“God cannot be God if God is not just.” All eyes were on Zainah Anwar as she spoke these words during a human rights conference at The Carter Center in the summer of 2013. One sentence, nine words, embodied the three-day forum on the role of faith in women’s rights.
“I always understood that the different treatment between me and my brother in the home was due to culture and to tradition,” she says, “never religion. But as an adult confronted with issues of domestic violence, polygamy, marital rape, obedience, and all forms of inequality and discrimination in the private and public sphere justified in the name of Islam, I was outraged.”
As it turned out, other Muslim women in her Malaysian community had experienced the same betrayal. So in 1987, a small group began meeting in Anwar’s home to find ways to challenge the laws that discriminated against them. In Malaysia, as in many Muslim countries, the source of Islamic Family Law is the Qur’an. That led the women to engage in scholarly examination of the Qur’an, looking at it with what Anwar calls “adult eyes, feminist eyes.” What they found was liberating, she says.
“We were searching for justice, we were searching for equality, we were searching for compassion, and we found that in the text.”
The group of eight women formed the organization Sisters in Islam. Anwar headed the group, known as SIS, for the next two decades as it grew from a local to a global force promoting an Islam based on justice, freedom, and dignity and challenging laws that demanded women be subservient to men. Says Anwar, “The obvious question arose that if we are equal in the eyes of God, how come we are not equal in the eyes of men?”
Over the years, SIS’s focus on research and advocacy expanded into public education and legal counseling. And Anwar’s most recent cause for celebration is Musawah. The Arabic word for equality, Musawah was intended to be a global meeting, organized by SIS, to bring like-minded Muslims together to discuss gender equality—a “one and done” gathering. But the 250 participants from 47 countries launched a movement, very much alive today, that aims to advance justice and equality at the national, regional, and international level and take on the concept of male authority within Islamic Family Law.
Anwar is focused on the big picture, but she says she rejoices in the small things as well: “To receive letters, e-mails from young people who say that ‘finally I feel comfortable about reconciling my faith, my religion with my feminism’—I’m very, very happy to get those kind of messages.”