By Amal Naser and Hadjer Bensaidi
The word feminism in the Muslim community is considered nonsensical, a taboo. Feminism, in our community, means no more than “sister you struggle with your deen”, “sister this is from the West” and “sister you are confused”. It is fundamental that we recognise that feminism can manifest in many forms, and that there are feminist ideals (like the basic right to education for all women) that do in fact resonate with basic Islamic principles and values.
Feminism can be understood to be an analysis of the struggle for equal opportunity and female empowerment. The modern rights movement — which feminism comes from — is a relatively contemporary phenomenon, compared to the 1400 year Islamic Scholarly Tradition, that has codified women’s rights, responsibilities and means of female empowerment.
Muslim women learn Independence from Khadijah. Steadfastness and modesty from Fatima. Patience from Asiyah. Sincerity and knowledge from Aisha. Strength from Sumayyah. Courage from Nusaibah. Purity from Maryam. Piety from Hafsa. And Tawakkul in Allah from Musa’s mother.
Feminism fundamentally calls for equal access to opportunity for women. It looks like a schoolroom education. It feels like a contribution to the making of society. And It sounds like a struggle for the principles of gender equality established by La Illaha Illa Allah, that decreed men and women equal in the eyes of Allah long before the rest of the world woke up to the idea of gender equality.
Islam has long been a means of solace and empowerment for the Muslim woman in a society that would otherwise silence and debase her. The most fundamental right of a woman in Islam is the recognition and knowledge that she never has to ask, demand, or fight for those rights that have been given to her by Allah himself.
1400 years ago, the Prophet Muhammad SAW told of the honour and privilege that Allah has given to the Muslim woman by placing Jannah at her feet as a mother. By opening a door of Jannah for her father as a daughter, and by completing half the deen of her husband as a wife. And when asked, “Who is most deserving of our kind treatment?” the Prophet SAW replied, “Your mother” three times before saying “your father” once, telling of the immense regard and esteem Islam has towards the mother. The revelation of the Quran allowed for an expression of the basic rights that had been denied to women in Arabia and beyond, for so long. It provided a substantial basis for the end of female slavery, sexual exploitation and the inheritance of women in the Muslim community and freed women from the oppression of culture and tradition.
Engaging with the question of whether feminism has a place in Islam and within the Muslim community fundamentally requires us to establish a distinction between Islamic teachings and cultural practices. It is about recognising the flawed and disproportionate way in which we implement Allah’s Fair and Just rulings in our Muslim communities. This means that feminist ideas could pertain to those Muslim communities which regard and enforce cultural traditions as Islamic teachings, in their oppression of Muslim women and the encroachment of their Shariah rights.
But this does not mean that feminism has a place in Islam.
As an ummah, we need to understand that this is not about rejecting Islam’s teachings, nor is it about looking to the West, or elsewhere, for the value and honour that Allah Himself has given Muslim women, but rather it is about making sure that we are doing justice to these principles in our institutionalisation of them and making changes to better ourselves in our deen and interactions with one another.
MISCONCEPTIONS OF THE MUSLIM WOMAN
MISCONCEPTION OF HIJAB
Hijab is one of the most controversial and misunderstood Islamic teachings. As both Muslim women and men, it is fundamental that we reflect on this misapprehension and work to educate ourselves and our communities on the meaning and basis of Hijab in Islam.
Allah commands Muslim women to observe Hijab in the Qur’an: “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Forgiving and Most Merciful” (33: 59), and there is general consensus in the Muslim community with regard to the hijab being fard, meaning obligatory, for Muslim women once they reach the age of puberty.
The word Hijab is an Arabic word that linguistically means partition or barrier. In Islam, the meaning of Hijab extends beyond covering the body with appropriate clothing, to the behaviour, mannerisms and way of life of both Muslim women and men. Hijab is a principle of modesty.
A substantial misconception of the hijab is the idea that it is only for the Muslim women to observe and that it does not apply to the Muslim men. Allah says in the Qur’an, “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty… And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty…” (Surah an-Nur, 24:30–31). Here, Allah directs both Muslim men and women to observe modesty in the way they present themselves, with respect to their clothing, speech and behaviour. This evinces the way in which hijab is to be understood as a principle of modesty, as opposed to being treated as a headscarf or a covering, and applies to both Muslim men and women.
Another misconception, which contributes to the misinterpretation of hijab applying only to women, is the understanding of hijab as a headscarf or a head covering. The linguistic meaning of headscarf in Arabic is ‘khimar’ and is a part of observing hijab, but it does not translate into it. This conflation of the ‘Hijab’ with the ‘headscarf’ commonly leads Muslim men to believe that the ‘headscarf’ is only for the women to observe and that they are exempt from the Islamic teaching of ‘hijab’.
