Soraya Deen, Muslim reform activist, on her mission to call on her Muslim community to “take the path of reforming, reviving, and reconstructing. Distinctions imposed on women in the 7th century can’t be the religious laws of today. We must move on.”

Published 8/1/2022

Soraya M. Deen is a lawyer by profession. She is also a practising Muslim who believes that Islam today must be reformed. Below, she tells AHA Foundation about her life and her work as an interfaith activist and explains why she is part of the Muslim reform movement. As a member of CLARITy Coalition (for more information on which, read our blog with another founding member of CLARITy, M. Zuhdi Jasser, here), Soraya is well placed to bring about real change for the betterment of her fellow Muslims and, indeed, the world.

*The opinions in this blog don’t necessarily reflect those of AHA Foundation*

AHA Foundation: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with us today, Soraya. First of all, could you tell us a little about your personal background and how it has influenced your activism? 

Soraya Deen: I was born in Sri Lanka. I believe that there are many influences in our life. One’s culture and geography, one’s childhood and upbringing shape one’s outlook and have a huge influence on our lives, philosophies, religious beliefs, and relationships.

I come from privilege. I had a very stable and happy childhood. I lived and grew up in a country where religious laws did not predominate social life. My parents came from a mixed religious background. My mother was a Buddhist and my father was a Muslim. So I know that tolerance works, that people of different beliefs and backgrounds can come together despite their differences.

My work is centered around fighting for dignity and human rights for women of faith. From Sri Lanka to the United States, Nigeria to Bangladesh, I see that women, particularly Muslim women, don’t enjoy the same privileges and opportunities as their male counterparts in places of worship. I want to change that. And to accomplish that, I continue to challenge patriarchy. This fight happens on many fronts, but all are united by the need to highlight these issues so that women and girls can challenge the deeply misogynistic and patriarchal societies they live in.

AHA Foundation: At the Parliament of the World’s Religions 2021, you gave an address in which you argued that we need “a religious revolution.” What convinced you of the need to reform Islam? Did this conviction grow over time and was there an event that solidified this decision for you? 

Soraya Deen: All theologies need reform and reinterpretation. All theology is contextual. As an interfaith activist, I have the privilege to learn and grow from multiple theologies. I see a lot of differences in the practitioners of other theologies when compared to the certainties in dogma and tradition upheld by most in the Muslim world. This must change. Because of our inability to understand the contextual realities when we interpret faith, too many, particularly women, are suffering.

My work takes me to the margins, where we live, listen and learn from the women who reside there. Often I have felt like a physician, trying to resuscitate an unconscious body.

Because my work is centered around gender equality, I have witnessed and been subjected to multiple layers of discrimination in the name of Islam. Scripture is often interpreted to disfavor women’s leadership and scholarship. National policy, state laws, tradition, and customs promote discrimination, often in subtle, complex, and hidden ways. My work takes me to the margins, where we live, listen and learn from the women who reside there. Often I have felt like a physician, trying to resuscitate an unconscious body.

In Islam, all too often, men assume the roles of superiority and have for centuries interpreted faith and religious norms. These rules and interpretations have disfavored women. They have in fact violated the fundamental human rights of women and girls.

We must take the path of reforming, reviving, and reconstructing. Distinctions imposed on women in the 7th century can’t be the religious laws of today. We must move on.

AHA Foundation: At the Parliament, you also discussed the role of religion in the oppression of women and the need for change. What was that like, and how does interfaith dialogue inform your activism?

Soraya Deen: That was a huge breakthrough. When an organization like the Parliament creates a space for women to air their theological grievances and limitations, it opens the door for more communication and discussion on the topic. We must promote ijitihad (independent reasoning).

In our interfaith interactions, we have failed to raise the issue of dignity and human rights for women of faith. We have instead bargained for comfort and moral complacency. We must shift from interfaith dialogue to interfaith action. I want to push that charge. This change is needed urgently. We can no longer afford to be on the periphery, only talking and not acting.

AHA Foundation: What, in your view, are the aspects of Islam today that are most in need of revolutionary transformation—and why do they need to change?

