Islam, democracy, and women empowerment

THIS year’s commemoration of Eid’l Fitr or Feast of Ramadan coincided with World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Muslims worldwide observe this religious holiday to mark the end of Ramadan’s month-long, dawn-to-sunset fasting. It became a national holiday in the Philippines starting 2002.

On the other hand, World Press Freedom Day acts as a reminder to governments about the need to respect their commitment to one of democracy’s pillars — freedom of the press. It was the United Nations General Assembly that declared on May 3, 1993 and every year thereafter that the right to freedom of expression must be upheld in keeping with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The convergence of these religious and secular concepts may be found in the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID), established in 2002 amid the global and domestic challenges confronting Filipino Muslims. At that time, the US and its allies were waging a “war on terror” — with the Philippines being tagged as the next front after Afghanistan. This new front was centered naturally in Mindanao mainly because of the Abu Sayyaf, a renegade band of fighters with alleged ties to al-Qaeda.

As a result, the “war on terror” fanned a growing global debate that Islam is incompatible with democracy, which threatened to undermine the democratic space in Muslim societies. This debate accompanied the rise in radical movements among Islamist organizations, culminating in the fatal attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

Thus, the PCID was founded by three Filipino Muslim intellectuals who saw the need to articulate the voice of the Bangsamoro: Amina Rasul, who served in the Cabinet of President Fidel Ramos; Abrahan Iribani, previously the spokesperson of the Moro National Liberation Front; and Nasser Marohomsalic, a former Human Rights commissioner. Its members consist of prominent leaders and thinkers from government, business, academe, military, and other sectors, with representation from Mindanao’s major tribes.

Believing that democracy is enshrined in Islam, they recognized that the current elements of the continuing struggle for genuine self-determination are hallmarks of a functioning democracy for Filipino Muslims. These elements include just peace, human rights, credible elections, capable autonomous governance, and equitable development.

PCID treasurer and board of convenors member Yusuf Ledesma said the organization has been focusing recently on empowering women in war zones through a podcast series titled “She Talks Peace” hosted by Ms. Rasul. In partnership with Women and Gender Institute, PCID capacitates female participants on governance, economic empowerment, political participation, peace-building, and rights-based approaches to community development.


A new test looks at the way Muslim women are portrayed onscreen

There are not a lot of Muslim women in American television shows or movies. For many people in the U.S., the first Muslim woman character that comes to mind is probably Princess Jasmine from the animated Disney film, Aladdin. And that’s a bit of a problem.

“I see Jasmine as the Muslim version of the woman who needs saving, who’s constantly the victim or the runaway,” says actor and founder of Muslim Casting Serena Rasoul. “We see these particular stereotypes and tropes being used over and over and over when it comes to Muslim women…and then it still persists in media today.”

“It does present itself to be a negative view and negative messaging that we’re giving to young girls. Not just Muslim girls, but…brown girls in general.”

Rasoul wanted to do something about this, so she worked with Pillars Fund and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to develop the Muslim Women On-Screen Test, which assesses onscreen representation of Muslim women. She spoke with NPR’s Juana Summers about the test, how it works and how she hopes it will change the way Muslim women are represented in the United States.


Submission, Freedom and Resistance: How Muslims View Hijab

Much is being written by serious commentators about the ongoing Hijab controversy. Insightful articles have highlighted various important intersections related to the issue, such as that between constitutional ideals and the law, and between minority rights and equity. Useful observations have been made about the intensifying marginalization of India’s Muslims, and relentless drive to construct and consolidate a gullible, excitable majority, all set against a larger backdrop of growing widespread disempowerment.

Instead of elaborating further on these important issues, as a Muslim and an advanced student of Islam I will instead try to shed some light for the curious readers on three of the most important, yet neglected, ways in which Muslims themselves relate to Hijab.

At the outset, a clarification about the term “Hijab” is in order. It’s an Arabic word that means “covering” or “barrier”. It is not, as some have come to believe, the name of a specific item of clothing, even though this word may sometimes be used in this way. In Muslim culture, “Hijab” is often used to refer to the body of inter-related Islamic teachings that encourage all humans to cover their bodies in modesty, albeit in different ways that are tuned to the differences between genders and cultures. To practice Hijab is to follow these teachings.

