July 2008


Fashion designers are now starting to see head scarves as the latest hot fashion trend. In an Islam Online article, various designers were quoted about this new trend. Two words that came up often were”modesty” and “chasity”. Apparently fashion designers want to show that modesty, chasity and elegance are not mutually exclusive. Although the designers said that they weren’t focused solely on Muslim women, I’m sure that Muslim women are definitely a market that is increasingly being focused on by the fashion industry.

As a hijabi, maybe people think I would be elated by this article but I’m actually a bit cautious. For one thing, isn’t the one of the objectives of hijab to take the focus off of outer appearances? One of the most common arguments given by hijab apologists is that the hijab prevents women from only being judged by how they look. It allows women to be judged for who they truly are. If headscarves are suddenly made into the latest fashion trend, doesn’t it suddenly lose that purpose? Hasn’t it become the latest commodity that women must have? As Muslims, should we support that? That’s why I was a bit surprised that the article was featured on an Islamic website. The commercialization of hijab seems antithetical to what hijab is all about.

Also, the article brought up the issue of the definitions of modesty and chasity. As I read the article, I kept wondering how modesty and chasity are defined especially in this quote:

According to Dennis Nothdruft, curator of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, the headscarf resurgence is about a new sense of “chastity” in fashion. He affirms that the trend is not all new after all. “Women wore headscarves in medieval times to maintain their modesty,” he explains.

Is the wearing of hijab the sole indicator of modesty? What about women who do not wear the hijab, both Muslim and non-Muslim? Are they immodest? Isn’t modesty also related to our attitude? I don’t think hijabis who look down upon non-hijabis to be the most modest people around. Arrogance isn’t modesty at all. This isn’t to say that hijabis necessarily look down upon non-hijabis but it is to point out that modesty is about much than headscarves. Also, women who don’t wear headscarves are not necessarily immodest. Modesty is a complicated thing and I’m never happy when it’s reduced to our appearance.

That being said, I can’t deny that I do try to look nice and that it is rather cool for people, Muslim and non-Muslim, to realize that dressing in hijab does not mean dressing “Umar the tent maker’s daughter” (as my mother put it). Dressing in hijab does not mean that we don’t put any care into how we dress. So when I read articles like the one referenced, in a weird way I do feel a little happy.

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I’ve decided that every week I’ll post a list of links to various articles on Muslim women, Islamic feminism, and Muslim women’s activism. It’ll be in the same vein as link lists seen on other blogs. So here we go:

I don’t frequent forums as much I use to because I find it so much harder to deal with stupid comments. Another reason why I don’t frequent forums however is because I often encounter people who I really think have the best intentions but who also have a hard time acknowledging the various privileges they have and questioning the biases they have. I think in order to help yourself and help others–I mean really help yourself and others and not just give yourself a pat on the back–you have to recognize not only the oppression that occurs but also your own relationship with the people you’re working with and perhaps even your role in the oppression.

I was having a discussion with one such person. She is a white woman who is also a non-Muslim. I honestly believe that she wants to help Muslim women. However, we got into an argument over the book Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I don’t like the book for a lot of reasons but the woman in question said that there aren’t enough books like Infidel: basically books that discuss how Muslim women have to “overcome” oppressive cultures, perhaps leave Islam or just make it so watered down as to render it completely unrecognizable, fight those oppressive Muslim brutes with beards, escapes a whole lot of death threats and more. I disagreed with that assertion for three reasons. The first is that there are so many books, articles, and website dedicated to Muslim women or former Muslim women who have agendas that seem to work more conservative political agendas rather than equality for Muslim women. I don’t want to discount Hirsi Ali’s experiences, especially in regard to FGM and forced marriage (not to be confused with arranged marriages). However, I don’t think we should overlook the role of colonialism and neo-colonialism in the plight of Muslim women. Even certain practices like FGM have been aggravated by colonialism in some societies.

