women rights as a ‘private matter.’ This apparently progressive approach of globalisation met with a religiously institutionalized dogma that for ages had kept women in the shadows, normalizing inferiority. For the first time, Saudi women were allowed to view themselves in a broader context in comparison with the ‘Other’ and also were given the opportunity to communicate with the Other in a reflective way that questioned their positions and statuses. Here, online tools didn’t only open a space for awareness, but also for hope and individual salvation from discrimination. One path to salvation has been through seeking asylum in the West to escape gender, racial or religious discrimination, assisted by solidarity initiatives by individuals and rights organizations. This has been feasible with the collapse of geopolitical borders and the exceptional capacities of global aviation. These factors gave Saudi women the push they

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longed for to take the initiative and start their journey out of an everlasting patriarchy. Although it is hard to tell what would come out of this adventure, what is certain is that many women have succeeded in breaking psychological barriers and disrupting a status quo that cannot go back to what it once was, no matter what.

Social Media and Atheist Groups Social media has provided its users with a virtual space that allows for individual and group discussions of taboo subjects, especially freedom of belief. This has been partly feasible due to the prevalence of postmodernist values, with respect to what is perceived as truth and its relation to the political, social and cultural authorities which generate contemporary values. Although doubt is on the rise, and the flow of ideas nurtures comparison, we cannot yet conclude that


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atheism is a phenomenon sweeping the Muslim world, even with some atheist groups on social media and several asylum-seeking attempts by Saudi women. The term ‘atheism’ is even problematic, especially when looking at the matter from a pragmatic perspective, while dealing with asylum seekers. For instance, Saudi Arabia is well known for its religious extremism and its death penalty for apostates, which is a natural justification for seeking asylum. In my opinion, it is more accurate to state that religion is no more a taboo, and the idea of questioning Islamic history and rulings is becoming more of a living fact. Relatively safe virtual spaces have allowed previously censored and concealed significant critiques such as Mohammed Arkoun’s Critique of Islamic Reason and Mohammed Abed al Jabri’s Critique of the Arab Mind. These books, among others, used postmodernism as the basis for their intellectual reference and methodology, especially how they question religious truths within their historical contexts, and the association of religion with superior political and social elites in certain eras.


For a moment, the change in the Muslim world might look confusing, until we realize that the toll of globalisation in the past and the present is exceptional and irreversible. Having this influence and outreach, globalisation rose as one of the monumental narratives that reshaped the world, like Abrahamic religions, the Renaissance, or the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps globalisation is still materializing; nevertheless, its symbolic and moral significance, along with its remarkable economic power, is irrefutable whether within Muslim countries or worldwide.


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Laugh with Me!

SAKDIYAH MA'RUF is Indonesia's first female Muslim standup comic. She is a laureate of the Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent 2015 and one of the BBC 100 Women 2018. She is currently producing a comedy series on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and teaching comedy to young people across Indonesia. Sakdiyah can be found on Instagram @sakdiyahdotmaruf and Twitter @sakdiyahmaruf

Laughing is not the first thing that people will associate with Muslim women. Amidst the tired image of oppressed Muslim women unable to speak for themselves, I dare myself to take the stage, hold the microphone, claim my space, and share my stories. All of that while inviting you to laugh with me! It never gets easier.

The Beginning I remember the first time I went on stage as a standup comic on a television comedy talent show. I trembled and my heart beat so fast from a combination of joy, fear, anticipation, and great worry of what would come next. Most of those feelings were not coming from stage fright, but from thinking about the possibility of my father watching the show. I was lucky. My father went overseas the week they aired the show so he had no access to Indonesian television. The show was taped several weeks before airing and I remember telling my father that I had to go to Jakarta for a conference gig (I was and still am a conference interpreter). In reality, I was invited to participate in that television comedy talent show. I grew up in a Hadrami Arab-descent community in a small town in Central Java, Indonesia. Here, being a standup comic is the farthest thing that anyone can ever imagine for girls and boys. I remember receiving a Letter of Acceptance to study English at a university. My father called his friend, our neighbour, telling him how proud he was that his daughter was admitted to the Faculty of Medicine. I only hope that our neighbour will not call me for any medical emergencies because all I can share with him is laughter. But, laughter is the best medicine anyway, right? The community I grew up in is a community where girls are born with the default expectation that they would grow up to be decent, Muslim women. A decent, Muslim woman must continue preserving her religious and ethnic identity by carefully grooming herself through childhood and adolescence to earn the love of a respected man from the community. I was fortunate that my father supported my education, but


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with so many conditions placed upon my ability to take classes, I wished I had a lawyer to help me negotiate my father’s terms better. I can go to the university, but I cannot go out after class. I must not join student organisations, must not speak up, but most importantly, I should not get to know anyone, especially anyone from the opposite sex. When my father told me this last condition, I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, Dad, I didn’t know that you were such a great supporter of lesbianism!” This is how I re-create and share my story on a comedy stage. The truth is that, when it comes to my family and I, what I need is not a lawyer, but courage. I consider myself living a double life. One part is rampant with fear and violence, while the other is full of laughter. It wasn’t until I went up on stage for the first time that I realized how the two came together, and with that, the joy of healing, connecting with others, surviving, and most importantly resisting. Risking the blessings of my family, I took the microphone during that television talent show and told my first joke. It was a bad one. But it opened the doors to so many possibilities of looking at pain, joy, and life as a Muslim, a woman, a daughter, a sister, a citizen of the world, a human being, and now a mother and a wife, and a servant of Allah. It has been a long and winding road. Exposing myself to the public is not as joyful as the comedy. Nonetheless, I am no longer trapped by the struggle to gain my family’s acceptance of my choices.

The Backlash “You can’t joke about Islam.” I hear this advice all too often as a standup comic. Of course, it’s kinder than a lot of other remarks people make when they hear about what I do. For example, “You’re not following the path of the wives of the Prophet!” “Well,” I reply, “I don’t recall reading anything in the Qur’an or hadith where the Prophet said his wives never laughed.” Another: “I’ll be happy when I’m watching you burn

in hell.” “But if you’re watching me, doesn’t that mean you’ll be in hell too?” I ask. And one of my favourites: “You’re evil because you have evil teeth.” “Thanks,” I say, “you’ve noticed the one feature that will make me beautiful for all eternity.” Then, of course, the sort of comment that every woman who speaks her mind in public hears far too often: “What an embarrassment to Islam—I can see the bra under your dress.” When people criticise me for what I do—whether they suggest I’m going to burn in hell or put it a little more kindly—they feel that they’re doing a good deed, and are performing their religious duty as a Muslim to ‘advise others’, as is written in Surah al-’Asr (Qur’an, 103:3). They forget, however, that this verse tells us not only to advise others, but to advise them to follow the truth, and to be patient. Gentleness in guiding others is the essence of Islamic teaching, as other verses of the Qur’an make clear.1

The Faith It’s not easy being a female standup comic in a culture that’s afraid of both women’s voices and humour. Yet, I first turned to comedy because I believe in freedom, equality, and our shared humanity—and, above all, because I believe in God, Allah; I believe in the Prophet, Rasulullah; and I believe in jokes. I believe that humour is a form of spirituality and a path to finding deeper compassion for, and connection with, our fellow human beings. There’s certainly no lack of humour in Islamic tradition. For example, Abu Hurairah narrated that, when some of the companions remarked on the way the Prophet used to joke with them, he replied: "Yes, I do. But I only tell the truth."2 Sometimes jokes are the best way of talking about serious questions, or of telling the truth. We can communicate the truths of religion with laughter. It allows us to question the injustices in our society, and open up a dialogue on issues that are otherwise too loaded with fear, sensitivity, and entrenched power dynamics.

Here’s a short sample of my standup routine:

Ladies and gentlemen, an update from the Muslim world: Nike has just launched Nike Pro Hijab, proven to be extremely comfortable for Muslim female athletes or those running away from oppressive regimes and/or husbands. Dolce and Gabbana has also launched a modest fashion line, proven to make polygamy unaffordable. Can you imagine having four wives and having to dress them all in Dolce and Gabbana? It’s amazing, even extremists begin to “empower women.” I can’t imagine what they would say to attract them. “Yo, women, you want equality, right? So you blow yourselves up too! Guaranteed weight loss of 100%.”

