When I was asked by New Humanist to attend a conference titled "Can Muslims Escape Misogyny?", I was intrigued but also wary. The conference organisers, the Deen Institute say they want to “articulate faith, not in spite of, but through scientific inquiry, critical thinking and logical reasoning, reviving intellectuality among modern Muslims.” But in my experience, when it comes to women, many of the most conservative Muslim groups have developed a media-friendly vernacular that conceals views that are still largely Islamist and patriarchal. And the "question of women" appears to have become a battleground – critics of Islam, conservative scholars, and Muslim and western feminists tussle over who treats women the worst.

So I had my reservations. Still, there were some prominent speakers on the line-up – Huffington Post blogger Myriam Francois-Cerrah, Islamic Society of North America president Dr Ingrid Mattson and the ubiquitous Professor Tariq Ramadan all featured.

The first speaker, Francois-Cerrah, kicked things off with a boisterous feminist critique. Despite my scepticism, I found myself laughing as she poked fun at stereotypes of Muslim women. Throughout her talk there were nods, clapping and even cheers from female members of the audience.

She began by challenging the apologist claim that Islam is perfect, and just given a bad name by those who practise it incorrectly.

It’s too easy for me to say, ‘this isn’t Islamic, these actions reflect a warped vision of the religion'. The question remains when such views are so pervasive, who gets to define what Islam is and so ultimately whose Islam gets the stamp of certification.

She argued that Muslims need to move on from relativist claims that all societies are inherently patriarchal or that historical factors such as colonialism and lack of education are solely to blame for present-day troubles.

Referencing the commonly-heard argument that Islam was revolutionary for women’s rights at the time of its inception, she said: “defensive posturing about the great gains that Islam brought for women in the 7th century says nothing about whether it continues to be a force for good in the advancing of women’s rights today.”

I found myself nodding as she went on to discuss the inherent difficulty of arguing a general "Islamic" position, when even Islamic texts and scholars are not in agreement.

Cerrah’s talk fired up the young women I was sat with. They felt they were fighting two battles - one from within Islam and the other from within wider society. On the one hand, they had to deal with everyday sexism and misogyny from within the Muslim community. Many were frustrated with the paternalistic restrictions placed on them under the guise of "protecting" them or giving them "respect". They wanted concrete strategies to argue their rights from within an Islamic framework.

The other concern repeatedly raised was Islamophobia. All the women I spoke to felt that some sections of British society were using the "treatment of women" in Islam as a tool with which to attack Muslims in general. They wanted strategies to answer critics who said that they were subjugated and brainwashed.

One young woman, an NUS representative who was live-tweeting the whole conference, spoke of her frustration at trying to get things like equal access to public space. She said that despite the fact that women (often with children) frequently outnumbered men at her mosque, they are given a much smaller space there. Another girl, in her mid-twenties, talked of how she felt pressured to marry but was determined to prove that Islamically, she had every right to stay single and focus on her career.

Excuses and solutions

So far, I was impressed. The next speaker was Ustada Safia Shahid, Head of Education for women at the Jamatia Islamic Centre in Sparkhill, Birmingham. Within a few minutes, it was clear her talk was full of the banal relativist and apologist arguments that Francois-Cerrah had just lampooned. The irony of this was not lost on the attendees I spoke to, who agreed it was very much like the conservative sermons they had heard time and again.

Shahid returned to the usual arguments: that Islam stopped baby girls being buried alive in the 7th century; that it’s not just Islamic cultures that are patriarchal and misogynistic; and finally, it’s not the faith that’s wrong, it’s the way it’s being practised.

It didn’t come as such a shock then, when in researching this piece I discovered that the Jamatia Islamia centre where Shahid teaches was recently in the news: an undercover investigation discovered that their Imam agreed to preside over the marriage of a 14-year-old girl. After initially being suspended in October last year, the Imam was reinstated in November following an internal investigation.

The next two speakers took a more constructive approach. Sharuq Naquib and Dr Ingrid Mattson called for a reinterpretation of Islamic texts. Both emphasized the need to separate the Koran - which Muslims consider to be the word of God - from Hadith, the quotations of the Prophet Mohammed as recounted by his companions.

Naquib, a lecturer in Islam at the University of Lancaster, spoke of Ijtihad ­– the endeavor to find new meanings in existing Islamic texts. She talked about how previously there had been many female Muslim scholars, but that this had declined under colonialism and called for a return to scholarship by women. Mattson too talked of the impact of colonialism on existing structures in many Muslim countries. Where previously women had been active in the public space, colonial bureaucracies excluded them, contributing to their disempowerment.

Mattson, an ex-Catholic convert, impressed me. Measured and logical, she began her speech with the question, “Are women to blame for tempting men?”

This was a reference to the oft-quoted hadith: “I have not left behind me any fitnah more harmful to men than women.”

To understand this fully it’s important to define "fitnah", which is often translated as "temptation" but is better described as something that creates discord or causes rebellion.

Like some of the other speakers, Mattson argued that many scholars do indeed use this hadith and others like it to claim women are inferior. According to Mattson’s reading, this clearly contradicts the Koran, which says men and women are equal in the statement: “women mirror men in their qualities.”

Mattson drew a simple analogy, arguing that women no more cause "fitnah" than expensive cars do. If a man chooses to spend too much money on a car he cannot afford, the car is not to blame. It is men’s inability to behave sensibly around women that causes "fitnah", not women themselves. In short, men need to take responsibility for their own behaviour.

