Living Islam

SHAZEERA Ahmad Zawawi has many interests and is into many things, among them human-rights advocacy. Yet when she ventures out, many people seem to see only one side of her. While attending a human-rights conference in Canada, for instance, the 27-year-old Malaysian received many quizzical looks and was asked: “How does your headscarf fit with your human-rights activities?”

The question was followed up by queries regarding her opinion on various human-rights issues, including homosexuality, polygamy, and women’s rights. There seemed to be a suggestion in these questions that her preference to wear a headscarf somehow signified a stance against homosexuality, but supported polygamy and ignored women’s rights. Zawawi, however, had a very simple reply: “Yes, I am a Muslim, but I’m a human being first.” She explains that she sees others first as a human being with all of their rights, before their other identities, such as Muslim or Christian. Obviously, she would like to be treated that way, too, and for others to see her faith beyond their negative stereotypes of it.

Zawawi says she is part of a “living” Islam, as opposed to a static version of her faith. She describes “living Islam” as a religion that comes from her heart, a religion that can live easily with diversity, and a religion that prefers to engage in dialogue with other existing faiths. “I live,” she says, “in an Islam that does not judge.”

Zawawi is from a family that is comfortable with having opinions that may not necessarily be the same as those of the majority’s. Her grandfather Haji Mahmud, for example, was involved in Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya, or Malayana Melayu National Party. A leftist movement during the colonial era, the organisation combined the spirit of Islam with nationalism and socialism. And so no one was surprised when Haji Mahmud’s granddaughter, while waiting to take her university entrance examinations, volunteered as an English teacher for children at a programme run by the Parti Islam SeMalaysia or PAS, the strongest opposition party in Malaysia.

It was PAS’s lively, open-minded debate about Islam that had Zawawi joining the Persatuan Mahasiswa Islam (PMI) – the Islamic Students Association – when she was already at the University of Malaya. Yet she soon decided that PMI was not for her. Interestingly enough, even there, Zawawi was often questioned about her headscarf. The query, however, was not really about her wearing one; rather, it focused on why it failed to conform to what others thought it should be according to their interpretation of Islamic law. PMI senior members said a proper Muslim woman like Zawawi should wear a larger, longer, black headscarf that would cover all of her head, as well as her shoulders and chest. But the steadfast young woman stood her ground.

Zawawi says she wanted to show that Islam has nothing to do with a desire to subjugate the other or to force conformity. Islam, she says, is about opening up and accepting diversity because it is a faith that is a rich mosaic. That was why Zawawi also refused to join PMI’s demonstration to oppose a music concert on campus. She says the event was not even a Western-style rock concert but one of Indian music. She realised, she says, that those who were against the concert were primarily afraid the campus would lose its “Islamic nature” – “Islamic” being defined according to their own narrow views.

Today among Zawawi’s advocacies is the rights of Malaysia’s indigenous peoples. At her office in Kuala Lumpur, she works while listening to Stellarstarr, an obscure rock group from New York. On one corner of her desk is a used rock concert ticket, a souvenir from a rock festival in Bangkok. And on her head is her headscarf – not black or very long, but modest and comfortable. Zawawi is living Islam even as she is surrounded by reminders of her own mantra: “Yes, I’m a Muslim, but I’m a human being first.” – Mujtaba Hamdi