I’ve just published my latest video on YouTube.
In this episode, we discuss Fatima Mernissi’s book The Veil And The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation Of Women’s Rights In Islam.I address some of her main points and then in detail discuss some of the specific topics she covers, such as female leadership (turns out, that hadith on nations not succeeding if they let a woman lead is false!), Qur’anic verse 4:34, female inheritance, slavery, the hijab, Abu Hurayrah and why Aisha (r.) didn’t trust him, the Battle of the Camel, and a lot more!
I’m pasting the script below in case anyone needs it. Note that captions are available. I recognize I’m still speaking fast (sighs!) – a reminder that until I fix this habit of mine, you can change the speed of my speech by clicking the setting icon on the video, then “playback speed,” and instead of the default “Normal,” you can change it to a lower one so it’s slower.
Hello, and assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakaatuh! Welcome to #WhatThePatriarchy, where we are working on completely uprooting the patriarchy #inshaAllah.
This is Shehnaz!
So today, we’re going to talk about one of the most influential books ever written, essential. It’s an essential book on Islam. And it’s called The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation on Women’s Rights in Islam, by Fatima Mernissi who, unfortunately, passed away in 2015. May she rest in peace. This is an English translation of her original French, and this one was published in 1991. It’s a great and enjoyable read, accessible to non-specialists, non-scholars. You don’t have to be a scholar of Islam, a scholar of hadith, a scholar of gender. She gives the basics of especially hadiths, which is what this text is most relevant to, the genre that this book is most relevant to. And the first time that I assigned it in a class, I assigned only a couple of chapters of it and my students didn’t like that and they wanted me to assign the whole book. So students enjoy it as well. I would recommend it for classes on hadith, intro to Islam classes, anything on Islam and history because it tells the history of the way that Islam gets written down, of who gets excluded from it, who gets included in this process of story telling, and, of course, for Islam and gender classes as well, anything with gender.
So one of the reasons that this book is so much fun to read and why my students loved it probably is that she uses informal language in here, she tells the story of Islam like it’s an actual story so there are villains and heroes and introductions and endings and climaxes in this story. And spoiler alert: the villains in the story tend to be a bunch of men that contemporary Muslims very highly respect.And the heroes are the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) and his wives and the women of Mecca and Medina, so the early Muslim community – who are demanding their rights and fighting misogyny. So there’s a lot to discuss here and I’m worried that I might go over my 30 minute limit that I’ve set for myself, but what I’m gonna do is first, I’ll give you a set of main points that Mernissi is raising in this book and I’ll explain some of them in detail. I’ll preface each one with “Main Point” so you know we’ve come to a new point. And then I’m going to talk about some of the other topics that she raises and talks about in the book, not just the hijab, not just the veil, which IS an imp recurring theme in the book but it’s not what the book is about, despite the title of the book.
[Main point] This a story of the manipulation of Islam, by which we mean Muhammad’s message, by the men who took control of Islam way, way early on, interpreting it and applying it in such a way that it manipulated the message of, say, egalitarianism, that Mernissi argues is essential to Muhammad’s message and life and his own teachings and practice of Islam. These men are the male elite, and the tradition of manipulation by the male elite continues obviously up until now, obviously; it’s still happening. So the process of the formation of the male elite begins literally immediately after the Prophet Muhammad died – he dies on a Monday and he’s buried on a Wednesday, because, not because people didn’t know – they knew! And the men are concerned with oh crap who’s going to lead the community. Nobody’s concerned with, hey, let’s go and bury him. Let’s give him the respect that he deserves as not only a human but also as our prophet! In this formation of the male elite, these men are having a conversation on who the next leader is going to be and women are not a part of this conversation, they’re not even thinking of women as potential successors or leaders of the community after Muhammad has died. POINT: Mernissi is highlighting here the two radically different visions of Islam – one is the women’s and Muhammad’s Islam; the other is the male companions’ Islam, like ‘Umar and other men around the Prophet. ‘Umar is going to be a recurring figure in this story of Islam, and he’s not a hero in this story.
MAIN POINT: Mernissi is puzzled that gender equality seems so foreign to so many Muslims today, Muslim communities, Muslim individuals, Muslim scholars, when the women of the Prophet Muhammad’s community were very outspoken, they demanded equality, they demanded justice, they called out misogyny.
