Daisy Khan was just 3 when she put on a pair of red boxing gloves and walked to the front yard of her family home in Kashmir. She had been bullied by a bigger child the day before and her father wanted to teach her how to throw a punch in order to stand up for herself. In those gloves, young Daisy saw the need to not physically fight a bully but to become someone else, someone who fights for what she believes in. And ever since that day in the yard, Daisy has never set down her boxing gloves.

As Founder and Executive Director at the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) – a women-led organisation committed to peacebuilding, equality and justice for Muslims around the globe – she continues to don her gloves and shows up to the world’s arena every single day.

SheThePeople.TV converses with Daisy Khan, author and reformer, about life as an advocate for Muslim women’s rights, as recounted in her memoir Born With Wings: The Spiritual Journey of a Modern Muslim Woman.

“It is a moral imperative for people of all faiths to speak out against injustices committed in the name of their religion, because ‘a crime committed in the name of religion is a crime against religion.”

Daisy Khan founded WISE in 2005 to address the propagation of gender inequality in the name of Islam. “Every religion has seen the oppression as well as the emancipation of women. It is a moral imperative for people of all faiths to speak out against injustices committed in the name of their religion, because ‘a crime committed in the name of religion is a crime against religion.’ ” asserts Khan. Among its many successful programmes and actions, WISE partnered with an Afghani WISE woman to conduct the Imam Training Programme to End Violence Against Women (ITP) in 2010 in Afghanistan.

Communities in Afghanistan deeply trust and respect Imams – even the Taliban. With the aim to clarify distorted patriarchal misinterpretations of the Quran, WISE spread the message about girls’ education through 50 of the most respected Imams in Jalalabad and Kabul. Wary at first, the Imams soon embraced the programme as it spoke of women’s rights within an Islamic framework with no ulterior agenda. Daisy emphasises this role of Muslim men who can wield power openly or behind the scenes – whether they reside in conservative, traditional or secular societies – to restore the God-given rights of women. This is reflected in Prophet Muhammed, who honoured his wife Khadijah, gave property rights to women, abolished the pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide, scrupulously helped with chores, respected his daughters and sought his wife’s advice on community affairs. The Prophet, in his last sermon, even emphasised this point by saying “treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.”

Daisy Khan believes that “an essential part of women’s struggle is the demand that their voices be at the forefront of the debates about their roles, responsibilities and status.”

Daisy Khan believes that “an essential part of women’s struggle is the demand that their voices be at the forefront of the debates about their roles, responsibilities and status.” The author and reformer maintains that women advocates who recognise and appreciate the importance of religion in the day to day lives of Muslim women, and who speak with a humane voice – the Islamic voice – are effectively challenging the religious legitimacy of people who use Islam to disadvantage women and girls. “Muslim women activists who tend to avoid Islam altogether suffer from an absence of religious legitimacy which in turn fails to speak to most Muslims,” explains Khan.

Daisy Khan
Image Credit: Penguin Random House India

WISE established the first Global Muslim Women’s Shura Council to examine issues that Muslim women of all sects were facing worldwide. Its 30 members included women from different nationalities with divergent views and comprised of scholars who were well versed in Islamic law, as well as activists with comprehensive knowledge of contemporary issues faced by Muslim women. The Council has mitigated any criticism because its position papers on FGM, child marriage, domestic violence, adoption and women’s leadership are thoroughly researched, evidence-based and grounded in scripture. The Council discussed how, wherever obstructions have been encountered by women, it has not been by Islam the faith, but by local traditions and customs and interpretations mandated by men in the name of faith. With the support of this council, women would no longer have to rely on the interpretation of male scholars with outdated attitudes toward women.

One woman challenged Daisy Khan. She asked the author – who gave you the authority to create a Muslim women’s shura council? Daisy’s answer was to point to the sky.

However, everyone did not agree. One woman challenged Daisy Khan. She asked the author – who gave you the authority to create a Muslim women’s shura council? Daisy’s answer was to point to the sky. She cited the Quran 42:38–39: “Those who respond to their Lord, and establish regular prayer, whose affairs are conducted by mutual consultation [shura] among themselves, and from what we have provided them, they spend, and who, whenever tyranny afflicts them, defend themselves.”

Khan also shared that there were shura councils dominated by men all over the world and that there were no barriers to women creating one for themselves. It took a number of years to create an effective working structure for the shura council. “I attribute the success of the Council to one key factor – by bringing a religious dimension to Muslim women’s advocacy, we were able to prove that Muslim women’s rights are embedded in Islam,” states Daisy.

Daisy Khan believes that it is important to engage in serious dialogue with people of other faiths, distinctly when religious and ethnic differences become powerful tools that tear the social fabric of society

Daisy Khan believes that it is important to engage in serious dialogue with people of other faiths, distinctly when religious and ethnic differences become powerful tools that tear the social fabric of society. Prior to setting up WISE, Khan co-founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement (now the Cordoba House), with her husband Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, where she led interfaith collaborative events such as the theatre productions Same Difference and the Cordoba Bread Fest Banquet which saw Christians, Jews and Muslims come together on stage. “If we look at things with human eyes, we see a multitude of perspectives; but with sincere interfaith dialogue, we can step into a space where we see one another as God’s creatures, bound by one compact, by one set of ethical and moral values. In that space, we see with God’s eyes, we see with no astigmatism,” expresses Khan.

The author observes that a vast majority of Muslims reject violence as they continually struggle to divorce themselves from extremism. American Muslims are peaceful and patriotic members of their communities who proactively condemn terrorism – yet, one terrorist attack is used to condemn an entire faith community. “The branding of all Muslims as a national security threat may be popular today, but in reality, it is offensive and counter-productive; it burns bridges, brings in a rhetoric of ignorance on the world stage and allows extremists on both sides to divide us by playing on our worst fears. Now, more than ever, is the time for unity – unity of purpose and unity of achievement. This is a practical unity – one that we can use to build a better future,” emphasises Daisy Khan.

Feature Image Credit: Penguin Random House India

Born With Wings: The Spiritual Journey of a Modern Muslim Woman, by Daisy Khan, has been published in Viking by Penguin Random House India. It is priced at Rs. 599, and is available online and in bookstores.

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