IT IS time to rediscover the empowering women of Islam, whose
contribution has for too long been downplayed, an interfaith
conference heard earlier this month.
The sixth Syeda Fatima inter-faith conference, organised by the
International Imam Hussain Council and the Christian Muslim Forum,
is named after the daughter of Muhammad, venerated in Islam as an
exemplar for women. It brought together women from the Islamic,
Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh religions to discuss important
women in their respective traditions.
"What we want to dig up is gender nepotism," said Rubab Mehdi H.
Rizvi, who chairs the International Imam Hussain Council, a
Pakistan-based charity promoting interfaith understanding, said:
"Women may not have a role in politics in today's Islam, but in
Muhammad's Islam, a woman was the ambassador of Islam. . .
"For a very long time, you have carried on with this imam,
rabbi, and vicar, and your circle has become smaller and smaller.
The real substance is right here in this room, because the real
power is women. They will be blocked internally, and externally,
but they will know how to resurrect themselves out of their graves;
and wherever they stand today, the whole world will come and
Myriam Francois-Cerrah, a journalist and Ph.D. student at Oxford
University, argued that women had played "critical roles" in the
development of Islam.
"Despite having inspiring role-models to hand from among the
earliest generation of Islam, their contribution has been
systematically downplayed; and within a very short period of time,
relative to history, women were once again marginalised, excluded
from key institutions of power and learning, and relegated to the
domestic sphere through theological justifications. . .
"We must resurrect these empowering female figures, highlight
the multiplicity of roles they have placed in various spheres of
life, and challenge the male monopoly on sacred knowledge, starting
by acknowledging the debt owed to women in our understanding of
She said that "some of the most influential thinkers within
Islamic theology were taught by female scholars," and that the
first university in the world was constructed by a Muslim woman:
Fatima al Firhi, the Qarawiyin inFes in the ninth century.
When asked whether society would ever accept men and women as
equal, the Speaker's Chaplain, Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin,
suggested: "Society is getting there more so than religious
organisations. . . . We have somehow wrapped up the religion with
the wrappers of cultural traditions, and where society has released
itself from that, we have still hung on to that. . . Society is
often ahead of us in accepting each other in a mutual way."
The conference also heard from Lynne Townley, a barrister
specialising in honour-based violence and forced marriage. "While
there is a lot to celebrate, we are still not as far on as we
should be today," she said. "We still see a lot of gender-based
abuse going on."
The youngest speaker, Emma-Jane Hampsheir-Gill, a student at the
Coopers' Company and Coborn School, reminded the room that "freedom
like this is still only a dream for millions of my sisters around
the world." She concluded: "Education is the key to life, and the
greatest tool to empower us all, especially women."