Listen Faith School Funding? Andy Barrie spoke with Barbara Bierman, Michael Fullan and Farzana Hassan.

Video Oct. 9:
Multiculturalism and Politics, What do the faith-based schools and reasonable accommodation debates tell us about who we are, and what we demand of minority groups?

Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest , An Integrative Study of Christian and Muslim Apocalyptic Religion by Farzana Hassan.

An Author ("Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest",  "Islam women and the challenges of today", and "Echoes from the Abyss"), a Freelance writer, Radio Program Host, musician, women's rights activist who earned an MBA from the University of Massachusetts and is working towards her PhD.


Was hijab a factor in the Aqsa Pervez murder?

A Forward-looking Ijtihad in the Modern Era

Muslim feminist perspectives on international women's day

The sanctification of the burka

Canadian bill to ban veiled voting will protect integrity of electoral process

Saudi Arabia's treatment of rape victim unconscionable

When tolerance becomes dangerous

•A Beacon of Hope in NYC

Unite against the fanatics

•Misplaced priorities of Muslims

•A cultural balance

•Say "no" to the oppressive Burqa (South Asian outlook )

•The Hijab: Is it Religiously mandated?

•An Odyssey in Faith

•Muslims must denounce Jihadist doctrine

•Free expression should not warrant charges of Apostasy

•Towards democratizing education



Was hijab a factor in the Aqsa Pervez murder?
Farzana Hassan-Shahid

The Quran for one, does not exhort Muslim women to cover their hair, nor does it prescribe a punishment for those who resist it.  Islam therefore does not enjoin the hijab, though Sharia, which is largely man-made promotes it. 

A cultural clash? A domestic violence issue? A distraught and enraged parent exercising extreme disciplinary control over a rebellious daughter? Or was young Aqsa Pervez’s murder a manifestation of brutal religious fundamentalism? These are some of the questions that have sprung up over the killing of the Mississauga teen in December, 07 as the public tries to make sense out of a senseless tragedy.


But what is worrisome is that  tragedies such as these are likely to occur again if a proper diagnosis, which entails pinpointing their causes is not undertaken in a candid manner, for once setting aside political correctness that has thus far allowed for atrocities,  injustices and inequities to proliferate in society.


The recent statements by a group of imams at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) mosque in Mississauga, while denouncing Aqsa’s murder and expressing a grudging acceptance of the notion that Muslim women must have a choice to wear or not wear the hijab, promptly distanced themselves from the overriding factor in Aqsa’ Pervez murder-- that the dispute between father and daughter occurred over a religious issue (the hijab) and that its enforcement was important enough for the father to  slaughter his  young daughter in a fit of religious fury.


Also blatant is the contradiction evident in the position taken by the imams.  It is unquestionably their insistence on the hijab as a religious requirement for Muslim women that has turned this piece of cloth into such a thorny issue for Muslim families. After the tragedy however, they are downplaying its significance as a factor in the Aqsa Pervez murder, suggesting the outburst of the father and brother may have had more to do with cultural practices rather than a fundamentalist religious outlook. The imam of the ISNA mosque said: "Women who wear hijabs occupy higher positions in Islam, according to religious teachings."


Guilt-ridden sermons labelling Muslim women who refuse the hijab as “bad Muslims” or “less than complete in their faith” have led to a culture of censure and intolerance.  When a theology of fear that invokes God’s retribution, coupled with societal pressures that equate piety with the observance or non observance of the hijab is a constant in sermons, the oppression and tyranny of such dictums is undeniable. Muslim women are often helpless in the face of such pontifical admonishing.  


Some Muslim women choose to wear the hijab because they have been led to believe it is somehow liberating.  This carrot approach promoting the hijab advances the argument that salvation is more easily attainable for Muslim women who adopt the practice.  


The social rewards are also immense as wearing the hijab eases the way to social acceptance in a population that is turning increasingly to more conservative applications of the Islamic faith.  But that's only part of the story.


The Quran for one, does not exhort Muslim women to cover their hair, nor does it prescribe a punishment for those who resist it.  Islam therefore does not enjoin the hijab, though Sharia, which is largely man-made promotes it.  Imams, religious preachers and scholars need to take a closer look at Quranic verses on modesty as these only enunciate a general principle thereof rather than spelling out details about specific attires. They must abandon their obsession of the hijab as the defining measure of a woman's piety.  Muslim women must be allowed to make genuine choices about how they wish to express their modesty, rather than one that results from social pressures, fear of hell fire or disingenuous theological arguments.


Neither does it behove religious leaders to downplay the religious factor in Aqsa’s death.  It is  only through honest discourse and dialogue that social ills are eradicated from communities and societies.  Calling a spade a spade in this case is crucial or else another young life stands at risk of being lost.  Imams and scholars need to emphasize compassion and forgiveness in their religious sermons and Friday khutbahs rather than shout sin and retribution at a credulous Muslim audience. 


The example of the holy prophet of Islam should be kept paramount in these sermons, keeping in view his own treatment of his four daughters who never once suffered abuse at his hands.


[Farzana Hassan-Shahid is President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Freelance writer, public speaker and author of  "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest" and host of the radio program Islam: Faith and Culture.]


Frequently overlooked amid heated debate, the Muslim garment's intricate past goes a long way toward illuminating an often controversial present.

Oct 21, 2007 04:30 AM

Special to the Star

Silent and demure, Sohaila briefly lifts up her face veil to introduce herself to me in a barely audible whisper. Not only must she hide her face, she must also keep her voice down, as that, too, is part of her "aura" – the thing that must be guarded from the public. Where, I ask, did she hear of such a commandment? "It is in the Qur'an," she says at a recent social gathering. "The Qur'an exhorts a woman to conceal her beauty from strangers," she continues. "It is for her own good. If her voice is too alluring, she needs to hide it."

Moments later, her husband lovingly brings her a glass of water. Once again she lifts her veil and turns her face away so that other men cannot see her.

Women like Sohaila appear to be growing in number around the GTA. Many have wondered why, especially when no express injunction enjoining the full veil exists in the Qur'an. I searched the holy book for confirmation of Sohaila's rigid and extreme interpretation. I found none.

Later, at another social event, I was advised that the Qur'an is quite explicit in exhorting women to hide their beauty from strange men, except "that which is apparent thereof." What would fall under that definition? A lady named Sabiha explained that it meant a woman's physique and height, which even the full veil could not conceal, but that a full veil was nonetheless required by Islam.

She went on to quote oral tradition, where Aeysha, the prophet's beloved child bride, is said to have observed the full veil. "She is a role model for Muslim women," Sabiha continued. "If Aeysha observed the full veil, so must we." I was stunned to hear these views.

Needless to say, the burka evokes many responses, from fear and awe to mystery sympathy, as well as contempt. It has come to be regarded as a symbol of an oppressive culture and a medieval mindset – one that defines a Muslim woman's identity by reducing her to a sexual object that must be concealed.

According to professor Nikkie Keddie of the University of California, however, the full veil was imposed on Muslim women only gradually. Her contention is supported by history. She states that initially, in the early periods of Islamic history, women had considerable freedom to roam unveiled.

Moreover, Bedouin men and women were both accustomed to covering their hair to protect themselves from the scorching sun, a practice that had nothing to do with religion.

