Thesis Intro

I’m also gonna post the introduction to my thesis…just because I’m proud of itttt.

Since the 1970’s, the Muslim world has experienced a resurgence of Islamic activism that has transformed Muslims’ religious identities and deepened the practice of Islam throughout the world. Part of this religious revival reasserts the primacy of Qur’anic principles and Islamic culture in the public sphere: politics, law, and social relations. In turn, male Muslim political leaders have responded to the demands of Muslim reformers by applying Muslim principles of shari’ah law to enhance their legitimacy and enforce a conservative lifestyle. In general, however, Islamic reform has typically been implemented by men in ways that reduce the rights of women and subordinates them to new and traditional constraints.

In response to counteract male-led Islamization, the Muslim feminist movement emerged during the same period. This intellectual and civil rights movement challenges conceptions of Islam on various fronts. These activists demand a complete reexamination of the religion itself, in a manner that questions and interprets many basic religious tenets. By arguing on the basis that Islam is a faith grounded on universal justice and practical compassion, they advance a new kind of Islam that necessitates equal treatment for all humans, including women. Most importantly however, is the methodology of Muslim feminists who ground their activism within the re-interpretation of the core holy text of Islam, the Qur’an.

Malaysia is a Muslim-majority state where Islam is defined as the official religion. Ethnic Malays are required by law to be Muslim, while the state guarantees freedom of religion to non-Malays. The judicial system is divided between Federal Civil Law, based on the British common law system and the other on shari’ah law, which are only applicable to Muslims and is administered by each state. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, but Muslims still have difficulty in practicing their faith freely because each of the fourteen states of Malaysia enact their own sets of shari’ah law. A key research question, therefore, is whether the Muslims there are actually guaranteed “freedom of religion” in a system where confessional status automatically subjects Muslim women to patriarchal interpretations of shari’ah law. Commonly, politics and religion are integrated in ways that negatively impact long-standing rights held by Muslim women in Malaysia.

The Syariah Courts, a parallel court system to the secular national court system, maintain jurisdiction over Muslims within each Malaysian state. These courts exert the judicial and the moral authority over Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For example, current interpretations of Islamic law allow government authorities to enter private homes if the police suspect them of having extramarital sex or what is called an un-Islamic “contact.” The police will guard all exits and wait until they can arrest those they accuse of committing “immoral” acts (khalwat). In practice, the accused female more likely will be humiliated publicly and sentenced more harshly even though the transgression involved a male. Although the practice is meant to uphold the moral purity of the Muslim population in Malaysia, critics argue it is a distorted interpretation of the Qur’an, one that leads the government to abuse its power and subordinate women through an unequal application of the law.

Given the legal condition of Muslim women in Malaysia, a comparatively advanced Southeast Asian state, it is not surprising that an innovative reform movement, such as Sisters in Islam (SIS) has emerged among educated Muslim women. SIS is a Muslim feminist organization based in Kuala Lumpur is an example a women’s rights organization that not only grounds their activism on universal concepts of human rights, but also on a re-conceptualization of Islam itself. Groups such as SIS pose a real threat to Muslims governments that rule their people based on a unified understanding of their faith.

Traditionally, the legitimate sources of theological interpretation were the ulama or religious scholars and the qadis or judges who employed their interpretative training to formulate shari’ah based on four sources, which were: 1) The Qur’an, 2) the normative behavior of the Prophet, 3) ijtihad or legal reasoning, and 4) ijma, or the authority of consensus by the Muslim community. The interpretations by the ulama and qadis of the Umayyad period became the basis for which centuries of shari’ah law were created. The Muslim Modernist movement counteracts this institutionalized religious knowledge, arguing for their right to practice textual exegesis as ordinary believers. Since the ulama and other scholars were never truly legitimate, the Modernists say, there is no reason why each Muslim can read and understand the text themselves. Ultimately, this was in order to find new sources within the text and other theological sources to challenge aspects of the law they found to be inconsistent with the central tenets of their faith.

These women advocates aspire not only to reform government practices that reduce women’s rights but also to challenge the patriarchal intellectual discourses underlying government policies. What is key to understanding the significance of the human rights movement in Malaysia is the fact that the reform movement is led and supported by indigenous Malaysian Muslim women like SIS, rather than by international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) headquartered in the West.

