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Between Feminism and Islam My Personal Journey from ‘Muslim Feminist’ to ‘Muslimah’

As a young girl, I once asked the then-Emir of Kano Ado Bayero if I could take part in the biannual Eid durbar. He replied no, it was only for boys. When I asked him why not, he said simply that was how it was done. But even as a child, I found it unfair that riding horses during Eid was reserved for boys just because the culture says so; and so, when I discovered the word ‘feminist’, I was thrilled, thinking I had found my most definitive term, a validation of my beliefs and advocacies.

It was no surprise that, in 2018, I decided to write a thesis titled ‘How to be a Muslim feminist’ for my undergraduate degree from the American University of Paris. Throughout the paper, I emphasized that my definition of a Muslim feminist is anyone who is ‘as much a feminist as Islam allows he or she to be’. In other words, such a person could be a Muslim, Christian or a Jew who is a feminist in accordance with Islamic principles—and my ideas argued extensively to that effect. I chose to investigate my belief system, learning about the religion of Islam through a ‘feminist’ lens: What are the rights of the Muslim woman? Are Muslim women oppressed? Why are female voices silenced in Islamic debates? Why does Islam require two female witnesses in the place of one male? Why are men a degree above women? Why is polygamy allowed, but not polyandry? My questions were driven by a desire for gender equality–and not the search for knowledge–and for this reason, I convinced myself I was feminist, even though I was Muslim by birth. By the time I submitted the thesis, I had learned that I could accommodate all the different aspects of myself into a single identity. I became a ‘Muslim feminist’ and I began to introduce myself as such.

Despite these valid grounds for women’s rights, writing my thesis, I also discovered that many people who claimed to be feminists did so for reasons completely detached from Islam. I spoke with people who were ‘Muslim feminists’ because they identified as Muslims and also believed in ‘liberal’ concepts such as feminism, equality in marriage, and homonormativity. Some of these Muslim feminists demanded an equal share of inheritance with their brothers and some considered themselves as such simply because they refused to cover their heads with a veil when they ventured outside. While I had found a way to fight for women’s rights in the context of Islam, contemporary Muslim feminists seemed to have negotiated their religious beliefs to fit into societal ideas and expectations of feminism. How, then, could my advocacy be taken seriously when it was under the same umbrella with the ‘liberal’ groups who wanted to fight against the religion of Islam and its stance on important matters, such as homosexuality and inheritance? How could my idea of feminism–a feminist in accordance with Islamic principles–be taken seriously?

Feminism, at its most fundamental, strives for the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, and Islam is diametrically opposed to this level of gender equality. Indeed, many authors have expounded on Islam’s patriarchal inclination. In her 2006 book, Inside the Gender Jihad, American Muslim philosopher and founding member of Sisters in Islam, Amina Wadud, interrogates the patriarchal concepts within the Qur’an. She writes, for instance, that she has come across Qur’anic texts that are ‘just plain inadequate or unacceptable, however much interpretation is enacted upon it’.

For Wadud, no amount of exegesis can align the words of the Qur’an with contemporary feminism. American scholar of Islam, Kecia Ali, agrees, writing in ‘A Beautiful Example: The prophet Muhammad as a Model for Muslim Husbands that ‘contemporary believers are permitted to adopt hadith when it agrees with contemporary Western ethics, but to reject it when it contradicts them’. Ayesha Chaudhry—a member scholar at Musawah, a community that ‘facilitates access to existing knowledge and creates new knowledge about women’s rights in Islam’—has also argued that Islamic law, which stems from a specific narrative and a specific reading of the Qur’an, has a patriarchal inclination. Chaudhry is also quoted to have referred to the Prophet (S.A.W) as a patriarchal man who belonged in seventh-century Arabia. Dismantling patriarchy lies at the heart of feminism and contemporary feminist movements, which, according to these scholars, is irreconcilable with Islam’s patriarchal inclination.

What I learned, from my research, was that the oppression Islam is so often accused of does not come from religious texts, but from the (mis)interpretation of the Shari’ah (Islamic law). I now understand that epistemic violence—not the Qur’an and the Hadiths (sayings and doings of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W))—is the driving force of oppression within Muslim societies. Therefore, scholars like Wadud, Chaudhry and Ali believe that feminism is the answer; and Muslim women must adopt the ideology or be tagged foot soldiers of patriarchy.

