Signposts on a Critical Road

Posted: July 10, 2012 in Events
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One of the most enlightening conferences that I have attended is the rethinking Muslim marriage contract conference by AWARE, NUS and Leftwrite centre. The event was hosted by various experts on the subject matter.  Kyai Hussein talked about the difference between Fiqh and Syariah and the importance of a contextual interpretation of text as well as the role of Syariah in serving justice. Ziba talked about the problem of the patriarchal interpretations of the Quran. Halijah contextualized this in the Singapore context and the various areas in which interpretations of the law could be problematic. A more detailed overview of the lecture can be found here:
http://www.aware.org.sg/2012/07/rethinking-the-muslim-marriage-contract/

One of the many points which intrigued me was when Kyai was asked how did he become a male ‘Muslim feminist’. He cited various influences as well as his own thinking after trying to understand discrepancies in fiqh rulings between the various traditional Islamic scholars. This led him to conclude that the context the scholars lived in determined how they understood the text and especially in matters of public affairs the idea of justice of Islamic law would need to be applied to the context they lived in. Through various factors such as the coming of colonialism and the withering of the traditional institutions of Islamic jurisprudence, this sensitivity to context was lost and the tradition became ossified. It enabled him to have a less rigid view of faith.

His own journey made me reflect on my own journey- why did I come to believe in the things I do now. Firstly, I would hesitate to call myself an ‘Islamic feminist’. The term is heavy and invites suspicion from many women anyways (Many women are wise). I do not consider myself a learned scholar in Islam like Kyai Hussein, my journey is rooted in my aspiration to live consistently with my values. As I get older and more reflexive, this aspiration gets more urgent and yet more difficult. The problem I faced: what if my values themselves were not consistent?

Growing up my first consciousness in a political sense was the Iraq war. There was a difference between the news and my social milieu. My social milieu was not the intellectually or deeply religious sense, but it was partisan and sharply defined by Islamic identity.  The news often portrayed Muslims as the bad guys ( a recurrent theme) while my social milieu said otherwise. This theme was oft repeated in various forms. It was this and various other themes which anchored my Muslim identity in the ideals of justice and truth which is independent of earthly power. I sympathized with the underdog because by and large, I was the underdog. This sense was reinforced by the books I read and the subjects I studied in school.

I do not recall when or how it happened, but I became increasingly aware of the contradictions in my own social milieu. I saw how religious elites became self serving and corrupt. I became more aware of how people were more concerned with outward displays of piety rather than developing moral character. I was repulsed especially by the sanctimonious pronouncements of Muslim exclusivity and superiority which I knew was not true. I disliked the authoritarian and chauvinistic posture taken by seemingly self proclaimed experts.

This made me more and more uncomfortable with the morality being preached. It preached justice when it was oppressed but excused its own injustices in the cloak of cultural exceptionalism. It had no problem for example using the modern tools to deconstruct secular authorities or other religions but would not allowed such tools and methods to its own assumptions and teachings.

It was an extremely trying time especially when the only options were to reject these authoritarian religious teachings or submit to them. Learning about a critical tradition within the Islamic tradition was crucial. It made me comfortable with both voicing my misgivings and looking for answers beyond the usual pronouncements. And if the criticism led to point towards ways in which the tradition privileged me at the expense of others, then I should follow where those criticisms led to decide their validity. And in some ways I learned that a fairer system would benefit me more. As ZIba Mir Hosseini stated, in some ways patriarchal constructs which dictate submissive feminine roles also dictate authoritarian male roles. And such authoritarian expectations lead men and women to scorn empathic traits in men and to greater emotional alienation.

Although such knowledge has helped me to resolve some of the inherent contradictions in my values, I realize that there are still many things to resolve. However, if nothing else, this makes me feel I am being more honest about how I felt about the values dearest to me.

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