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Faith — Muslim women want to know more about their religion. This is why they seek out Islamic teaching at the mosques, according to a new PhD dissertation from the University of Copenhagen.
She has done it ever she was a kid. Every Saturday from 10 to 16, Rawan Al-Sidani and 25 other young men and women are in front of the whiteboard at their local mosque. The morning is for the studies of Fiqh – Islamic jurisprudence. What is the correct way to pray? How do you wash yourself before prayer? These kind of questions. Then there is a lunch break, and in the afternoon the level of reflection increases, and they recite and discuss the Koran.
»I feel that my faith is given a boost when I leave the mosque on Saturdays. I’m ready for the week and ready for my daily life,« says 24-year-old Rawan Al-Sidani.
And many Muslim women are like her. They want to learn more about their religion and attend teaching in Islam at their mosques, and seek out knowledge about Islam via book clubs and even YouTube tutorials. This is according to a new PhD dissertation from the University of Copenhagen by a researcher in the study of religion Maria Lyngsøe.
She does not know Rawan Al-Sidani. But she has interviewed 25 other women with ages ranging from 22-67 who, like Rawan, attend Islamic teaching. She has also observed teaching in several mosques in Greater Copenhagen.
»It surprised me how much it means to these women to educate themselves in Islam, and how much time they actually spend on it. This is particularly interesting because there is a widespread prejudice that the Islamic faith is male-dominated,« says Maria Lyngsøe. She says that the Danish women’s commitment to this is nothing exceptional.
»There is talk of an Islamic revival in the field of international research on religion in these years. Resourceful Muslim women, in particular, prioritise teaching and education in Islam. The research shows that it also provides them with opportunities to take up new positions in an Islamic setting,« says Maria Lyngsøe.
Rawan Al-Sidani is from Iraq, but was born in Lebanon and grew up in Denmark. Today she is doing her master’s degree in Middle Eastern languages and society at UCPH. When Rawan Al-Sidani grew up in a small village in the western part of the main Danish island of Zealand, she was the only brown-skinned child in her school for many years. She was the only Muslim. She was the only person from the Middle East and the only one who wore a headscarf.
I feel that we Muslims need to be able to defend ourselves in Denmark. Because no-one else does it.
»There were so many questions directed at me and my person all the time. Why do I not celebrate Christmas? Why do I not drink alcohol? Why do I not eat pork?« says Rawan Al-Sidani.
»So I needed to be able to defend myself. And to seek out knowledge so that I could make my own decision about my religion and learn more about who I am.«
This is pretty much the same response that a lot of the women offer to Maria Lyngsøe in her own research. They experienced uncertainty about their religiosity, typically in their teenage years, because they, like other Muslims that grew up in Denmark, often had to deal with being different, explains Maria Lyngsøe. And then it’s good to be able to answer all of the questions. Both those that come from without, and those that come from within.
»It might be a colleague who constantly asks questions about why you are fasting and who is genuinely curious. Or it may be a more indefinable feeling that people question your religion in public, or in the news,« says Maria Lyngsøe.
»The women say, therefore, that they need to understand the meaning behind their identification as Muslims, and behind the specific practices like prayer and fasting.«
The questions from the outside world have frustrated Rawan Al-Sidani for a long time. As a child and a young woman, she has been yelled at, spat at, and subjected to serious discrimination in other ways. And she experiences that racism in the public conversation has become more and more explicit.
»I have often felt rejected in this country. I felt that I could only be accepted by opening my mouth and speaking out. And by being clear in my argumentation. I have achieved this by going to the mosque and receiving more academic, and religious, explanations of why I do not drink alcohol, and why the Koran is not the oppression of women, even though I often see this argument being used,« says Rawan Al-Sidani.
»It can seem harsh, but I feel that we Muslims need to be able to defend ourselves in Denmark. Because no-one else does it.
Neither Rawan Al-Sidani, nor the women Maria Lyngsøe have spoken to, simply attend classes in the mosques in order to be able to better defend their religion. It is just as much about spirituality, and about achieving »the presence of the divine in everyday life,« says Maria Lyngsøe. Because when the verses of the Koran are not just things you know how to recite correctly, but also something that you work with reflexively, this also expands your perspective on your own life.
It’s a free space for me. A place where I don’t have to adapt.
One of the women Maria Lyngsøe spoke to had an Islamic reading club with a group of her girl friends. Each time they met up, they had read a new book which they discussed. Just like many other reading clubs, but with an Islamic perspective. Another woman met up with a larger group of women at home, where they read the verses from the Koran and talked about how they can use the verses in their own lives. Rawan Al-Sidani often does this with her classmates at the Saturday classes.
»It is very broad topics that the verses revolve around. Like mercy. Then we all offer our own interpretations of how we ourselves work with mercy, at school and at home,« she says.
Rawan Al-Sidani is overtaken by a certain peace of mind when the loudspeaker summons them to prayer.
»In Iraq you hear it in the streets everywhere five times a day, but in Denmark it is only in the mosques,« she says.
»This is a free space for me. A place where I don’t have to adapt myself to my surroundings.«
A large group of the women that Maria Lyngsøe has spoken to, have either started or have completed a higher education degree programme. Maria Lyngsøe does not therefore find it to be strange that the many Muslim women have a bookish curiosity in Islam,
»These women have the resources, the habits, and the wish to work intellectually with Islam, just as they have in many other areas. There are a lot of ways to be curious about your beliefs, but to go to Islamic teaching is a specific way to sit down with a book or a teacher, in order to learn more,« she says.
And even though religion and science are sometimes described as contradictory, the women Maria Lyngsøe have spoken to do not consider their Islamic education and quest for knowledge to be at odds with their academic standards as teachers, educators or academics.
»To be dedicated to religion, as these women are, is about having a certain worldview. And it’s not just something you do between 4pm and 8pm, so it’s clear that women do not feel that this worldview is at odds with the rest of their lives. Like a woman who, for example, looked at her work in the world as a doctor from the ethical viewpoint of a Muslim,« says Maria Lyngsøe.
As a student, Rawan Al-Sidani takes her religion with her. She certainly does not believe that it prevents her from being able to separate her own separate viewpoints from objective knowledge. It does however offer some insights into religion from the inside.
»I don’t just select knowledge because it supports the opinions I already have. I would like to be challenged and learn about other ways of looking at the world. I had, for example, a subject called Gender and Sexualities in the Middle East. And I was just like, okay, hit me.«
In the teaching, Rawan Al-Sidani said that her instructor claimed that women in the Middle East stay at home because they are subjected to patriarchal norms and »Islamic principles«.
»But Muslim women have always been active individuals. It is for political reasons that people in the Middle East tend to exclude women in society – not for religious reasons. But religion and politics are often mixed together,« says Rawan Al-Sidani.