That’s one side of the story. At the same time, there’s plenty to laugh about when it comes to the West’s limited understanding of Islam. Sometimes I talk about my travel experiences and being at conferences where Caucasian women say things like: “Oh, you’re a Muslim woman from Indonesia? Life must be so hard out there. Why do you speak such good English? You must be excited to get more sessions at the conference, more exposure for you! And you’re wearing a hijab? But this is a free country! If a guy caught you without it, would you have to marry him? And do you never take it off and use a special kind of hijab shampoo?” Humour is a space where we can play. But more than that, it’s a place where we can think, change our minds, see things with fresh eyes, and open up a dialogue. With a few lines of jokes, we can talk about issues we’ve been reluctant to address for years, even centuries. Here’s one of them: the way societies view women. Why is it that women—in any society—experience far


“And by the mercy of Allah you dealt with them gently. If you were harsh and hardhearted, they would have fled from around you” (Qur’an 3:159).


Jami`at-Tirmidhi: Vol. 4, Book 1, Hadith 1990.

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more criticism than men when they stand up and tell jokes? Why is it that women are still expected to be silent and accept the status quo? Elites fear the power of humour, because throughout history, it has been a weapon of the marginalised, of anyone experiencing discrimination based on race, skin colour, religion, gender, or any other aspect of their identity. People have always used jokes as a way of telling truth to power, of breaking down walls and challenging stereotypes, as a form of resistance and rebellion.

The Encounter This is what I encounter while sharing stories and resisting through humor—the love and laughter of Muslim women from around the world. I remember, several years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to perform at a gala dinner in Sydney, Australia. It was a black-tie event with VIPs in attendance from many different types of businesses and institutions. While their support matters, the most meaningful moment for me was when one of the female waiters from the catering company supporting the event approached me and said, “I am a Muslim migrant and I would like to thank you for saying what you are saying.” To date, it was and is one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had. Meeting young Muslim women is among the highlights of my career, and I find I’m constantly learning new things about what it means to be a Muslim woman today. For example, I was once afraid to speak up freely while performing in front of Muslim women wearing niqab. Trapped by my own prejudice of what it meant to be a Muslim women, I would often selfcensor my jokes, afraid that they might be offended. I thought, what if they go online and speak badly about me? It felt like a miracle when at the end of one of my shows, one of them approached me and asked to take a photograph with me. She said, “I have been following you! I went to your other show as well. I want to be like you!” I couldn’t help but burst into tears and apologize to her and to God.


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Another example was a beautiful afternoon in Aarhus, Denmark. I was so lucky to be part of an interfaith program delegation from Indonesia to Denmark. We visited one high school in Aarhus where most of the students are migrants from the Middle East, escaping the prolonged conflict in their countries. Many of them were Muslims. It was difficult at first, and I thought about what I should say to these girls. Finally, I decided to just go with my regular comedy set on the challenges of growing up in conservative Muslim families. At the end of the sessions, the girls were giggling, saying that they have been having a hard time explaining to their fathers that they are now in Denmark and that life is different and they need a little bit more freedom.

The Mission They say that comedy doesn’t travel very well due to the cultural context in which jokes are often embedded. To a certain extent, that may be true. Yet, laughter also unites us in celebration of our humanity, of our pains and struggles, of our hopes and dreams oh, and sometimes, of our fear of our fathers. It never gets any easier. There are times when I feel like giving up. There are times when I crave family acceptance so much that I think what I’m doing is not worth it. There are times when I think I should just focus on my daughter instead of touring. There are times when I am just too tired to laugh. But there are more times when I feel like we really need that laughter. These are the times when I see you, all of you, standing tall, and I believe that our struggle and resistance is worth every bit of my efforts to make you laugh. After all, humor is powerful, because humour is hope. So laugh with me!



Resilience | Artwork by ENAS SATIR Enas Satir is a Toronto-based Sudanese artist whose work revolves around politics, issues of race, blackness and African identity. Her work is inspired by the beauty and complexity of her background and country, Sudan. Enas’s work is dedicated to de-stigmatise and initiate conversation around controversial topics in a complex culture like Sudan.These topics include: the dominance of an Arab culture over the indigenous African culture, the shame often associated with black skin and slavery in an Afro-Arab society, the marginalising of mental health issues by conservative religious views, and the hopes, and the highs and lows of fighting for the Sudanese revolution. Instagram: @enas.satir

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Revolutionising African Political Society: The Contribution of Muslim Women to Socio-Political Development At the intersection of African culture and Islam, what does feminism look like? Is there space at this intersection for women to mobilise, in order to create and sustain resistance movements? If we want to reach a better understanding of both the historical and contemporary involvement of African women— particularly Muslim African woman—in feminist movements and political activism, these are questions that need to be addressed.

FATIMA B. DERBY is a Ghanaian writer and activist. She is a contributing writer for the awardwinning blog, Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women where she writes about sex and body politics from a feminist perspective.

In the African context, popular notions of feminism suggest that feminism is not only a Western invention, but also incompatible with both Islam and African culture. However, history tells us otherwise. Long before the coinage of the word féminisme in 1837 by French philosopher Charles Fourier, African women had been devising innovative methods and approaches to rebelling against oppressive systems and fighting for collective liberation. African women played significant roles as revolutionaries before and during colonialism, as well as after independence. In her article for Feminist Studies, Niara Sudarkasa demonstrates that pre-colonial African women were actively involved in politics and leadership.1 She illustrates how women were queenmothers, queen-sisters, princesses, chiefs and holders of offices and villages, occasional warriors, and—in the well-known case of the Lovedu tribe in South Africa— the supreme monarch. In many African societies, women were consulted on matters of governance and internal political affairs, and had their own channels of representation through which they could contribute to social and political development. This is not to say that women enjoyed equal rights in pre-colonial times; patriarchy has always existed within the majority of African cultures, as it has throughout the world. Similarly, patriarchy has long been part of the


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two major monotheistic religions in Africa, Christianity and Islam. Yet women have always resisted, or found a way to play an active part in political and social change despite the challenges they faced. Islam spread to Africa very soon after its beginnings in the 7th century CE and, for over a millennium, many of the African women who played active roles in social change came from Muslim societies. In the early 19th Century in West Africa, for example, Nana Asma’u made a profound contribution to women’s liberation through education. She was a princess, teacher and poet, reputed to be one of the leading scholars in the region, and is often thought of as one of the heralds of modern African feminism. Nana Asma’u’s influence on politics was immense. She acted as a counsellor when her brother ruled the Sokoto Caliphate, as well as writing instructions for governors and engaging in intellectual discourse with foreign scholars. From 1830, she took on a more active and innovative role in the education of women, and organised a group of women teachers to go around the Caliphate and educate women in their homes. One of the remarkable things about this method of home education was that it was so inclusive, accessible to working class and rural women in the Caliphate. Her legacy has influenced women’s participation in politics and the struggle to secure equal educational

Artwork by SSALI YUSUF, Uganda

opportunities in the region. Since the beginning of the colonial period, around the time of Nana Asma’u’s death in the late nineteenth century, constant commentary and interference by the West in African liberation struggles have propagated the idea that feminism is foreign to African women—despite clear examples to the contrary, like that of Nana Asma’u. These colonial narratives of women’s powerlessness compounded those of existing patriarchies of traditional African societies and of conservative Islam, both of which render women

voiceless and invisible. Together, these narratives have led to an erasure of the long-standing history of African women’s resistance to various forms of oppression. In addition, Orientalist Western discourse has long represented Muslim women as being oppressed and in need of ‘saving.’ This misconception remains powerful today, as is evident in the recent prohibition of women from publicly wearing the niqab in numerous European countries. Such interventions are problematic because they superciliously ignore women’s agency and ability to choose whether or not to veil themselves. Furthermore,


Niara Sudarkasa, “‘The Status of Women’ in Indigenous African Societies”, Feminist Studies 12, no. 1, Spring 1986: 91-103.

