Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 77

For me, a young committed Muslim woman, entering
the newly open and receptive masjid felt like stepping
into the warmth of the sunshine after a lifetime of being
concealed in the shadows, a feeling somewhat akin to
voting in my country of birth for the first time. In my
experiential framework, this minority congregation
was boldly embodying a fundamental social justice
imperative that was intrinsic to Islam. However, even as
this act of liberation unfolded, many broader community
contestations of this event were pervaded by
assumptions that women are somehow peculiarly and
inferiorly defined by their bodies and that these female
bodies, in the proximity of men, somehow diminish and
threaten the sacredness of the mosque. Integrating
justice and harmony into both personal and communal
religious spaces constitutes a serious religious challenge
for a number of contemporary Muslims, which is why
women’s free access to central spaces of worship and
women’s ritual leadership remain controversial topics.
Wadud’s khu ba at the Claremont Main Road mosque
was inspirational. Her words were like a glorious, warm
summer rain, drenching us in mercy and radiating all
kinds of existential possibilities. This was a spiritually ripe
sermon, inspired and inspiring, beautiful and beautifying,
luminous and illuminating. She went to the very heart
of the matter, to the understanding of Islam as a state
of engaged surrender in all of our most intimate and
immediate relationships as human beings – marriage,
pregnancy, childbirth – and sites of intimate relationship
to the divine One.
For the first time in my adult life in a public religious
space, I felt myself sincerely validated as a Muslim
woman. While some sectors of the South African
Muslim community enthusiastically hailed the event,
other segments of that community became incensed.
The resulting conflict reflected fierce struggles
regarding Muslim understandings of sexuality, sacrality,
and human embodiment.
Contemporary gender politics relating to Islam is not
restricted to the issue of women imams or internal
differences within the Muslim world. Wide-ranging
geopolitical dynamics and ideological contestations
are played out on the bodies of Muslim women.
Representations of Muslim women vacillate between
dominant Western images of Muslim women as
oppressed, and apologist Islamist images of Muslim
women as the only truly liberated women.
The debates on both sides are often simplistic, rigidly
formulated, authoritarian, ideologically loaded, and
contingent on the political forces of the day. Examples
abound. French public schools prohibit Muslim women
from wearing head scarves ( ijāb), ostensibly as a marker
of a secular society; conversely, postrevolutionary Iran
imposes the ijāb as a symbol of authentic Islamic
identity. US politicians strategically invoked the plight
of Afghani women as a way to build public support for
the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, yet
are notably silent about the Saudi regime’s appalling
women’s rights record as a result of the two countries’
intimate political–economic relationship. In many
parts of the Muslim world, notions of gender equality
are often interwoven with larger postcolonial identity
struggles about indigenous values, cultural allegiances,
and loyalties and disloyalties.
The global context for discussions of gender justice
and Islam is, therefore, ideologically fraught with
contestations of the nature of religion, law and
secularism; citizenship, identity and empire; freedom,
equality and self-expression. Many antagonists in these
debates share the assumption that Islam is a monolithic
religion with a singular, all-embracing gender paradigm.
Such generalisations not only belie the complex varying
realities of contemporary Muslim women, but also ignore
the rich diversity of the Islamic tradition that is informed
by the mélange of Arab, Turkic, Persian, Andalusian,
African, and South Asian histories and cultures.
Gender dynamics among Muslims are as complex
and polymorphous as the realities of women (and
even men, for that matter) in other religious, social
and political contexts. While there are undoubtedly
universal aspects within Islam that fall within a
cohesive religious category, this unity is mostly
accompanied by myriad diversities.
Excerpt from Sufi Narratives of Intimacy by
Associate Professor Sa’diyya Shaikh. The book,
published by University of North Carolina Press,
won the UCT Book Award in 2015. Image of Sa’diyya
Shaikh by Michael Hammond.
Gender 72

Sufi Narratives of Intimacy

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