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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 1 March 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Shaykha Fest: Celebrating Female Scholarship in Islam

By Enith Morillo

Feb 28, 2013

When I first heard about Shaykha Fest, I, a seeker of knowledge, could not wait to sit at the feet of my learned mothers. Featuring Muslim female scholars from Germany, the UK and America, Shaykha Fest was born out of a need to revive female scholarship by setting and giving the stage to contemporary scholars, activists and thinkers, while simultaneously bridging the gap between different schools of thought and sects.

Against all the passive-aggressive drivers from Rhode Island to New Jersey, I sped, with a heart vacillating between fear and hope: the fear of disillusionment from learning female scholarship was indeed dead, and the hope that it is alive and well and simply needs to be rediscovered.

Sitting with over 300 women from Australia to good ‘ole Kentucky who had all answered the call from Al-Rawiya Foundation, we gathered in the conference hall in anticipation as reciter Salam Aref opened the morning session with the heart of the Qur’an: Chapter Ya Sin.

Without skipping a beat, Dr. Heba Musharraf, lecturer at Princeton University and pioneer of a unique comparative and analytical methodology that aims to uncover linguistic and cultural connections between Arabic and other languages, transcended Salam’s recitation by expounding on the exegesis of the same chapter -Yes!

Performer, writer and director Andrea Assaf followed, breaking the sober, intellectual tone of Dr. Musharraf with a more personal performance. Filling the room with her energy and raw emotion, she recited from “Eleven Reflections on September,” a poetry series on the post-9/11 Arab American experience and War on Terror.

Just as Andrea Assaf transported us to neighbouring New York with vibrant prose of smoke, tears, and battleships, Dr. Amira Bennison, a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge and a celebrated scholar on Moroccan history, discussed how throughout her research, shehas found that historical records generally mention women in the context of four main categories: as wives and mothers, as political players, as educators, and as financial supporters. Enthralled, I listened to the story of Abu Bakr Ibn Omar’s wife, Zainab an-Nafzawiyyah, who is described in history as “intelligent… and beautiful,” and Dr. Bennison’s insight on how being described as “intelligent” before “beautiful” is in itself a great testimony to Zainab’s character. It’s a fact the female scholars are generally known by whom they taught, yet Dr. Bennison elucidated how some were daughters of male scholars who treasured knowledge and saw the need to pass it on. The inspiring legacy of father-daughter scholarship!

Her discourse closed with the Tunisian sisters Fatima and Mariam al-Fihri, who used their inheritance for architectural patronage and founded the world’s first academic degree-granting university, University of Qarawiyyin, and the Andalusian Mosque in Fes, serving the spiritual and scholarly needs of their community.

Attentively absorbed by the scholarship of these accomplished women but yearning for a break, I was humbled as Al-Rawiya founder and Shaykha Fest’s mastermind, Shaykha Reima Yosif took the mic. Born and raised in the US, Shaykha Reima Yosif in the tradition of scholars who mastered several branches of knowledge, has memorized the entire Qur’an and has authentic certification (Ijaza) to teach multiple exegesis, books of Ahadith, and two methodologies of recitation of Qur’an.

Shaykha Yosif shared with the audience the dichotomy of outpouring support and judgmental resistance she encountered with the idea of Shaykha Fest. Bringing together female scholars to share their stories and contributions, Shaykha Fest turned into “a crosspollination of modernists, artists, Sufis, Shias, traditionalists…” garnering unprecedented success by collective requests to globalize the event in the near future.

Centred on the theme of arrogance, Shaykha Yosif’s lecture entitled “The Firing Squad” alluded to the evolution of passing judgment based on assumptions, not listening to “certain” people because of their colour, race and/or religious affiliation, and the dangers of “I” and its satanic origins. Interlaced with narrations from Prophet Muhammad, Shaykha Yosif defined the disease of arrogance and unravelled its medicine. Arrogance, of heart, of tongue, and of action, must be battled through a special kind of repentance, and through cultivating humbleness by emulating those of meagre means.

As in the narration of the ascension and the parallel drawn between a huge bull being unable to re-enter a hole and the uttering of an enormity and being unable to take it back, Shaykha Yosif reminded us that religious adherence should lead to piety, not judgment, and must translate to mercy.

Closing with part of John Donne’s “No man is an island”, Shaykha Yosif raised our spirits to remind us we all count, each and every one of us, which swiftly set the stage for Ustadha’s Humera Khan address.

Trailblazer and founder of An-Nisa Society in Wembley, England, Ustadha Humera Khan is a 20-year activist and educator focused on social services for people of all backgrounds and faiths, and a powerful advocate for social change in Britain.

During her address, Ustadha Khan proposed the Western concept of “I” to be one of personal responsibility instead of selfishness, and its being tightly bound to activism. With decades of experience, Ustadha Khan raised the issue of Muslims’ socio-economic problems, including high incidence of mental health and domestic violence cases, and the lack of infrastructure in our community to address its own needs, as our resources are pulled overseas neglecting the destitute amongst us.

Ustadha Khan called on Muslim women to take responsibility for humanity, reframing the question of injustice in the context of sustainability, and reminding us to have wide shoulders to take the criticism that comes with activism. Yes, women’s work is often marginalized and their contributions ignored, Ustadha Khan suggested, but that should never deter us from our duty towards humanity, and the dynamic collaboration that men and women must enact to meet the needs of the communities they inhabit.

Absorbed and energized, the morning session concluded in time for lunch and prayer, leaving me filled with hope and looking forward to the afternoon.

Hurry to prayer!

Hurry to success!

Who better than Dr. Kecia Ali to open the afternoon session with the topic of Gender Justice in Islam? An Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University, and published author of Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Professor Ali started by acknowledging the weighty responsibility that comes with framing questions.