MAIN POINT: There has always been resistance to the male elite and just generally to anybody who’s a part of decision making process, whether it’s political or religious decisions that are being made on behalf of ordinary people. People didn’t just uncritically accept the decisions that were being made on their behalf. They spoke up; they resisted. And this resistance came esp from the Prophet’s own wives, particularly Umm Salama and Aisha, for example, neither of whom had any problems questioning, challenging, and disagreeing with the Prophet s. Like Aisha, when the Prophet suggests to her that she consult her parents about something that’s happening, this girl goes “uh, no, I’m a grown woman; I can make my own decisions. I don’t need anyone else to tell me what to do. Don’t assume I don’t know what I’m doing!” Obviously, I’m paraphrasing her. And Um Salamah, for example, so what had happened was, ‘Umar had just slapped one of his wives – he had a habit of beating up his wives. So ‘Umar is yelling at her, he’s hitting her, and she talks back to him this time. And ‘Umar is shocked and says, “you know I’m your husband! You’re not supposed to talk to me like that!” And she says, “Yes, I can! And besides, the Prophet Muhammad’s wives talk back to him. And in fact, one of them ran away from home and didn’t return until late at night!” So you should know this thing about ‘Umar – he struggled and he was very anxious about the fact that the women of Medina were very strongheaded, very independent, spoke back apparently to their husbands; and the women of Mecca, according to him, were much more quiet and obedient and subservient and so on. So after the migration to Medina, he’s constantly begging the Prophet to please, please, please put the Medinan women in their place, and have them learn from the women of Mecca because he’s afraid that the women of Mecca, including his wives, would be influenced by these very strongheaded and outspoken Medinan women. Anyway, so when ‘Umar’s wife says that to him, he’s like omg are you serious?! So he immediately runs to the Prophet’s wives and tells each one of them individually to obey the Prophet, that not only is he your husband but he’s also the Prophet, shame on you! So his daughter Hafsa, who’s a wife of the Prophet, says yes father, and like, you know, yes you’re right. And most of the others also seem to tell him, okay, we hear you. But then he goes to my favorite person in Islamic history – Umm Salamah! She tells him, she tells ‘Umar to mind his business, and if Muhammad didn’t like that their wives were talking back to him, he could tell them himself; he didn’t need an agent. And all the other wives are like omg thank you so much for standing up for us, booboo! So glad you put him in his place! And speaking of ‘Umar, I mentioned that he was hitting his wives. He really was known for his violence against women. And Tabari, one of the main sources that Mernissi’s relying on in this book, he acknowledges this. Scholars have historically acknowledged that ‘Umar had violent tendencies with women. To the point where when ‘Umar proposes to a certain woman to marry him, this woman tells him uh no, I don’t wanna marry you because you’re violent. So it was a known thing that he was very violent, very abusive towards women.
I’ll stop here with the main points. There’s a lot more but we’re gonna pause here with the main points. And I’m going to talk about some of the main, some of the specific topics. So!
TOPIC: The Battle of the Camel, a battle fought between Aisha and Ali – and the misogyny here is that Muslim male scholars’ conclusions of the battle were very problematic. So they decided that because Aisha lost the battle (I’ll talk a little more about the battle in just a second, but) because Aisha lost the battle, basically they decided that women were incompetent and incapable and this is why women are not supposed to be leading anything! Nations or people and so on. And the reason for this, they said, was look what happened when a woman led a thing! She led this thing and it led to so much destruction, such a loss of life. Never mind that literally when men fight, there’s always destruction, too, but they decided that in this case a woman lost, we can generalize it to all women. Or that this necessarily tells us something about women’s capability of leadership.
TOPIC: Aisha’s rebuttals to men who were going around and spreading false hadiths about the Prophet Muhammad s. So Abu Hurayrah is a particular villain in this story of Islam, given the misogynistic hadiths that he attributed to the Prophet; and given the amount of times that Aisha corrects him or tells him to stop lying about the Prophet and so on. She corrects him so much that, objects to his hadiths so much, that a 14th century male scholar named Zarkashi has a whole book on Aisha’s objections to hadiths that were being attributed to the Prophet and she calls these men out for spreading those lies. And it’s not just Abu Hurayrah that she corrects. TOPIC: Female inheritance – and how the men felt about the inheritance verses when they were first revealed. This is one of my personal favorite topics. I have a whole chapter of it in my dissertation. So what had happened was that when the verses on female inheritance were revealed and they were giving women *at least* half the share that their brothers were to receive – at least, not maximum – the men resisted to the point of begging the Prophet Muhammad to PLEASE take these verses back and not to promote them! And their argument was, “But women don’t ride horses and they don’t fight in wars!” So the women were very smart. When they heard this pushback on their rights, they responded with “Okay, fine, if the reason we can’t have inheritance is that we don’t ight in wars, then we’ll fight in wars.” They were just so creative! So the men decided something else. They decided that apparently they were losing so many, you know, male privilege here that they were gonna do what Muslim male scholars have historically done: manipulate the Qur’anic text and the rules so that women don’t get anything. SO, how did they do this? There’s a verse in the Qur’an that speaks of the inheritance of the sufaha’. Sufaha’ is an Arabic word, very challenging to define but that’s often translated in English as “the foolish”, “foolish people,” but it can refer to anyone who isn’t capable of decision-making, who isn’t capable of managing their inheritance or their wealth, someone who squanders their wealth, and so on. So the patriarchy decided that, hey, how about let’s just say that women are sufaha’, and therefore they’re not entitled to inheritance. But the good thing is that historically, this argument wasn’t the popular or the dominant one. Tabari, for example, mentions, most scholars didn’t accept this argument, but Tabari, instead of saying something like this is ridiculous, this is absolutely inaccurate, this is misogyny, he instead says something like, well, the word sufaha’ is not feminine plural, and therefore, it cannot exclusively be applied to women – it’s not gendered. Kind of worked, but still. And the reason for this was that they really, they decided to define – definition is one of the best ways to manipulate scripture. So they decided to define the word “women” in such a way that it made all women incapable and stupid and among the sufaha’ and therefore they were not to receive any inheritance. But again, not the dominant view. Just the fact, just pointing out that men literally did something like this. And speaking of manipulation [of scripture], I’m gonna give two more examples here. Mernissi argues that the Qur’an when it speaks of slavery is actually saying hey, stop slavery, stop enslaving people, but slavery managed to continue because of linguistic and legal tricks. So manipulation of the text. For example, the scholars decided that this meant only Muslims could not be enslaved, and if you couldn’t make a slave out of a free person, then what they decided to do was to go and invade non-Muslim spaces and territories and enslave them after conquering them. And b) when the Qur’anic verse 35 of surah 33, 33:35, was revealed to establish gender equality, the verse on male believers and female believers and pious women and pious men and so on getting an equal share of reward, uh, the scholars could have just used that verse to say that the Qur’an is establishing gender equality and justice with this verse. And there’s a bunch of other verses that suggest something similar of gender equality, but NOOO! What they did instead was to use 4:34, the verse that supposedly allows a man to hit his wife, um, and they used 4:34 to say that women are stupid and they must be controlled and disciplined by their husbands. So, Mernissi’s point here is that the scholars, the ‘ulama literally had OPTIONS to highlight certain verses of the Qur’an but they, and to marginalize other verses, or to read the verses collectively, but they chose not to.
TOPIC: female leadership. And female leadership is a very important theme in this book. She begins the whole book with a, with a reference to the hadith, Muslims’ reference to the hadith that supposedly says that any nation that allows a woman to lead it is doomed and will never succeed. And something really important happens here in this discussion. The hadith is false, even though it’s classified as authentic and sahih and all, it’s actually false. For many different reasons. So, first, because this hadith actually contradicts the Qur’an and the scholars had standards that included that any hadith that contradicts the Qur’an is not authentic, by definition is not authentic, and the reason that this hadith contradicts the Qur’an is that the Qur’an acknowledges and highly reveres the Queen of Sheba. And second, the hadiths is supposed to have been said by Muhammad – again, he did not say it, just to be clear – but he’s supposed to have said it when a woman became a ruler of Persia, but Abu Bakra, the guy who narrated the hadith, not to be confused with Abu Bakkr, who’s telling this lie about Muhammad, suddenly and conveniently remembered this hadith during the battle of the camel. And this is really, really important. So what had happened was Aisha and Ali were fighting this battle, and the community was tearing apart because people had to make a decision about whether to support Aisha (the widow of the Prophet, the Prophet’s most beloved from the Sunni perspective) or Ali (the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law and also also a beloved of the Prophet). So this was literally a crisis, a civil war. A fitna, Muslim history calls it. NO ONE, literally no one, is going “hey, Aisha, women aren’t supposed to lead anything esp battles! Get off that camel, dude! Don’t you remember the Prophet Muhammad said about women leading stuff??!” Literally no one said that – except for Abu Bakra. No one else is justifying their refusal to support Aisha, or Ali, whichever side they decided to be on. No one is justifying their opposition to the other person by invoking any hadith. Abu Bakra is the only person who does this. And the way he does this is, he says “omg I just remembered something! The Prophet said that any nation that allows a woman to lead them will never succeed.” It’s a very politically opportune moment for him to invoke this hadith and suddenly remember this hadith. It’s not the first time he did something like this, it’s not the only time he did something like this. He continues to remember conveniently particular hadiths at times that at times where they’re very relevant and it’s his own opinions that are being attributed to the Prophet. But there’s another very important reason because of which this hadith is not correct. ‘Umar, the khalifa, the person who’s come up in this discussion a few times, he had flogged Abu Bakra earlier on for giving false testimony in a case of zina’. This automatically was supposed to mean, according to the standards of the hadith collectors and compilers, that anybody who has ever been punished for something like this, anybody that’s ever lied or known to have lied is an automatically unreliable source for hadiths and should not be counted. But also, interesting fact here: Tabari, one of the sources of Mernissi’s, and several other male scholars historically, they have rejected this hadith completely, and it historically actually wasn’t popular. So there’s a giant question that some scholars have tried to answer about why it is that among contemporary and modern Muslims, this hadith is so popular. And one theory is that oh in the past, when women were leading something, they were sort of doing it individually; it was just individual, few cases of women holding positions of leadership as opposed to today, where women are leading sort of collectively. There’s a whole phenomenon, a whole trend of of women demanding leadership positions and running for presidency, for example. So because women’s leadership is so much more popular today, there’s some kind of a threat to male privilege and male authority and so there’s sort of a need to invalidate their desire for leadership, their work towards leadership, by invoking the hadith, and the best way to silence women or silence Muslims, most Muslims, is to say that Muhammad said this is wrong, and some Muslims will actually believe it. And it unfortunately seems to have worked in too many cases.
TOPIC: Qur’anic verse 4:34 – the notorious verse that people believe allows men to hit their wives. Mernissi shows that there are historically very different interpretations of this verse, including of the terms nushuz and dharaba, two words that have very complicated meanings. And she reminds us that the Prophet never hit any of his wives, but something really interesting that she points out that I hadn’t thought about is his language. So men are demanding “the right” to hit their wives, and the Prophet’s response is something like, “okay, fine, go hit your wives, but you should know that anyone of you who hits his wives is the worst person ever” or something like this, right. And men literally took this as permission to go and hit their wives. Sp Mernissi here questions how it is that when scholars have disagreed on the meaning of 4:34 and that there are other qu’ranic verses that complicate and challenge this verse and sort of the male authority that is kind of established in this verse supposedly, and the fact that Muhammad never hit any of his wives and discouraged others from doing so as well, how can it then be that too many Muslims still think it’s permission for men to hit their wives? And again, we’ll have to have a whole separate episode on 4:34 on #WhatThePatriarchy. It’s just that important.
TOPIC: women’s covering. So what’s happening here is that the Qur’an is telling women that they need to cover up a certain way (headcovering is not a part of that covering, btw) so, uh, SO that they be recognized and identify as free women so that they’re not mistaken for enslaved women and therefore harassed and seen as public property or whatever. Mernissi makes a great point here: she says that the verse is saying, “hey change your clothes so you’re identified as free because free people aren’t to be harassed but enslaved people can be harassed.” So it doesn’t change attitudes but it just hides women and Muslims have of course historically used this verse and continue to use this verse to tell women hey the hijab curbs sexual harassment and so on. That’s not what’s happening in this verse at all. Historically, women were not allowed to – and this is also in Islamic history – women were not allowed to cover their hair if they were enslaved, if they were “slave women,” they were not to cover their hair. Some women were punished for covering their hair if they were enslaved.
