Sydney Ideas: Spirited Muslim Women

We headed off before dinner last night to another well attended Sydney Ideas talk in the new Law School building: Dr Amina Wadud on ‘Spirited Voices of Muslim Women in Islamic Reform Movements’.

We hadn’t read the fine print on the web site, and didn’t realise that the talk was part of a symposium, ‘Spirited Voices from the Muslim World: Islam, Democracy and Gender Rights’, or that the talk was preceded by a performance by the University of Sydney Gamelan Orchestra. So we were pleasantly surprised to arrive at a very full auditorium that sounded like a Balinese night. Marie Bashir, the Governor of NSW, who is also the Chancellor of the University and acting Governor General, launched the Symposium before Dr Wadud took the lectern. The last time I saw her launch anything it was a book published by South Sydney Youth Services, and she brought the same respectful gravitas to that room full of pierced and tattooed young people as to this gathering of distinguished academics.

Amina Wahud is at the forefront of the ‘gender jihad’ – the struggle for gender justice within the global Islamic community. Actually, I just re-read the blurb about her on Sydney Ideas website, and realised that it gives a very adequate summary of the talk:

Dr Wadud’s writings and vision for gender equality, within an Islamic ‘tawhidic paradigm’, incorporate the wider struggle against other forms of oppression such as racism, bigotry, religious intolerance, economic exploitation and the erasure of human dignity.

She described how at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 the Muslim women met with the aim of coming up with a joint statement, but no agreement could be reached between those who talked in terms of a human rights agenda and those who talked in terms of Islam. She went away from that meeting determined to find a way of reconciling the two, of finding, as she said, epistemological, theological, and other kinds of logical grounds for a Muslim feminism. Like Professor Muhammad Abdel Hameen on the Book Show recently, she has a thoughtful, non-literalistic approach to the Qur’an and pretty much scorns the approach that would take isolated verses as prescriptions for living.  She takes the concept of ‘tahwid’, which is literally the notion that God is One, central to Islam, and argues from it that all humans are equal because each has a direct relationship to God the Transcendental.

I’m not at all engaged in Islamic theology, but it was a joy to hear this flexible alternative to the version of Islam that dominates the airwaves. Dr Wadud began her talk with an invocation of God in Arabic, and when she mentioned the Prophet she said something in Arabic, presumably the traditional ‘Upon him be peace and blessings’. It seems to me that to wage a feminist struggle from inside Islam in this way must be more fruitful in the long run than any number of feminist denunciations of Islam.

There were other, smaller joys. Dr Wadud, who was born in Maryland, USA, wore a shalwar kameez with an elaborate scarf tied over her hair, and a loose scarf over that. For the first quarter hour of the talk, this loose scarf kept trying to fall off. As we strove to follow her explanation of the background to her theoretical work, she had a struggle of her own, repeatedly hitching the back over her head. In the end, the scarf won. The other small joy only made itself known in the Q&A: Dr Wadud explained that some of her points would have been clearer if she had used her PowerPoint version of the talk, but she has moved to an iPad and wasn’t able to connect it to a projector. The joy: we had a person talking to us, instead of to a bunch of explanatory slides.

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