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Muslim Feminists Visit Copenhagen

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"There is absolutely nothing in the Qur'an that supports or justifies forced marriage," says Tehmina Kazi, who has a law degree from the London School of Economics and is director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. This was news to many Danes who are currently focused on enforcing the abolition of forced marriages inside some of its Danish-Muslim communities.

When the issue appeared on the Internet as an open invitation to a public forum, over 250 people showed up to hear a panel discussion on "There Are Many Ways of Being a Muslim." Sponsored by KVINFO, the Danish Center for Gender Equality and Ethnicity, the event took place at the spectacular national library in Copenhagen, otherwise known as The Black Diamond. The audience listened, argued, learned and went home with new information about a progressive movement of Islam that is slowly but steadily growing in the UK, U.S., France, Germany and the Netherlands; a western form of Islam for the 21st century.

Apparently, people mistakenly conflate geographically determined cultural practices with Islam. "Marriage is a legal contract in Islam and a woman must sign the nikah papers to demonstrate her consent. Unfortunately," Kazi continued, "just because the majority of girls forced into marriage happen to be Muslim, people assume it is Islam that asks for it. It's the particular culture you should be criticizing, not Islam the religion."

The same condemnation should be applied to FGM, sexual female mutilation. The women are adamant that there is nothing in Islam's holy texts instructing societies to prevent women from experiencing sexual pleasure. "It is a cultural practice, not a religious one," they maintain. In Egypt both Muslim and Christian girls are subjected to this procedure and "it breaks the hearts of Muslim women in other parts of the world because Islam has always had a healthy view of married love," says Shelina Janmohammed.

What about arranged marriages? British hijab-wearing and Oxford University educated Janmohammed told the audience how her traditional parents, originally from India, nevertheless supported her wish to find a man who would respect her feminist values. It took her ten years and while waiting, she took a high-powered job in marketing and ignored the rigid counsel of her community's "aunties" by accepting an invitation to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Later, she shocked her community again by buying herself a convertible sports car. "Disgraceful!" the "aunties" said. "Girls don't climb mountains! And you can't have your hijab flapping in the wind!"

Malaysian born, Ani Khalid Zonneveld lives in Los Angeles and is married to a man from the Netherlands. She believes a Muslim woman has a right to marry outside her faith and she is legally authorized to officiate at marriages of inter-faith couples that want a religious wedding ceremony. Zonneveld is co-founder and Director of Muslims for Progressive Values, a nascent reformist organization that campaigns for women's rights and an expanded role in the mosque. As a professional musician and song-writer, Zonneveld frequently calls the faithful to prayer. She spoke passionately at the Copenhagen forum about MPV's campaign to give Muslim gays and lesbians a spiritual community. But what about the belief in all three Abraham religions that any LGBT behavior is sinful? "Homosexuality is not mentioned in the Qur'an," says Zonneveld. "There's the story about Lot in the Hadith but these judgments were passed down more than a hundred years after The Prophet's death. Mohammed's Islam is about justice. We say that it is unjust to discriminate against people because of their sexuality."

Progressive Muslims reject all forms of Jihadism as fallacy and totally incompatible with an Islam for the 21st century. They don't always agree with one another but what they have in common is their faith. "But why believe in God when you are otherwise so progressive?" someone asked. This question baffled the women who seemed unprepared for it. "I guess we are different from many Western feminists... who seem to be either atheists or agnostics," explained Kazi. "Islam is our spiritual base... it connects us to Allah. It's about building good character. And we see human rights as an extension of our faith."

Undeniably, that Muslim feminists identify as "believers" is a characteristic that surprises many Westerners who usually interpret "progressive" and "socially liberal" as secular and non-religious. "Secular merely means a separation of church and state," Kazi explained. "It does not mean atheistic. We are totally in favor of separation of church and state but we love our faith. We are, yes, believers. Read Asma Barlas and Laleh Bahktier," she says.

And to those names one could add Amina Wadud, Leila Ahmed and Fatima Mernissi. These women are their scholars. They read classical Arabic and re-interpret the Qur'an's and Hadith's verses that post-Muhammad societies interpreted to justify their patriarchal control. Muslim feminists claim that quite contrary to the idea that Islam is irredeemably misogynistic, the original 7th century Islam was relatively kind to women. Muhammad outlawed the regional practice of female infanticide. Islam gave women the right to divorce and the right to retain their dowry in case of divorce. It also gave women the right to inherit property. "Read Jane Austen," one of them said. "Western women didn't get these rights until centuries later."