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they promote the false narrative that Muslim women are not—and cannot be—feminists. This narrative stems from a colonialist conceptualisation of gender and power, which misses the nuanced relationship between gender, culture and religion. It also fails to acknowledge the agency and capacity of Muslim women to contest patriarchal ideas and promote norms and practices of gender equality within their own societies and communities. For this meeting of gender with religion and culture is the intersection where African Muslim women find many ways to resist—by making themselves visible, taking up space in public, and demanding to be seen. In December 2017, for example, Amasa Firdaus Abdulsalam, a graduate from the Nigeria Law School, was denied her call to the bar because she insisted on wearing the barrister’s wig on top of her hijab. The Law School argued that she was breaking the dress code. In July 2018, the decision was rescinded after a case was filed by the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) group. Firdaus was called to the bar while wearing her hijab underneath her wig, becoming Nigeria’s first ‘hijabi’ lawyer. This single act of resistance set precedent for many young Muslim female students to choose to be visible and claim space and assert their agency, as they can now be called to the bar while wearing their hijab. More evidence of Muslim women’s resistance against patriarchy and colonialism exists across the continent. Huda Sha’rawi was an Egyptian feminist and nationalist, and is considered the founder of the women’s liberation movement in Egypt. In 1920, she founded the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee and pushed for Egyptian women’s open participation in political activism and


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the nationalist movement. She helped lead the first women’s street demonstration in Cairo, the ‘March of Veiled Women,’ to protest against British colonial rule, and later founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, which demanded women’s right to vote. Sha’rawi also fought for educational reforms to ensure that girls had access to the same educational opportunities as boys. In West Africa, women were also significantly involved in anti-colonial activism. One of these figures was Aoua Keita, a Malian independence activist, writer, and politician. A member of the African Democratic Rally (RDA), she was instrumental in creating women’s wings within the party. In 1951, she renounced her French citizenship and campaigned for the RDA in the 1951 election. She would later become the RDA’s Commissioner for Women. When Mali gained independence in 1960, Aoua Keita was elected to the National Assembly, making history as the first woman from French-speaking West Africa to be elected to the national legislative assembly of her country. Aoua started a trade union and fought for women’s rights by championing the struggle to advocate for better living conditions of African women. The Sudanese Revolution is a most recent testament to women’s involvement in social and political struggle. The viral photo of Alaa Salah, standing atop a vehicle dressed in a white tawb, with her right hand raised and leading protesters in a chant, is symbolic of the foundations of Muslim women’s liberation movements in Africa, where women claim public spaces and spearhead resistance movements. The revolution, which started out as street protests with a considerable participation of women protesters in December 2018, eventually led to the ousting of Omar al-Bashir after 30

years of dictatorial rule. Many of the women protesters were jailed and beaten but they continued to rebel against injustice. In an article for the Financial Times, Zeinab Mohammed Salih and Tom Wilson mention women’s innovative expressions of rebellion: “The women’s resistance has manifested itself in different ways. On one Sudanese Facebook group, originally set up to identify cheating husbands, its 340,000 female members try to identify undercover intelligence agents from photographs taken at demonstrations.”2 Yet, while the international media portrayed women’s leading role in Sudan’s uprising as ground-breaking, for anyone with a deeper knowledge of Sudanese history it comes as no surprise. Sudanese women have a long history of organised social and political activism dating back to the colonial period. They repeatedly rebelled against British colonial rule. In 1946, for example, Khalida Zahir, the first Sudanese female doctor, was arrested and flogged for staging a street protest against the British. She later went on to co-found the Young Women's Cultural Society with Fatima Talib in 1948. The Young Women's Cultural Society became the first Sudanese women's organisation, facilitating literacy skills for women and providing health education. Zahir also co-founded the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU) with Haja Kashif Badry, a researcher in Sudanese feminist movements, and Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, who later became the first women to enter Parliament. The SWU fought for women’s right to vote, equal pay, and access to employment opportunities and benefits. Over the years African women have been consistent in social and political activism, and have shown resilience in pushing the boundaries of what freedom

and equality means for all African people, particularly those who exist at different intersections of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, class, ethnicity, age and ability. Imagining new realities and ways of being is not a foreign concept. For Africans, it should be a core driver of socio-political development even as people and nations embark on a process of decolonisation and reconstructing new narratives of ‘Africanness’ that centre our humanity and freedom.



Zeinab Mohammed Salih and Tom Wilson, “Sudanese women take lead in protests against Bashir; Backlash against decadesold morality laws as people take to the streets”, Financial Times, March 28, 2019

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Indian Women Protest New Citizenship Laws, Joining a Global ‘Fourth Wave’ Feminist Movement Women are among the strongest opponents of two new laws in India that threaten the citizenship rights of vulnerable groups like Muslims, poor women, oppressed castes and LGBTQ people.

ALKA KURIAN is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington, Bothell. Kurian teaches a range of courses that focus on film, literature, gender studies, and human rights. Her background is in South Asian diasporic film and literature where she examines the politics of representation of race, ethnicity, gender, identity, sexuality, politics, religion, neocolonialism and globalization.

The Citizenship Amendment Act, passed in December 2019, fast-tracks Indian citizenship for undocumented refugees from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan— but only those who are non-Muslim. Another law—the National Register of Citizens—will require all residents in India to furnish extensive legal documentation to prove their citizenship as soon as 2021. Critics see the two laws as part of the government’s efforts to redefine the meaning of belonging in India, and make this constitutionally secular country a Hindu nation. Since 4 December 2019, Indians of all ages, ethnicities and religions have been protesting the new citizenship initiatives in scattered but complementary nationwide demonstrations. The uprisings have persisted through weeks of arrests, beatings and even killings across India by the police. But the most enduring pocket of resistance is an around-the-clock sit-in of mostly hijab-wearing women in a working-class Delhi neighborhood called Shaheen Bagh.

Women Take Charge Since 15 December 2019, women of all ages—from students to 90-year-old grandmothers—have abandoned their daily duties and braved near-freezing temperatures to block a major highway in the Indian capital. This is a striking act of resistance in a patriarchal country where women,particularly Muslim women,have historically had their rights denied. The Shaheen Bagh protests are as novel in their methods as they are in their makeup. Protesters are using artwork, book readings, lectures, poetry recitals,


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songs, interfaith prayers and communal cooking to explain their resistance to citizenship laws that, they say, will discriminate against not just Muslims but also women, who usually don’t have state or property papers in their own names. On 11 January, women in the Indian city of Kolkata performed a Bengali-language version of a Chilean feminist anthem called “The Rapist is You.” This choreographed public flash dance, first staged in Santiago, Chile in November 2019, calls out the police, judiciary and government for violating women’s human rights.

A Dangerous Place for Women India is the world’s most dangerous country for women, according to the Thompson Reuters Foundation. One-third of married women are physically abused. Two-thirds of rapes go unpunished. Gender discrimination is so pervasive that around 1 million female fetuses are aborted each year. In some parts of India, there are 126 men for every 100 women. Indian women have come together in protest before, to speak out against these and other issues. But most prior women’s protests were limited in scope and geography. The 2012 brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old Delhi woman—which sparked nationwide protests—was a watershed moment. All at once, the country witnessed the power of women’s rage. The current women-led anti-citizenship law demonstrations are even greater in number and power. Beyond Shaheen Bagh, Indian women across caste, religion and ethnicity are putting their bodies and reputations on the line. Female students are intervening to shield fellow students from police violence at campus protests. Actresses from Bollywood, India’s film industry, are speaking out against gender violence, too.

Anti-citizenship law protests in India's Assam State, Feb. 16, 2020. Photo by ANUWAR ALI HAZARIKA, Getty Images

Women’s Secular Agenda With their non-violent tactics and inclusive strategy, the Shaheen Bagh women are proving to be effective critics of the government’s Hindu-centric agenda. Their leaderless epicenter of resistance raises up national symbols like the Indian flag, the national anthem and the Indian Constitution as reminders that India is secular and plural—a place where people can be both Muslim and Indian.

As I write in my 2017 book, such inclusive activism is the defining characteristic of what’s called “fourth wave feminism.” There isn’t a common definition of the first three feminist waves. In the United States, they generally refer to the early 20th century suffragette movement, the radical women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the more mainstream feminism of the 1990s and early 2000s.

The Shaheen Bagh movement’s novel and enduring strategy has triggered activism elsewhere in the country. Thousands of women in the northern Indian city of Lucknow started their own sit-in in late January. Similar “Shaheen Baghs” have sprung up since, in the cities of Patna and even Chennai, which is located 1,500 miles from Delhi.

