by Ida Lichter
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Here are Ida's responses to some of the questions...
Thank you for all these thoughtful questions and the opportunity to answer them. I encourage you to follow me on Twitter to continue this conversation: @IdaLichter.
What was the catalyst for writing Muslim Women Reformers?
I became more aware of women in Islam after 9/11 and when I was living in an area of London with a large Muslim population. When I began my research, I was intrigued to discover that some women reformers in Afghanistan were also medical doctors, for example Sima Samar and Massouda Jalal.
As our media is largely sensationalist, Islamists tend to drown out the moderates and it is difficult for reformers’ steady, cumulative work to reach the public domain. In addition, many Middle Eastern countries have blocked reformist websites and blogs. In writing a book, I aimed to amplify reformers’ voices and increase awareness of their ideas and activities.
I was also intrigued by their courage and sacrifice, passion, intelligence and humor, quite unlike the stereotypes of oppressed Muslim women in the media. The reformers also advocate reason, tolerance and pluralism, the hard-won values that most of us hold dear.
In many ways, Muslim women reformers are the new suffragists, fighting for women’s equality in their societies. Women, after all, represent half the population. If empowered, Muslim women could provide a major social, political and economic resource, and a benefit that would be endorsed by all people of goodwill.
For the first time in many centuries, activist Muslim women are aiming to define themselves rather than being defined by men in a patriarchal society. I feel privileged to be part of their struggle in these historic times.
Some activists have been killed in the service of reform and my book is dedicated to these noble, unsung heroines.
How many years did it take to research and write this book?
It took about 3 years.
Did you speak to Muslim men at all?
I had some contact with Muslim men in the media, mainly in relation to permissions for quotes and illustrations for my book. In all our dealings, they were charming and helpful and seemed positive about women reformers.
As these men tend to be Western educated and worldly, they are hardly typical of men in more traditional sectors of society, like the rural areas.
I suspect it would be much more difficult for me, as a woman, to interview male religious authorities or men in traditional communities but I would certainly welcome the opportunity.
What changes do you want to see and what is the possibility of it happening (in your opinion)?
I support the aims of Muslim women reformers, mostly living in home countries outside the West. These women would like to eliminate gender discriminatory laws, like women’s testimonies in court having less worth than men’s. Reformers believe women’s rights are available to them within Islam and eventually, with rational, scholarly debate, the religious authorities will come round.
Reformers also recognize it is vital to gain basic rights like freedom of speech, assembly and association.
They will be successful if they have the sustained political will to continue their campaigns for full political participation, equality in marriage, divorce, custody, court testimony, compensation, abolition of male guardianship laws etc. as well as co-opting men to their cause. According to Algerian feminist Khalida Messaoudi, a global effort is required: “In order to secure women’s rights, we need a democratic international of women—otherwise we have absolutely no chance of conquering this beast.”
Do you remain objective as an author in the book?
I have tried to remain objective and present arguments for and against some of the points raised by the reformers. However, my sympathies are with the reformers.
Ida, Have you ever read the Qu'ran? Was it part of your research for writing this novel?
My research did not involve direct study of the holy texts, as I was more concerned with the cultural practice in relation to women’s rights.
By the way, the reformers are not opposed to any part of the Qu’ran, only the male-centered perspective that, in their belief, has suppressed egalitarian views inherent in the Qu’ran.
I haven't read this book but would be curious to hear Ms Lichter's thoughts on legislation meant to support 'liberation' of Islamic women and how Muslim reformers work with/against it. For example, France's decision to ban the wearing headscarves or the legislation in Oklahoma that banned sharia law. Are these efforts helpful ever?
For reformers’ views on headscarves, please see: Ida Lichter, “The Veil: Woman's Right or Millstone?” The Australian, July 09, 2010
In regards to the incorporation of sharia law into U.S. civil or criminal law, most reformers would oppose such inclusions, as they believe that aspects of sharia law discriminate against women. In contrast to sharia, U.S. law is not based on immutable or ‘divine’ religious laws but is subject to the will of the people and can be revised at any time.
What is the thing with the Crime of honour?
In many Muslim countries, laws are lenient for perpetrators of “honor killings”. The killers, who are usually male, believe they are entitled to take the life of a female member of the family who has brought them ‘dishonor’, like having an affair, dating a man considered unsuitable or refusing to wear Islamic dress. In Saudi Arabia, a woman was killed for talking to a man on the Internet.
The practice pre-dates Islam and occurs in other societies but is more prevalent in Middle Eastern communities and more recently in immigrant Muslim societies.
There is no sanction for “honor killings” in Islamic religion or law, however the practice has been variously justified by religion and culture and is difficult to suppress.
Many individual reformers and organizations have mounted campaigns against “honor crimes” and the laws that grant reduced sentences to the perpetrators. Activists against “honor killings” include Bassam Al-Kadi, Syrian male director of the Non Governmental Organization (NGO), Syrian Women Observatory (SWO). His petition against “honor” crimes generated a large public response that was taken up by the press in Syria. Western NGOs include the International Campaign against Honor Killings (ICAHK).
