On straw mats in a two-room building in the bustling city of Pudukkottai in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, a band of about 30 Muslim women in animated debate are making history. Dicing through tales of marital woes and family travails, streams of tears mixing with belly laughter, they could be extras in a Dixie Chicks music video.
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Instead, they are part of a radical new generation of "law breakers" in the Muslim world: women who are challenging laws written in the name of Islam by men. And they offer many people hope for realizing social justice, human rights, and even political reform in the Muslim world.
From Tamil Nadu to Toledo, Ohio, women scholars, activists, and community leaders—and the men who support them—are challenging traditional interpretations of Islamic law by going back to the four cornerstones of the law: the Quran (the holy book of Islam), the Sunnah (the traditions and sayings of the prophet), ijma' (consensus of scholars), and qiyas (analogical deductions from the three).
In Barcelona, Spain, this past November, 10 Muslim women took to the dais for the second Congress on Islamic Feminism, this one focusing on the implementation of sharia (Islamic law) on matters related to family law. From Indonesia, activist Lily Munir, a Dr. Ruth of the Muslim world with straight talk about sex, challenged Islamic polygamy laws that allow men to have more than one wife. Off stage, Sudanese scholar Balghis Badri huddled with Tunisian scholar Amel Grami over how to effectively challenge the notion that Islamic law requires head coverings, or hijab.
Later that month, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Muslim women activists and politicians won passage of the "Women's Protection Bill," making rape a civil crime and rejecting laws written in the name of Islam that punished even rape victims for immorality. Not long after, in December, about 100 women from around the world descended upon the Westin at Times Square in New York City to create an international all-women shura, or council—which organizers called the first of its kind in the world—to issue Islamic rulings on personal disputes.
The women from Tamil Nadu had sent their leader to the New York summit: Sharifa Khanam, director of a nonprofit women's rights organization called STEPS. Not long ago, tired of sexist judicial rulings from male-only jamaats (gatherings) that met in mosques in which women weren't allowed to enter, Khanam created a women's jamaat. Now, women emerge from their houses in the pre-dawn to ride for hours from their villages to adjudicate disputes based on progressive interpretations of Islamic law. They eagerly listened to Khanam's report from New York City, enjoying the Hershey Kisses she packed for them.
IN THIS EFFORT, women are wrestling with laws created in the name of Islam by men, specifically eight men. The Muslim world of the 21st century is largely defined by eight madhhabs, or Islamic schools of jurisprudence, with narrow rulings on everything from criminal law to family law. But the first centuries of Islam's 1,400-year history were quite different, characterized by numerous schools of jurisprudence, many of them progressive and women-friendly. These schools govern the way Muslim communities define themselves, from criminal law to family law. Yet, the schools surviving into the 21st century have largely failed in giving the Muslim world a moral and ethical compass with which to realize the highest principles of Islamic teachings of compassion, justice, women's rights, and tolerance.
The efforts of women reformers underscore a deeper point: In much the same way that the Catholic Church saw the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65, it is time for a new school of jurisprudence for the Muslim world of the 21st century. Unlike the personality-driven male schools that have defined Islam for centuries, this school of compassion, social justice, women's rights, and tolerance is being sown by women from the ground up starting in places such as Tamil Nadu, India.
Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).
Reporting for this piece was funded by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association (www.saja.org).