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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Where Are the Women?

By Jeewan Chanicka

From the pulpit to the preachers, many often proclaim Islam’s
liberation of women 1,400 years ago. After all, Islam did recognize that women
possess souls—this was acknowledged only over the past 100 years in
Christianity— and Islam did give women the right to vote, yet another
relatively recent phenomenon 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 deen was
`A’ishah (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, 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 `A’ishah, Fatimah, Nusaibah,
and many others. We would first have to look behind the barriers erected
in the masjid, 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 stay at home and raise the children and fulfill her husband’s
every wish and desire. It is better that she stay inside than walk
outside lest she be a temptress and cause someone to commit sin by looking
at her, and that she should be silent because her voice is her `awrah.
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 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,
we 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
da`wah of this community is being carried on the shoulders of Muslim
women. Many who 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 is taking place today. It behooves us men
to believe that we can be wrong or may have WRONG understandings of the
seerah (life of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him) 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 (mutual consultation). 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 fitnah (temptation) 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 wars—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
and blessings 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, “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 sounder, and that they may be
fitter 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
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; 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 shura council in the masjid and various
institutions because leadership (and I am not speaking about being imam
here) should be defined based on qualification and not sex. 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, too, are able to grow and
learn. 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 Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). 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)-interpretations of its 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 sex. 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.


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