Failure of feminism in the Muslim community

The Muslim community seems to be decades behind British society in the treatment of women1 with feminism (see below) not yet permeating our mosques and community centres. Independently of whether this is a good or bad thing, the question is why? In my personal view, it is due to Islam and Muslims.

Firstly, Islam – or the mainstream interpretation of Islam – is naturally conservative. It is most closely understood as being supportive of “traditional family values”. Major scholars from all schools of thought, are united in their belief that men are and should be the financial breadwinners; men are and should be the natural leaders and men are and should be the interpreters of the law. At the same time, it is women who must be available to their husbands; it is women who must cover their bodies and it is women who must be segregated from the rest of the society (unless there is a reason not to). In this climate, is there much reason to expect a different outcome?

There are some who are challenging the status quo – and are referred to derogatorily as “progressives”, “liberals” or “reformists”. Whatever the label, it is of utmost importance that any such discussion is done:

In a holistic manner: women’s rights cannot be discussed without discussing responsibilities e.g. if one were to argue for the rights of women to have a career and not be at the husband’s beck and call, this cannot be done without also considering financial responsibility of women in a family setting.
With due deference to those with differences of opinion: in any culture or religion, major scholars live(d) in societies which are very different to our own. It is not fair to blame them for not seeing the world in the way that the progressives of today do!

Secondly, we come to Muslims. Regardless of religious viewpoint, even the most conservative believers would find it hard pressed to justify the misogyny and idiocy that fills many of our religious institutions. For example, the space for women in mosques is always worse than that of men; many institutions do not even allow a space for women at Jum’a or Eid prayers; and women’s views are rarely taken into account in mosque decision-making (other than areas which are solely to do with women)2. Naming all the injustices that are done to the mothers, sisters and daughters of our community, would take forever. So why are Muslim institutions (as a whole) getting away with this type of nonsensical and unjustifiable misogyny? In my view, there are three key reasons:

Old people: Those who run our institutions, are in general, the older generation, who primarily are immigrants and have brought their patriarchal culture with them – this is very difficult to change, other than by democratising our mosques, and allowing a greater say to all.

Men: If you are in a position of power or superiority, there is little reason to fight to give that up, whether or not you think it is right. Just put yourself in the position of the men in the marriage process – would you prefer to have a situation where the society supports your freedoms and does not judge you? Self-interest drives societies, and from a pure political perspective, it is not in men’s interest, to drive the feminist agenda. To change this, must be done by aligning all our interests in a collaborative manner where possible, building coalitions rather than being antagonistic and always wanting a fight!

Women: A significant proportion of those who want change are women who have experienced the discrimination, whether directly or indirectly; whether intentionally or unintentionally; and whether at a small or large scale. Yet how many actually do anything about it or support those who do? In reality, who are the ones who put down those who speak up?

We can all talk about how society is at fault for not providing the space for this debate, and to an extent this is true – but really? Why not create the space? Did Bibi Fatima (AS) stay silent as her rights were ignored, whilst living in the most ignorant of all societies? The response is often – “but what will people say” (in a whingeing tone, and most often worrying about marriage). Grow up people! If you believe in this cause, then “won’t somebody please think of the children” and the next generation? Who will be the role models: will it be those who sat on the side; or those who did something? Did the Suffragettes make the change in the Western world without sacrifice?3

For those who believe in a more equal society, there are three key principles:

Be strategic, build coalitions and understand politics: work differently and appropriately on the levels highlighted above, building an argument based on the audience’s specific issues; and do so in a sensible manner, not alienating those who support your cause!

