Ecclesia of Women in Asia

Forum of Asian Catholic Women Theologians

Reflection on “Women in Islam” Course at Catherine of Siena Virtual College
I am sure that the future prospect of women in Islam is with the open, feminist movements both within and without the faith community.

As a non-Muslim, I concur with Rabbi Jacob Neusner who, at the beginning of the “Women in Islam” course, was quoted as saying: “Religious conversations with Christians generally do not get beyond the polite exchange of information about our rites, our beliefs, our future hopes.” Then he continued: “Nobody is asking me where I struggle with God or where I am in pain precisely because I am a Jew (read: ‘Muslim’). And, I say to you, that no one can know Jacob Neusner (read ‘a woman’) as a Jew (read: ‘Muslim’) unless they know my pain.”

During this course I have heard the heartfelt cry of a number of Muslim women who have struggled to find themselves and become themselves, both those who have dug deeper into their faith, and also those who have left it. The variety of voices brings to mind the question raised by Ms. Ahmed: “I no longer believe that there's an Islamic world, because where exactly are the borders?”

Not only does Islam not have a unified global organisation comparable to the papacy in Roman Catholic Christianity, each Islamic umma’ is multi-vocal. The Muslim umma’ is pluralistic in open societies such as in Southeast Asia, while fractured in more closed societies such as in Pakistan and South Arabia.

Above all, I am sure that the future prospect of women in Islam is with the open, feminist movements within and without Islam with their convincing egalitarian and social justice vision for which they struggle, a vision rooted in their readings of the Qur’an. I believe, with them, that compassion is stronger than hardness of heart, love more enduring than hate, reconciliation more lasting than conflict.

In her book “‘Believing Women’ in IslamAsma Barlas convincingly asserts that the Qur’an affirms the complete equality of the sexes, thereby offering an opportunity to theorise radical sexual equality from within the framework of its teachings. I am encouraged by her “feminist liberational” reading of the Qur’an which is parallel to that of many women biblical exegetes.

Similarly, I was delighted to study Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri’s “re-readings” of the Qur’an and to hear of the work of Sisters in Islam in Malaysia since 1991. Ibu Zu roots the term Islam in salam, linking the key concept of justice to takwa.
Ibu Zu is a professional artist. One series of her paintings was “inspired” by the atrocities committed in Bosnia. She poignantly wrote, “My whole being is shattered as I watch helplessly and read about the brutality and atrocities committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I feel the pain and I feel the loss. But Faith gives me strength. I believe that Truth shall prevail over Falsehood and Good shall triumph over Evil. What madness has overcome these people to want to annihilate other human beings who were once their friends and neighbours? Have they no Faith in God? Must the world stand still and watch these grotesque and inhuman acts being committed? For guidance I return to the Qur'an. I discover once again Surah 40 which is called Ghafir (Forgiver) or Al Mu'min (The Believer). The Surah is the beginning of a series of Surahs (40-46) which start with the Abbreviated Letters Ha Mim. According to Yusof Ali's interpretation, the theme of the entire series is ‘the relation of Faith to Unfaith, Revelation to Rejection, Goodness to Evil, Truth to Falsehood’. It is shown that the first in each of these pairs is the real friend, helper and protector of man, while the second is his enemy’." Her reflections resonate with Christian feminist readings of the Bible. ________________________________________

In Ibu Zu’s scroll titled “Bosnia 29” (print on paper, 1993), the background projects the multitude of victims and the clutter, turmoil and upheaval from the destruction of life and property. In the left corner the flight of birds reflects the "flight" of decency, civilization and goodwill. Amidst this bleak scenario, the letters Ha-Mim elicit a glimmer of hope, the possibility of healing with the peaceful compassion of God. The bid for Divine Grace is an attempt to beckon the Almighty to heal and to structure, to restore life, energy and vitality. The inscription in black ink, denoting structure, is surrounded by splashes of red.

Ibu Zu’s paintings remind me of the Indonesian artist Ibu Timor, who painted a series of pictures “inspired” by the mass rape of Chinese-Indonesian women as the Soeharto regime collapsed in 1998.


Ibu Zu uses Arabic calligraphics in Chinese style, while Ibu Timor uses feminine and Christian symbols: the womb, a dove, crucifixion. In May 1998 some 170 Chinese-Indonesian women were raped in Jakarta, aged from early teens to late 60s. Ibu Timor seeks out compassion within the horror, and the pain of new birth through communal bitterness and hate.


Irshad Manji (photo disappeared)
Islamic feminist readings of the Qur’an are scholarly in their radical criticism. The scholar questions the meaning of life continually, placing no limit on her questioning. Asma Barlas, Irshad Manji and Ibu Zu read the Qur’an in the light of other sciences, including sciences “unfriendly” to traditional Islam such as gender studies. Their exegesis is both rooted in their pain and in their academic research. These deeply autobiographical and thoroughly scholarly studies announce the Allah they believe in: Allah as fount of life in all its fullness, Allah who continually shocks, amazes, astonishes, Allah who renews, transforms, re-births.

Readings of the scriptures, whether the Qur’an or the Hebrew-Christian Bible, together with a critical conversation with one’s culture, celebrates faith in a living, poetic language, a language that convinces through its power of expression.

In the Allah of Ibu Zu I recognise the God in whom I believe. But, I must admit that I also recognise the god of fundamentalist Christians in the allah rejected by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In her short film “Submission Part I”, the protagonist, Amina, speaks for Fatima, ‘The Veiled Woman’ and concludes: "Submission to you [Allah] feels like self-betrayal … I have done nothing my whole life but turn to you, and now that I pray for salvation, under my veil, you remain silent as the grave that I long for. I wonder how much longer I am able to submit." Such a god has also been rejected by so many Christian women seeking wholeness.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (sorry, picture disappeared)
Islam as a way of life is guided by Allah, the all-compassionate. The Arabic term rahim means ‘womb’, and is the term for ‘mercy’; the same root word is found in Hebrew & Indonesian. However, the Islamic community is also ruled by allah the tyrant. Just as we Christians are guided by the Abba of Jesus, the Word-Wisdom of God, but are also partly possessed by the tribal god of an exclusive chosen people. Muslim and Christian women are increasingly having faith in the former while rejecting the latter.

I am sure that faith in the Allah of transcendent mercy and compassionate-justice will break through the hardness and harshness of the unthinking, unfeeling god of the male-militia and the constrictions and constraints of the unresponsive patriarchal-tribal household.

PS What a pity, all the photos & clip art disappeared when I posted this !!

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