TOPIC: The misogyny of Abu Hurayah. So I mentioned earlier that Abu Hurayrah is sort of one of the villains of the story of Islam here. Mernissi actually calls his misogyny an ambivalence towards women, but I think, objectively speaking, it’s misogyny – period. Literally, some of the most misogynistic hadiths in our history are from him. If you were to compile a list of all the misogynistic hadiths and see who the narrator was, he would be the narrator for most of them. Or if you were to compile a list of all the hadiths that Abu Hurayrah compiled, uh, narrated, you’d see that a lot – most of them – are very misogynistic. And there are a few things wrong with Abu Hurayrah and his hadiths. So Aisha not only corrects him multiple times, which I discussed earlier – so he says, for example, in a hadith that the Prophet s. said that a donkey, a dog, and a woman passing in front of someone while they pray INVALIDATES the prayer. (And many Muslim websites still defend this hadith and try to say this is what it means.) The issue here? Aisha’s response to Abu Hurayrah for this hadith was: “I’d be on a bed in front of him while he prayed.” But also think about it. A dog, a woman, a donkey passing in front of a woman uh sorry in front of someone who’s praying, this is just so absurd! And then another time, Abu Hurayrah said the Prophet said three things bring bad luck: houses, women, and horses. I know, I know, it’s so ridiculous and illogical. You should know that one of the standards for what constituted a legitimate or correct hadith was logic. It had to be logical in order for it to be considered authentic. These are not logical hadiths. So not only is hadith totally illogical and ridiculous, and therefore unacceptable and cannot be authentic, but also, when Abu Hurayrah was going around spreading this lie, this hadith against the Prophet, Aisha shuts him up by saying “Dude! Stop! The Prophet s. never said that! You walked in on us while we were having a conversation, and you walked in the middle of what the Prophet was saying. He was saying that this other group of people believe that these three things bring bad luck.” Bukhari, you should know, does NOT include Aisha’s response to Abu Hurayrah! And these examples go on forever, really. So what this tells us is not to trust ANYTHING Abu Hurayrah says, I think, because he most likely took it out of context. This goes for the hadiths of everyone else. Just sort of accept them with a grain of salt, recognize that they’re probably not accurate. But what else is really important is that actually, in his lifetime, as he was spreading this many hadiths – you should know that he has about 5 thousand [5300 +!] he had more hadiths than even Aisha, in the Sunni tradition. In his lifetime, he had a lot of criticis. People were skeptical of his hadiths because, he was saying so many of them. And ‘Umar is supposed to have said, we all knew the Prophet and well met him and we all have hadiths to say about him, but we’re afraid of Allah and don’t want to say stuff that may be false or that maybe the Prophet didn’t intend in this particular way. But Abut Abu Hurayrah won’t shut his mouth. So ‘Umar is supposed to have said this. And the funniest thing happened where Abu Hurayrah has to address some criticism about his own self and he goes, “Hey, people, stop saying that ‘Umar said I was the worst liar ever! ‘He never said that, ok?!” Which is so interesting to me because clearly, he was being criticized so much that he had to publicly defend himself.