Fundamentally, the most substantial misconception regarding the Hijab is that it oppresses Muslim women. Hijab, for Muslim women, is a symbol of our love for Allah. It is a submission to Allah first. It is one of many manifestations of our relationship with Allah and our devotion to Him. It represents our commitment to the fact that as women, we are not to be objectified or sexualised. That we are to be treated as intellectual beings. Not objects of beauty on display to serve and fulfil man’s desires. And that we, as Muslim women, have had always been above such a silent form of societal bondage. Hijab is a symbol of empowerment, which represents that what is most important about us is our relationship with our Creator. That as Muslim women, our worth is determined by the beauty of our soul, our heart and our moral character.
Hijab does not oppress Muslim women.
Hijab frees us from a society that sexualises, objectifies and oppresses women.
MISCONCEPTION OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
1 in 3 women will be subject to domestic violence in their lifetime. What role does religion play in denouncing domestic abuse?
A range of Hadith makes it clear that both physical violence and abuse within marriage is Islamically forbidden. However, this will not stop individuals from exploiting religious misinterpretations or taking religious texts out of proportion to serve their wants.
Aisha (R.A.) reported:
مَا ضَرَبَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّىاللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ خَادِمًالَهُ وَلَاامْرَأَةً وَ لَا ضَرَبَ بِيَدِهِ شَيْئًا
The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, did not strike a servant or a woman, and he never struck anything with his hand.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2328, Grade: Sahih
Iyas ibn Abdullah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
لَقَدْ طَافَبِآ لِمُحَمَّدٍ نِسَاءٌ كَثِيرٌ يَشْكُونَ أَزْوَاجَهُنَّ لَيْسَ أُولَئِكَ بِخِيَارِكُمْ
Many women have come to the family of Muhammad complaining about their husbands hitting them. These men are not the best among you.
Source: Sunan Abī Dāwūd 2146, Grade: Sahih
The above hadith make It clear that physical abuse is Islamically forbidden.
But what about verse 4:34?
الرِّجَالُ قَوّٰمُونَ عَلَى النِّسَآءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلٰى بَعْضٍ وَبِمَآ أَنْفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوٰلِهِمْ ۚ فَالصّٰلِحٰتُ قٰنِتٰتٌ حٰفِظٰتٌ لِّلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللَّهُ ۚ وَالّٰتِى تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِى الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ ۖ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا
“But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance — [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them.” (Quran 4:34)
The above verse sparks controversy due to “daraba” in Arabic being translated to ‘strike’. Two interpretations will be analysed explaining the above verse.
Muslims must submit to Allah (swt), and so when someone notices that their spouse is neglecting their marital or spiritual responsibilities decreed by Allah (swt), the verse asks the spouse to approach the issue in the following direction. It first must be noted that this process is not to be used in minor circumstances but rather in those which are major, such as neglecting Islamic pillars, committing shirk, adultery etc.
1. Advise her of her actions and generously correct her of her mistakes
2. If the situation prevails “abandon” the bed
3. If this persists ‘strike’ her (daraba)
The term daraba has been interpreted in two ways:
1. Daraba has various meanings one being separation (note: the term daraba translates to separation at various points in the Quran). This translation of the word was done on the basis of hadith by the prophet condemning any form of physical violence.
2. The second interpretation (followed by a majority) agrees that in this context the term daraba does mean strike. But what does strike actually mean?
First we have to consider various ayahs from this surah to analyse the context.
Allah SWT said:
يٰٓأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا لَا يَحِلُّ لَكُمْ أَنْ تَرِثُوا النِّسَآءَ كَرْهًا ۖ وَلَا تَعْضُلُوهُنَّ لِتَذْهَبُوا بِبَعْضِ مَآ ءَاتَيْتُمُوهُنَّ إِلَّآ أَنْ يَأْتِينَ بِفٰحِشَةٍ مُّبَيِّنَةٍ ۚ وَعَاشِرُوهُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ ۚ فَإِنْ كَرِهْتُمُوهُنَّ فَعَسٰىٓ أَنْ تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَيَجْعَلَ اللَّهُ فِيهِ خَيْرًا كَثِيرًا
“O you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion. And do not make difficulties for them in order to take [back] part of what you gave them unless they commit a clear immorality. And live with them in kindness. For if you dislike them — perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.”
These verses are indicative that harm in a relationship is forbidden. Hadiths and exegesis clarify that a strike is not violent.
