DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Women & Contemporary Islam
This interview will explore the place of women in contemporary Islam. As Dr. Gaillardetz will say in the interview, women’s issues arise not just in Islam but in all the great religions, since historically women have been “among the most steadfast of practitioners” yet ironically have “suffered abuse and even oppression within their traditions simply because of their gender.” Can you think of examples of abuse, oppression or lower status of women within a religious tradition(s) familiar to you?
If you can, watch the PBS documentary about Asra Nomani, Mosque in Morgantown, before viewing this show.
Keep track of specific things Ms. Nomani might call (a) “the best expression” of her faith, and (b) “the worst expression.” Also listen for (c) what she is doing to transform her faith, and (d) why she thinks she should do this.
1. Why did Ms. Nomani go on a hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, even though it was dangerous given the law in Islam that prohibits being an unmarried mother? Would you have done the same thing in her place?
2. What do you think of the fact that only Muslims are supposed to go to Mecca? What is the point of having sacred spaces that only like-minded people can share? Think of other examples of exclusive sacred spaces, times and events (e.g., Catholic communion).
1. Recall Ms. Nomani’s sensation of Islam’s universality when she and another pilgrim who spoke a different language together pointed “one” in prayer. Have you ever experienced a moment like this, where religion formed a bond between you and others?
3. Another moving moment of Ms. Nomani’s hajj was the kinship she felt with Hajar (Hagar in the Hebrew Bible) when she and her son walked the path Hajar had run with her son Ishmael looking for water. Recall the rest of Hajar’s story. Ms. Nomani agreed that Hajar functioned as a kind of “patron saint” for her – someone whose spirit sustains her and whom she wants to emulate. What do you think it is about Hajar that inspired Ms. Nomani? Is it important in our traditions to have patron saints such as these? Who guides you in your spiritual journey, if you are on one?
4. While in Mecca, Ms. Nomani felt the power of the matriarchs of early Islam who, she said, “knew rights that sadly women had lost in much of our Muslim world today.”
5. What lost rights might she have been gesturing at here? Did 7th c. Muslim women indeed have these rights? If they did, is that good evidence that 21st c. women should have them, too? Why or why not?
6. From what Ms. Nomani said, do you think it’s right to call Muhammad “the Muslim world’s first feminist”? Why or why not?
7. What were some of the things you thought Ms. Nomani might call “the best expression” of her faith? The “worst”? Would you agree with her categorizations? Think of a religious tradition you know well. What would you say were its best features, and its worst ones?
8. Suppose for a moment you are religious. If you found as much that was unsatisfying about your tradition as Ms. Nomani did about hers, would you abandon it? Why or why not?
9. Ms. Nomani originally thought she had to either accept the authorities within her religion or abandon it. However, recently, she has been finding a middle way: to engage one’s tradition in order to make it “reflect our inner conscience.” How is Ms. Nomani doing this in Islam? How are others doing it in other religious contexts? Do you think such activism in religion is right, or should religious traditions be preserved as they are?
10. Ms. Nomani thought such struggle with religious authority is not only permissible but even the “duty” of those choosing to follow a religion. Do you agree? Is there any issue over which you might want to challenge religious authority?
11. Ms. Nomani drew an interesting parallel between the kinds of pushback she experienced in working to improve women’s status in Islam after 9/11, and what happened in the campaign for the women’s right to vote and the civil rights movement?
12. Is there any way Ms.