Recently, more and more, I have been observing the change that Muslim communities have undergone in terms of their perceptions of Islam’s views on gender – and all of of that is because of the hard work of Muslim women (at least some of whom identify as feminists) who don’t get any credit for bringing these changes at all. It’s infuriating, it’s exhausting, and it’s frustrating being in a position where you keep seeing that and keep being silenced. And when you point it out, there’s an outright rejection of this fact. I actually just got back from an event where I was discussing Qur’anic verse 4:34 with a man at the table (the man doesn’t believe dharaba means “to beat/hit”), and I pointed out the contribution of women scholars like Amina Wadud, and this man had an expression on his face that was a clear: “Um. No.” But he didn’t say no. He was just silent and shaking his head slowly left and right as if to desperately want to say no but also knowing that I knew what I was talking about and probably not wanting to be proven wrong at the moment. It was just his expression that was so dismissive of the idea of Muslim feminists bringing such meaningful change into a Muslim community.
I’m taking some Islamic studies classes at an Islamic institute (that I recommend very, very highly especially to Muslim women – talk to me about applying!). And a recurrent theme in some of the classes is a critique of the “Islamic tradition,” of fiqh. Oftentimes, the teachers have pointed out it’s exclusively because of the patriarchal tendencies of the fuqaha’ (jurists); the question of contextualizing especially the scholars’ opinions on gender issues is essential to all of our discussions on gender in classes. There’s currently no class on Gender and Islam at the institute, but I’m very hopeful it’ll happen one of these years, inshaAllah. Gender discussions have been the most vibrant, most engaging ones in all the classes – and they have come up in all the classes we’ve had so far.
Anyway, the point is that this critique of fiqh… so much of it parallels Muslim feminist scholarship on gender and Islam, and yet, when Muslim feminists, or even non-feminist Muslim women, make the exact same points, we’re rejected, hated, demonized, and our views completely misrepresented. We’re declared heretic, even non-Muslims; our credentials are questioned, our “agendas” investigated, our entire being and identities as humans put on trial. This is no exaggeration. Just follow a Muslim feminist on social media and see how she’s treated by the average Muslim person, especially male.
But when men repeat the same things? Especially if the men have beards? If they can pass as being “traditional”? Yeah, then we’ll reconsider our beliefs and understandings of Islam. (Yeah, but #NotAllMuslims.)
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think women’s expertise holds no validity on its own and that we need men to say what we have been saying for decades and centuries in order for someone else to take us seriously.
The jurists’ interpretation of some marriage-related verses in the Qur’an kept coming up in a class, and the teacher was criticizing their interpretations, applying the same methods that Muslim feminists have used in their scholarship (like contextualizing the Qur’anic verses in question, reading the Qur’an as a whole rather than verse by verse like the exegetes did historically, and so on – strategies commonly used by a group of Muslim scholars currently identified as “reformers” – but only if they’re men; if they’re women, they’re feminists and they’re working “outside” of an Islamic framework and they’re wrong). The teacher had also discussed the patriarchy of the divorce laws in Islamic laws. So I thanked him for bringing this up in class because I had done the same a day or so earlier only to have had my knowledge and motives questioned. And the teacher goes, “Yes, unfortunately, for Muslims, they need a bearded male to teach them Islam; they won’t accept knowledge from a woman, especially knowledge like this.” (This is not verbatim.)
In another class, we were discussing female authority, and Yasmin Mogahed came up. I pointed out that she was the only female teacher at Al-Maghrib (at least in NY) and ironically, while Al-Maghrib is among the first to tell us that there are no “qualified” women speakers to serve on their panels, Mogahed actually has no training in Islamic sciences – she’s a psychologist. And she does not deny this. So there was a great discussion on why she’s perceived as a scholar of Islam. A female friend of mine at the program commented that a non-hijabi Muslim woman would never be granted that same privilege and authority. And it’s so true it’s heartbreaking. Because that’s how we evaluate if a Muslim woman is a scholar or not – among a couple of other things, like whether she repeats the same patriarchal knowledge that the institution she represents wants her to teach.
(All this said with immense respect for Yasmin Mogahed, by the way. I value her, her knowledge, and the level of nonsense she has to put up with on social media, especially in a recent incident I had the misfortune of coming across on her Facebook page. Also, she doesn’t equate “patience” with subservience to oppressive husbands, and that’s a huge deal.)
So I repeat: Women are demonized, hated, attacked, condemned, accused of committing blasphemy for doing things, saying things, producing new interpretations that are later “validated” by males considered authoritative, some of it even becoming mainstream (or common sense!), and no one gives them credit for these contributions. I assure you, human, everything that you find yourself questioning today that has to do especially with gender – for which you won’t accept a “bad” interpretation because in your opinion, that would go against Islam or whatever religion you follow – is all thanks to the feminists of your faith.
You know that forced marriages, child marriages, wife-beating, etc. cannot be a part of Islam because Muslim women fought long and hard to get their communities to a point where to question these things is no longer heretic. This, despite the fact that the historical Islamic tradition, primarily fiqh and tafseer, completely allow for wife-beating and even child marriages to be Qur’anically acceptable. Although, of course, we haven’t succeeded yet fully in convincing most Muslim countries that domestic violence, child marriages, etc. are not Islamic. (Latest case in point would be Pakistan.)
You today know that Islam does not blame Eve, or women generally, for the fall of human from the heavens because Muslim women – someone named Riffat Hassan, for example – paused and went, “Wait a minute. The tafsir tells us that Eve tempted Adam, but the Qur’anic language doesn’t suggest that at all.” And so now, you have feminist-hating men writing pointless articles on, say, Suhaib Webb’s website (an article that I cannot find anymore) that bashes Muslim feminists and accuses them of arguing against things that are not found in Islam in the first place. Ironically, this dude was saying that Riffat Hassan criticizes the tradition for blaming Eve for their fall from heaven *when Islam never claimed it was Eve’s fault in the first place* – which this dude knows only because Muslim women made that discovery, thank you very much.
You today don’t read the first part of Qur’anic verse 4:34 as “men are superior to women” because women challenged the traditional historical meaning of “qawwaamun ‘ala.” Hopefully, you already know that the word “dharaba” has many meanings in the Qur’an and that “beating” is one of them – and hopefully you find that disturbing. And hopefully also, you’re aware that there are imaams and institutions out there that are beginning to adopt the translation “separate from” for dharaba – again, all because thanks to Muslim feminists’ hard work of discovering the multiple meanings of dharaba. Thanks also to Muslim feminists for noticing that the Qur’anic word nushooz appears twice in the Qur’an, that in 4:34, it’s for women and 4:128 it’s for men. And that in 4:34, it’s translated conveniently as “disobedient women” while in 4:128, a man commits nushooz when he’s apparently not being a responsible husband or is being oppressive or something. And that in 4:128, the couple is told there’s no sin upon them if they separate, but in 4:34, men are told to beat up their wives supposedly as a “last resort.”
Then there’s this: Jonathan Brown, in his book Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy talks about female-led prayers and discovers that contrary to popular assumptions, there’s no textual evidence against female-led gender-mixed prayers in Islam. That the scholars came up with that ruling on their own, relying on their own whims to make a huge decision like that. And Brown gets to maintain his status as a “traditional” Muslim for saying that. He acknowledges that Dr. Amina Wadud (whom he admires very much, he told me in a conversation recently) was condemned for leading a gender-mixed prayer in 2005 – and he mentioned to me that he initially thought it was haraam too only because his teachers held that opinion. And that he almost didn’t look into it while writing Misquoting Muhammad, but then he decided to actually be honest and investigate the sources.
For this women-led prayer discussion, I am going to repeat what other women, like Juliane Hammer, author of American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer, has said in her article Invisible Giants: On Women, Mosques, and Radical Activism:
I go back and forth in my inner debate about meeting “the community” where it is (and working from there to be effective in our activism and involvement with that community) and insisting on much more radical commitments and putting them forward as such. Pushing our communities to at least acknowledge that it is often their most radical, courageous and yes, silenced and invisible, margins that move us forward, is a tiny step to work bridge that gap. It is precarious and wobbly to try and stand on one shoulder of one giant when there is a whole line of (invisible) shoulders to support change.
If you’ve read Brown’s book and thought that particular discussion (which you can read screenshots of in comments here at this link) was enlightening when you read it, but you questioned and condemned Dr. Wadud and other women who have been saying for the longest time that it’s not haraam, re-evaluate your assumptions about women. Understand that your reliance on men to validate women’s expertise for you is a huge problem, and you’re actually being a misogynist. Fix that asap.
We (you and I) are constantly told that nobody trusts our expertise and scholarship and no one takes us seriously because we (Muslim feminists, maybe even non-feminist Muslim women) are too harsh in our tone, because we don’t present our scholarship or our opinions or our expertise in a way that would be taken seriously. That, dear human, is just you trying to shift the blame from whoever the guilty party here is and placing it on women. That, dear human, is you finding every excuse you possibly can to blame women (and esp feminists) further. In other words, you’re not helping.
But I have this for you to check out – I promise it’s humorous: 9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women.
When I have some time, I’ll write a more detailed article on this topic and give many, many more examples of how Muslim feminists’ contributions to Islam are claimed by anti-feminist folks who need to be called out on their dishonesty. But for now, reflect on this. And learn to appreciate, acknowledge, and maybe even say thank-you to your women teachers.
P.S. #AllRelevantDisclaimersApply. I’m not going to get into a debate here about how not all women are feminists and not all women scholars writing on Islam identify as feminists. If the word “feminist” troubles you, that’s your problem and you need to think long and hard about why that is so, but for the time being, just replace “feminist” with “woman” in the above post. And, yes, not all feminists are men, I know. But let’s not derail this and make this about men. This is about women. In fact, this is about feminists ❤ Muslim feminists, actually.