Several months ago, when a group of Spanish Muslims approached city officials here about sponsoring a conference on Islamic feminism, one responded, "Isn't that an oxymoron?" That's what many people believe. To conservative Muslims, the phrase is an insult to Islam. But to many moderate Muslims -- and I count myself among them -- an Islamic feminist movement fits with the religion's early teachings and offers one of our best hopes for countering extremism. Indeed, those of us who have joined the movement since it emerged in the 1990s have come to understand that Islam needs to go back to its progressive 7th-century roots if it is to move forward into the 21st century.
How difficult that is -- and how important -- became clear to me when I joined the first International Congress on Islamic Feminism, which was held in this Spanish city just over a week ago. When the floor was opened for questions during one session, a young Muslim man made the comment I've heard so often: "In Islam, there is no place for feminism. . . . " Sitting on the dais, where I had just chronicled our successful struggle to integrate some U.S. mosques, I took it in stride. I've become accustomed to belittling comments, even death threats. But what happened next stunned me.
From the middle of the audience of some 250 women and men, Amina Wadud, a Muslim scholar of Islamic studies who calls herself "a pro-faith feminist," stood up. "You are out of order," she said to the man. "What you are doing is exactly the kind of thing that we are here to be able to stop." The audience broke into cheers. Another Muslim man tried to protest. I interrupted him. "We're changing history today," I said. "We're not going to shut up."
What stunned me was not only the confidence with which we spoke but the willingness of the group to back us -- 12 Muslim women scholars and activists who had been invited to attend the conference by a small but ambitious group of largely Spanish Muslim converts, the moderate Catalan Islamic Board.
The force of our collective effort convinced me that we have the strength to challenge the men's club that defines most of the Muslim world. It was an affirmation of the commitment that had brought me and the 11 other participants here from as far away as Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, France, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and refugee camps in the disputed territory of Western Sahara to share stories from the trenches in the "gender jihad." We Muslim feminists view it as a struggle that taps Islamic theology, thinking and history to reclaim rights granted to women by Islam at its birth but erased by manmade rules and tribal traditions masquerading as divine law.
In the communities where we live, we have begun challenging customs that deny women rights from the mosque to the bedroom: gender segregation, mandatory veiling, forced early marriages, clitorectomies, polygamy, death for sex outside of marriage, domestic violence and strict domestic roles. We have many Muslim men on our side: The chief organizer of the conference was a man, Abdennur Prado, who hustled nonstop behind the scenes. And we are taking a lead from Christian and Jewish women who are generations ahead of us today in their efforts to challenge traditions that block them from the workplace, the political arena and the pulpit.
To many, we are the bad girls of Islam. But we are not anti-sharia (Islamic law) or anti-Islam. We use the fundamentals of Islamic thinking -- the Koran, the Sunnah, or traditions and sayings of the prophet Muhammad, and ijtihad, or independent reasoning -- to challenge the ways in which Islam has been distorted by sharia rulings issued mostly by ultraconservative men.
We are wrestling with laws created in the name of Islam by men, specifically eight men. The Muslim world of the 21st century is largely defined by eight madhhabs, or Islamic schools of jurisprudence, with narrow rulings on everything from criminal law to family law: the Shafi, Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali schools in the majority Sunni sect; the Jafari and Zaydi schools, for the minority Shiite sect; and the Ibadi and Thahiri schools among other Muslims. But the first centuries of Islam's 1,400-year history were quite different -- characterized by scores of schools of jurisprudence, many progressive and women-friendly. It is not Islam that requires women to wear a headscarf, but rather the scholars in the contemporary schools.
To many of the women I spoke with, their struggle to move Islam forward by reaching back to its past represents nothing short of a revolution. "This is a global struggle," says Valentine Moghadam, a native of Iran and the chief of the gender equality and development section of UNESCO in Paris. She sees the movement as an important response to "frustration with Islamic fundamentalism." And there is no doubt in my mind, either: The kind of ideology that willingly subjugates women can also foster hatred.
