My trip to Malaysia to Attend the WISE Conference
Dr. Syeda Sultana Razia,
Associate Professor, BUET
I have traveled to Malaysia to attend the WISE (Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality
and Equality) conference organized by New York based organizations ASMA (American
Society of Muslim Advancement) and Cordova Initiatives. About 200 participants (mostly
women) from about 60 different countries attended the conference. The organizers
sponsored the airfare, and food/lodging for all the participants from 16th to 20th July 2009
in Impiana Hotel at Kuala Lumpur.
Despite few organizing pitfalls the conference was an enormous success in exposing the
participants to the diversified activities of Muslim women from all over the world. It also
provided the big picture and directions of the ongoing development work of women
activists in Muslim world. The participants who were invited are mostly involved in real
life work and could be classified as moderate to liberal Muslims. Among them were NGO
workers, journalists/columnist/editors, writers, media personalities, lawyers, students and
experts of Islamic Shariah/Islamic studies/sufism, (I met one lady who is well versed in
Ibnul Arabi). Women like Dr. Nafis Sadik, (Under Secretary General. UN), Dr. Amina
Wadud, Samina Ahmad (Rock band Junoon’s business manager), Santanina Rasul, (first
Muslim Senator of Phillippines, elected twice in 1987 and 1992) are some of the
renowned names participated in the conference. Marina Mahathir and Mrs Abdullah
Badawi of Malaysia were also involved with the organizers. For unknown policy reasons,
the members of the mainstream Islamic movements were, however, absent in the
A number of presentations dealing with women empowerment were made by participants
from different part of Muslim world. Several workshops on specific topics were offered
by the experts of related fields. An all female Shura council, Muftiyyah training program
and Muslim women’s fund were launched in the conference. A book of biographies of all
participants were published and made available to the participants free of cost.
My personal observations on the conference and participants are
1. The injustice towards Muslims worldwide gave birth to a people who are
passionate to identify themselves as Muslims whether they are adherent to the
Islamic ideology or not. 9/11 gave birth to a similar brand of Muslims in American
2. Marriage and divorce law as practiced in different Muslim societies are the two
most discriminating laws facing by Muslim women irrespective of their
geographical location. Bringing justice to female rape victims is another
problematic area common to all Muslim societies.
3. More and more Muslim women are studying Shariah, Islamic studies etc as topics
of interest and matriarchal reading of Quranic text is becoming popular among
4. Interest in Shariah and academic degree in related fields (either from secular or
religious school) were considered as the main criteria of selecting female only
members of the Shura council. This council would be responsible for carrying out
Ijtihad and issuing fatwa on different women issues on behalf of WISE.
5. Hijab was treated as a cultural and optional practice of Muslim women.
6. Practice of Sufism and spirituality were very much visible in many of the
participants who were well versed in congregational meditation similar to those
prescribed by silva or quantum method.
7. It was reported in one of the workshops that although socially and legally
prohibited, sexual promiscuity, premarital and extra marital sex are becoming
more common in many Muslim countries (including Pakistan, Indonesia, Middle
east, Jordan etc). It was also specifically mentioned that the virginity of unmarried
boys and girls in Muslim society is becoming a myth rather than a reality. It was
suggested that the stigma related to sex without marriage should be removed from
Muslim society. The workshop was led by Ms Seyran Ates, a German lawyer,
writer and publicist of Turkish origin. She believes that marriage is not a necessary
condition for forming a family. In personal life she is a mother of one girl and
8. It was also interesting to observe that organization (NGO) like Sisters in Islam of
Malaysia, although controversial, is effective in many ways and has strong Islamic
philosophical base supported by personality like Dr. Amina Wadud.
Future considerations towards gender justice
1. Marriage and divorce law should be made more legible, convenient to both parties
and related resources should be readily available. Pre-marriage training and
counseling regarding the requisites, rights and responsibilities of marriage should
be arranged and the content of nikahnama should be made familiar to the potential
brides and grooms.
2. Punishment and conditions for punishment of adultery (Zinah) and their
applicability in contemporary world should be reviewed and revised by the
mainstream scholars. Special attention must be paid so that rape case is not mixed
up with adultery.
3. In past, the strict interpretation of women dress code, i.e. hijab led to seclusion of
women from social life and caused major damage to Muslim society although
situation is improving since last century. However, too many arbitrary and ‘liberal’
interpretations of Quranic terms Khimar, Jilbab and Juyub have caused the dress
code to lose its essence of modesty. This is evident in many westernize Muslim
societies where Muslim women cannot be distinguished from non-Muslims by the
way they dress-up. In present world the dress code of Islam can be used as a guard
against widespread vulgarity and nudity. Hijab with its essence of modesty should,
therefore, be encouraged and popularized in Muslim societies not only to fulfill the
religious obligation but also to combat the malaise of indecency.
4. The breaking down of family as institution is complete in the West. The vibes of it
is being felt in Muslim societies as a group of so-called progressives are trying to
create social acceptance of sex without marriage as a natural phenomenon. It is an
irony that when the activists of the west are raising voice against the enduring
sexual exploitation of women in the name of sexual liberation, our progressives are
encouraging the very vise of sexual promiscuity in Muslim society in the name of
social need. We have faced similar line of arguments in favor of legalizing
prostitution in Muslim societies. Nevertheless, it is imperative that Muslims all
over the world take necessary actions to prevent social permissiveness and family
break down at once.
5. The patriarchal reading of Quranic text as well as interpretations of incompetent
people in many occasions led to injustice towards a particular section of the
society i.e. the women folk. The matriarchal reading of the text is potentially as
harmful and as susceptible to unqualified interpretations as patriarchal reading.
Thus the main objectives of the present day scholars and activists should be to
focus on the methodology towards balanced interpretations and to put emphasize
on the competency of the interpreters in terms of both intellectual ability and
6. Last but not least, fatwa and interpretations should preferably be issued by a body
of competent scholars (representing both genders and different school of thoughts)
rather than individuals.
Finally, my write-up would be incomplete if I do not acknowledge Ms Daisy Khan
(Executive Director of ASMA) whose brainchild is WISE. She is an example of those
extraordinary people who has the courage to give up profession for passion. Ms Khan
spent twenty-five years as an interior architect before committing to full-time community
service. I salute Ms Khan and her relentless team for organizing a successful conference.