Collective and Isolated: The Realities of Muslim Women’s Activism

Collective and Isolated: The Realities of Muslim Women's Activism

There is an artificial barrier between Muslim women’s activism and “religious” leadership.

– Amaara Garda, South-African Activist

The phrase “Muslim Woman” has in recent times become more political than personal. In a world filled with hatred for Islam and anything associated with it, where Muslim women stand out in a sea of people, where our voices are stifled both within and outside our communities, we welcome every opportunity to discuss the politics of our existence and how we choose to define ourselves. Around the world, women with a lived body of knowledge and experience of what it means to be a Muslim woman are embarking upon series of self-led activism both in the virtual and physical worlds. These women have to grapple with the mental and physical toll of activism on the human body and mind. Many of them use their social media platforms to advocate for change, some of them teach courses that prioritize the empowerment and wellbeing of Muslim women and some have sat on women’s rights committees and equality groups. They do these without expecting praise or recognition because they are committed to making the world a better place for women to live in.

Acknowledging the hard work of Muslim women’s activism is, however, easier than answering the questions, “What are the realities of Muslim women’s activism? What are the perks and challenges? Is it collective and collaborative? or is it sectional and isolated? And how far have Muslim women gone with regards to progress?” The Muslim Women Times’ editorial team spoke with women from diverse backgrounds and their responses are as interesting as they are thought-provoking.

The Challenges of Muslim Women’s Activism

South African activist, Amaara Garda talked to us about the hardest part of women’s rights activism in Muslim communities. According to her, “There is an unwillingness on the part of the community to explore the idea of women’s rights in Islam. There is this rush to condemn any woman who speaks for women’s rights as being non-religious. And when some of us have tried to explain the dangerous ways culture & religion become mixed — we are shunned. Women’s rights activism calls for introspection on the part of men, and sometimes on the part of women. And I don’t think the Muslim community appreciates introspection in that way. I think people are scared to analyse their lives and norms and to change them – so it’s easier to prevent that introspection from ever happening if that makes sense? There is an artificial barrier between Muslim women’s activism and “religious” leadership.”

One of the strengths of any activism is collaboration and cooperation. The question of whether Muslim women’s activism is collective or Isolated is a difficult one to answer, Arab-American advocate, Serine X was, however, unapologetically honest about the situation: “I do not think there really is true “collective activism” among Muslim women.” She says “We have a lot of conflicting perspectives on what Muslim women’s rights are.” In her words, many women who claim to be for women’s rights are simply regurgitating patriarchal views about family structure. To them, a patriarchal approach to marriage guarantees that women are taken care of and that if she does her job of raising children, then she is free to study her religion as a secondary priority. The irony is that they strip women of their choices when it comes to education, work, family, raising children, marriage, amongst others. The Quran does reference that men should be inclined to be responsible for those that depend on them, but that does not mean that women are meant to be subservient to them. This group of women misconstrue the referenced ayah and misinterpret that God granted men authority and that women should obey them. Also, it is important to note that this group does advocate for rights to education for women, but that if education is an inconvenience to the family structure, then it should be dropped.”

It doesn’t however end there, Serine X thinks that there is another group of women who make the work of activism utterly challenging for Muslim women. First, the group “that asserts that the concept of hijab is archaic and that Islam is patriarchal and should be changed to comply with modern times, doing the same as the aforementioned group: stripping women of their rights to choose.” and lastly, “the group that seems desperate to prove that the Quran gave Muslim women their rights in its early stages and that Muslim women don’t need feminism today because the Quran already did its job, but this is nothing but an apologetic argument.” 

Fatima Temitope Adeiye, a women’s rights activist based in Nigeria explained that the challenges of being an activist are really heavy. “You have people labelling you as anti-Islam and telling you how your “agenda” is not compatible with Islam, A lot of the times, we find that there’s widespread ignorance and misunderstanding with regards to women’s rights. When for example, you simply express your choice to keep your surname after marriage, they assume that it’s due to westernisation.”

Speaking on the lack of support from the Muslim community, Amaara Garda explained that “there are niche pockets of activism accepted in the Muslim community, so only certain causes are seen as acceptable (i.e. Palestine) while others are deemed off-limits (i.e.: mental health, GBV amongst others) That makes it very isolating to advocate for those causes.

