Thu, 10 Mar 2005

The woman's voice

The names of three women come to mind regarding this year's celebration of International Women's Day -- Amina Wadud, Irshad Manji and Siti Musdah Mulia.

The first is a Muslim professor who is scheduled to lead Friday prayers next week in New York -- Wadud will be an imam of not an all-female congregation but of a mixed-gender one. This event will be the first time in recorded history that a woman leads a mass prayer of both men and women and by delivering the sermon, she breaks what some think is a cardinal rule of Islam -- that the imam of a mixed congregation must be a male.

Manji is the young Canadian Muslim editing, among others, Seventeen magazine. She not only has a funky hairdo, her book, The Trouble with Islam Today, has caused much debate. It has been translated into several languages, with a forthcoming translation in Farsi for planned circulation in Iran. Linking up with young people on the ground and through the Internet, she set up "Project Ijtihad", named after the Arabic term for independent thinking, which she says aims to change and challenge Islamic traditions.

The third woman is an Indonesian, Musdah Mulia, a researcher at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, who has also been target of much condemnation in this country, having led the team that drew up a new draft of Indonesia's Islamic law that was made public earlier this year. Its recommendations include banning polygamy and allowing inter-faith marriages.

The latest religious minister to take power, M. Maftuh Basyuni, canceled it after vocal protests against the draft by more conservative segments of the Muslim community and reports that it had made the faithful "restless."

On Monday the National Commission on Violence against Women indicated that those restless members did not represent all of the "Muslim community."

It called for the decision annulling the draft be revoked, saying the draft embraced progressive thought in Islam and placed women in a more powerful position in marriage.

The commission said the rejection of the draft "denied citizens' rights (to hold different) opinions and the public's right to discuss new ideas," and said the rejection, representing a "stifling of this discussion, directly puts women at a disadvantage."

What Manji, Wadud and Musdah Mulia share is a commitment to their faith, which has led to a relentless campaign to have their views heard, regardless of what the bristling mainstream thinks. On this Women's Day the struggle of many women making their views heard is symbolized by these three women.

However, in this day and age it is chilling to hear how their views can be dismissed so quickly and easily, without much fuss in many places, Indonesia included. Until Monday, hardly anyone had protested the revoking of the Islamic draft code, with many thinking it was too bold and better suited to another, more- advanced, democratic period.

But women cannot wait; they have waited too long. When the voices of half of humanity are stifled then entire communities everywhere have no idea of what women need to share -- their ideas about improving their's and society's lot.

The draft Islamic code might have been "satanic" or "comical" according to some of its critics, but the discourse ended then and there.

Our national women's rights body presented on Monday its annual report on violence against women -- the good news apparently only being that while reports of violence have increased, this merely signals a greater willingness to report what is widespread and is still commonly seen as a shameful, personal affair.

If a women's position in marriage could be strengthened, if only by a piece of paper, then wouldn't that be something worth discussing in a bid to tame the cowardly beasts among us?

Those who ignore or attempt to silence the voices that tell the stories, the experiences and the views of women continue to overshadow the otherwise-vibrant atmosphere in emerging democracies everywhere.

The celebration of Women's Day across the world should hopefully help raise awareness about women's issues.

Without recognizing their voices, the concepts of "religious tolerance", "community" and "national interest", become meaningless platitudes, used by a powerful elite more concerned about maintaining their own positions of unchallenged dominance rather than really listening to women.