Can the real Muslim feminist please stand up?

Activist Wafa Sultan has raised a firestorm by calling for an overhaul of Islam's treatment of women.

Published July 20, 2006 5:50PM (EDT)

While debating an Islamic sheik on the Arab news network Al-Jazeera last summer, writer Wafa Sultan caught the attention of Muslims around the world. Women's eNews reports that "growing incensed and being repeatedly interrupted, the feisty Syrian-born writer and activist said she had no choice but to scold him sternly in Arabic: 'Shut up! It is my turn.'"

(A vocal woman -- feisty!)

Sultan, 48, was named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People this May and is one of the most high-profile critics of Islam's treatment of women. "The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions or a class of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras," Sultan told eNews. "It is a clash between a mentality that belongs in the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century  It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings." Sultan sees Muslim oppression of women dating back 1,500 years, and believes that it is time for women to stand up and demand change.

Still, not all Muslim women are heeding her call. As Sabiha Khan, a former spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Los Angeles, told eNews, "I don't believe I am less than a man. I am not a slave. I am a very educated Muslim who believes in her religion with all her heart." Khan suggests that Sultan's pro-Western approach naturally appeals to Western media, but "many Muslim women consider her mistaken and irrelevant to their community."

Other members of the community question Sultan's cred, since she was once a Muslim but now considers herself a "secular human being." Sources in the eNews profile suggested that "real leadership is provided by Muslim women who seek social change according to Islam within their communities," like Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi or Canadian Shahina Siddiqi, "who has published a booklet on making mosques friendlier to women."

Undeterred, Sultan is at work on a book criticizing Islam, and plans to establish a nonprofit foundation to educate Middle Eastern women by "providing them access to scientific knowledge." She also told eNews that she "dreams of having her own television program called 'The True America,' which would highlight a variety of roles American women play in this country and be broadcast for the Arab and Islamic world."

Whether or not Sultan is the ideal spokeswoman for a Muslim reform movement, she's definitely creating dialogue about a subject that's too little discussed. By viewing Islam through the lens of gender oppression, Sultan is challenging assumptions about what it means to be a Muslim woman.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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