Ibn al-Qayyim in his I’lam al-Muwaqqi’in argued that whatever causes hardship and misery cannot be part of the Shariah even if people believe it to be so. As a 12 year old, who had little knowledge of Islam, I refused to accept that the misery many Muslim women were experiencing was part of Islam. Having left the Muslim bookshop with books on ‘women,’ I was eager to get home to read what I thought would be material that would change my life. Instead I experienced despair, that wretched emotion which would continue to haunt me throughout my teenage and adult life. I dread to think how many other young girls today experience those feelings of despair and resentment as I did those many years ago.
As a teenager who had dreams of changing the world and standing up to injustice, I definitely did not get much encouragement from those predominately Salafi books which continue to dominate many Muslim bookshops today. I read that my worth as a woman was to please my husband. That domesticity was the role for me. That as a woman, the burden of preserving morality fell on my small shoulders as I was more likely to entice men to commit illicit acts. Chapter after chapter focused on polygamy, divorce, marriage and even zina (fornication.) My voice was awrah (private body parts to be covered by clothing.) I couldn’t travel without a mahrem and I definitely could not be a leader of any kind. Not wearing the hijab meant I lacked morality and worse still I could not possibly be a practising Muslim who loves Islam dearly.
Over the next 18 years or so I constantly heard and reheard the same lectures by different organisations and circles on what I as a woman could and could not do. I vividly remember a woman lecturing a group of young 18 year olds that no matter what time of day, we should always ensure we are sexually appealing for our husbands. I even remember her saying that a good Muslim wife would be one who would make sure that nothing would disturb her husband after his long hard day at work. A good wife, she said, would ensure that the children were quiet and that even the washing machine should be switched off as the noise might ‘disturb him.’ I laugh now at how unrealistic and derogatory these expectations of women are but I know it is no laughing matter.
Fundamentally, the reasoning behind many of these ‘rules’ was that women were a source of fitnah (sexual discord) in society. That I am a sexual being. Full stop. Everything about me is reduced to this point. My dreams, hopes, aspirations or rights are irrelevant. What mattered was that I could cause men to ‘lose control’ of themselves, so society should be protected from women who would seduce men. This view can be found in many strands of Muslim thought which make up Muslim communities in the UK today.
I find this to be one of the most offensive attitudes to hold about women and even more offensive when people try to cloak it under the banner of Islam and actually attribute this view to the Almighty Himself. To reduce me to a one dimensional creature, violating my dignity and entire self-worth, is in my mind a great crime committed by those in ‘authority’ who claim to speak on God’s behalf. What I find amusing is when this same self-appointed ‘authority’ claim Islam dignifies and liberates women. Ah yes, I am liberated from some chains but then find myself only to be shackled by a different set of chains. However, I don’t believe the chains are Islam, far from it. Rather, many women find themselves shackled by the chains of patriarchy and misogyny.
As much as the puritanical and literalists try to convince us otherwise, these views are considered to be conservative in Islam. The classical jurist community differed vastly on these issues with some holding the view that women can lead a prayer in a mixed congregation or that women could be judges. Not that radical then, but strangely enough, views which are considered far more radical now.
However, what I find shocking now, almost 20 years later, is how these conservative views are still so dominant amongst many Muslim organisations and communities, Muslim TV channels, mosques, Muslim bookshops and even amongst university educated Muslim men and women. Go to the section on women in many of the Muslim bookshops today and see what kinds of books are being stocked. The chances of you picking up books by Asma Barlas, Fatima Mernissi, Amina Wadud or anyone for that matter with a differing view point, is rare to say the least. When a significant number of mosques exclude women, university Islamic societies deny women the chance of becoming president and even puritanical Wahabism though present in many Muslim circles, is there any wonder why such views are so dominant and dare I say it, that they have become part of the Muslim psyche? Mixed into this melting pot is culture from ‘back home’ which can be, but not always, misogynistic. We end up with a rather ugly looking creature; one that loathes women but tries to justify it by using Islam. Unfortunately misogynistic views are far too rife amongst our communities and many Muslim women suffer for it on a day to day basis to the detriment of British Muslim communities.
Even organisations that are considered ‘progressive’ in relative terms, I have found that when the topic of women comes up, we hear the same conservative views. Sometimes, it can be quite subtle. I remember a women’s event where they were highlighting role models but funnily enough the role models were women who were at home and who did not have a public life, emphasising the belief that the ‘best’ Muslim women are those who stay confined to the private sphere. Laying on the guilt for those women who had no choice but to work.
Of course, not all mosques and organisations promote such views; I am slowly starting to see discussions and debates around different and alternative interpretations. But here is the dilemma. Where is that 12 year old, that young girl, who is interested in learning about what Islam offers her, in the 21st century, where does she go? What books does she read? Who will give her a contextualised understanding of Islam relevant to the globalised, modern and fast paced life she is living in? How are we, as British Muslims who run Muslim channels, are presidents of organisations, editors of newspapers, Imams of mosques dealing with this challenge? What are we afraid of, of rigidly sticking to conservative interpretations on women when there are indeed a multitude of opinions? Why do we not respect differences in opinions that are part and parcel of Islam’s rich history? Since the age of the Companions, classical Muslim jurists maintained long established tradition of disputation, debate and disagreement. Acceptance and reverence was given to the idea of ikhtilaaf (disagreement and diversity.) The Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) himself said the disagreement of the Ummah is a source of mercy. Why do Muslims insist on their being one opinion when clearly this is a lie?
This blog is not about contributing to the impression that Islam is uniquely oppressive towards women. It is about understanding what role patriarchal reading of Islam’s sacred texts have on the lives of Muslims today. This critical analysis needs to take place so that women no longer suffer gender based violence or discrimination. It is time we woke up to the reality of the dominance of conservative views about women in British Muslim communities and how ultimately this contributes to a great gender injustice for both men and women.