Exploring Gender and Islam
Exploring Gender and Islam
An Interview with Asma Uddin
Sally Steenland interviews Asma Uddin about the evolution of her faith, her efforts to promote interfaith dialogue around gender, and religious freedom.
Part of a Series
SOURCE: Asma Uddin
This interview is part of the Young Muslim American Voices Project, a CAP project launched late last year that seeks to strengthen the voices and visibility of young Muslim-American leaders.
Listen to the full interview (mp3)
Video: Young Muslim American Voices Project interviews Asma Uddin
Asma Uddin is an international law attorney at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and editor-in-chief of Altmuslimah.com, a blog that explores gender and Islam (Altmuslimah @OnFaith has recently launched on Washington Post.com). Asma spoke with CAP’s Sally Steenland on September 24 about Muslim women and gender, religious liberty, hate speech, and balancing work and family life.
The opinions expressed in this piece are hers alone and do not necessarily represent the views of The Becket Fund.
Sally Steenland: Asma, let’s talk about your work as editor-in-chief of Altmuslimah.com. Tell us why you created it, some of the issues you explore, and your goals for Altmuslimah.
Asma Uddin: Altmuslimah comes out of a very personal experience with gender and Islam. Growing up in America, in middle school and high school, I was very much into religion and religious studies. I had a rosy, warm, and fuzzy picture of religion—something that was without conflict or diversity.
When I entered college, I began to experience more intricacies, including certain interpretations of Islam that didn’t fit with my rather simple and rosy version. There were a lot of foreign students at my school, particularly men from Middle Eastern countries, and they had separate organizations from those that Muslim-American students had formed. Their version of Islam was different from ours, most clearly in their views toward women. Of course, none of the foreign students were women. If females wanted to participate in their events, they were required to speak from behind a curtain or not partake in leadership duties. In contrast, the Muslim Student Association had female presidents.
As somebody who is quite proud of her religion, I was shocked to deal with this. It started me on a path of internal reflection and led to quite a bit of turmoil—to what I now call my gender in Islam crisis. It made me question, at a very deep level, God and Islam and my place in it. I felt so strongly about gender equality and equal identity, but was that just a product of my environment or something that God intended? In other words, how did I fit with this religion that I love so much?
I looked beyond social commentary and what people were saying. I had a tremendous but simple spiritual realization that God wouldn’t have created me to be anything but equal—and with equal dignity—so that I could follow a path with complete freedom in reaching him. That is what brought me out of the struggle. And when I came out of it, I was a much stronger Muslim than I had been before.
Since then, my experiences continue to build on that realization, particularly in interactions with various male figures. As I reflected on my previous struggle, I knew there must have been a reason I came out of it with so much clarity and strength.
That is really where Altmuslimah comes from. The actual predecessor to Altmuslimah was a book club I started a few years ago in the tristate area of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. I invited some young girls and women to get together and we started reading books relating to the question of gender in Islam.
One was Living Islam Out Loud and the editor was Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur. She came to one of our meetings, and as the women were reflecting on the book, some became emotional and spoke with absolute honesty. At that moment, it occurred to me that this was a forum so many women needed but few had. I wanted a forum that would be available to women across the country and world. That is why I went online.
In terms of issues, we explore the nature of gender in Islam, relationships and sexuality, beauty, society and politics, mosque, and community. We have a very interesting section called AltVoices, which is our most recent section and one I hope to grow. It comes out of my work at the Becket Fund where I interact with other religious freedom activists. Many of the women have strong views on gender issues within their own faith, and I thought this would be a wonderful area of interfaith dialogue.
Too often interfaith dialogue happens as abstract theology. People agree to disagree, but it doesn’t make any deep connection. By having parallel discourses on gender in each of our faiths, we can find commonalities that allow more substantive connections.
S: So one of your goals is increased interfaith dialogue around issues of gender. Do you have other goals for Altmuslimah? What you would like to see happening in three to five years?
A: While the online presence is important, we need to support that with real-life events. We have done a little bit of that, but I am looking to do more, especially in the D.C. area. We are planning a roundtable for October 23 on some of the trickier relationship issues that have arisen in our community. We hope to have at these events some of our writers who have developed a following.
A lot of the things we talk about are sensitive. It could be women over 30 having a hard time finding a marriage partner or people considered “too dark” because of subculture racism. People feel strongly about these issues but often don’t want to speak in their own name. Some of the best ways to bring out these issues might be in a theatrical presentation, where people take on a different persona to express issues that are personal.