Fourth wave feminism appears to be more universal. Today’s activists fully embrace the idea that women’s freedom means little if other groups are still oppressed. With its economic critique, disavowal of caste oppression and solidarity across religious divides, India’s Shaheen Bagh sit-in shares attributes with the women’s uprisings in Chile, Lebanon, Hong Kong and beyond.

Global Women’s Spring

The last time women came together in such numbers worldwide was the #MeToo movement, a campaign against sexual harassment which emerged on social media in the United States in 2017 and quickly spread across the globe.

India’s Shaheen Bagh protests form part of a broader global trend in women’s movements. Worldwide, female activists are combining attention to women’s issues with a wider call for social justice across gender, class and geographic borders. In January 2019 alone, women in nearly 90 countries took to the streets demanding equal pay, reproductive rights and the end of violence. Young women were also at the forefront of the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Sudan, Brazil and Colombia.

Shaheen Bagh and similarly far-reaching women’s uprisings underway in other countries take #MeToo to the next level, moving from a purely feminist agenda to a wider call for social justice. Women protesters want rights—not just for themselves, but human rights for all.


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. The article originally appeared on 25 February 2020 at www. theconversation.com.

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Images from Khartoum Sit-In, 6 April–3 June 2019 The Khartoum Sit-In, which ran from 6 April–3 June, was an organically created civilian space, which allowed women, men, and children from all backgrounds in Sudan to come together and establish a space of peace and solidarity in the midst of instability, uncertainty, and violence. Over the course of the Sit-In, millions of Sudanese people came together to convert a central part of Khartoum city into this civilian-controlled space.

Photo credit: Ula Osman

11 April, the day we toppled the president “I woke up early and looked at my cell phone to get the latest updates, before joining the crowds at the sit-in, I was taken by surprise that the armed forces will have a statement soon! At that time, people started urging more and more people to gather at the square. I hurried to my friend, Afrah, who is featured in the photo, and we went together, overwhelmed with different feelings, fear, apprehension, watchful waiting; thinking of what might the armed forces announce. However, what happened was more than anyone could have imagined in their wildest dreams: finally, 30 years of oppression and injustice were gone forever! When we reached the square, chants were cutting across the air and joy was obvious in everyone’s eyes—literally everyone, kids, youth and elderly, just everyone. Our ululating was mixed with revolutionists’ chants and shouts. This moment we had been waiting for long, till we were sure, after the armed forces announcement. 11 April will always be engraved in the country’s memory, marked by martyrs’ blood and women’s courage, sacrifices of mothers; we had fought our way and won. Revolution is still there, though, till we get all our demands. The struggle continues” Rebecca Matta al-Kawwas, activist


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Photo credit: Nidal ‘Ageeb

11 April, General Command, girls chants to topple Ibn-Ouf “Women had notable contributions, and I want to present this contribution and document it. I have seen distinguished persistence and elevated levels of positive energy of women who endeavoured for their freedom and didn’t stop at any moment.” Comment and picture by journalist Nidal ‘Ageeb

Photo credit: Alnour Suluman

“This is a moment that is hard to describe, simply, it is really great for a country to get its freedom after 30 years of injustice and dictatorship.” Professor Fadwa Abdelrahman Ali Taha, Vice Chancellor of University of Khartoum

Photo credit: Alnour Suluman

“This was in the beginning of May. I was with my friend Khaled, and it was such an exciting day. This photo was taken at 10 p.m., after we decided to stay out, celebrating the feeling of freedom. Different graduates from the Faculty of Arts, University of Khartoum, had gathered at the sit-in, where I met colleagues I had not seen since 2009. It was a place where you would meet with friends you miss, and also establish new ties and friendships; it has become the square of freedom and hope.” Safiya Siddique, journalist

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Photo credit: Ula Osman

Medical field work has been challenging, as well as taking part in the demonstrations. In the picture is the heroic medical team that led the field clinic during the sit-in — L-R: Dr. Eman Mohammed Ahmed (pink scarf), Dr. Mohammed Abd-Allah (white button-up), Dr. Amal Gabr-Allah (center), and nurse Hamad (blue shirt).

“It was in May, and the temperature was mounting to 45 degrees Celsius, streets were crowded, and traffic was paralysed. We left our car at a crossroad beside the railway and joined women from different age groups as we walked on Al-Qasr Street toward the starting point of the feminists’ march in Shohadaa (Arabic for martyrs) Gardens. This march has been inevitable, especially after 30 years of Muslim Brotherhood rule, with all the suffering this has brought for women. Women marched in large numbers towards the great sit-in, demanding civil rule of the country versus a religious one. The march gathered women from across different socio-economic strata, demanding justice and equal citizenship. This has been a moment where demands for the country’s freedom have been mingled with women’s demands for their freedom; demands that cannot be delayed or compromised.” Hala AlKarib, activist Photo credit: Ula Osman


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Photo credit: Nidal ‘Ageeb

13 July, processions of justice “Girls standing on the sides of the roads, chanting and ululing, to salute those participating in justice processions, the second procession after dispersing the sit-in of the General Command. What motivated me the most is watching those eyes that are full of hope and love, to the procession’s participants.”

Comment and picture by journalist Nidal ‘Ageeb

Photo credit: Ula Osman

“In the long way to freedom, I have been in the procession, in a leading position, waving with the victory sign, a well-deserved victory, coming after long persistence. Now, we look forward to a better future, after the previous years had ripped us of our lives, humanity and beauty. We, as women, feel vibrant, full of energy, confident of incurring change, persistent, responsible and moving forward to broader horizons and freedom that we earned. We went forward, chanting again and again, opening the door to new hope.” Samah Taha, journalist and women’s rights advocate

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“If Not Now, When?”: Feminists at the Heart of Algeria’s Protest Movement IMAN MOUNIR is an Egyptian journalist focused on women’s issues.

Amirah Qureshi was at her university in Algiers when the first protests that would later morph into a revolution broke out against former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and his bid for a fifth consecutive term in office.

It was, she said, a form of ‘first-day’ apprehension, fueled by concerns that the marches would not be peaceful or would be met with violence by security forces. On the following Friday, Batna’s women joined in.

February 22, 2019: Protests Begin

Young Feminists

Ever since her early youth, the 20-year-old Qureshi had been distinguished by a palpable passion for politics, which would not only drive her to join the marches but to also push her fellow female colleagues at the Faculty of Media and Communications to do the same—urging them to participate in the procession heading towards the presidential palace.

Despite their youth, both Qureshi and Uthmani were already involved in feminist groups on the ground and on social media platforms. Algeria’s political reality before the revolution did not allow for feminists to go to the streets too often to demand their rights. In the post-Bouteflika era, however, things have changed.

As they tried to leave the campus, however, they were met with the closed gates of their university, ordered shut by security personnel in the vain belief that it would stop the invigorated youth, the oldest of whom was 22, from getting involved. But the students started to scale the gates, with Qureshi and her friends in tow, eventually forcing university security to reopen them. The students proceeded to gather outside of the university building before beginning a march towards the presidential palace. When they were 400 metres away, security forces fired tear gas to disperse the students, who headed towards Didouche Mourad Street in the centre of the capital to join the rest of the demonstrators. Meanwhile, 425 kilometres south-east of Algiers, 18-year-old Kawthar Uthmani was waiting for the end of Friday prayers in the province of Batna to join the first revolutionaries of post-independence Algeria streaming out of the mosques. However, unlike her counterparts in the capital she noticed the near-absence of women in her province’s protests, with Uthmani almost the only woman in the square.


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During the first week of protests, Qureshi met up with her friends to prepare and discuss the banners and slogans they would use, before agreeing to a date on which they would go to the streets and the route their march would take. The following week, Qureshi proceeded to raise her group’s feminist slogans and demands, calling for the abolition of the country’s Family Law and equality between the sexes in both rights and duties. However, the banners and slogans did not appeal to some of the male youth in the protest, who proceeded to tear them and attack the girls. Among the most important feminist demands are the abrogation of: 1) Article 46 of the Family Law forbidding adoption; 2) Article 11 requiring a woman to be present with her guardian when signing a marriage contract; 3) Article 7 allowing a judge to sanction the marriage of a girl under the age of 19, for reason of benefit or necessity; and 4) Article 61 that stipulates that a divorced or widowed woman cannot leave the family home for the first three months after separation. Because of their experience, the women proceeded

freedom in the name of religion and authority,” she said. Uthmani continued, “We should participate in formulating laws that can protect us in a patriarchal society, and that will not be fixed between day and night.”

