Today’s Muslim communities do not live in some sort of utopia built by Islam. Our societies are wrecked full of toxic masculine, misogynist and sexist attitudes and beliefs as well as practices. Our cultures from the west to the east are soaked in misogyny. Unless one is privileged enough to be sheltered away from the oppressive norms of our unrighteously patriarchal society, one can clearly see a case for a full blown women’s right movement within Muslim communities by Muslims themselves inspired by Islamic values and principles. One that calls itself Muslim and feminist.
If someone were to ask you why “Muslim feminism” exists, the simple reply would be that it would exist as long as “Muslim misogyny” exists. Feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights to achieve equality between the sexes. I would define “Muslim feminism” as the advocacy of women’s rights within the Islamic paradigm to reflect the respect and honour God has given to women. It is feminism anchored in the discourse of Islam with Revelation its driving authority, exegesis as its main methodology and International human rights standards its most useful tool. It seeks to form counter-narratives from Islamic jurisprudence, history and ethics that are liberating to Muslim women.
Muslims like other communities in locations that were colonized by white Europeans used to view “feminism” as just another something alien brought by their colonizers to intellectually and morally challenge their own ideologies and beliefs. Most Muslims are still in this intellectually colonized mindset fearing that all strains of feminism and that the very word itself itself reeks of secular liberalism that is the evil out there to destroy any tenet of the true religion. They base their ideas on a quick google search for why feminism is incompatible with Islam. Of course good and evil exist and our morality should not be rooted in other than our faith — but we can’t be that blind to see the good that such a feminist consciousness can do to society. There is also the question of whether feminism itself is a wholly western secular phenomenon?
The fear almost allergic reaction to the word “feminism” induced in the minds of most Muslim is not warranted at all, for feminists come from all schools of thought and from all cultures, backgrounds and locations. Some Muslim feminists have argued that feminism in Muslim communities almost predates western white feminism. These were simultaneous spontaneous awakenings sprouted up by the advent of modernity. So why can’t Muslims define “feminism” for themselves and take up the same spirit and consciousness of other women in other communities within their own cultures and communities? Are Muslim communities somehow immuned to the same misogyny that plagues other communities?
I am of the view that Muslim feminism is not an ideology. It is not a new set of beliefs and principles the roots of which are in the post-Enlightenment western secular liberal paradigm. Neither is it a new madhab. Many Muslim women believed they have to choose between their Muslim identity (which seem to betray their feminist consciousness) and their belief in gender equality (which seem to betray their faith). Why not then a feminist consciousness inspired by Islamic ideals that fights for Musawah (equality) in Muslim family laws and in the public spheres — in state, civil institutions, and everyday life.
Muslim feminism is a movement by committed (religiously practicing) Muslims who do not view the rising “feminist consciousness” of Muslim communities as a threat to Islam but as an opportunity to correct misogynist norms and attitudes and reinforce equality as defined by God himself. Muslim feminists are feminist Muslims — they are first and foremost Muslims committed to Islamic ideals and principles and who fulfills the Qur’anic mandate/commandment to strive for justice by also advocating for good treatment towards women and women empowerment. They may or may not publicly identify as “feminist” because it might not benefit them in their struggle.
Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so — for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. (Qur’an 33:35)
Islam the practiced faith was the most progressive movement in the 7th century. It was extremely radical in its beliefs and revolutionary in its practices . For the first time in recorded history, humans were taught that they were all equal in spite of differences in color, tribe and sex. Not just was the unity of the divine reinforced but the unity of all mankind was highlighted to the max. The Muslim Ummah was told that it was the middle nation and the best nation — enjoining what is good and forbidding what is immoral and evil.
Unlike many other faiths and philosophies of today, Islam is more than a faith. Like orthodox Judaism, it was meant to be a complete way of life. A guide for the internal aspects and the external aspects — right from how and why we can cleanse our souls and hearts to how and why we can cleanse our bodies and societies. Muslims are united in their love for God and His Messenger, upon whom they pray for peace whenever he (pbuh) is even mentioned. And Muslims are supposed to be united in obeying God and His Messenger (pbuh) as our guide to all aspects of our lives. How could we claim to love and respect whom and that which we don’t obey or take advice from?
