Past Is Prologue

Why I’m No Longer Talking to Muslim Men About Equality

Agency is not men’s to give, it’s women’s to have

A woman wearing a red head wrap looks at the camera.
A woman wearing a red head wrap looks at the camera.
Photo: Delmaine Donson/Getty Images

I was distracted by the beep from my phone as I settled down to nap. I stretched forward to turn off the ringer but ended up sneaking a peek: two direct messages and four mentions. A sister on Twitter called my attention to an article written in response to one of my essays on the mutual inclusivity of feminism and Islam. I read it and wasn’t surprised.

The writer tactfully excommunicated me from my faith, arguing that Muslim women need to be extricated from the religion entirely before anything close to equality can be achieved. He alluded to a “promised land” that Muslim feminists rely on “secular counterparts” to reach, a land that either does not exist or exists outside the faith.

Such laughable ignorance and religious blackmail always seem to come from men — the ones who can only feel big when they make women feel small. They tell me who I am, and what I should or shouldn’t say or do. I am an unrighteous woman who should know her place, an ingrate trying to sneak liberalism into Islam.

Nothing injures the pride of a man with exaggerated self-importance like the joy of a free-spirited woman who knows her worth.

For years now, I have been vocal about issues relating to Islam, Muslims, and gender on various media platforms. In one sense, I choose to do this work, but in another, this work chose me. It’s framed by the way others attempt to represent and control me, more or less obliging me to respond. Sometimes I do feel uneasy. But I grow stronger every time, wielding a weapon of humor rather than anger. Nothing injures the pride of a man with exaggerated self-importance like the joy of a free-spirited woman who knows her worth.

I forwarded the article to a friend, who suggested I engage the writer in conversation. That’s the last thing I would do: waste my time talking to men ignorant to the oppression of women. It’s stunting, exhausting, and counterproductive. Agency is not men’s to give. It’s women’s to have. And all my activism from now on will be tailored toward helping Muslim women take their agency.

A few days after that article was published, a new wave of activism against rape and sexual violence started to spiral on Twitter. It began with the story of a girl named Uwa, who was raped and murdered inside the hall of a church in Benin City, Nigeria, where she had been studying for exams. This happened just days after 11 men were arrested for the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl in Jigawa. The Nigerian inspector general of police announced that, in the last five months, Nigeria had experienced at least 717 reported rapes.

We talk about how a woman immediately feels unsafe and threatened by the presence of a man walking behind her on the sidewalk at night. She doubles her pace. Sometimes she runs, her long legs like a whippet’s, as she vanishes down the street. I am that woman. Every woman is that woman. And it happens everywhere: on the street, in a Lyft, at the gym.

We talk about how men don’t live this way, how they don’t spend every day of their lives feeling at risk, feeling vulnerable. They don’t spend their lives pondering the safety of where they’re going, what time is safest to leave and return. Freedom of movement and choice is a privilege men enjoy every day, yet it’s a luxury to women.

We tell men that by virtue of being men, they are part of rape culture. We talk about how they perpetuate the attitudes and behaviors that are rape culture. But these men are still not listening. They are angry that we are talking about these issues. They tell women to not go out at night, to carry pepper spray, a knife, to not dress provocatively. And this last point is where Muslim men jump on the bandwagon, amplifying their abysmal takes, their religious manipulation: “If every Muslim woman wore a hijab and didn’t go out without their mahrams, they would never be sexually harassed.” As if it’s that simple.

There is the case of Barakah, another victim of rape and murder, an 18-year-old Muslim woman in hijab. This story drove Muslim women out in numbers against the Muslim men who use religion to oppress and silence them. It surfaced the many stories of women harassed while wearing hijabs. Muslim women have been sexually harassed during pilgrimage, have been raped in a land that’s supposed to be holy. Muslim women have been raped by their male relatives, the very people supposed to “protect” them.

In a blur of extreme exhaustion and exasperation, I find myself wondering how best to use my words as an instrument for change. I will not try to convince Muslim men that Muslim women are like them, full humans, equal to them and deserving of every human right. It would be a waste of time.

Muslim misogynists and Western feminists have said a lot. Now Muslim women who fight sexism and inequality must be heard. I am here to tell Muslim women to take what’s theirs and not wait for it to be handed to them.

Susan Carland, in her work Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith, and Sexism, made mention of Canadian scholar Jasmin Zine’s observation that “it’s not just our actions but also our very identities that are constantly being shaped by dual, competing discourses that surround us. There’s the fundamentalist, patriarchal narrative… but there are also some Western feminist discourses that seek to define our identities in ways that are… backward, oppressed, with no hope of liberation other than to emulate whatever Western notions of womanhood are on offer… Both arms deny Muslim women the ability — indeed the right — to define our identities for ourselves, and especially to do so within the vast possibilities of Islam.”

Caught between these two contrasting discourses, we seem to have been given some predetermined scripts to live by. And it is left to us — the Muslim women who fight sexism — to rework these structures and reclaim our identities.

One of the hypocrisies in the article responding to my essay was the allegation that I tried to reinvent the wheel by “disparaging” centuries of scholarship to further my own agenda. But ancient scholarship was influenced by cultural and environmental factors. There are stark differences in interpretation of verses of the Qur’an by various scholars. After all, some of these scholars deemed “that a woman who cannot have children is worse than a doormat,” or, “if a man’s heart is attached to a woman, she will rule it and destroy it,” or that “a man is a sayyid and women are men’s captives.”

Women were not completely absent from this history. There is the historical account of a woman who challenged a caliph on a ruling that would have become a part of Islamic law. “Umar [the caliph or ruler of the time]… wanted to cap the value of the mahr, a gift that must be given to a woman for her personal use. The woman criticized his plan using Qur’anic verses to justify her disagreement, and upon hearing her argument, Umar rescinded, saying, ‘The woman is right, and Umar is wrong.’”

While the term “Muslim feminism” is recent, the act of Muslim women fighting sexism is nothing new.

Yet Muslim men today appear alarmed by Muslim women speaking up against sexism in Muslim communities. Men pull out the “secularism” card. They maliciously assert that Muslim women are introducing a foreign concept into Islam — a ridiculous line of thought that ignores the history of Muslim women’s opposition to sexism and the plurality of its approach.

As Roja Fazaeli, a scholar in Islamic civilization, tells us, while the term “Muslim feminism” is recent, the act of Muslim women fighting sexism is nothing new.

Carland states that the history of Muslim women fighting sexism dates back to the time after the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Aisha (RA), the wife of the Prophet, was known for issuing fatawa (religious rulings) on numerous issues but is especially renowned for giving rulings that remind people not to view women negatively when there was no religious basis to do so. In one instance, when a rumor was circulating among some Iraqis that the prayer of a man is nullified if a woman and some lowly animals pass in front of him, Aisha declared:

Listen, oh people of Iraq. You think that a donkey, a dog, a woman, and a cat passing in front of a man praying cuts [ruins] his prayer? You have equated us, women, with them?! Push away whoever comes in front of you as much as is possible for you. For nothing cuts the prayer.

Another version of this ruling has Aisha criticizing the man who was circulating this lie, saying to him, “You have made women like the worst animals!”

The agency of Muslim women in the time of the Prophet (PBUH) was highlighted by their right to grant refuge to a stranger or enemy. Umm Hani, a female companion of the Prophet (PBUH), said: “Oh Messenger of God, the son of my mother claims that he is going to kill a man to whom I have granted protection, So-and-so son of Hubayrah. The Prophet said: ‘We have granted protection to whoever you have granted protection to, Oh Umm Hani.’”

The issue of veiling as a prerogative of the women is also evident in the story of Aisha bint Talha, whose husband told her to “either stay within your home or cover your face when you go out!” Aisha replied to him, “Since the Almighty has put on me this stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view the beauty and thereby recognize His grace unto them. On no account, therefore, will I veil myself.”

For centuries, Muslim women have been challenging sexism in their communities. In the words of Muhammed Akram Nadwi in his work, Al Muhaddithat, “The sheer number of examples from different periods and regions… establish that the answer to some of the ‘If men can, why can’t women?’ questions is ‘Men can, and women can too.’”

Present-day misogyny has been shaped by philosophers like Aristotle, whose ideas not only shaped societies but also infiltrated the Muslim world. Aristotle propounded theories that called men “active” and women “passive.” Abeda Sultana, in “Patriarchy and Women’s Subordination,” stated that for Aristotle, the woman was a “mutilated male,” someone who does not have a soul. In Aristotle’s view, the biological inferiority of a woman makes her inferior also in her capacities, her ability to reason, and therefore, her ability to make decisions. Because man is superior and woman inferior, he is born to rule and she to be ruled.

Indeed, some of the most important architects of institutionalized Muslim misogyny weren’t actually Muslim. According to Max Fisher, “They were Turkish, Ottoman, British, and French. These foreigners ruled Arabs for centuries, twisting the cultures to accommodate their dominance. One of their favourite tricks was to buy the submission of men by offering them absolute power over women. Colonial powers employed it in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and in South Asia, promoting misogynist ideas, and misogynist men, who might have otherwise stayed on the margins, slowly but surely ingraining these ideas into the societies.”

The actual origin of patriarchy is murky and controversial. Was it simply because men are bigger and could fight their way to dominance? Was it a subconscious fear of the inherent power of women that led men to keep women in check, particularly female sexuality? Or was it that the control over and exploitation of women’s lives meant that men could benefit materially, deriving concrete economic gains from the subordination of women? This is a concept that Sylvia Walby called the “patriarchal mode of production” in her book Theorizing Patriarchy.

According to Walby, “housewives are the producing class, while husbands are the expropriating class. Their back-breaking, endless, and repetitive labour is not considered work at all, and housewives are seen to be dependent on their husbands. So, there is a material basis for patriarchy.” The material basis for patriarchy, then, does not rest solely on childbearing in the family but on all the social structures that enable men to control women’s labor. Unfortunately, we don’t hear these theories cited much in conversations about feminism and misogyny. What Muslim men do repeatedly cite is religion.

It starts from men weaponizing the hijab and veil to exclude women from public life, likening a woman’s face to her genitals. Thus, what Muslim women wear as an act of obedience to God as well as an affirmation of their faith has become excessively politicized and has come to represent far more than religious observance. According to Sheikh Muhammed Akram Nadwi, “The meaning of the hijab is not that women should be absent or invisible, it is that they be present and visible with the power of their bodies switched off.

The deliberate attempt by many Muslim men to lump Muslim women’s activism under the umbrella of secular feminism in order to bully the latter into silence no longer holds any weight. According to historian Margot Badran, “the West is not the patrimonial home of feminism, from which all feminisms derive and against which they must be measured.” Feminism isn’t about “we must never bow to the evil oppressor male!” It’s about having the choice to live our lives as we wish, to choose what we think is best for us.

Despite the ideological differences between the various Muslim feminist groups, they are united in their rebellion against this hierarchical relationship between men and women. It is no longer accepted as biological destiny. Sex is biological, but gender is social.

I am no longer talking to Muslim men about equality because of the deep-seated hypocrisy that has penetrated the hearts of most of them — the one that makes them quick to chant, “Islam has given women rights,” even when they know too well that women’s rights, under Islamic law, are often not implemented. These men will never speak up against gender injustice. They do nothing to ensure that the rights of Muslim women are enforced in their communities. They will never be on the side of women, because they use religion as a tool to conserve their dominance. They have interpreted religion, molding it to perpetuate patriarchal domination.

I’m no longer talking to Muslim men about equality because they dismiss the calls for gender equality as just another form of imposition, insisting that Islam does it differently without showing us how it is done. The louder our calls for gender equality become, the easier they are to wave away.

Just a few days ago, a Muslim man I initially believed was in favor of gender equality told me that women in Islam cannot occupy leadership positions, ignoring the rich history of female leadership in the Muslim world from the time of the Prophet (PBUH). This man based his argument on a single hadith narrated by one man who — during the historical battle of the camel when Aisha, the wife of the Prophet (PBUH), took up arms against the Caliph — relayed after a quarter of a century that he heard the Prophet say no nation that appoints women as leaders will prosper. It was this hadith that formed the basis for the scholarly ruling that women are prohibited from taking leadership positions, a hadith that was not in existence at the time the second caliph of Islam, Umar (RA) appointed Ash-Shifa bint Abdullah, a woman, as a minister for trade and commerce. This hadith was also not invoked when Khayzuran, another woman, governed the Muslim Empire under three Abbasid caliphs in the eighth century or when Malika Asma bint Shihab al-Sulayhiyya and Malika Arwa bint Ahmad al-Sulayhiyya both held power in Yemen in the 11th century or when Sitt al-Mulk became a Fatimid queen of Egypt in the 11th century

I’m no longer talking to Muslim men because I cannot channel my energy into a discussion that yields nothing but futility.

If Muslim men want to be the true allies of Muslim women, as stated in the Qur’an, then they must walk with empathy and humility befitting true allies. If they ignore the pain and the struggles of their sisters, their presence only serves to destroy the work done by women instead of elevating us all to new heights.

Founding Editor, The Muslim Women Times. I write about Gender, Culture, Equality and Islam | Visit our Website at https://www.themuslimwomentimes.com

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