This week, an Islamic women’s activist and global advocate for women’s equality is bringing her message to Maine. Zainah Anwar of Malaysia is meeting with students at several schools over the next few days and capping off her visit to the state with a public lecture Thursday evening at the University of Southern Maine.
Tuesday morning, she spoke to students at Deering High School in Portland, where several Muslim female students also shared their experiences.
Anwar’s activism began in the late 1980s in Malaysia, when she and a few of her friends started hearing complaints from other women about problems they were having under Islamic law. The women were frustrated, for example, that they didn’t have the same rights as their husbands.
Anwar and her friends wanted to understand the basis for this inequality, so they decided to re-read the Qur’an. What they found in its verses, she says, surprised them.
“That talk about justice, about equality between men and women,” she says.
To promote this often misunderstood aspect of the religion, that women should be treated as equals, Anwar and her friends formed a Malaysian organization called Sisters in Islam. Eventually, that effort led to a global movement called “Musawah,” which means equality in Arabic.
Three decades into this work, Anwar says there are still Islamic laws that justify discrimination against women.
“Women’s realities today have changed. Women are providers, they are protectors of their families, but the law does not recognize the change,” she says.
Just as followers of Islam say that at its core, the religion is about peace, Anwar says it’s also about equality and justice. These values are what Deering High student Deeqa Nur says attracts her to Islam.
Nur was one of five female Muslim student panelists who told her classmates that she thinks Islamic discrimination against women is a cultural problem in some countries but not in the U.S. Here, she says, she faces other challenges.
“I don’t feel oppressed within the Muslim community. The outside people — I can walk down in the Old Port and get called a terrorist. I would expect to go downtown with that mentality, and I just feel like anywhere you go, you’ll still have that hate,” she says.
“I’ve been told, ‘Go back to your country. You don’t belong here. We speak English here.,” says Bilan Mohamed.
Mohamed says disdain for Muslims is a regular part of life. But she has also felt support from the non-Muslim community, especially following President Donald Trump’s immigration ban.
“Whether it be people coming to the mosque and showing their support, or just sending letters to the mosque and just telling us, ‘Hey, we’re here for you,’” she says.
For these young Muslim women, misconceptions about their religion are difficult to address, especially, says Elwaad Werah, because they’re reinforced by President Trump.
“Trump’s Muslim ban especially, there will be a lot of discrimination of Muslim people to come, because of his dehumanization of Muslims, and more ignorance that will happen. So, I think we’re all scared for ourselves and our religion, and finding out ways that we can still practice our religion without worrying about our security,” she says.
Though these students are fighting different challenges than Anwar, she did offer advice to students on how to affect change. Education, she said, will give them courage to stand up for their beliefs.