Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine

Rajab 1424 H
September 2003
Volume 16-09 No : 201
Camps \ Workshops

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Interview of US-based Asma Barlas

Interview of US-based Asma Barlas

US-based Asma Barlas is a native of Pakistan, where she was one of the first women to be appointed to the country's foreign service. She was dismissed from her post by the Pakistani dictator General Zia ul-Haq. In the mid-1980s she left Pakistan for the US, where she is now an Associate Professor at the Politics Department of Ithaca College, New York. She is best known for her path-breaking book, 'Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an' (University of Texas Press, 2002). Here she talks to Yoginder Sikand on a range of issues related to Islam and women.

Asma BarlasQ. How did you get interested in the question of women's rights in Islam?
A: Partly as a result of living in Pakistan, where I was always amazed at the big gap that exists between what I understand the Qur'an's position on women's rights to be and how women are actually treated. This interest grew after I came to the US some two decades ago. Here I found fundamental gaps in understanding and knowledge of Islam on the part of most people, even educated ones, and had to contend with damaging stereotypes of Muslims, specially women. On a more positive note, however, my interest derives from my desire to understand and engage my own identity as a Muslim woman.

Q. How would you describe yourself, in terms of the work that you do? An Islamic feminist? A Muslim feminist? Or just a Muslim?
A: As a Muslim. I resist the label 'feminist' because it suggests—wrongly, I believe—that one can only contest assertions of male authority from within feminist paradigms. I believe, to the contrary, that it is possible to do so from within a Qur'anic framework as well. At the same time, I am always happy to acknowledge my many intellectual debts to feminist theorizing.

Q. How was your book received—by Muslims as well as by others? Also, did you receive any feedback from 'ulama? If so, what did they have to say?
A: My book is still in the process of being "received", to use your happy phrase, so it's hard to answer your question fully. So far, most of the reactions have been positive but then none of these have been the reactions of 'ulama. Once in a while, I do get an abusive email but, then, challenging established ways of thinking, specially about something as crucial as a scripture, opens one up to a wide array of responses and I'm prepared for that.

Q. How do you look at the emergence in recent years of a number of girls' madrasas in South Asia? What implications do they have for women's rights and awareness? Do you see them as indicating increasing possibilities and spaces for gender-just notions of Islam and fiqh?
A: We are told that, as Muslims, it is our religious obligation to seek knowledge even if it means going, proverbially, to China to get it. But, as we know, women in Muslim societies have consistently been deprived of knowledge and education. So, at one level, it is heartening to know that some small chinks are opening up for their education.

At the same time, however, education often ends up justifying existing sexual hierarchies and inequalities and one can't assume that simply because there are more schools, that education itself will be progressive. Besides, I feel that in order to change the way things are, we need to alter boys' schooling as well; one can't expect to alter gender relationships simply by educating women.

Q. Why do you feel that madrasas give such importance to fiqh? What links does that have with women and women's status?
A: This is the traditional approach to religious knowledge, and since gender inequality among Muslims is formulated in law, a focus on fiqh isn't all that strange. However, this law-centered approach to women's rights can be both inhibiting and liberating; it can be inhibiting if we treat the rules of jurisprudence as themselves divinely ordained, static, and immutable since doing so can keep us from rethinking the shari'a and bringing it more into conformity with the Qur'an's teachings, which establish the ontological equality of women and men. At the same time, as the work of some scholars (such as Azizah al-Hibri) shows, a focus on fiqh can also be liberating if Muslims accept the need to rethink certain legal strictures (such as those that legalize sexual inequality) as a way to bring about justice and equality.

Q. Do you see the emergence of a gender-just fiqh emerging in South Asia? If so, what roles are women Islamic scholars playing in this, if at all?
A: Unfortunately, I'm not conversant enough with this subject to comment meaningfully on it other than to say that unless there is a "gender-just fiqh," as you call it, we won't have much of a change in how Muslim women in South Asia are treated.

One of the problems of doing the kind of work I've done—which is scriptural and historical in nature—is that one can lose sight of more contemporary events. For the last six or seven years, I've been immersed in different kinds of questions and haven't kept up with what South Asian women are doing in this area. I did, however, visit Pakistan some years ago and, to my dismay, found that most of the women activists I met had not the slightest interest in a reformed understanding of Islam; rather, they felt that secularism and human rights were the way to go. I know, however, that many South Asian women in the US are working in this area but I have to confess that I don't know their work well enough to comment on it in detail.

Q. How do academic productions, such as yours, impact on Muslim discourses in South Asia? Do they remain confined to English-speaking elites [since most of these books are in English]? Or do they also impact on other sections of society? If so, how, and through what means?
A: Works like mine remain confined to a very tiny segment of society: those who can read English and, among them, only those who are interested in Islam. My own view is—and I'm generalizing from certain experiences—that a lot of English speaking people in our part of the world aren't particularly interested in Islam or religion in general, and I'm not sure what an academic can do to change that.

As for getting a wider audience for academic work, we need to develop networks with activists who are willing and able to undertake the more difficult task of bringing the work of the academy into the "real world."

Q. What resources might forms of 'popular' Islam—say 'folk' Sufism, for instance—have to offer in developing a gender-just theology and fiqh?
A: In theory, of course, popular or folk Islam might be better able to transmit certain ideas; but popular and folk Islam also is also a product of specific social, sexual, and political milieus, all of which militate against gender justice. One of the things that disheartens me is the extent to which both the official and popular interpretations of Islam have a shared notion of sexual inequality and male privileges.

Q. In a country like India, where Muslims are a vulnerable minority, how do you think the agenda of gender-just Islamic jurisprudence can be promoted without leading to Muslim fears that this would 'dilute' their faith and identity?
A: To bring about positive changes in a community that feels itself (rightly or wrongly) under seige is, I think, almost impossible. Given some of the recent developments in India, I think one can't promote a gender-just Islamic jurisprudence without at the same time promoting a view of national identity that is inclusive so that Muslims don't feel like a vulnerable minority under threat.


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