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By Raheel Raza

A story in the news and doing rounds on the Internet is about a Muslim wedding in Lucknow, India last month, which was officiated by a woman and had female witnesses. “Women-led Muslim wedding sparks debate in India” This unorthodox move is totally outside the norm, because Muslim marriages are traditionally officiated by a man, and also witnessed by males. Interestingly, the All India Muslim Personal law Board approved the ceremony led by a woman, much to the angst of Islamic seminaries.

Women rights activists see this as a “symbolic step forward for Muslim women” but the story has sparked a fiery controversy being denounced by conservative Islamic institutions as an affront to Islam. There are also personal comments posted on websites carrying the story. One comment reads “this sounds like an appropriate time to start a violent jihad..” Well, I hate to inform the detractors and Jihadists that in order to grab all women activists, they’ll have to travel to North America. While I’m thoroughly impressed at this breakthrough in India, my sisters in the struggle need to know that there are others who are also working for dignity and equality for Muslim women as mandated by Islam and practiced by Prophet Mohammad. Sometimes a major step has to be taken outside the box, to break the status quo and smash the barriers of patriarchy.

Recently, I had the honour and privilege of performing my first Muslim marriage in Toronto. The challenge wasn’t just officiating over the marriage but presiding over an interfaith union. The boy is Muslim and the girl, a Jewish feminist who wanted women in the forefront. They approached me because they had heard about my leading prayer and thought I might want to add another “bullet point” to my bio! I asked my religious mentor whether this is valid in Islam. He said “of course” explaining that the Muslim Marriage ceremony (called Nikah) is actually a pre-Islamic tradition taken from the Jews by the pagans and later adapted by the Muslims. He also explained that as long as the conditions of the contract are met, any respected member of the community could perform the Nikah. As a passionate interfaith advocate and someone who has prayed respectfully in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, I wanted this marriage to have an integrated spirit. After all, I explained to the families, when the Quran refers to Jews as “people of the book”, we have more in common than differences. So why not make this a bridge-building exercise and learn from each other? To give them credit, the young couple trusted me implicitly and the families agreed.

It didn’t take me long to learn that Jewish and Muslim marriages have some similarities. The ketubeh, the mahr or marriage gift and the presence of witnesses are some commonalities. The wedding was very well organized and attended by about 250 people; mostly families of the bride and groom but also guests of diverse cultures and faiths. Everything from the décor (a Chuppah on stage) to the dress (the bride wore a traditional red Pakistani outfit) and the music (an eclectic ensemble of East and West) was reflective of both traditions. On stage was the bride’s uncle, the woman who would perform the legal service, the female ring bearer and I. The bride’s uncle explained the significance of the Chuppah as well as smashing a glass by the groom.

When it came time for me to perform the Nikah, I have to admit I was nervous. I started by reciting opening of the Quran, (Fatiha) and once I translated it, I felt totally humbled and uplifted. I knew I was doing this for God and He was witness to my intention. I explained the procedure including that in Islam the woman gives the offer of marriage (the shocked looks on faces showed many people were unaware of this). Then I quoted from the chapter 49 of the Quran where we read “.. We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other”. What better way to know one another, I said, than the union of two people, two faiths and two cultures? Instead of a long-drawn sermon, I read from Rumi and the Nikah was completed by going through all the steps and ending in the final contract, which is part of both Jewish and Muslim traditions. It was a profound and moving experience.

Once the ceremony was over, there were the usual tears and congratulations. The family of the bride and groom hugged me and said they were very inspired by the ceremony, while sceptics patted me on the back. But my efforts were fully validated when some young people, thrilled at the revolutionary idea of a woman presiding over a marriage, invited me to New York and Los Angeles to perform weddings – both Jewish and Muslim!

By Raheel Raza

I’ve just returned from Barcelona after attending the fourth Parliament of World Religions conference – the largest interfaith gathering in the world. One of the highlights was the plenary address by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi who is prominent in our local news as the lawyer retained by the Kazemi family in Iran to find justice for the murder for Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who was tortured and beaten to death.

In Barcelona last week, Ebadi said: “human rights cannot be protected with bombs” and denounced the despotic behavior of those “who ignore human rights and democracy with the argument of belonging to a different culture and shadow dictatorial regimes with religious and nationalistic arguments.” As an activist Muslim journalist and a woman, it does my heart and mind good to hear Ms. Ebadi’s words. However, since Barcelona I’m not sure how much has changed in terms of the rights of women internationally and especially Muslim women. Zahra Kazemi’s case only fans my fears.

With Kazemi’s unfortunate and tragic death, dozens of questions have resurfaced. I question why Muslim leaders all over the world have not condemned this act of barbaric proportions; why the plight of women was not front and center in Barcelona where 8000 religious practitioners gathered to discuss world ‘issues’; why leadership by women is still an anomaly, why outspoken Muslim women are a minority?

Iran’s decision to suddenly end the Kazemi trial and keep a veil of secrecy over the proceedings only proves the strength of the strong patriarchal culture that pervades that society where the value of a woman’s life is obviously very little. The situation is similar in Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan where women are considered second-class citizens and their rights are intentionally and systematically crushed while they remain voiceless and powerless. This trampling of women’s rights is being perpetuated in countries that pride themselves on being “Islamic”, giving both Islam and Muslims a negative image. It’s ironical that Islam gives women complete rights, which they are unable to put into practice. As Shirin Ebadi said in her acceptance speech after winning the Nobel Peace Prize “The discriminatory plight of women in Islamic states, too, whether in the sphere of civil law or in the realm of social, political and cultural justice, has its roots in the patriarchal and male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam”.

One of the panels I attended in Barcelona was on the Right of Self Determination for Muslims. Five eminent male scholars spoke at this panel and at the end, I asked one simple question (they don’t call me a rabble-rouser for nothing). “Can you comment on the right of self determination for Muslim women” I asked “and tell me why, 1400 years after the message of Islam, are they still treated like non-entities throughout the Muslim world?” The panelists looked uncomfortable, whispered among themselves, and an Imam stood up and talked at length about women’s rights under Islam. He repeated what I already know: that Islam gives Muslim women the right to vote, inheritance, options for marriage or divorce and most of all, keep her earned wages. He avoided answering my query.

So I reframed my question. “We have a rich legacy in Islam of strong women leaders, yet history and the world has forgotten the Muslim women rulers, warriors, jurists and Sufis who lived on the same soil where today women are killed to protect the ‘honour’ of the family, as in Iraq and Jordan. In Saudi Arabia, the same location where the Prophet Mohammad proclaimed in his final sermon that women must be revered and protected, the opposite is happening. Why?” I was told time for questions was over!
Outside the confines of comfortable Canada, I was reminded in Barcelona that women are the major victims of unrest in war torn areas of the world; Aids has affected innocent women in Africa and, in Iran, a land where they should follow the legacy of the Prophet and his granddaughter Zainab to revere women and remember that heaven lies at the feet of the mother, Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death. Back in Toronto, I read in the latest time magazine that in Iraq it’s all out hostility against women.

So I applaud and support Stephan Hachemi for pursuing the cause to find justice for his mother. We, women of the world must also keep the flame alive so that Zahra Kazemi’s sacrifice is not in vain and we will someday reinstate dignity and human rights for all women. Shirin Ebadi reminds Muslim women that they must take back the rights that Islam and the Quran give them – because no one else will!

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