Can Muslims Escape Misogyny?

Their second foray into stimulating the established Muslim mindset, the Deen Institute held a conference entitled, Can Muslims Escape Misogyny which can be viewed here. The title alone was sufficient to discourage many middle-of-the-road Muslims I personally know, while the list of speakers included some leading Muslim personalities, each presenting their perspective on this controversial subject.


With opening remarks by Adam Deen, the institute’s founder, Dr Laura McDonald, chairperson, followed by a beautiful recitation of the first verse from the Quranic chapter entitled The Women, by Qari Hassen Rasool, the scene was set by Myriam Francois Cerrah whose speech was met with rapturous applause from the audience.

Myriam began with a case study of a friend whose family from a powerful tribe of the Levant wanted to marry her off at the age of 17. When she expressed her interest in further education her father locked her away in a room for a year, where her only companion were the four walls that imprisoned her and, strangely, episodes of Friends on tv. She later escaped to America where she denounced Islam. Why? Because her father insisted that he had a right over her life and moreover that his rights, including imprisoning his own daughter, separating her from humanity, was ‘Islamic.’

Islam, as she was taught, implied that as a woman she was less able, and that the only way she could redeem herself was to marry, to become a wife. And later, after giving birth, her identity would change, from her name, to, for example, Umm Khalid. This cycle of identity and belonging and ownership sit in contrast to Quranic message. Worse, Myriam gave the example of how just recently a ‘scholar’ addressing a group of young Muslim women opined that there is no ‘worth’ in them pursuing higher education, criticizing a lady who wanted to become a lawyer.

Worse and surprising, she shared how scholars whose opinions in the contemporary age tend to be viewed with the greatest of respect, are also guilty of opining some rather outrageous and unIslamic interpretations of faith. For example, Imam Ghazali, who believed that women were feeble minded, and that marriage is enslavement where a woman must obey her husband in everything he says. Is this I ask, really the message of the Quran, or the Prophet’s example?

Ustadha Safia Shahid adopted a more traditional interpretation of the gender dialogue. She began by stating that misogyny in itself is alien to the ideals of honour afforded to Muslim women. And it is true, as she opined that crimes in the name of Islam should not represent Islam, much can be said of any belief system. Yet despite these two great statements, I found her interpretation of ‘honour’ implied notions of misogyny as she stated that each gender had a specific role; and worse her belief that gender segregation – something not even mentioned in the Quran – was not a form of misogyny.

While there is no discounting the clear physical and biological differences between men and women, in a reading of the Quran, such differences do not equate to different roles within society. Further, as is clear from the Prophetic example of life, men and women did everything. Women were not confined to the home to engage in household chores, for we see examples of the Prophet himself engaging in household chores. Just as men were not given exclusivity to work, for we see the wives of the Prophet, working.

One of the most beautiful accounts shared by Safia is that of when Imam Malik was once teaching some pupils his Muwatta. When his mother came down, he stood up, spoke to her, then when she left, he sat back down again. When asked why he did so, he replied, out of respect for his mother. Yet what troubles me with this account is not the answer but the fact that one of his students had such little respect for parents that he had to ask such a question in the first place.

Dr Zainab Alwani focused on how the Quran changed the first generation of Muslims stressing that a gender discourse on Islam without the inclusion and participation of women will fail. Just as, for example, it was actually Hafsa, a woman, who preserved the first copy of the Quran. Women, at that time, we actively involved in and engaged with the revelation.

She gave the example of how women began asking one another why the Quran, in some verses, addresses men specifically, giving the impression that women are excluded. The question was circulated amongst the women, and it continued to be circulated, until one woman asked the Prophet. Later, as a response, verse 35 from chapter 33 was revealed: “The Muslim men and the Muslim women, the believing men and the believing women…”

You can ask why God did not begin with this type of verse earlier on. The answer in my understanding is simple, engagement. The Quran is clear that faith is a process of discovery and engagement, part of which ties into the importance of asking questions. Moreover, in a society where women were perceived as second class, by demonstrating active involvement in understanding the Quran, it’s revelation, and indeed the Prophet, women were being encouraged to rise up and ask for clarification on their rights. Are women excluded from this divine message, or are women a part of it. And if so, in what capacity? This verse, 33:35 clarifies the participation of women in all aspects of life.

