Published on TUFTS e-news of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 12-10-2002 – Tufts grad Zainah Anwar takes a leading role in the controversial struggle for expanded freedoms for Muslim women. Zainah Anwar refuses to wear the tudung, the scarf traditionally wrapped around Muslim women’s heads. For that matter, the Tufts graduate refuses to do a lot of things. Tired of the constrained women’s role in Muslim society, Anwar is baring her face – and leading a group calling for expanded freedoms for women under Islam.
“The solution to society’s ills does not lie in the shrouding, segregation and control of women,” Anwar told the British Broadcasting Company. Anwar – who graduated from Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy – has dedicated herself to fighting against this type of “control.”
The Malaysian activist – who studied journalism and international affairs while at Tufts – has been working for more than a decade to defend the human rights of Muslim women. According to Anwar, expanded freedom and Islam can co-exist.
Back in 1996, Anwar told Time magazine, “I want to be a woman, a good Muslim and listen to the B-52s loud. I don’t
see any contradiction in that.” Now the Tufts graduate is the executive director of Sisters In Islam, a non-governmental organization which advocates a new interpretation of Islam that includes more modern ideas about women’s roles in Muslim society. “In letters to newspapers and memoranda to government officials, these Muslim women are challenging traditional understandings of Islam. It makes them a controversial organization,” reported PBS’s Frontline, which recently profiled Anwar.
Anwar and the Sisters In Islam say patriarchal interpretation of Islam has lead to gender bias in Malaysian Islamic law. “It is not Islam that discriminates against women,” Anwar told Frontline. “It is not the verses in the Koran. It is the way these verses have been interpreted by men living in patriarchal societies who wish to maintain their dominance and their superiority and control over women.” After thousands of years of male domination, Anwar says it is time for change.
“When religion is being used to punish me and govern my private and public life, then I have every right to say whether I like such laws or not,” the Tufts graduate – who is one of the commissioners of the government-appointed Malaysian Human Rights Commission — told Asia’s Straits Times. But change doesn’t come easily. Anwar and her “Sisters” have been met with great resistance by those who feel that the religion should not be judged by modern circumstances.
“[Anwar’s views], while applauded quietly by non-Muslims and some Muslims, have embroiled her group in public fights with the wide swathe of traditional ulamas [Muslim scholars] from both within and outside government circles,” reported the Times. While ulamas say she is unqualified to question the religion, Anwar hasn’t given up.“The fact that we don’t wear tudung or speak Arabic has been used as excuses to say we are westernized and elite,” she told the Times. “To me these are just strategies used by my detractors.”
But growing world-wide attention to Islam has renewed internal interest in re-examining the rights of Muslim women. “There has been an opening of the space where you can engage in dialogue and debate,” the Tufts graduate told the Associated Press. And Anwar has been using the opportunity wisely. At a recent public forum on Islam marking the one year anniversary of September 11, she said more and more people in Malaysia are examining the role of religious laws in their society. “Anwar said since the attacks in New York and Washington, people in her country have grown less tolerant of religious extremism and more willing to debate issues of faith,” reported the Associated Press.
Which, for Anwar and the Sisters In Islam, may be a small step in the right direction. “There are plenty of decent people out there who feel this way,” Anwar told AsiaWeek. “It is time for us [moderate Muslims] to reclaim the religion from those who have hijacked it to perpetrate violence.” (Read all on TUFTS e-news).