Soraya Deen: I don’t think we can change Islam. Islam is Islam. The difference is that we must LEARN how better to practice Islam. In the name of religion, female genital mutilation, child marriage and honor killings are taking place. These practices are not in the Qur’an but Muslim countries are pushing them. We must end these human rights violations.

Soraya uses her voice to call out injustice.

Muslims are lost in the practice of Islam. It is the Muslims who are freezing our theology. And very particularly the Muslim women are read a 7th century Bill of Rights. And I call on all women to stop the CONFORMITY. Stop the COMPLIANCE. CHALLENGE and question everything.

Human rights must take precedence over antiquated religious understandings.

The fear of rejection is a huge one. I have even been debilitated by it: not speaking soon enough, not speaking loudly enough. In the name of religion, one in four girls are married off as child brides. In areas of Nigeria, polygamy is rampant and thriving. Honor killings and forced conversions claim about 1000 lives a year in Pakistan, while blasphemy laws have targeted Christian minority women like Asia Bibi. In Saudi Arabia, guardianship laws and the forced hijab keep women down. This is all done in the name of Islam and it must change. Human rights must take precedence over antiquated religious understandings. Sadly, much of the harm done to the image of Islam and Muslims is done by Muslims.

This is why I have admiration for women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, your founder. We have had our differences in the past, but we are both committed to the Muslim reform movement, to challenging religious norms and oppression. What Ayaan says can sometimes be offensive, but her strong voice is essential—she wakes us up from our slumber, makes us aware of the injustice and oppression rooted in Islam today. We need thousands more like her.

AHA Foundation: What are the obstacles to achieving this change?

Soraya Deen: Often freedom of religion and belief are used as a justification to discriminate against women. Most women and the majority of Muslims also lack the knowledge to challenge the majority views. Scholars and academics have for centuries been debating and discussing Islam. Religious actors see gender equality as an ideology that threatens religious norms. Most of them have no understanding of the reality on the ground. 

For instance, polygamy in Nigeria contributes to poverty and extremism. I visited the Al Majri schools in Nigeria where Boko Haram is active. Children under the age of 7 are left in the care of Mullahs who indoctrinate them. They come from families of 10-15 siblings. I have personally met several men who have fathered 10-15 children. They have a warped understanding of the concept of polygamy. Because the Qur’an refers to it, they claim entitlements. They ignore the context. 

Scholars and religious actors must outlaw polygamy. It has no merit in the 21st century. Neither do child marriage and patriarchal custody and inheritance laws. These were for a time 1400 years ago, not the modern world.

AHA Foundation: When you look back on the years of your and other activists’ work for Muslim reform, do you see any progress? Is change occurring fast enough? 

Soraya Deen: Change is slow. The Christian Reformation took 500 years. When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in 1517, his action helped spark the Reformation, radically transforming Christianity and world history. We Muslims also need a Wittenberg. We need a Martin Luther.

AHA Foundation: Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are barely mentioned in the media anymore —has this led to a false perception that political Islam, or Islamism, is no longer a threat or is only an issue in far-away countries? 

What happens in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere must be a cause of concern for the U.S., too. We have zealots who are still wanting to usher in a caliphate, kill infidels, and subjugate women.

Soraya Deen: Yes, we live in a 24-hour news cycle, unfortunately. Political Islam is kind of localized. Countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are seeing much of the Islamization and the horrors of the implementation of Sharia by the Islamists. Extremism is manifesting in many forms. But what happens in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere must be a cause of concern for the U.S., too. We have zealots who are still wanting to usher in a caliphate, kill infidels, and subjugate women. 

The conditions are very bleak in South Asia. If allowed to fester, we will have a major problem on our hands. The U.S. must call on these governments to implement secular values and educate their citizens on these. We must stop protecting oppressive institutions and address the abuse and human rights violations that they cause.

AHA Foundation: Tell us about your activism—how do you put your ideals into practice?