My fieldwork on SIS came out of a six-month internship from June to December 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I had the privilege of working with them through my involvement with a student organization at University of California Santa Cruz called the Global Information Internship Program (GIIP: http://giip.org). The program’s Executive Director, Sociology professor Paul Lubeck, got me connected to SIS through his longtime friend and research colleague, Farish Noor. Through multiple e-mails between Paul, the organization and I, he helped me to set up this project with them. The original aim of the project was to help them with their technology needs, in order to assist them to update their website and their e-advocacy tools. However, my internship came to include various other projects to support their campaigns.

While there, I worked as a Legal Researcher and Tech Intern under the management of the SIS Legal and Publicati¬¬on Education & Communication Units. I conducted research on various areas of Islamic Family Law and child/spousal support systems, as well as working on a wide range of technology-related projects that serve their organization. My first tech project was to re-design their website, using the content management system called Joomla. I also created a database system for inputting their research data on the practices of shari’ah judges using Microsoft Access, and then helped to train SIS staff members in using these and other computer tools. In addition to these main tasks, I have helped them with event planning, informational trainings, publicity, and general administrative work.

I was prompted to write my thesis on SIS because of the profound impact those six months made on me as a student. I was not raised Muslim, and now consider myself a spiritual agnostic. My interest in religious politics however, emerged when I attended an all girls’ Catholic high school called Mayfield Senior School. It was during Mayfield and its four years of mandatory religious studies courses, that I came to be intrigued by religion as a socio-political force. Being raised by a Japanese, Shinto-Buddhist mother and a Unitarian American-born father, I was most amazed by Catholic doctrines, the origins of the Bible and enduring influence of Christianity on American politics. By studying these topics, I came to understand religion as being a direct manifestation of humanity’s virtues and shortcomings. From the world’s most beautiful works of art to the most atrocious acts of violence, religion always seemed to be central to these human creations. As I learned more about Islam and its theological origins, I was in complete awe of its scholarly and interpretive traditions that had for centuries defined the religion, and the way in which it seeks to create a truly pragmatic, just and sustainable society. Unlike other dominant faiths, Muslims had always maintained a dialogue about the significance and implications of religion in society, and a space for awareness about how their faith manifests into practice. I found the central practice of theological interpretation, and the utter importance Islam places on staying true to original meaning to be incredibly intriguing.

For me, SIS exemplifies what fascinates me most about Islamic scholarship. The debate over modernity and the possibility for the existence of an alternative civil Islam lies at the core of their activism. The main idea is that in order to achieve an Islamic state that lies in most in accordance with the Qur’an and hadith, it requires it to be dictated by the Muslim community as a whole, rather than one that is ruled by a strict class of politicians or faqih. One of the strongest cases for an Islamic democracy comes from the Muslim women’s rights movement, precisely because they call into question the sources of state power and law. They challenge the fundamental reading and interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith, in order to arrive at a more equal and just Muslim government order for men and women.

So in this way, SIS served to be a perfect entryway into my study of Islam as a socio-political force. This paper explores the Muslim feminist movement and the way that it successfully engages in religious dialogue to legitimate its activism. Unlike social justice movements based on a universal conception of human liberties, SIS is an example of a religiously based rights organization, which dissents from the norms of their faith in their society, as well as those of the social justice world. First, I will describe the history of Islam through the perspective of women, and the way in they came to be oppressed by the very religion that claimed universal rights and justice for all people. The second section discusses the influence of Western colonialism on gender relations in Muslim societies, and how it has made such a heavy impact on the way in which Muslims conceptualize and practice Islam. The third section explains how these changes manifested themselves in modern Islamic interpretation and most importantly, on Muslim women’s movements. Most importantly, in the final section I describe the work of SIS and how their activism embodies the theories of Muslim feminism. SIS and the successes they have seen both nationally and internationally are the result of culmination of historical, theoretical and economic circumstances that have allowed them to emerge as such a monumental movement for human rights. The purpose of this paper is to describe and analyze the conditions under which SIS, a Muslim feminist organization, acts as a legitimate challenge to orthodox Islam and how it problematizes its representation of gender.