Any self-respecting news editor would know that significant, if not historical events require pretty polished reporting. The star-studded Musawah conference last February on Islamic family law reforms was one such significant event. Organised by Malaysia’s very own Sisters In Islam (SIS), it was something to be proud of. But reading Malaysian journalist Siti Nurbaiyah Nadzmi’s take on it and her “interview” with Amina Wadud gave me plenty to be embarrassed about. As if faced with a perilous task, she writes about her anti-Amina colleagues, warnings of Wadud’s “standoffish” character, the intimidating books she has to read prior to meeting the writer herself, and the “mouthful” title of Wadud’s conference paper (Beyond Patriarchy Through Gender Inclusive Qur’anic Analysis) – a subject, she describes as “too big to chew”, “unless one is a sociologist”.
Her self-deprecating outlook aside, the article itself, published both in The News Straits Times and the SIS website, is pure fluff. Sadly, this is the kind of journalistic writing Malaysians love to read. Rather than focusing on what Wadud thinks about the future of Muslim women in Malaysia (like herself) or even WHY a Quranic scholar thinks that the Islamic family law reform is so important, the reporter asks about her time in Malaysia when she taught at the International Islamic University between 1989 and 1992, and of course the perennial question about local food:
She still craves fish head curry and roti canai. “The stalls here are the best,” she said. She enjoyed living in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in the early 1990s.
“I’m never one for loud and busy cities. I prefer a quiet neighbourhood. Taman Tun was perfect then. But recently my friend took me there and I discovered this huge shopping mall…” she gestured, quite overwhelmed by how much the area has developed.
Do internationally renowned people like Amina Wadud like Malaysia and Malaysian food? Yes!
In her efforts to present Amina Wadud as a ‘goodie’ – a champion of every Muslim woman’s interests, rather than a feminist revolutionary ‘baddie’, she sanitises her words and image. A quote, “I only led prayers when I was invited to” that accompanies her photos is an attempt to mitigate her status as a controversial figure. Why is that necessary? Just as problematic is the reporter’s relief upon meeting Wadud in the flesh that “she did not come across as someone bursting with self-righteousness, consumed by feminist ideals (emphasis mine)”. Thank goodness she’s not a hardcore feminist!
Not once during the interview did she refer to herself as an imam.
Lastly, on Wadud’s rigorous research before leading her (now infamous) mixed-gender congregation in 2005, Siti Nurbaiyah can only offer a non-committal non-opinion:
Do I subscribe to the idea? I can only say that I do not have the knowledge yet.
I have a problem with this vertebrae-challenged statement. In Malaysia, many Muslims are quite happy letting out-of-touch muftis distort the collective common sense. The recent fatwas on tomboys and yoga come to mind in this argument. Suddenly, a ban on performing yogic meditation and wearing one’s hair short makes sense because a tiny few with ‘the knowledge’ says so. An opinion, a critical one especially would be a step too far for the unlearned. Perhaps a dose of ijtihad would be in order for the general Malaysian-Muslim consciousness?