Additionally, she points out that the full veiling of women, in fact, predates Islam. It is therefore not intrinsically Islamic and is rooted more in ancient Greek and Byzantine culture.

Among these rather elitist cultures, women were secluded based on class and social standing – the underlying assumption being that women of nobility would have far more to lose if they were dishonored.

When Islam spread to these lands, it adopted some of the local customs and mores. Qur'anic injunctions on modesty, though quite vague in their terminology, came to be interpreted in light of these cultural practices. Nevertheless, slaves and nomadic peoples were barred form veiling entirely. In fact, if they violated this rule, they were duly punished.

A universal decree stipulating the face veil for Muslim women came much later around the time of the Mamelukes of Egypt who ruled the country in the 13th century. These rulers issued several decrees imposing the full veil on women when they appeared in public. Hence, what was once a mark of aristocracy and nobility, now came to be imposed on the commoner as religious dogma.

The rigid observance of these edicts has never been challenged since. Many parts of the Islamic world abound with women who, were they to appear in public without the full veil, would surely suffer dire consequences under the law, apart from experiencing social ostracism.

Moreover, once the practice of the full veil came to be firmly established, interpretations of the Qur'an that would endorse its continuation began to emerge from the conservative elements of Islamic society. Salvation for Muslim women came to be vested in their anonymity and invisibility.

The strictest applications of these interpretations are now to be seen in Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive because they are fully veiled.

Similar interpretations have made their way into Canada, where a school run by female theologian Farhat Hashmi endorses this philosophy. Practices that were originally cultural and tribal have come to assume a fundamentalist religious tenor.

The subject of much heated debate, as seen in the recent Elections Canada decision that allowed burka-clad women to vote without removing their face veils, the burka has come to be sanctified, both by conservative forces within Islam and the Western left that endorses it in the name of multiculturalism.

The historical antecedents of the burka or full veil are rarely invoked in these debates.

Farzana Hassan is the author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today  

and president of the Muslim Canadian Congress



Monday October 29, 2007 10:22 PM ET

Canadian bill to ban veiled voting will protect integrity of electoral process

Farzana Hassan [President, Muslim Canadian Congress]: "The Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) has welcomed the Conservative Government’s decision to introduce Bill C-6 to ban veiled voting. The organization considers this an essential and appropriate move to protect the integrity of Canada ’s electoral process. All voters, including veiled Muslim women will now be required to identify themselves visually.

The bill was introduced on October 26, 2007, by Peter Van Loan, the Conservative House Leader in compliance with the provisions of the Throne Speech of October 16, 2007. The move is also a response to the controversy generated by Elections Canada’s decision to allow veiled women to vote without removing their face veils in a September, 2007 Quebec by-election.

The proposed legislation, while remaining mindful of religious accommodation, is nonetheless a step in the right direction towards ensuring the separation of religion and state. Burkas and veils are not religiously mandated attire and serve to undermine public identification. Such attire is promoted by Islamists as a tool to undermine the democratic process by negating the identity of half the population. It must therefore, not be endorsed.

Bill C-6 is also an affirmation of the MCC’s stated principle of achieving the separation of religion and state in all public places."





Wednesday, November 28, 2007 2:09 PM ET

Saudi Arabia's treatment of rape victim unconscionable

The Jurist

http://jurist. law.pitt. edu/hotline/ 2007/11/saudi- arabias-treatmen t-of-rape- victim.php

Farzana Hassan [President, Muslim Canadian Congress]: "While staunch affirmation of human rights remains the mantra of the day, the world continues to witness violations both great and small of this noble human ideal. Recently, a Canadian Muslim woman also felt her human rights violated and took her grievance to the Human Rights Commission. Her complaint-- a uniform skirt that leaves her calf exposed which according to her devout belief and practice, constitutes a serious violation of religious precept. Although Ms. Muse has the option of wearing trousers to work that would satisfy the Islamic requirement for modesty, she finds the attire uncomfortable, especially in warm weather, as she feels she must keep her jacket on to further conceal the shape of her body.

Miles away from this controversy, in a benighted prison cell in Saudi Arabia, a nineteen year old girl awaits the implementation of a punishment that may very well take her life. She was convicted earlier this year of the “crime” of leaving home unaccompanied by a close male relative. To her utter misfortune, the woman was gang-raped during the ill-fated trip to meet her fiancé. Yet, instead of receiving redress for the atrocity, she was awarded the brutal and humiliating punishment of 200 lashes along with a six month prison sentence.

Needless to say, such human rights abuses stand in stark contrast to Ms. Muse’s relatively innocuous and somewhat disingenuous concerns. Despite this, there is deafening silence over the outrageous sentence from the champions of human rights. The insidious worldwide alliance between the leftists and the Islamists appear to be lending strength to misogyny and medieval values.

Saudi Arabia's verdict on this young girl is unconscionable.

Not only is it harsh in comparison to the so called “crime”, it also places the onus of rape almost exclusively on this woman by bringing into focus her infraction of having violated Saudi law, thereby suggesting she brought vulnerability upon herself. Such messages reek of patriarchy and misogyny as the woman according to the verdict must be taught a lesson by serving a sentence and receiving a public flogging.

Saudi Arabia continues to implement a justice system that is medieval and archaic in upholding the most literal interpretations of the Islamic Shariah.

Yet despite its cruel manifestations, as in the case of the nineteen year old rape victim, there is an absence of public outcry from within Saudi society. The sporadic voices decrying the verdict have come largely from abroad, where journalists both Muslim and non-Muslim have expressed outrage over the decision.

What needs to be addressed is the very premise upon which the Saudi justice system is built—one that renders women voiceless, non-persons without freedom and socially marginalized. A society that criminalizes a single woman’s unaccompanied movements must review the social fabric of the society that prompts such unwarranted restrictions on her freedom. The strictures of a highly conservative brand of Wahabi Islam must be reviewed, allowing for more humane applications of religious norms. Moreover, Saudi Arabia ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2000 and as such is obliged under international law to repeal and amend all laws that blatantly discriminate against women. It must introduce laws and public education programs that uphold the essence of the Convention based on the equality of women.

While human rights activists contest Ms. Muse’s right to wear a long skirt at her place of work, they must of necessity also direct their energies to addressing the gross human rights violations within Saudi society."


When tolerance becomes dangerous

In a civil society, decency must rank ahead of just about everything else, sacred and not
Jun 03, 2007 04:30 AM

Special to the Star

    On April 7 of this year, a 17-year-old Kurdish girl by the name of Duaa Khalil Aswaad was stoned to death by a mob of a thousand men who accused her of having illicit relations with a boy in a neighboring village in northern Iraq. They had ambushed her as she headed home after a week-long confinement at an undisclosed location. Her father had isolated the girl to protect her from public controversy, fearing precisely the fate that would ultimately befall his young daughter. The irate men, shouting pious slogans while affirming their faith in god, hurled bricks and stones at her as she lay pleading for her life.

    Such self-righteous piety, often oblivious to its own inhumanity, is nonetheless ever-ready to condemn perceived immorality in the most vicious manner. Regrettably, such hypocrisy pervades many fanatical societies today.

