Presentation by Ms. Alia Hogben, Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women

Monday, October 25 2010

Presentation by Ms. Alia Hogben, Executive Director
Canadian Council of Muslim Women
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
Plenary Assembly 2010
October 25, 2010

I greet you with the Muslim greeting – As salaamu alaikum – Peace be with you, and with the invocation – Bismillah ur Rahman ur Raheem – in the name of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent.

You have kindly invited me to speak with you – not about Islam – but more specifically to speak from my perspective of being a Muslim woman, and about the challenges facing Muslims. You have also asked that I speak on some social justice issues which are shared between Catholics and Muslims, and how we can work together as faith communities.

Some may say that it has always been difficult to be a Muslim living in the West, but I think the current situation for us Muslims is more fraught with challenges.

One of the challenges is the historical relationship between Christians [West] and Muslims, regarding religious as well as political differences.

As you know, besides the Crusades, most of the Muslim majority countries were colonized and remained stagnant for centuries. This was further exacerbated by the willfulness of colonial powers to cut up geographic areas, unmindful of the people living in those regions. This is still a factor in the Middle East.

The other challenge is that when freedom came to these countries, the high hopes of the people were destroyed by their own corrupt and totalitarian governments, which led to bitterness and resentment. It seemed to many that the only alternative was Islam and an Islamic state. But this is not a solution as can be seen in the examples of Iran, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, for it has brought neither freedoms, nor democracies, nor prosperity to the people. But the use of religion for political means continues to thrive.

The machinations of Western neo-colonialism have added fuel to the fire of anger and resentment which resulted in the horrors of 9/11.

Even in Canada, we are heavily affected by that part of the message of “Political Islam” which is the interpretation of Islam as rigid, conservative, literalist and intolerant. This message is conveyed with lots of funding from the conservatives of countries such as Saudi Arabia, and is part of our reality in Canada.

I know this kind of conservative interpretation is not limited to Muslims, for example, it is in Hinduism and Christianity, but as a believing woman who values equality and egalitarianism, it is very difficult to fight against a message which teaches otherwise.

The Quran, revealed in 7th century, was revolutionary and dramatically altered the world view of the Arabs – belief in an indivisible, unique God, in the brotherhood of humankind, and in the teachings about women. Women are seen as equals in the sight of God, held accountable for their own actions and given rights which were remarkable in the 7th century. I like sharing the story that in Islam a woman is a person in her own right, while in Canada a woman became a Person in 1928.

However, revolutionary though it was, the Quran accepted the patriarchal structure of the society and the family – which has continued to be a controversial and difficult concept to challenge. Without going into the theological issues of how one can question the Word of God, as revealed in the Quran, many of us have great difficulty in accepting this structure of society and particularly in the family.

For me as a believing woman I have to know that God recognizes me as fully human, equal to others, with dignity and respect.

The issue with patriarchy is that it defines a hierarchal system of roles, with fathers as dominant. It positions men over women and husbands over wives and children. This male centeredness sees the man as the bearer of authority, power and value. He is the norm of being fully human, and thus women can never gain this standing simply from the fact of being a woman. Patriarchy does not foster equality of men and women which is reflected in the way our societies and families live.

I know I speak in general terms because I am well aware that not all men are equal and there is yet another hierarchy based on race or class.

It is because of a patriarchal system that man has the unilateral power to divorce the wife; children belong to the father’s family; men can practice polygamy, the leadership in places of worship belongs to the male, and often women are put into the position of being dependent.

I do understand that patriarchy is embedded in all major religions and I know that the Bible also accepts the patriarchal model, with many of the Biblical teachings being similar to those in the Quran. For example final authority rests with the male head of the family; husbands have the right to divorce; a man has to marry his brother’s widow; and so on. But I am not here to speak about the other religious texts as I have enough to deal with in my own faith!

There are some significant differences between the Bible and the Quran, and one important difference is in the story of creation. In the Quran, the woman and the man are said to be created from the same soul –nafs – and there is even controversy amongst scholars as to who was created first. God places the couple in Eden with the warning of the tree. In the Quran, it is BOTH who are tempted and both are removed from Eden. Further, there is no concept of original sin, so there is no additional blame placed on the woman.
Feminist scholars have taken the creation story to demonstrate that women are the equal of men, and that the Quran should be seen as an evolving, organic and living text. This means there is room for flexibility in our understanding of its teachings.

I want to be clear that being equal does not mean being the same. Of course there are different physical characteristics of being male or female, but what equality means is to be treated in the same manner, to have access to opportunities, to have the freedom to make choices not bound by gender only.

In discussing the possibility of change in our understanding of our sacred texts, I give you the example of slavery, which is not eliminated in the Quran. The Quran insists that slaves should be treated well and be freed, which of course implies that there have to be slaves to be freed. But no one would defend slavery now just because it is permitted in the Quran or the Bible.

If we can abolish slavery as demeaning to the person’s humanity, can we not see that denying equality affects both slaves and women as well? No one becomes more human by depriving others of their full humanity.

The other challenges for us, as newer Canadians, are about adaptation and accommodation. We have some critical questions to consider, for example:

There are major challenges such as poverty, hunger, wars, and child welfare, and Catholics and Muslims can certainly work on these together, in Canada and around the world.

Even while accepting our theological differences, we have a lot in common. Both of us believe in compassion and in our fundamental value of treating others as we would like them to treat us. We can join hands to fight against wars and their repercussions; we can help with poverty, racism and discrimination. We can ensure that all people are treated with equality as a guiding principle.

I know it is difficult to reach beyond the borders of our individual faith communities and to strive towards our common humanity, but we must try to accept diversity and find the shared values.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you openly from my perspective as a believing woman who happens to be Muslim. You and I share the belief in a Divine Presence who is compassionate and merciful.

I conclude with the greeting one of my dear Catholic friend gives to me – pax et caritas. Thank you.

Alia Hogben.

Biblical Quotes: Final authority Exod 21:3 and 22. Father decides for daughter’s marriage Exod 22:17.
Brother to marry brother’s widow Deut 25:5-6. Husband’s right to divorce Deut 24:1-4.
Office of high priest restricted to men Exod 28:29.
NewTestament Gal 3:26-29. Matt 19:7-8. Gen2:24. Matt 19:3-9. Cor 6:16. Eph 5:31.

United Church “So that we may know each other.”

Jonas Abromaitis. Josephine Lombardi.
Father Damian MacPherson., Father Joseph Horrigan.