LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)–Wafa Sultan believes she turned a new page in Islamic history with just six words.
While debating an Islamic sheikh on an Arab news network last summer, and growing incensed at being repeatedly interrupted, the feisty Syrian-born writer and activist said she had no choice but to scold him sternly in Arabic: “Shut up! It is my turn.”
“It is by itself a message to Muslim women,” a passionate Sultan tells Women’s eNews during a meeting in the brightly colored living room of her home near Los Angeles. “It is time to stand up and tell your men shut up . . . because you have been making decisions for me for 1,500 years.”
The 48-year-old brunette with a commanding voice has sparked intense interest in the West for her outspoken criticism of Islam, the world’s second largest religion.
While Sultan’s focus on women’s issues has received less attention in the West, she considers it one of her top priorities. Sultan argues that women in the Middle East are hostages to their religion and culture and believe they are less than men. The most bothersome thing, she says, is that “they are slaves, but they believe they are free.”
Sultan–who describes herself as simply a secular human being–says she hopes to become the “savior” of Muslim women.
But few Muslim women would welcome such a rescue attempt, says Sabiha Khan, a 28-year-old Muslim woman who recently finished a five-year stint as the spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Los Angeles. Khan says that while Sultan may have captured the attention of Western media many Muslim women consider her mistaken and irrelevant to their community.
“I don’t believe I am less than a man,” says Khan. “I am not a slave. I am a very educated Muslim woman who believes in her religion with all her heart.” Millions of Muslim women feel the same way, she added.
Profiles and Designations
Since her most notable appearance on Al-Jazeera, the controversial Sultan has recently been profiled by The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the French newspaper Le Monde, and was honored by Time magazine in May as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, a designation she shares with George W. Bush and Oprah Winfrey.
“The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras,” said Sultan, referring to Islam and the West, in the now famous Al-Jazeera interview in February that was translated into English by the Middle East Media Research Institute and distributed widely on the Internet. “It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century . . . It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings.”
Sultan, in addition to writing a new book criticizing Islam, plans to establish a nonprofit foundation to educate Middle Eastern women by “providing them access to scientific knowledge” and empowering them to believe in themselves. She dreams of having her own television program called “The True America,” which would highlight a variety of roles American women play in this country and be broadcast to the Arab and Islamic world.
“They believe American women are just naked waiting to make sex with anyone who asks them, just prostitutes in the street,” says Sultan, referring to perceptions in the Middle East. “I’m dreaming to go to every factory, to every university, videotape American women and show them how strong they are and how positive they are.”
Khan and others say that real leadership is provided by Muslim women who seek social change according to Islam within their communities.
For examples of women working to reform Islam from within, Muslim women point to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and Canada’s Shahina Siddiqi, who has published a booklet on making mosques friendlier to women.
Asma Ahmad, managing editor of Southern California InFocus, the largest Muslim newspaper in Southern California, shares Khan’s view of Sultan.
“I find it hard to give credence to someone who is completely unaware of Islam and its teachings,” Ahmad told Women’s eNews in an e-mail interview. Ahmad, a practicing Muslim, says Sultan’s negative comments about Islam and how the religion treats women are unreasonable, untrue and overly emotional.
Some critics say Sultan was born into an Islamic sect prominent in Syria called the Alawites, which mainstream Muslims consider to be outside Islam because of its strong devotion to Ali, an early Islamic leader. As such, they say Sultan is not the Muslim insider she claims to be.
Sultan declines to discuss the Alawite issue for personal reasons. But she says she has always felt she was born and raised as a Muslim. She lost her trust in God, she says, after witnessing her professor’s execution in Syria in 1979 by Islamic extremists.
Some Muslim Support
Some Muslim women, however, feel that Sultan has something to offer.
Asra Q. Nomani is a Morgantown, W.V., journalist and author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.” She describes herself as a Muslim feminist and says she believes in separation of mosque and state.
She said she initially balked as did another Muslim journalist when asked by Time magazine to write a profile about Sultan for the magazine’s issue on its annual roster of influential people. But after conducting extensive interviews with her, the Indian American journalist decided that Sultan contributes to the discussion of the need for reform of the Muslim world “even if she is outrageously politically incorrect.”
Nomani disagrees with Sultan on some points. She says it is not Islam itself but its interpretation that is to blame “for the Dark Ages in which the Muslim world finds itself.”
Nonetheless, Nomani says Sultan’s critique is legitimate and strong. “For that, I see worth in her voice,” Nomani wrote in an e-mail.
Sultan herself feels like nothing can stop the power of her message. She says she has received countless e-mails and phone calls of support from both men and women around the world. Despite intermittent threats of beheading by those who believe she is a heretic, she feels protected by the continuous interest and attention she has received through the media.
“I believe I am riding a rocket,” she says. “As fast as you can imagine, I’m making a change.”
Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. She produced most of this story while on a trip to California.
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For more information:
Wafa Sultan’s appearance on Al-Jazeera:
Council on American-Islamic Relations:
Asra Q. Nomani, Time 100:Wafa Sultan: