News :::: Denmark’s Muslim Feminism and the First Woman Imam at Copenhagen’s Mariam Mosque. - BESTAREWA BlOG

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News :::: Denmark’s Muslim Feminism and the First Woman Imam at Copenhagen’s Mariam Mosque.

On the subject of traditional Islam: “They have internalized the idea that men should dominate women.”
Sherin Khankan
In the autumn of 2005, Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons about Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, including one with a stick of dynamite protruding from his turban. Among the many explanations for this controversial act was this: the deliberately provocative test was designed for Danish Muslims who - by accepting the mockery - could prove that they were assimilated Scandinavians. This crude and reckless “test” resulted in bloodshed and an economic boycott and then continuing into 2006, escalated into Denmark’s biggest foreign affairs crisis since WW II.
The Muhammad cartoon test was not a good idea. When an ostensibly secular state tests its Muslim citizens by skirting the edge of insult, the result is deeper division and alienation on both sides: the racist right vs. the anti-West Islamists.
In the middle – ideologically isolated from both sides - are Muslim progressives but not until 2012, was this point of view recognized in the curriculum of Danish teachers of comparative religion. Knowing that as a journalist, I had taken a minority position on the 2005-06 cartoons, a gymnasium teacher approached me, saying that she and others wanted alternative points of view from what they were getting in the mainstream press. Did I have any to share? I didn’t. Not at the time. But that soon changed.
Sponsored by Democratiske Muslimer i Danmark , I traveled to England and America in 2011 to interview Muslims with progressive values and subsequently edited the interviews into Ijtihad , a video curriculum for Danish teachers of comparative religion and social studies. It was the first time many of them had ever heard of Muslim feminism.
Admittedly, the idea is a relatively new phenomenon. I’ve often been confronted at dinner parties by thinly disguised Islamophobes who insist that the very concept – Muslim feminism - is an oxymoron. Failing to acknowledge the inherent sexism in Christian or Judaic patriarchy, these critics claim that Islam is a terrible religion because of its treatment of women. When you get up close to this phenomenon, however, it is clear that Muslim feminism is only a few years behind Christian and Jewish feminism. Contemporary Muslim feminist scholars hinge the eradication of Islam’s gender bias and sexism on geographical and sociological variables no longer pertinent to Protestant, Catholic or Jewish cultures.
Inside Christianity, it was Catholic women who first challenged the status quo. Theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruether was one of the first, followed by other Christian scholars such as Mary Daly, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Sally McFague. Judaism was in the forefront of Second Wave feminism in America with a very long list of writers, activists and scholars such as Susan Brownmiller, Phyllis Chesler, Andrea Dworkin, Betty Friedan, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Letty Cottin Pogrebin , Judith Plaskow and Gloria Steinem.
Muslim feminists have been with us for many years, yet they’ve never achieved popular recognition in mainstream western society. Amina Wadud is arguably America’s most celebrated Muslim feminist, acknowledged throughout the world for her hermeneutic scholarship of Islamic scripture, including not just the
Qur’an but the Hadith (oral traditions) and Sunnah
(deeds). Other Muslim feminist scholars and activists include Nazir Afzal, Leila Ahmed, Kecia Ali, Laleh Bakhtiar, Asma Barlas, Mona Eltahawy, Tehmina, Kazi, Irshad Manji, Fatema Mernissi, Asra Nomani, Linda Sarsour, Huda Sha’arawi, Malala Yousafzai and Ani Zonneveld. Worldwide organizations that champion Muslim feminism include Musawah, Sisters in Islam, Muslims for Progressive Values, Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality and British Muslims for Secular Democracy.
I did not know of Sherin Khankan in 2011. I wish I had because I desperately needed a Danish Muslim feminist in my video and I couldn’t find one. This wouldn’t happen today since Denmark has its own women’s mosque and a roster of women imams of which Ms. Khankan was the very first but is now one of several.
The Mariam Mosque was established in 2016 with a small Board of Directors that included men. The physical space is on Købmagergade, an apartment in central Copenhagen, generously donated by the well-known Danish photojournalist, Jacob Holt. The Mariam Mosque was not the first of its kind in Europe, but almost. In Denmark, it was a revolutionary achievement.
The story has now been documented by Danish anthropologist filmmaker, Marie Skovgaard in her first documentary feature, The Reformist , which opened the 2019 CPH:DOX film festival in Copenhagen on March 20 th . The film centers on the Mariam Mosque and how it was established under the leadership of its first female imam , Sherin Khankan. Says Skovgaard: “I have an interest in women who are on a mission, who want to create impact - to change the status quo. Sherin is such a person, visionary and very determined.”
Having heard that, one might expect to see a film about public recognition of achievement, but not so. Skovgaard’s film is tightly framed and not so much about Sherin as what Sherin does for other women in the name of Islam. In this way, The Reformist is a very Danish film because Danes do not generally like “celebrities.” Culturally speaking, Danes are suspicious of people whom the media elevate to star status and it would have been easy to do this with Sherin Khankan because - outside Denmark – she is a celebrity.
Khankan was named one of the BBC’s 100 Women 2016.
She is the author of several books on Islam in Europe and in 2017 she published La Femme est l’avenir de l’Islam – Le combat d’une Imame en France. In March 2018, Khankan met Emmanuel Macron to discuss “a dialogue of civilizations.” President Macron believes Khankan’s “Islamic feminism” can forge a progressive middle way between French laïcité – secularism – and alienated conservative Muslims. “I took him my book as a gift,” Khankan says, “but he said, ‘I’ve already read it.’ ” In June 2018, Time Magazine asked Sherin no less than if she was the future of Islam.
Khankan was born in Denmark from a Syrian father and a Finnish mother in 1974. She sees herself as being born between two worlds – east and west - and considers her life’s goal to reconcile these opposites. "I had a feeling early on that it was my job in life to reconcile contradictions,” she says. Born Ann Christine, Khankan was raised in both religious traditions while enjoying a somewhat normal childhood in Scandinavia. As a teenager, she visited Damascus for the first time and found herself attracted to her Syrian heritage and family. She encountered Sufism, learned Arabic, and stayed to study. At 19, she shed Ann Christine for her Muslim name. She returned to Denmark in 2000. She stood for parliament as a candidate for the Danish Social Liberal Party in 2002 but was publicly renounced when she refused to denounce Shari'a Law. She holds a Masters in Sociology of Religion and Philosophy from the University of Copenhagen. Khankan founded an organization called Critical Muslims who were interested in the link between religion and politics. In 2007, she published a book titled Islam and Reconciliation - A Public Matter . She is the mother of two sons and two daughters and recently divorced from her husband who made her choose between the mosque or the marriage.
Thus, Sherin Khankan has a dramatic and colorful personal history. She is indisputably an extraordinary person whose life story would make a great biopic, but very little of it is in The Reformist . It is to Marie Skovgaard’s credit that she wanted to show what goes on inside the mosque and what this means. The Reformist is not a portrait of Sherin Khankan but rather, instances and illustrations of what Sherin does for other women. What the viewer gets is a powerful message about Islamic spiritual care.
Islamic Divorce
After a civil divorce, many Muslim women crave an Islamic ruling to quiet their hearts. Khankan grants them Islamic divorces when no other imam will and by doing so, gives them protection from violent husbands. Khankan, who is also a trained therapist, has extensive experience in offering Islamic spiritual care since she is a founder of an NGO called The Exit Circle , ( standing up for women who are subjects of psychological violence and social control. Today, she is the CEO and responsible for 40 volunteer workers and seven self-help groups in Denmark combating mental abuse.
Inter-Faith Marriages
Khankan officiates at weddings when a Muslim woman wants to marry a non-Muslim man. Her first couple was Swedish, a Christian man and a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin, who wished to honor each other’s religion but not convert. Until they met Khankan, 96 imams throughout Europe had turned them down.
Imam to Worshipers at Mariam Mosque
Khankan leads prayer on Fridays when the Mariam Mosque is open only to women. She calls the faithful to
salat by chanting the traditional adhan. She sees herself as a khatibah, a speaker, the one who gives the khutbah , what non-Muslims know as the sermon.
Obviously, this is a lot to do and much of the story in
The Reformist is how Sherin ended up alone – and doing it all - after assuming too much. She failed to behave like a team player. She gave into her impatience by moving too fast. She burned bridges when she wanted to build them. By the time the film ends, however, she has managed to recruit other women imams and to regain a balance. I believe that Marie Skovgaard’s film is actually a work in progress and that what she gave us in chapters 1 through 3 is just an introduction. I believe the Mariam Mosque has chapters 4, 5 and maybe 6 in front of it and I hope Skovgaard will take us with her as she observes and records.
The Reformist as a title is controversial and will surely be debated since the noun "reform" has several angles that give the concept significant nuances. Sherin Khankan is in fact "reviving" ancient roles for women in Islam, practices that were granted by The Prophet Muhammad himself and then historically ignored by the
ulama who wanted to establish and ultimately validate patriarchy.
In fact, one of Muhammad’s wives led prayers. In addition, as some Muslim feminists point out, Muhammad was one of history’s first feminists because he outlawed female infanticide at a time when it was a popular practice in desert societies. Muhammad also gave women the right to divorce and to keep their dowry. And most surprisingly, he gave women the right to inherit property.
Sherin Khankan's "reforms" are related more to the old men who took away these rights than they are to the Islam that The Prophet originally formulated in his original teachings. Divorce was removed by muftis.
Khankan’s first divorce as an imam concerned a woman whose husband beat her and her children so violently he was imprisoned for seven years.
Khankan and other feminist Muslims what to change Islam's patriarchal tenants in order to deliver women from the bonds that keep them perpetually subordinate without agency. Like Rosemary Radford Ruether who’s done the same for Christian women and Letty Cottin Pogrebin who challenged the patriarchy in Judaism, Sherin Khankan wants to "reform" the distortions that evolved over time. In this way, she is both a "revivalist" and a "reformist." "The trick is to create fundamental change without arousing great anger,” Khankan says. “And I think the advantage of a women's mosque rather than a sex-mixed mosque is that we create less division in the Muslim environment. The project is not a gender struggle,” Khankan continues “but a struggle to break men's monopoly on the interpretation of Islam.”
Takeaways from The Reformist
What are the primary takeaways from Marie Skovgaard’s film? This is always personal but for me, Number One is the examination of women imams’ leadership and how it nips-in-the-bud the many evils currently plaguing Muslim societies. For one, women imams challenge popular notions of sexuality that cast women as temptresses and men as helpless creatures, dominated by sexual urges. This lesson is particularly true when the imam in our viewfinder looks like Sherin Khankan, a truly beautiful woman whose faithful adherence to modest dress keeps her on the conservative side, far away from looking like a proverbial temptress. On the other hand, Sherin Khankan looks like no one’s conventional idea of an
imam . She only covers her head when leading prayer. “To me, the hijab is a metaphor for sincerity,” she says. “So I will speak about the inner hijab , which is your sincerity and kindness. I realize that women have different interpretations of what it means to be a modest woman. This is mine.”
Takeaway Number Two: Getting to know Sherin also belies the idea that women are emotional rather than intellectual and in need of a firm male hand to keep them in balance. And it defies the convention that good women are silent and submissive. Sherin Khankan knows several languages and is apparently persuasive in all of them. In Women Are the Future of Islam , she outlines her vision of a modern, gentle, flexible faith bridging the ever-widening gulf between western society and orthodox teaching. Gone are rigid stipulations on
halal and haram (allowed and forbidden), the notion of
kuffar (the derogatory word for non-believers) and literalist Qur’anic readings used to deny women freedom, especially the freedom to divorce, while imposing restrictive modesty codes. “We must not base the customs of the 21st century,” she writes, “on those of the 9th.”
My last takeaway from Marie Skovgaard’s film is about spiritual maturity. Most Muslims who live in western cultures are either traditional or secular, the latter erroneously implying a renouncement of their faith. I don’t know for sure but I’m guessing that Sherin would take issue with Danish westerners who think it is contradictory to call oneself a progressive Muslim. “If you were a true progressive,” some say, “you’d declare yourself an atheist and give up religion altogether.” The Mariam Mosque gives women a safe place to exercise their spiritual lives without apology or explanation. It also gives modern Muslims an opportunity to believe in a separation of church and state. Muslims in democratic societies are protected from imposed piety and an imposed particular school of Islam. Muslims in secular democracies know their right to choose - whatever they want to believe in - is protected by secular law.
In the meantime, standing in the middle is Sherin Khankan trying to reconcile faith and feminism, a steely woman who dares call herself imam . How did she get to be one? Who gave her this title and position? No one. She just assumed the role. “This is what we have to do,” she says in Skovgaard’s film. “Nobody is going to give it to us.”

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