But, whether intentionally or unintentionally, this means–as researcher, writer, and international speaker for the Muslim Debate Initiative, Zara Faris, writes in her 2018 essay, ‘Do Muslims Need a Feminist Theology’—that Muslim feminists believe that ‘male voices have drowned out the Will of God’. To them, ‘Islamic scholarship has been a male-dominated, or patriarchal, enterprise that has, deliberately or incidentally, subordinated and deprived women of their due rights’. This is why Muslim scholars, like Daniel Haqiqatjou, believe that Muslim feminism is a path to apostasy. He explains that apostates explicitly cite Islam, the Qur’an and (S.A.W) as defenders of patriarchy and oppression; and since Islam is not feminist, a feminist cannot–in good conscience–be a Muslim. Therefore, ‘feminism is noxious and a direct threat to faith’.

Learning this, I grew concerned because Western feminism did not align with my beliefs at all. Unlike the feminists I had come across, I sought to educate Muslim women about their God-given rights. Like Eniola Anuoluwapo Soyemi writes in her 2017 essay, F is for Human, ‘the problem with Western feminism remains that Western feminism has always seen itself as representing the universal experience of womanhood.’ This can be in the shape of a white, blonde, tall, non-married, sexually-active, homosexual or bisexual working woman; and feminists around the world must stand by this figure. Intersectionality is an important aspect of feminism in that every group must be represented, advocated for and carried along to the battlefield. You can’t call yourself a feminist, claiming to advocate for women’s rights but excluding the LGBTQ+ community and identifying with institutions that are primarily patriarchal – a category many religions around the world subscribe to. Feminism is a ‘one size fits all’ t-shirt that cannot be reshaped to align with one’s religious beliefs. But intersectionality–being inclusive of sexualities and accepting sex work as a respectable occupation–is not in accordance with Islam, which criminalizes acts of homosexuality, adultery and prostitution. Thus, feminism cannot work within the Islamic framework because it advocates for certain groups of people which Islam admonishes.

The Transition

In a 2019 talk presented by Arab American Muslim, Nour Goda, Goda noted that there are three ‘Camps of Feminism Among Muslims’: De-Muslimized Muslims; Reformist Muslims; and Ambivalent Muslims. Goda argued that the De-Muslimized Muslims believe that ‘Islam needs feminism because Islam is patriarchal and misogynistic’. The Reformist Muslims, however, are of the opinion that ‘Islam needs feminism not because Islam is wrong but because it has been interpreted mainly by male scholars’. Finally, Ambivalent Muslims argue that ‘Islam doesn’t need feminism. Islam is perfect. However, because of how Muslims conduct themselves, and because we share the same causes as feminists, Muslims (not Islam) need feminism’. The Muslim Feminists could occupy the first two categories, with people like Amina Wadud and Ayesha Chaudhry leading Goda’s idea of ‘The Reformist Muslims’. But irrespective of the group you subscribe to, aligning feminism with Islam means that a part of you believes that there is some form of injustice in Islam–whether it is the fact that you believe the religion pardons domestic abuse, or that you think it’s unfair that Muslim women are told to wear the Hijab.

Understanding that the word ‘feminism’ carried so much baggage was one thing; constantly losing arguments to two very good friends who were both more knowledgeable about Islam than me and who were self-proclaimed anti-feminists was another. Every time I mentioned the word ‘feminist’, I was met with ‘Muslim’. When I asked about divorce and questioned the prerogative of a man to leave his wife at will, I was taught khul (or khula), the process by which a Muslim woman can seek a divorce from a Shari’ah (Islamic law) court by returning her mahr (dowry). When I asked about the women that are often left worse off after divorce because they had been completely dependent on their husbands during the marriage, I was referred to an entire chapter of the Qur’an dedicated to discussing divorce, Talaq. In the chapter(65:6), Allah says: ‘Lodge them where you dwell to the end of the waiting period according to your means and do not harm them so as to make them straitened with respect to lodging and sustenance lest they have to leave their homes. And if they are pregnant, spend on them till they lay down their burden. Then consult each other and reach to some settlement regarding your infants and if you fail to reach some settlement, ask another woman to suckle the infants’.

During the first three months after a divorce, a Muslim man is supposed to cater to the recently divorced wife by providing her with food, clothing and shelter. When I spoke about the stigma around widows and divorcées, I was reminded that Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) married them almost exclusively; Aisha (radhiallahu ‘anha) was the only exception. When I heard horrific stories about polygamy and stated that the practice was just another way for women to become victims of abuse, I was directed to Qur’anic verses and Hadiths that preached the treatment of wives fairly, the conditions by which a man can marry multiple wives, and the rights a wife has over her husband. These advantages are a privilege I worry feminism does not afford us.

Inarguably, there is a divide between Islam and feminism as we know it today. Indeed, the Qur’an states (2:228): ‘But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority]’ and feminism cannot reconcile with patriarchy. In an article titled ‘Islam and Feminism’, Hadiya Aliyu Tilde wrote: ‘you choose feminism and your faith in God is wounded. You choose your faith in God and your belief in feminism is wounded.’ The gender roles dictated by Islam are not compatible with the teachings of feminism and because of this, Hadiya argues that ‘you cannot carry both hand-in-hand’.

