Women's Rights and Muslim Communities: A Discussion
The following is a summary of a panel discussion regarding the status of women in Muslim communities that was held at DePaul University in downtown Chicago on July 16, 2005.
The Panel Discussion entitled "Women's Rights and
Muslim Communities - Honor, Culture, and Islam," took
place last Saturday, July 16, at DePaul University's
Downtown Chicago campus and was sponsored by both AMAL
and the Apna Ghar Domestic Violence Shelter.
At the outset, let us say that this was probably the
most successful AMAL event to date. Almost 50
(perhaps more, as we lost track of people coming and
going after the start) people were in attendance, and
while many were regulars at previous AMAL meetings,
there were also many who came just for their interest
in the topic both Muslim and non-Muslim.
After Jihad Shoshara gave an initial introduction to
AMAL and thanking those who made the event possible,
the panel and topic were introduced by incoming AMAL
director Dr. Sabreen Akhter. In her remarks, Dr.
Akhter made reference to two women who put a face on
the hidden crime that is violence against women:
Mukhtar Mai and Shahpara Sayeed. While Mukhtar Mai is
internationally known for her pursuit of justice
against those who brutally gang raped her, Shahpara
Sayeed has been all but forgotten five years after her
husband locked her in his taxi and set it ablaze,
burning her alive on Chicago's North Side.
Dr. Akhter then introduced the first panelist, Dr.
Amna Buttar. Dr. Buttar is the president of the
Asian-American Network Against Abuse of Women, or
ANAA. ANAA has fought to raise awareness here about
the problem of domestic violence against women in
Pakistan, and it was they who organized the American
speaking tour of Mukthar Mai this summer. Of course
Mai's speaking tour never took place, and indeed her
cause gained exponentially more attention when
Pakistan's government forbade her from leaving the
country during a very disorganized attempt at hiding
Dr. Buttar used powerpoint to present her discussion.
This allowed her to present not just the unjust series
of so-called 'hudud' laws that have victimized women
in Pakistan since their enactment in the 1970's, but
also to show the consequences of some of those laws;
pictures of women whose faces and bodies had been
disfigured by acid, those who had been immolated,
those who had had their noses and ears cut off - all
in the name of honor. The pictures brought some in
the audience to tears, tears tinged with anger as Dr.
Buttar repeated more than once how the abusers almost
always escaped punishment.
Dr. Buttar ended her presentation with a 5 minute
video detailing Mukhtar Mai's case - the kangaroo
jirga court that sentenced her to gang rape in 2003
for her brother's alleged misconduct, the execution of
the grisly punishment, and how she rose up against
tremendous pressure to demand justice. Dr. Buttar
reminded the audience that in spite of the intense
international attention brought to bear on Mai's case,
justice has still not been carried out in Pakistan's
courts against her attackers.
Our next speaker was Mr. Saiyed Rabbani. Mr. Rabbani
is a community organizer with a long history of
involvement in the Muslim and South Asian communities.
He focused a lot of his discussion on the numerous
instances in the Qur'an, hadith, and shari'ah where
women's rights were supposed to be enshrined and
supported - in instances of personal finance, divorce,
inheritance, etc, while pointing out how it took the
non-Muslim world over a thousand years to enshrine
such protections of women in their systems of law.
Many of us have heard this argument before, of course,
and are not swayed by an explanation of a system of
laws for women that are not enforced anywhere on the
planet at the present time. Just when it seemed that
Mr. Rabbani's discussion was in danger of becoming an
exercise in obscurantism, he stopped and asked the
audience: "So, if this is how things are supposed to
be, WHAT WENT WRONG?" He then stated how the current
implementation of "Islamic" law in the Muslim world is
subject not to high standards of religious integrity,
but to cultural and sociopolitical pressures. Mr.
Rabbani also inveighed against a common belief: that
improving the level of education alone among Muslims
will improve the poor status of women's rights.
Educated people, he pointed out, commit crimes just as
heinous as uneducated ones. To seriously address the
problem of domestic violence against women in Muslim
communities, he implied, will require a greater
cultural valuation of a woman's life and worth than is
currently present in many Muslim communities as well
as breaking the association between women and men's
The final panelist to speak was Uneza Akhter, the
development associate at the Apna Ghar (Hindi/Urdu for
"Our Home") domestic violence shelter in Chicago. Ms.
Akhter began by discussing Apna Ghar and its
clientele. In the month prior, she personally
surveyed that 52% of the shelter's clients were
Ms. Akhtar then listed the reasons that immigrant
victims of domestic abuse do not come forward to ask
for help. Among them: a mindset among many immigrants
that women are "badzan" ("the bad sex") and a belief
in many cultures that women should defer to men;
barriers of language and culture-specific needs; and
fears that bringing a case against an abusive spouse
will lead either to a loss of children or to a loss of
legal status to stay in the country. Ms. Akhtar
illustrated how difficult these barriers can be to
surmount when she stated that while Shahpara Sayeed
lived - and died - within walking distance of Apna
Ghar's shelter, never once had she made contact with
them to ask for help.
Ms. Sayeed also died within walking distance of a
mosque, it turned out. Yet Ms. Akhtar pointed out
that not one representative from any Chicago mosque
came either to her memorial service or to the march
against domestic violence that her murder inspired.
This trend, she stated, has thankfully begun to
change; she pointed to the instance of the director of
a large and wealthy mosque taking an uncompromising
stand against domestic violence at a public forum with
Mayor Daley earlier this year. Such steps were
important, she said, yet they were still small and
After Ms. Akhtar spoke, the panel then fielded
questions from the audience. Some of the discussion
then began to focus on the specific origins of the
women's rights situation in Pakistan itself; the panel
then pointed out that a serious problem Pakistan faces
is the persistence of the feudal system, which not
only perpetuates a socially unjust system but also
places true power in the hands of a few who have no
incentive to change how things work. Other questions
focused on other aspects of the Islam itself ("Do we
need to pursue an offically secular government like
Turkey?" "Are these problems unique to Islam, or
should we be discussing them in context of other
religions' problems with women's rights as well?").
Finally, as could be expected, the verse concerning
wife beating in the Qur'an came up for discussion too
- all of which was spirited and thought provoking. At
the end of a long afternoon, the audience gave the
panel a well-deserved round of applause for sharing
their insight and opinions on a matter that needs far
more discussion and action within the Muslim
As we did at the beginning of the panel, we want to
end the summary with our _expression of sincere
gratitude for those who made the panel discussion
possible. In particular, we want to recognize Danial
Noorani for bringing the ANAA and their efforts on
behalf of Mukhtar Mai to our attention and for
plugging us in to Apna Ghar, and Jagriti Ruparel and
Aparna Sen from Apna Ghar itself for their help in
providing speakers. We also want to give our
heartfelt thanks to Professor Aminah McCloud of DePaul
University for her invaluable assistance in providing
space for the panel, as well as for her past and
ongoing support of AMAL and its cause. Our deepest
appreciation also goes to our outstanding panelists -
Dr. Buttar, Mr. Rabbani, and Ms. Akhtar - for
volunteering their precious time and experiences for a
cause they care about greatly.
Kudos to Tamim Chowdhury, AMAL's project coordinator,
for successfully pulling off AMAL's largest event to
date. Finally, we thank God for everything He has
allowed our little community to do.