Soraya Deen: Working in the margins, I know that when the faith-based leadership and scholarship of women are strengthened and uplifted we can truly transform society. 

I am a community organizer. I bring women together and teach them skills. I give them information that transforms their thinking. I ask them to identify what is broken in their communities. I ask how to help them fix what is broken. It’s a simple formula, but it needs commitment. And then when not one woman but groups of them come together and take collective action based on their self-interest, magic happens. It’s a beautiful process. I love watching and learning about what evolves.

With the Muslim Women Speakers Movement, we have a team of speakers. We travel and show up to speak on the need for change in the Muslim world. We have expert speakers who are well versed in the topics of antisemitism, gender equality, extremism, orthodoxy, patriarchy, child marriage, and more. We challenge the status quo. I am very excited about the new book I am writing on the taboos of the Muslim world and how they impact Muslim women.

AHA Foundation: Your activism means you have firsthand experience with “the women in the margins,” as you call them—please tell us about these women, why you work with them and what has this taught you about activism and community building. 

Soraya Deen: The civil rights activist Ella Baker once said, “Oppressed people do not need a messiah to deliver them from oppression. All they need is themselves, one another and the will to persevere.”

I see so much possibility when women come together. Most women have never run for political office because no one told them that they could. So bringing women together, helping them understand their self-interest, is critical for movement building. Community organizing is about empowering people to take action. Change can’t happen in board rooms.

AHA Foundation: You led prayers at the Qalbu Maryam Women’s Mosque in Berkeley, California, on April 14, 2017—what was that experience like? And how did the Muslim community react to having a Women’s Mosque in their midst? When did this first take place?

Soraya Deen: The Qalbu Maryam is the first mixed-gender mosque in Berkeley. Leading prayer there was one of the highlights of my life. And it was only possible because I live in this beautiful country, the U.S., where we seriously give meaning to the Bill of Rights. The Muslim community is opposed to women leading prayer. They have no good reason for this opposition. Some say it will distract the men, some say it was not allowed during the Prophet’s time, and some say women have no knowledge. See how all these flimsy reasons can be infuriating? 

We need to preach to young girls about a new possibility. A possibility of an Islam without patriarchy and misogyny.

AHA Foundation: Tell us more about the Women’s Mosque movement and your involvement with it.

Soraya Deen: We need to preach to young girls and women about a new possibility. Men must know what role they must play in that new possibility. A possibility of an Islam without patriarchy and misogyny.

A few years ago I was in Paris with my 13-year-old daughter. Upon entry to the mosque, I was forced to wear a garb handed over by a man at the entrance. Later we were directed to a dimly lit basement-like area for prayer. Meanwhile, the men prayed on the well-decorated, spacious upper floors. This must change. How can I teach my daughter to be proud of her community, or the place we go to pray, if we are treated this way at our mosques? The marginalization of women in mosques is prevalent: they often have to use side entrances to enter the mosques. There has been a little progress, but far from enough.

AHA Foundation: So, based on years of your experience, tell us, what is the path forward to enact change in Islam and stand up to the Islamists? 

Soraya Deen: Build women’s movements. For centuries men with beards have failed us. I believe that we must deconstruct received theologies and deconstruct the supremacy of patriarchy. Education is critical.

AHA Foundation: Are you hopeful for the future? Would you like to add anything else, perhaps a message to our readers? 

Soraya Deen: I would add the following. Human rights and dignity are bipartisan issues. Muslim women need bipartisan support. Muslims must address the pervasive practices and the interpretation of Islam that is intolerant. Cherry picking problems to depict the entire religion as bad is also not helpful. Muslims must make contemporary sense between revelation and reason.

And yes, I am very hopeful for the future. Some of the most important social movements in the past were headed by women. Women are coming together, building solidarity. Technology is on our side. News travels fast. People are more aware. So I keep moving forward, in the belief that one day, we will succeed and justice will prevail.

Watch Soraya’s 2021 Address at the Parliament of World Religions

Follow Soraya on Twitter

Read More: M. Zuhdi Jasser on CLARITy Coalitions Fight Against Islamism