Defeated and exhausted, I walked away from the ‘F’ movement. In the fight between my principles and my religion, I choose to submit to the latter.

I could no longer be a Muslim feminist, so I started looking into all the possible terms I could use to define myself and my advocacy. I thought of potential labels like ‘Fake Modernist’, ‘Reluctant Feminist’, among others. Eventually, a random Twitter follower recommended that I refer to myself as a ‘Muslimah’ (a Muslim woman), a suggestion I rejected at first because I believed I had to have a label that was unique to me, one I wanted to be identified by and associated with.

‘Muslimah’ was common, bland, and unoriginal. And I was not.

Muslims, like all other people, have varying views of the place of women in marriage and society. There are differences in every sect, madhab (a legal school within fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence), and every country. Some people stick to medieval interpretations; others seek reinterpretation to remove injustice while keeping the traditional family in place; others want to tear up the rulebook. I come from a community where a man exercises his right to marry four women but does not treat them with fairness; a place where a husband feels it is okay to beat his wife black and blue and uses religion as a justification for this heinous crime; the same place a man can force his young daughter to get married to a man twice her age simply because he feels he has the right to do so.

It was at this transition stage of my life that I realized that as a feminist, I had blamed Islam for the fault of the Muslim. But, as Sherin Khankhan writes in her book, Women are the Future of Islam, ‘faith without knowledge is vain (the inverse is also true)’. You need to have knowledge of Islam for your faith to be strong, and you need to have faith for you to be inspired to seek knowledge in the religion. It was this realization that ultimately brought me to the end of my search, to being a Muslimah.

Muslimah

I eventually learnt that advocating for a Muslim woman’s God-given rights, or educating her on the matter, says more about one’s faith than their feminist ideals. If one takes advantage of a woman’s ignorance to oppress her in the name of the religion that she accepted as a part of her identity, he or she is not being a good Muslim. If one truly puts the religion before misogyny and chauvinism, he or she should enthusiastically seek to fight for women’s rights in accordance with Islamic principles, without having to identify as a ‘Feminist’. By fighting for women’s rights, he or she would simply be the definition of a pious Muslim or Muslimah.

There are a lot of Muslimahs who advocate for the rights of the Muslim woman without necessarily identifying as feminists. Manal al-Sharif, author of book Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, was shocked when she discovered that there is no Shari’ah law that bans her (a Saudi woman) from driving. So, one day, she decided to drive her brother’s car and took a video while doing so. Despite the consequences–her brother was detained twice and harassed, she was thrown in jail, her father had to listen to Imams (who are supposed to be Muslim clerics) speak ill of female drivers, calling them prostitutes–she did not give up. In numerous hadiths, it has been reported that Aisha (radhiallahu ‘anha) the wife of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W), rode her horse as she journeyed alongside the Prophet, but Manal was being told that she could not drive for religious reasons. She did not have to call herself a feminist to fight for this right; she could do this as a Muslimah.

Another Muslimah I am fascinated by is Alaa Murabit. During her TED talk, ‘What my religion really says about women’, she observed: ‘the misrepresentation and misuse and manipulation of religious scripture has influenced our social and cultural norms, our laws, our daily lives to a point where we sometimes don’t even recognize it’. She realized that the proof with which religious and political leaders in Libya force women to remain in stagnant positions was religious scripture; in response, she decided to ‘use their defense as my offense’.

‘I used verses from the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet’, Murabit said. Her Human Rights organization–The voices of Libyan Women (VLW)–led the largest campaign in 2012 and 2013 in the country. They went to schools, homes and mosques to speak to people about a different side of Islam–one that liberates women, one that is neither cultural nor oppressive. They spoke to 50,000 people individually and more through proclamations on billboards, TV and radio commercials and posters. This was Islam, not feminism.

Daniel Haqiqatjou says it best: ‘If the abuse of women is a disease, then Islamic precepts and ethics are the natural ‘organic,’ wholesome cure whereas feminism is a harsh toxic chemical treatment, which might get rid of the disease but only by nearly killing the patient while creating ten more ailments in its place.’

Today, I see people at different places on the spectrum of Feminist and Muslim—at one end, hardcore feminists who believe that Islam is a sexist religion that oppresses women and, at the other, terrorists who argue they are jihadists, who kidnap girls from schools, rape them and kill in the name of Islam. I have often said of the latter ‘they are not Muslims!’ but I’ve heard people repeat the same words of the former. While one group believes to be superior and condemns the other—whether they are sticking to medieval interpretations or asking for the rulebook to be torn—I find myself cocooned in the middle, trying to find a middle ground as a Muslimah: common, bland and unoriginal.

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