TOPIC: Sukaina! She’s my third favorite person in Muslim history (Maryam and Umm Salamah are the other two.). The conclusion of Mernissi’s book is primarily about Sukaina. Sukaina bint Hussain. She was the daughter of Hussain, Hussain being the grandson of the Prophet and the son of Fatima and Ali. She literally witnessed her father’s murder at the hands of Yazid’s army. This woman, y’all, she married several times, literally putting down in her marriage contracts a clause that said she will NOT obey her husband and that she wanted the right to nushuz. She didn’t wear the veil – which I think in this case means head-covering because whatever it is that she was doing was an anomaly for her time, for her community, and women were not covering their faces at this time. The face covering was not institutionalized. So she’s not covering her head, she’s not wearing a hijab, what we call a hijab today. Sukaina was a poet and intellectual and constantly had guests, male and female. Mernissi shares an anecdote that when she was talking about Sukaina at a conference in Malaysia, a Pakistani man who was the editor of a journal on Islam and Muslims accused her of lying, and he says to her that Sukaina had died when she was six years old and demanded evidence from Mernissi, her sources and so on. Mernissi corrects him and gives him a list of her sources – all in Arabic – and it turns out that this man, the mansplainer, this misogynist didn’t know Arabic. Mernissi’s point here is the erasure of such empowered and empowering women, which is a huge theme in the book. So all of this to say, the theme of the hijab appears throughout the book, and I’m gonna talk about just now, but it’s not the only theme. So with the hijab, Mernissi is concerned with the problematic evolution of the meaning of the term hijab. It goes from being literally a curtain or a barrier (between the Prophet Muhammad and his MALE guests by the way) to being institutionalized as gender segregation, as a way to keep women hidden from the public view and from participating in public life and so on. Basically being a restriction of their mobility and freedom. So the hijab verse was first revealed – and the hijab here means a curtain, a barrier, the word literally means to hide, not referring to the headcovering, so that verse was first revealed to address Prophet Muhammad’s inappropriate male guests who wouldn’t leave so he could tend to his new bride, Zaynab, right, on their wedding night. Its meaning throughout history has varied from being a curtain or some kind of a barrier (a good kind and a bad kind, like a barrier between you and God, a barrier between you and evil) to the headscarf obviously. And fun fact here, well, actually it’s not a fun fact; it’s a terrible fact and a terrible reminder, but some scholars totes thought of the hijab as a punishment and humiliation! A scholar named Nizam al-Din Nishapuri, or Nisaburi in Arabic, from the 14th century literally prayed to God that “If You must torture me with something, please don’t torture me with the humiliation of the hijab.” So Mernissi’s point here is that the hijab turned into this sexist practice in the form of gender segregation in a way that has harmed women historically, and it wasn’t supposed to be like that.
So especially after her discussion on Sukaina, in the conclusion, Mernissi asks another very great question: how did the Muslim woman transform from a Sukaina, a Aisha, an Umm Salamah, and all these other women in the Prophet’s time, who were questioning and challenging the misogyny that was being inflicted on them and the women around them, to this submissive, timid, quiet, marginal veiled character – veiled in the bad way – who, because she’s expected to be veiled, she has to portray herself in a limited and constricted way. So this whole book is about the evolution of the Muslim woman, of the ideas of Muslim women from Muhammad’s time by Muhammad to what we witness today with the kind of sexism and patriarchy and misogyny that is institutionalized. And she suggests that we, Muslim women, continue to put pressure on the patriarchy to, you know, die. Which is a part of the aim with this vlog, what we’re doing here precisely to kill the patriarchy. So what was this episode about? This was about Mernissi’s book The Veil and the Male Elite, and I explained some of its main arguments, main points, some of the main topics addressed in the book, such as the false hadith on women not being allowed to lead nations and why this hadith is actually not authentic, other misogyny in hadiths esp by Abu Hurayrah and why he is a problematic source for hadiths, the Prophet’s wives and their very rebellious nature contrary to what male scholars have historically expected of women and wives, and essentially, the manipulation of the Qur’an for the preservation of male privilege and male authority. Thank you for watching, and I’ll see you in the next episode! Salaam!
thank you so much for this one, your videos are very useful to me. I need some help… do you know of any book or articles that critiques works of 1.Fatima Mernissi, 2. Nawal El Sadaawi and 3.Leila Ahmed. I know of books from Raja Rhouni, Malti Douglas and Diana Royer on 1and 2. I am a Ph.D student and need more …
Thank you for your comment, Izma!
Yes, there’s some stuff I’m familiar with but nothing comes to mind at the moment. (Sorry, juggling a lot atm!) For Leila Ahmed, check out Pernilla Myrne’s book on Female Sexuality. I think in the Conclusion she offers some critiques of Ahmed.
Email me @ orbala1 @gmail.com and I may be able to help some more there if you give me some time.
I read the book. Why did God allow men to have sex with their wives in any position they wanted even if the woman didn’t want to do it? Isn’t it rape?
Hm… does the verse say that men can do that whether their wives like it or not, though?