The idea that Islam has been the source of freedom for women for over 1400 years is unfathomable to many. Conversely, using the words feminism and Islam as accentuating terms in the same sentence is often that much more perplexing. This is predominantly due to the fact that Muslim women around the world are facing various forms of political, social and economic discrimination under the guise of religion. Additionally, current media coverage often paints Islam and Muslims with the same brush. For those who have never spent a significant amount of time with Muslims or studied the religion from a non-Orientalist lens, it would be extremely difficult to decipher the difference between the vast cultural practices of Muslims versus the religion of Islam.
Upon first glance, feminism and Islam seem to be diverging ideologies. It is for this reason that claiming ones identity as a Muslim, as well as, a feminist can mean that you are both misunderstood and loathed. On one hand, there exists an understanding of feminism to be a man-hating, anti-religious, anti-marriage, anti-motherhood ideology. On the other hand, Islam appears to be a highly patriarchal, misogynistic, hierarchy for male dominance; sufficed to say that the assumptions held on both accounts are wrong. In addition to this, neither Islam nor feminism is mutually exclusive. Through both reading the myriad of books and articles dedicated to the topic of women’s rights in Islam, as well as, having a firm understanding of the history and goals of feminism, the idea that Islam is, by its very nature, a feminist religion becomes easier to understand and recognize. The purpose of the following research paper is to examine the status of women from an Islamic context. I will discuss if and how Islam and feminism are related. Further I intend to answer the question, does Islam need feminism?
Regardless of whether feminism is claimed in the titles of scholarly sources concerned with women’s issues in the Muslim world, one common denominator throughout most, is that in a time and place of tribal warfare where the misuse of women was rampant, a man,ﷺ through his spiritual teachings, was able to trigger a paradigm shift that would ripple throughout the world for hundreds of years to come.
Before the advent of Islam and the arrival of Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and his proclamation of Prophethood, the history of woman was no doubt the history of subjugation and oppression. She was underestimated and condemned as a low and mean creature and was regarded as the root cause of all evils and disasters….she was bought and sold like animals. [i]
Some see Muhammed ﷺ as a prophet of God الله سبحانه وتعالى, whilst others do not. Personal theological opinion concerning Muhammed’s ﷺ status is inconsequential to the fact that women living in the Arabian Peninsula, were enjoying economic, social and political prosperity at a time when the Western world was still debating whether women were human beings. In his book, Status of Women in Islam, author Muniruddin Qureshi situates women’s rights under Islamic law and feminism,
[m]any of the rights conferred on women by the Prophet of Islam fourteen hundred years ago have only partially and grudgingly been given to them in Western and Eastern countries during the course of the last two centuries. Similarly, with respect to sex equality, the mental human dignity and quality of women, Islam is at one with the leaders of the feminist movement. [ii]
Muslims agree that Muhammed ﷺ is a Prophet of God الله سبحانه وتعالى and gain understanding of their faith primarily through three factions. These include: 1) the Sunnah, “the observed practice of the Prophet Muhammad,” 2) hadith, “oral tradition or reported pronouncement,” and 3) the Qur’an.[iii] The Sunnah and hadith have been collected, compiled and organized into various topic headings by scholars of the faith. From them, we are able to create a more in-depth perspective on the various roles within which Muhammed ﷺ operated. Some examples of these are a statesmen, general, orator, husband, and religious leader.
“This event happened approximately 1279 years before women were considered persons and allowed to vote in Canada.”
