Anyone learning about Islam from the headlines alone might think it was a faith powered by violence, inflexible laws, and sexism. In Nigeria, the extremists of Boko Haram kidnap schoolgirls to use as sex slaves and suicide bombers. A manifesto distributed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) allows girls to marry at age nine and states that women should work outside the house only in “exceptional circumstances.” It’s not only extremist movements that treat women as second-class citizens, but also Western allies in the fight against them. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving, or Egypt, where a husband can divorce his spouse without grounds or going to court, options denied to his wife, most Muslim countries run on the premise that men have a God-given authority over women.
But Muslim women are fighting back. While despotic governments and extremists battle for power, Islamic scholars, community activists, and ordinary Muslims are waging a peaceful jihad on male authority, demanding what they say are God- given rights to gender equality and justice.
From Cambridge to Cairo to Jakarta, women are going back to Islam’s classical texts and questioning the way men have read them for centuries. In the Middle East, activists are contesting outdated family laws based on Islamic jurisprudence, which give men the power in marriages, divorces, and custody issues. In Europe and the United States, women are chipping away at the customs that have had a chilling effect on women praying in mosques or holding leadership positions. This winter, the first women-only mosque opened in Los Angeles.