Lyn Gallacher: Since the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, we've seen the imposition of laws which ban music, dancing, beard shaving, kite flying, and fashion magazines. And for women the consequences have been dramatic. They are kept behind walled compounds, fully veiled, and under the command of men. Women who break these rules are publicly beaten. And now with the ever-increasing possibility of an attack from the US, Afghani women are in an even worse position than they were two weeks ago.
To discuss the issue of the role of women in Islam, I'm joined in the Canberra studio by four young Muslim scholars, and they are: Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, a PhD student from Perth's Curtin University of Technology; Lies Marcoes-Natsir, an advocate in Jakarta for women's reproductive rights within Islam; Michel Ford, who lives in Toowoomba, but who is a PhD student at the University of Wollongong; And also from the University of Wollongong, from the law faculty, is Nadirsyah Hosen.
Nadirsyah, let's begin the conversation with you. You think the ultra-conservative that the Taliban has imposed in Afghanistan is a valid form of Islam?
Nadirsyah Hosen: From my point of view I think that if we believe that we are a pluralist group then we should consider their opinion, as they have the right to express their belief, although maybe we disagree with their interpretation, but according to the Islamic point of view, their interpretation is valid. Yet according to Islamic sources they can find justification in Islamic tradition regarding a woman's subjugation.
Noorashikin Abdul Rahman: I would like to comment on that. I think many Muslims would feel that the Taliban's approach to women's rights does not actually reflect the essence of Islam, and maybe they're interpreting some of the legalistic aspects of Islam in that sense, but they're not taking the spirit of Islam.
Lyn Gallacher: And maybe we should be a bit specific, what they're saying is that the women are not allowed to be educated, they're basically house-bound, they've got to be clothed from head to toe, and many of them suffer consequences that are violent as a result.
Noorashikin Abdul Rahman: Well within the prophet Mohamed's own time, women were expected to find education as much as men, they were clearly able to work outside the house, as prophet Mohamed's own wife did.
Lies Marcoes-Natsir: No, and somehow I do agree with Nadirsyah. If we look at the legal, formal rules, but also the thing is that we have to look more at the political behind rule about this ban. I think we can say that it's a kind of normal situation if an unstable situation like what happened in Iran, for instance, after the revolt. The first year of the revolution, so it's always like in it's kind of condition. Now it's also happened in Aceh for instance, so if it's in the situation unstable, then the rule will come with the strict control of women. This is always the problem.
Noorashikin Abdul Rahman: And I think the use of violence in order to enforce some of these rules that are oppressive towards women has never been in the Qu'ran, that we can use violence in order to enforce women for example, to be confined to houses, to be clothed from head to toe, even the dress code itself, like the standard prayer robe for a woman is your face is allowed to be shown when you are praying and when you are facing Mecca itself, so I don't understand the full veil, which is not in the Qu'ran, which has never been written in the Qu'ran that it should be a full veil. So it's question of patriarchy in these issues as well.
Lyn Gallacher: Do you think we're right in isolating the treatment of women as a particular symptom of a wider problem that Islam and the west have? Is the treatment of women in these fundamentalist Islamic states symptomatic of the distance that these countries have from the modern western world?
Michel Ford: I think that's a very interesting question. Before I give a response to it, I'd like to actually point out that many Australians' reactions to Muslim women since the World Trade Center affair, which almost all Muslims would say is a terrible violation of human rights, of Americans' human rights, indicates the treatment of women in Australia as a result of that, indicates that women are very much a symbol of Islam in Australia. The three of us, interestingly, are not veiled, but veiled women have had a terrible experience and other things, like the stoning of buses and the burning of mosques, says that this gap that people draw between the civilised West and Islamic extreme societies, is perhaps less real than some of us think.
Lyn Gallacher: And that will lead me to my next question: there's been a lot of talk lately about the Samuel P. Huntingdon thesis The Clash of Civilisations', and is this a war between the West and Islam. And I think now there's another argument going round saying No, this is not a war between the West and Islam but it's a war between fundamentalism and pluralism.
Michel Ford: Huntingdon's War of Civilisations thesis is flawed, because really it's a war between two views: fundamentalisms, including Western fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism, and nationalist fundamentalism, as something where things are unchangeable and pluralisms in all religions and all States where people have multiple identities. And for instance I, as someone called Michel Ford with a very Australian name, doesn't get picked out as a Muslim in the street because that identity is hidden for me, whereas for women who veil, or for people of a Middle Eastern appearance' that's very different.
Lyn Gallacher: Noor, would you like to jump in there? Do you agree that this is a war between fundamentalism and pluralism?
Noorashikin Abdul Rahman: Yes definitely, and I think what should be taken into serious consideration is not to see the word fundamentalism' as just Islamic fundamentalism, as non-rational Muslim men in turbans flying into buildings, and killing people and committing suicide. I mean as Michel has pointed out, there are various levels of fundamentalisms, and that includes all the various fundamentalisms that Michel has cited, nationalist Western fundamentalism, and it's very important that we should be aware of all these multiple definitions of fundamentalisms around.
Lyn Gallacher: Well I could even think of some more, Aum Shinrikio, that's been another one; there's been Jonestown, the Oklahoma city bomber, there are plenty of precedents of religious terrorism that have come from a kind of fundamentalism, so it's not just an Islamic thing, and then there's of course the Spanish Inquisitions and the Crusades.
Michel Ford: You're focusing on very religious aspects of fundamentalism, I think we were talking about even broader ones, the concepts of what makes up the Australian who wants to protect the borders from the ships of potential terrorists, and all this, this is also a form of secular fundamentalism.