Historical records also show that women did not have a mandate of social duties to which they were bonded. Gendered roles and responsibilities were not binary in the same way as we see them today. Although “women’s work” is now most often relegated to the home, traditionally women held various roles within the early Muslim communities. Moreover, in her article entitled Gender, Margot Badran explains that, “[a]part from the husband’s duty to provide materially for his wife in the circumstance of childbearing and rearing, there is an absence of prescribed gender roles and functions.” [i]Consequently husband and wife will decide together what is best for their family situation and act accordingly. Conversely, while there is a lack of prescribed duties for women there are accounts that clearly show Muhammed ﷺ partaking in domestic duties as well as his emphasis on the importance of a husband helping with various tasks in the home. Some of these duties include, cooking, cleaning, and mending clothes. The following hadith is an example from one of Muhammed’s later wives, Aisha bint Abi Bakr رضي الله عنها,
she [Aisha] (may Allaah be pleased with her) was also asked about what the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) used to do in his house, she said, “He used to serve his family, then when the time for prayer came, he would go out to pray. [ii]
Another folkway present at the time of Muhammed ﷺ was the importance of education and knowledge. Both seen to be so essential to the wellbeing of society that Muhammed ﷺ made a fatwa, or religious edict, that any prisoner of war that taught ten Muslims to read and write would be freed. Women were included in this fatwa and their knowledge has been an important component within the Islamic tradition. In fact, “[o]ccasionally a woman achieved such fame as a scholar that she was sought out by male students.”[iii]
One of Muhammed’s ﷺ most famous wives, A’isha’s bint Abi Bakr رضي الله عنها, had a remarkable memory for events and conversations. Her Islamic knowledge was so prolific that one quarter of the narrations of the hadith and Sunnah in existence today come directly from her. She was often left to answer religious questions and give fatwas when Muhammed ﷺ was traveling. In this regard, it should be mentioned that After Muhammed’s ﷺ death she waged a war against his nephew, Ali رضي الله عنه, who believed himself to be his uncle’s successor. The war came to be known as the “Battle of the Camel.”[iv] This is the event that ultimately caused a schism in the Muslim community creating the Sunni and Shi’a sects. The Muslims who believed Ali رضي الله عنه to be the subsequent ruler became a part of the Shi’a faction and the other group was classified as Sunni, meaning they followed only their verified hadith and Sunnah along with the Qur’an. Although she eventually lost the war the fact that she led men into battle shows that Muslim men at this time did not feel emasculated by following the stance of a woman.
In addition to the aforementioned advancements in the social and political spheres, women were also given the right to vote. The first noted instance of this was when Muhammed ﷺ made a pledge with the people of Madinah, then called Yathrib. Before engaging in the pact with him the group voted on whether this was a good idea. Among the group were two women. Their vote was accounted for in the decision of pledging allegiance to Muhammedﷺ.[v] This event happened approximately 1279 years before women were considered persons and allowed to vote in Canada.[vi]
Marriage is an important contract for Muslims. It is a legally binding document between the bride, groom and God الله سبحانه وتعالى, which lists foreseeable issues and stipulations. Furthermore, it includes the bride’s mahr, “dower or gift given to the wife by the husband on marriage.”[vii] The mahr is specifically for the bride and no one has any rights upon it. Furthermore, any money or property that belongs to the bride is hers. Her husband has no rights towards it and is not to be included it in the overall family wealth. In this way what is hers, is hers; and what is his, is also hers. In the event of a marital breakdown, divorced women have the right to alimony, a concept that comes from the Islamic tradition.
Although the financial burden of taking care of the home resides on men, this does not mean that women will never use their money to ensure the success of the family home. However, if a woman chooses to give her earnings or her money towards the upkeep of the home or family, it is considered a sadaqa, or charity, on her part.
In the Qur’an and through the Sunnah and hadith men were ordered to ensure the financial wellbeing of their wives and children. This is primarily due to the fact that in the time before Islam, jahiliyah, men could have as many wives, and concubines, as he wanted without prescribed laws specific to taking care of them financially, let alone emotionally or spiritually. As a result of men being the predominant breadwinners at the time, they became mandated to take responsibility and care for their families.
The Status of Women in the Muslim World
As of current, it is not difficult to see that much of the Muslim world is suffering from various human right violations, poverty and oppression. However, when looking at the problems facing Muslims, it is imperative to acknowledge and understand that these issues are not rooted in a patriarchal or oppressive religion followed by the people of the region, but rather the result of long term systemic oppression through colonization and dictatorship.[viii] This may be observed through the fact that the only Muslim countries where homosexuality is legal are also the very same that have never suffered at the hand of Western Imperial rule.
