A congress spurred deep conversations about MuslimBARCELONA, Spain (WOMENSENEWS)–At one point during the third gathering of the International Congress on Islamic Feminism, Arifa Mazhar grew tired of talking about religion.

"Instead of debating Islam, we should be debating culture and its impact," she burst out at a microphone during a discussion after one of the sessions. "Culture is so conservative in some tribal areas. Women can’t move around; they can’t work. There are a lot of social taboos and tribal traditions that oppress women and they have little to do with Islam."

And the principles of local courts and councils are so deeply entrenched that women accept them because they don’t know their rights, she added.

Mazhar is the manager of gender issues for the Sungi Development Foundation, a nongovernmental group that has been working in the northwestern province of Pakistan for 15 years.

But for all her focus on culture, she knows the importance of working within an Islamic framework.

Mazhar and colleagues develop rural women’s employment prospects through initiatives such as micro-credit and helping them organize collectives to talk over public health and social issues such as water supplies.

In the past few years, she says that when she and her colleagues spoke about women’s rights from the human rights perspective, they were increasingly accused of participating in a Western agenda.

With the rise in religious extremism and growing antagonism among ordinary Muslims against the West–largely a response to U.S. interventionist policies abroad–secular, Western-style feminists in countries such as Pakistan are increasingly seen as U.S. agents and regarded with suspicion and distrust.

"Don’t tell us how it’s done in the West, we have our own culture and religion" is the common response.

"After 15 years of work we have realized that we should incorporate the egalitarian messages of the Quran into our grassroots work," Mazhar said.

Congress Gatherings Since 2005

The International Congress on Islamic Feminism was started by the Islamic Council of Catalonia (Spain) in 2005. Its founder and director is a man called Abdennur Prado, who is also the secretary of the Islamic Council of Spain. The congress is sponsored by British Council, the government of Spain, the European Institute of the Mediterranean region and the Catalonian Islamic Council.

At its third gathering in Barcelona in late October, participants confirmed what other meetings–along with other activists and scholars–have been saying about the primacy of an Islamic framework for their efforts.

The meeting also brought out appeals from some activists for a reversal of U.S. military interventions in the Middle East.

Musdah Mulia, a progressive Islamic scholar from Indonesia, received the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in 2007 at a ceremony presided over by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "When Mrs. Rice asked me what she can do to help my country, I answered, ‘Just stop violence as a way of dealing with Muslim countries,’" Mulia said in an interview.

Asma Barlas, a Pakistani-born scholar on Islamic feminism, was among the most vocal about the need for a more progressive and non-patriarchal interpretation of Islam’s holy book. "The Quran has been privatized by a handful of men, mostly Arabs, who decide how we should relate to God," she said while addressing the congress. Sharia religious law and fatwas are decided and issued by grand muftis or ayatollas of the Middle East countries, and all of them are men.

Historic Role for Female Scholars

Female Islamic scholars are a rare find these days, especially in Muslim societies, but it was not always so. In his independent research, scholar Mohammad Akram Nadwi has discovered 8,000 female scholars who transmitted and interpreted the hadith–the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad–and even made Islamic law as jurists throughout history.

"Today we, as Muslims, face a double mandate," said Amina Wadud, a U.S. scholar on Islamic history and advocate of Muslim feminism. "From within we face the persistent substandard status of women living under Muslim laws, in Muslim cultures, Muslim countries and Muslim communities. We must also challenge the notion from outside of Muslim cultures that Islam is not competent to participate fully in global pluralism and universalism and to meet the demands for democracy and human rights."

Souad Eddouada, a Moroccan gender scholar, echoed concerns about cultural conservatism as she discussed the difficulties of implementing Morocco’s progressive 2004 family law, which was hard-fought by several national women’s rights groups.

The law, influenced by progressive Quranic interpretations of gender equality and domestic harmony, instituted several significant changes. These included raising the marriage age of women to 18 and abolishing the notion of a marital obligation of obedience toward husbands, known as "ta’a" and imposed by a traditionalist view of the Sharia. Joint decision-making between spouses is encouraged in the reformed law.

"There is a lot of resistance, especially in rural areas," said Souad. "The law and its language is not relevant to every woman in the country. It is more suited to educated, urban women."

Eddouada also downplayed another sign of progress–the fact that 50 Moroccan women are taught each year to be mosque preachers–as mainly symbolic. She says the women express conservative ideas and are very much controlled by the male clergy.

Hindered by Social Resistance

Other scholars agreed that comparable progress in North African and Persian Gulf countries is hindered by social resistance, showing that grassroots work is needed to assist progressive laws and policies.

Norani Othman is a board member of Sisters in Islam, a leading Muslim women’s rights group in Malaysia, where a rise in political Islam and religious fundamentalism swayed the government in 1988 to elevate Sharia religious courts and give them equal status with civil courts to handle family matters. Most Malaysian states now have Sharia-infused marital laws.

Sisters in Islam has been trying hard to reform one particular issue–polygamy–which is allowed with restrictions to Muslims in Malaysia.

"But we have come to the wall with this issue," said Othman.

She says Islamist political forces that focus on increasing religion’s role in shaping the nation-state use a campaign for full legal polygamy to expand their constituencies by attracting men who want to have more than one wife.

In response, Sisters in Islam decided it needed empirical evidence showing the negative effects of polygamy to reverse public opinion. The group is now conducting a survey and says some respondents are willing to speak publicly.

"We have eager respondents, especially among children of the first wives, who say the second marriage of their father has affected them on several levels, especially emotionally," says Othman.

Fatou Sow, a women’s rights advocate from Senegal, says any important debate on outlawing polygamy is stymied by the political influence of extreme religious groups and strong local traditions.

"Local culture still gives a much higher status to married women, so women continue to agree to become second wives," she says.

Margot Badran, a U.S. scholar of Islamic history and feminism, says Muslim activists are under attack from a range of conservatives, be they religious leaders, self-appointed community spokesmen, followers of political Islam or conservative Islamist women who promote patriarchal interpretations of Islam through Quran study groups.

Othman agrees. "Most of us are small, under-funded groups trying to fight against the tide, against the traditional Islamic interpretations."

Nadira Artyk is a Brooklyn-based women’s rights advocate, journalist and media consultant. She was born and raised in Uzbekistan, Central Asia.