S: Can you talk about the differences between private conversations where people can be very frank and more public conversations that go beyond the Muslim community? When is a private conversation more important and when is it important to have public conversations?
A: We straddle the line between the public and the private on Altmuslimah. Many of the discussions, in terms of who’s writing and who’s commentating, are among Muslims. The discussions are available for public consumption, but the nature of the dialogue is private—referring to things within the community. I think there are spaces for more private, personal discussions. A lot of women have told me that they have small book clubs or groups that discuss content from Altmuslimah. That is happening aside from my involvement, but is something Altmuslimah is leading to.
In terms of the public aspect, a huge part of my creating Altmuslimah came from my realization that the struggle I was going through was very much an issue beyond the community. For instance, the media’s portrayal of Muslim women as oppressed and subjugated made my struggle more pronounced. Often when non-Muslims think of Islam, they think of stereotypes very related to gender, whether it be harems or polygamy or the Taliban abusing women in Afghanistan or burqas. The diversity of viewpoints and the intelligent, sincere way we approach issues on Altmuslimah provides nuance to issues that are otherwise seen in black and white.
I want to keep Altmuslimah organic rather than develop or enhance it in an artificial way. I want to maintain a level of sincerity and make sure that whoever writes for the site or comes to it can honestly explore deep issues.
S: You were talking about the stereotype of Islam. If somebody said to you, “Women are oppressed and subjugated. There is no gender equality within the faith,” how would you set them straight?
A: I think that the easiest way of setting them straight—short of referring them to my website—would be to show myself. Here I am, a Muslim woman. I have a completely supportive husband and an amazing relationship with him and other men in my life. Other than the usual social limitations we all deal with, I have never had my religion limit me and my success. I used to wear a hijab while working as a corporate lawyer. I saw myself as being a representative of my faith to other people—to show all that I was doing. At some point I realized I needed to stop making decisions based only on my role. The examples, whether of myself or the vast majority of Muslim women in this country and across the world, disprove stereotypes.
S: You work as an attorney at the Becket Fund. One of the issues that you work on is religious liberty. Can you talk about religious liberty and whether you think it is an absolute right or has limits?
A: Just like all human rights, religious liberty is not absolute in the sense that nothing could ever limit it. I think, however, that the limits are few and must be strictly and well defined. Otherwise they can swallow up the rights.
For instance, religious freedom can be limited for public safety, public order, health and morals, or the fundamental rights of others. But the way that these words are defined is important. Sometimes governments and countries define them in overly broad ways.
In the course of my work, I have seen the “public order exception” be misused. It’s the notion that we can’t have people criticizing religion or articulating problematic interpretations of it because people who hear that will get upset and be violent. It says that in order to limit potential public disorder, we are going to stop a speaker from speaking in the first place. In U.S. law, a hostile audience should never be able to limit a nonviolent speaker. Ultimately the law is more effective by focusing on the violent actor—that is, the hostile audience that reacts in violence—as opposed to a nonviolent speaker.
Religious liberty is linked to women’s rights—in particular, a woman’s right to religious freedom. It might be religious garb and the right to wear a headscarf or burqa. It might relate to sharia arbitration or use of sharia law. There was a big debate in Canada when sharia arbitration was being considered. The fear was that it would take away women’s rights, and that women would be forced into positions against their will, ending up with fewer rights than non-Muslim Canadian women.
S: Can you talk about what sharia arbitration might look like? Are there comparables in other faiths?
A: There are definitely comparables. Orthodox Jews can arbitrate under their own laws, for instance. The disputes are most often family law issues, like divorce or alimony. The interesting thing is that Islam arguably affords greater civil rights than civil laws do. For instance, a Muslim woman’s money is always her own and wouldn’t be subjugated to division by divorce. That is not the case with civil law.
With sharia arbitration—assuming the parties come together in a completely voluntary way—a panel would decide an issue. In order for a specific decision to be enforced, it would have to go to a civil court, which would check for procedural and substantive fairness. Was the judge fair? Was the arbitrator fair? Was there any inherent bias in the process? In terms of substantive fairness, was the award fair?
These checks by the civil court protect the parties involved. While sharia arbitration might apply to issues of family law, it would not allow parties to circumvent existing laws in the United States. So you couldn’t decriminalize something that is criminalized here. Sharia arbitration is not a way of circumventing the law, but of working within the broader framework and finding a space to resolve your disputes through religious law.
S: You write an “On Faith” column for The Washington Post. Recently you talked about those who see the Muslim-American community as monolithic and ignore its diversity. You say that Muslim Americans disagree over a good many issues—both religious and nonreligious.