    Duaa, a Yazidi girl – Yazidis being an ancient religious community incorporating elements of Islam – made the mistake of falling in love with a Sunni boy. In the eyes of the fanatics she committed not one but two crimes, first by daring to love in the first place and second, to do so among "enemies." She thus incurred the wrath of her uncles and cousins, who taking the law in their own hands, passed the death sentence against her.

    The world came to know about the tragedy when jeering bystanders took pictures of the public humiliation and stoning of the ill-fortuned girl. Not one came to her rescue.

    Sadly, honor killings of women have risen astronomically throughout the Islamic world with the rise of fundamentalism and its male-centered morality that often skews the sense of what is moral, compassionate and just.

    According to a United Nations report, such incidents numbered forty in January and February of this year in Iraq alone. Also unfortunate is the absence of public outrage over such atrocities from moderate segments of Muslim society. So far there are only four arrests in the April 7 stoning of Duaa Khalil Aswaad.

    One may therefore ask: Is there tacit approval among religious communities for the kind of retribution for perceived moral turpitude, as meted out to Duaa? Does Islam permit or prescribe death as punishment for adultery? The answer to such injustice is an endorsement of the principle of the separation between religion and state. Muslims and other faith communities must come to the realization that laws are made by mortals and their elected representatives rather than being based on divine texts. For Muslims in Canada, it should be unthinkable to harbor support for laws based on divine texts that cannot be argued or debated in parliament.

    Justifications for cultural differences in the name of pluralism often result in the formation of ghettos that have little to do with the standards set by civilized society and time-tested principles of human dignity. In fact, in the heated discourse on pluralism, these champions of diversity often lose sight of such standards, resulting in the continued oppression of the downtrodden within these enclaves that become ever more impenetrable.

    Also forgotten is the fundamental principle on which pluralism rests. The Canadian policy of multiculturalism emerged out of a need to recognize two competing cultures, the French and English, during the formative years of our democracy. With the influx of immigrants from different corners of the world, the heterogeneity of Canadian society expanded to include cultures that are perhaps not in line yet with modern notions of gender equality, civil society and democracy.

    In the absence of an honest evaluation of their cultural mores, from both within and without, the result will be an abuse of the principle on which pluralism is based – one that acknowledges diversity, but after an agreement has been reached on what is civil, just and compassionate.

    Cultural relativism that forces women to wear burqas or sanctimoniously places demands of a certain type on females alone, need to be examined critically with a view to uplifting these moral and ethical sensibilities. Perhaps the parameters of pluralism ought to be redefined in our vastly changed Canadian mosaic from the times of our founding fathers.

    Last but not least, as we proceed with a redefinition of cultures and societies and the place of multiculturalism in them, let us not forget to invoke the compassionate elements of religion that foster love, peace and understanding, as well as forgiveness for transgressions.

    It is imperative even for traditionalists who so uncompromisingly advocate stoning for adultery to remember that forgiveness is at the forefront of the tenets of Islam.

    I fail to understand why it did not surface even once during the brutal episode of the stoning of Duaa Khalil Aswaad.

Farzana Hassan, the writer of this essay, is president of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today


A Beacon Of Hope In NYC

By Farzana Hassan-Shahid

24 November, 2006

As the chatter in the large illuminated hall of Westin Hotel New York subsided, I looked around me and saw a constellation of distinguished Muslim women eagerly await the start of the ground breaking conference on the rights of Muslim Women. They were, artists, musicians, scholars, poets and academics and they came in their colorful garbs, teeming with ideas to launch the formation of a new Shoora or advisory Council composed exclusively of women to interpret the 'Quran. A revolution was unfolding right before my eyes as the women eagerly debated the credentials of their colleagues.

As President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, I also highlighted certain issues that needed to be addressed by this auspicious group. The ones that came up most frequently were domestic violence, women's health and general equality for Muslim women under the law. A debate soon ensued on what exactly such equality meant. Each woman had a different story to tell and a unique perspective to offer. There was no mistaking the remarkable synergy in the room.

However, these highly erudite women were not only concerned with women's issues. They were concerned about terrorism, intra-religious tolerance for divergent views and the lack of democratic institutions in many Muslim countries. Throughout deliberations, a general feeling of projecting the tolerant and humane side of Islam resonated most, whether during formal presentations or informal exchange of ideas. The interfaith panel reiterated the common humanity that Muslim women shared with them, along with a feeling of sisterhood, transcending all barriers of race , creed class or religion.

Mukhtaran Mai, the Pakistani woman who was gang-raped as punishment for her brother's alleged crimes, spoke out with characteristic courage and dignity by appealing to all representatives that they must raise their voices against injustices.

Perhaps of great significance was the fact that the women present at the conference came with diverse opinions and understandings of their faith. Was there room for women's equality within Islam's ideological framework? Was secularism the answer to the rights of minorities so often violated in Muslim countries? Would Sufi Islam and its colorful manifestations occupy a genuine place within Islam? Such issues came to be debated with the utmost, civility, ardor and erudition.

Indeed there is an intra-religious dialog taking place among Muslims in an attempt to arrive at an understanding of Islam that can work for its diverse adherents. Respect of such diversity culminated in the "Wise" or Women's Islamic initiative in Spirituality and Equity, reverberating during the course of the three-day discussions.

There are more orthodox Muslims who may very well frown upon such initiatives, suggesting that exegesis can only be the wrathful and exclusive domain of a select few trained in the traditional methodologies of juristic endeavor. But one may rightfully ask, if faith affects all of us, shouldn't every one have the right to understand and interpret it?

Indeed some commented on how wonderful it was that Muslims were now mature enough to debate religious precepts without being labeled apostates or heretics. To that I commented, indeed there is an intriguing dialog taking place within Muslim circles, but it is there not because of fundamentalists, it is going on despite them, and that indeed is something to be commended.

Farzana Hassan-Shahid is a freelance writer and host of the Radio Program :Islam Faith and Culture.


March 31, 2006
Misplaced Priorities of Muslims


Once again the streets of Kabul reverberate with the rancorous cries of bearded men demanding death for an Afghan convert to Christianity from Islam. Not too long ago, violent riots broke out in the Muslim world over objectionable cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, causing the deaths of several protesters, considerable destruction of property and widespread pillage. Before this, Muslims had yet again taken to the streets, protesting the alleged desecration of copies of the Holy Quran.

Although one can understand Muslim grievances, it is quite lamentable that similar protests never occur when innocent civilians, sometimes Muslim, die as a result of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in the ongoing conflicts in Palestine, Iraq and Kashmir. The daily reports of Taliban brutalizing local populations under their control, through draconian rules, go unnoticed by the majority. Honor killings and rapes of young Muslim women are dismissed as well deserved justice for alleged acts of promiscuity. Not as much as a squeak is uttered in protest to such skewed ethics.

Governed by a twisted ideology, militants in Iraq kill other Muslims with impunity over sectarian differences. Churches, mosques and temples are torched. Recently a Hindu Temple in Varanasi, India was attacked by terrorists but again no Muslim protests condemning the barbarism followed.

Added to the mayhem are the repressive laws in Muslim countries that victimize the victim. Iranian Nazneen, convicted of killing her assailants in self-defense now awaits execution in a prison and still no riots to save this young woman's life. On the other hand, the crowds would certainly emerge on the streets over the slightest perceived affront to Islam.

