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Women of many faiths seek Muslim role-models

23 May 2014


Early learning: the Qarawiyin, in Fes, Morocco. founded as a university by Fatima al Firhi, in 859 

Early learning: the Qarawiyin, in Fes, Morocco. founded as a university by Fatima al Firhi, in 859 

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 stand."

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 religion."

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."


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