Woodrow Wilson Women’s Studies Fellow examines transnational Islamic women’s academy
They gather in local classrooms and in each other’s homes; in rural villages and in urban centers; around kitchen tables and computer screens; in Karachi, Toronto, and Tempe. Many, though lifelong Muslims, are reading tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur’an for the first time to understand what it actually says about everything from hygiene to civil society. And many students of the Al-Huda Academy for Women, according to khanum Shaikh (WS ’07), find the experience freeing.
“There’s an incredible enthusiasm and excitement, a transformation among [Al-Huda’s] members,” says Ms. Shaikh, a doctoral candidate in women’s studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Many talk about how unaware Pakistani women have historically been of what religion really means in daily life—raising children, being a citizen, forging a relationship with Allah. Al-Huda opens up a wealth of information for people to reformulate their lives, while also providing a space for internal reflection.”
Although women have always been educated in Islam, the Qur’an is in Arabic, which is not Pakistanis’ native language,” Ms. Shaikh says. “Through my traditional Qur’anic education, I could quote sections in Arabic—but not necessarily understand what they say. We learn to rely on interpretations dominated by male scholars.”
Founded in Islamabad in 1994 by Farhat Hashmi, who completed a Ph.D. in Islamic studies at the University of Glasgow, Al-Huda (Arabic for “guidance from Allah”) offers locally hosted religious study groups for women, as well as online resources, recordings, and radio broadcasts in Pakistan. The group’s recently opened school in Ontario has generated controversy among both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Ms. Shaikh’s dissertation examines how Al-Huda engages gender and Islam, how Al-Huda members reconceive their identities, and how Al-Huda’s discourse is interpreted in multicultural North America. Al-Huda gives Pakistani Muslim women an unprecedented opportunity, Ms. Shaikh says, to consider their own values and ethics—“everything from intimate day-to-day matters to larger ways of living in the world, concerns like arrogance, class privilege, disease. One woman said the entire year was magical for her, in terms of coming into a voice and thinking hard about these things.”
But there is much debate about Al-Huda within Pakistan, where Dr. Hashmi is the first woman to attain such prominence as a religious teacher.Many traditional male Islamic scholars call Al-Huda’s approach too liberal, Ms. Shaikh says, while others suggest that Dr. Hashmi’s perspectives are rigid and constricting. Still others question her qualifications to be a religious teacher at all. Meanwhile, Ms. Shaikh adds, Westerners exoticize the Al-Huda approach. “Many articles emphasize Dr. Hashmi’s ‘modern’ methods—the
reporters see a disconnect when she teaches in full abaya and face veil, using a PowerPoint presentation. There shouldn’t be so much dissonance between the image of a fully veiled woman and a laptop.”
o is Al-Huda a feminist phenomenon? “It’s not that easy,” replies Ms. Shaikh, who has taught a UCLA course titled Gender and Religious Fundamentalism. “Through Al-Huda women do learn about their rights in Islam—to inherit, to divorce, and so on—and many had no idea they had these rights. “But I wouldn’t say that the goals of Al-Huda’s leaders are the same as those of feminists. A lot of Al-Huda members distance themselves from
feminism, just as many feminists see a vast gulf between themselves and the gendered religiosity that Al-Huda represents. Exploring that gap is part of my research.”
2007,Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Newsletter Woodrow Wilson in Focus, pg. 6.[Available from:here]