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Usman Butt

British Islam Conference provides space for ideas to flow

British Muslim communities are actively engaged in questioning matters of identity and ethics [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 February, 2018

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Gender and feminism took centre stage at this year's conference, reports Usman Butt
Do Muslims worship the Prophet Muhammad and not God? Are mosques in the UK accessible to people with disabilities? Does the UK government's counter-terrorism policy alienate Muslim communities?

These were just some of the debates that drew audiences to the 2018 British Islam conference run by New Horizons in British Islam. The stated mission of the conference, held at Amnesty International's Human Rights Action Centre in London last weekend, was for open dialogue about what it means to be a Muslim in contemporary society, especially in times of Brexit, Trump and various global challenges.

It was more than that, however, the questions posed not so much about identity than about ethics, ideas and morality.

Different talks running in different rooms at the same time on a variety of topics; it can be a disorientating experience with so much going on. However, this did not dampen people's enthusiasm for the conference - and everywhere I looked I saw eager faces and a willingness to engage.

Gender was a huge theme of the conference with keynote speeches by Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Mona Siddiqui. Ziba, an Iranian-American academic and feminist activist, argued fervently that the message of the Quran was inherently egalitarian and gender equal, but Islamic jurisprudence was steeped in patriarchy.
In the 1990s we saw the rise of Islamic feminism; these were feminists using Islam and the Quran as a reference point to challenge patriarchy

"As Muslim women we need to understand our own religious traditions," she said.

"In the 1990s we saw the rise of Islamic feminism; these were feminists using Islam and the Quran as a reference point to challenge patriarchy. The Quran gave us rights and the movement demanded that we be given our rights,” Mir-Hosseini told an eager audience.

"In my country, Iran, we were promised justice by Khomeini and the Islamic Republic. They failed to deliver it. But the Islamic revolution did something that had not been done before; it brought Islamic jurisprudence into public contention. It democratised religious knowledge; members of society who had been previously absent from the discussion were now a critical part of it. This was not the intention of the Islamic Republic but a consequence of it. Similar things happened in the Arab and Muslim world and it is out of this Islamic feminism emerged."

Mir-Hosseini, who co-founded Musawah, a international feminist movement calling for gender justice within the family, told the audience that the democratisation of the production of Islamic knowledge, meaning the inclusion of everyone regardless of their education or social standing in forming religious knowledge, was essential in the fight for justice.

The theme of justice was also central to Mona Siddiqui's talk. Siddiqui, professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, has been part of a Home Office inquiry into Sharia family courts in the UK. Sharia courts have caused much controversy in the media with some labelling them "a parallel legal system" - a charge led by Baroness Cox who claims the "Suffragettes would be turning in their graves" at her perceived treatment of women in these court systems.

Such a loaded topic has led many to shy away from it. However, beyond the headlines, real studies into the Sharia courts system rarely occur. Professor Siddiqui reminded everyone that contrary to popular perception, Sharia family courts were advisory only and many women turning to them had already obtained divorces in civil courts, but were looking for a religious sanction for reassurance.

Many Sharia courts insist that a divorce in the civil courts also counts as a religious divorce, according to Siddiqui.

"Many religious marriages are not legally recognised, as many married couples do not register the marriage," Siddiqui said. "However, many women themselves do not want the civil recognition as they want an easy divorce if things go wrong."

Siddiqui questioned the attitude of these women, but a major area of contention for Siddiqui is the "triple talaqa" issue. This is the infamous rite which allows men to divorce women by repeating the words "I divorce you" three times - but women cannot do the same in kind to their husbands.

Some Sharia courts in the UK recognise this as valid, but as Siddiqui argues, it is not derived from any Islamic texts but is a cultural practice that has been normalised. The potential for abuse means ending this practice is important. 

The conference offered plenty of food for thought - and while some arguments were not exactly new, a space where various ideas could flow is certainly welcome. 

Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt

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