On Feminism and Female Islamic Scholarship

How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do? In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.

For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices.

When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.

I try to keep my feminism simple. I know feminism is complex and evolving and flawed. I know feminism will not and cannot fix everything.

I believe in equal opportunities for men and women. I believe in women having reproductive freedom and affordable and unfettered access to the health care they need.

I believe women should be paid as much as men for doing the same work. Feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights.

I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.

I believe women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.

– Roxane Gay, “Bad Feminist”

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Feminism.

We need to stop being afraid of this word.

It is not a racial slur, nor is it a dirty word. And no – anyone who speaks in defense of women or for women’s rights and equalities is most definitely not a “femi-Nazi.”

The word feminism in the Muslim community has one meaning. And yet the word feminism has numerous theories and ideas and ways of thinking of what feminism actually is. It’s an important word because it helps us think about where are we sociologically today regarding women.

Feminism doesn’t own a meaning. If I define feminism as the recognition of the spiritual equality of men and women before Allah ﷻ, the importance of equitable social norms and functions in society, and the rights of women to contribute to the community – then Islam is the first feminism.

Islam elevated what many would call today “feminine qualities” and made them important human qualities, as was the way of early Islam and the Prophet ﷺ.

Empathy. Care. Softness. Sensitivity. Gentleness. Love. The Prophet ﷺ nurtured his wives’ and sahabiyaat’s potential and individuality – he didn’t try to curtail or repress them. He, peace and blessings be upon him, uplifted them.

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, founder of Zaytuna Institute, recently posted about this saying:

“Khadija was a great teacher; she has such a maqam (place) in our religion. She taught the Prophet ﷺ who he was; she was the one who elevated him in his esteem. When he had self-doubt, she said no. You can see that when the Prophet ﷺ married ‘Aishah he had no fear of strong women. There are a lot of men who fear strong women, who want them to be wallflowers. Whereas the Prophet ﷺ , that’s not the type of people he encouraged – his wives were women who talked back, and the reason he wasn’t afraid was because Khadija was his first wife. She was a woman of the world. She knew the world, and she was completely self-confident. That’s a sunnah of our Prophet ﷺ , to elevate women.”

SubhanAllah. That was our nabi (saw). He was a real man. No fragile masculinity involved.

The sahabiyaat of the Prophet ﷺ were incredible women, and they were multifaceted. They were single, married, divorced, widowed, with kids, and without. They were teachers, surgeons, judges, activists, warriors, poets, and scholars. But society today has romanticized what it means to be a woman and decided that “The Ideal Muslim Woman” is a flat character. She doesn’t have the full depth of personhood that every actual human being has, and she must mold herself to fit into this box, because everyone wants the perfect wife, the perfect mother – without any understanding of the values of those roles. We as a community haven’t elevated those roles. But we still want to romanticize the idea of womanhood in the way where if a woman doesn’t get married or have kids – she doesn’t fit into society like she should.

And this is where female Islamic scholarship comes into play – where it’s seen as the “other” in terms of what a woman does with her life. Either she is a wife/mom – or she becomes a scholar. But that isn’t the case and shouldn’t be seen as such, because it’s part and parcel, so to speak. A Muslim woman is one who contributes to society, and there are so many amazing female teachers and scholars of our deen who are trying to break that mold and follow true Islamic scholarship, such as Ustadha Ieasha Prime, Anse Tamara Gray, Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, and many more. May Allah ﷻ protect and preserve them.

It hasn’t been easy for women in general to strive for leadership positions, let alone entering the scholarship circle. Immersing yourself in Islamic sacred knowledge is a very difficult path itself. I’ll be the first to say there’s nothing easy about it. Learning the topic is not so difficult, but it poses two very serious challenges according to Anse Tamara Gray:

1) We have to understand Islamic scholarship not only as an academic science, but also as how you live in terms of Adab and commitment. It’s not just being a student of knowledge, but a student of Islam. You have to have serious inner change and work by looking towards your own self and nafs. Every day at the Suhba Fellowship program, we have the blessed opportunity to sit at the feet of Shaykh Mokhtar Maghraoui and learn. Absorb. Grow. What I quickly learned is that he is like a mirror, showing us our own faults and deficiencies through his teachings. It is a profound and perplexing feeling, understanding the black filth that has gathered inside your heart and clogged your soul. You’ll only be successful if you’re ready and willing to do the hard work of dealing with the nafs and the discipline of getting up, worshiping, and maintaining respect for one’s teacher. It is a serious, hard, and foundational part of the path to knowledge.

2) The male-female hierarchical relationship between student and teacher. It’s an emotional time, because you’re building yourself up as a human being. But the teacher is the person in power, so he/she must be very careful to not misconstrue that and communicate it to the young student very clearly. This relationship can be dangerous, and we’ve seen proof of that in the past and recently with many unfortunate cases of spiritual abuse in our communities. (re: FACE – Facing Abuse in Community Environments) There is a balance, and it is a beautiful one, when achieved. It all goes back to adab. Nafeesah Al-Tahirah was one of Imam Al-Shafi’ee’s great teachers, showing that the necessity of both male and female teachers in the pursuit of sacred knowledge is so important. When you learn the deen with the absence of the female perspective, you’re going to have a blind spot. Having diverse teachers inform and guide you is crucial.

