Three panelists discussed gender relations in the Quran, the decriminalization of homosexuality and the targeting of Yazidi women in Iraq by the Islamic State at a Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum event on human rights, gender and sexuality in the Islamic World Thursday night.
About 75 University of Michigan students, faculty and Ann Arbor residents were in attendance at the event, hosted as part of an ongoing series Contemporary Islamic Identities through the Islamic Studies Department among others.
Each panelist was given 15 minutes to present their topic before Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, a former judge in Iran and human rights activist, who provided remarks afterwards. Ebadi spoke Wednesday as part of the symposium on gender and sexuality in Islamic cultures, emphasizing that providing information on Islam is the best way to combat Islamophobia.
Asma Barlas, professor of politics at Ithaca College, spoke on the topic of sex and gender in the Islamic holy book, the Quran, by highlighting segments of the scripture that she said Muslims believe predetermine the patriarchal relations between men and women in the culture. She reads the Quran “as a liberty text” for women.
“This isn’t to say that the Quran doesn’t speak of women and men; it is only to point out that the Quran does not say that one is superior to another,” Barlas said. “For example, there are no voices that define women in terms of female attributes that are unique only to women … nor are there any voices that define men in terms of male attributes that are unique only to men.”
Samar Habib, associate researcher at the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of London, highlighted the topic of the decriminalization of homosexuality through a timeline of countries recognizing or failing to recognize “LGBT rights as human rights.”
Habib cited a memorandum released by President Barack Obama in 2011 on his dedication to the protection of LGBTQ rights. Habib said this meant the spotlight was on other countries to follow suit in supporting LGBTQ people.
She also referenced July 2016 letter Amr Ramadan, Egypt’s ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, sent a to the council president detailing his opposition to the appointment of a United Nations monitor against anti-gay violence.
Habib saw this response as a way to get around enacting social change for LGBTQ individuals in Egypt.
“(Ramadan) argued basically the mandate’s stated purpose, which is to protect people from violence and persecution, was only a cover, a Trojan horse for a backdoor usurping of conditional cultural values, and now he starts to sound a lot more like Vladimir Putin,” Habib said.
Habib also said lawmakers and human rights activists globally have to keep in mind existing laws and cultures when enacting change.
“Slow social change that is in keeping with that internal logic (of countries) is going to be the most sustainable and most meaningful and the most peaceful form of social change that we can hope for,” Habib said.
The third panelist, University of Michigan History Prof. Juan Cole brought to light the ongoing crisis happening with Yazidi women in northern Iraq after the area came under control of the Islamic State. The Yazidis, a Kurdish ethno-religious group, have been persecuted for not being strictly Muslim. Cole said the Islamic State, upon entering Iraq.
“(The Islamic State) attacked (the Yazidi people),” Cole said. “They treated them extremely brutally. Hundreds of thousands had to flee them if they could … they’re living in tents.”
Cole ended his speech by calling for aid for the Yazidi people who are still struggling to find their families.
“The long-term prospect for these women is bleak,” Cole said. “They need all kinds of humanitarian assistance and frankly, that humanitarian assistance that has been promised has not actually come through.”
Ebadi, with the assistance of a translator, responded to the panelists, noting two Yazidi women who escaped sexual slavery by the Islamic State and became women’s rights advocates were recently awarded the European Union’s top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
She also discussed the question of whether God is male or female.
“All Muslims know that God does not have a gender identity,” Ebadi said. “God is above of that, but in the Quran, it is implied that God is a man, so the paradox that exists here is that if God doesn’t have a gender, why do we call him ‘he’ or a man?”
In reaction to the symposium, LSA junior Ariana Paredes-Vincent said she thought Barlas’s comments about the Quran were crucial to the discussion of prejudices against Islam.
“I think for me it was interesting to realize a lot of times people correlate Islam with beliefs of patriarchy and violence against women … they think that’s what Muslims believe,” Paredes-Vincent said. “I always wondered how that came about, through the Quran or how the interpretations came about through that.”
Moderator Susan Waltz, University professor of public policy, said the panelists did a great job of combatting preconcieved notions.
“What I think each of the panelists did was to challenge particularly Americans in the audience who might be thinking ‘this part of the world should be left alone because they have their own beliefs,’ ” Waltz said.