Opinion

My personal journey to Sisters in Islam

Ratna Osman

Ratna Osman is the Executive Director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a Muslim women’s NGO committed to promoting an understanding of Islam that recognises the principles of Justice, Equality, Freedom and Dignity within a democratic nation state. Her work at SIS includes creating public awareness and advocating for reform in laws and policies.

APRIL 5 — I come from a modern middle-class family and, like most Malays, my religious identity is inextricably intertwined with the cultural traditions and rituals that were embedded in my daily life.

My siblings and I attended compulsory Quran-reading classes until we were 12. Growing up, I watched my father and my only brother receive special treatment at home in comparison to the girls.

For example, my mother would have to serve my father his glass of water while he sat reading the newspaper or watching TV, even if she herself was feeling tired after having cooked three meals a day and tending to six small children.

The significance of being a Muslim did not impact me until I attended an Islamic course in school at the age of 15. After the course, I longed to feel closer to God and therefore vowed to observe the five prayer times daily and unerringly.

I wanted to be the “anak solehah”, for I was taught that if I was not, then God would punish my parents for my sins. My teachers also made me believe that I had to put on the headscarf, and if I did not my parents would be at the receiving end of God’s wrath.

In addition, it was imparted to me that as a good Muslim girl, I should not assert myself — that speaking softly was a requirement so as not to draw too much attention to oneself. According to my educators, my voice, body and hair possessed the power to lead men astray... and should this lead to their “downfall” then it would be my fault entirely.

Naturally, I exhibited a high level of piety after imbibing all those guilt-imposing lectures.

I so wanted to be identified as  a good, pious Muslim girl that I obeyed my educators when they insisted that I give up all the activities that I used to love: in particular the sporting ones and becoming a member of the Scouts group. I was even told to minimise contact with close friends who were non-Muslims!

To fill the social gap, I immersed myself in books on religion, attended courses which deepened my religious knowledge and sought solace through prayer. I idolised Muslim scholars and authors such as Maududi, Maryam Jameelah, Hassan al-Banna, Hassan Turabi, and Sayed Qutb... and even sought answers by turning to the lessons being advocated by various Muslim-based youth groups which were popular at the time of my youth.

I stumbled upon true knowledge only later when I studied law at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan. I learned about the rich diversity that exists within Islamic jurisprudence, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that differences of opinions between the ulama were celebrated, that these differing viewpoints were neither frowned upon nor were the proponents persecuted.

Still, I was bursting with so many questions especially when it came to the issue of “inheritance”: why should a son get double the share of a daughter even if it was the daughter who had supported and looked after the parents during the couple’s lifetime?

Many such questions were abruptly shot down by the lecturer on the premise that one is simply not permitted to question the Quran. Instead, I was told that there is hikmah (wisdom) within all God’s revelations, and therefore the inheritance law would remain unchanged no matter how different the concept of reality today is from the time of the Prophet.

Although I felt a searing sense of injustice, I did not object further. Eventually, the list of questions sans satisfactory responses — on issues of polygamy, the freedom to practise one’s religion of choice, the financial maintenance of divorced wives — grew longer.

For me, Islam has always been a religion that is just and fair. Why then were the outcomes for women not so? Why were women shouldering the burden of delayed divorce processes? Why was it so difficult for women to obtain maintenance for themselves and their children from errant husbands? Why, when so many women were now breadwinners within their own families were they receiving less inheritance than their male siblings?

Surely this was not the fate Allah had intended for Muslim women. To be told that women should endure these injustices only to reap the rewards of heaven later was simply too convenient — insufficient to cauterise the pain that some women and children perennially face. Even more disconcerting is that Muslim men and Muslim society in general are complicit in perpetrating this injustice!

After I left the corporate world, I yearned to seek satisfactory answers to these inconsistencies. This led to my applying for a job at Sisters in Islam (SIS). What ensued was an unexpected but welcome surprise. It was within this organisation that I learnt of Islam as a religion which can actively address almost all social issues in modern society.

I had never thought this possible from my former stance which was based on the strict, classical interpretations of the Quran. Through my work at SIS, I am now able to advocate for necessary amendments to the currently existing Islamic Family Laws of my country; I speak out for gender equality, and reject all forms of injustice.

At SIS I learned that it is important to take into consideration socio-historical context when reading the Quran; that both the explicit and implicit messages of the text should be taken into consideration if one wanted to understand and assimilate the holy verses and apply them to daily life. Moreover, not many people realise the difference between syariah and fiqh — the former being God’s divine message; the latter being the interpretation of that message by human beings who are not infallible.

This newfound knowledge gave me the freedom to question all the injustices within issues that had surfaced in my mind ever since I was studying in Islamabad. Finally, it became clear to me that it was never wrong to inquire, to ask why Muslim women were in the predicament that they were in at present.

I read the Quran now from a completely new perspective. To me, this Living Book, which was compiled over 1,400 years ago, is not just a holy manuscript that you wrap in a beautiful cloth and put on a high, special shelf in your home to be respected and revered — I refer to mine often, and it still never ceases to amaze me.

Thus I shall continue with my exhilarating journey at SIS, filled with a renewed sense of pride at being a Muslim woman and confident with the knowledge that I have found a place that best fits my spirit and identity.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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