With the establishment of the modern-traditional binary following the European Enlightenment, and in the context of modernity’s own prescriptions about women’s clothing and behaviour, Hijab teachings, for women, in particular, have occasionally become a topic of debate, and in some cases, controversy too. Viewed through the coloured lens of modernity, a woman’s practice of hijab is at best a benign sign of quaint traditionalism, and at worst, an existential threat to humanity. Consequently, this article too will focus primarily on the hijab for women.


Ohio Muslims Celebrate Passage of Bill Allowing Hijab in Sports

Around the world, Muslim women are defying cultural barriers and stereotypes to compete and excel at the highest levels of sports — in football, fencing, weightlifting, basketball, ice hockey and more.

Following years of campaigning, Muslim students in Ohio have celebrated the passage of a new bill requiring high schools to accommodate religious needs, specifically regarding clothing and head coverings during sports competitions.

Senate Bill 181, which was also backed by Christian and Muslim groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, had unanimous support in the state legislature, passing in the House 89-0 and the in Senate 33-0.

📚 Read Also: Disqualified for Donning Hijab, Muslim Teen Becomes Change Maker

“To see the acceptance and growth that we have in 2022. It’s amazing, because my school is so accepting,” Nasreen Shakur, a member of the rowing team at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, told Cleveland 19.

The new legislation aims at ending discrimination against religious expression for student-athletes and was passed in the state Senate earlier this month.


Amid debate, Women lift their voices with Muslim sacred text

CAIRO (AP) — The young woman could hear her heart pounding so hard that she worried the microphone placed in front of her would pick up its sound. Seated around her were officials from Islamic nations, including her country’s president. Cameras clicked.

She closed her eyes.

Al-Zahraa Layek Helmee’s voice filled the spacious, columned hall with a melodic recitation of the Quran, a role customarily held by men in her country, Egypt. For the 18-year-old, the high-profile recitation of Muslim holy text at a Cairo conference of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation was a personal milestone — one that she also hopes would send a message to women and girls: That can be you.

“I wanted to prove that women have a great role to play when it comes to Quran recitation,” she said.

Across cultures and Muslim communities, the boundaries of such a role can be subject to debate. Attitudes vary toward women publicly reciting the Quran within earshot of nonrelated men — in person, online or in other media. While the most skilled female reciters may attain celebrity-like status in some countries, others are largely confined to private spaces or all-women audiences.

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(AP Video)

Campaigns have been springing up online to amplify the voices, and widen the reach, of female Quran reciters across the world, with many posting their recitations and encouraging others to follow suit. It’s part of a larger effort by some Muslim women who say they want to build on the historical examples of other women in their faith to expand their spiritual leadership roles in Islamic spaces.


Women Seek Diverse Paths to Leadership in Islamic Spaces


Shortly after Kholoud al-Faqeeh was appointed judge in an Islamic religious court in the Palestinian territories, a woman walked in, laid eyes on her and turned around and walked out, murmuring that she didn’t want a woman to rule in her case.

Al-Faqeeh was saddened, but not surprised — people have long been accustomed to seeing turbaned men in her place. It was only in 2009 that she became one of the first two women appointed in the West Bank as Islamic religious court judges. But she sees her presence on the court as all the more important since it rules on personal status matters ranging from divorce and alimony to custody and inheritance.

“What was even more provoking is that these religious courts are in charge of women’s cases,” al-Faqeeh said. “A woman’s whole life cycle is before these courts.”

FILE - Islamic court judge Kholoud al-Faqeeh poses for a portrait during a break at the court in Ramallah, West Bank, March 29, 2016.
FILE – Islamic court judge Kholoud al-Faqeeh poses for a portrait during a break at the court in Ramallah, West Bank, March 29, 2016.

Women like al-Faqeeh are increasingly carving out space for themselves in the Islamic sphere, and in doing so, paving the way for others to follow in their footsteps. Around the world, women are teaching in Islamic schools and universities, leading Quran study circles, preaching and otherwise providing religious guidance to the faithful.

This story is part of a series by The Associated Press and Religion News Service on women’s roles in male-led religions.

The formal ranks of Islamic leadership remain largely filled with men, but while women don’t lead mixed-gender congregational prayers in traditional Muslim settings, many say they see plenty of other paths to leadership.


The Courtesy of Covering Up

Mask wearing during the pandemic has cast modest Muslim style in a new light.

By Alia Khan

Ms. Khan is the founder and chairwoman of the Islamic Fashion and Design Council.Dec. 7, 2021

This personal reflection is part of a series called Turning Points, in which writers explore what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead. You can read more by visiting the Turning Points series page.

