"Empowering Muslim Women without Feminism"
This post covers the speaking points delivered during a talk entitled, "Empowering Muslim Women without Feminism." It was presented on October 5, 2019 at the Annual i3 Conference in Mississauga, ON.
I begin in the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious, Ruler of all the worlds.
I am, first and foremost, neither a scholar, nor an activist. I am merely a fellow Muslimah. I am a daughter, a sister, a wife (twice over) and as of July, I am a first-time mother, Alhamdulilah. I was given the privilege by Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) to be born into Islam, the utter misfortune of leaving Islam for 10 years, and the blessing and mercy of Allah, our Creator, to return to Him again. I share this in order to convey to you that my background does not make me an expert in matters of fiqh. Rather, it is my experience as a formerly lost and depressed atheist, that will inshAllah be of benefit today, as we know that so many brothers and sisters are currently struggling with the sort of things I struggled with. My career and academic training is in education; I love the science behind learning, child and human development, and I am especially interested in language and its power. I have been a teacher and school administrator for almost ten years, working in private, public and charter schools as well as with non-profit organizations in the field of education.
As you know, I’m here to talk about feminism, women’s rights, etc. That means, despite any arguments to the contrary, what I have to say concerns both women and men.
Last night, Sh. Helal, may Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) reward him, opened the evening with what is probably the most important takeaway of this entire conference: root your understanding of the world in the Qur’an. He pointed out that doubts are the result of weak imaan and not the other way around. In other words, weak imaan leads to doubts. In fact, were it not for this unfortunate truth, the title of this conference would be something different. As someone who struggled for an entire decade and was destroyed by her doubts, I ask Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) to protect each and every one of us from weak imaan, to increase us in our knowledge and understanding of the truth, and to cure our hearts of its diseases which ultimately lead us astray.
Interestingly, I will be approaching the topic of feminism today from the same place that Sh. Helal has urged us to; that is, from our Islamic tradition, from the Noble Qur’an, the Word of God, our Creator.
The title of this talk, as you know, is “Empowering Muslim Women without Feminism.” I have been asked to discuss the topic of feminism in terms of how we can empower Muslim women without the feminist ideology. To be honest, I dislike this title. I dislike it because it reinforces the framework that got us to where we are. It forces us to talk about Muslim women on feminism’s terms, rather than on God’s terms. And that, as I understand it, is precisely what many scholars today, Sh. Helal among them, are cautioning us not to do.
If we truly want to get a grip on what is going on with Muslim women today and help heal our community from the social diseases inflicted on it by secular ideologies, such as feminism, we need to start by paying closer attention to the words we employ in our discourse about Muslim women. To that end, I’m not going to use the term “empower,” because this seemingly innocuous buzzword has been co-opted to serve a secular worldview. It is a “hurrah word,” a term whose associations and connotations have not only been taken for granted as good and belonging to those who are good, but which forces us to accept the claim that women are inherently disempowered. It makes us take for granted the notion that Muslim women have always and continue to lack some sort of power. From there, it directs us to focus our energy on fighting (sometimes literally) all men in order to gain those lost or missing “rights." Both these claims - that Muslim women lack a specific kind of power and that they need to fight the opposite sex to get that power - are arguments that many young Muslim sisters and brothers today have come to accept as a self-evident truth.
So instead, I propose we talk about today’s Muslim woman, her status, her concerns, her grievances, and anything and everything that affects her not by asking, “How can we empower Muslim women without feminism?” but rather, “What is the role of the Muslim woman in the society which her Creator, through His divine message and through His Prophet’s lived example, Has made her responsible for helping build and maintain here in the dunya?” Asking this question, as opposed to the misleading one that derives from the feminist framework helps us shift our mindset toward the more accurate, solution-generating approach regarding Muslim women.
Much of what I will say may sound antiquated, traditional, and outmoded. That is because we have been conditioned to identify certain terms and ideas as such by the language of liberalism. Language, we must understand, is a system of words that represents a group of organized ideas which work together to reflect a particular worldview. Therefore, speaking today in the West, during an era captivated by the social justice narrative of postmodernity, I am aware of the fact (as you should be as well) that the Quranic worldview has been rendered obsolete, barbaric, and misogynistic. I ask that you be critically aware of this thinking pattern throughout the course of this talk.
I also want to acknowledge that this talk will do what many of the talks at this conference have been doing: it is challenging the liberal paradigm. I’m asking those of you with doubts, who are deeply struggling with your imaan, to try to suspend the beliefs you have acquired from our modern secular culture. And that is unsettling and threatening and in many cases, it is terrifying.
I. Today’s Woman
There seems to be progress and decline at the same time.
Women are outpacing men in attaining a college education and advanced degrees, according to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2017.
More “empowered” than ever before - New York Magazine even declared single women as “our most potent political force.”
More financially independent
Depression and anxiety about self-worth and future. Doesn’t know where she stands.
Never feeling like enough, because she has been taught to believe that she needs to be a leader in both the public and private spheres.
As a result of juggling so much, as a result of sacrificing time and energy from the private sphere in order to perform in the public sphere, children, the youth, entire families, entire communities, society is paying the price. This is not about blaming women. It is about illustrating how incredibly important and valuable they are as mothers.
Attachment Parenting - parents all over the world are at a loss for how to raise their children today. We’ve steered so far away from the traditional family structure, we have toyed with the balance and order of things so much that we are now utterly confused and blind to our own innate, God-given instincts as men and women, fathers and mothers.
II. Brief summary of feminist movements
Three waves, each with its own set of goals, but all based on the notion that women are oppressed, need to be brought out of their gender roles, and that the sphere in which there is power is the public sphere, not the private one. (For a more thorough and detailed summary of feminism, click here.)
Today, intersectional feminism leads the way and is often conflated with the LGBTQ movement. We’ve accepted the idea that women experience layers of oppression based on their sex, class, ethnicity and race and now we are more and more accepting of same-sex tendencies as biological and natural.
Today, there also seems to be an emphasis on going after language. Linguistics is an area of tremendous concern for today’s feminist movement. It is interested in redefining words, such that derogatory terms which we have always wanted to disassociate ourselves from are now being embraced and celebrated even. Again, think about the power of language as a representation of an entire worldview, an ideology, and how co-opting words and policing them ensures that we are kept in line of a certain way of thinking.
III. Why Muslims in the West are drawn to feminism
Legitimate grievances among Muslims both in the diaspora and Muslim countries
Because we believe in justice for all, we have easily latched onto the social justice movement of today, which conflates all victim groups into one and requires that we see feminism as being on the same “good” side of the fight for justice for all.
We don’t have a thorough understanding of our deen and its history. Sr. Leenah Safi, who earned her BA in Islamic Law and Theology from Zaytuna College, points out that activism on college campuses has become a framework by which to understand the world. The label “activist” is used to differentiate those who work against systemic injustices from those who do not. In other words, to engage in the sort of activism defined by today’s social justice movements, which are materialistic and divorced from the divine, is to be on the “good side of history.” To not engage, for any reason, is to be on the bad side. Sr. Leenah is spot on in her observation that, “Today, Muslims are too shallowly engaging Islam to be transformed by it, let alone for them to then transform society through it. Being a Muslim has become an identity marker just like any other, stripping it of its vertical meaning in attachment to the Divine; when being grounded by its vertical reality is how a person will be catapulted forward in its horizontal aspect with and inspiration.”
Keep in mind: feminism is not synonymous with women’s rights, as Sr. Zara Faris has duly pointed out time and again.
IV. Sacred Activism and What the Qur’an Teaches Us
I highly encourage you to read Imam Dawud Walid's book, Toward Sacred Activism. He explains the importance of maintaining sight of our priorities as Muslims when engaging in activist efforts, and he outlines a solution for how we can work towards social justice within an Islamic framework.
Oppression and injustice have existed as long as man has, because it is man - in his fallible nature - who oppresses both his soul and others. All the Prophets (blessings and peace upon them) fought against severe injustices. The destitute and the downtrodden were loved so dearly by the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and he devoted himself to their service. His lived example shows us how that we are required, as Muslims, to defend the humanity of every human being. This is social justice before today’s social justice era.
Yet, because of the paradigm in which we live here in the West, we fail to recognize the distinctive difference between the secular social justice movements and the divinely-inspired social justice pathway as exemplified by our Prophet (ﷺ). As a result, we all too often take part in and expend a great deal of our time, energy, and resources investing in a materialistic and atheistic framework for attaining justice. The result is kufur. The result is advocating for things that Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) has made haram.
Imam Zaid Shakir, may Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) reward him, reminds us that every action the believer undertakes must be informed by knowledge of the Divine Law. Therefore, before we engage in any sort of act, we must try to learn the legal ruling relating to it in terms of its permissibility and impermissibility along with its lawful and unlawful aspects.
The Quran tells us what our priorities should be when it comes to establishing and maintaining a healthy, balanced society. In Surat al-Baqarah, Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) reveals the unity between the worldly and the spiritual. He tells us: “It is not righteousness to orient your faces East or West in prayer. Rather righteousness is to believe in God, Doomsday, the Angels, the Scriptures, and the Prophets. It is to spend wealth, despite the love for it, for the relative, the orphan, the poor, wayfarers, beggars, and for the liberation of slaves. It is to establish regular prayers, pay the poor due and to faithfully fulfill covenants having convened them. Imam Zaid Shakir helps us interpret and understand this ayah (p. 13 of Toward Sacred Activism).
IV. The Balanced Society
On a sports team, in government, in an institution, there are roles, positions, which need to be filled and played and mastered. Each member knows his and her title, description of his and her responsibilities, and the importance of fulfilling those duties. Similarly, a family unit is made up of roles and positions that must be filled and mastered by individuals, each of whom understands and is committed to playing their role. When this happens, the family thrives. Every member benefits tremendously and reaches a level of satisfaction and happiness that can only be achieved through the harmony that is made available when everyone does their designated part.
According to a well-known hadith: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) as saying: Each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible for his flock. The amir (ruler) who is over the people is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock; a man is a shepherd in charge of the inhabitants of his household and he is responsible for his flock; a woman is a shepherdess in charge of her husband's house and children and she is responsible for them; and a man's slave is a shepherd in charge of his master's property and he is responsible for it. So each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible for his flock.