Anyone connected to social media is bound to be inundated with negative imagery of Muslims suffering. These images are often misconstrued as persecution at the hands of their oppressive religion: Islam. I have seen pictures and stories of countless cases of stoning, child marriages, honor killings and female genital mutilation; not to mention the very oppressive and evil hijab/niqab; Muslim head, and sometimes, face covering. Muslim countries that have a history of colonization and dictatorship or that are run by oppressive regimes are being held to newly founded Western standards of human rights. That is not to minimize the fact that these issues are against the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and wrong; but rather, a commentary about the importance of framing issues under the correct framework so that progress can be made. In other words, rather than writing off the issue as a “Muslim” or “Islamist” problem, more time and effort is exerted in understanding the true underlying issues the people of these circumstances face. Conversely, just as there has been an uprising in what is now known as the Arab Spring, women in Arab Muslim countries are taking on a new type of double burden which includes not only fighting for political rights alongside their fellow countrymen, but they also face standing up and ensuring their gender rights under the Sharia, “a Muslims, religious, private and public code of conduct” are to be protected as well.[ix]
As Muslim nations, now long sovereign, seek to escape the economic and cultural overlordship of Western powers, Muslim women seek to rise from the overlordship of Muslim men, and to function not in a subjugated parity but as an autonomous affinity.[x]
Although the idea of protection under Sharia law seems simple enough to me, upon further investigation the statement becomes a loaded weapon ready to discharge at any given moment. When I say “rights under Sharia” law, I am speaking of the very essence of the rules and regulations that are contained within each, rather than the cultural and patriarchal interpretation of what many men and oppressive regimes imagine them to be. This means that the rules and history of each law is taken into account and acted upon in a thoughtful, melodic way. More specifically, we do not just go and cut off the hand of a person for stealing but rather hold the government accountable for keeping individuals in situations of such dire poverty and oppression that they find no other alternative to fulfilling their most basic needs to survive, E.g. food. As stated in the Women’s Studies Encyclopedia, “Islamic law is very imprecise and must be considered at several levels.”[xi] Moreover, if Islam was a binary entity, sectarian violence would not exist.
The hadith explicated most every aspect of Muhammed’s ﷺ life, from the mundane day to day activities such as brushing ones teeth, to complex laws such as inheritance rights. In some instances Muhammed’s silence about a topic has been interpreted to mean approval, for example, in the case of the veil, or hijab. The Qur’an never explicitly tells women how they must dress rather, it is alluded to,
[d]espite mention of technical terms such as khimar and jilbab…the scant references to any specific type of veiling give the overall impression that adult females covered themselves to some extent in public and that this continued to be encouraged as a form of public modesty after the arrival of Islam; once again, however, no exact dress form prescribed.”[xii]
However, one interpretation as to why women cover in the manner that they do today is because the women at the time also wore a head covering. In the Qur’an it says to pull the scarf over the bosom. This is referring to a time when the veil was worn tied behind the neck, leaving it exposed. Muhammed’s ﷺ silence, or lack of mentioning, the scarf specifically has come to be seen as his agreeing to the scarf and that it be pulled around the front of the neck rather than behind it.
Though many women claim to wear it as a protection against the male gaze or bodily harm, it must be mentioned that this type of thinking feeds into rape culture and victim blaming. The hijab does not protect from rape or harm and it could be argued that in some cases, wearing it in different contexts could be more dangerous than not. If a man wants to rape or hurt a woman (or man for that matter) he will do it whether you are wearing a spacesuit or a bikini. Survivors of domestic and sexual violence are not to blame for the injustices they face, their aggressors are. In the words of Amina Wudud, “while the hijab can give some semblance of a woman’s affiliation with “Islam,” it offers no guarantee of respect or protection.”[xiii] Muslims, and society, needs to move away from the mindset that what a person wears correlates with violence or aggression against her. Rape has nothing to do with love or sex and everything to do with power and dominance.