From the dais, activists dressed in everything from Parisian fashion to traditional African batik offered powerful stories of regional reform. From Malaysia, Zainah Anwar, executive director of the Sisters in Islam (dubbed "Satan in Islam" by conservatives), laid out a strategy for reforming Islamic family law in her country, by, for example, educating women about their right to refuse forced marriages. And like others, she is looking beyond her country's borders for support. The group's newsletter is being funded by the successful multinational cosmetics company the Body Shop. And the group is calling Moroccan legal experts to Malaysia next February to educate local leaders about the progressive family reforms that Morocco passed last year. This month, Anwar and other Sisters in Islam leaders will go to England to swap strategies with 10 Muslim women's groups.
In some local areas, groups like Anwar's have begun to see success. Peeking over her laptop and occasionally adjusting the flowing white head scarf she chooses to wear, Djingarey Maiga, the chief of a Mali-based group called Women and Human Rights, explained how she started a rural radio program in her country to promote women's rights. And BAOBAB, a Nigerian group founded in 1996, made headlines in 2003 when it helped win a victory for Amina Lawal, the mother sentenced to be stoned to death for having a baby outside of marriage. Mufuliat Fijabi, a senior program officer at BAOBAB, told us how a conservative sharia judge broke with tradition not long ago to oppose marital rape after going through training provided by his organization. One Nigerian imam, after hearing BAOBAB's message encouraging ijtihad surprised BAOBAB organizers by following up and encouraging Muslims to consider alternative schools of thought.
The challenge isn't just in poor villages in Nigeria or Mali. It's in the wealthy and supposedly well-educated West. In 2003, I set off a debate over the rights of Muslim women when I wrote in The Post's Outlook section about walking through the front door of my hometown mosque in Morgantown, W.Va., and praying in the main hall, thus defying an order that women enter through a back door and pray in a secluded balcony. Since then, I've been harassed in mosques from New York City to Seattle for refusing to accept separate quarters. After almost two years of public campaigning with other women, the country's major Muslim organizations, including the Islamic Society of North America, issued a 28-page report in July titled, "Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers: Working Together to Reclaim Our Heritage," recommending reform, including an affirmative action program to get women on mosque boards.
Our movement also caused a stir earlier this year when Wadud led a congregation of about 125 women and men in a New York prayer service. As the chief organizer, I wondered what the impact of her action would be as I unfurled the massive roll of carpet I'd purchased from the ABC home furnishing store to serve as our prayer rug. Many clerics around the world attacked us at fiery Friday sermons for undermining our religion, and Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi claimed that our prayer "creates millions of bin Ladens" by challenging male authority. We're up against a formidable machinery of opposition, but we're convinced that now is the moment to coordinate the legal and policy reforms that Islamic feminism is promoting. Initially, I thought it was time for a new madhhab. But Islamic scholars have persuaded me that that would be too limiting. We need to focus instead on broad societal initiatives.
We see our struggle as part of a wider peace jihad. It was a national Islamic leader who oversees the Catalan Islamic Board, Mansur Escudero, who issued the first fatwa against Osama bin Laden, months before U.S. Muslim organizations issued their own. The organizers of the conference say they don't Vaccept support from Saudi Arabia, which has funded much of the spread of ultraconservative Islamic orthodoxy in the world.
At the Barcelona conference, I proposed a plan called "The Islamic Dream" -- an effort to connect our disparate efforts and develop a new approach for Islam in the 21st century. I would like to see us organize a summit of Islam's progressive thinkers to establish the terms of reform and define a 20-year plan to transform our world. That is where we are headed.
During Wadud's presentation on one of the last days of the conference, a Spanish American woman stood up and asked: "Would you lead us in prayer today?" Wadud assented. A group of about 30 Muslims gathered in a hotel conference room to pray behind her, men and women standing shoulder to shoulder -- grounds for banishment in mosques around the world. A Pakistani Canadian activist, Raheel Raza, ran to join the line, not far from a Pakistani American scholar, Asma Barlas, dubbed one of "the mothers of Islamic feminism." Together, we opened our hands as Wadud prayed, "We ask for Your protection."
Our prayer complete, we declared with one voice, "Ameen." "Please accept."
Asra Nomani, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is the author of the book "Standing Alone in Mecca" (HarperSanFrancisco).