Friday, June 10, 2005

UnSecret Womens Business (Part II)

On Saturday May 28 2005, I attended a second consultation, this one organised by the Muslim Women’s National Network of Australia (MWNNA). The Network, like the MWA, does some superb work. But its focus is not so much on welfare issues as on education and policy development.

The Network has some fabulously educated and articulate women. At the helm, holding an informal position of Chief, is the former MWA apparatchik Mrs Azizah Abdel Halim. Azizah has lived in Australia since probably before I was born, and she hails from Egypt. She still has a delightful Egyptian accent, and her English is much more fluent than my 'strayan'. Azizah is a school teacher by profession.

I am not sure how old Azizah is, and I am too embarrassed to ask. Age is hardly a question one would ask a woman regardless of her faith. However, I would estimate from her appearance that she is probably in her mid-30’s. Perhaps I should propose to her? Nah, better not. Her husband and daughters might become a bit upset.

People tell me Azizah is in her 60’s. If they are correct, she is yet another example of a Sydney Muslim activist who refuses to retire. Which is a good thing, because there is so much work to be done in this crazy town.

Azizah presided over the MWNNA for years since her defection from the MWA. Exactly what happened all those years ago remains controversial. Since then, there hasn’t been much love lost between the two organisations. But generally they stay out of each other’s way. Women are always much more civilised about these things.

Azizah is surrounded by some extraordinarily talented women. There is Jamila Hussain, a legal academic from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Anyone who meets Jamila will find her name and her appearance do not quite match. Jamila is about as anglo-Australian as one could be. She lives in the Blue Mountains and is the proud mother of five boys. Her late husband, may God shower him with His mercy, was of Malay origin.

Then there is Faikah Baherdien, a South African “Cape coloured” of mixed (but mainly Malay) ancestry. Faikah has a background in private sector management. She seriously rocks when she makes a presentation, and her loosely-fitting hijab reminds me of Benazir Bhutto. Hopefully, she will not be offended by that comparison.

Which brings me to another characteristic of the Network. They really seriously don’t mind if you don’t wear pieces of cloth on your head. They also do not put you through a test on the orthodoxy or otherwise of your beliefs and views. In fact, I am confident that, were I do undergo some “Shocking Asia” surgery in somewhere like Thailand, I’d be welcome to join the Network notwithstanding my weird and crazy ideas on too many things.

And before you think the Network is just Sydney-based, you really need to check out the Bowater School of Management & Marketing at the Burwood (no, not in Sydney) campus of Deakin University. There, you might be fortunate enough to bump into Nasya Bahfen. Originally from Indonesia, this Melbournite has a CV that makes me feel like Irshad Manji or some other 3rd rate amateur journo. She currently works as an associate lecturer in business communication and holds the portfolio of Project Manager at the Network.

There are so many other amazing women who work with the Network. I met up with a number of them at their community consultation on the issue of women in mosques. Now I know many of you will be wondering why anyone needs to be consulted on this issue. But seriously, there is a problem. Mosques seem to be no-go zones for women. It’s as if most have been built on parts of Australia declared no-woman’s land.

The Network are trying to deal with this touchy issue by consulting with Muslim men, especially imams and mosque management committee members. The Network invited just about every imam on earth to turn up. No one came. Neither did any mosque committee members (apart from the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque who hosted the event).

The closest thing they got to mosque committee activists was a medical practitioner associated with the so-called “Ahl as-Sunnah wal Jamaah Association”. This gentleman acknowledged the problem and agreed to talk to imams in his group about it. When he mentioned the name of one of his imams (one Shaykh Faiz Mohamed), I could see Network women around the room desperately trying to restrain themselves.

Finally, after a few more mentions of Shaykh Faiz (the ASJA spokesman must have been enjoying it), Azizah could not help herself. She audibly whispered words to the effect of: “He is not an imam. He has no respect for women. He has no scholarly credentials”. The doctor then felt unrestrained and started defending Shaykh Faiz. At that stage, the whole room erupted in roars of condemnation about the comments the Shaykh made on rape and women’s dress. The doctor quickly shut his mouth, realising that any further mention of the shaykh would not be good for his health.

Many useful suggestions were made by participants. Afroz Ali from the al-Ghazali Centre for Islamic Sciences & Human Development (a mouthful at the best of times) suggested that not only should imams be consulted but also persons who do not hold the position of imam but actively engage in teaching young people.

Some clumsily-dressed overweight Indian lawyer also suggested that as the problem is not so much religion as culture, perhaps the focus should be on secular cultural icons at work in Muslim communities such as non-English newspapers and ‘ethnic’ radio journalists. In doing so, he came close to suggesting that the entire project might be focussed on consulting the wrong people. Thankfully, someone handed him a plate of Turkish biscuits and he quickly shut up.

So what do we learn from all this? One lesson is to never get into an argument with a Muslim woman. She will knock you out quick-smart. Muslim women are some of the most outspoken and articulate persons of the female persuasion on this planet.

Also, Muslim women are as diverse as Muslim men. They practise different cultures and speak different languages and have differing degrees of religiosity. Don’t be surprised if the Muslim woman you meet for the first time does not wear a piece of cloth on her head. And don’t be surprised if the one that does wear it also has a PhD in the neuro-psycho-pharmo-toxicological aspects of Deepak Chopra’s work or some other subject I am too stupid to understand and appreciate.

Finally, Muslim women are usually far more civilised than Muslim men. Here are two Muslim women’s organisations that do not often see eye-to-eye. Yet they have an attitude of live and let live. They realise that so much work needs to be done that there is probably room for 25 more Muslim women’s groups. Unlike our stupid male-dominated Islamic councils in NSW, these organisations spend their meagre resources on their members and on providing services, not on futile legal battles over who has the right to rule the roost.

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005

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