A: Altmuslimah is a perfect example of the inherent diversity among Muslims. Its very creation suggests there are many ways to look at things. One question on our site that has gotten quite a bit of attention is the issue of Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men. It’s something that was considered pretty black and white for a long time and now is being questioned a little. People are arguing about it. We have debates that we feature, posting an article, and people respond.
On a scholarly level there is a different interpretation for almost every verse in the Koran. There are different methodologies for interpreting the Koran—some take a literal approach, some are more contextual. Some say that each verse should be interpreted within the broader context of the Koran’s social justice message.
Muslims are not programmed by the religion to think in one particular way. Whether it’s politics or foreign policy, art, literature, or theater, Muslims have different perspectives and tastes. We are just as diverse as every other group.
S: We have recently seen a dangerous spike in hate speech, not just among extremists but more mainstream conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. In your travels to other countries, how do we stack up in terms of religious liberty and a pluralistic society?
A: In a lot of other countries, hate speech is thought of as an instigator of public disorder. Even many European countries have laws against hate speech. A danger of these laws is that they can often end up broadly banning all kinds of speech.
In some Muslim countries where the government is in control of speech and religion, it takes it upon itself to define what Islam is and to outlaw everything that doesn’t fit that definition. You see mosque sermons being monitored or pre-approved by the government. And of course, what is approved or not approved is often defined by what suits the government’s interests. It’s a politicizing of Islam.
The process of speaking truth and the spiritual process of discovering Islam and negotiating its relationship with your lived reality is hindered by government intrusions on religious freedom.
In terms of how America stacks up, I don’t go out and try to impose our model on other countries. I simply see some of the wisdom that comes from the way U.S. law is set up. I like to see the extent to which those concepts and principles can be implemented elsewhere in particular cultural contexts.
I think America is doing pretty well. Our law is balanced between the very limited categories of restricted speech and allowing for the broad protection of free speech. That means it is not the government telling us what is right or wrong. We are left to determine that ourselves. Ultimately, this is more effective in developing responsible citizenship.
In recent days, there has definitely been a rise in Islamophobic rhetoric. But looking at what other groups in American history have gone through, I think this is just a process every new group has to go through, and I am confident we will get to a better place.
S: When the extremist Terry Jones was threatening to burn Korans, many people in other countries thought the government approved his actions because otherwise he would be arrested. To explain that this was protected speech—how do you sell that?
A: It’s very difficult, especially in countries where the solution to problematic speech is to ban it. It is hard to change that way of thinking and say this shouldn’t be banned because it leads to other problems. I spend most of my time trying to think up ways to explain why this makes sense in different cultural contexts. Ultimately, I keep going back to the idea of religion as fundamentally a process of inquiry. It is a path we follow, and we have to be able to ask questions. We have to be able to deal with external threats or mockery.
Seeing religion as a spiritual quest is different from seeing it as a social identity that needs to be protected with walls around it or else it will fall apart. As soon as you see religion as something that can deal with obstacles and can come out stronger, I think the less likely you are to be afraid.
S: When you were talking about the sermons in some Muslim-majority nations needing to be approved by the government, that is a political intrusion, not a religious one. It’s not that the government is made up of Islamic scholars—it’s really politics they care about.
A: Yes, they are concerned about the social justice component of Islam—where people find within their faith the ability to stand up against authoritarian governments. That’s what the government wants to squelch. Of course, it doesn’t make those voices disappear. Like any broad oppression, it drives things underground and takes social justice commentary out of a healthy public debate.
S: One last question. You’re a lawyer with a demanding job, and you’re the editor-in-chief of Altmuslimah as well as a wife and the mother of a 3-year-old. How do you balance all of this?
A: I am very fortunate to have a work situation that is especially attuned to the needs of working parents. Like my other colleagues at The Becket Fund, I have the ability to be quite flexible with my schedule. The fact that I can do all these things is good evidence against people who say there is no gender equality in Islam. I have an incredibly supportive network. I have a husband who bends over backwards to make my goals and dreams possible. Without this network of people in my life, it wouldn’t be possible.
I have the incredible luxury of doing what I absolutely love to do. My work comes from a very deep part of me. I think it makes me much happier, and a much cooler mom, and so that’s why I do it.
S: Thank you so much for talking with us and for the good work you are doing.
A: Thank you.
Listen to the full interview (mp3)
Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress. For more on this initiative please see its project page.
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Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative