Denmark | Sherin Khankan

“Psychological abuse exists everywhere”

Words: Anne Sofie Hoffmann Schrøder | Images: Charlotte de la Fuente

Sherin Khankan, 45, is Denmark’s first female Imam and the founder of Exitcircle, an NGO for victims of psychological abuse. Although her vocation has cost her a marriage and attacks from conservative Muslims, as well as right-wing politicians, she insists on the necessity to build bridges between worlds.

Your father is a Syrian refugee and your mother is Finnish, and you were raised in Denmark. How did your upbringing shape you, your religious identity and your goal in life?

I was brought up between two different worlds, between the East and the West. Since I was a child, I felt that my mission in life was to reconcile oppositions and contrasting worldviews, and build bridges. My mother is Christian and my father is Muslim. She’s an immigrant from a village in Finland, he’s a political refugee from Damascus in Syria. Both of them are my role models. They taught me forgiveness, generosity, pluralism, anti-dogmatism and open-heartedness. Both of them have a spiritual approach to religion.

I was born Muslim, but raised both as a Christian and a Muslim. We had the freedom to choose our religion. I made an active choice to become a practising Muslim when I was 19. I like the Islamic prayer, I don’t believe in the Trinity nor that Jesus is the son of God. But at the end of the day, the core values of Christianity and Islam are the same. It’s the same God, it’s just different theological roads [that lead to] to the same place.

Who inspired you to become a feminist?

Both of my parents are feminists, and they introduced me to feminism through their marriage; the way they love and respect each other. My father has always loved, respected and served my mother, my sister, me and the women in our family. He used to quote the Muslim poet, philosopher and Sufi academic Ibn ‘Arabi, who said that “the perfect man is a woman”, and he introduced me and my sister to Sufi literature. Later on, I started to study Islamic feminism through Amina Wadud, Margot Badran, Kecia Ali and Fatema Mernissi.

Are there any Danish feminists who had an impact on you, or are you primarily inspired by Islamic feminists?

I am inspired by Mathilde Fibiger, one of the first feminist authors in Denmark. She wrote her first book in 1850 at age 20 called “Clara Raphael’s Twelve Letters”, in which she introduces the core values of feminism at a time where women were not allowed to give speeches.

But my primary inspirations have come from the East and not from the West. When I wrote my thesis about Islamic activism and Sufism in Damascus, I was inspired by the female activists in the mosque. In August 2001, after I came back from Syria, I started the organisation Critical Muslims with Muslim female academics who had a critical approach to the patriarchal readings of the Quran. We were promoting Islamic pluralism and the separation between religion and politics, and that’s when the idea of a women-led mosque was born.

In 2014, you founded the nonprofit Exitcircle, which helps women and men in physically and mentally abusive relationships. Why is it important to focus on psychological abuse? Have you had any personal experiences with it?

It was precisely because of my personal experience with psychological abuse in a relationship that I was inspired to start the Exitcircle. When I was being abused, I needed to speak to others who were going through the same thing, but I had nowhere to go. So I established a nonprofit with self-help groups where women could share their stories and find a way out of their loneliness and pain with the use of cognitive psychotherapy. We now have 12 weekly self-help groups across Denmark.

Psychological abuse is a plague in our society and within any society, culture and community. It’s a hidden [form of] violence, it doesn’t leave any bruises on your body. So it’s easy to normalise it, both for the victim and for the abuser, which is an effective tool to keep the vicious circle going. Last year, in 2019, Denmark criminalised psychological abuse. This is a very important step to help the victims break free from the abuse.

In 2016, you co-founded the first female-led mosque in Scandinavia with female Imams and its own manifesto with 9 principles of Muslim reform called the Mariam mosque. Which principles are most important to you and why?

The three most important principles are: A woman’s right to become an Imam, to interfaith marriages and to Islamic divorce. These are new narratives in Islam and important reforms. Today, we have three female Imams in the mosque and they call to prayer, lead the prayer and deliver the khutba, the sermon. In Islam, the human voice calls to prayer and not the church bells, so it’s a concrete way of giving voice to women.

Then there’s their right to inter-religious marriages. I’ve conducted over 60 Islamic marriages in the Mariam mosque, and the majority of them were inter-religious marriages with a Muslim woman and non-Muslim man. It should be a basic right to choose your love partner. It’s a widespread opinion among conservative practising Muslims, Orthodox Jews and others with a dogmatic approach to religion, that women cannot marry outside of their religion. We have to challenge this.

The third reform is a Muslim woman’s right to Islamic divorce. Twice a week, I’m contacted by women who want an Islamic divorce. Even though the Quran clearly states that men are not allowed to keep women in a marriage against their will, many Imams and religious leaders all over the world have normalised a tradition where only men can ask for a divorce. So some women are trapped in psychologically or physically abusive marriages.

“My husband told me that I had to choose between my family and my activism. I wanted both.”

In the Mariam mosque, we’ve constructed a new Islamic marriage contract that gives women the right to divorce, that states that polygamy is forbidden, and if mental and physical abuse occur, the marriage is annulled. Most importantly, we fuse Danish legislation and Islamic guidance together. You can’t marry in our mosque unless you’re married according to Danish law, and if you’re divorced according to Danish law, you’re immediately divorced Islamically. Danish law is always above Islamic guidance.

As an Imam, how do you interpret the Quran, the Islamic sources, surahs and hadiths in a feminist way? And disentangle Islam from its patriarchal roots?

When we started the Mariam mosque, a lot of Muslims said that female Imams went against the Islamic traditions and theology. But we are on safe theological ground, and I do believe that Islamic feminism is rooted in the Quran. At the time of the prophet in Medina, at least three women lead the prayer: Aisha, Umm Salama and Umm Waraqa. Umm Waraqa was appointed by the prophet. But these are stories left untold, and it’s our aim to share and disseminate these stories to a new generation of Muslims.

There are more than 6000 verses and 114 chapters in the Quran, and only six chapters could be interpreted as discriminatory against women, but they can also be interpreted differently. So in the Mariam mosque, we are re-reading the Quran and those six verses with a focus on gender equality. There is a verse in the Quran that’s always used by patriarchal Muslims, as well as Islamophobes, to state that women are oppressed in Islam. The verse says that men are above women. In Arabic it is “qawwamuna”, but it has many different meanings. One meaning could also be that men should support women instead of being above them. This is an example of how to reread the Quran and create change by combining knowledge with activism.

You have chosen not to wed homosexual couples in the Mariam mosque. Is there a limit as to how progressive or reformist you can interpret Islam as an Imam in your mosque?

I held an inter-religious speech at a homosexual wedding, but the mosque is not conducting same-sex marriages. If you want to create change, you have to do it wisely and be strategic. If you burn all the bridges, you cannot be a bridge builder or a reconciler. We have devoted ourselves to three main battles with the fight for female Imams, women’s rights to divorce and interfaith marriages, so we’re on safe theological ground when it comes to these fundamental changes. But when it comes to same-sex marriages, it’s complicated. If we carry too many battles on our shoulders, we will lose our legitimacy. We have to compromise. So while we think same-sex marriages are an important battle, somebody else will have to take it on their shoulders.

“I see that women inspire other women to act.”

Do you think that you can create a bigger change by creating a community than you could as an independent Imam?

I thought about being an independent street Imam and being available to any person seeking my help. That way, I could go all the way on my own and not compromise on any of my personal values and beliefs. But I had already started working on my vision for the Mariam mosque in 2001, with Critical Muslims, so I had to compromise on some of my personal values in order to create a religious community.

The art of compromising is important. When you transform a movement into an institution like a mosque, and you’re institutionalising Islamic feminism in a very concrete way, you become more powerful than you could be on your own.

In your 2018 book “Women are the Future of Islam”, you wrote that “blood will be spilt and marriages dissolved when women challenge male dominance.” What makes you say that?

I’m referring to my own marriage. In the beginning, my ex-husband was supportive of a women’s mosque. But when he realised that I was going to become one of the female Imams, and was conducting and actively promoting interfaith marriages, it was a dealbreaker. So he gave me an ultimatum: Either I could be his wife or become an Imam. He told me that I had to choose between my family and my activism. I told him that I wanted both. For him, that wasn’t an option. Even though people say they want change, it’s often difficult for them to be close to the changemakers and those challenging the status quo.

You were not willing to compromise with your husband in order to maintain your community with him?

No. I choose my children above everything, and everything I do as an activist is for them and their future. I have four children, two girls and two boys, and I know that the chances of them falling in love with a non-Muslim are very high since we live in Denmark. And one day, they might ask for interfaith marriages.

You have met opposition and criticism for your work at Exitcircle and the Mariam mosque from both right-wing politicians and conservative Muslims. How does the criticism affect you?

I separate my work in the Exitcircle, which is a non-religious NGO, strictly from my volunteer work at the Mariam mosque. Still, I’ve been met with criticism from both Danish right-wing politicians accusing me of being a radical Islamist as well as from conservative Muslims claiming that female Imams are against the Islamic message. I always focus on the support.

The opposition from the outside is like water, I shed it. But the criticism from my family has affected me. I lost my marriage along the way. My father was, like my ex-husband, against me being a female Imam at first, and said I should renounce my title. He didn’t speak to me for a whole month, but then he slowly accepted his destiny. My grandfather used to call to prayer in Syria in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. So it’s in my blood. It runs in our family.

What do you think of the #MeToo movement?

The #MeToo movement has been a game-changer on so many levels and is a forceful movement against our normalisation of sexual harassment and sexual violence. It has inspired me a lot. I believe that magical things happen when you move from being a small circle to a massive movement. We often have women from the UK, France, Finland, Norway and Sweden joining our Friday prayer at the Mariam mosque. We inspire other women just as we were inspired by women before us. There have been female Imams in China, the US, Canada and in Germany for many years. Like with the #MeToo movement, I see that women inspire other women to act.

What challenges regarding gender equality do we still face in Denmark?

There is still quite a [significant] gender pay gap, and there are fewer female than male chairpeople. Patriarchal structures and psychological abuse still exist in many families. In our self-help groups at Exitcircle, seven out of 10 women are ethnic Danish women married to ethnic Danish men, and they’re also trapped in psychologically abusive marriages with extreme patriarchal structures, so it’s everywhere.

What crucial bill could improve women’s rights on a European level?

I am working for Muslim women’s rights to interfaith marriages and divorces, which also affects non-Muslim people falling in love with Muslims. That’s my contribution to Europe and to equality here. We have couples coming from Norway and Sweden and the UK, France, they travel to this little mosque in Copenhagen because they’re not able to find an Imam in other European countries who can conduct the marriage.

On a legislative level in Europe, I think it’s important that we have an increasing number of female leaders. That in itself is a very important symbolic step into creating equality.

What dreams do you have on behalf of your daughters’ future?

I was brought up in a strong and loving nuclear family. The greatest gift you can give your children is having parents who love and respect each other and stay together. I wanted to give my children the same as I had, and I’m very sad that my children had to suffer because of the divorce. But on International Women’s Day on 8 March, my son told me: “You are changing the world for so many women,” and I felt I had done well as a parent after all. But I do hope my children will find loving and supporting partners.