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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Musawah: Maligned and Misunderstood

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Related post: The scary Musawah bogeywomen

February 13th to 17th, 2009 - for most, these dates probably mean nothing much more than 5 days in the second month of this year. But for approximately 250 people from around the globe, that perspective is perhaps furthest from the truth.

These were 5 days that marked the beginning of a something big - a something, in the words of Walski's friend Marina M., that would change the world.

Image hosting by PhotobucketWalski is talking, of course, about the recently concluded Musawah Global Meeting held in Kuala Lumpur. The word "global" however didn't register with a number of Muslims in Malaysia who took offence to the conference even taking place.

The first to register their opposition was the Pulau Pinang branch of the Malaysian Ulama Association (PUMPP), through a press statement that Walski had already blogged about earlier. The press release was picked up by a number of bloggers, mostly the pro-mainstream pembela Islam (defenders of Islam) types.

A few commonalities could easily be spotted in the blog posts of those who were against the meeting being held (easily found by using Google Blogsearch):

  • repeating, almost verbatim, what the PUMPP release said
  • did not bother to really find out what Musawah is all about, despite the fact that their website (launched during the meeting) has all the information about the movement, including where their funding comes from
  • based their commentary (more like diatribe) on their ingrained prejudice against Sisters In Islam (SIS - another misunderstood and frequently maligned NGO), the initiator of this global movement
  • do not understand what the word "global" means

Not surprisingly, most of the bloggers against Musawah were male. Also not surprising was the fact that the female bloggers against Musawah were simply parroting the tired conservative rhetoric we hear all too often. In all, Musawah was painted as something scary; a "threat" to Malaysian Muslims and Islam.

Image hosting by PhotobucketAn "unofficial" Musawah group photo from the event
(photo credit: Ineza Roussille / Juana Jaafar)

Looking at the picture, Walski cannot for the life of him think of what could be so scary. Or threatening. Unless, it's the fact that it was 200-some highly intelligent women... and for guys who find it difficult to form their own opinion, that's probably a very terrifying prospect.  
(Musawah 101, the choke hold of conservatism, and more, in the full post)

But before Walski gets too carried away, it would probably be a good idea to talk a little about what Musawah is about. All of the following information comes from the Musawah website, incidentally, which Walski urges you to check out for yourself.

Quite simply,

Musawah is a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, calling for equality, non-discrimination, justice and dignity as the basis of all human relations; full and equal citizenship for every individual; and marriage and family relations based on principles of equality and justice, with men and women sharing equal rights and responsibilities.
(source: Musawah website)

Now, a rational person could not possibly find anything wrong with this, even from an Islamic perspective, right? Well, surprise, surprise... One of the dissenting blogs had this to say about "Islamic justice" (translated from Bahasa Malaysia, emphasis by myAsylum): "They are actually trying to challenge God's laws. The justice that they seek is a tyranny. They define justice as equality between men and women, whereas the true definition of justice is putting each in their own place". (source: Pemuda Berkarisma Pencetus Kebangkitan Ummah)

Incidentally, the author of the viewpoint above is a product of the Islamic religious school system (as surmised from his blog). Walski will leave you to draw your own conclusions about this.

Walski personally thinks that the root-cause of this skewed way of looking at justice transcends Islam, but has to also do with Malaysian socio-politics. Not the appropriate post to elaborate on this, however. Suffice it to say that the concept of "equality" is problematic to the politics of Malay dominance.

But why is equality an important pre-requisite for justice in the family? Musawah is of the opinion that

... equality in the family is necessary because many aspects of our family laws are neither tenable in contemporary circumstances nor defensible on Islamic grounds. Not only do they fail to fulfil the Shari‘ah requirement of justice, they also do not respond to the lives and experiences of Muslim families and are now being used to deny women and men dignified choices in life. Even laws that are more equitable are under threat.
(source: Musawah website)

They also feel that equality is achievable, and not incompatible with Islam.

... equality in the family is possible through a framework that is consistent with Islamic teachings, universal human rights principles, fundamental rights guarantees, and the lived realities of women and men. Muslim laws and practices must reflect justice, which is the indisputable objective of the Shari‘ah. They must also uphold equality, which is an essential part of today’s understanding of justice. Today’s Muslim family laws are human interpretations of the Shari‘ah, based on juristic theories and assumptions. Therefore, they can change in accordance with the changing realities of time and place and contemporary notions of justice.
(source: Musawah website)

Certainly a far cry from the type of exclusivism and isolationist view of Islam that seems to be becoming the mainstream thought in this country. Or at the very least, if not mainstream, the more vocal.

