Our Conversation With Dr. Nora Amath About Feminism, Islam & Interfaith Dialog, Part 2

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In Part 1 of our conversation with the brilliant Dr. Nora Amath from Australia, who is a Muslim woman working with a number of organizations (one of which she co-founded) to begin meaningful discussions with people about Islam, human rights and interfaith dialog, she talked about what it was like living in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The reaction she received from her non-Muslim neighbors and community shocked even her.

In the second part of our interview, which we feel is so timely given the heightened amount of discussions surrounding Islam in a number of countries, we talk to Nora about feminism, why looking at the example of Hitler should compel us to speak loudly against ideological propaganda, and how to have meaningful interfaith dialog with people who are part of different religious organizations.

One of the most awesome aspects about Nora’s work as a Muslim representative of her community, is her partnership with a male, Christian author called Dave Andrews. In the most unlikeliest of allies, Nora works with Dave to talk to people in the Christian as well as Muslim communities in Brisbane, Australia, where they are based not to try and convert or convince anyone to change their beliefs, but to foster a better understanding of their respective beliefs away from mainstream media and politics.

What is the best way a reader can be better informed about moderate Muslims vs the horror we see on the news being linked to Islam by the media and other propaganda?

We are actually quite fortunate now that we do not necessarily need to rely on mainstream media for our information on Islam, nor do we need to have non-Muslims speak on Islam on behalf of Muslims. There are some great alternative sources, including authentic sources written and discussed by intellectual (including leaders) Muslims on issues related to Islam or even lay Muslims who are able to provide their own narratives on how Islam informs their lives.

What are some of the most effective ways of opening up a conversation about Islam, faith and politics in a time when it is so confronting?

Over the years, Dave and I have come up with a framework for how we engage with one another and how we encourage others to engage:

  • create a safe open space with a culture of acceptance that extends more than ‘tolerance’;
  • it expresses respect for our common humanity, which enables people to engage one another authentically, empathetically and appreciatively;
  • listening to one another talk about our faith, learning from each other to grow in our faith;
  • not seeking to convert others to our religion, but all of us seeking to be converted to God, so that we may love God more wholeheartedly, and love our neighbors – not only our friends, but also strangers, even enemies – as ourselves;
  • not judging each other and each other’s traditions;
  • to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

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Why do you think it is important for all people to speak up against fearful propaganda spread by the media and certain politicians?

Unfortunately we know well enough from history what happens when we allow fearful propaganda to disseminate to the masses. We cannot forget that Adolf Hitler was elected and through very strong and consistent fearful and divisive political rhetoric was able to convince Germans that it was in the best interest of Germany that Jews be exterminated.

In his research, Professor Robert Gellately debunked the myth that ordinary Germans were not aware of what was happening to the Jews at that time. His research exposed “once and for all the substantial consent and active participation of large numbers of ordinary Germans” occurred during the Holocaust. Moreover, the fear of the enemy within saw the US unjustly detaining Japanese Americans during WWII as well.

How do you react when you come up against a negative reaction from people in your line of work?

I always attempt to respond with grace, compassion and understanding. More times than not, the negativity comes from a place of fear, anxiety, rage, or ignorance (due to the often-sensational and hysterical public discourses and political rhetoric on Islam and Muslims). I need to acknowledge this, empathize and graciously allay their fears and negativity.

Other times if the person who has the negative views is a Christian, for example, I may call on supportive friends such as Dave Andrews to engage with them from a Christian framework. However, I also acknowledge that there are times when I am not able to engage with the negativity (especially if the person refuses to engage meaningfully and only wants to debate) so I simply walk away.

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There are a growing number of Muslim Feminists using their voice to dispel certain myths surrounding women in Islam. What are some of the most common misconceptions about women in the faith that you work to break down?

There are a number of misconceptions about Muslim women that I attempt to dispel. Some include the very broad misconception that Muslim women are oppressed in Islam. It is very important to acknowledge that there are indeed gross violations against Muslim women perpetrated by men and by the state such as Saudi Arabia’s ban on driving. Many Muslims, including feminists will argue that it is men who oppress women (including Muslim women) and not Islam, per se.

In fact, many Muslim women feel that Islam actually liberated women as the Quran emphatically considered women to be completely equal to men in all respects; while this may not be seen as revolutionary by today’s standard, it was in the 7th century. We need to remember that some religions at that time and even well after were still wondering if women had souls.

