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Birthday Throwback: Celebrating Musawah’s Beginnings

After 12 years of passionate and hard work, Musawah is now entering the next phase of its development as a transformative global movement for the rights of women living in Muslim contexts. Building on its success in the past decade and capitalising on its gains, Musawah is determined to continue its momentum towards equality and justice. 

Musawah was started on 14 February 2009. 12 year later, read a message from our Executive Director Zainah Anwar on what lies ahead for Musawah

2020 was indeed a year of challenges, but also a year when Musawah entered our second decade with new initiatives and new ways of reaching our goals. In our first decade, we set a strong knowledge-based foundation for equality and justice for women living in Muslim contexts through a series of ground-breaking work—we produced new feminist scholarship in Islam, we intervened in the CEDAW process to challenge the ways governments use Islam to perpetuate discrimination against women, and we conducted our life-transforming 7-day short course on Islam and Gender Equality and Justice (I-nGEJ), to build the knowledge and courage of participants to advocate for equality and justice in Islam.

We have built an amazing network of advocates in over 30 countries. We are now ready to build a visible global collective force for change as we enter the next phase of our growth, guided by our new Theory of Change. We plan to amplify our voice and accelerate our impact as a transformative global movement, committed to gender equality and justice for women living in Muslim contexts. Our newly launched Campaign for Justice in Muslim Family Laws will be the platform for us to organise and mobilise our partners and galvanise international attention for the notion that, without equality in the private sphere of the family, there can be no equality for women in the public sphere. 

We in Musawah, joining hands with our advocates who attended our recent Global Conference on Muslim Family Law Reform, are excited to co-create this campaign to turn family law reform into a priority global issue. 

The gendered impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified systemic inequalities in the family that have affected women in disproportionate and harmful ways: higher rates of domestic and intimate partner violence; increased care burdens; increased financial vulnerabilities as a result of women’s overrepresentation in the informal sector, and care and service industries; and exacerbated online gender-based violence and exploitation.

As the world embarks on a search for solutions to end longstanding political, economic, social, and public health injustices, addressing centuries-old discrimination against women can no longer be placed on the back-burner. As we build back a better world, it has to be an equal world for women. 

Now, more than ever, is the time for justice, for equality, for respect and recognition that women are human beings of equal worth and dignity, irrespective of religion, culture, or tradition.

To celebrate Musawah’s 12th birthday this year, we are republishing the following interview in which Musawah’s Programme Manager Suri Kempe discusses the beginnings of a global movement with the founding members and founding staff: Zainah Anwar, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Rozana Isa and Jana Rumminger. The piece was originally written by Halima El Joundi for inclusion in Musawah Vision newsletter no. 22 in September 2017.

Musawah's 8th Anniversary: Celebrating Beginnings

God cannot be God if God is unjust

Nothing captures Musawah’s ethos like this statement by Zainah Anwar, its co-founder and Executive Director. 

This longing for justice, for correcting the inequitable power dynamics in Muslim families and for giving Muslim women their due at last, provided Musawah with all the reasons to exist and to take up the challenge of rethinking family law from within the tradition. 

For Musawah, Islam is a just religion. It is the interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah by classical jurists that was guided by the social and political realities of their age and a set of assumptions that reflected the state of knowledge, normative values, and patriarchal institutions of their time. Injustices result from a disconnect between these outdated laws and present-day realities. 

Through scholarship and activism, Musawah is challenging the patriarchal monopoly on the interpretation of the sacred texts of Islam to claim back the Qur’anic values of justice, fairness and equality, and to emphasize the temporality of law.

Suri: How did the idea of Musawah come about? 

Ziba: I think it was in early 2000. I came to Malaysia for a workshop that Zainah organized. It was the first time to be out of the Middle Eastern/Iranian/Turkish contexts. At that time, I was working on Islam and feminism, but I had not made the leap yet. I really felt at home here because there was no tension between the secular and religious approaches. There was open-mindedness. It was at that time that the idea of Musawah came into existence. 

As an academic, I felt that the old way of approaching inequality and injustice for women needed to change. I was inspired by a new type of activism working from within religion. Sisters in Islam was the only group that I had come across throughout my research that was both feminist, in its true sense, and at the same time religious, combining these two frameworks together. That was the beginning of the idea. 

Zainah: In 2003, Sisters in Islam organized a meeting on the impact of Islamic extremism on women’s rights. We brought groups from Southeast Asia and the Arab world together in a meeting where we talked about the legal, social and educational impacts of extremism. As women, we were all suffering from extremism and impacted by it. And yet so many women’s groups in Muslim countries were not grappling with the issue head-on, so many were reluctant to engage with religion, in spite of the violence and killings and extremism. We thought that needed to change. We were very inspired by what had happened in Morocco, how the Moudawana was introduced in 2004 based on the framework of equality and justice and that marriage is a partnership of equals. We thought, if Morocco can do this, why can’t we? 

It was then that we decided that there was a need to bring, in one big international meeting, women’s groups that have been working on family law reform for decades, facing so much resistance from governments, from Islamic activists and from religious authorities.

Suri: The initial intention was just to host a global meeting. How did that suddenly become a movement?

Ziba: As Zainah said, the Moroccan experience inspired us because they used a framework which brought together human rights, Islamic teachings, constitutional law, and lived realities. 

In the 2006 meeting, we had Amina Lamrini (Moroccan human rights activist and president of the High Audiovisual and Communications Authority in Morocco), Amal Abdel Hadi (longstanding Egyptian feminist and political activist) and a number of excellent activists from all over the Arab world. 

The intention then was to bring scholarship and activism together. We hoped our big meeting would become something of a big bang that will change the world. The next day Amal Abdel Hadi said: “Wait a moment, what we have here is a movement.” And that really changed the conversation. 