Turning Point: Masking restrictions around the world began to loosen as more people were vaccinated against Covid-19.

These past two years saw most people’s lives turned upside down by Covid-19, and our lives at home and work are still undergoing one of the most radical shifts we’ve seen in generations. How we dress — and how our dress both reflects our values and affects the economy — has also begun to change, as we continue to mask up and tend toward a more protected lifestyle.

Interestingly, this metamorphosis sparked by a pandemic was always the norm for those who live an Islamic lifestyle, sometimes referred to as the “modest lifestyle.” Muslims, who have a collective spending power of about $2 trillion, are taught to embrace modesty with elegance as a form of dignified living. Now that covering for protection has become standard practice for many people, I believe it highlights the benefits that Islamic fashion has always offered, while helping to destigmatize and eliminate it as an excuse to judge those of us who wear it. I also believe this overlap will push Islamic fashion to become a bigger global player in defining style for years to come.


How this women’s interfaith group in Middle GA is making ‘the world a better place’

A group of women met for the first time a decade ago at an open house event at the Islamic Center of Middle Georgia. Christian women attended the event in hopes of meeting some Muslim women to learn about their faith. They met. They talked, and they decided they needed to meet regularly to discuss their faith and how its impact on the Middle Georgia community. Starting with 10-15 women around a table, the group shared meals together as they had intentional conversations about their faiths. As the group grew, they became known as the Women’s Interfaith Alliance of Central Georgia, which has around 500 members on its Facebook group.

“We live in a global community that is increasingly becoming more connected. So, learning about each other, learning to form relationships with each other, learning to coexist in appreciative, intimate ways is very important for the peace and harmony of human societies in general, especially so here in the South,” said Eman Abdulla, one of the founding members of the group.



A must-see show at the Cooper Hewitt celebrates these exquisite designs


Muslim fashion is big business. Statistics from a 2016-2017 report by Thomson Reuters and DinarStandard, a global strategy firm that focuses on the Muslim market reports that Muslim women spent $44 billion on fashion that year, which represented 18 percent of the total estimated $243 billion spent by all Muslims on all clothing. By 2024, DinarStandard estimates, Muslim consumers will spend $402 billion.

Before it closes on July 11, try to catch “Contemporary Muslim Fashions,” an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. Not only are there dozens of gorgeous shimmery brocade, silk and satin gowns from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Middle East and Europe, but also hip hop-inspired contemporary sportswear, videos of interviews with young women Muslim designers (half under the age of 40) and fashion videos. There are examples of haute couture that Westerners like Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino and Oscar de la Renta adapted for their Middle Eastern clients, and affordable dresses sold at Macy’s and Uniqlo. The show is the last stop on a tour that began in San Francisco and then moved to Frankfurt. And sadly, though the museum just reopened June 10, the show is only on view for just a month at its final New York City stop.

It is an important show. “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” is the first major museum exhibition to focus on contemporary Muslim dress around the world—and it’s long overdue.

The origin of the show was kismet.

“It was one of the things I had in mind before coming to San Francisco in 2016,” says Max Hollein, the Austrian curator who became director of the de Young/Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco that year, where the show originated. (Hollein is now director of the Met.) “It was the first time I was at an institution with a textiles collection, and because I had gone to Tehran a lot as director of the Sta[umlaut]del Museum in Frankfurt and spent considerable time in Istanbul and seen very fashionable women there, I got interested in Muslim dress codes.” (His wife, the Austrian architect Nina Hollein, is a fashion designer who founded her own label, NinaHollein, in 2009.)


History of women’s rights in Islam

Women’s rights have been a controversial topic throughout history. In Islam, men and women have similar rights, and in some areas women actually enjoy certain privileges that the men do not. In terms of property, married and divorced women have been given rights, and in fact at each turn they have been considered and provided for as appropriate. It is true to say that Islam gave women rights that are unparalleled in the history of women.

Prophet Muhammad said, “A person who is blessed with a daughter or daughters and makes no discrimination between them and his sons and brings them up with kindness and affection, will be as close to me in Paradise as my forefinger and middle finger are to each other.”

The Holy Quran repeatedly proclaims men and women’s equality in spiritual status: “But who so does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer, such shall enter Heaven.” (Ch.4: V.125)

Regarding education for girls, Prophet Muhammad said: “It is the duty of every Muslim man and every Muslim woman to acquire knowledge.” On the economic front, Islam entitles women to possess money, property and other assets.