Soon after religious authorities outlawed yoga earlier this year, Muslim women asked, “what next?” Irritated and outraged by their mistreatment and angered by the horrors of domestic violence, hundreds of Muslim women from around the world gathered last February in Malaysia. This global meeting marked the official launch of the Musawah movement for equal rights and family reform.
An organization of working professionals called Sisters in Islam led planning of the movement and the launch event. For an interview with Sisters in Islam program manager Norhayati Kaprawi, visit the page for our Inside Islam radio show “Women and Sharia.” Women involved in the Malaysian conference also included scholars, doctors, lawyers, and even bloggers who represented countries from across the globe.
This movement is for legal reform but also for a return to a truer interpretation of the Koran that can be traced back to Prophet Muhammad’s time. The vision and spirit of Musawah is outlined in this video included below from the Musawah website:
Activists involved in Musawah fight for the right to interpret holy texts including the Koran and believe that the tenets and interpretation of justice in Islam naturally lead to gender equality and family laws that uphold women’s rights. Social progress can be measured by a range of benchmarks because they vary depending on the daily context of each woman’s life and more broadly, by her country of origin as well. In the past, such developments have included alternative and progressive interpretations of the Koran, and today those interpretations have been applied to change the practices, traditions, and laws that impede social equality. Such applications include legal reforms but also a range of social reforms like access to media, job opportunities, marriage age, and maybe even yoga classes.
Even if countries have adopted laws to protect equal rights, some Muslim women feel they still need to reform family life. In other words, many women are being repressed by social norms despite the fact that there are already established laws. They advocate a new lifestyle in their home countries rather than additional legal reforms. Writer Cassandra Balchin quotes an Uzbek woman in her article “Musawah: solidarity in diversity” who says:
‘We solved the issues of the laws decades ago. We have the laws. For us the question is the implementation. So I could relate to some of the experiences: like Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia where the laws are in place and we now need to tackle inequality at home.’
The central point to recognize about the Musawah movement is that change has taken on different forms in each country, but the changes are all rooted in Islamic tenets and are motivated as acts of faith. In fact, the Musawah movement reflects the diversity apparent in Islam around the world. Journalist Nadira Artyk was an attendee of the February conference and wrote about her experience for altmuslimah in “The Musawah Network: Claiming Back Islam’s Revolutionary Spirit.” She points out in the post that, for the reason I explained above, the Musawah network represents an authentic voice for Islamic progress. Artyk writes:
Veiled and not, modern or traditional, those women represented the diversity of Muslim cultures and were complete opposites of the voiceless and oppressed images of Muslim women that dominate the mainstream Western media.
Legal systems, cultural traditions, and religious norms vary across the globe. The Musawah website tracks the struggle for equality and justice with national profiles. There are distinct profiles for thirty countries so far. The aim is to build a global culture of peace but also call attention to the individual styles of Muslim leadership around the world. Artyk reflects on one leading voice in the movement Zainah Anwar in the following passage, saying her words:
reflect the inner belief cherished inside the hearts of activists and scholars gathered in Kuala-Lumpur: ‘It is our hope that Musawah as a global movement will lead to that day when those in the Muslim world will realise that women’s demands for equality and justice are neither alien nor a threat to Islam, but are rooted in the Islamic tradition.’ Yes, we do hope and will be working hard for that day.
The progressive and alternative interpretations of Islam and the Koran that have emerged and gained popularity alongside this movement also seem to coincide with universal ideals like the struggle for human rights. Certainly, the human rights movement and the Musawah movement intersect in this common struggle. The main goal that women in the Musawah network share, however, is not to champion as a political interest group, or gain authority over men in power, but first and foremost to interpret Islam in an authentic way and experience the Musawah spirit on a global level. This official framework for action developed at the conference in Malaysia has led to continued partnerships that help to build transnational bridges across culture and language barriers and achieve the shared goal of this movement, which is ultimately to reveal Muslim reform in the countries where a balance between political Islam and fundamentalism is critically needed before we move forward as a global society in the future.
Did you know women were advocating for reform under sharia? Have you heard of other social movements in the Muslim world? Please leave your thoughts below or send us an email with your response.