An 'Islamic feminist' on why she's not an oxymoron

Sherin Khankan. (Photo: Courtesy of Sherin Khankan)

Sherin Khankan is misunderstood. Ever since launching Denmark’s first and only woman-led mosque in 2016, she’s been regularly accused of being a radical Muslim. But that’s something the self-described “Islamic feminist” says could not be further from the truth.

“I believed it was time to change the patriarchal structure of Islam for a new generation of Muslims by rereading the Koran with a focus on women’s rights, on gender equality, and by promoting female Muslim leadership in the mosque,” the country’s first female imam, or mosque prayer leader, tells Yahoo Lifestyle, about her Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen.

Khankan, 43, is, in fact, the poster-child example of a modern Muslim woman who fits neatly into Western society — where many not only view Islam as oppressive, male-dominated, and threatening to long-standing democratic institutions, but may also have a negative view of Muslim women as being restricted in their own free will, from pursuing education to choosing what they can wear.

But this Denmark-native imam, just for starters, is openly stylish — with a penchant for long, Victorian-era dresses — and just so happens to look like a supermodel (though she claims to have never read a fashion magazine). She does not wear a hijab unless she’s praying. Then there is, of course, the fact that she’s outspoken, specifically about women’s rights and gender equality, having just released her first book, Women Are the Future of Islam, which she wrote in French. She balances religious leadership with single parenting — her four children range in age from 6 to 13 — as she and her husband were recently divorced, though they are “very close friends” who still gather the family altogether several times a week, she says.

Khankan is not who she is to fit some kind of Western ideal. And if she and the Mariam Mosque are a good fit for Denmark or any other Western nation, it’s more out of happenstance than intention.

Fifteen years ago, Khankan spent time in Syria, which exiled her father, a well-known political activist and poet, in the 1970s (her mother is Finnish). That was followed by time in Egypt; both trips led to her master’s thesis on Islamic activism. During that time, she pored over the Koran and other Islamic texts, learning from the writings of Sufi scholars (Islamic mystics) and carefully observing everything that was happening around her.

Khankan was not raised Muslim; she came to the faith herself, she says, when it felt like the right thing for her personal spiritual journey. She says she was inspired to start a woman-led mosque when attending the Friday prayers at Abu Nur, in the Syrian capital of Damascus, where women pray separately from men (as is the case in most mosques that allow women to worship at all). Friday, the sixth day in the Islamic week, is a particularly important day for prayer, she explains, “and I asked around to women, ‘What if the Friday prayers were led by a female imam?’ They said it would be interesting, but do we have women who have the knowledge to lead a Friday prayer?”

On that front, no one can challenge Khankan — which may be why she has not had any real pushback from the male Islamic clergy in Denmark. And yet her goal is not to isolate women from men (one of the Mariam Mosque’s board members is male) or to propagate a different kind of Islam that’s only for women.

The idea of a female imam is in fact not as radical as it may seem, Khankan points out: Umm Salama, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, and Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr, the first caliph (chief Muslim ruler) to succeed Muhammad, were imams in the Prophet’s house in the city of Medina (in Saudi Arabia). And the Prophet personally requested one of his female contemporaries, Umm Waraqa, to lead a prayer group of both men and women in her home. China has had female imams since the mid-1800s, and today there are women who are practicing imams in several other countries, including Germany, Canada, and the U.S.

But most people are unaware of this, however, because the teaching and practice of Islam has, over the centuries, become male-dominated and appropriated, says Khankan, whose reading of Islamic texts finds no reason for women to be banned from mosques. “So that today, if you ask people and they tell you that women can’t be imams,” she says, “it’s purely out of ignorance.”

She is firm in stating that it’s Islam itself, and not Western European thought, that’s inspired her.

“For me, Islamic feminism is a tool and a means to not only change the prevailing narrative that Islam is male-dominated, but to widen the understanding of Islam and the knowledge that men and women have equal rights, equal choices, and the same possibilities,” she says.

“When I give a sermon, I read about six verses from the Koran and then reread an interpretation based on gender equality,” she notes. “I speak about issues related to women’s rights, but I also address broader themes in our society, like homophobia and Islamophobia, because I believe these are important.”

Except for the Friday prayers, which are for women only (the result not of Khankan’s wish, but a group decision by founding members), the Mariam Mosque is open to everyone. Khankan views it not only as a place of prayer, but also as a center for education and spiritual care. A mosque should offer guidance, she says, for all aspects of life — marriage, divorce, and even conversion.

Of these, she highlights marriage, and the Mariam Mosque’s marriage contract, which respects every principle of Islam, yet forbids polygamy (Islamic law permits men to have up to four wives at one time) and gives a woman the same right to divorce as a man. (Although Islam grants women the right to divorce, a number of cultures have made this a right for men only.) Thus far, Khankan has performed 16 weddings at the mosque, and a number of these have been interfaith marriages.

Of all her efforts, she says, “I’m hoping that by focusing on women’s rights, and by showing a new generation of Muslims that women have the same rights as men in Islam, we’ll develop a movement that can, over time, become powerful in changing institutions.”

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