Islam allowed women full autonomy in the affairs of her life- she did not take her husband’s name after marriage as she was her own individual; if she wanted to work, she kept her own income and could administer it as she wished. This is in contrast to many other women around the world at that time who were not considered autonomous beings. For instance, in the UK, married women were finally able to own and control property in their right in 1882 with the Married Women’s Property Act. Other British territories soon followed.

She could vote as early as the 7th century (unlike what certain Muslim countries allow) and could be a political leader. She can be as highly educated as she likes, unlike what the Taliban did and continues to deny girls. She has to give her consent to marriage- SHE CANNOT be forced to marry under any circumstances.

Some view wearing any sort of head covering as “oppressive” and indicative of a patriarchal dominance. But there are many Muslim women speaking out saying that is not true, and that it is their choice to cover their hair. What are your views on this topic that can help enlighten non-Muslims?

The reality is that it is not always a choice. There are Muslim girls and women who do feel coerced or forced either by a partner, family, society, or the government; however, for many others it is a very conscious decision that they have made, including myself.

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I can share my story which will help readers understand why an highly educated woman who considers herself a feminist would wear one.

I first wore the headscarf at the age of 18 (with no pressure to wear it from parents at all even though they are very devout religious leaders in our community). My reason for wearing it was that I was at a point in my life where I was growing in my faith journey and wanted to make my surrender to God visible. For me the headscarf was an extension of my prayer (it is exactly what I wear when I pray).

The act of wearing a scarf had nothing to do with a man, whether it was my father, brother or husband. In fact, my husband did not see me without a scarf until we were engaged. This in itself raises an interesting function that many women who wear the scarf also acknowledge- that the scarf can liberate their bodies from the insistent objectification of women in the public space. It demands that people deal with them based on their intellect, values, manners, behavior, ideas, etc and not based on their looks. Quite a strong feminist statement.

Can a Muslim man or woman truly be a feminist, in your opinion?

Yes, definitely. While some argue that labeling oneself a feminist is coming from a view of victim-hood or weakness, I argue that it this is not necessarily the case and that feminism broadly espouses advocacy for the equal rights of all people, regardless of their gender.

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Muslim feminists’ mantra is: God gave women and men complete equal rights; it is men and their patriarchal structures which have taken the rights of women away from them. Thus, Muslim feminists use sacred text to demand their rights, rather than reject it.

What are some of the ways AMARAH has reached out to communities across Brisbane to open up conversations about Islam, faith and social reform?

One of AMARAH’s strength is that it does not seek to do things alone. We believe that our collective strength is our collective voices. Thus we invite others to join us not only in dialogue but in working with us to deal with issues of social reform. Thus we work with other faith groups/no faith groups on issues of social reform.

We also approach our work from a community development perspective. For instance, we are quite involved in the Aboriginal issues space here in Australia. But it is very important to us, that we work WITH our Aboriginal elders, brothers and sisters as to how we can work with them to find solutions for issues they face. Never do we presume we know what is best.

What can you point to in your line of work where you have seen the most powerful change happen?

I have had a few moments but perhaps one of the most powerful change came from an interfaith engagement at a Pentecostal Church that Dave and I were invited to present. After a 2-hour presentation followed by many searching questions and honest answers, the pastor came before Dave and I, knelt before us, prayed for us, and through tears asked us for forgiveness for his bigotry. It was a surreal moment.

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We all have areas in our live where we need to remain open minded and continue to be challenged on our perspectives, whether that be religion, politics, gender, careers whatever. What advice can you give to someone who is struggling to achieve this?

It is easy to give in to the hype and frenzy of everything around us. To be truly open minded requires an honest, critical introspection of one’s self. I know I had to do that before I was able to remove myself as the holder of ‘truth’ and allowed myself to reach out to others from a different faith, a different perspective. Once I connected with them on a very human level, I realized that I could not remain closed-minded. That I could not reject or hold prejudiced views about this person simply because they believed differently from me, held a different perspective etc. This then moved me into a different space where I appreciated their differences and found ways in which these differences could enrich my life.

Finally, what is your hope for people within Muslim communities and other faith communities going forward in terms of dealing with any fundamental or extremist ways of thinking?

It is important for all people (adherents of faiths and no faiths) to deal with extremist ideas by engaging with those who have may hold such views, rather than exclude them. I am an optimist and I truly believe that it is though our deep and meaningful engagement and connection with one another that true transformation can occur (including extremist ideology).

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To find out more about Dr. Nora’s work with AMARAH, click here.

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