Zainah: Yes, Amal said we can’t just have one big meeting and then everybody just goes back to their own countries and continues doing whatever they had been doing. That’s not going to bring any change. We were really serious about achieving equality and justice and reforming family laws, and, given the challenges we were facing, we were really talking about a movement that will take years to build; one global meeting was not going to be enough.

Suri: But why is Musawah a movement as opposed to, say, a network?

Zainah: I think one major reason is that we see ourselves as a movement of ideas, a movement of knowledge. We looked at the Violence Against Women movement, and how they came out with a feminist analysis of why violence against women happens, what are the principles in the law if you want to criminalize domestic violence, what are the principles for providing shelter services. Nobody really owns that movement. All that scholarship is being produced, but it is really up to activists on the ground to decide how they would want to use it. 

So we looked at the VAW movement as a model and decided we wanted to produce the knowledge, the analyses, the strategies on how do we build an alternative discourse on equality and justice in Islam and how do we push for law reform, and the arguments that make change possible. 

We wanted to develop that body of scholarship and we felt that in the end, it’s really up to groups at the national level to decide how they want to use our scholarship, the strategies we share at national levels. 

Rozana: There was a concerted effort to ensure that the agenda on the ground, at the national level, is led by local groups, not us. They are the ones working on law reform while we help to support their efforts with knowledge, resources and strategies that might be relevant to their efforts. 

Jana: One last thing to add is that the first two years, from 2007 until the launching in 2009, were about principles and values. Our Framework for Action was originally called Declaration of Principles. There were intense discussions about how do we formulate those values and principles so that they can be universal but then still apply to the different contexts. And I think that’s actually one of the things that Musawah, throughout the years, has continued to work on. 

Suri: Can you tell us a little bit about the planning process for the launch, especially for something as ambitious as a global movement? 

Rozana: Much work was done in terms of building the movement principles, values and resources, but one other thing was reaching out to the groups of women working on law reform all over the world and trying to convince them through email to come on board. 

For that we really relied on the planning committee. They were well-established activists with lots of contacts. So they were the ones who actually did much of the outreach work. They kept giving us names, made introductions and we followed up by email and phone calls. We reached out to hundreds of activists in some 50 countries. The response was overwhelming. In the end, we had to cap the number at 250 as we could not manage more. 

Jana: It’s 2008, this planning committee of 11 or 12 people had decided that we are going to hold this gigantic global meeting with 250 people. Zainah was managing Sisters in Islam, I was full-time and Rozana comes on board. In that time, we had to write the Framework for Action

We chose every word very carefully. And we needed to translate the document into Arabic and French, the languages we work in, and also into Persian and Bahasa. We published Wanted: Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family as well. The book was eight chapters long, and we had to commission the papers, edit them and discuss them internally. All this within a year, then we were planning the meeting for 250 people in Kuala Lumpur. 

SIS had never planned a meeting that big. So SIS basically decided that all work had to stop from December through February as all its staff had to be involved in running various committees to plan for this big meeting. 

Zainah: We had reached out to 50 countries and at the end, 48 countries were represented, 32 of which are OIC countries, so there was great interest, and we just kept increasing numbers. We had to look for more funding to bring in more people as we had only budgeted for 100 participants. 

Suri: Musawah in 2009 launched explosive debates for secular and religious feminists. How did that come about and how did you reach a consensus on it? 

Zainah: Sisters in Islam had always been a group that bridged the gap between Islam and human rights. We didn’t see any contradictions. We saw the possibility of engaging with religion to push for change. 

As Muslims living in a country where Islam is a source of law and public policy and practice, how can we not engage with religion when it is used to discriminate and oppress us? How can we just ignore it and leave it to the religious authorities and the Islamists to define what Islam is and what it’s not? 

This global movement we wanted to create then was really about bridging the divide, which didn’t exist in Southeast Asia, but was very much present in the Arab world and in South Asia. 

We wanted to exist because, first of all, there is this gap of knowledge, on understanding Islam from a rights framework, and, second, the gap of knowledge among secular feminists and human rights activists in terms of engaging with religion. 

We wanted to bridge that binary that we feel is deliberately constructed to keep us—secular and religious feminists—apart instead of bringing us together. How can we not engage with religion when it is used to discriminate and oppress us? 

Suri: What would you say are the key achievements of Musawah? 

Rozana: I think we’ve come a long way with very limited resources and with a lot of borrowed time as well. People involved had so many more commitments, yet they gave a lot of themselves to the process, to producing the outputs, to carrying out the work. It is so wonderful to be able to be here today and to see how we can take it forward. 

Ziba: One main achievement is that we are still here, talking to each other, and growing. I personally think that Musawah has been really a source of inspiration for many people. It is the first group of women that came together both as scholars and activists. Musawah also values the knowledge that is produced by women. Most importantly we developed a methodology. We have a clear idea of where we want to go but at the same time, we are open to change. 

Jana: I think one of the key achievements in my mind is not necessarily related to outputs or activities or anything, but just the fact that Musawah has been so grounded in values for its whole existence, and, in being a knowledge-building movement, we are not prioritizing only the scholars among us, whom we respect and are grateful for, but also the knowledge of people and their experiences. 

Zainah: I am proud of the passion that everybody in Musawah has. I am proud of the alignment in values between what Musawah stands for and the values that our staff holds, because it’s not a job; it’s a mission where you know the risks, the attacks, the fact that you are going to be demonized and yet still be willing to do it. This is our resistance to oppressive patriarchy, misogyny, and the use of God and religion to keep us down. So, no matter what the risks are, something has to happen and we are willing to make it happen.