August 8, 2003
Where are the Women?
From the pulpit to the preachers, many often proclaim Islam?s liberation
of women 1400 years ago. After all Islam did recognize that women possessed
souls ? this acknowledged only over the past 100 years in Christianity
and Islam did give women the right to vote ? yet another relatively recent
phenomena in Western society. We are quick to convince skeptics of Islam?s
superiority in that the first martyr in Islam was a woman, the first to accept
Islam was Khadijah, the first nurse was Rufaida, that the one from whom we have
learned one third of our deen was Aisha. (May Allah be pleased with them all.)
And why should we not feel proud of such a legacy when this legacy has produced
scholarship and numerous examples of leadership, virtue and excellence. Women
who, for all intents and purposes, outshone many of their male counterparts
despite their “gender.”
However if we were to take a critical look at our community today we would
be hard-pressed to find the likes of Aisha, Fatima, Nusaybah and many others.
We would first have to look behind the barriers erected in the masajid, or call
on them at their homes where they have been relegated to housework by the male-dominated
and chauvinistic practices that have permeated the Muslim community.
Virtue today as imposed (or should I say “encouraged”) upon Muslim
women dictates that a woman should be fully covered (the more the better), that
she stays at home and raises the children and fulfill her husband?s every
wish and desire. It is better that she stays inside than walk outside lest she
be a temptress and cause someone to commit sin by looking at her, that she should
be silent because her voice is her awrah. Should she have questions, it is best
that she write them and “fly them” over the barriers so that someone
would by chance pick it up and read it and perhaps give her an answer.
We the men, the “proper leaders” know that women come from the rib
of man and that it is bent and cannot be made straight, that women are highly
emotional and of course have that “menstrual thing”, which incapacitates
their ability to make proper decisions and to function in a “normal way”.
There is no way that they can contribute to Islamic work because their voices
and “grace” make them weaknesses for men and so it is in keeping with
piety that we shut them out and lock them away. After all, men being the rational
thinkers are capable of making decisions for women who are in constant need
of our superior knowledge.
Hence we do not need them on the boards of our institutions, we fail to put
them in leadership positions because it is not compatible with their “feminine
nature”. As one imam once said, they may start to “fraternize with
the men”. In keeping with this, we do not really need to give them a big
space at the mosque because they should pray at home. Should we be so generous
as to offer them some space, we must ensure that it is fully sealed so that
there is not enough ventilation and that they are trapped within the confines
of limited space with 20 crying babies. It is ok if they don?t hear anything
because they don?t really need that much knowledge, even though the lap
of the mother is the first school of the ummah. As long as we don?t hear
or see them, then all is well.
We should not shame them by giving them the ability to communicate their ideas,
thoughts or wishes because we already know them. So we are locking them up for
their own good. Anyone who dares to question this must be outside of the proper
understanding of Islam. There seems to be some discrepancy between what is said
on the pulpit about the excellence of the earlier women and how it translates
to reality for our sisters. It has further allowed the perpetuation of blatant
double standards in terms of what women and men can and cannot do. Usually men
can engage in numerous activities, which if done by women, would cause their
commitment to Islam to be questioned.
Women comprise about half of our community, yet they must still compete to
have their voices heard, to have space, to be able to go to functions that take
into consideration that they need to bring their children. More often than not,
when there are issues involving our sisters, they are “dealt with”
by the men. When any sisters dare to challenge this, they automatically are
branded as western-styled feminists who are trying to sully the sanctity of
Islamic values and ideals.
Yet if one were to look on campuses and in general community work the dawah
of this community is being carried on the shoulders of Muslim women. Many whom
would ordinarily be silenced are finding their niches and are doing their bit
to fulfill their covenant in enjoining right and forbidding evil and in spreading
this deen. In fact, women in our community are the flag-bearers of Islam, particularly
those who wear hijab because they are easily identifiable. When walking down
the street, it is those whom we notice as being Muslim and those who are approached
and asked about Islam.