What a beautiful and timely book! And my Q would be: are Muslim men (as a whole) themselves becoming more liberal in their thinking/ attitudes/ treatment regarding women?
A small number of Muslim men are becoming more supportive of women’s rights. They include Bassam Al-Kadi, mentioned above, Lafif Lakhdar from Tunisia and Bashir Goth in Somalia. There is a chapter in my book with profiles of some of the men who support gender reforms.
Did you notice an age discrepancy in the age of woman that want reform? For example, numbers of older woman vs. younger.
Most of the discrepancies relate to level of education, and rural versus urban women, rather than age. Those who are better educated and live in the cities are more likely to seek reform. In Iran, mothers and grandmothers have given support to the younger generation of women reformers.
What is your view of Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis"?
This comic book, made into a movie, is an autobiography that deals with Satrapi’s childhood in Iran during the period of the Islamic revolution, Iran/Iraq war, her teenage years in the West and return to Iran. Marjane’s family is modern and secular. They support the overthrow of the Shah but later, some members of the family are arrested and killed and her mother is accosted. Concerned about her outspokenness, Marjane’s family sends her to a Catholic boarding school in Vienna, where she is shocked by sexual freedoms and drug abuse. When she has problems with a boyfriend, she starts taking and dealing drugs. For over two months, she lives on the streets and ends up in hospital, before contacting her parents and returning to Iran. She finds Iran even more oppressed than before and is openly critical of the sexism and double standards. She gets married to avoid trouble with the moral police but is eventually divorced. After the police raid a party and her friend is killed while trying to escape, Marjane leaves Iran permanently.
For many of us familiar with Iran, there was little new information. However, the story and style of communication caught the imagination of the general public and I believe this reflects people’s desire to understand the growth of violent Islamism, the way mullahs took over Iran, why the Iranian theocracy professes hatred for the West, the Iran hostage crisis etc.
Carlos Antunes said...
If during your lifetime Muslim women could reconquer only one their rights, which would be more crucial?
Equality in family law is central, including the right to marry a non-Muslim without risk of punishment, equal rights in divorce and custody of children and ability to pass nationality onto children.
Gonçalo Mil-Homens said...
Do you feel it is more difficult for you to reach all of your potential readers for being a woman writer?
I have never felt at a disadvantage as a woman writer. In addition, I am surprised how many men have read my book and responded to the plight of Muslim women and the courage of the reformers.
Susana Ricardo said...
What makes you a writer that appeals to readers worldwide and not only to a small group of people?
I believe it is the subject matter. Our planet is becoming closely interconnected and when you envisage the world according to the Internet, there are no boundaries, only lines of communication. In this world, it is difficult to accept that women in the West have so many freedoms while women in Muslim majority countries have relatively few.
Anyway, my questions is why did you choose to write about this topic? Where did the idea come from?
Please read my response to Question #1.
Joana Dias said...
What do you hope will be your greatest achievement with this book?
I would be gratified if people became more aware of Muslim women reformers. As a result, students might take courses in the subject and organizations could ‘adopt a reformer’ to assist and follow.
What is your greatest strength as a writer?
I have been told my writing is powerful but honestly, I can’t judge. When I speak to other writers, we agree that writing is difficult and sometimes seems futile. Nevertheless, it is one of the most satisfying activities I know and I feel compelled to pursue it. Perhaps this ‘drive’ to write is my greatest strength.
In order to truly understand the Muslim societies, what books do you recommend?
I would recommend all the books by Fatima Mernissi, Moroccan sociologist and feminist.
A friend told me that a woman's status in the Muslim society is lower than a man and her every move is highly restricted. Is that true? If yes, why is that so?
The situation of women in various Muslim societies differs but in general, the law and culture determine that a woman is a second class citizen, subject to gender discriminatory laws and double standards. Countries like Tunisia, have more liberal laws but others like Iran and Saudi Arabia are very conservative. Some regions of Indonesia and Malaysia are trying to introduce strict Islamic sharia law.
If sharia law is enforced, a woman’s dress and activity must be restricted. She should not leave the house without permission from her husband or male guardian and cannot choose her spouse or marry a non-Muslim. She cannot freely divorce her husband but he can divorce her with impunity. Men are entitled to four wives and any number of temporary ones but women are denied more than one husband at a time. A woman’s testimony in court is only worth half that of a man’s. Women married to Muslim foreigners cannot pass on nationality to their husbands or children; however, these restrictions do not apply to Muslim men.
The restrictions and double standards in relation to women have probably come about because men originally interpreted religious texts in their favor. The result was a patriarchal society in which women were subjugated and infantilized. Men had control over women, especially in marriage, to protect tribal property and power. Most reformers, however, believe authentic Islam is egalitarian.
What makes you really interested in doing research and writing the book? Any particular reason?
Please see my answer to question 1.
by Ida Lichter
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Thanks to Ida for joining in the Women's Tales event!