In Surat Al-Baqarah, we read: هُنَّ لِبَاسٌ لَّكُمْ وَأَنتُمْ لِبَاسٌ لَّهُنَّ . "They are a garment for you, and you are a garment for them." The husband and wife are the bedrock of the family unit. Their relationship is so vital, so critical that without it, a family simply does not exist.
And, in Surat Al-Nisa, we read: الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ . "Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand."
While each sphere is designated its leaders, as ordained by our Creator, both men and women are expected to play a role in the spheres in which they are not leaders.
In the private realm, women (wives, mothers, aunts, grandmothers) take the lead and are responsible for ensuring the wellbeing of their families in fundamental ways. Meanwhile, men (husbands, fathers, uncles, grandfathers) contribute heavily to the private sphere. They are responsible for both reinforcing the love and nurturing that mothers are responsible for leading. Think of the yin/yang symbol that includes two small circles within either half.
In Saheeh al-Bukhaari (5997), it is said that Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) said: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) kissed al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali, when al-Aqra‘ ibn Haabis al-Tameemi was sitting with him. al-Aqra‘ said: I have ten children and I have never kissed one of them. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) looked at him, then he said: “The one who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.”
Aishah (رضي الله عنها ) reported that some Bedouins came to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and asked, “Do you kiss your children?” He replied, “Yes” They then said: “By Allah, we do not kiss them” He (ﷺ) then replied, “I cannot help you if Allah has snatched kindness from your hearts.”
In Saheeh al-Bukhaari (3704) it also says: "al-Bara’ entered with Abu Bakr upon his family -- after he reached Madinah as a migrant. ‘Aa’ishah was lying down as she was suffering a fever. I [al-Bara’] saw her father kiss her cheek and say: How are you, O my daughter?"
Fathers are also responsible for providing elements of parenting that mothers cannot. Therefore, fathers are needed to reinforce the vision being carried out by mothers and they do so by bringing to the table their God-given masculine traits.
In the public sphere, men are responsible for ensuring the security and well being of their families and the greater community as it pertains to broader matters. Their God-given traits are designed to help them function well in the public sphere. Meanwhile, women contribute heavily to the public sphere by helping shape policy. They can and do participate by… Again, yin/yang - small circles.
Another way to think about the balance that comes about when both the public and private spheres work together, is through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
According to this model of human needs, the roles that both mothers and fathers play are simultaneously needed to bring up a child who is healthy physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. At any given moment in time, a father is needed to provide food and sustenance, while a mother is needed to bathe, feed, and tend to the immediate care of a child. At any given moment in time, a father is needed provide shelter and security in the broad sense, while a mother does so in the immediate sense in the home. At any given moment in time, both a father and mother are needed to show love and tenderness to their child. We know scientifically that the absence or shortcomings of love from either parent can have negative - even devastating effects - on a child. In sum, both roles need to be carried out in their respective spheres in order to ensure harmony and the thriving of a child, a family, a community, and ultimately an entire ummah.
Notice that a man’s responsibilities in the private sphere are non-negotiable to ensuring the well being of a child. He must fulfill this responsibility while also fulfilling his duties in the public arena. However, a woman’s role in the public sphere is not required to ensure the well being of a child. If she chooses to forego any participation in that arena, her immediate family and the greater community does not suffer. In this way, men shoulder a great deal, straddling both spheres. Is it any wonder our Creator designated them with the final say?
Power is recognizing the role you were created for, valuing it, and mastering it.
V. A Way Forward
At the beginning of this talk, I asked you to suspend your judgment. If you found yourself able to do so, it is most likely because you already see women’s rights through the lens of Islam and traditionalism. If you found it difficult to do so, it is most likely a result of the degree to which you have imbibed the postmodern paradigm. This paradigm has conditioned many of us to register certain words and ideas as barbaric, antiquated, outmoded, and bad. In changing our approach, we’re “rewriting the narrative,” as many young Muslim sisters love to say. That is empowerment.
Be critical of the current paradigms; we are living in the end of times. Today’s fitnas are very sophisticated. The closer we approach the Day of Judgement, the more difficult it will be for the ummah to walk the straight path. Without Allah’s (س (سبحانه وتعالى) بحانه وتعالى) Mercy, we don’t stand a chance at seeing clearly. We will be blind to the most obvious truths standing before us.
Both men and women have to understand and value womanhood. Same for manhood. Then we’ll have cooperation, rather than a power struggle. Then, empowerment will really and truly exist.
Yesterday, a beautiful 12-year old Muslim girl asked, what is feminism? How will we respond from now on?
I ask Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) to purify our hearts, that we may be able to see more clearly. I ask Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) to protect and guide us, to keep us diligent in our prayers and to turn to Him - always back to Him. May Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) protect and guide our youth, the children, our future generations and May He instill in them the courage and conviction necessary to navigate this dunya.
Thank you again to the organizers of this conference. And thank you to each and every one of you for taking the time to be here and to engage with your hearts and minds. جزاك اللهُ خيرًا . السلام عليكم.