We tend to answer in utopian terms, when asked about our glorious past and
ignore the wrongdoing that has been taking place today. It behooves us (men)
to believe that we can be wrong or may have WRONG understandings of the seerah
and the place of women in society.
It would appear though that having shut women out of the community has allowed
them now to approach Islam and Islamic work with less baggage than men. Men
have inherited much cultural baggage that they still keep with them today, cultural
practices that have become engrained in our daily practices as being Islamic.
As Muslim women return to the authentic understanding of the Qur?an and
Seerah, they are in a better position to take on this work and fulfill its requirements.
Islamic work in North America and the world will never be successful until
women are completely integrated within the framework of leadership, decision-making
and shura. While no one is arguing for “free intermingling” or a neglect
of duties of motherhood or the negation of fiqh (and its proper application)
there is a need for discussion and critical deconstruction of some of the cultural
practices that have become mainstays in our community.
The argument that the time of the prophet was different and now is a time of
fitna holds no weight, especially when one considers that the earliest generation
of Muslims was in one of the most corrupt societies that existed. Yet women
played a vibrant part of its growth and development. They were consulted when
decisions were to be made, they were included in matters affecting society?s
growth and development, some were teachers and others were poets, others fought
in war, all this, while still following Allah?s commands and the examples
of his prophet. There are no shortages of examples of this in the seerah, though
they tend to be ignored.
We are quick to point to the fact that we are leaders and have the “last
say”. Perhaps there is a need to analyze our understanding of leadership.
Is a leader one who ignores the needs of others, makes all the decisions and
is scared of debate and consultation? The prophet peace be upon him was the
opposite of this. He was the best of leaders as he consulted with others and
led by example. He was most kind and in fact said that “the one who is
best, is the one who is best to his family and I am the best to my family”.
It may be that we are afraid that women will perform some of the duties we have
been doing better than we have, that their knowledge may be more sound and that
they may be more fit for leadership positions than those who have traditionally
held the reigns. Even in this regard, we seem to forget the just leadership
of the Queen of Sheba or a tradition that is rich with female scholarship. If
we are sincere in wanting to do what Allah requires of us, we need to be open
to this dialogue, admit our injustices to our sisters, ask for forgiveness and
try to move forward. A bird can only fly if it flaps both wings.
Allah has made women our equal counterparts and they bring value and insight
inherent with their nature that we may not think about or know of. Some scholars
explain that women are the spiritual anchors of society. If we are sincere,
we need to realise that in many ways we are oppressing our sisters and when
we shut women out of leadership roles, banish them to domestic spaces, pretend
that we can speak on their behalf, we are oppressing the very ones under whose
feet lies paradise. The issues of leadership and involvement are not black and
white and those sisters and brothers advocating for change are not asking for
all values and standards to be dropped or changed. Instead we are asking for
justice and fairness.
Sisters should be a part of the majlis-shura in the masajid and various institutions
because leadership (and I am not speaking about being imam here) should be defined
based on qualification and not gender. Shura entails that we take the voices
of the varying members of our community into consideration. We need to ensure
that sisters are able to have equal access to speakers and knowledge so that
they are able to grow and learn themselves. Our primary consideration should
not be how big a barrier is and whether or not it touches the ceiling. Most
importantly we have to let sisters represent themselves, we should not speak
for them but with them. The realisation should be based upon the trust that
women are our partners in establishing Islam in the world and do not have ulterior
motives of “fraternizing with the opposite sex.” They too want to
work with us to benefit Islam, Muslims and society in general.
Muslims have a standard that has to be adhered to as defined by the Qur?an
and the practice of the prophet pbuh. We need to rise to the challenge of implementing
this within our daily lives, to adhere to its boundaries and to challenge our
own bias and (mis)-interpretations of it?s application. As men, it is
time that we acknowledge the struggles of our sisters (both within and without
our community) and it is even more important to recognise the privilege that
we have enjoyed due to no real merit but simply because of our gender. If we
want to please Allah and to be true to our covenant of bringing this deen to
the people around us, it is necessary for us to address these issues. Until
such time we will be held accountable before Allah when people reject our self-styled
versions of Islam.