Female circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation is a cultural practice that supersedes Islam and is primarily practiced in Africa. In Egypt, 97% of women of marriage age have been circumcised and although it is a Muslim majority country the aforementioned statistic includes Coptic Christians and those belonging to other minority religions in the area.[xiv] This shows that the practice is purely cultural and relative to geography, particularly due to the fact that it is not considered a Christian practice even though Christians also partake in it.
To be fair, there is a hadith that mentions FGM, however, the fact that none of Muhammed’s ﷺ wives or daughters are recorded to have had this done it should not be considered a sunnah.
The attack most used against the character of Muhammed ﷺ in anti-Muslim rhetoric is that he was a pedophile. The purpose of this accusation is to invalidate his moral character, thereby, invalidating the whole religion. This is in regards to Muhammed’s ﷺ so called scandalous marriage to A’isha رضي الله عنها. However, there are many holes in the allegation that should be addressed. Firstly, people did not keep records of ages, nor did they know for certain their exact age 1400 years ago. Secondly, the Qur’an specifically says that for a marriage to be valid it must be between consenting adults. At that time, girls were considered women when their menstral cycle began. Thirdly, even if she رضي الله عنهاwas six years old at the time, it was not out of the norm for the time period. Please keep in mind that until around the mid-1800’s the age of consent in many U.S. states was as low as 7 years old.[xv]
Stoning and Honor Killing
Sinning in Islam is an act of aggression against one’s own heart. Furthermore it is considered a breaking away from God الله سبحانه وتعالى and is extremely personal. Muslims do not believe in sharing their wrongdoings with others, so as to not influence them. Fornication and adultery are sins in Islam that are punishable by stoning. However, there are so many rules and regulations involved that unless the person openly states what they have done, the punishment would never come to fruition. Conversely, this punishment was only acted upon once during the lifetime of Muhammed ﷺ and only due to the person’s insistence on the matter. Furthermore, in the result of an accuser making false claims against another person, they themselves are to be punished.[xvi] In addition to this, it is completely haram, “unlawful or prohibited,” for survivors of sexual assault to be punished for the crimes of his or her aggressor.
Feminism or Islam?
Contested on some accounts and viewed as unnecessary on others, to many, feminism is a very dirty word. However, it should be understood that feminism is primarily a political movement that focuses on ensuring women will have as many opportunities to become self-actualizing as men. I present feminism as a political movement primarily because those involved push for change through legislation. Feminists realize that the fastest way to effect changes to deeply rooted folkways is to implement changes at the state level. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, it does not have a hidden agenda to destroy the institution of marriage or turn women into bra burning man haters. In essence, it gets “a lot of flak for a word that simply means the belief in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”[xvii] To put it bluntly, feminism is the insane idea that women are human beings also.
“you can be pro-woman without being anti-man”
Islam and feminism are related in that the underlying root message of feminism is already contained within the message of Islam, we just never used that word before because it did not exist. However, “[t]he Qur’an…enunciates the equality of all human beings within a system of social justice that grants the same fundamental rights to men and women.”[xviii] It must be emphasized that while Islam the religion is very good to women, Muslims the humans are not always as forthcoming. The concept of Islamic feminism is simply a response to the many inequalities and injustices Muslim women face in a religious and, often times, societal context.
[Islamic feminism] it is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence.[xix]
Furthermore, claiming feminism is not synonymous with dismissing the fact that women were liberated through the enlightenment that came with the advent of Islam. Nor does it deny the undisputable fact that through it women gained innumerable rights long before the ideology of feminism came to be. However, the only inconsistency between feminism and Islam is that often times a person claiming one side does not fully comprehend the other and in turn denounces it.
Does Islam need feminism?
In order to gain a clear understanding of the position of women in Islam, it is imperative to understand the teachings within the Qur’an, hadith and Sunnah as a whole, rather than making an evaluation based on what Muslims do. Rather than Islamicizing social problems, we must look at the root of the matter. Furthermore, activism is never created in a vacuum, it is developed over time and is a response to oppression. In the same manner, the same can be said for Islamic Feminism. With the amount of oppression and violence against women, there was bound to be push back.
