Sabbiyah Pervez is 23, a British Muslim with Pakistani heritage, a graduate in Philosophy and Politics and a feminist. She was part of Channel 4’s series Make Bradford British.
[To the reader: A quick reiteration – the aim of the Faith In Feminism project is simply to represent the many diverse expressions of feminism that exist. For every interview representing one perspective, a counter perspective will follow in a future interview. The views we publish are those of our contributors and in publishing them we are in no way affirming nor rejecting their viewpoint, simply showcasing them.]
VB: Tell us a little more about yourself.
SP: I recently graduated from the University of Manchester. I’m now the Operations Manager of Inspire, a human rights and gender equality organisation and an avid blogger.
VB: You were part of Channel 4’s Make Bradford British series. What drew you to be part of that?
SP: Since the July bombings Muslims have been seen negatively by a lot of the media. Veiled Muslim women in particular are perceived to be a symbol of oppression. This portrayal goes against everything I believe. My goal was, through the programme, to say “The view that you’re getting is a misconception. Islam does not say that – it’s just the people you’re talking to, the extremists, or those with a very limited understanding of the faith that are not giving the right interpretation.’ I wanted to present a different voice.
VB: Do you believe Islam and feminism are compatible?
SP: The two are usually perceived to be incompatible and terms like Muslim feminists appear to be a juxtaposition. I want to challenge this perception and to argue that Islam and feminism are actually very compatible! I purposefully describe myself as a Muslim feminist because I believe my religion liberates me in places where culture and society would otherwise oppress and restrict me.
VB: Do you like the term ‘feminist’? What does it mean to you?
SP: We need to stop being afraid of using it – it’s not a dirty word. If you care about the rights of women and equality (in my opinion every woman does,) then you are a feminist. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no specific criteria you need to meet in order to qualify as a feminist. You just simply need to want women to be equal. And if you don’t want the latter then you’re sexist. It’s as simple as that. My Dad was the first feminist I knew.
VB: Why do you think some religions gain a misogynistic reputation?
SP: I, like many other children of Pakistani migrants, was raised with a cultural and somewhat tribal Islam. An Islam that has become polluted and ugly by its affiliation with misogynistic cultural practices. Culture is fascinating and it adds a considerable amount to one’s identity. There are good and bad aspects; it’s those bad cultural practices that are oppressive. They are compounded by media presentations of those practices – I did my dissertation on Muslims in the media.
VB: So the distinction between religion and culture is an important one to make?
SP: Yes. The amalgamation of both culture and religion has become so intense that it is very hard to see the distinction. I only began to see the difference when I studied for myself what my God given rights were. It was then that I realised how beautiful a religion Islam was – and how utterly empowering it is for women.
VB: Do you think that’s a common view?
SP: No. People hearing this will probably be dumbfounded; why wouldn’t you be?! After all, you are constantly bombarded with are images of veiled women looking oppressed and utterly miserable. Islam is always deemed to be the cause of such subjugation. It is not the religion that is oppressive but the interpretation of the religion.
VB: How does the Quran fit in?
SP: The beauty of the Quran is that in certain cases, there is no right or wrong and anyone can interpret what they read how they wish. Because of this we have a variety of interpretations, none of which are wrong. But the interpreter will believe his interpretation is valid – and so will seek to impose it on the community of Muslims around him.
VB: So you feel that interpreting the texts should be handled more open-mindedly?
SP: Yes. What we forget is that that every interpretation is open to critical analysis, and most importantly is fallible. I believe that this is where the method of using Islamic text as a means to restrict women stems from. The majority of people will not study Islam, its rules, laws, the Quran… Practically not everyone can, it takes a long time, so they will rely on someone else to educate them on the nitty gritty aspects of the religion.
VB: So anyone who doesn’t study for themselves could be at risk of believing incorrect interpretations? Women especially?
SP: Yes I believe that this is the problem. When you have men who are somewhat misogynistic and do not perceive women as equals – and these men are being elevated into positions of teachers and educators – you are perpetuating a misogynistic ideology. Now when that ideology is taught, who can question it? Only those who have the same level of knowledge! But not everyone has that, so the interpretation and rulings are accepted with minimal challenge.
VB: And it perpetuates itself?
SP: Right. It is then passed on and passed on through subsequent generations…until someone actually questions it. But because it has been occurring for so long, people will shrug their shoulders and continue on blindly. Even if the new ideas create better equality or highlight the flaws in the first interpretation, it will be the former that attracts the most criticism because it is a change of a long tradition of thought. It will be a change that many will not welcome.
VB: What, in your opinion, does the Quran say that is good news for women?
SP: In Islam a woman has many many rights; over property, to education, to wealth, over her family, rights and duties to her community. Time and time again the Quranic verse states “to believing men and women,” constantly reinforcing that they are equals. It is not addressed specifically to men.
VB: Are there women in Islamic history that inspire you?
SP: Totally. Our history is full of fierce, feisty educated and empowered muslim women. We have Khadija, spouse of the Prophet, peace be upon him (PBUH). She was a successful business woman. She even proposed to the Prophet in a society where that was taboo and it is still very uncommon today. Today we have great women who have followed in that example – my personal inspiration is Amina Wadud.