Needless to say, Muslims have become desensitized and immune to the ills pervading the Muslim world. This apathy stemming from phantasmagoria notions of conspiracies against Islam and Muslims is commonplace among Muslims. Rarely is the disarray ascribed to internal forces resulting from intolerance, ignorance and intransigence.

Muslims continue to revel in a false sense of security. They continue asserting that their understanding of their faith is beyond reproach, that Muslim women enjoy privileges under Shariah law, that only external factors are responsible for the current turmoil in the Muslim world.

Delusional thinking such as the above leads to further decline of Muslim culture, psyche and sensibilities.

The first step toward a solution requires an unequivocal ownership of our actions. It is only then that Muslims can find a solution or hope to be on the path to recovery and prosperity.

Muslims often speak nostalgically of their past glory but fail to recognize that Islamic civilization was at its peak only when Muslims were the most tolerant, humane honest and erudite. We must uphold these values again if we wish to recover some of that bygone glory.



Unite Against Fanatics

The recent death by stoning of 17-year-old Duaa Khalil Aswad in a Northern Iraqi town is yet another reminder of the barbarism and savagery endemic to religious fanaticism.
On April 7, the girl was ambushed by a mob of men thirsty for her blood, after they discovered she was in love with a Sunni boy from a neighboring village. While affirming their faith in God, they hurled bricks and stones at her as she lay pleading for her life.
Such self-righteous piety, often mindless of its own inhumanity is nonetheless ever ready to condemn perceived moral infractions in the most vicious and brutal manner. Regrettably, such hypocrisy pervades many fanatical societies today.
Being a Yazidi girl, in the eyes of the fanatics, Duaa committed not one but two crimes, first by daring to love in the first place and second, to do so among "enemies," thus incurring the wrath of her uncles and cousins who passed the death sentence against her.
The world came to know about the tragedy when jeering bystanders took pictures of the public humiliation and stoning of the ill-fortuned girl.
Yet such tragedies would not be confined to Iraq. Half a world away in France, Muslim women of marriageable age stand to suffer a similar fate upon being discovered to have engaged in premarital sex. Many are therefore demanding doctors perform hymenoplasties on them, a surgical procedure to restore hymens, lest they perish at the hands of their husbands, fathers or brothers. They would not dare ask these men if they too had engaged in such activity prior to marriage. This is blatant hypocrisy.
The incidence of honor killings of women has risen astronomically throughout the Islamic world with the rise of fundamentalism and its male-centered morality that often skews the sense of what is decent, compassionate and just. According to a United Nations report, such incidents numbered 40 in January and February of this year in Iraq alone.
There have been just four arrests in the stoning of this girl, which reportedly took place while police stood by. We have yet to hear an uproar from moderate segments of the Muslim world over such a brutal killing.
Moderate Muslims across the world must unite against the inhumanity that was Duaa's public stoning. They must raise their voices loud and clear against the atrocities committed in the name of their faith. No one should be able to kill with impunity.
It is the lack of redress for such criminal actions in Muslim countries, coupled with the deafening silence of moderate Muslims that tarnishes the image of Islam beyond repair.
Also puzzling is the stance of western feminists and liberals who espouse equal rights for all, but shy away from denouncing the oppression of Muslim women. In support of pluralism and multiculturalism they are willing to allow subcultures to flourish, often forgetting the marginalization and oppression that persists within them.
It is only in the breaking of these silos that the cause of liberalism and social justice can be truly advanced. Moderate Muslims and western liberals must unite to obliterate the scourge of honor killings from Muslim countries, as well as other Eastern cultures.

Farzana Hassan is the president of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.



A Cultural Balance:
The issue of girls wearing hijabs on the soccer field should open a wide debate on how much diversity should Canadians accept.

Published: Tuesday, March 06

The latest subject of a clash of identities within the cultural mosaic of Canada is an 11-year-old Muslim girl by the name of Asmahan Mansour.

Asmahan, who wears the hijab and leaves it on even when she plays soccer, was recently barred from participating in a tournament in Laval by a referee. He said her head scarf might endanger her safety, for there was a real possibility of strangulation from the cloth, as the sport is potentially quite rough involving frequent body checking.

Not so, assert many of the Muslim organizations and human rights activists who have latched on to the controversy to defend multiculturalism and the accommodation of diversity. They claim the refusal to allow Asmahan to play was racist. On the flip side of the debate, there are those who feel Canadian values are increasingly under siege when minority communities come to define culture and policy with a vigour and religious zeal that is unprecedented in history.

Needless to say, these debates expose deep divisions in Canadian society that are bound to fester if nothing is done to achieve some consensus on these issues.

But the debate is no longer about whether diversity and pluralism should be prized in a liberal democracy like Canada. The debate is now about answering just how much and to what extent. Must religious precept and practice be accommodated to a point resulting in the marginalization of a segment within a religiously and ethnically distinct community? Is there a Canadian identity over and above the ethnic identity that must be inculcated among the subcultures that have chosen to make Canada their home? Most important, what must all Canadians do to achieve social cohesion in a society that is becoming increasingly complex because of its plurality?

Most Canadians agree diversity must be accommodated wherever possible. And though the hijab has become a religious symbol creating barriers within Canadian society, it does not pose dangers to Canadians, as perhaps a burqa and niqab might, because the full veil conceals the identity of the one wearing it. Asmahan Mansour should probably be allowed to play soccer even in her hijab, provided her safety is not in jeopardy.

But the divisions within society are larger than young Asmahan's predicament and bear heavily on the increasing cultural divide between Muslim and non-Muslim Canadians.

An uncompromising insistence, for example, on a distinct Muslim identity articulated by conservative Muslim organizations like the Canadian Islamic Congress, CAIR and ISCC is often promoted not only as part of a perceived religious requirement, but also as a political statement.

And while such cultural and religious identities are extremely important - for diversity only enriches our collective experience as Canadians - to confine people in enclaves with the type of stringency and intransigence demonstrated by orthodox Muslims is perhaps never in the interest of social and cultural harmony. Cultural baggage must not prevent newcomers to Canada from adopting the overarching values of Canadian society, which guarantee equal rights to men and women and uphold the separation of religion and state.

Identities can be multiple and they need not remain static. In a society that continues to evolve, identities, too, must be willing to adjust to changes that benefit all.

Pluralism does not mean the formation of religious ghettoes or impenetrable cultural barriers among the myriad communities, but that all communities are respected equally as Canadians while they uphold Canadian values.

The question that needs to be answered then is: What is the right balance among the ideals of pluralism, diversity accommodation and social cohesion?

Farzana Hassan is the president of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.



Say "no" to the Oppressive Burqa  (South Asian Outlook)

Once again, women are rendered invisible as the Burka becomes ubiquitous in the city of Kohat in Northern Pakistan. For over a decade, women have suffered the same fate in neighboring Afghanistan where they must neither be seen nor heard.  Not even heard! The sound of a woman’s voice may prove too distracting for a man.  At least, so assert the Islamist clerics.

In Northern Pakistan, the Taliban continue to expand their control.  They demand that all female students wear white burqas, all the way from primary school to the higher levels of education.  The burqa must be unattractive, a plain white cloak that transforms women to walking corpses.  It must be free of any styles or fancy embroideries that would draw attention of males in public.  And it must be white, not black.  Apparently the color black is too alluring and seductive for the Taliban.