Does Islam need feminism? No. Islam does not need anything, as it is a perfect system with which we can use as a guide. Muslims on the other hand do need feminism. We need to stop walking around banging into walls because we’ve closed our eyes so tight. We need to bring women’s issues back into the foreground and deal with our problems. Can Islam solve our issues? Yes, but not until Muslims are ready to openly recognize that there are real injustices that need to be tended to. Therefore the question is not, “does Islam need feminism,” but rather, how can we implement initiatives that would guarantee the rights of women in Muslim communities and around the world?
Just as many Muslims do not understand feminism, so to do many feminists not understand Islam. To these people I say: please remember, the first verse of the Qur’an revealed to Muhammed was, “read!”
[i] Pg 289a. Badran, Margot. “Gender.” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2002. 288-92. Print.[ii] Pg unknown. Al-Munajjid, Muhammad Salih, The Muslim Homed: 40 Recommendations in the Light of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Riyadh: International Islamic House, 2005. Print.[iii] Pg 30. Ahmed, Leila. “Arab Women.” Women’s Studies Encyclopedia. Ed. Helen Tierney. Vol. 3. New York: Greenwood, 1989. 28-32. Print.[iv] Pg 58. Spellberg, Debise A. “A’isha Bint abi Bakr.” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. ED. Jane Dammen. McAuliffe. V1. Leiden: Brill, 2001. 55-60. Print.[v] Pg 175. Al-Mubarakpuri, safi-ur-Rahman. Sealed Nectar: Biography of the Noble Prophet. Riyadh: Dar- us-Salam, 2008. Print.[vi] Pg 3. Rowe-Finkbeiner, Kristin. The F-word: Feminism in Jeopardy: Women, Politics, and the Future. Emeryvill, CA: Seal, 2004. Print.[vii] Pg 204. Hassan, Farzana. Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today: Modernist Insights & Feminist Perspectives. Toronto, ON: White Knight, 2006. Print.[viii] Pg 31. Ahmed, Leila. “Arab Women.” Women’s Studies Encyclopedia. Ed. Helen Tierney. Vol. 3. New York: Greenwood, 1989. 28-32. Print.[ix] Pg 204. Hassan, Farzana. Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today: Modernist Insights & Feminist Perspectives. Toronto, ON: White Knight, 2006. Print.[x] Pg 10. Friend, Theodore. Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam. Grand Rapids, MI:Wm.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2012. Print.[xi] Pg 236. Carroll, Lucy. “Islamic Law.” Women’s Studies Encyclopedia. Ed. Helen Tierney. Vol. 3. New York: Greenwood, 1989. 237-40. Print.[xii] Pg 415. Siddiqui, Mona. “Veil.” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. ED. Jane Dammen. McAuliffe. V5. Leiden: Brill, 2001. 412-16. Print.[xiii] Pg 219. Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. Oxford: Oneworld. 2006. Print.[xiv] Pg 176. Badran, Margot. “Feminism and the Qur’an.” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2002. 199-203. Print.[xv] Audio. Webb; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajyUVeqwDEc[xvi] Pg 610. Misri, Ahmad Ibn Naqib Al-. Reliance of the Traveller:The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law ‘Umdat Al-salik. Trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Beltsvill, MD: Amana Publications, 1994. Print.[xvii] Pg 5. Rowe-Finkbeiner, Kristin. The F-word: Feminism in Jeopardy: Women, Politics, and the Future. Emeryvill, CA: Seal, 2004. Print.[xviii] Pg 199a. Badran, Margot. “Feminism and the Qur’an.” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2002. 199-203. Print.[xix] Pg 242. Badran, Margot. Badran, Margot. Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2009. Print.[i] Pg 89. Qureshi, Muniruddin. Status of Women in Islam. New Delhi: Reference, 2003. Print.[ii] Pg 7. Qureshi, Muniruddin. Status of Women in Islam. New Delhi: Reference, 2003. Print.[iii] Pg 203-4. Hassan, Farzana. Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today: Modernist Insights & Feminist Perspectives. Toronto, ON: White Knight, 2006. Print.