VB: Any other favourites from history?
SP: We have the example of Aisha, the second wife of the Prophet PBUH, who is famous for her vast knowledge on Islamic jurisprudence and sayings of the Prophet. Such was her knowledge that is recorded that men used to congregate to learn from her! We also have the example of Nusayba, one of the first female Muslim warriors whose courage was unmatched. There are hundreds more of these inspiring women – I’d need to compile a thesis in order to do them all justice!
Whilst growing up my Dad taught me a lot about my heritage – I grew up hearing stories of strong muslim women who had dedicated their lives to aiding their societies; women like Fatima Jinnah, the younger sister of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. She was a dental surgeon, a biographer and stateswoman. She dedicated her life to the political struggle of Pakistan.
VB: Do they encourage you to see feminism and the Muslim faith as compatible?
SP: They do. I refuse to accept any ruling or any statement arguing that Islam is incompatible with feminism. From just the three examples I have provided, it is ridiculous that some Muslim men and women use Islam to restrict or prevent their daughters from getting educated, or working. By doing so they are insulting a rich history of great women.
I think today it is tough to be a woman fighting for your rights, because you are fighting a battle on so many fronts. It’s not just against the men who don’r want to see you empowered but also the women who have for so long participated in a cycle of oppression. Many fail to see the struggle against the latter – you would be astounded by some of the attitudes held by muslim women. The struggle for equality and empowerment is not just a battle against sexist men, it is a lot more complex then that unfortunately.
VB: How does the Prophet fit into this?
SP: In my opinion, the Prophet of God was the first feminist of Islam. He paved a way towards female emancipation through his treatment of women. He gave the example of the perfect husband who cared, helped and protected his wives and daughters. He also fought against the patriarchal customs of the time – such as the common burial of daughters at birth.
VB: What else did he teach about women’s equality?
SP: It was the Prophet PBUH who declared that a forced marriage was invalid in the eyes of God. It was him who said that bearing and raising daughters would grant you a place in paradise in order to counter the preference of sons. It was the Prophet who emphasized the need to educate both men and women equally.
VB: Where can we find this teaching in the Quran?
SP: God lays out the equality of women in the Quran stating :”I shall not lose sight of the labor of any of you who labours in My way, be it man or woman; each of you is equal to the other “(3:195). If God has emphasised equality of women and if He has specified the rights of women, then I will not allow any man (or woman for that matter) to tell me otherwise.
VB: What are your views on head coverings?
SP: On the Channel 4 programme this came up. We were in the living area having a discussion about the burka and the veil. I explained that even though I don’t necessarily agree with it, I completely uphold the human rights of an individual to choose whether they should wear it or not. I think a lot of the other contributors had come in with the idea that it should be banned. By the end of the discussion they were saying, ‘Yeah, we don’t agree with it, but we understand why it should be offered as a right.’ One of them said to me afterwards that my explanations had helped him understand it all better. It’s important to me to be able to practise my religion – to be able to walk down the street with a scarf on my head, if I choose to wear one, and not expect to be called a “Paki”. That’s my civil right.
VB: How can beliefs about the incompatibility of Islam and feminism be changed?
SP: I would argue that the biggest challenge is educating Muslim women and men about their rights. For so long Muslim women have been taught that their role is to be mothers and wives; that their husbands have certain rights over them; that it is a woman’s duty to be chaste and to guard herself against the sexual urges felt by men. Women have come to believe this ideology to such an extent that they feel responsible not only for their actions but also for the actions of the men around them. If we educate our sons, husbands, fathers and brothers that they have to treat women equally and with respect; that they have to value their opinion and worth, it can help make a small difference in ending this cycle of misogynistic attitudes.
VB: What would that look like on a day to day basis?
SP: I would argue that the most effective method is through example… If boys see their Fathers helping out and respecting their mothers and sisters they will adapt that attitude. If daughters see their Fathers participating in household chores, being loving they will expect the same when they come to look for a husband. I come from a family of six daughters – culturally many would see this as a great disadvantage because we have no brothers. But my parents are awesome. My mum and dad were very passionate about educating us so that we could learn life skills and be independent. My dad is a very successful businessman and plays an integral part in the community politics but he always made time for me and my sisters, he’s the best cook and a great motivator.
VB: Do you think your Father’s example had an impact on what you looked for in a husband?
SP: Yes. When I married my husband, I had high expectations of him because of the example set by my Dad. This is the kind of pattern and example we need to set and follow.
VB: Is changing the views about women in Islam where you want to focus your voice?
SP: Yes. Urgent re-education of rights and responsibilities is needed. The challenge lies in igniting a feminist movement where the misogynistic practices are challenged, analysed constructively and replaced with more researched, balanced equal doctrines as specified in the Quran. The interpretations we have now are biased, but that is expected – each interpreter will bring his/her baggage with him. What is required is a analysis of that interpretation so that it doesn’t remain unchecked. It has also to be accepted that interpretations are fallible. That should be seen as a great asset; that views and beliefs are open to challenge. It is this that will enable a great pluralistic society – one that essentially empowers and enriches its women.