Marina M., through her column in The Star, Musings, wrote about the Musawah Global Meeting, which she attended. Her observation, based on the real life experiences of those from other Islamic countries, is that what Musawah is trying to achieve is not at all incongruent to the tenets of Islam.

Even more exhilarating was to listen to people from Morocco, Turkey and Afghanistan talk about the strides they have made to better the lot of their societies by making family laws more just and equitable. None of this was easy, and took a very long time and hard and dedicated effort. But it paid off.

Today, Morocco has a family law that describes marriage as “an equal partnership” between a man and a woman.

Turkey, which is governed by an Islamist party, has a civil and penal code that were amended to ensure that women were treated as equals in the law and not as passive recipients of whatever male jurists decided.

Even Afghanistan managed to pass a law that gave women the right to contract their own marriages, rather than through their male relatives, despite a lack of stable government and institutions.

All of these countries did it while adhering to Islamic teachings, thus showing that Islam is no barrier to justice and equality. It is thus puzzling that anyone should be critical of this effort, as if leaving Muslim women mired in suffering is desirable.

(source: Musings, The Star - Wednesday, February 18, 2009)

The protests against Musawah from portions of the Islamic establishment here in Malaysia, and echoed by the many individuals who claim to be defenders of the faith, only points to the growing conservatism that has lain its chokehold - progressively, over the last two decade or so. From Walski's vantage point, at the very least.

He also thinks that part of the problem is the monopoly, by certain quarters, about what Islam should be. Add to that the almost violent reaction towards any attempt at public discourse (again, the Article 11 and Bar Council forum protests come to mind). And if that weren't enough, the continued banning of books that don't jive 100% with the establishment-imposed mainstream view.

The net result? A continued shrinking of how one views the world around them. Coupled with blind obedience, born out of ingrained fear, and a standing order to not question anything, multiplied by time, all point towards a general failure to adapt to a changing world.

And believe Walski when he says this - the world is changing, and will continue to change, whether we like it or not. Survival necessitates the ability to adapt, and NOT remain static, or worse, regress towards an imagined anachronistic ideal.

One of the fears that PUMPP raised in their press release was that Malaysia would be seen as a country that practiced discriminatory Islamic laws. That the Musawah Global Meeting would give a bad impression of the country to the world. But really, are Malaysian Islamic family laws truly just?

Our own Muslim women may not suffer the same extreme humiliations but nevertheless do not always receive the justice that they deserve, and Islam extols.

Women abandoned by their husbands and bringing up their children single-handedly still cannot be considered guardians to their own children. Their husbands can summarily divorce them without much notice or with provisions for their living and that of their children.

Attempts to amend these laws to make them better for women have thus far been derided as “changing God’s laws”, never mind that they were already amended from the originally just ones to ones that are far less fair to women.

(source: Musings, The Star - Wednesday, February 18, 2009)

Yes, Malaysia has come a long way, perhaps, in comparison to certain parts of the Islamic world. There still exists a gap, however, as Marina points out. But worse, as Walski indicated, is that we are regressing. That regression is growing with every successive generation. The skewed view of justice that Walski pointed out earlier in this post came from someone perhaps half his age.

And that is where the challenge will lie - breaching the gap, while at the same time fighting a regressive mindset brought about by growing conservatism.

The Musawah Global Meeting brought together women (and men, too) with a common goal - justice. And that justice can only be achieved through equality. It's an important start, and from what Walski understands, a successful one. Despite the brickbats.

To their critics, Walski urges you to suspend your prejudice and pre-conceived notions, and learn more about Musawah, through their website. You are doing yourselves no favors by criticizing and condemning something you only know through hearsay.

To those in support of Musawah's efforts, you too should go to their website to learn more. Reading the numerous articles available may just allow you to realize what you can do to help.

Societies and nations are built from smaller building blocks - families. If laws governing families and interactions between those families can be just and equitable, it is only a matter of time that the societies whose families comprise their building blocks will, too, be more just and equitable. And if the societies are just...

Maybe Marina was right after all... Musawah will change the world. For the greater good of all mankind.