Shabana, Natasha and the Spade onlooker

Director’s Note

Femin Ijtihad is a fascinating project. I remember back when it was an organization of just three law students. Today it has grown to become an international endeavor, pulling together more than thirty researchers from all over the world. We have a bubbling database of more than 250 academic articles and informational tools on Muslim women’s rights. At one time, inspired, I worked hard at creating this organization. Now I feel, it is creating me; expanding the lens in which I describe, relate to and critique the experiences of Muslim women and defining for myself, my role as an activist and exactly how I recognize and  can help to strengthen Muslim women’s agency through the research F.I. selects and disseminates.

Anecdote

I founded Femin Ijtihad in late 2007, at the onset of my second year at Warwick Law School in United Kingdom. I was 19 years old at the time and had a voracious appetite for activist and academic scholarship on women’s rights and activism. Particularly fascinated by the concept of Ijtihad, I wanted to carry out an interactive study that would engage participants in a practical exercise of Ijtihad. I wanted to carry out this study in Kabul. My choice of Afghanistan stemmed from a long-time passion and love for the country. I was 13 years old when I had first read an article titled ‘Strangers to Freedom’ which narrated an account of a young Afghan girl around my age and her clandestine attendance at an underground school during the reign of the Taliban. I was very moved by this piece. Very, very moved. It troubled me for many months. Two years later I sponsored an Afghan child and her family whom I began to develop a very sweet relationship with. We would write to each other and she send me many of her pretty drawings. At the age of 17 years, I took a long journey to Afghanistan alone, in the absence of my parents’ knowledge to see her and understand her country. Since then I travel to Kabul annually to volunteer with children and education projects (programming, teaching and fund-raising) and document women’s legal activism with the recent drafting of the law on violence against women and the family.

History

Femin Ijtihad was conceived during my 2007 trip to Afghanistan where I independently designed and carried out a 2 month field research into the construction of the rape law in Afghanistan. This research involved the participation of 30 judges, MPs, activists, professors and lawyers in Kabul through focus-group discussions, role play, and questionnaires. The research was designed as an exercise of Ijtihad where the participants and I engaged in a critical analysis of Islamic law and jurisprudence in order to derive a more gender-equitable interpretation and application of Islamic law in cases of rape and adultery.

During the entire duration of this engagement, I was afflicted by the challenges faced by Afghan activists. There was a lack of access to gender-equitable scholarship on Islamic law that could provide essential knowledge tools to lobby for changes in law and practises. The wave of legal reforms that took place in many other Muslim countries from the 1970s onwards seemed to have neglected Afghanistan. At the time, large parts of Afghanistan was still plagued by civil war and double-crossing politics of the former Soviet Union, Pakistan and the United States.  Unlike where I had come from, there were few bookshops, research institutions and archives that provided texts exploring alternative notions of gendered relations in Islamic texts and gender-equitable interpretations of Islamic criminal and family law. At the appeal of an activist, working for Global Rights at the time, I decided to start a project at my Law School to increase the accessibility of such scholarship to a wider audience, and especially to activists and organizations who really needed them. We were also going to do this pro bono.

The organization was first established at the University of Warwick in 2008.

F.I.’s Innovation

F.I.’s research methods are designed to bridge the gap between academic scholarship and activism. I think there is a wealth of ideas and arguments that if appropriately and sensitively reframed, can inform better activism (in terms of activists’ and organizational approach to development work, program design and strategies). F.I. through our written and spoken discourse tries to encourage others to look beyond the presentation of facts and arguments and identify how the article may be significant to existing social and legal activism.

In addition, unlike many existing women’s rights organizations, F.I.’s research premises on a recognition of the historical fact of Muslim women’s defiance and resistance, a fact that has been categorically ignored by prevailing literature on Muslim women. We survey and select literature that does not simply describe the situation of Muslim women through the binary of oppressor/oppressed or authority/subservience. The experiences of Muslim women should not be imagined as a consistent homogeneity, unaffected by place, time, and situation. In fact, protest in an incredibly diverse array of manifestations has always been a part of Muslim women’s history. Within the parameters of their socio-economic environment, they have innovatively crafted resistance methods within and against traditional hierarchies, sometimes even with the unrelenting support of men. F.I.’s collection of such scholarship will inspire activists and organizations to develop solutions that work from the perspective of women’s agency as oppose to their victimhood and with the knowledge of local patterns of successful resistance.

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