March 8, 2019: International Women’s Day International Women’s Day on March 8 witnessed a very strong representation of women in the protests compared to the two preceding weeks. This led feminist activist Amal Hajaj and her feminist Photo by LEILA SAADNA, via Raseef22.com friends to focus their deliberations on what they wanted out of the to organise feminist-specific demonstrations, but were popular movement, as women who lived in Algeria. often harassed by their male counterparts, who believed their demand to abolish the Family Law untimely. This Hajaj subsequently convened, along with her friends, led Qureshi to ask: “If now is not the time, then when a feminist association in Algiers named Algerian is?” Women Demanding Their Rights. An enlarged feminist collective composed of the different associations was “Our demands do not conflict with the public subsequently established on March 22, 2019 called demand, which is that we want a free, democratic Algerian Women For Change Towards Equality. Algeria,” she told Raseef22. Qureshi continued, “But this demand cannot be accomplished without liberating The new collective proceeded to release several the Algerian women, and so we call for the abolition of statements condemning the regime and calling for the Family Law, because it oppressed Algerian women their legitimate rights, encapsulated in the abolition of and is reactionary.” the Family Law and the enactment of civil laws which are fair to Algerian women, as well as translating their Uthmani called for freedom and gender equality, in statements into four languages and sending them to the addition to changing the Family Law to accommodate press. Algerian women of the present day. Hajaj told Raseef22: “In addition to calling for a radical “Amending this law is a human right before being a change in the regime and everything derived from it, feminist one, because it oppresses the woman and her we as feminists call for a democracy that encompasses

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our rights, for if we are partners in changing the regime, we have a right to decide what comes next.” Hajaj added: “We have throughout history participated in revolutions for liberation, whether the uprising of October 1988, or the liberation of Algeria from Islamist terrorism during the black decade, but the prevailing patriarchy has betrayed the feminist strugglers and did not leave any room for them in political life after independence, and even the laws and Algerian customs and traditions did not do much justice to women, and so Algerian women should insist on their demands at this time and should not pay heed in any way or form to the phrase: ‘It’s not the right time.’” Hajaj said that her movement’s demands are not solely confined to the full abolition of the Family Law, but also encompasses the enactment of laws that achieve justice and equality between all without exclusion or discrimination, in addition to laws that criminalise violence against women. She called on Algerian feminists to work towards changing social conceptions which create a derogatory view of women, so that women across Algeria can determine their fate ‘without guardianship.’

March 29, 2019: Protests Continue Two other Algerian activists working in feminist circles since 2014 are Mellor and Hayat Mijbar, who previously administered the former Facebook page “Enough-DZ” (Enough Algeria) before it was taken down by the site due to being repeatedly reported by users, and which encouraged women to demand their rights. The two women sought to take the struggle to the field, and agreed to meet in the last week of March with the feminists they knew to elucidate their demands. These included cancelling and amending twelve articles from the Family Law in the immediate future, followed by the abolition of the law altogether and its replacement with a new formulation that included the


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input of women after the end of the protests. The current law was enacted on June 9, 1984, with the country then undergoing formidable economic challenges, and the presence of women in the political and social arena was much more diminished. Mellor subsequently undertook the task of creating banners, often deploying the same slogans she had been using for years on her “Enough-DZ” page. The young women proceeded to choose the morning of Friday, March 29, with the streets empty of protesters before Friday prayers, as the moment to go to the streets and put up their posters calling for the abolition of the Family Law, using the slogan “Down with the law of shame,” concentrating their activities in the capital Algiers and the city of Béjaïa 300 kilometres to the east. Unlike the case in Algiers, however, the feminists were met by a different reaction in Béjaïa. The posters and stickers did not appeal to some of the protesting young men, such as one which portrayed a man and women on the verge of kissing while denouncing the legal article forbidding the marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim, as well as another flyer objecting to a legal article preventing a divorced mother from keeping her children. The protesters proceeded to beat up the women and tear up the posters. Mellor told Raseef22 that feminists in Algeria have been participating in the weekly Friday demonstrations against President Bouteflika since the start of the protests. Before the current movement, she said, they had been prevented from going to the streets as peaceful protest and assembly had been banned in Algiers since 2001. Nonetheless, she said that during this period feminists still attempted to organise several peaceful protests, only to be shut down by security forces. Mellor recounted one such march taking place in August 2018, when the feminists attempted to organise a peaceful vigil and minute of silence commemorating

the life of an 8-year-old girl who had been kidnapped, raped and killed, only for police in central Algiers to ban the assembly and deal roughly with the protesters. Mellor said: “We have been in the popular movement since the start on February 22, as well as many women and feminist figures who have participated in formulating it [the protests], since women have been struggling in the political arena over many long years, with some opposing the third and fourth presidential terms of Bouteflika. And so, the presence of women in general and feminists in particular in the political and popular movement in Algeria was not born yesterday.”

halted the ongoing demonstrations of the protesters, who have gone to the streets in record numbers on subsequent Fridays to demand the downfall of the “regime” in all of its symbols, and their exclusion from the transitional process. Hajaj told Raseef22: “We did not go out in a revolution only against Bouteflika, for everyone knows that he has been inactive for years, but we went to the streets to uproot the regime along with all of its components.”

“We are Algerian citizens living in Algeria,” she added. “We care what happens in our homeland, for the course of these events will affect our lives and therefore we must affect it in turn.”

Meanwhile, feminist activist Mellor said that the feminists’ struggle was not only against Bouteflika, but against the prevailing patriarchal mentality in Algerian society. This meant that the struggle of the Algerian people writ large may be easier and shorter than the feminist struggle, which she said will not stop until all its demands are met.

Feminist activists were part of the early protests, but felt that International Women’s Day demonstrations should have accorded greater importance to the situation of women in Algeria. Most feminists were subsequently subject to harassment, sexual and otherwise, and their banners were disparaged by many of their male counterparts.

Ultimately, the demands of Algerian feminists are many, Mellor said, elaborating: “We cannot specify our priorities accurately because [in] a country which has more than 20 million women with different backgrounds, cultures, patterns of living and mentalities, it is very difficult for its women to have the same demands.”

Others called on them to put away the banners, arguing that the time was not right to call for women’s rights and that everyone should unite behind a single banner. Some feminist protesters were subjected to heavy beatings.

Nonetheless, she concluded: “Feminists north, south, east and west and from all age groups agree on one necessity that should be treated in the closest possible time, and that is the current Algerian Family Law which is unjust to Algerian women, both those living in Algeria and those abroad, and those married to Algerian citizens.”

Ultimately even the prepared feminist chants were absent, with the voice of the crowd eclipsing that of the feminist activists, who were ultimately a minority compared to the thousands of men surrounding them.

April 3, 2019: Bouteflika Resigns


Republished with permission from Raseef22. The piece originally appeared on the website www.raseef22.com. on 24 April 2019.

After 20 years in power, Bouteflika tendered his resignation on the morning of April 3. Yet this hasn’t

Women in Islam, 2021



The Sidelined Warrior Queens at the Heart of the Revolution HUSSEIN SAAD is a journalist and editor for Madaniya News. He previously worked as the managing director for the al-Ayam newspaper and the Ajras alHuriyya political daily, where he became EditorIn-Chief. He was also a journalist at Sudan Radio Service based in Nairobi, Kenya, and Chief Editor of The Citizen. Hussein has special training in human rights, democracy, and peace, and has attended various legal and training courses in Sudan and abroad.

The women of Sudan had a pivotal role in the glorious December Revolution. The extraordinary presence of Sudanese women amidst the crowds at sit-ins, street protests, and civil disobedience rallies has influenced the course of history of Khartoum, the capital. Scores of stories could be recounted about the Revolution of Sudan, and of how its people and women took to the streets in defiant rage of an oppressive government that stayed in power for over 30 years while subjecting defenseless citizens to suppression, war, and torture. The ongoing conflict, until the independence of South Sudan in 2011, was described as Africa’s longest-running war. In the 1950s, the First Sudanese Civil War ended with the Addis Ababa Agreement, yet the truce failed to dispel the tensions and clashes. The Second Sudanese Civil War resumed in the 1980s and lasted all the way until 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The armed conflict in the Darfur region, in 2003, had resulted in a genocide that led to massive killings of precious lives, mass displacements, and coercive migrations. Following the independence of South Sudan and the separation of the country, war erupted once again in the region of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. The atrocious repercussions of this war, especially when it broke out in South Kordofan in 2011, cast an awful shadow over all areas of life in the country.

