As a special gift for my 42nd birthday I met two awe-inspiring women in Kuala Lumpur. We were in the Malaysian capital to attend the second gathering of WISE – Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, a program aimed at improving the status of Muslim women around the world.
I joke Kuala Lumpur is turning into the capital of Muslim feminism – in February I attended the launch there of Musawah, a global movement for justice and equality in Muslim families – but my Malaysian friends assure me KL, as it’s known, still has a way to go.
Nevertheless, for this Egyptian Muslim it is fascinating to see Islam in a non-Arab context. Arab Muslims after all are a minority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. Those of us from the Middle East are used to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim points of our region’s religious triangle. In Malaysia, Islam lives with Hinduism and Buddhism, creating a different set of influences and problems.
On top of that mix, the two women’s conferences I’ve attended so far in KL draw on the diversity of Muslims, each one bringing together more than 200 women from around the world, be they from Muslim-majority countries or women from Muslim-minority communities.
My two new heroes are non-Arab. The first is Seyran Ates, 46, a lawyer and women’s rights advocate who was born in Istanbul and has lived in Germany since her family moved there when she was six years old. When she was 17, Ates ran away from her family’s home in Berlin because she wanted to be free of patriarchal traditions and sought refuge in a shelter for battered women. She has narrowly escaped death twice for defending women’s rights.
The first time, when she was just 21 and living at a women’s center, young men of Turkish descent broke in and started firing guns. Ates was shot in the throat and almost bled to death. The woman next to her was killed.
Two years ago, as she was about to enter a Berlin courtroom with a client filing for divorce, the husband assaulted the two women. That attack as well as direct threats against her infant daughter have persuaded Ates – a single mother who is open about the fact that she never married her daughter’s father – to close her legal practice.
She might have closed her legal practice but she continues to fight for women in other ways. She’s written several books condemning political Islamic organizations for their misogyny, the right wing in Europe for its hatred and the left wing for its silence over the violations of Muslim women’s rights. Her latest book in German is called “Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution.” I can’t wait for its English translation.
The second new hero I met at WISE was someone I had never heard of before. It’s been my loss. All I can tell you about her is that she is Iranian. Anything else could jeopardize her safety.
She is fearless and doesn’t need my protection but I couldn’t live with myself if by sharing information about her here I contributed in any way to creating trouble for her when she returns to her country. Iran is going through its most exciting political developments since its revolution in 1979 and my new hero lives a life that has closely mirrored the ebbs and flows of the past three decades.
She was a teenaged supporter of the revolution. As a conservative young woman who chose to cover her hair she supported the Islamic aspects of the revolution that eventually pushed aside the other political strands that had united against the Shah.
But within a decade she became disillusioned with the direction Iran had taken and embraced instead her country’s feminist movement. I too had been a more conservative teenager and I found a lot of comfort in discussing our parallel moves away from orthodox interpretations of Islam.
Just as I listened with a mix of awe and horror to Ates’ retelling of how she survived two attempts on her life, I was equally captivated and heartbroken by my Iranian hero’s recounting her imprisonment for her activism.
She described solitary confinement as “like death” and said the only thing that saved her was her spirituality. But she perseveres and practices what she calls backpack activism by working out of her home – her organization’s office was closed down – and by creating online the kind of space she and other activists don’t have in the “real world.” “Virtual space is very important for us. We don’t have public space to reach people by media,” she told us at WISE.
It is impossible to describe the impact women such as Ates and my Iranian hero had on us at WISE.
Two important initiatives were launched at WISE. The first was the WISE Muslim Women’s Shura (Consultative) Council. That group will at first have just an advisory role but among its goals is the training of muftiyyas – women muftis – who will be versed in Islamic jurisprudence and eventually issue fatwas or religious decrees. The council’s first campaign was the launch in KL of a Jihad Against Violence, targeting violent extremism and domestic violence. The second initiative was the launch of the Muslim Women’s Fund which will invest in innovative projects aiming to improve women’s rights.
With women like Ates and my Iranian hero around, we’re well on our way to being wise indeed.
(This post was originally published at Metro Canada)