I began calling myself a Feminist when I was 15. I had been one for longer, but simply had no word to put all my beliefs into a single form. I slept with my arguments, woke with them, repeated them to my mother for the better part of the day and fought people over it. I was obsessed. My poor HP Laptop, then, must have crashed from playing We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda one time too many. In this Feminist Frenzy I caught myself in four years ago, the biggest obstacle I encountered was when, using clear verses from the Holy Qur’an, some of my arguments were countered. In return, I delved into learning about the rights of women in Islam to counter those arguments. It took me a few months to surface from my confusion with a clear view and understanding of the relationship between feminism and Islam, armed with my complete set of beliefs for the many arguments that followed in the recent years. Did I find out that it was possible to be a Muslim and a Feminist? Is the perfect religion in contrast with this modern movement? Or is the stand of Islam in the “grey areas” with regards to feminism?
Feminism began in the west less than 200 years ago. It became remarkable during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century in the United States and the United Kingdom. It met the woman a simple object of gratification and domestic labour with almost no other notable rights to enable her to contribute to the society. She was a property with no right to vote or own property, had no legal protection against sexual violence, and was paid far less than a man for the same job. The “First-Wave” of Feminism emerged in the late 19th century and sought to dismantle the concept of ownership of the woman by her husband. Then, it moved its focus towards suffrage, which was first grudgingly granted to a selected group in 1918. The “Second-Wave” focused on ending discrimination against women and the “Third-Wave” was largely a criticism, reform and advancement to the “Second-Wave”. Hence, early Feminism can be applauded for giving women the right to vote, earn equal pay, equal working rights and inheritance. Note that up until the last century, these rights were non-existent in the West.
However, Islam was revealed in the 6th century to arguably the crudest society of the era. It found the woman trapped in a society where even the news of her birth is a tragedy that often calls for infanticide. If she was lucky enough to survive infanticide, she grows up to hold no legal status and eventually sold into a marriage that holds no right and respect for her, possibly be subjected to polygyny, and upon the death of her husband, become an inherited property of his family. They were properties that had no right to owning properties. Islam came to women at such a time and first made reforms to the marriage institution, where it gave the woman the right to consent to marriage and propose a divorce, the right to bring her terms into the marriage and made her dowry a gift to her and not a price paid to her family. Islam stressed that she was not a property to be buried, but a creation as human as the man with the same origin (Adam and Hauwa). Then, it went on to reform the laws guarding property. It gave her a right to inherit, own and administer it. Thanks to these rights, as early as 859 AD, a woman, Fatima al-Fihr, had founded the University of al Karaoine and many other Muslim women were funding Madrasahs and earning Ijazahs (academic degrees). This is but a very small example of the results of early reforms that Islam started as far back as 14 centuries ago.
Today, we find ourselves in a society that is guided predominantly by the rules of men selectively chosen from Islam to suit their whims. They have taken most of the joys of the woman as a mother, daughter and wife and stressed the responsibilities. They have exaggerated their own rights and repressed that of the woman. Today, in most low income societies, she is sold as an object as she was in pre-Islamic Arabia. Many are denied their right to employment and/or education before or after marriage in fear that she becomes too “woke” and hence loses her submissiveness. Today, many men entertain the idea of intelligent women from afar, but up close become threatened by her success and excesses and compel her to downplay them. While she was the Queen of the House in the times of the Prophet (SAW), she is today reduced to a house wife in service of her family to her last day, and in exchange she is fed and clothed from the sweat of the man. Her consent in matters she was once at liberty to turn down do not matter anymore. The status of the woman in the Muslim World today can somewhat be likened to that of the European woman of the Industrial Revolution era, the very same scenario that called for Feminism! Today, the Muslim Feminists are born. Who are they?
The Muslim Feminist is quite different from the Secular Feminist. The Muslim Feminist is the unavoidable consequence of sexism, injustice and misogyny in the Muslim Community. Unlike the Secular Feminists, the early Muslim Feminist yearns to have the woman acknowledged to be as human and important as the man. In the unjust setting, they like to believe that it was not a status that God ordained for them. They of course found it in the Qur’an that they are equal in their humanity and origin, and a human can only precede another before God in righteousness. But still, Islam had distinct roles for each gender that none was allowed to transgress. I think this is the border for the Muslim Feminist; because as much as a woman is as human as any man, the gender roles prescribed by Islam cannot align with Feminism. This has raised the question of whether the terms “Muslim Feminist” and “Feminism in Islam” should be acknowledged. Should they?
Islam and feminism are mutually exclusive in the sense that one must exceed the other in the mind. There comes a time when you cannot carry both hand-in-hand. You choose feminism and your faith in God is wounded. You choose your faith in God and your belief in feminism is wounded. Belief in feminism is a liberal one. I believe that it is impossible to believe in feminism without being compelled to believe in its sister movement, the fight for LGBTQ rights. A Muslim Feminist will always have excessive doubts in faith for facts like only men can lead in prayer, a woman cannot partake in a burial ceremony, she cannot be the head of the family over her husband and is supposed to obey him as the protector and maintainer of the family. Despite such odds, we are in no position to force a person to choose between Feminism, a fight believed to be for fundamental human rights, and Islam, the beautiful religion of God. It is not permissible to call a person who prays, fasts and observe all his religious obligations a disbeliever because of his belief in a movement.
To curb the rise of Feminism in Islam, especially the modern feminism, we need to accept that this is a consequence of our acts. Until we choose the law of God over the law of men, feminism is one of the many more vices to crawl into our society. Feminism is just a banner under which people rally to fight injustices in the society. We are in a world were purdah will not stop a woman from learning that she deserves better, that she is meant for better. Misogyny needs to be tuned down to the minimum, and the status of the woman raised as high as it was 14 centuries ago. Muslim homes need to become more beautiful, Muslim marriages even more so. The next generation need to be raised better. We need to stress the similarities and not the differences between genders. We should cease whinging and look inwards, turn towards God and His book for guidance, only then can we become bigger than this.
Men and women are equal in terms of humanity but have very different responsibilities in life. It is this difference that calls for creation of gender in the first place.
And no, I am not a feminist.
Hadiya Aliyu Tilde.
26th of May, 2019.