Remembering Cassandra Balchin

Farewell, friend...

When Sisters in Islam took the first steps in 2006 to form an international planning committee to plan what eventually became Musawah, Cass was one of the first persons I contacted to join the committee. I valued her critical thinking, her breadth of knowledge on Muslim family laws, her generosity in sharing contacts, expertise and the experts she knew in all her diverse areas of work and interests.

Because of her experience working with the international network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), Cass was able to bring to our deliberations a breadth and depth of exposure that spanned diverse regional and national contexts. Musawah wanted to be inclusive and break the forced binaries of religion vs secularism, Islam vs human rights, religious feminists vs secular feminists. We wanted our movement to be inclusive, and to bring new analysis and new scholarship that could be useful to those working towards equality and justice for women in Muslim contexts, be it from within Islam or human rights frameworks or a combination of both.

2008 Musawah Planning Committee Meeting, London

Cass persistently raised questions to make sure we remained true to our vision of inclusiveness. We must adhere to the holistic Musawah Framework for Action that combines arguments for reform grounded in Islamic teachings, human rights principles, constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination and the lived realities of women and men and family life today. We must be mindful of the impact of our work on those working exclusively within the human rights framework lest it was misunderstood that we were only promoting the religious framework. When we talked about the concerns of Muslim women and activists, we must include the concerns, needs and priorities of Muslims living in majority and also minority contexts, Muslims governed by codified and uncodified laws, Muslims demanding for reform of discriminatory laws and those resisting the backlash against progress made in family law reform.

At our first planning committee meeting in Istanbul in March 2007, I remember Cass at the breakfast table on the second day, expressing concern that women’s groups in the South Asian context might find that there might be “too much religion” in our approach to what eventually became the Musawah Framework for Action. She wanted us to be mindful that in some contexts in South Asia, we might be seen as de-legitimising  the work of those who had been working on family law reform from non-religious perspectives. So our language must be mindful of those whose priority was the human rights framework. There was limited progressive scholarship in Islam in that region to enable women’s rights and human rights activists to engage with an alternative vision of Islam to challenge the dominant discriminatory discourse, thus she felt any approach that included religion would be seen as problematic.This led to an intense and thoughtful discussion among the ten of us around the table from countries as diverse as Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and Britain. What was the purpose of calling for a global movement to promote equality and justice for women in Muslim contexts when there were already many other women’s groups at national, regional and international levels doing the same work. What was our added value, we asked ourselves.

We were able to reach agreement that what brought us together was the urgent need to address the concerns and  demands of those who believe in the paradigm of justice and equality but did not know how to deal with resistance, opposition and demonising by Islamist groups and patriarchal religious authorities  opposed to our activism for change. Thus a broader, more holistic framework that included religious arguments would be empowering to activists not just to deal with the Islamist opponents, but importantly to build support for change among women for whom religion mattered. Our added value would be in our approach to religion which would ground religious arguments holistically with human rights principles, constitutional guarantees of equality and lived realities of women and men today that would lead to breaking down the binaries and dichotomies used to divide us.  We came together to fill this yawning gap with new scholarship, analysis and strategies to strengthen our advocacy for reform towards a common goal.

2009 Musawah Launch - Global Meeting, Kuala Lumpur

As most of us in the planning committee came from Muslim majority countries, Cass was also mindful about the language we used and the concerns we expressed that might exclude the experience of Muslims living in minority contexts, especially in the West. Our struggle was also their struggle, even if the context might be different. From the cumbersome language of Muslims living in Muslim majority and minority countries, Cass introduced into the Musawah language an inclusive term of  “women living in Muslim contexts”, be it in majority or minority countries, in the West or the South.

She also drew our attention that in some countries, the concern of activists was not just with the need to reform family laws, but the need to maintain the progress already made against Islamist ideologues who denounced these changes as unIslamic and thus demanded a rollback. Thus our outputs should be useful not only to those demanding law reform but also to those protecting the existing rights they already enjoyed.

It is this breadth of outlook and insistence on always referencing back to the principles and vision we were committed to that made Cass’s contributions to Musawah invaluable to our ability to be vigilant of our commitment to diversity and inclusion.

But Cass is not all just work and principles. Her love for the Malaysian king of fruits, that thorny pungent durian that smells like hell and tastes like heaven also made her special to us. When a common friend was going to London to visit Cass in the hospice, we made sure she brought back Cass’s favourite “lempuk durian”, this gooey sweetmeat made of glutinous rice flour and coconut sugar stirred for hours with coconut milk and durian flesh. And not to forget her favourite “teh tarik” which she first had on Malaysian Airlines, a sweet concoction of strong tea with milk and sugar pulled and stretched from one cup to another to produce frothy hot milk tea which she so loved.

That Cass had a devoted group of selfless friends who took loving care of her in her hour of need is testament to the value she placed on friendship. She always brought thoughtful presents to us at meetings, be it our favourite food from London or little notebooks with our favourite pet, or special issues of magazines with our favourite subject, be it feminism or sports. But the most thoughtful present she brought me was an old piece of cobbler’s metal shoe horn that I could use as a weapon to kick the backsides of those who made my life difficult...

With love,

Zainah Anwar and all of us in Musawah


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