Personally I’ve been slandered and mentioned in Jumu’ah lectures, Facebook posts and mosque groups because community members felt that I had ulterior motives… and I know for a fact that i haven’t faced the most antagonism because there are extreme cases of activists being followed home and having their phones constantly called.

– Amaara Garda

On reflecting on why she thinks the Muslim community in South Africa is apathetic towards women’s rights activism, Amaara tells us that “It obviously stems from not wanting to see outspoken Muslim women who want to disrupt the status quo… and even though we may not be affected by the comments and remarks made by some of these leaders themselves — it often makes me question whether what I’m doing is helping or harming the people who I’m advocating for… sort of second-guessing myself or wondering if I’m employing the best methods. I think that self-reflection makes me a better activist in the end, but the process isn’t great.”

Serine X expressed the same concern when she told us that “the challenge of activism is the immense resistance women get from men and women alike.” According to her, “Women who simply speak against the negative attitudes of the Muslim community towards women are constantly condemned to hell, called hypocrites, accused of spreading falsehood and haram, prevented from spaces of leadership, and the list goes on. In the West, this has led to the creation of women-only religious spaces, physical and virtual. This is not unheard of in some Muslim-majority countries where there are Quran schools and masjids for women alone, but it is a more recent phenomenon for women in the West. These new spaces are more inclusive for all identities as well and have proven to be a beacon of light for many rejected Muslims. I am not really sure if I believe this to be progress, but it has allowed many Muslim women to reconnect with their faith.

People constantly try to ostracise you, telling others to avoid you if they want to keep the faith. Being an activist feels really lonely.

– Aisha Mustapha

Nigerian Muslim women’s rights activist, Aisha Mustapha tells us that Muslim women constantly find themselves in a place where they always have to explain to non-Muslims that Islam is not oppressive. “What makes it more difficult is that the attitudes of Muslim men and lots of Muslim women always run contrary to the egalitarian values of Islam that you have told non-Muslims about. So it feels like we’re just making things up to protect this religion and make it look good. This is in addition to being sidelined by close friends and family for believing that you, as a Muslim woman, have God-given rights. People constantly try to ostracise you, telling others to avoid you if they want to keep the faith. Being an activist feels really lonely.

Aisha goes ahead to reveal the self-doubt that comes with being an activist. “Sometimes you can’t help but ask if this is really how God ordained it. Am I being the rebellious one? Sometimes you read or learn something new about the religion that stands against everything you had been taught and everything you are still being taught and you get so scared and terrified. You can’t help but feel like these rights are too much when you’ve literally been taught your whole life that you, as a woman, have little or no rights. Everyone is terrified to ask the right questions. The fear is real.

British activist Tamima Raheem* (name changed) who actively engages in online activism through her Twitter platform explained that women’s rights activism is a very slippery slope.

You have to give so many disclaimers because people are quick to strawman you. There’s also all those mincels who curse you and say the vilest things about you. You also have to be careful when talking about Islam as giving the wrong information could be a sin. Having to read mincel arguments a lot could play with your faith. So for that reason I don’t tweet in reply to them, I just keep my tweets separate and support sisters who engage with the mincels. I don’t want a young Muslim woman to not see those views being challenged. I also try to help the Muslim women I know in real life, which from my experience has been easier.

Shaazia Ebrahim, a South-African activist explains that women’s rights activism in Muslim communities takes a toll on women. In her words, “I think it’s quite a tiring job if I’m being honest. Of course, we all know that our religion teaches that men are not the superior gender. However, time and time again we see our religion being interpreted in a patriarchal way. We see women being excluded from mosques, we see influential male scholars accused of sexual harassment being given platforms and obviously the everyday inequalities being practised. I get so tired because often it seems that no one is listening and nothing is changing. But I do believe that I will never stop calling out injustices because Islam teaches us to stand up for the marginalized. And I have hope that slowly, the number of voices calling out the injustices are growing and that soon we will see change. Insha Allah.

On the question of why many people from Muslim communities are wary of advocating for women’s rights, Amaara Garda thinks that this all boils down to accountability. She tells us that “there’s a real reluctance to hold men to account for women’s abuses. The presumption of ‘innocence until proven guilty’ is carried to the most extreme limits where the community willingly possibly endangers the lives of other women and children because they are scared to take a stance (even if it’s just while investigations are being completed) so we struggle a lot with trying to amplify women’s voices because that automatically means men must be held accountable. The community is really not comfortable with that particularly when these men have either contributed something else positive to the community or are very learned.

