July 18-19, 2014, a group of Muslim women, led by attorney Nadia Shahram, will hold a convention in Seneca Falls to issue a “Declaration of the Equalities for Muslim Women.”
Symbolically and historically, this is an important event, one that may only be possible in the West.
Many Muslim feminists know that I stand with them, and the Seneca Falls feminists have honored me by asking me to participate in a panel. To my great regret, I will be out of the country at that time but have offered to send a statement to be read aloud.
In 1776, in bold and stirring words, fifty-six men signed the American Declaration of Independence. I was not there–but because of this document, I have not grown up in a colony of the British Commonwealth, and I pay no taxes to the queen.
In 1848, American feminists launched their Declaration of Sentiments in Seneca Falls. I was not there, either. However, my life as an American woman has been immeasurably improved by their work. Sixty-eight women and thirty-two men were signatories.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony were all abolitionists; Mott had not been allowed to speak at an anti-slavery conference in London because they were…women. They called a meeting in Seneca Falls and presented their Declaration, which drew upon the language of the American Declaration of Independence. “When in the course of human events,” the feminists began, continuing on to “we hold these truths to be self-evident.”
Thereafter, they parted company with our august ancestors and addressed the specific “disenfranchisement of one-half the people in this country” who are therefore “aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights.” This included the right to vote, own property, receive wages, receive decent wages, obtain a higher education, merit custody or “guardianship” of their children, be allowed to practice law, medicine, and theology, and participate in the affairs of the church.
The nineteenth century feminists did not yet view religion as a primary stumbling block. On the contrary. Therefore, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a committee of 26 women published The Women’s Bible (Part One in 1895, Part Two in 1898), criticizing both the Old and New Testaments, they were formally denounced by the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The question of God or of religion divided the early feminists.
Today, Muslims are also divided.
In 2007, I was privileged to chair the opening panel of the Secular Muslim Summit in St. Petersburg, Florida. They issued a Declaration, which nine Muslim men and five Muslim women signed. Chair Ibn Warraq called for “an age of Enlightenment. Without critical examination of Islam, it will remain dogmatic, fanatical, and intolerant, and will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality, originality, and truth.”
The secularists affirmed an “inviolate freedom of individual conscience; saw “no ‘Islamophobia’ in submitting Islamic practices to criticism or condemnation when they violate human reason or rights”; demanded a “separation of religion and state”; called upon the “governments of the world to reject Sharia law, fatwa courts, clerical rule, and penalties for blasphemy and apostasy.” They also demanded “the elimination of practices such as female circumcision, honor killing, forced veiling, and forced marriage.” These dissidents called for “the release of Islam from its captivity to the totalitarian ambitions of power-hungry men and the rigid strictures of orthodoxy.” They concluded, “We say to Muslim believers: there is a noble future for Islam as a personal faith, not as a political doctrine.”
Even these staunch secularists left the door open for religion as a private matter.
Now, seven years later, a group of Muslim women will gather to discuss and sign a Declaration of Equalities for Muslim Women. The document also reads, “When in the course of human events … we hold these truths to be (not self-evident) but indisputable.”
The American Declaration of Independence refers to Nature and God–but only in passing. The American Declaration of Sentiments refers to religion as an important institution in which women are not allowed to play a role.
The Declaration of Equalities begins and ends with quotes from the Qur’an. It interprets these verses as signifying the God-given equality of women and men.
While this Declaration is global and universal in intention and language, there are some very specific areas that concern Muslim and, I must add, Hindu, Sikh, and, in some areas, Jewish women, as well.
The Declaration calls for the “right of self-determination for all women.” It demands “that women have the opportunity to gain permanent custody of children.” This is a major problem for women, both in Sharia courts and in religious Jewish courts. I hate to admit this, but based on my research over the years, custody is still a problem for women in American secular courts. Please read my updated 2011 edition of Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody if you do not believe me.
The Declaration demands that women not be killed in the name of “honor” and that crimes against women should be swiftly prosecuted. This is highly relevant for Hindu women, but in India only, and for Muslim women, both in the Muslim world and in Muslim communities in the West. Sikhs also honor kill, but to a much lesser extent.
The 2014 Declaration demands that women be allowed to gain access to an education, employment, gender-neutral inheritance, citizenship, and nationality rights.
So far, all rights demanded apply to women of all faiths. Then, there is this, which is addressed in this Declaration: “We insist that crimes such as stoning, burning, acid pouring, and mutilation not only be illegal and punishable, but the perpetrators be publicly prosecuted by the courts.”
Such crimes are almost unique to Muslims, and I hope and pray that this Declaration is taken seriously far and wide, beginning in the West, where some–but not all–of these crimes against women are practiced. Polygamy exists in the West, as does female genital mutilation, forced and arranged marriages, imposed isolation, and separation from infidels.
These brave women must succeed. They wish to redefine the role of Muslim women and develop an “action plan for the future of Muslim women.”
The heroism of Muslim and ex-Muslim women is astounding. Think of Nudood Ali, Malala Yusufzai, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the countless Afghan women who stand up to extraordinary misogyny and barbarism in situ. Imagine if they could gain momentum from Muslim women living in the relative safety of the West.
Please go to Seneca Falls. The link to the conference is below. Meet the speakers. Agree on what you agree on. Discuss, respectfully, the issues of disagreement. But above all, be on record supporting this next great wave of global feminism. Let us do what we can do in the West for all the ethnicities who live here.