Nadirsyah Hosen: That's why when George W. Bush declared war and said to the world Either you are with us or you are with terrorists', I think that's overly black and white, because in the sense I think George W. Bush can fall into fundamentalism. When he declared war without proof or evidence, without enough evidence regarding Osama bin Laden was behind the attack or not. So I think yes, it is not the simple question that can we ask and there is nothing to answer black and white. We should look at case by case and we should look at the word behind political terms that we use every day, day to day.
Lyn Gallacher: Well let's just get back to the point that you started off by making, Nadirsyah, you were saying that pluralism has to embody tolerance for certain different kinds of things, including fundamentalism, which actually excludes pluralism. How do you get around that double bind? How do you be tolerant of something that's intolerant of you?
Nadirsyah Hosen: Yes, that's hard. But again, if we have sufficient evidence that some groups are doing this sort of attack, maybe we can have a war, but until now I think Muslim countries are in doubt whether United States have a complete investigation regarding this case, and that's why I think this case is not black and white. But being pluralism, I think it's hard. For example, for a woman, if we believe in feminism and if we believe in pluralism but at the same time we never understand other views, we never look at or read other books, which is different opinion with us, then we fall into fundamentalism. Being pluralism means that we should consider other opinions whether we agree or not. Being pluralism this means that we should read other views, we should consider other opinions. But now it seems that we dominate the interpretation that this is a freedom this is America and then Australia and Tony Blair in England also join, so either you are with us or you are with terrorists, just dominant feel, monopoly feel, and I think that's not pluralism. I think we should have a public sphere of interpretation regarding this issue.
Lyn Gallacher: We'll just get back to Noor for a second. You were saying that there is, within Islam, tremendous potential for women to develop themselves and women's rights, and that feminism is not antithetical to Islam.
Noorashikin Abdul Rahman: Oh definitely not, because Islam has been introduced, and one of the objectives of it was to liberate women at that time when children, girls were buried alive just simply because they were born girls. When women didn't have any rights whatsoever, didn't have any rights of inheritance and Islam has actually installed that for women, and women didn't have any respect in that society, and Islam has actually installed that respect for women through various laws that practising Muslims need to practice in their everyday experience. So being for example, even, I'm not veiled, but being a veiled Muslim, I don't see it as a violation of my right as a woman in this modern world. And there are many other liberated Muslim women who are veiled, who are passionate about it, but they are equally successful in the secular world, holding very good posts in government institutions, in the corporate world. And this is the kind of view that needs to be projected, not about women in Islam who are told to be covered from head to toe, the fact that men in Islam can marry four women, you know these are the sources of misinterpretation of the violation of women's rights in Islam that needs to be addressed, and when it comes to discussing about women and Islam and the practice of Islam as a religion which is relevant to the modern world.
Lyn Gallacher: I'm interested also in something that you were saying there as an aside, Michel, do you think that a way forward, a model for the future, might be a more sort of secular Islam? Michel Ford: I think it's interesting to look at the conjunction, or the juncture between culture, State and women's rights. Because I'm not sure whether it's an issue of secular or non-secular as much as the issue of the host culture in which Islam exists, because Islam is a religion that has existed in many different sorts of cultures and has different forms in different cultures. So a woman who is not allowed drive in Saudi Arabia has very little to do with the woman who can go out at 10 o'clock veiled or unveiled on her motorbike in Indonesia at night, with no danger. I don't see that it's so much a matter of the State formation as people's attitude towards religion and to women.
Lyn Gallacher: So the division between Islam and the West is a false one?
Michel Ford: Absolutely. The only aspect of it that isn't false is the horrible circle of claim and counter-claim that we get into when we start identifying it as a major schism, because those sorts of identifications have some self-fulfilling elements. I know that many Muslims living in Australia feel very alienated at the moment, because while we abhor what happened at the WTC we are also very uncomfortable with people's very base reactions to that, for people who've got nothing to do with it.
Noorashikin Abdul Rahman: Well I just want to say that Islam is actually a religion of tolerance for other beliefs, and there is actually a verse in the Qu'ran, it's called non-believers, the verse is called non-believers, and in that verse it specifically mentions that this is a dialogue saying that non-believers, you will practice and you will worship what you practice, and our practice and our worship, what I practice, but I will never worship what you worship, and nor will you ever worship what I worship. Which means that we can coexist and we have to have a sort of respect and tolerance for other beliefs. I think that is something that you've got to remember.
Nadirsyah Hosen: And that's pluralist.
Noorashikin Abdul Rahman: And that's pluralist, yes, so these are the kind of values that were espoused by the religion of Islam, so that's my concluding remark.
Lyn Gallacher: So part of it is breaking down a stereotype, a very difficult stereotype in the minds of the media and the minds of the West and the minds of Christian fundamentalists if you like. It's a difficult job.
Michel Ford: I don't think that's part of it, I think that's it.
Lyn Gallacher: Thank you all very much for coming in today.
ALL: Thank you Lyn, thank you.
Lyn Gallacher: Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, Michel Ford, Nadirsyah Hosen and Lies Marcoes-Natsir, all delegates at the Women in Asia Conference which is currently being held at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Now to a new piece of religions music which has just won international acclaim. Local Melbourne pianist and composer, Wendy Morrison, has just been awarded a prize by the Onassis Foundation for her composition Stabat Mater. The Stabat Mater is a 14th century Latin poem which describes the feeling of Mary as she stands at the foot of the cross.
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