The Perks of Muslim Women’s Activism

They tell me that my activism allows them to be agents of change within their own families and among their own friends.

– Serine X

With everything the women have had to say concerning the challenges of Muslim women’s activism, one may be left wondering whether there are any positive sides to being an activist. Our curiosity led us to asking the women about the positive sides of it.

Serine X was the first to tell us that the joy of educating women on their agency is most certainly a perk. “I think the single benefit is educating women on their autonomy,” she says. “I have numerous women reaching out to me regularly, thanking me for helping them overcome internalised misogyny, patriarchal family customs, insecurity, doubt about Islam, apprehension for God amongst others. They tell me that my activism allows them to be agents of change within their own families and among their own friends. Sometimes I have done nothing but simply answer questions they had about weak hadith that are frankly violent condemnations of women. Granting women confidence in God’s mercy and love is what most need because many of them grew up being informed that women were created as a sinful burden on mankind. Due to various weak hadith and interpretations, it is communicated to women that they have to worship God and repent for their womanly nature of sin, but then, for example, they are not provided space in the masjids. It is conflicting and women feel as if Islam is structured to work against them.

Serine was, however, not the only activist who highlighted this advantage. “I think it is truly a special feeling when Muslim women reach out and thank me for speaking about issues that affect them.” Amaara Garda told us. “Even though I know I’m doing nearly as much as others, small advocacy steps really mean so much to women. I think that’s partially because activism on issues affecting Muslim women has been suppressed for so long, but also because it almost validates the lived experiences of Muslim women when they see other Muslim women speaking about it.”

Aisha Mustapha sounded quite pessimistic about the situation. “I don’t think there’s any fun-side to being a women’s right activist in Muslim communities.” She says. “Women who speak about injustices are usually dismissed, ridiculed and ex-communicated from their faith. There’s also a bit of benign dislike for male Religious leaders such as Mufti Menk who preach kindness and respect for women and address issues regarding the abuse of women’s rights. It’s really subtle but it’s not unnoticeable. If such religious leaders are not spared from the hatred, how much more the women whose existence are outright disregarded, whose voices are dismissed and believed to be unintelligent. So the only perk will be that I feel fulfilled that I’m speaking up about this.

Tamima Raheem feels fulfilled knowing that there are men and women out there who see and acknowledge the same issues that she speaks about. “It gives me some hope that other people can see the same issues as I do and can identify them as issues and spread the truth about them,” she tells us. “Muslims and non-Muslims see Islam as a religion which favours men at the expense of women and this is what we are trying to tackle. The biggest perk for me is when I get messages from young Muslim women telling me that they were struggling with their faith but I really helped them through my activism.”

In addition to helping women reclaim their faith and agency, Amaara Garda also highlights the friendships and relationships that come out of activism. “The friendships and relationships I have formed through my activism have been incredibly valuable and really make the entire process worthwhile and rewarding. It is also so encouraging when others who were initially not of the same views or opinions on a particular topic come forward and acknowledge that our activism has either changed their view or has at least made them reconsider.” She also goes along to mention the privilege of being an activist as putting her into the spotlight where she can engage with high profile individuals. “Being an activist puts you into contact with learned individuals.” she says “There are almost always scholars, academics & leaders who are supportive of the movement. Engaging with them really helps us all develop and particularly helps us to look at activism from an Islamic framework of values & practices.”

Muslim Women’s Activism – Any Progress?

Women are still very much where they used to be. A lot of this stems from a lack of access to knowledge, social capital and finances.

– Fatimah Temitope Adeiye

The responses to the question of whether or not the activism of Muslim women has brought about progress with regards to the enforcement of rights for Muslim women are not uniform. While some believe that Muslim women’s rights in the 21st-century world have regressed back to pre-Islamic times, others believe that there has been slow progress, hinting at the possibility that things will change with persistence.