Pick your battles and do not fight irrelevant points when the broader narrative is being written. In the last week when discussing similar topics, I have seen women ignorantly referred to as “females”, “womenfolk” and “the female gender”. This complete ignorance as to suitable language, is an important issue but the right response is not to get mad at anyone who says “men/women” and insist on using terminology like “wo/men” to ensure women are put first. This kind of nonsensical behaviour (although hilariously funny) just undermines the cause that is being fought

Do something about it and be ready to sacrifice: when there is change, there is inertia and opposition to change. Without people willing to stand up and take the expected abuse, society will not move forward. I am not saying that we need a sacrificial lamb (or ewe lamb!) but we have to realise the necessity of sacrifice and abuse; and therefore, the requirement for this to be a collaborative effort with mutual support to mitigate this as much as is reasonable / possible.

And really, we cannot sit back and let this continue. We have to all identify where there is patriarchy and misogyny, and strategically do something about it, not only to solve the issues of today but also for the longer term.

(1) Personally, I think that this statement itself is relatively patronising, as it is talking about treatment of women, considering women to be the “other”. The reality, however, is that given the men run the mosques, the “treatment of women” seems to be the only statement that captures the idea I am trying to address

(2) There are so many institutions who still do not provide a vote for women, or do so in a ridiculous way – I can’t believe that this still happens in the 21st century, and nobody seems to care!

(3) I know that this is a simplification to some extent, and ignores the strides being made in the community. I know also that there are other causes I have not mentioned but I genuinely consider these to be the biggest reasons.

Note the first paragraph has been edited: it used to say “Western values” but that was not the intention.

Intellectual Freedom, Censorship and the Spirit of Islam

The idea that ‘Islam’ is a set of idealism-defining principles with which Muslims often fail to conform, almost seems a clichéd notion. Amongst these lofty principles is allowing the intellect freedom to manoeuvre, to challenge and to break faulty ideas in order to replace them with more accurate ones. Thus we find the inevitable contraposition to this ethic found within many Muslim societies, whereby barriers of censorship are erected in order to shield the masses from intellectual opinions that challenge the presiding point of view, be it ideological in nature or otherwise.

Ironic then, that the birth, and subsequent growth, of Islam was only made possible by the demolishing of such barriers; and that intellectual censorship was a tool upon which the opponents of Islam depended. The Quraysh’s prohibition to Al-Ṭufayl ibn ‘Umar from listening to the Holy Prophet (pbuh), out of fear that he may convert, was by no means an isolated instance[1].

It may well have been the case that the censorship imposed in Mecca, 1400 years ago, was decreed in order to protect prestigious financial and social positions of the Qurayshi elite; it may also be the case that intellectual censorship in today’s Muslim societies does not always spring from such sinister self-serving motives. Nevertheless, the frantic want to silence opinions that challenge the status quo, is the bitter fruit of insecurity; either fearing that the ideas we have adhered to for so long may crumble in the face of a more indubitable argument, or that we lack the scholarly prowess to intellectually defend the beliefs we hold, regardless of how correct they may be.

Islamic philosophy, jurisprudence and even ideological convictions have all evolved over time due to the willingness of scholars, with critical minds, to entertain novel ideas in Popperian spirit[2].

The early history of Islam is riddled with examples of how the progeny of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) debated, discussed and intellectually defeated ideological and jurisprudential conjectures put forth by those less learned. Shying away from debate or attempting to repress contending opinions would have been unbefitting of them.

It is regrettable to see, therefore, that it is now deemed acceptable for religious figures in authoritative positions, to censor and silence academic opinions that are not in harmony with what is considered ‘mainstream’ – regardless of whether or not they are correct.

This unfortunate trend results in the numbing of the collective intellect of the Muslim community by shielding them from controversial views, patronisingly keeping them aloof from mental exercise in a religious context.

However, the refusal to engage and entertain differing views, and blocking them from the community by building a rampart of censorship, could lead to an even more potentially perilous possibility – what if they’re right?!

[1] Majlisi, M. B. (1988). Biḥār al-Anwār. Beirut: Dar al-Fiqh. V. 17 P. 81

[2] Karl Popper (d. 1994): “I speak of the growth of scientific knowledge, the repeated overthrow of scientific theories and its replacement by better or more satisfactory ones”. [Popper, K. (1963). Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge Publications. P. 215]