Sudanese women—the Kandakat, whose power is connected to Nubian queens—have been the personification of the revolution. The sidelined women living on the margins—the wives, mothers, martyrs, farmers, and housekeepers— were the ones who stood on the frontline to safeguard their families. In doing so, they were the real warriors who helped fuel the revolution. In this respect, Sudan’s


Women in Islam, 2021

Uprising offers an array of notable women who will go down in history as the epitome of the revolution. These prominent Kandakat include legal experts, journalists, doctors, tea and coffee sellers, and educators—all of whom stood up against subjugation. As a result of their courage, these women at the forefront were threatened, arrested and tortured. Their salaries were cut, and they were fired from their jobs because of marching against oppression. Nonetheless, the warrior queens continued to converge on the streets in the cities and villages of Sudan. They invented and chanted distinctive slogans despite the raft of oppressive measures to subdue them. Women protestors were shot at with tear gas and live ammunition. They were flogged with clubs and beaten with sticks. There is no question that the women suffered the scourge of war and the throes of crisis. They underwent displacement and were forced to endure bitter realities and horrific tragedies on a daily basis, not to mention the several documented arrests and deaths that took place. Clearly, these Sudanese women warriors shouldered the heavy burden and paid the price of the brutal regime, yet they nevertheless, through their brave sacrifices, made the world pay attention to what was happening in their country. Their heroic stances have become epochmaking records in history.

Courage Beyond Words The triumph of the December Revolution must acknowledge and pay tribute to the Sudanese women who risked their lives for its victory. Women have proved themselves capable in every way. Not only did they stand up against offensive criminal authorities, but they also had to endure and survive the debilitating and pigeonholing measures taken against them continuously. These women must therefore get the


credit they deserve. They must be given the space to fully participate in politics, diplomacy, law, and media, as well as in civil and humanitarian work.

Sudanese women have rightfully earned influential standing and have proven themselves competent to take on leadership roles in transforming the country. It is high time to move beyond talking about injustice, repression, and the demand for gender quotas, seats and percentages, and to instead take the lead in establishing genuine and effective feminism in all public affairs. Women must not wait for affirmation of their capability, nor for approval of their existence. They must no longer be pigeonholed or stereotyped. It is evident that women, starting from the early days of the Sudanese Revolution, have been typecast as ‘victims’

and ‘widows.’ Such oversimplified images of victimhood have overshadowed and deeply concealed the women fighters (who were and are rarely depicted). After all, displaying women as ‘victims’ was more likely to garner sympathy and get the attention of the world, and thus it became the prevalent image. Such stereotyping of women has been practiced in plenty other forms, too. For example, there have been actual campaigns that encroached upon the privacy of women and used personal details against them. There have been numerous cases where accusations were made against women in relation to their ‘honour,’ with the intention to character-assassinate and assault them professionally, politically, and socially all at once. Meanwhile, there has been very little footage documenting the role of the defiant, rebellious, and active Sudanese woman. There has been little attention given to the strong female workforce in politics, law, and media, and of the great contribution of women in

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organizing protests. Women’s active contribution goes back to the start of the revolution in December 2018, and prior to that in September 2013, not to mention in June and July of 2012, in 2002, and also in 1998 and 1996, not to forget the women who remained steadfast despite being confined and arrested in cells back in the 1990s. There are too many of these types of examples of female activism and bravery to name. It is evident that the Kandakat—Sudanese women warriors—have and continue to be at the forefront of the revolution. They forcefully co-led the launch of the protests through tweeting its on-set, they established resistance committees; and they ensured that civil society was efficiently meeting the needs of the people in general, and women in particular. On top of this, women in the media had a major role in communicating the voice and message of the revolution, women journalists and writers used their pens as weapons in their fight against the most oppressive systems, and female lawyers and legislators documented and defended violations of citizen rights.

Sexual Violence as a Weapon The defunct regime pulled out all stops and devoted much effort to disrupt the Sudanese Revolution’s visible role of women in conflict areas, including in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and the Blue Nile. In addition to using traditional measures, the regime introduced a new weapon—sexual violence—as a policy by which to stop women from partaking in protests.

Seeing that women are customarily regarded as the ‘honour holders’ of society, sexual violence explicitly targeted women. In this respect, women were directly harmed and subjected to systematic policies of harassment and rape, and sexual violence became a horrific weapon of torture. Perpetrators easily got away with such crimes unscathed, especially since it was difficult to


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document offenses that pose sensitivity to the ‘dignity’ and ‘honour’ of women in light of the conservative traditions of Sudanese society. Undeniably, Sudanese women did not get their fair share of endorsement for their achievements, nor did they get the necessary recognition for and acknowledgement of their struggles. They also did not get ample representation within negotiation committees and in freedom and change alliances, seeing as those seats have been overflowed with men. Today, we find only minor representation of women (here and there), who have often been included only for the sake of appearances. Although we do have two female members at the Sovereignty Council, yet our aspiration is to nominate a woman as President of the Republic. Our hope is that the civilian government will actually give the space this time for Sudanese women to have substantial roles in the government. Women must take part in the democratic transition of the country, much like they have partaken—albeit on the periphery—in the revolution and the war in conflict areas.

Ultimately, the Sudanese Kandakat, women warriors who have lived through suppression and tyranny, have been fighting for justice and freedom and for bringing down the country’s deeprooted oppressive system.

Awadia Koko, Safaa Tutu (and many more) The Kandakat Nubian queen warriors of the Wadi Howar sit-in tents have become the emblem of the sidelined women protestors. The women’s tents (located near the military’s headquarters in Darfur), the tea sellers' tents, and the variety of dishes and locally prepared meals for Iftar (the breaking of the fast during Ramadan) have all epitomized these sidelined women, many of whom have lost their lives. Such personalities include Awadia Abbas and Awadia Koko, who has been feeding demonstrators at her graduates-club tent.

Another distinctive personality here is the beauty queen of the Nuba Mountains, Safaa Tutu, who is the personification of the current generation who took part in the uprising and shed blood in the streets of Sudan. Safaa also happens to be among the marginalised young women in conflict areas who had spent much of her childhood listening to the sounds of shelling and shooting. She had been participating in the marches and protests before her left hand was broken due to an atrocious crime last June which nevertheless did not deter her from participating in the glorious revolution. She remained steadfast in her protest at the square and stayed on the frontlines despite the scorching heat that often soared above 40 degrees. Safaa Tutu, like women activists such as Haja Kashef, Khalida Zahir, Fatima Ibrahim, Suad Ahmad, Hawa Janqo, Maheira bint Aboud and others, embody the outstanding Sudani women rebels of their time who stood up against oppression and repression across history. A student at El-Ahfad University and a Zumba dance instructor, Safaa is actively engaged in several social initiatives including the literacy initiative of Babiker Badri Society, Yalla Niqra (Let’s Read). She is also a member of the Juba Mountains Journalists Network, and member of ‘Without Creams’, an initiative against the use of skin whiteners. Safaa has proven that her title as Miss Beauty would be deemed irrelevant if not used in favor of the battle against oppression. She thus chose to take to the streets, knowing full well that martyrs have fallen in those streets and the virtuous were arrested and placed in the oppressors’ prisons, and thus “the streets—for the Sudanese—do not betray.” Safaa Tutu became an icon in the capital’s neighborhoods and meetings. She led initiatives such as “Let us live our differences,” which calls for respecting diversity and pluralism in Sudan and grounding the values of peace and tolerance. Safaa herself has experienced many challenges and difficulties, one of which was the Juba Mountains War which fragmented her family. During that war, Safaa, her mother, and little siblings had been on their way

to the capital of Khartoum but had to settle in Al Izba (west of Omdurman), wherein some of the houses were later removed on the premise that they were random housing. As a result of the war in South Kordofan that forced them to abandon their home, her mother had to take full responsibility for everything. Regardless of the repetitive disasters which befell her family, Safaa did not stop from persevering in her studies. She remained tenacious despite the absence of her father and brothers, and in spite of her mother’s strenuous circumstances and need to take care of the household needs.