Further she demonstrates this by citing chapter 58 of the Quran, entitled The Pleading Woman, where a lady named Khola, approached the prophet complaining about the way her husband treated her. She complained to the Prophet, but she also, and more importantly complained to God. In doing so she demonstrated two points. First, that access to the Prophet was there for all. But second and more importantly, there is also no restriction to accessing God. Each and every one of us, men and women can and should address God, seeking God’s help in addressing and resolving our affairs.

Dr Ingrid Mattson shared how at some points in history in some parts of the Muslim world, up to 50% of property was controlled by charitable religious institutions known as waqfs, where at least half of those were controlled by women – all of which were paid positions. What does this say about women being involved in everyday business activities?

Ingrid then gave the example of how one companion stated that if a woman walked in front of a man who was praying, that would invalidate his prayer, only for said companion to be rebuked by Aisha, the Prophet’s wife who pointed out that she would sit in front of the prophet while he would pray! Her point? Within the landscape of hadith not only are there many which have been fabricated and some which are still relayed today, but the way in which hadith have been classified by the scholars changes their meaning.

In Imam Muhsin’s book of divorce, the account of Barira, a female slave is recorded. A slave, she was married to a slave. When she was set free, she wanted to divorce him. Her slave husband pleaded with her to stay. Hearing this the Prophet asked her if she would stay to which she replied, ‘Is it a divine command, are you ordering me to?’ and the Prophet replied, ‘No, a request.’ So she left him.

This incident is recorded under the heading, ‘Intercession of Prophet for Barira’s Husband’ however it could be listed under a different heading ‘A Woman’s Right  To Separate From Her Husband, Without His Permission.’

Dr Shuruq Naquib addressed the subject of male privilege under the pre-text that such privilege is divinely ordained. She shared how women struggle with the doctrines of God, for if God is male, then male is God. When in fact, God is neither male nor female, God is God.

Shuruq shared how the famous scholar Suyuti had at least 11 female scholars teaching him hadith and fiqh, that is to say that women scholars were the accepted norm for generals, just as available as male scholars. Gender, was not, and is not, a pre-determinant for any person’s capability to learn, perform, teach or engage. Further she stressed that, for example, how the schools of thought that have remained till today (e.g. the four sunni schools of thought) while established by men, demonstrate that it is simply learning that enables a school of thought to be established. And that with the correct qualifications, in theory, there is nothing to stop a woman from establishing her own school of thought.

Tariq Ramadan stressed the importance of our engagement with the religious scriptures. He delivered two message which I thought were individually interesting but together contradictory. First, he demonstrated how the Quran was a revelation in a particular time in a particular place to a particular audience, despite it’s global message. And thus, what we should take from the Quran is not just it’s context and it’s outcome, but the ‘movement’ which the Quran instigated. That is, the process of change, the process of improvement, both of which are gradual and cannot be expected over-night, particularly when dealing with heavily set in attitudes to life.

But then Tariq opined that there are many different answers to the same question. I found this troubling as a truth must be a truth, there cannot be multiple truths. There are preferences, and choices, and faith does not teach us to disrespect these preferences and these choices, but there must always be a common denominating truth.

Whether relating to the subject of dress (for men just as much as for women), for the way genders interact in society, for interpretations on how zakat is calculated, for ways in which we are advised to pray. There must always be singular truths after which there are opinions. And as Tariq later pointed out in another subject, people are people, so opinions are just that, opinions, sometimes they are good, at other times, considerably less so.

Indeed, Tariq went on to say that he is surprised that we are people can be surprised when a ‘scholar’ opines something which we find distasteful, after all, a scholar is just a human being, and as a human being, in expressing their opinion they just as capable of stating something unpleasant, irrespective of whatever knowledge they may have of the Quran, Sunnah, Sharia, Fiqh and so on.

The program then broke into a panel discussion where a number of community activists took to the podium.