It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error. (Qur’an 33:36)
However there is an unfortunate and largely disbelieved disconnect between the imagined religious utopia Muslim men imagine and the lived reality of women. Any religion can be used both for empowerment and for oppression. The Prophet (pbuh) was an infallible man — guided by Revelation through the Best of Angels —but his inheritors, the scholars who came after him, were not infallible men. They were products of their cultures and thus had their own cultural bias. And their words were a fallible products by human engagement with the divine texts. We see many examples of their infallibility in their classical works. There was a kind of gendered morality underlying their works. They had no scholarly tradition to challenge at that time but yet their works when taken literally create many problems and difficulties easily recognized by modern society. The Scholars of today even when they stay true to the revealed text of the Qur’an and that of the authentic ahadith, find themselves compelled to tow the line of historic scholarship that might not be all that just and enlightened.
On one hand you have these religious authorities — who do the service of not sugar coating or engaging in apologetics — and their women-bashing, women-oppressing statements and rulings, and on the other hand you have feminism with all its welcoming love and appreciation towards women. Where do you expect Muslim women to go to seek the care, appreciation and validation they need away from the oppressive norms of traditional patriarchy? Can we blame them? The problem isn’t Muslim women and their inherent rights and feelings and needs and grievances. It is how repelling and misogynist and difficult and rigid they find religious authorities to be. Of course they’ll be attracted to feminism!
We need “feminism” and Muslim feminist activists, scholars and rights’ groups that are grounded on Islamic principles and the Islamic spirit — to counter the misogynist attitudes prevalent in our societies especially those inspired and motivated by religiosity and literalism. Muslim societies need a dose of feminism to correct the historic grievances that women and girls suffer from. A strain of feminism that does not devalue motherhood and the importance of the family and is not suspicious of all men. A feminism that accepts that men are qawwam over women but that this means men must use their privilege to make this world a woman’s paradise. A feminism that is not a slippery slope to leaving the fold of Islam.
Muslim feminism visualizes an ideal Muslim society where women would not be terrified of the average religious Muslim man. Where women got married under laws that respected and honored the God-given sanctity and dignity of the woman. Where women are respected and given their full rights in their marriages and their homes. Where women were welcomed in masajidh and other religious institutions to learn and even teach the religion therein. Where women are free to pace their journey towards God and greater faith with true sincerity and intention and not cede to the bullying and judgement of others. Where the the concerns of women would be taken seriously, just like they were taken seriously by God and His Messenger (pbuh):
“God has heard the words of the woman who disputed with you [Prophet] about her husband and complained to God: God has heard what you both had to say” (Quran 58:1)
Western feminism has had much success in recent history. They’ve championed and given women worldwide the right to vote, the right to hold office, the right to own property, workplace rights, reproductive rights , legal equality as well as countered much of male violence. Of course western feminism strains of the 21st century may have some what is perceived to be anti-Islamic ideals — for example allying with and advocating to everything the LGBT community asks for including that gender identity should trump biological sex — but insofar that they don’t actively work towards that in our societies, Muslim feminists can and arguably should openly ally with them for the good of the greater society. That being said Muslim feminists should beware of falling to the complete disrepute from orthodox Islamic scholarship, feminists like Amina Wadud and Asma Sayeed have fallen into — resulting in them losing support from the greater Muslim community.
Islam does not claim to have a monopoly over humanity and humanitarian values — as it does with theology. Humanitarian values — such as international human rights standards — transcend Islam and are based on the fitrah found in the pure pristine nature of every human in the planet. The Prophet (pbuh) did praise councils that were even in the period of ignorance when they stood for justice and the rights of the oppressed — meaning some truths about moral values and human rights are universal and could be derived without Revelation. Muslims should stop arguing against wholesale bandwagon ideologies but instead reinforce faith while filtering and taking the good from these movements and adopting them for ourselves as an extension of these movements within our communities and cultures.
The popular almost omnipresent Islamic rhetoric by ignorant or bad faith Muslim that touts the complete liberation of women with the advent of Islam over 1,400 years ago, does nothing to alleviate actual women’s suffering today. Yes, we need to go back to early Islamic understanding — that is through its foundational text, the Qur’an and the example (and teaching) of the Messenger of God (PBUH) — but with the original rich courageous spirit of the earliest scholars of Islam. Yes, dajjal is in the future and the future would be worse than the present — but we must question ourselves whether we are contributing to the fitnah and oppression of Muslim women and actually driving them away from the faith itself.
This essay was first published in “Islam For You“