A Feminist Koran?

A group of Muslim women do their own reading of Islam

| April 7, 2005

It's like the eternal query of the chicken and the egg: Which came first, a patriarchal society or a religion dictating it? For a group of Muslim women in Israel, the answer is 'a little of both.' Religion demands interpretations, and society leads you to choose among them.

Nissa wa Afaq, or Women and Horizons, is a group of social activists preparing to teach a course in the town of Kafr Kara on feminist interpretations of Islam's writings. By taking a fresh look at the Koran, they're showing that much of the sexism endemic in Muslim communities is backed up by misguided readings of the sacred text.

Take, for example, the widespread assumption that Islam endorses polygamy. Not entirely, says Nissa wa Afaq's Mirwat Omari. That position is based on a Koranic verse that's usually cited only in part -- specifically the part that says a man can take four wives. The rest of the section, however, shows that the practice is meant to ensure that widows and children are provided for in times of war.

'We imprison ourselves, believing that religion does not give women space,' Omari says. But the Nissa wa Afaq women aren't kidding themselves either. They know there's a 'glass ceiling' for women in Islam, just as one exists in Judaism and Christianity. 'We don't argue with the ceiling -- the challenge is to stretch the space between the floor and the ceiling.'

That space grew wider last month, when Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, sent shockwaves throughout the Muslim world by leading Friday prayers before an audience of both men and women in Manhattan.

Nissa wa Afaq's plans are less grandiose -- lessons on empowerment and feminist commentary on Islam are areas of inquiry -- but the group hopes to make a significant impact on the town. As writer Tzafi Saar explains, that means 'putting question marks after words that used to be followed by an exclamation point.'
-- Hannah Lobel

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