Historically, she explained, the mode of speaking about Islam with phrases such as “Islam says” and “The Islamic view is” has fostered parochialism rather than contribute to the humanistic expansive view of Islam. Focusing on the issue of authority, the question of who is allowed to speak for Islam emerged, which Dr. Ali eloquently presented by drawing parallels with Catholicism and the seemingly contradicting viewpoints on contraception.

With the introduction of print in the post-Gutenberg era, Dr. Ali suggested, a shift resulted on the issue of authority, as now the sacred text “spoke” for itself as reading became widespread, leading to the question of who can interpret the sacred text. Similarly, Dr. Ali argued, who gets to define justice and whether it is bound to time and place as gender is, are key questions that need to be answered in the quest for the irreconcilable notion of gender & justice.

Touching on Islamic jurisprudence as it relates to marriage law and arguable inequality on issues of obedience, divorce, and even racism, Dr. Ali expounded on role models and women’s roles being tainted by interpretations, such as in the case of the female supervisor of the marketplace in the time of Prophet Muhammad (saw), and how her role metamorphosed from originally overseeing business ethics and economic probity to the belittling function of scrutinizing women’s morality and dress.

To conclude, Dr. Ali reminded us that until gender justice is established, women will continue to be robbed from their God-given ability to be His vicegerents on Earth, which in turn converged with Shaykha Halima Krausen’s discourse on women and the public and private sphere. Shaykha Krausen is one of the most renowned European female scholars in Islam and a founding member of the Inter-Religious Dialogue Circle at the Department of Theology at Hamburg University, Germany.

Shaykha Krausen posed the utopian idea of men and women collaboratively working together for a common good, and expounded on how gender segregation impacts learning, knowledge, and decision-making. Stories abound of prominent women in the time of Prophet Muhammad (saw) with powerful roles as contributors to the betterment of society, Shaykha Krausen shared, yet seldom are the details of their social interactions and how they made it to their posts expounded on. Indeed, the widely accepted notion that women moving about in the public sphere translates into social corruption is supported only through the disproportional emphasis placed on gender segregation, as if it was a pillar of Islam.

Drawing on the story of Aisha (ra) and the scandal, Shaykha Krausen beautifully illustrated how the verses from the Qur’an relating to the lie against Aisha (ra) did not disapprove of her actions but rather warned those who spoke ill of her. Interestingly, Shaykha Krausen proceeded, the incident did not result in a command being revealed to admonish women to stay home, nor an injunction came against the Prophet Muhammad (saw) for taking her, but rather a stern warning to produce witnesses to those who accuse her or any woman, for that matter, was revealed.

God as the ultimate law giver, Shaykha Krausen concluded, swiftly setting the stage for Ustadha Sabira Lakha’s address on Women and Ijtihaad, independent reasoning. Ustadha Lakha is one of UK’s most prominent female jurists (faqihah), with formal training in Islamic Jurisprudence, and extensive comparative knowledge of Sharia and the English legal system.

Summing it all up with her opening remarks, Ustadha Lakha reminded us that Prophet Muhammad (saw) was sent as a mercy to mankind, and Islamic law was intended as a source of ease not of subjugation, oppression, or marginalization. Bringing tears to our eyes, Ustadha Lakha affirmed how women were made to feel safe in the republic of Islam, through sharing the story related in Thirmidhi, where a woman accused a man of raping her, and how the command to punish the man was pronounced instead of asking her to produce additional witnesses.

Ustadha Lakha stated how extrapolation to the best meaning of Allah’s words comes through critical thinking and independent reasoning, and how justice in itself comes through interpreting Allah’s words in the collective context of mercy and compassion. Contesting the abuse of societal customs such as in the case of female circumcision, Ustadha Lakha shed light on the idea of marriage as a partnership in humility, reframing the notion of obedience as obedience to Allah, not to another creature who is our equal.

Elevating women with the story of the Queen of Sheba, Ustadha Lakha shared how Sheba exemplified leadership of a nation, and how Qura’n eloquently differentiates between her submitting together with Solomon, not to him. Historically, Ustadha Lakha continued, women were entrusted with guarding and authenticating ahadith, with no records of women ever whimsically forging or fabricating narrations as their male counterparts are known to have done.

Ustadha Lakha concluded by passing the baton to the last speaker, Shaykha Zaynab Ansari, and reminding women to promote scholarship by encouraging each other to seek knowledge. Shaykha Ansari spent over a decade studying traditional Islam, Arabic and Farsi, in Iran and Syria, and is currently pursuing a M.A. in World History at Georgia State University.

Speaking on female scholars of Ahadith, Shaykha Ansari explained that the recognition of scholarship comes generally through acceptance by peers, and how female scholarship must not be approached from the question of absence of male counterparts. Shaykha Ansari continued by pointing out that our stories go “unsung” because typically our work takes place behind the scenes, yet the apparent absence of female scholarship must not be misconstrued as a lack of interest or capability. The legacy of female scholarship, Shaykha Ansari concluded, and their sacrifices and travelling in the quest of knowledge, is evident in the recent compilation work of Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadvi’s: The Women Scholars in Islam.

Ustadha Chantal Carnes, who interlaced the speakers’ introductions with historical jewels of the vibrant legacy of female scholars, moderated the entire event, and closed by giving the mic to Andrea Assaf for a powerful performance that included Oprah-style affirmations from the audience.

Shaykha Fest is bound to become the platform needed to inspire and support the revival of female scholarship for centuries to come.

Heading home, as I listened to Andrea Assaf’s poem “Alert” while stuck in traffic at the George Washington Bridge, I thought: Yes, Andrea! Shaykha Fest’s banner is orange, knowledge is orange, perseverance is orange, strength is orange, female scholarship is orange: Alert! Alert!