gender equality


Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch

Single Muslim mothers must be the new “it” topic for the Western media. There has been a lot of coverage of Rachida Dati, the French minister of Moroccan and Algerian heritage, who just recently had a baby while still being single. Now, the BBC has done a piece on single mothers in Morocco. The story looks at the struggles that single mother face in Morocco and also looks at the efforts of a group called Feminine Solidarity Association that seeks to assist single mothers.

Honestly, I liked this story (I know in the past I have often been critical of the BBC’s coverage of Muslim women). There was no comparison of the treatment of single mothers in Morocco versus the treatment of single mothers in Britain and other Western societies. The article was pretty straight forward. There were only a couple of statements which I thought added absolutely nothing to the story. “Khadija [Noha], whose pretty face regularly breaks into a slow but frank smile, was also cast out by her family [emphasis added].” I thought this statement was particularly sexist. A lot of news stories that focus on women make comments on their looks, and articles on Muslim women always seem to have comments about how we look. A description of Ms. Noha’s looks is really unnecessary and adds nothing to the actual story.

Besides that one line, I found the article to be a welcome look at how hard life for single mothers can be not only in Morocco, but in conservative Muslim circles in many parts of the world, including the West. The double standard for men and women is discussed. Khadija Noha discusses how she went out with a man who promised to marry her but left her when he found out that she was pregnant. There is also discussion of how single mother advocates, such as Aicha Ech Chana, the head of the Feminine Solidarity Association and Jamilah Bargach, an anthropologist, are pushing to make fathers of children born outside marriage more accountable for their children.

I think this is particularly necessary because I think too often Muslims forget that it takes two to tango. We criticize and ostracize single mothers while forgetting that fathers are being let off the hook. We should help single mothers and commend them for taking care of their responsibilities. Fathers who forget their children are the ones who should be ostracized for taking the easy way out and not taking care of their children. This is a problem that hasn’t been addressed adequately by Muslims, but needs to be.

The efforts of the Feminine Solidarity Association are especially noteworthy. They teach single mothers various skills so that they can work. They also help single mothers in Morocco find housing and provide childcare services for mothers while they work. Ech Chana, who founded the organization, seems driven by the desire to empower single mothers. In the article, she speaks of the rights that single mothers have in the Qur’an and is critical of the way that single mothers are treated in Morocco. She along with with advocates like Jamilah Bargach are working to highlight the plight of single mothers, a plight that has been ignored by many Muslims for too long.

Noha Ostadh   Copyright BBC

Noha Ostadh Copyright BBC

The BBC reports that Sharif Gomaa was given three years with hard labor as well as ordered to pay a fine of 5001 Egyptian pounds ($895) for sexually harassing Noha Rushdi Saleh. This is the first known instance of a man being imprisioned for sexual harassment in Egypt. Saleh, who is also known as Noha Ostadh, went public with her ordeal even when she was encouraged not to.

However, this attack in June became the focus of media coverage after the 27-year-old filmmaker, also known as Noha Ostadh, went public about her ordeal.

She told the BBC how shocked she had been at her attacker’s behaviour, and also at the attitude of passers-by who told her not to go to the police – while others blamed her for provoking the attack.

After an hour-long tussle in which she dragged Gomaa to a police station, she says the police officers initially refused to open an investigation.

The case was taken up by the Badeel opposition daily, which blamed Egypt’s oppressive government, and “the majority of citizens who identified with the oppressor”, and “decades of incitement against women” in some mosques.

Thank you Noha Ostadh for taking a stand, pushing the government to prosecute and showing that sexual harassment is unacceptable and wrong!

Update: For more on the coverage and reaction to the ruling, read Ethar’s post at MMW. She does a great job looking at reaction to verdict from around the globe.

If you have any fleeting knowledge of the Bible, you know exactly what the title of the post refers to. Often, this phrase is quoted by some Christian when discussing why they will not marry anyone else but another Christian. I wanted to discuss this issue in relation to Muslims, well specifically Muslim women, since this never seems to be an issue for Muslim men.

