Women frame a new dialogue between cultures

John ColsonAspen, CO Colorado
Asifa Quraishi and Laleh Bakhtiar speak on womens role in the Islamic world. (Courtesy Nora Feller)

ASPEN For those who want to resolve the current standoff between Islam and the West – and, in particular, for women caught in the middle of that standoff – the best hope was defined this week as a two-pronged effort.That effort, as currently envisioned, would involve the injection of feminist voices into what has always been a predominantly male Islamic legal framework, coupled with a public-relations blitz aimed at countering Western misunderstandings of the Muslim world.Those were two of the main conclusions at this week’s “Women, Islam and the West” symposium at the Aspen Institute, which featured five women deeply enmeshed in the debate. The “Women, Islam and the West Symposium” was conceived as an examination of the role of women in Muslim society, and of the part women might play in changes within the Islamic world and its relations with the West.But, as they made clear from the start of the symposium, these five women don’t like to use such standard phrases as “clash of cultures” or “clash of civilizations.”Instead, they refer to the current worldwide confrontation between Islam and the West as a “clash of ignorances” – an unnecessary battleground.

And it was that ignorance, which amounts to deep levels of mistrust and misunderstanding that was the main target of the two-day symposium.Heading the discussion were the five women, each a well-known advocate for women’s rights in the Muslim world: Laleh Bakhtiar, Ayisha Amatu Rahim Jeffries, Daisy Khan, Asifa Quraishi and Nevin Reda. It was convened by the Cordoba Initiative, an organization co-founded by former Aspen Mayor John Bennett; the Aspen Institute; and the group that Khan heads, the American Society for Muslim Advancement.At a wrap-up symposium Wednesday, panelists met with a roomful of participants, some established experts in the matters under discussion, some merely interested citizens. The talk ranged across a broad terrain, detouring into discussions of philosophy, religious doctrine, law, fanaticism, the use of violence as a means to an end, and an endless number of other topics.University of Wisconsin law professor Quraishi, at the opening of Wednesday’s session, pointed out that Islamic conservatives point to the very topic of “women’s rights” as “a Western imposition” of outside values on Muslim women, which therefore means it can be dismissed as irrelevant and anti-Islam.She also said many Islamic students are reluctant to even talk about abortion, believing it the Quran to forbid it. But abortion actually is permissible within the first trimester of pregnancy by the Quran itself, Quraishi said.

And the veil, a symbol of the oppression of Muslim women to many in the West, is not so simple, she said. Some Muslim women wear veils as a way of maintaining ties to their faith and traditions, or as a way to avoid judgment on their physical appearance, while still advocating for greater freedom for women within the culture.”Not everybody is forced to,” Quraishi said. But some who do also fear being pigeonholed as nonfeminists if they do wear the veil, leading to a feeling of, “Where I gain credibility in one circle, I lose it in another.”The focus frequently would veer off from the stated topic to a variety of issues plaguing international relations today, such as the use of violence by Islamic extremists.Reda, a Quran specialist and the head of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, suggested that it is not cultures clashing, but people within cultures who have differing agendas and ideals.And Jeffries, vice president of external affairs for the African American Islamic Institute in Senegal, spoke of a conversation with a dinner companion in Aspen who intimated that it must be difficult for her to discuss Islam “in a humanistic framework,” which she took as an assumption that Islam is inherently not “humanistic,” and as a culture steeped in violence cannot coexist with democracy.But as a resident of from her own experience, she said, “I believe strongly that it does,” in her country and in others.Khan said that historically, Islamic nations have embraced diversity, supported educational institutions with government funds, encouraged freedom of expression and spawned remarkable examples of everything from art and literature to city planning and landscaping.

But, she said: “I believe that our leaders have forgotten their flocks, and don’t care for us any more. They only care about their own prosperity,” and treat the pursuit of knowledge as “something akin to collaboration with infidels.”Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American Islamic scholar and author who recently published a controversial translation of the Quran, termed Westerners who assume that Islam is out to annihilate the West as living “in a state of fear” and declared that “the media had gotten to [them]. Certainly, the Quran does not say this.”She and others repeatedly said that Islam is not a monolithic culture but consists of individuals who hold different ideas and beliefs and who do not all view the West as evil and deserving of destruction. But she also said she feels there is a lack of spirituality, morality and ethics in Islamic edicts and actions in recent decades, along with many “misapplications of Islamic law.””We’re constantly being defensive” in the face of criticism from the West, she said, and so are “not able to look inward” and begin a process in which Islam can “change itself, and change its behavior.”There was considerable discussion of the failure of the news media in general to give coverage to such things as the complexity of competing ideas within the Islamic world. News organizations, some argued, generally prefer to use stereotypes in their reports, which leads to mistaken conclusions on both sides of the cultural divide.One of the conclusions to emerge from the symposium was that the women in leadership roles need to work harder to form collaborative relationships with media outlets in order to encourage stories showing the diversity and depth of Muslim populations.

The symposium also was an opportunity for the group to highlight a relatively new effort to address women’s rights in Islamic law and custom, called the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity, or WISE.Khan, a WISE organizer, said what is needed is to “create our arguments in the Islamic legal framework,” referring to the issuance of fatwas, or edicts by Islamic jurists.WISE, she said, is a movement to create an institution to train women as legal scholars who interpret Islamic law. The goal, she said, is to train 10 such women over the next decade, to form the nucleus of a Women’s Shura Council.The Shura would convene academics and scholars ” to counter distorted scriptural interpretations and draw on Islamic law to promote legitimate and equitable positions on women’s issues,” according to WISE literature.The discussion touched on a veritable blizzard of related topics over a four-hour period, and Khan pledged to send what she termed “cheat sheets” of principles, terms and concepts to participants interested in carrying the discussion beyond the symposium chamber, and to keep in touch with anyone interested in continuing what had begun in Aspen.John Colson’s e-mail address is