But according to Abdul Ghafoor, a Kohat official, the ordinance stipulating the white burqa was issued only to protect the students.  There’s a security concern:  Draw the ire of the Taliban, and your school runs the risk of being blown up.  And experience shows that this is not an empty threat.

So much for the argument that the burqa isn’t a symbol of oppression at all.  Muslim woman actually choose to wear it, we’re told.  Yes, it may actually be true that some Muslim women are content to wear the burqa, but we need to wonder why.  Is it coercion?  Persuasion?  Cultural mores?  Societal pressure?  Brainwashing?  The threat of being killed or having your school blasted to rubble?

Canadians live in a modern society, and we place a high value on pluralism, diversity and religious tolerance.  But is there a limit to what we can tolerate?  In countries were the burqa is permitted, can we be confidant that children have a free choice?  “Wear a plain white burqa or we’ll blow up your school.”  Is this free choice?

In Britain, a father is insisting that his twelve-year-old daughter wear the niqab, the face covering, to school.  Authorities are preparing for a long and expensive legal battle.  A local Muslim group is supporting them, arguing that the niqab is simply an expression of Wahhabi Islam—the extremist version of Islam which is promoted and financed around the world by Saudi Arabia.

Certain left-wing politicians are siding with the Wahhabis, the extremists and the Islamists on this issue.  They invoke the pluralism argument that we must accept cultural differences in a free society.  They argue that the number of women who actually don the burqa  is infinitesimal, so the debate over the burqa is irrelevant.  But even on the sidewalks of Toronto it’s obvious that the burqa and niqab are very common.

We can’t ignore the problem of security.  We can’t allow our citizens to cover up their identity, whether it’s only one citizen doing so, or fifty, or thousands.  Allowing any form of mask creates opportunities for criminals.  Allowing burqas jeopardizes every bank, store, public transit, even school washrooms.  We have no way of knowing whether the individual in the burqa is a Muslim, or even whether it is a woman.  We’ve already had security problems in Toronto.  Recently a store in India was robbed by a person in a burqa, and this has sparked debate there over whether burqas should be tolerated.
And when our Islamist enemies proclaim that Canada is a target, when they threaten to punish Canada for it’s foreign policy, we need to listen.  When individuals are allowed to circulate freely while concealing their identity, we need to worry.
Whose rights need protection?  The rights of Muslim women who are forced to wear a burqa because the law of the land allows it?  The rights of children who are forced to wear this cumbersome attire to school?  The rights of bank tellers and store clerks to know who or what they are dealing with?  The rights of the general public, who are alarmed by allegations of bomb plots right here in Toronto?   We must all be ready to answer these questions.  
Whether the Burak is or isn’t  a symbol of oppression for some can be debated endless by religious people but the fact that it most certainly has that potential is undeniable. Has the seven-year-old Pakistani girl stumbling to school in a white shroud exercised free choice?  The woman who is abused or browbeaten by male relatives, how can she exercise her right to choose?  Women who are surrounded by extremist ideology that is financed by Saudi Arabia, are their choices really free?
If our government or our communities allow even the possibility of such oppression, we need to rethink our values and priorities.

Canadians must oppose the burqa.

Farzana Hassan is the president of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.



The Hijab: Is it Religiously mandated?

By Farzana Hassan and Tarek Fatah

"The hijab has nothing to do with moral values. A woman's moral values are reflected in her eyes, in the way she talks, and in the way she walks. They put on a hijab and go dancing, wearing high heels and lipstick. They wear tight jeans that show their bellies. They do this in Egypt."

The words of 75-year old Nawal Al-Sa'dawi, Egypt's leading feminist on Al-Arabiya TV on March 3, 2007, reflected her bitterness at how the covering of a women's head has been misrepresented as an act of piety and the most defining symbol of Islam.

All Canadian women have at some time in their lives, chosen to wear a head cover. In blinding snow storms or in freezing rain, the covering of the head, irrespective of what religion one practices, is crucial to one's survival in a harsh winter. Halfway across the world, in the deserts of Arabia, whether one was a Muslim or a pagan, the covering of one's head and face was at times an absolute necessity, not just when facing a blistering sandstorm, but anytime one stepped out of the home in the searing sun

What was essentially attire necessary for a particular climate and weather, has today been turned into a symbol of defiance and at best a show of piety by Islamists and orthodox Muslims.

There is not a single reference in the Quran that obliges Muslim women to cover their hair or their face. In fact the only verse that comes close to such a dress code is (33: 59 ) which asks women to "cover their bosoms".

Yet, Islamists and orthodox Muslims have in the last few decades made the covering of a women's head the corner stone of Muslim identity. Not only has the head cover been pushed as a symbol of piety, only the Egyptian and Saudi version of the head cover--the Hijab-- is considered worthy of respect while any head cover that originates in the Indian subcontinent, the sari or the dupatta, has been relegated as a less authentic cover in Islam.

There is no denying that through history, Muslim women have chosen to wear the hijab for reasons of modesty. Today, some wear it for just the opposite reason--to look attractive. In the Middle East and Canada, it is not uncommon to see young women wear designer hijabs to partake in the latest fashion trends, belying any attempt at modesty or anonymity.

Other than fashion, in recent times this supposed symbol of modesty has assumed a decidedly political and religious tenor, dominating the debate on civil liberties and religious freedoms in the West. Opposition whatsoever to the Hijab is viewed as a manifestation of "rampant" Islamophobia.

Allegations that Muslim culture, religion and practice are coming under constant scrutiny and censure are made anytime the issue of Hijab is discussed. This was the oft-repeated argument when young Asmahan Mansour was barred from a Soccer league in Quebec, as she refused to remove her hijab while playing the sport. Recently the Quebec government also moved to disallow fully veiled Muslim women from voting, as they would not be able to identify themselves adequately.

The Hijab controversy is unfortunately being presented as a worldwide conspiracy against Islam, triggering an even more hardened reaction. Muslims begin to ask why the kippah for example, is never a subject of controversy, or the Sikh turban or the nun's habit? What is it about the hijab that so promptly raises eyebrows?

The piece of cloth becomes a subject of controversy also because those who favour its use are governed by the view that it is religiously mandated. They also regard its use as their democratic right. To dispense with the garment while playing a sport would amount to committing a sacrilege. Not so with the kippah, as there is no comparable stringency attached to its observance. Therefore, if participation in a soccer team required the removal of a kippah or a turban, the players would probably comply without much ado. In case of the Muslim girl however, who believes the apparel is obligatory, it becomes a matter of defiance to Allah's laws. But is it?

A dispassionate inquiry into historical precedent may very well lead to the conclusion that the Quran does not mandate the hijab. The khimar for example, the predecessor of the hijab was worn by Arab women before the Quran's stipulations on modesty of dress and demeanor. Verse, 33:59 did not introduce the garment , rather it modified its use when it said that Muslim women must "cast their outer garments over their bosoms", as previously they were left bare, though decked with jewelry and ornaments. The intent of the verse was obviously to exhort believing women to cover their nakedness rather than their hair, which was left partially uncovered even though the khimar was a head dress. Moreover, the khimar, which the Muslims inherited from pre-Islamic times, was never rooted in religious precept. It was rooted rather in custom. Later modifications for its use were introduced into Islamic practice when the religion spread into Byzantine and Persian territories, where once again the head dress was prevalent as a social custom.

