“How do you feel about the fact that your religion doesn’t value women?”

A light-hearted and engaging discussion of the relationship between Islam and Feminism by Almas Talib for TWSS issue 15. 

Some key terms for infidels. Just kidding. I come in peace.

  • Alimah: A female Islamic scholar (sadly, not my title).
  • PBUH: Peace be upon him.
  • RA: RadhiAllahu ‘anha – may Allah be pleased with her.
  • Hadith: A collection of the sayings and actions of the Prophet (PBUH) – strong Gospel vibes.
  • Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim: In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
  • Insha’Allah: God willing – usually something you hope will happen. For example, ‘Insha’Allah you will not be Islamophobic’, or ‘Insha’Allah we will overcome white feminism’.

“How do you feel about the fact that your religion doesn’t value women?”

I was presented with this question in my GCSE Philosophy and Ethics class from a pasty,
freckled girl, who for the purposes of this piece we’ll call Poppy. Poppy was the school feminist if you will: the girl who’d tell you how to do gender equality the right (white) way. My 15-year-old self was perplexed. Poppy had attacked my brain, promoted me to Alimah, and made me feel so small all in one morning. Eventually, I gave a tepid answer – ‘I don’t really know?’ Future me was disappointed. Muslim women everywhere were disappointed. Even Poppy was disappointed – though, of course, not particularly surprised. And the class continued.

This question is not casual morning small talk and requires a whole book to do it real justice. It was also a deeply leading question. She should’ve said “Islam hates women, huh,” shrugged her shoulders, and walked away. Now, I realise that it would take years of unlearning imperialist and Orientalist views of my religion, and the discovery of intersectional feminism, before I could give an adequate answer to that question. Since it’s been almost 6 years since that happened, let me try answering it now.

A good starting point for what Islam does or doesn’t ‘do’ is to refer to the life of the Prophet (PBUH). Context-wise, we’re talking late 6th or early 7th century Arabia, so let’s not pretend women had the rights they do now: society was rife with female infanticide, and very few women held positions of power. At this time, an older, widowed landowner proposes to a younger man that she employed to work in the business she owns. This woman is Khadija (RA), a literal boss, and her employee was the Prophet (PBUH). As the first wife of the Prophet (PBUH), she was the woman to support him through his revelations, and one of the first people to convert to Islam. An essential female icon in the Qur’an, she goes on to become a prominent community leader. Khadija (RA) is an example of a deeply valued woman in Islam.

Men are dying rapidly at war, and many women are ending up widowed or abandoned. Other than Aisha (RA), all other wives of the Prophet (PBUH) were divorced, widowed, or women that had escaped captivity. Marrying these women was a way of providing for those who were otherwise thrown to the margins of society, rather than an act of misogyny. The Prophet (PBUH) also called the birth of a girl ‘a blessing’, and extended property, marital and inheritance rights to women. Aisha (RA) took a major leadership role in collating the Hadith and became a strong leader in religious and political matters. In their genesis, most religious traditions were actually anti-establishment and subversive – like social justice movements today.

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More generally, Islam is a religion built on the idea of equality of everyone under Allah: “And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer – those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed.” (Qur’an, 4:124). Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim – a phrase used before beginning any important task – describes Allah as ‘Rahman’ and ‘Rahim’. Both these words find their Semitic root in r-h-m, conveying the tenderness of Allah – with a more literal meaning of ‘womb’. A womb doesn’t make a woman, but it is important to note how central this aspect of conventional femininity is to Islam.

To understand how Islam went from this progressivism to being notorious for its supposed oppression of women, we need the help of politics and colonialism. Enter white man. Anti-Muslim rhetoric can be traced back to Orientalist views of the ‘East’ in the heydays of European colonialism – right down to neo-colonial Islamophobia, the anti-Muslim racism we see today. The pervasive image of submissive women, hidden away in the harems under the oppressive thumbs of barbaric Muslim men: this trope has been reproduced so many times that someone ought to claim rights and reap the royalties for its rerun. The stereotype was conjured to justify the attempts bring ‘civility’ to brown savages back then, and to bring education and ‘democracy’ to foreign, ‘underdeveloped’ nations today. Apparently, the capital gained from the exploitation of resource-rich countries where said Muslims happen to be is a mere byproduct of this noble quest. What a cute coincidence.

I’m not going to claim that you never see misogyny in the Muslim community – like all societies, the patriarchy persists there. But consider our largely capitalist world, in which inequality, including that of gender, is a lucrative business. Now consider a religion that is not supposed to be a system of political, corporate or imperial governance, but a peaceful way of life for all people. Which is most likely to encourage the devaluation of women? In fighting the patriarchy, I, too, want the empowerment of oppressed genders everywhere, in all communities – but you can’t comfort my gender with one hand and slap my race and religion with the other. If your activism against one inequality (gender) perpetuates another (racial), then what is it achieving?

As for Poppy, she may or may not get to read this piece. Insha’Allah sister, may you find your way out of the devilish jaws of white feminism. Ameen.

Illustration by Calypso Latham. 

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