One of the first things I learned when I started to get of that age when I started to “mature” was that Muslim women do not marry non-Muslim men, doesn’t matter if they’re “people of the book” (i.e. Christians, Jews, Zorastians, among some scholars Hindus). There were no ifs, ands or buts about this. Muslim men, I was told, did not have to follow this same rule. They could marry women of the book and I saw some who did. Being the thinking girl that I was, I wondered why. One of the first answers I was given was that men are the head of the household and responsible for the religion of the children. If children had Muslim fathers, they were automatically Muslim, duh! But if they have non-Muslim fathers and Muslim mothers, they were automatically non-Muslims. This answer may have sounded ok in theory but then I saw that it wasn’t playing out in reality, at least not where I was. I saw children of Muslim fathers and Christian mothers who weren’t Muslim at all. I couldn’t even tell you about the opposite side of the coin because I rarely saw it and the Muslim women who “dared” to marry non-Muslims were usually run out of the community so I couldn’t tell you how their children ended up.

So if having a Muslim father didn’t ensure more Muslim children, there had to be another reason for not allowing Muslim women to marry out but allowing Muslim men to do so. There’s a verse in the Qur’an that addresses interfaith marriage.

5:5 Today, all the good things of life have been made lawful to you. And the food of those who have been vouchsafed revelation aforetime is lawful to you, and your food is lawful to them. And [lawful to you are], in wedlock, women from among those who believe [in this divine writ], and, in wedlock, women from among those who have been vouchsafed revelation before your time -provided that you give them their dowers, taking them in honest wedlock, not in fornication, nor as secret love-companions. But as for him who rejects belief [in God] – in vain will be all his works: for in the life to come he shall be among the lost.

This verse mentions only who is lawful for men and not women. So one question that could be asked is “doesn’t this verse apply to women too?” This is what Khaled Abou El-Fadl says:

Surprising to me, all schools of thought prohibited a Muslim woman from marrying a man who is a kitabi (among the people of the book). I am not aware of a single dissenting opinion on this, which is rather unusual for Islamic jurisprudence because Muslim jurists often disagreed on many issues, but this is not one of them.

All jurists agreed that a Muslim man or woman may not marry a mushrik [one who associates partners with God–there is a complex and multi-layered discourse on who is to be considered a mushrik, but we will leave this for a separate discussion]. However, because of al-Ma’ida verse 5, there is an exception in the case of a Muslim man marrying a kitabiyya. There is no express prohibition in the Qur’an or elsewhere about a Muslim woman marrying a kitabi. However, the jurists argued that since express permission was given to men, by implication women must be prohibited from doing the same. The argument goes: If men needed to be given express permission to marry a kitabiyya, women needed to be given express permission as well, but since they were not given any such permission then they must be barred from marrying a kitabi.

The justification for this rule was two-fold: 1) Technically, children are given the religion of their father, and so legally speaking, the offspring of a union between a Muslim male and a kitabiyya would still be Muslim; 2)It was argued that Muslim men are Islamically prohibited from forcing their wives to become Muslim. Religious coercion is prohibited in Islam. However, in Christianity and Judaism a similar prohibition against coercion does not exist. According to their own religious law, Muslim jurists argued, Christian men may force their Muslim wives to convert to their (the husbands’) religion. Put differently, it was argued, Islam recognizes Christianity and Judaism as valid religions, but Judaism and Christianity do not recognize the validity of Islam as a religion. Since it was assumed that the man is the stronger party in a marriage, it was argued that Christian and Jewish men will be able to compel their Muslim wives to abandon Islam. (If a Muslim man would do the same, he would be violating Islamic law and committing a grave sin).

This is the law as it exists or the legal legacy as we inherited it. In all honesty, personally, I am not convinced that the evidence prohibiting Muslim women from marrying a kitabi is very strong. Muslim jurists took a very strong position on this matter–many of them going as far as saying if a Muslim woman marries a kitabi she is as good as an apostate. I think, and God knows best, that this position is not reasonable and the evidence supporting it is not very strong. However, I must confess that in my humble opinion, I strongly sympathize with the jurists that argued that in non-Muslim countries it is reprehensible (makruh) for a Muslim to marry a non-Muslim.

http://www.scholarofthehouse.org/oninma.html

Now, I have to be honest and say that this issue doesn’t affect me because I am married to a Muslim and I honestly didn’t want to be in an interfaith marriage. However, it does affect a lot of Muslim women in Western countries. Some women have actually left the deen (religion) because of this issue. I have also met a couple of older sisters who converted while their husbands did not and remained married to their husbands. So I’m opening up the floor and asking what do you think?

Iranian woman in Car

Iranian woman in Car

As soon as I saw headline, I have to admit I was thinking “huh?” and “what!” I’m not too keen on products geared towards women because usually these products rely heavily on stereotypes. Unfortunately, this new feminine car does just that. It’s suppose to come out in a range of “feminine colors” and “interior designs” because we are just so keen on how our car looks. I guess those guys in my neighborhood who spend thousands of dollars on rims and getting their car waxed didn’t get the memo that they’re not suppose to car our their cars looks. Oh, and those women I see in big, black Escalades with spinning rims really didn’t get the memo that they’re suppose to be in more “feminine” cars but I digress. To make things even better the new cars will feature “automatic transmission, parking and navigation aids and a jack for changing tyres without getting grease on your chador.” Again, I wonder why this is special to women. I’m sure plenty of men in Iran would love to drive an automatic since they’re much easier to drive. My husband and most American men aren’t buying automatic simply for their wives to drive but to drive themselves since they’re less of a hassle than stick shifts. Same for the navigation aids. As for not getting grease on chador, who wants to get grease on their clothes. I honestly don’t understand why these products aren’t marketed to both genders since they would seem to benefit both men and women.

While that was annoying, that part of the article that “ground my gears” was the BBC’s little tirade about gender in Iranian society. After describing the features of the car the author writes “If that suggests a degree of sexist stereotyping in Iranian society, it is, just possibly, true.” Yes, definitely. But then we start to get in this little slippery slope of self righteousness with the author saying things like “Iranian men have yet to absorb fully the message of equality” or “‘As a result, the report concludes, Iran’s new generation of working women “are obliged to play the role of a superwoman to resolve their contradictions in handling all tasks.’ It says such women ‘have become increasingly frustrated with their life'”. Now I don’t disagree with these assertions but I did wonder why they were brought up in an article about a car for women and why the author was acting like these issues were exclusive to Iranian women. American women have to contend with this issue as well. American women spend more time doing household chores than their husbands. British working women also have to contend with juggling it all while getting little help from men. So this is an issue that affects women all around the globe. Next time, I think the BBC should just stick to the story.

Find out more at MMW’s Friday Links.

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 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.

Any Muslimah is familiar with Muslim women role models of the past. We have Fatimah and Khadijah (ra). I include ‘Aisha (ra) in this list (for Sunnis at least) but I think that the perception of ‘Aisha by Muslim scholars through the ages has been less clear than the former two. While ‘Aisha is praised for her knowledge of hadeeth and her devotion to the Prophet, she is not praised for other actions such as her leading role in the battle of the camel. Because of actions like this, ‘Aisha has, at times, been associated with fitnah (chaos, confusion) by the ‘ulama. I also think she has been somewhat associated with fitnah because she challenged norms of proper gender roles for women. Despite this, she is still considered a role model by many Muslim women and even Muslim scholars.

All of these women lived over 1400 years ago. I think that unfortunately, there has been little emphasis on modern role models for Muslim women of the present. Many books on written for Muslim women are abundant with information on the women I mentioned above. Books may even have information on Hafsa and Umm Salaama (ra). However, one is often left with the impression that Muslim women haven’t done much since the time of the sahabah. One gets the impression that women had little influence on Islamic societies, especially during the “golden age” of Islamic history and that they continue to have little influence in the present.

Muslims girls and Muslim women need to know that we have always made impacts in our societies, and that we continue to do so. They need to know that we have not just been wives and mothers who are supportive of leaders, but that we have been leaders ourselves. Umm Hani (d. 1466) was a distinguished scholar of Qur’an and hadeeth. Another woman, Khadijah bint ‘Ali (d. 1468) was a scholar of Qur’an and hadeeth as well as a calligrapher. She taught women as well as men. I learned about these women and others not from traditional books for Muslim women but from Women and Gender in Islam, the famous book written by Leila Ahmed. A more controversial figure is Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, a Sufi mystic who spoke heavily of her love of God and who also did not get married because of her devotion to God. One of my favorite quotes by her is “O my Lord,” she prayed, “if I worship Thee from fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me thence, but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, then withhold not from me Thine Eternal Beauty.”

There are role models for modern Muslim too. Shirin Ebadi was the first Muslim woman and also the first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She won the award for fights for human rights, especially for women and children. Ingrid Mattson is the first woman to ever be President of ISNA (Islamic Society of North America).

Muslim women have always had role models to look up to. The problem though, is that many of these women do not get the attention they deserve. They don’t get the attention they deserve in books written by traditional (I use traditional for lack of a better term) scholars. Muslim women are left looking up to Khadijah, Fatimah, Mary, ‘Aisha and other figures centuries past. Many of us often left wondering if we still have a significant role in the deen outside of mother and wife. By highlighting Muslim women who have made their mark, Muslim women will know that yes, they still do have a significant role in the deen and they will fight for it.