Fatimah Temitope Adeiye revealed that she is not certain that there has been any visible progress. But she believes that the increasing number of Muslim women who are speaking up and asserting their rights is a sign of progress. “Muslim women are becoming more vocal,” she tells us. “And they don’t care about what people say as much as they used to in the past. However, this has not translated to much visible progress in our communities. Women are still very much where they used to be. A lot of this stems from a lack of access to knowledge, social capital and finances. The reality online is much different. Muslim women are boldly expressing their views. There are publications and magazines amplifying the voices of Muslim women, and the noise is getting louder. So while the progress has been really slow, I believe we’ll get there.”

Focusing on the positive side, Amaara Garda has seen lots of changing attitudes amongst Muslims but she thinks that the most fundamental change must come from the grassroots. “There’s progress in the sense that I see more and more Muslims (both men and women) getting involved in different causes & having an outspoken voice.” she says to us “There are now many Muslim women on panel discussions, on task teams, organising committees of protests amongst others. There’s also some progress in terms of coverage. For example, iTV has interviewed a few of us on Gender-Based Violence. Salaam Media and VOC have done this as well. So slowly there is a shifting tide — but really the biggest push will come from the masaajid & madrasahs and that’s where progress is stagnating if not regressing.

On the contrary, Serine X thinks that Muslim communities have regressed, rather than progressed with regards to women’s rights. “I believe Muslim communities globally have regressed,” she tells us. “With colonialism in much of the Eastern Hemisphere, came the degradation of Islamic education, both academic and communal. Without going into a history lesson, the spread of misogynistic ideas and creating false “Islamic” justifications were rampant as there became a reduced number of female scholars and an increase of unqualified clerics spreading false interpretations of the Quran and Hadith. Muslims who migrated to the West brought these ideas with them and furthered the mistreatment of women in the new Muslim communities there. We have a lot of work that still needs to be done in our communities, and this includes combating both islamophobia and patriarchy.

Tamima Raheem sees progress in the fact that activism has helped many Muslim women to reclaim their faith. “I think there has been progress.” she tells us, “not in the way of improving men’s attitude, but in helping women to be comfortable in their faith, in making their own choices and in knowing that they’re not alone in their dislike for androcentric Islamic perspectives. Educating women, in my opinion, is more effective than educating men. It’s women who need the confidence and their dignity to be assured when society and religious leaders diminish women’s dignity routinely.”

Aisha Mustapha had quite a different opinion. She sees beauty and progress in the resistance. “I think there has been immense progress in terms of awareness. This is evident in the way the community has reacted to Muslim women’s activism. At first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you. The fact that we have this much resistance amongst Muslims, many of whom write articles and host conversations to discredit our activism shows that there’s a new wave of consciousness amongst Muslim women that feels so strong and threatening to them. It shows that the voices of Muslim women are being heard and the resistance to this is very much expected. Anything worthy of being talked about, challenged and fought against is strong enough to create change. The only thing left for us to pursue is the implementation of these rights.

The Way Forward

When it comes to Muslim women’s existence, it is impossible to separate the political from the personal and spiritual. Muslim women are fighting for their own right to exist free of the chains of society. Millions of women are active in different spaces, fighting silent battles, yet they remain widely criticised.

Having documented the diverse perspectives of these passionate Muslim women activists, one cannot but wonder if there are any lights beyond the tunnel. Serine X was quick to highlight that seeking a collective definition of Muslim women’s rights is counterproductive and utopian at best. According to her, “We have various groups and interpretations of women’s rights in Islam. The problem is that Muslims will not agree on what the rights of women are in Islam. I believe that is unnecessary anyway. There should not be a distinct category of “women’s rights in Islam.” I do not believe that is the approach Islam ever meant for us to take. Rather, I believe that Islam came to communicate that Muslims are advocates of justice and goodness and must resist evil and oppression. This isn’t necessarily a specific list of “rights” such as what the Western world demonstrates. As Muslim, we have taken the duty of being advocates for justice upon us and will be held accountable. Until Muslims, activists or not, identify that this is our greater role for society as a whole, I think our activism will be conflicted and fruitless.

Wrapping it up, Amaara Garda thinks that the staunch opposition to activism and in some cases the unwillingness to be active on issues other than typically “Muslim” issues still persists. “We have a long way to go in terms of mobilising our communities to fight against all injustices and not just niche injustice that affects Muslims mainly.” she tells us. “In our masaajid, we need more imaams to be explicitly concerned about diverse struggles in diverse countries when they make du’a for peace.”


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