The khimar was also a symbol of class and distinction rather than a religious precept in pre-Islamic and early Islamic history evidenced by verse 33:32 of the Quran which states: "O consorts of the Prophet! you are not like other women". Indeed there existed a hierarchy of sorts where slave women were actually barred from veiling. A peep into Islam's formative years also reveals the precedent set by Omar Bin Khattab, the second caliph of Islam in meting out harsh treatment to slave women who donned the veil. It is quite obvious therefore, that the veil was not based on religious precept. Why else would it be enforced so selectively?

Therefore, to turn the hijab or khimar into a religious and political issue belies its original intent. Muslim women who so vociferously defend its use may hence be well -advised to undertake an objective study of its history to determine if they must decide to wear it or not.

Farzana Hassan is the President of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today. Tarek Fatah is the founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Chasing a Mirage: An Islamic State or a State of Islam, to be published next year.


An Odyssey in Faith (Interfaith Unity)

The month of April marks many of the  celebrations associated with Passover and Easter, but for me this year, the period was a celebration of something else!  It was a celebration of the universalism, the openness and the generosity with which a synagogue and a church welcomed me into their worship services and learning circles.   

It was at Temple Emanuel, a Reformed synagogue, where Dr. Barbara Landau arranged for me to share my views on Islam and women.  In return I was glad to learn from Rabbi Debra Landsberg about the position of women in Judaism.  The exuberance of the audience was unmistakable when a variety of questions poured in from all ends of the room on the place of polygamy in our contemporary world, the veiling of Muslim women and issues such as divorce, the custody of children and alimony.

I found myself among friends who were eager to see a better world unfold for the millions of Muslim women who suffer from disease, malnutrition and sometimes unfortunately, the worst kinds of oppression. The outpouring of sympathy from Jewish women for their Muslim sisters many miles away was both heartwarming and overwhelming.

But perhaps the crowning moment of my month-long odyssey into interfaith discourse came when I proudly recited the azaan or call to prayer for a Christian audience, at Father Allan Budzin's St. Patrick's Anglican Church. Eagerly the children, ranging in age from 3 -12 years, lined up at the altar, not to sing a hymn, but to simulate the Muslim prayer for their parents and loved ones.  Verses of the Koran were read at that service along with passages from the Bible.  The sermon was delivered by me, a Muslim, to an audience that was Anglican.

Yet, this was not an attempt at a melding of faith traditions into a single syncretistic faith,  indistinguishable from any other, combining elements of all..

Rather, this was an effort to understand one another, a desire to reach out, to embrace our common humanity, to foster peace and goodwill, and to  demonstrate humility in acknowledging the validity of the other.  

In the words of one of the congregants,  well-known Rev. David Burns, we were only teaching each other to be human, "to be Canadian", for "Canadians stand for peace and justice".

I wondered though about how peace and justice could be achieved and sustained in societies that have become increasingly diverse and fragmented, especially with the arrival of new immigrants bringing their cultural and religious baggage into Canada.

The key in my view, is in developing a keen understanding of the differences.  Though there is much talk about focusing on commonalities to bring peoples of different faiths together,  it is only by understanding the differences-- why they exist and what purpose they might serve, that we are able to develop a genuine respect for each other's beliefs. After all, it is not commonalities, but differences that cause friction.  Again, the objective is not to  impose one's religious views on others, or to convert the rest of the world to our own religious ideal,  but to acknowledge the rights of people to hold various opinions and to articulate the many diverse understandings of God in a manner most suited to their particular cultural ethos and temperaments.  

The kind of  universalism I experienced at Temple Emanuel and St. Patrick's Anglican is a hopeful sign of the growing thirst for peace and understanding. Needless to say, it is sorely needed in our embattled world.  And it is up to the masses, where movements and ideologies must eventually take root, to carry the banner of peace and tolerance forward, despite the many differences that exist within our societies.   

Farzana Hassan is a freelance writer and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.



Muslims Must Denounce Jihadist Doctrine

Canada is fortunate. It remains the only country that has been subjected to extremist rhetoric, yet  spared an attack. The question is,  for how long?

The bombs may not have exploded, but the ideology of Jihad that justifies this terrorism is certainly around us.  It lurks in mosques, high schools, universities-- now even in offices of professionals, where one would expect a more critical appraisal of the weltanschauung that feeds it.  

But so what? Must we worry if that's all there is to  this phenomenon?  Indeed we must. For often ignored in this debate is the ease with which lines are often crossed between mere sympathy for terror and actual involvement in its hideously destructive and lethal  manifestations. There is a difference of a mere notch in religious fervour between the two.  One need only believe that a far more delightful existence awaits the one who has paid a debt to his religion with his life.

And here lies the all encompassing challenge for Canadian Muslims.  They must do everything in their power to ensure that such treacherous indoctrination is not only countered in its germinal stages, but that Canadian identity is reaffirmed over and above other affiliations, with an added  commitment to uphold the honor, safety and security of this great country of ours.

Too often young Muslims have been taught to believe that their foremost allegiance must be to Islam.  This should never be a matter of choosing ones religious identity over other identities.  Identities are never as static or linear as some might think.   No conflict for example, need exist between our  identities as Canadians and our identities as Muslims.

But it will take much more than a mere acknowledgment of these priorities.  It will require effort from each and every one of us to counter the spread of violent ideologies in our midst.  No longer is it enough to issue statements of denunciation after a terror attack has already wreaked misery on unsuspecting populations. Much more needs to be done now.

Canadian Muslims must begin a grassroots movement to confront the growing threat of terrorism wherever they find the slightest hint of its occurrence. Our silence in not denouncing the doctrine of Jihad has only resulted in the wrong message being sent to extremists that their violent acts are quietly endorsed by the majority. This perception must be dispelled through mass demonstrations and rallies against the violence perpetrated by these extremists.  

It is also imperative now to make a solemn commitment to the security of this country and its citizens.  We therefore need to look inward and decide whether some of the rhetoric uttered in mosques and religious gatherings has a bearing on the impressionable minds of our youth.  We need to confront the preachers of hate ideology through better religious arguments, by challenging their warped interpretations that sanction violence in the name of religion.   It is only by being proactive in fighting the curse of extremism that we can ever hope to win this battle for the soul of Islam.

Above all,  we need to ensure that Canadian society as a whole fosters cohesion and camaraderie among its diverse citizenry as a potent force overcoming the divisions and resentments that have already begun to take root in it.   

Farzana Hassan is the president of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.  



Free Expression should not warrant charges of Apostasy

The Salman Rushdie saga continues as fatwa after fatwa keeps coming his way, the latest one from notorious alQaedah lieutenant Ayman Zawahiri.  Earlier, government officials in Iran and Pakistan had also issued death threats against him, after his recent knighting by the British Queen, along with an $ 80,000 reward for his head offered by a Pakistani tradesman.

Though quite distinct in their brands of fundamentalism-- one Shia, the other Sunni, these Pakistani and Iranian soldiers of radical Islam, are ever ready to pounce on individuals they consider threats to Islam's integrity, issuing fatwas of apostasy and blasphemy with impunity.