Faeeza Vaid, shared how some men believe that they are in an untouchable elite class of society where in one case, a Muslim woman who was visibly physically abused, and had medical papers to prove so, was told by an imam that she must provide two male witnesses. When the evidence is so clear, the flippancy with which some men who have found themselves in positions of authority becomes a genuine disgrace. For, as Faeeza asked, What would Prophet Muhammad have done if a battered and bruised woman came to him seeking separation from her husband?

Humera Khan, opined that women do not have time to write lengthy articles or to travel abroad to study for years on end. She stressed how the world today is not just unfriendly to women, but also towards men, with a particular stress to our working patterns. According to Humera, when something needs to be done, women simply do it and that women need to be told that they matter.

Imam Saleem Seedat began by sharing one of my favourite hadith, that the best of people are those who have the best character, and the best of them, are those who are best to the wives. Just pause and think about this singular statement for a moment. Saleem identified three key points, all of which I personally agree with. (1) Denial: many Muslims will not acknowledge that misogyny exists. (2) To acknowledge and support existing efforts to address misogyny. And (3) To do so in a way that does not make things more difficult for women.

Shaheen Taj spoke of the power dynamics between a man who abuses a woman, and worse, middle aged men who abuse young girls. She posed the question, do such men ‘hate’ women, or do they enjoy the ‘power?’ In her years of working in the Muslim community she has observed matters worsening, not improving, and how the cycle of violence is extending. In one example, a man called for help stating that his wife would beat him. It turns out that she grew up in a broken home being beaten herself. So a problem facing one generation which should have been addressed is now spreading to the next, and as such, the sooner it is addressed, the better.

Sara Khan went straight for the jugular. Women’s voices she opined are not the same as a woman’s private parts, this in response to men who claim that their voices are ‘awrah.’ She demonstrated the collapse of the Muslim community support structure where a man who was advising married couples on how to behave was himself beating his own wife at home. Sharia, she shared is about justice and good, any ruling or opinion that does not embody these sentiments must be rejected.

But worse, just as Myriam opened the speeches giving the example of Imam Ghazli’s anti-women rhetoric, Sara gave the example of another great classical scholar, Ibn Qayyum, who opined that a wife is her husband’s prisoner.

The somewhat heavy all day conference delivered a wide variety of information, just some of which I’ve touched upon in this summary.

While I recognise the irony, having spent a day at a conference addressing the subject of Misogyny, I did leave to attend a bridal fashion show where models (mostly female though there were a few male as well), wore various wedding attire up and down the catwalk. There was perhaps just as much midriff on display at the show as there were headscarves in the 90% audience of women at the conference.

Hearing the speakers speak, something became very clear to me. In terms of marriage, some marry for wealth, some for status, some for looks. In terms of home environment, some men expect their wives to labour over them 24/7. In terms of parenting, men (and women) often give preference to their sons allowing them freedoms while their daughters are more ‘controlled.’ In terms of activity, men are often free to do as they like, interacting with women outside, while women are often restricted, and then told that they can only engage with other women. Worse, when tragedy strikes, some men state that women are entangled with drama in their lives instead of giving them the support that they need to address their circumstance. What’s missing in all of the above can be summed up in a single word which served as the backdrop on the catwalk:

What is the true cause for misogyny? Why do men treat women, the other half of humanity, our mothers, sisters, daughters, cousins, friends, with such negativity? Why do some men blame women, when actually it is not blame but support that should be tendered? It is because despite the function of caring and sharing, there is little, indeed no depth of real love.

May God Almighty have mercy and bless us all with true love in our lives, such that our actions are positive, our choices supportive of one another, and our lives free to worship our Creator in peace, ameen.


2 responses to “Can Muslims Escape Misogyny?

  1. As-Salaamu ‘Alaykum,

    May Allah (SWT) bless the organizers of this event as well as the speakers!

    One thing that I also think of is that if Muslim men understood what “manhood” is in Islam, they would not fear empowered Muslim women nor attempt to subjugate them. We have to be re-educated on what it means to be a man like the Prophet (SAWS), which means getting rid of a lot of this male chauvinist culture stuff and misreadings of Islamic texts.


    Dawud Walid
    Detroit, MI

  2. Pingback: What’s On This Fortnight: 29.01.14 - Hana Lists

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