It should be a striking with a folded handkerchief ….and he should not strike her with whips or clubs.
Source: Tafsīr al-Rāzī 4:34
Abu Dharr reported:
The Prophet struck my chest with his hand and he said…
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1825, Grade: Sahih
The prophet’s (PBUH) actions in relation to Abu-Dharr is described not to be a strike of pain but rather grasping someone for attention. This also becomes clear in a hadith where Aisha states,
He nudged me firmly on the chest.
Aisha has stated in the above hadith and in countless others, that the prophet was never violent towards his wives or anyone. This gentleness is reiterated by several companions. Hence, it becomes clear that the nudge or strike described in the Quran is not one of violence but rather a symbolic nudge which grabs attention in times of extreme frustration (due to partner committing major sins against Allah (swt)) and must not cause any harm.
I will like to set out a clear reminder. Do we ever not need someone to hold us or grab us when we are taking the wrong route? Even in times when we are on the verge of committing major sins, Allah (swt) has set limits to prevent harm against women. Such limits were imperative in the times of the prophet (PBUH) as women were subject to violence and oppression through cultural norms.
Hence, it is explicit that through either interpretations of the verse, harm is forbidden in Islam and Allah (swt) has protected women from all forms of abuse long before it became a cultural norm to do so in the western world. This is also a reminder to Muslims who have placed cultural norms of violence over basic Islamic principles. The denouncement of female oppression has existed since the birth of Islam but such values are imperative to extinguish cultural norms which have overridden Islamic beliefs.
MISCONCEPTION OF DOMESTIC ROLE
Within an Islamic marriage, both the husband and wife have separate roles. Nowhere within both the Quran and Sunnah, are women only restricted to domestic roles.
Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), was asked, “What did the Prophet (ﷺ) use to do in his house?” She replied, “He used to keep himself busy serving his family (كَانَ يَكُونُ فِي مِهْنَةِ أَهْلِهِ) and when it was the time for prayer he would go for it.” (Bukhari)
In another report Aisha is reported to have said, “He did what one of you would do in his house. He mended sandals and patched garments and sewed.” (Adab Al-Mufrad graded sahih by Al-Albani)
Both of the above Hadiths emphasise that domestic roles are not limited to the wife, and that within an Islamic marriage there must be mutual respect and cooperation within a household.
The concept of mutual respect is further reiterated within the following verse.
وَالْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَ الْمُؤْمِنَـتِ بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَآءُ بَعْضٍ
The believers, men and women, are supporters of one another
Working Muslim women: Khadijah (R.A)
Khadijah (R.A.) was the wife of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and was the first woman to accept Islam. Her Father was a successful merchant, from which she inherited her business. Her reputation grew and she backs known amongst the people as Ameerat-Quraysh (“Princess of Quraysh”) and al-Tahira (“The Pure One”). Her business was the largest in the region- in fact, it was larger than all the businesses of the Quraysh tribes combined. Further, Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) was an employee of this business, reporting to Khadijah (R.A.) Hence, it is clear that Islamically there is no “glass ceiling” and women are not limited to domestic roles and that they are not to be forced to be subjugated by men around them.
MISCONCEPTION OF FORCED MARRIAGE
يٰٓأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا لَا يَحِلُّ لَكُمْ أَنْ تَرِثُوا النِّسَآءَ كَرْهًا ۖ
“O you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion”
Surah al Nisa 4:19
In this verse, Allah (swt) strictly forbids a marriage by compulsion. In fact, Islamically, such conditions must be met for a marriage:
1. Physically ready
2. Intellectually capable
3. Have begun Menstruation
4. Financially capable (men)
Hence, it becomes clear that no woman can be compelled to get married and that both men and women will be able to personally determine when they have reached an age where they are comfortable and ready to get married.
Fundamentally, there exists a misconception that women are subject to oppression through the institutionalisation of Islamic gender norms. Before Islam, women were subject to cruelty, abusive relationships and even death, and through Revelation, Islam alleviated, removed and nullified these attitudes and behaviours towards women. Unfortunately, contemporary cultural norms and attitudes have overridden Islamic behaviours and beliefs all over the world, and so, we should reiterate the analytical framework feminism provides to portray the effects of these cultural norms that are contradictory to Islam. We need to revive Islamic gender norms, behaviours and beliefs, to ensure that women are treated with kindness and respect under the decree of Allah (s.w.t.).
Want to know more about this topic? Have pressing questions you want answers to?
This and other pressing issues will be discussed at the Awakening the Islamic Spirit Conference.