The all too familiar charges laden with murderous threats begin to emerge from various quarters.  Even more frightening is the sense of legitimacy and authority with which these threats are uttered, for the underlying sentiment is that the blasphemers are enemies of  God who rightfully deserve to be executed.

The trend has assumed dangerous proportions even in Canada where Tarek Fatah, myself and other notable members of the Muslim Canadian Congress recently received a death threat left at the answering machine of the Muslim Canadian Congress.  The charge against the MCC was in many ways far worse than the one leveled at Rushdie.  Whereas he is a "declared apostate",  our organization was labeled "hypocritical" and  therefore seen as  working more insidiously to "smear" Islam's image in the world.

There are myriad reasons why "hypocrisy" is deemed a greater offense than apostasy.  Often, conspiratorial motives are assigned to those who challenge the traditional view within Islam, with suggestions that  the progressive and secular Muslim voice is somehow serving the agenda of "anti-Islam"  forces.

Their myopic vision also prevents them from considering the larger picture where not only Islam, but  all faiths, ideologies and philosophies are routinely subjected to scrutiny from within and without.  My question to these religious fanatics is: Did Dan Brown receive similar threats from Christians for writing the Da Vinci Code, a novel which shakes the very foundations of Christian theology?  Indeed there were verbal protests and intellectual challenges to Dan Brown's premise, but was there ever the kind of mayhem one often sees in the Muslim world over perceived insults to Islam?  Granted that much of the Muslim world is suffering from illiteracy and poverty, but dangerously and unfortunately the impulse to condemn is not confined to the illiterate masses.

When government officials, along with the well-versed and erudite begin to express bitterness against dissenting views to the extent of calling for their obliteration through murder, law enforcement needs to take a serious look at the situation.

Salman Rushdie is a stalwart among writers and literary figures and has the  means available to protect himself, but lesser known individuals must also feel secure in knowing that their freedom of conscience will not be undermined through bullying tactics and threats. In applauding Britain's decision to bestow knighthood on Rushdie for his extraordinary literary achievements, let us also uphold the democratic rights of each individual citizen to disagree, as well as feel safe doing so.

Farzana Hassan is the president of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.



Towards Democratizing Education

Brian Stavert and Farzana Hassan

John Tory's recent declarations on extending funding to all faith based schools has understandably sparked a firestorm of debate among education reform advocates in Ontario.  The proponents of the status quo maintain they have constitutional guarantees to protect their rights.  The agents of change on the other hand believe its high time such constitutional provisions were amended. Though much has been said on both sides of the debate, the following issues still need a careful and dispassionate glance if the public is to fully understand the implications of John Tory's decisions.  

While  supporters of funding to faith based schools make three claims about our current education system, it is now imperative to subject these claims to scrutiny. They base their arguments on the following: That there is religious discrimination in public schools, that religious freedom is therefore denied within the public school system and that faith-based schools provide a superior moral education.
Suffice it to say that the only religious discrimination existing in the Ontario
educational system is the Provincial funding of Catholic schools. The support of one faith based school system (Catholic) to the exclusion of all others is discrimination against other religions. Secondly, Catholic School Boards have discriminated and continue to discriminate against students and teachers allowed into their system on the basis of religion, which is a clear violation of civil rights and liberties. In both cases the most prudent and morally responsible solution would be the dissolution of the Separate (Catholic) School Boards and the merger of separate schools into one (French & English) religiously- neutral, publicly supported school system, open and fair to all.

Proponents of faith based  schools claim that our current system prevents them from the due exercise of their faiths, which they assert is a violation of their rights and freedoms under our constitution. This is only true to the extent that the Province
continues to provide full funding support for the Catholic Separate school system as there is no religious discrimination in the Public School System. It is a false assertion to claim that the Public School system is contrary to religious freedom since no one's rights to hold their beliefs or follow their faiths are prevented by having a religiously neutral environment to learn in, that is fair and open to all regardless of faith. Once again, the only sensible solution is to have one religiously- neutral,  publicly supported school system in both official languages.  

An oft repeated argument for extending support to faith based schools is their purported "superior moral" values. The only real way to validate that claim would be with bias-free data based on the moral or ethical performance of students leaving these schools for the real world.  In Canada there are no reliable data to support such assertions.

Integration rather than segregation based on religion or ethnicity should be the ultimate goal of civilized societies. Most of us believe that the function of education
is to prepare our children to be well adjusted, responsible adults in order to integrate into the world around them. When our children, as adults, enter the vocational world they will not be able to pick Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu or other faith based work places - they will have to live and work in a culturally and faith-diversified world. Keeping official religion out of schools is the only way to guarantee the equal rights and freedoms for all faiths and in no way denies someone their free right to exercise their faith. The home and the community are the best places to practice ones faith where they do not intrude on the rights and freedoms of others to do likewise.

Farzana Hassan is the president of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.


Muslim feminist perspectives on International Women's Day

Farzana Hassan, The Gazette
Published: Friday, March 07

Each year, International Women's Day is marked by renewed vigour and optimism, though what is often reported is clearly unsavoury with respect to the status of women across the world. Along with such reports, ever-changing definitions of feminism continue to emerge, absorbing ideas from new participants as they bring their unique perspectives to women's rights, equality, independence, job marketability and socioeconomic conditions for women.

Featuring among these are the myriad understandings of Islamic feminism, ranging from defining women's roles as nurturers worthy of respect, to advocating equal rights for them in line with those enjoyed by Western women.

What has sparked the profusion in such feminist narrative is undoubtedly the continued sorry plight of women in third world countries, particularly those living under the grip of religious laws and patriarchal mores.

The struggle continues on several fronts. Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML), for example is an international feminist organization comprised of several individuals and women's groups across the world, stating as its primary objective the fight to repeal Sharia laws in Muslim countries.

Other feminist groups lobby for women's rights through the media, articulating a vision of comprehensive civil and legal equality for Muslim women. Notable among these is the Muslim Canadian Congress. The feminist perspectives that emanate from these organizations reject the notion altogether that equality can be achieved through applications of religious laws. They hence argue for a clear separation of religion and state in matters of public policy that impact the legal rights and civil privileges of women.

In stark contrast to these are more traditional notions of equality. Gender equity, for example is a concept that offers an unequal but respectful option for Muslim women. It is predicated on the notion that men and women have unequal responsibilities in society deserving unequal rights. The concept rests on the idea that fewer responsibilities warrant fewer rights - hence no injustice. "Progress" and "feminism" according to this notion are understood only in as much as they achieve gender equity rather than equality.

Also within the conservative Muslim narrative, there is a brand of "progressivism" stressing fair and kind treatment of women as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Votaries of this view believe in gentle persuasion rather than force to mould the opinions of women to acceptable levels of compliance. Consequently, women living within the bounds of these mores continue to be restricted in their professional or academic undertakings, though they enjoy the love and respect of their male protectors.

Farhat Hashmi, Professor of Arabic from the University of Glasgow is one such "progressive". Teaching theology to ardent students enrolled in her year-long diploma program in the GTA, Hashmi preaches total subservience of women to men in the interest of maintaining domestic harmony, suggesting women are thus its ultimate beneficiaries. Clearly her views fall short of any objective standards of feminism, though Hashmi perceives her discourse as feminist. She even advocates polygamy as benefiting women. In the same spirit she urges Muslim women to willingly give consent to their husbands who wish to take second, third or fourth wives.