Having thus deconstructed this one hadith, Mattson argued that many others are often inaccurate, based as they are on hearsay. She called for fresh interpretation of existing Islamic literature, much of which she described as "extremely problematic".

She seemed aware though, that this would not be an easy task. Too often, attempts at reform in Islam are crippled by accusations of blasphemy. Some Muslim countries, for instance, have used the idea of "fitnah" to ban scholarship that demonstrates women's role in public life at the time of Mohammed.

In my own work challenging Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, the concept of "fitnah" has come up time and again. In Pakistan, it has created a Kafkaesque situation where questioning the blasphemy law is itself blasphemy. According to Mattson, Muslims need to consider how the concept of "fitnah" is being used to silence any critique of the establishment in the Muslim world.

Simply looking with new eyes at the Koran and Sunnah for some people is fitnah because it challenges how they have used the Koran and Sunnah to justify social structures, political structures and economic structures which perhaps deny men and women their dignity and full rights.

Mattson’s arguments were logical, reasoned and called for progression and reform within an Islamic framework. Yet she didn't offer a critique of the Koran itself - and some might argue that this is a form of doublethink typical of religious believers who see themselves as progressive. I would say, though, that by refusing to be pushed out of Islam while rejecting the dominant paradigm, she shows gumption.

Questions, questions

Last to speak was Professor Tariq Ramadan. He strode up on stage with an easy confidence and a certain aura of celebrity about him. Forty-five minutes later, I still wasn’t sure what to make of him.

Superficially, he appeared to agree with Mattson, Francois-Cerrah and Naquib, arguing that since many Islamic practices are actually cultural, Muslims should not feel afraid to question them. He also referenced the falsification of hadiths, the fallibility of scholars and the need for continued inquiry. But while agreeing on the one hand, he contradicted on the other.

He began his talk with this:

This question of women, especially because we live in the west, is brought to us because of some cultural and social pressures.

Straight off, the implication was that this "question of women" was being raised because of how it made Muslims look in the west. He alluded to this later too when he warned:

…be careful with not being misled by taking as a priority a secondary issue because this is the story of our time, or this is the controversy of our time.

He had an air of condescension, which wasn’t helped when he said things like:

In cultural terms we need women to be involved in the discussion, because it’s a different perspective.


We are in discussion with the feminists. And I don’t agree with the people rejecting feminists. I’m not scared of using the concept of feminism, if I define it. It’s men and women in the name of Islam, against discrimination.

While Ramadan appeared to agree that we should acknowledge diversity within Islam, he oddly chose the example of Salafism - a literalist sect that itself has no tolerance for differing interpretations - to illustrate his point:

Some Muslims say they [Salafis] have extremist views. As long as you have an interpretation, coming back to the sources, faithful to the principles accepted in our tradition, you have no right to put people inside or outside Islam.

While accepting that there is a problem with Islam’s treatment of women, Ramadan tried to downplay its importance with the non-sequitur that Muslims should support "all oppressed people ... Egypt, Palestine, what is happening within families, where women are treated in a way which is just unacceptable.”

For me, the most problematic statement he made related to a Muslim’s relationship with scriptural sources – arguing that a scientific method of enquiry cannot be applied to the Koran, as science is a western construct:

I have a problem with some of my “progressive” [his emphasis] brothers and sisters. I have a problem. Why? Because very often, some of them, they come back to the “western sciences” [his emphasis] so I’m very cautious, OK? And they take from the means and they deal with the Koran in a way which is, ‘let me take the means in the west and challenge the understanding of the text through the means which is for example, rationalism or things like historical critical sciences. Be careful with this. We have to use the means but not at the price of the essence. Allah is telling us, be careful - rational means will never get the meaning of the light of the text alone.

Quite apart from pandering to the racist stereotype that Muslims are irrational and cannot be reasoned with, this renders attempts at renewed Islamic scholarship pointless. If an understanding of faith can only be reached through faith and we have already admitted that many of the sources of reference for this faith are unreliable, then why bother engaging in enquiry if, as Ramadan says, "Rational means will never get the light of the text."

He then he came out with this nugget of disingenuity:

We have to be critical with everybody, not with everything. Your intellectual humility is, I’m going to question anybody, but I’m not going to question all the principles. There are some principles that are coming to me and I need to get this trust that it’s coming from Allah.

I still don't know what that means. I tried to ask him but I didn't get picked by the microphone guy in the Q&A. I did discuss it with some other people but no-one I spoke to was entirely sure. Ramadan seemed to be saying that some things are absolutely not to be questioned, without clarifying what they are - essentially paralysing debate.

With such obfuscation, it’s hard to tell how and where progress can take place. Or even if there can be a progressive movement within Islam itself. As Francois-Cerrah said:

When something can mean one thing and its exact opposite, does it actually have any meaning at all? In other words, when I claim that Islam contains the seeds for feminist emancipation while someone else uses it to justify profound abuses of women and girls, what exactly is Islam, but a vernacular in which our socio-cultural assumptions are reflected?

I’m still hopeful though. People like Mattson and Naquib are trying to develop real strategies to engage with conservative forces within Islam while struggling against the external factor of Islamophobia. They are on the frontline and I respect their desire to reform the faith they love, rather than walk away.