Unfortunately, there is a significant lack of female scholarship in our communities. But that’s why I moved across the world to study. For 1) healing – because what better way to heal than to grow nearer to Allah ﷻ and his Prophet ﷺ? (Trick question. There is no other way) But also 2) to fill the gap. If I claim to be the Allah ﷻ and his Prophet ﷺ – loving feminist Muslim woman that I am, what am I doing to contribute to the solution?

“Those of you who notice problems in our community, be it gender inequality, the lack of good role models, or the dearth of practical Islamic education, know that there are solutions, we just have to be them.” – Ustadha Aatifa Shareef, Qalam Institute

This is why we need to talk about feminism. In Islam, women are not subordinate to men, contrary to the cultural beliefs of some. We are individuals in our own right and our obedience is to Allah ﷻ, not men. Feminism is rooted in Islam because it seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence. Activists and scholars and those who fight for women’s rights are ultimately looking for women to be elevated above the status that they’re currently in. But it’s important to not lose ourselves and imitate those who have completely lost their morality and consideration for their fellow human beings. We must keep going back to the adab of the Prophet ﷺ. Even when he argued with the people he disagreed with, he was never disagreeable.

“Feminism, Islamic feminism, Muslims who identify as feminists – more or less what they’re talking about is the empowerment of women, making sure that women are given their proper rights. Making sure that young girls are raised with an understanding that they are valid in society and that they have a valid place in this deen.” – Ustadha Ieasha Prime, Barakah Inc.

The current man who holds the position of President of the United States has openly said that he has committed acts of sexual assault. We see the rise of gang rape, the level of assault against the vulnerabilities of women, the unequal pay, unequal healthcare, unequal housing, unequal education. Young girls today still believe that boys are more intelligent. We have a cultural problem as it relates to the assault of women mentally, physically, financially, emotionally, etc. And as Muslims, we have the responsibility to do what the Prophet ﷺ did, and that was to elevate women to that status for which they were intended to be. It is our responsibility to enjoin the good and forbid the evil. And that, in many cases, requires us not only to challenge the status quo, but also challenge some of our ideals that happened within Islamic discourse.

Muslim women shouldn’t just fight for the rights of Muslim women. That’s not the job of the Muslim. The Muslim fights for the rights of all people, for the rights of humanity. This ideal that we would stand with women of faith or no faith on the rights of protecting women in this country by saying no to sexual assault, rape culture, unequal pay, etc – it is merely saying “I stand with you on these issues!” They are concerns for Muslims, concerns for women, and concerns for humanity.

When I see someone who claims to be a feminist or an Islamic feminist, if I simply take them for their word without recognizing what the soul is behind that, what is the aim of the human by identifying with that particular label? Ultimately, their aim is saying “I want to elevate the status of women. I am concerned with women’s rights.” And had we as a community presented this Islam in a manner that protected women’s rights and souls, we would have never felt like we needed to grab the label of feminism or attach ourselves to the philosophy. We march for women’s rights, and invoke the #MeToo movement, because we finally have the audacity and strength to say that we can’t keep sweeping cases of abuse under the rug. And in our Muslim communities, especially the misuse of power of spiritual authority.

Muslims are very self-congratulatory on how well Muslim treat women, honor them, lift them up and empower them – but in the actuality of that experience, it is very rarely happening in a manner of true respect and following the sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ . We need to be self-reflective and critical of how we interact with our communities today. For example, the misogyny of space is affecting our ability to hang onto the women in our communities and do da’wah properly. When masaajid separate women and push them off into gross, tiny spaces, what does that tell them? That they’re not welcome there. So they stop coming to the masaajid, and thereby their children stop coming. It’s a vicious cycle that has disastrous outcomes, all due to the patriarchal ways of managing our spaces.

Misogyny is not only about how women feel, but about how we are holding up the sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ. How are we really caring for our deen in our spaces, communities, and lives? Ask yourself – how many all-male panels do we constantly see at Islamic conferences?

We need to be working together as men and women in society. We were meant to be Awliya’ – supporters and defenders of one another. Female scholars need to be treated the same as male scholars. Establishing a foundation of respect and adab for all of our scholars is vital. Where there will be more female teachers, scholars, and figures of authority, there will be less spiritual abuse.

If we were able to see beyond the labels of society and people, then we would be a lot more embracing, loving, and accepting. Our aim is Khayr. Ultimately we all want the same thing – we just have to figure out how to go about achieving that.

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Ustadha Aatifa Shareef – https://319mag.wordpress.com/2015/08/14/religion-in-pursuit-of-female-islamic-scholarship-by-aatifa-shareef

Ustadha Ieasha Prime – http://www.ieashaprime.com

Anse Tamara Gray – http://www.rabata.org/anse-tamara-gray

Ustadha Zaynab Ansari – http://www.tayseerseminary.org/ustadha-zaynab-ansari

FACE, Facing Abuse in Community Environments – http://www.facetogether.org

ImanWire Podcast, Ep. 24, 10, 25.

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