“Those circumstances,” Safaa notes, “did not stop me from achieving the dreams of my mother, father, and family. I pursued my education while assisting them and engaging in the protests.” The life journey of Safaa is filled with an assortment of valuable lessons, teachings, and achievements. She may be a young woman, yet having withstood such devastating circumstances speaks volumes of her tenacity. She has excelled in many hobbies and nurtured her talents and initiatives. What especially stands out about her is having been crowned Miss Beauty queen at the Nuba Mountains Festival in 2016. She won first prize following a fierce competition between three other contenders; the second being queen Natalia. The other contestants were Nuha Mahdi, a graduate of Omdurman University and the Deputy Chair of the Nuba Mountains Journalists Network; and Sabreen Abdelrahman, a graduate of the faculty of law at Al-Neelain University and social secretary at the Nuba Mountains Students Association at AlNeelain University. The third contender, Rosalyn Tow, holds a postgraduate degree in Rural Development from el Ahfad University and has also studied Social Development at the University of Nairobi.

HUSSEIN SAAD Translated from Arabic by ARDA AGHAZARIAN

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Women in Islam, 2021

From the Personal to the Political: The Struggle of Sudanese Women in Politics I was raised in an overly politicised and polarised country, in an overly politicised family that loves reading books and literature, Subsequently, arguments were the order of the day. During the first Gulf War, when the United States under then President George H. W. Bush attacked Iraq for the first time in early 1991, I remember my father yelling around midnight from the hallway downstairs, “They hit them. They hit Iraq!” None of my siblings were interested. I was the only one who jumped out of bed to join my father to listen to the BBC, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Politics was the space of interaction for my father and I. Politics allowed me to fight back, argue loudly, show my assertiveness and share my views, regardless of how extreme, naïve or controversial. It was only when we spoke about national or global politics that my father tolerated our disagreements—in that context, the power of the patriarchy would take a backseat and we could become friends. Otherwise, I battled for every single step to be engaged in social activities like staying out late with friends, going out to parties with boys, and inviting my male friends to my parents’ house. I had to immerse myself in books in order to reflect on my thoughts freely since I was not allowed to live my ideas. Growing older and later becoming a parent myself, I appreciate my father’s worries and concerns more and I wish we had had the time to speak about them openly before he left us. My father appreciated my opinions, but he was also a man of his time and his society. He understood what it meant for a woman to be perceived as equal to men in a traditional society like his. He knew that a woman of such a frame of mind would be stigmatised as one who acts, talks and thinks like men,

and as is typical of our society, the next demonisation would be the worry of who will marry and/or tolerate such a woman.

Later, in his old age, after I had gone through my divorce and eventually broke the news to him, my father smiled and said, “ You are too smart and too independent, they are unprepared for you.” Interestingly enough, for the first time, I heard pride in my father’s voice. Finally, I felt that he spoke to the true me. Despite the long history of women’s activism in Sudan and the masses of women who participated in the Sudan revolution, women’s engagement and political participation is still under the control of male guardians. Independent women activists are stigmatised and subjected to hate and character assassinations, especially those of us who challenge the status quo and cross the patriarchal stereotypes of how women in politics should be. In my case, for years my family looked at my radical political views as some sort of stigmatised disability, trying to accommodate and contain these views because of the mess and social embarrassment they thought it could create.

HALA ALKARIB is an activist, writer and research practitioner from Sudan, and has a long history of promoting the rights of women in the Horn of Africa and East African region. She is Regional Director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa and the Editorin-Chief of Women in Islam.

Women Active in Political Organizations and Parties in Sudan My teenage years and early 20s were marked by the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood

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organization within Sudanese society. The Muslim Brotherhood is a political organization that employs militant and traditional Islamic views to re-engineer society and cultivate power. Later, it became the National Congress Party (NCP) that took power in Sudan through the 1990s, until the eruption of the Sudan uprising between December 2018 and April-June 2019 that ended up overthrowing the Islamists’ regime. For over 30 years, the Brotherhood managed to impose a set of laws and a culture of discrimination and violence against women, without facing much resistance. In fact, its religion-based ideology was easily absorbed by the dominant, conservative populations in central and northern Sudan. This enabled the Brotherhood to comfortably settle into Sudan’s political arena. Surprisingly—despite the repressive ideology they projected to outside society and the overt subordination, discrimination and exploitation agenda to suppress women that was transformed into laws and policies— the women who were part of the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed a significant level of freedom. For example, I remember that, during the late 1980s and 1990s, secondary schoolgirls and female university students affiliated with the Brotherhood were able to stay with boys overnight at the mosques. This free-movement pass was always the case at the mosque until late at night, and they were able to walk freely in the streets after morning prayers without social censure. On the other hand, those of us who had chosen to join leftwing or pro-democracy movements became subjects of scrutiny and condemnation. We were not only


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condemned and attacked by members of other parties, but also by men and women from our own social and political organizations. The level of persecution, violence and abuse experienced by Sudanese women who position themselves as agents of change or affiliated with leftist organizations in traditional and Muslim contexts is dramatic and rarely discussed. This speaks to how Sudanese society has internalized the suppression of women while being intimidated by religious power that was abused by political and militant Islamists who presented themselves for years as gatekeepers of faith and morality. The lack of solidarity and a feminist spirit among women in political parties is also significant. Women in political parties are still haunted by two main issues. Firstly, their participation is predicated on their loyalty to the male patriarchs of their parties. Secondly, work on women’s rights and equality can only happen through party politics and within their parties’ agenda. Thus, women in political parties are constantly distracted with negotiating power positions and privileges. Therefore, they are more often allies to patriarchy than the women’s rights agenda.

One thing I have learned through the years—an isolated struggle defeats the agenda. Angela Davis, an activist for social and human rights, once said “I think the importance of doing activist work is precisely because it allows you to give back and to

consider yourself not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever but to be a part of an ongoing historical movement.” It is sad to observe the patterns of struggle of Sudanese women elites who attempt to be part of the current power structures as individuals and through their political parties without support from the feminist movement. It is a massive setback. A few months ago, women across the country took to the streets motivated by their aspiration for justice and equality, and contributed freely and equally to change in Sudan. Yet after the revolution, the same old game is being played under the auspices of patriarchy. The system and its agents play the “woman card“ to meet the new liberal agenda that only requires ticking the gender box to pass into the global arena. While the gender equality discourse fades away, the women of Sudan are waking up to the grim reality that despite the losses, sacrifice, assaults and killing they experienced, they are as far from their hopes for justice as they were under political and militant Islamist groups. Having said that, it is important to note that there is a new paradigm shift emerging in Sudan.

The women’s movement in their diversity must continue to politicise and sharpen their resistance and activism while challenging the politics of oppression and alienation.

societies, we walk a fine line between negotiating for change and living the change as role models. We stand against discriminatory social norms that are connected to faith and political ideologies that have been in place for years. The most common mistake we should avoid is isolating ourselves from other women and their values and beliefs. In order to reclaim justice and equality, we need to reclaim and redefine the values that contribute to the inequalities in our societies. We need to reclaim our religion from within our culture, and the heritage of Islamic enlightenment and reform. If change is to be achieved, feminists must first introspectively reconcile who we are as Muslims, as a society, and as a nation of women with an Islamic heritage. Only then can we interrogate and engage with traditional Islam to deconstruct discriminatory discourses, while rebuilding a set of values based on women’s lived realities. This will enable us to connect with women across the board over our shared aspiration for justice and equality. The heritage of the Islamic enlightenment is extremely broad and enabling; we do not have to renounce our religious heritage in order to push for equality and justice.


