“IF you publish this, and I get kicked out of the country, I know who to thank,” says Susan Carland towards to the end of our interview. There is a reason for Australian Carland, who was recently in Malaysia, to be cautious. Speaking up as an outsider about Islam in Malaysia has its risks.
But it was not for nothing that Carland was named this year in 2009 as one of several Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow by the UN Alliance of Civilisations. In 2004, she also received the Australian Woman of the Year award.
Carland lectures at Monash University’s Melbourne campus on gender studies, politics and sociology. She is also the co-creator of comedy panel and sketch programme Salam Cafe, which airs on Australian national TV.
In mid-June, Carland visited Malaysia with the support of the Australian government to conduct talks and hold meetings with Malaysians. In a candid interview with The Nut Graph in Kuala Lumpur on 11 June 2009, Carland talks about being a Muslim woman, the hijjab and apostasy.
TNG: What is being a Muslim in Australia like, nowadays?
One of the good things that came out of 11 September was that Muslims were put in the spotlight. We could either have been cross about the whole situation, or take advantage of it. A lot of Muslims in Australia chose the latter. They used the tension of the time to their advantage, in terms of trying to change negative perceptions of Islam. Through media and through community work, for example.
There’s been eight years of engagement between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, now. A lot of the fear we had for each other has been allayed. I walk around in my hijjab, and it’s really not a big deal.
We have to ask: how have Malaysians been reacting to seeing you, a Caucasian woman, in a headscarf?
My husband and I first came here for our honeymoon. I had only been a Muslim for three years, by then. I became Muslim just before 11 September. So as soon as I converted, we were really in the spotlight — there was a lot of animosity. I thought: “When I come to KL, I’m finally going to belong, and no one’s going to look at me funny.”
When I came here, I found more people staring at me than they were back home. They were practically falling off their motorbikes.
During our honeymoon, we went to one of the main masjids to pray. When we got to the door, they let my husband in, but they looked at me and said: “No, no, only Islam.” I was seen as something of an anomaly, I suppose.
There has been less staring this time around, though.
At PAS’s 55th muktamar, some party delegates took the press to task because some women journalists didn’t cover their heads. This is just one example of the ongoing debate over whether women — not necessarily just Muslim women — should cover their heads. What’s with this fixation about headscarves?
The whole world, Muslims and non-Muslims, is obsessed with the headscarf. We cannot get past this one issue.
The hijjab is seen as the defining characteristic of the Muslim woman. I get really upset with the way men — and other women, too — try to control women by the way they dress. When you reduce a woman to a piece of material that is, or isn’t, on her head, it’s so belittling of the woman — and our religious tradition.
Look at how many times Allah talks about the way a woman should dress, in the Quran: two or three times. How many times does [Allah] talk about speaking the truth: many, many times more. In the broad scheme of things, there are so many things that are more important for a Muslim woman — or a Muslim man — than how he [or she] dresses.
I would really like to see a time when we can just get past the hijjab, and stop viewing women through that one-dimensional prism. If we could never have another discussion about the hijjab ever, I think that would be very fruitful.
The headscarf is only one out of a whole slew of issues that Muslim women face, today. What do you think is the main problem, when it comes to discussing Islam as it pertains to gender?
In Australia, a lot of people seem quite eager to speak on Muslim women’s behalf — but very rarely are Muslim women given the chance to speak, themselves.
The hijjab is politicised
(pic courtesy of Susan Carland)
You want to know about how we feel about wearing the hijjab, how about you ask us? Instead of talking to this imam, who says it’s a must; or that second-wave feminist, who sees it as absolute oppression. These, and everyone in between, are all talking about Muslim women: about what we want, and what we need, and how we feel.
Similarly with other women’s rights issues, like polygamy. Ask us about how we feel about it. Just let us speak for ourselves.
There are some really great Muslim women’s organisations that are doing some really positive, good things in Australia. But it can be a real uphill battle. They’re sometimes caught between a rock and a hard place.
On the one hand, like women everywhere, we experience sexism within the Muslim community. We try to deal with that, the way we see best. But the problem is that, if we speak out about it, it feels like we are betraying our community, and helping to exacerbate an already negative perception of Islam in Australia. So there’s a sort of double-blind — of sexism versus racism — that Australian Muslim women are constantly dealing with.
Sisters in Islam (SIS) recently came under fire from PAS, which declared that the Malaysian Muslim women’s group should be investigated and declared “haram” if it is found to be anti-Islam, saying that “SIS’s liberal views caused confusion and were a threat to Muslims’ faith”.
When I became Muslim, one of the things that appealed to me the most about Islam was its rich tradition of robust debate about what Islam actually was. There have been differences of opinion right from the time of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. His companions differed on what the Prophet meant, when he said certain things.
Right from the beginning we’ve had differences in opinion, and this was never seen as a bad thing — in fact, I think it’s healthy. Healthy debate about what the religion teaches is how the religion remains dynamic. And I think our scholarly tradition never had a problem with that.
What’s really un-Islamic, I think, is a lack of differences in opinion. I worry about the future of our religion, if we try to make everyone to fit into a certain mould. The reality is that none of us know the mind of God. We are all human beings, reading the Quran and Hadith, and reading them through our own prisms. I cannot say with certainty that my interpretation of the Quran is right, and yours is wrong.
I cannot know that. I think we need to be careful of placing ourselves as having the ultimate truth, because surely that would be syirik. Only God knows what the ultimate truth is.
PAS represents sections of Malaysian society that want to see Islamic precepts become law. What is your opinion on the idea of an Islamic state? Is it viable, or desirable?
The way that religious law was mandated at the time of the Prophet was from the inside out. By the time religious laws were implemented, people wanted to obey those laws for themselves.
My concern with what I see happening with Islamic states around the world today is that they seem to work from the outside in. We’ll beat you into doing this or that. We’ll make you cover your hair, and we’ll hit you if you don’t turn up for prayers.
But none of the internal work has been done. A number of people (in these countries) don’t have any desire to do this for themselves. But the whole point of all the religious laws we have is that they are meant to be ibadat to God.
If it is the state forcing you to obey, then there is no worship of God in that. That doesn’t sound like a healthy society, to me.
And it is often the vulnerable that seem to receive it the harshest: in a lot of the syariah states we see, the treatment of women is abhorrent, and the laws — some of them are completely horrendous. Like a woman punished for zina because she was raped — that’s a completely un-Islamic law, to me.
Maybe the way Islamic law is enacted in Malaysia could be awesome and perfect. I really hope that it would, and everyone would be happy, and it would be the ideal, utopian Islamic state…But, from what I see happening elsewhere, I don’t know.
A big part of considering Islamic law in a Malaysian context is its interaction with non-Muslim communities. While syariah laws ostensibly only pertain to Muslims, those outside the faith are already being affected. A case in point is the issue of conversion, in and out of Islam.
Apostasy has always been a very prickly issue for the Muslim community.
I guess the thing that reassures me is that there has been some very interesting scholarly debate on the topic. Some scholars like to think that this is an open and shut case: if you leave Islam, we should kill you. Other scholars think that this simply isn’t the case: if we look at the traditions of the Prophet, there were certainly times where people left Islam, and he said: “Just let them go.”
I have to say that I’m not a scholar. But the idea that keeping someone in a religion against their will is the ultimate good — that sits uneasily with me. It just seems to go against the whole purpose of Islam. If a Muslim is someone who submits to the will of God, and if someone genuinely believes in their heart, “I’m not Muslim, I don’t believe in this religion”, how can we keep them in the faith?
I have to be honest: I am an apostate, myself. I left the religion of my birth to convert to Islam. So, it feels hypocritical for me to then condemn the genuine faith journey of somebody else. How could I do that?