The second and bigger problem I have with that assertion is that it basically strips Muslim women of any control they have over the movement. Muslim women want to tell their stories in their own ways. We shouldn’t be forced into telling stories ultimately serve only two purposes: making Muslims look bad and making Western societies look great while absolving them of any role in current problems that Muslim women in various countries face. I’m not being apologetic nor am I saying that Muslims shouldn’t give themselves a cold, hard look in the mirror when looking at gender inequality. However, Muslim women’s stories shouldn’t be usurped to serve political and imperial purposes nor should we be told to only tell stories where Muslim men are the boogie monster and the West, including Western feminists, are our saviors. The oppression that Muslim men live under concerns us just as much as it does our brothers. After all, those men are our sons, our brothers, our fathers, and our husbands. Additionally, we want to tell our stories in our own way. So yes, we will speak about “honor” killings and masajid that have poor or no accommodations for women but we will also speak about war rapes that occur against Muslim women in Iraq, women having their privacy invaded everyday in the name of “security”, Western media that portrays Muslim women, especially those in hijab and niqab as “oppressed” and “weak” and more. By fighting all of these biases oppressions, we show that we are not helpless. We are strong and we will write our own narrative.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately. As regular readers of the blog already know, I do identify as an Islamic feminist. I believe that Islam and feminism are compatible. However, I do feel out of place at times by regarding myself as such. Often when reading works on Islamic feminism or when watching programs on Islamic feminism, there is an overwhelming focus on Muslimahs from various parts of the Muslim world. There is a focus on issues such as FGM, whether or not to veil, equitable marriage and family laws, bodily and sexual autonomy, etc. I fight for these issues because as a woman I relate to any other woman who is being oppressed. However, I sometimes feel that the needs and voices of Black American Muslimahs (BAM from this point on) are lacking. I feel there are some issues which are unique or more pressing for BAM that are often not addressed in the Islamic feminist discourses that are prevalent in academia or the media.

For instance, polygyny. Now I know that polygyny does not only exist among BAMs and that it is an issue for Muslimahs all around the globe. However, I think this issue takes on special urgency for BAMs, especially those from urban areas. While for some Islamic feminists, polygyny is a black/white issue, as a black Muslimah I cannot afford to look at it in the same way. While it may be a sign of gender inequity and while I could not ever see it as a viable option for myself, it is also seen by many BAMs (male and female) as a solution to social ills that plague black families. For some BA Muslimahs, polygyny is seen as a viable route to marriage, an institution that has often been denied to them for various social and economic reasons. This is not something that women in the Muslim world have dealt with historically. They have not typically been in a situation where marriage was not an option. Thus, when I look at polygyny, I look at it from a very different POV. I cringe at the abuses of polygyny, I often feel uncomfortable with it and I often wonder if men do it for the reason that it was originally allowed. At the same time, it may often be the only route to marriage for some black Muslim women.

I point out polygyny as just an example of how the issues that face Black American Muslimahs can be unique. There are other issues such as STDs (this is especially a problem in certain segments of the BA Muslim community where marriages are not civil marriages and where STD testing is not done on spouses, many of whom have had sexual partners previously, before the marriage), lack of employment opportunities for inner city residents, drug and alcohol abuse, gentrification of neighborhoods and more that I often do not see discussed in the dialogue about Islamic feminism. These are very real issues for Black Muslimahs, myself included.

I write not as a condemnation of Islamic feminism but as an admonition. I include myself in this admonition. I want Islamic feminism to be inclusive of all Muslimahs from the Muslimah in the Middle East to the Muslimah in Harlem.

I have a lot I want to write but I’ll be on hiatus for a couple more days. Until then enjoy this article that my husband forwarded to me. The author, Jeewan Chanicka,who is male, makes the excellent point that gender equality is just as much a concern of Muslim men as it is for Muslim women.

From the pulpit to the preachers, many often proclaim Islam’s liberation of women 1400 years ago. After all Islam did recognize that women possessed souls -this acknowledged only over the past 100 years in Christianity and Islam did give women the right to vote -yet another relatively recent phenomena in Western society. We are quick to convince skeptics of Islam’s superiority in that the first martyr in Islam was a woman, the first to accept Islam was Khadijah, the first nurse was Rufaida, that the one from whom we have learned one third of our faith was Aisha. (May Allah be pleased with them all.)

And why should we not feel proud of such a legacy when this legacy has produced scholarship and numerous examples of leadership, virtue and excellence. Women who, for all intents and purposes, outshone many of their male counterparts despite their “gender.”

However if we were to take a critical look at our community today we would be hard-pressed to find the likes of Aisha, Fatima, Nusaybah and many others. We would first have to look behind the barriers erected in the masajid, or call on them at their homes where they have been relegated to housework by the male-dominated and chauvinistic practices that have permeated the Muslim community.

Virtue today as imposed (or should I say “encouraged”) upon Muslim women dictates that a woman should be fully covered (the more the better), that she stays at home and raises the children and fulfill her husband’s every wish and desire. It is better that she stays inside than walk outside lest she be a temptress and cause someone to commit sin by looking at her, that she should be silent because her voice is her cover. Should she have questions, it is best that she write them and “fly them” over the barriers so that someone would by chance pick it up and read it and perhaps give her an answer.

We the men, the “proper leaders” know that women come from the rib of man and that it is bent and cannot be made straight, that women are highly emotional and of course have that “menstrual thing”, which incapacitates their ability to make proper decisions and to function in a “normal way”. There is no way that they can contribute to Islamic work because their voices and “grace” make them weaknesses for men and so it is in keeping with piety that we shut them out and lock them away. After all, men being the rational thinkers are capable of making decisions for women who are in constant need of our superior knowledge.

Hence we do not need them on the boards of our institutions; we fail to put them in leadership positions because it is not compatible with their “feminine nature”. As one imam once said, they may start to “fraternize with the men”. In keeping with this, we do not really need to give them a big space at the mosque because they should pray at home. Should we be so generous as to offer them some space, we must ensure that it is fully sealed so that there is not enough ventilation and that they are trapped within the confines of limited space with 20 crying babies. It is ok if they don’t hear anything because they don’t really need that much knowledge, even though the lap of the mother is the first school of the ummah. As long as we don’t hear or see them, then all is well.

We should not shame them by giving them the ability to communicate their ideas, thoughts or wishes because we already know them. So we are locking them up for their own good. Anyone who dares to question this must be outside of the proper understanding of Islam. There seems to be some discrepancy between what is said on the pulpit about the excellence of the earlier women and how it translates to reality for our sisters. It has further allowed the perpetuation of blatant double standards in terms of what women and men can and cannot do. Usually men can engage in numerous activities, which if done by women, would cause their commitment to Islam to be questioned.

Women comprise about half of our community, yet they must still compete to have their voices heard, to have space, to be able to go to functions that take into consideration that they need to bring their children. More often than not, when there are issues involving our sisters, they are “dealt with” by the men. When any sisters dare to challenge this, they automatically are branded as western-styled feminists who are trying to sully the sanctity of Islamic values and ideals.

Yet if one were to look on campuses and in general community work the faith based work of this community is being carried on the shoulders of Muslim women. Many whom would ordinarily be silenced are finding their niches and are doing their bit to fulfill their covenant in enjoining right and forbidding evil and in spreading this deen. In fact, women in our community are the flag-bearers of Islam, particularly those who wear hijab because they are easily identifiable. When walking down the street, it is those whom we notice as being Muslim and those who are approached and asked about Islam.

We tend to answer in utopian terms, when asked about our glorious past and ignore the wrongdoing that has been taking place today. It behooves us (men) to believe that we can be wrong or may have wrong understandings of the seerah (biography of Prophet Muhammad) and the place of women in society.

It would appear though that having shut women out of the community has allowed them now to approach Islam and Islamic work with less baggage than men. Men have inherited much cultural baggage that they still keep with them today, cultural practices that have become engrained in our daily practices as being Islamic. As Muslim women return to the authentic understanding of the Qur’an and Seerah, they are in a better position to take on this work and fulfill its requirements.

Islamic work in North America and the world will never be successful until women are completely integrated within the framework of leadership, decision-making and shura. While no one is arguing for “free intermingling” or a neglect of duties of motherhood or the negation of fiqh (and its proper application) there is a need for discussion and critical deconstruction of some of the cultural practices that have become mainstays in our community.

The argument that the time of the prophet was different and now is a time of fitna holds no weight, especially when one considers that the earliest generation of Muslims was in one of the most corrupt societies that existed. Yet women played a vibrant part of its growth and development. They were consulted when decisions were to be made, they were included in matters affecting society’s growth and development, some were teachers and others were poets, others fought in war, all this, while still following Allah’s commands and the examples of his prophet. There are no shortages of examples of this in the seerah, though they tend to be ignored.

We are quick to point to the fact that we are leaders and have the “last say”. Perhaps there is a need to analyze our understanding of leadership. Is a leader one who ignores the needs of others, makes all the decisions and is scared of debate and consultation? The prophet peace be upon him was the opposite of this. He was the best of leaders as he consulted with others and led by example. He was most kind and in fact said that “the one who is best, is the one who is best to his family and I am the best to my family”. It may be that we are afraid that women will perform some of the duties we have been doing better than we have, that their knowledge may be more sound and that they may be more fit for leadership positions than those who have traditionally held the reigns. Even in this regard, we seem to forget the just leadership of the Queen of Sheba or a tradition that is rich with female scholarship. If we are sincere in wanting to do what Allah requires of us, we need to be open to this dialogue, admit our injustices to our sisters, ask for forgiveness and try to move forward. A bird can only fly if it flaps both wings.

Allah has made women our equal counterparts and they bring value and insight inherent with their nature that we may not think about or know of. Some scholars explain that women are the spiritual anchors of society. If we are sincere, we need to realize that in many ways we are oppressing our sisters and when we shut women out of leadership roles, banish them to domestic spaces, pretend that we can speak on their behalf, we are oppressing the very ones under whose feet lies paradise. The issues of leadership and involvement are not black and white and those sisters and brothers advocating for change are not asking for all values and standards to be dropped or changed. Instead we are asking for justice and fairness.

Sisters should be a part of the majlis-shura in the masajid and various institutions because leadership (and I am not speaking about being imam here) should be defined based on qualification and not gender. Shura entails that we take the voices of the varying members of our community into consideration. We need to ensure that sisters are able to have equal access to speakers and knowledge so that they are able to grow and learn themselves. Our primary consideration should not be how big a barrier is and whether or not it touches the ceiling. Most importantly we have to let sisters represent themselves, we should not speak for them but with them. The realization should be based upon the trust that women are our partners in establishing Islam in the world and do not have ulterior motives of “fraternizing with the opposite sex.” They too want to work with us to benefit Islam, Muslims and society in general.

Muslims have a standard that has to be adhered to as defined by the Qur’an and the practice of the prophet pbuh. We need to rise to the challenge of implementing this within our daily lives, to adhere to its boundaries and to challenge our own bias and (mis)-interpretatio ns of it’s application. As men, it is time that we acknowledge the struggles of our sisters (both within and without our community) and it is even more important to recognize the privilege that we have enjoyed due to no real merit but simply because of our gender. If we want to please Allah and to be true to our covenant of bringing this deen to the people around us, it is necessary for us to address these issues. Until such time we will be held accountable before Allah when people reject our self-styled versions of Islam.

Jeewan Chanicka is a contributing writer for Young Muslims Canada website.