For women’s rights and gender equality activists who are working in and with traditional and Muslim

Women in Islam, 2021


SIHA Journal / Issue No. 4


The Legacy of Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim

٢٠19 - ٤ ‫العدد‬

9 770231 104143


‫فاطمة أحمد‬ ‫إبراهيم‬ ‫سرية ومسرية‬

Navigating Politics and Feminism in a Traditional Society

‫ذكريات‬ ‫الحرب وأجساد‬ ‫المقاتالت‬ ‫اإلريتريات‬

Eritrean Women Fighters Memories of War and Representation of Women's Bodies

‫ما بين العقيدة‬ :‫والحب والحرية‬ ‫ملاذا تنضم بعض النساء يف‬ ‫كينيا إىل تنظيم الشباب؟‬

Faith, Love, Emancipation Why Kenyan Women Join Al-Shabaab

:‫ملف العدد‬ ‫جنسانية‬ ‫المرأة في‬ ‫المجتمعات‬ ‫اإلسالمية‬

DOSSIER: Women's Sexuality in Islam


٢٠19 ٤ ‫املرأة يف اإلسالم العدد‬

“It’s always a pleasure to read SIHA’s journal. Issue 4 speaks to all women, really! No doubt that the realities of women are brutal, but also there are those who portray a better reality for themselves as well as others. Women in Islam does a great job in capturing these stories. I personally find so much hope, love and faith in stories of women who change their self narratives. They are such an inspiration to the rest of us. It is also reassuring to know that we too, with a bit of more persistence, can make a difference.” Hanaa Omer

SIHA Journal Issue 04/2018

“Generally I found out the journal is very interesting, useful and an educative tool about Islam and women's rights. I would love to see more stories from Somali context and, if possible, a Somali translated version to reach out to a wider audience. As mentioned above, the journal will be a useful tool for education and awareness raising for all respective stakeholders and it's a good resource for women's rights advocacy. Most of Somali population know nothing about Islam and women's rights, so this kind of journal will be beneficial and raise the awareness level, and those who are already in the sector will analyze or seek more knowledge about the subject; this will contribute people to react and challenge the patriarchal system. Kindly also distribute some copies to line ministries and other decision-making bodies such as Parliament members, judiciaries/ access-to-justice institutions.” Muna Ali, Oxfam

“The fourth issue of the journal, addressed throughout 32 article in 104 pages, an objective broaching to problematic issues, presenting realistic approaches to feminist experiences. Exposing feminist philosophies and epistemology as valid tools leading to equality and inventing genuine policies to stand against traditional religious authorities and gender imbalance, so as to bring about the inherent humanity for women. The journal presented an overview of women’s status in social contexts that restricts the social role of women. My personal impression of the magazine, with regard to this issue, which is my first encounter, is deep gratitude that I have finally stumbled on a cultural epistemological discourse that is objective. I am still on the lookout for resources that help me build a realistic epistemological structure, to satisfy my need and get me on the right track; aiming for a community that guarantees rights, equity and social justice for all.” Elaf Al-Nayer, Third-year student of Mathematical Sciences, University of Khartoum


Women in Islam, 2021

“Women in Islam journal is considered a normal historical extension for feminists’ literature and work in Sudan, like, Bent Al-Nil (Arabic for the daughter of the Nile), Al-Fadhila (Arabic for the virtuous), Women’s Voice magazine; all had worked to raise issues pertaining to women and society. What is characteristic about the journal, however, is that it has always been keen to broaden its scope of readers as to include more people; it has also attempted to shape and guide people’s perceptions, and advocate for issues of equality and community participation. This is essential for endorsing women’s rights and status. The journal offers a platform for debate, among different opinions and mind-sets, so as to introduce diversity of arguments, in a safe atmosphere, and explore gaps and flaws, amid the closure of many doors in the face of change. It is, therefore, necessary to push for women’s liberation from patriarchal patterns, and sustain it.” Mos’ab Othman AbdelMawla, Student at the faculty of Engineering, University of Khartoum

“Women in Islam journal has shed light on significant topics, and became rostrum for all women to defend their dignity and rights. This specific issue highlighted the issue of child marriage, the premature crime that rapes children of their childhood and clearly violates their dignity. This is a full-fledged crime, to get girls married before the appropriate and legal age; a phenomenon taking place everywhere, only differs in the prevalence. Unfortunately, it is a widely spread practice in Sudan, with subsequent negative economic, social and humane consequences. That’s why I would like to thank the journal, as it brought it to the forefront.” Iqbal Abdel-Rahman, High school teacher "The issue is great, especially how topics are presented, finding a basis to change the traditional inferior perception of women that is especially perpetuated by some traditional scholars, who normally view women only in light of their reproductive role. The journal opens the door, instead, for constructive criticism that aims at advancing women’s status." Asia Ahmed, Student at secondary school “Topics raised in this issue are problematic and interesting, one of which is, “Are men guardians?”, as this statement is very common in the community, and is taken as a justification for many patriarchal behaviors. Another interesting topic has been the experience of women and girls in Boko Haram and child marriage. Overall, I can say that this issue covered most of the issues that I would learn more about, thank you.” Sara Karrar “Women in Islam is a unique journal, eye-opening, extraordinarily thoughtful that offers a distinctive platform for writers and readers keen on contributing and learning from a perspective different from the traditional way of looking at women in Islam.” Guleid Ahmed Jama, Lawyer and Managing Partner, Xaqdoon Law Firm

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS, STORIES AND ANALYSES! Do you wish to highlight the challenges, experiences and achievements of women living in and alongside Muslim communities? Do you want to contribute to the growing voices against prejudice and gender inequality within Muslim societies? Send your article or essay to: editorwomeninislam@gmail.com Engage with us on social media: Twitter: @SIHA_Journal Facebook: @WomeninIslamJournal Instagram: @Women_in_Islam_Journal

Sha re your thoughts !!!


A couple of months after the Sudan women-led revolution, SIHA organized the first Sudan Women Convening that brought together women from different backgrounds, ethnicity, political affiliation and activism tenure. The report captures the themes and discussion culminating from 3 days of introspective and critical wiliness by the Sudan women’s movement to overcome decades of repression and charter a way forward on uniting for change across the different pre-existing divisions. The convening’s objective debates and recommendations reflected the maturity, sensibility and objectivity of the women’s movement in Sudan.The most potent outcome of the convening was the commitment by each and every woman present in the space to awaken an inclusive women’s movement. CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: GENDER INEQUALITY AND RAMPANT SGBV IN WAU, SOUTH SUDAN

Through the qualitative research that was undertaken in Wau Town at the end of 2018 through to early/mid 2019, “Caught in the Middle: Gender Inequality and Rampant SGBV in Wau, South Sudan” critically examines the dynamics of violence experienced by women and girls, to understand the root causes, and provide policy recommendations on how this can be addressed. The key observations from the paper range from sexual violence, bride-wealth based marriage practices, transactional sex, to disproportionate burdens to provide financial and care work for the family. Consequently, this has significantly undermined the freedom and safety of women and youth in Wau.The results from the research also demonstrate that addressing this violence will require concerted efforts to transform the ingrained patriarchal customs and practices that have shaped the response to conflict and poverty in the country. THE INVISIBLE LABOURERS OF KAMPALA

This research paper is the outcome of sequential efforts that were carried out by SIHA across the Horn of Africa region, in a bid to address the situation of the mass population of women street vendors occupying the pavements of capital cities and smaller informal markets across the region. Our research is part of our on-going endeavor to reach out to poor women working in the informal sector in urban areas of the Horn of Africa through concrete work on the ground, advocacy and partnership, to bring them and their challenges to the heart of the women’s rights movements in their countries and territories whilst enabling them to become instrumental actors in changing their circumstances.

For further publications, resources and the latest updates from our work, visit


Women in Islam, 2021


Issue No. 5, 2021

A journal published by:


the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa Network, was born of the social justice movement. Since 1995, it has grown to a membership of over 130 indigenous African women’s rights organisations. SIHA works in a variety of cultural, political, and geographical environments in Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan, and South Sudan.

SIHA was built on the shoulders of African women’s rights activists from Somalia/Somaliland, Ethiopia and Eritrea, South Sudan and Sudan, and has been sustained by

their relentless commitment to their cause. As an inclusive and diverse feminist women’s rights network, we draw strength from the multiplicity of women’s lives and voices.

SIHA firmly believes in the collective power of African women. Our vision is that all women and girls in the Horn of Africa have the right to live in a peaceful, just environment, and to exercise their equal rights as human beings.

constructed norms that actively subordinate women. Thus, our work foregrounds fundamental political transformation in our struggle for women’s rights in the Greater Horn of Africa, with a focus on challenging political repression, fundamentalism, and restrictive traditions.

SIHA’s extraordinary work is

all challenges that women face are

being led by African women and supported by continental and global solidarity. SIHA’s trajectory of growth is embedded in safeguarding and advancing women’s rights in the region, while generating knowledge

based on socially and politically

informed by women’s lived realities.

SIHA acknowledges that almost

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