As one discusses cultural feminism, third-wave feminism and legal feminism constituting the North American feminist narrative, Muslim notions of feminism are also thus defined according to these subjective perceptions of gender equality.

These parallel discourses continually compete with each other for ascendancy with a view to advancing social conditions for women. Some understandings of feminism and progress dress women's rights in religious garb, placing premium on their roles as home-makers, while others free women from the shackles of religious patriarchy entirely, bringing them out of the confines of their homes and stereotypical roles.

Ultimately, the strengths and failures of these approaches lie in how well equality is understood and how universally and consistently it is delivered to the women of the world.

Farzana Hassan is an author and president of the Muslim Canadian Congress.

© The Gazette 2008


December 14, 2006

A Forward-looking Ijtihad in the Modern Era

by: Farzana Hassan-Shahid


Ijithad has traditionally been defined as free or independent thinking to arrive at a juristic ruling on issues over which the Quran and Hadith are silent. The efforts of the eighth and ninth century learned fathers of jurisprudence such as Imam Shaffi and Abu Hanifah came about as a result of such ijtihad, as these doctors of jurisprudence were exercising independent reasoning to interpret legal sources by responding to the changing conditions of society. Consequently, they came to formulate elaborate rules of conduct for Muslims that would govern both their private and public life.

Though the need was widely felt to undertake ijtihad in the form of juristic rulings, earlier tensions among emergent juristic schools suggest there were differences in methodology over how such rulings were to be derived. There were some who insisted all rulings would have to conform to the text of the Quran and Sunnah, thereby discarding the notion that Ijma (Consensus) or Qayas (analogy) could be considered legitimate sources of Shariah. However, what crystallized as the Usul-ul- Fiqh or the classical theory of jurisprudence, positioned the Quran and Hadith as the primary, and Ijma and Qiyas as secondary sources of Islamic law. The secondary sources would have to conform in principle to the two primary sources.

However, rulings deduced through such meticulous adherence to the Usul-ul-Fiqh, led at times to discrimination of women and other disadvantaged groups living in Muslim countries. Less commonly known is the fact that such an eventuality was forestalled by early exegetes of the Quran, particularly those who belonged to the group of scholars known as the "Ahl Ra'aay", who considered rationality and the principle of Istihsaan (juristic preference to arrive at the most equitable solution) a paramount principle in deducing religious law. Their objective was to achieve a just society that would accommodate the rights of all, while paying special attention to the rights of the weak and underprivileged. Unfortunately over time, the principle of Istihsaan came to be sidelined and the doctrine of Taqlid or blind following of traditional schools of jurisprudence gained ascendancy among Muslims.

Any forward looking ijtihad must revive the concept of Istihsaan as a first step towards delivering justice and equality to all in Muslim society. It must also take into consideration the difference between the Quran's time-specific societal injunctions, its broad normative principles and its overall objective of creating a just society that would treat members with equality and fairness.

Regrettably, the Quran's overarching principles of justice and fairness or Adl and Ihsaan, have been ignored due to excessive adherence to the temporal legal injunctions of the Quran. Whether it is in the application of Shariah law in Pakistan, unequal inheritance rights for women, unjust dispensations of cases involving alimony, child custody, divorce, and polygamy due to an obsession with conforming to specific seventh century expressions of Quranic principles, the result has been the repression and marginalization of Muslim women.

My approach to Quranic exegesis is holistic. One must look at the principles behind Quranic edicts which certainly exhibited fairness and compassion towards the weaker sex. It is these principles of fairness, compassion, justice and equity that need to be expressed as greater equality under the law for women in the contemporary context where notions of gender equality, peace, tolerance and harmony have been refined to a point where such rights are considered inalienable and inhering in ever human being. The Quran, through planting the seeds for such reform within the context of its own revelation, showed the path for future reform and progress towards universally recognized human values.

According to this holistic approach to the Quran, I would once again conclude that any forward looking ijtihadd must of necessity conform to the Quran's overall principles and objectives of delivering a just society rather than being excessively preoccupied with their seventh century expressions and manifestations that resulted in disparities between the rights of men and women.

Here the issue of "gender equity" verses "gender equality" needs to be examined in greater detail. Gender equity is premised on the argument that the roles of men and women in society are complementary, therefore their rights must be distributed accordingly. In essence what this means is that indeed disparities exist between the rights of men and women, but they are there for a good reason. Men for example are the bread-winners, they are the "protectors and sustainers" of women therefore it is only fair they be allotted a greater share in inheritance. While this argument may hold some validity in theory, it has to be examined against the reality on the ground. The reality on the ground is vastly different from the ideal envisioned by Muslim jurists and calls for a reexamination of such anachronistic justifications for unequal shares in inheritance or unequal rights generally. The fact is that conditions justifying such inequalities no longer exist. Women nowadays are sometimes the sole breadwinners for their children and families, many of them live below poverty lines and a significant population of rural women in impoverished Muslim countries work like slaves in the fields, only to come and play slave to their husbands at home. Where is the justice in unequal shares? One cannot therefore use the contexts and scenarios of long ago to continue justifying unequal rights. The "complementarity"or "gender equity" argument, though it enjoys wide currency among Muslims, now needs to be looked at afresh, as it entails far too many justifications for the continued discrimination and marginalization of women. It is preventing young Muslim women from recognizing their own secondary social and legal status in Muslim societies. Because of the complementarity argument, Muslim women believe there is no discrimination against them within Shariah law, but they are sadly mistaken on these issues. They must realize that equality must be conceived as an absolute if progress is to be achieved in Muslim societies.

There are at present in my opinion, three distinct discourses within Islam on women's rights. The first is the one vigorously promoted by Dr. Farhat Hashmi which attempts to render women invisible and anonymous by enshrouding them in Burkas, endorsing polygamous marriages and upholding the uncontested leadership of the husband over the wife. Ironically such a discourse claims to be progressive, once again based on the "complementarity" argument, this time applied to the letter. The second, a slightly more progressive discourse does not intend to subjugate women to the extent of compartmentalizing them in gender specific roles entirely, but nonetheless emphasizes the need for reclaiming the "rights Muslim women enjoyed under Islam many centuries ago". This is dangerous in my opinion, because it will not lead towards progress, it will lead towards seventh-century norms and applications of those norms which are by no means desirable in this day and age, given our vastly transformed societies. This is by far the prevalent discourse among Muslim women who are self-proclaimed "feminists" out to reclaim their rights. In my opinion it is no longer enough to simply reclaim these rights. While such reclamation will certainly improve conditions for a segment of Muslim women in some societies, it will fall hopelessly short of modern standards of gender equality under the law.

In my opinion there is a way out of the dilemma for those who wish to keep their faith and yet acknowledge the need for reform. Ijtihad for them would have to be applied unfettered by the Usul Fiqh and conform to the Quran's broad principles of justice and fairness or Adl (Justice) and Ihsaan (the doing of that which is beautiful), rather than to the specific manifestations of these principles that may have worked within a particular cultural framework.

In my opinion the future of Muslim feminism depends on this recognition.

Farzana Hassan-Shahid is the President of the Muslim Canadian Congress and Author of "Islam Women and the Challenges of Today"