On Islam and Feminism

[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]

There are certain people with whom there is no use attempting to engage in healthy debate. Sometimes these people are white, deeply Islamophobic, truly unpleasant to behold. In their eyes, you are just a terrorist; this view of theirs, no matter how many facts and figures you may direct toward them, is unlikely to ever change. And then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some men who look rather unlike the first discussed group – at least, upon first glance. Muslim, bearded, seemingly quite ‘religious’. They, too, are often terribly unpleasant to behold. They want to debate with you; they want to prove how girlish, deluded and necessary-of-reform you are. They proceed to bitterly call you a feminist, then proceed to take these matters of ‘reform’ into their own hands.  

I do not identify as a feminist. I used to, yes, but I no longer do. One need not be a ‘feminist’ in order to appreciate that women should not be taken for granted nor abused, just as one need not be labelled a ‘communist’ to appreciate that the welfare system – taking care of the most vulnerable in society – is a good idea.

Now, what I find most infuriating about these particular groups of Muslim men – these ones who tend to be rather outwardly ‘pious’ – is that they do not practise what they preach. They seem to lust relentlessly over women; they, at the same time, seem to despise us. I know people who, pretty much all they do is: praise Allah (SWT) – the most noble of things to do – and then proceed to ceaselessly complain about women. Women: the root of all evil, for them. And, yes, misogynists certainly have their equal but opposite counterparts among women. “All men are trash!” some women are known, religiously, to complain.

Some Muslim men, though, undoubtedly do it right. They are evidently soft-hearted, but they are still very masculine. They have a sense of protective jealousy over female relatives, but they are not so weak and insecure on the inside that they will blame the women under their care for the faults of others, nor do they seek to feign excessive levels of authority over women, in order to compensate for such insecurities. These particular men – the Good Ones – do their parts. They are not hypocrites; they are Haleem: gentle, mild, patient, understanding, able to regulate their anger. They understand that they will never be able to fully empathise with the struggles that women may face, but they do not downplay these struggles., either. That is what we (well, I mean I) truly like to see: men who are deeply comfortable in their own masculinity. Comfortable enough to be strong, polite, open-minded. See, healthy masculinity does not generally translate into mindless, meaningless, misogynistic anger. Nor is it shutting down conversation by insolently and freely insulting women – acting like we are all brainless, valueless (except when it comes to male sexual gratification), naive dolls.

I am not opposed to feminism. I am simply not a feminist. I am a Muslim. My main contentions with the ‘feminist movement’ at large is that… it would appear to be intrinsically confused. A lot of it seems, ironically, to promote the ‘liberation’ of women by encouraging women towards a traditionally masculine template. We are encouraged towards hailing the women in pantsuits; who are ‘badasses’, and who refer to themselves as ‘kings’, and not as queens.

The Islamic view, then: gender roles do exist. The divinely-ordained Masculine; the divinely-ordained Feminine; they have much intrinsic value. Islam promotes the upholding of our masculine and feminine essences – these products of our Fitrahs (our innate human constitutions) – and of their associated roles. There are no rules that dictate that a woman cannot go out to work, nor any to suggest that men cannot play key roles in the upbringings of their children, on a deeply emotional level. No… but men are physically stronger; they are built differently, and they think differently, to women. Men have certain rights over, in tandem with responsibilities towards, women. And vice versa. And both parties have their respective, though often overlapping, responsibilities to carry out, towards God.

Men are meant to be, ultimately, the protectors and providers of women. The Qur’an describes them as our ‘overseers’ – a rough translation of the term used. Breadwinners: they must spend their wealth on the maintenance of their families. Women, however, have a right to their own wealth; we need not share with anybody. Men must pray, as much as possible, in the mosque, in congregation. Women need not, and we get monthly ‘breaks’, so to speak, from Salah, which last for a week. Women are vessels through which life is brought into the world – and this is done via the womb, the word for which, in Arabic, shares the same linguistic root as that meaning ‘mercy’. Men have their essence; we have ours. [And so on]. God is neither male nor female; gender is a creation of His. Some Divine qualities (like beauty and mercy) women have relatively more access to the diluted subsets of. And others, men have more access to. Unfortunately, what a lot of modern feminists tend to do is this: they are known to de-sanctify the Divine Feminine at its core, thereafter pitting it against the Masculine, in some sort of strange competition…

I never really understood what it meant when, upon telling certain friends and family members I was a ‘feminist’, they would tell me that they themselves are just ‘Muslim’. I understand this now: Islam is against oppression and interpersonal transgressions – irrespective of who happens to be carrying them out. They are dire sins. And Islam also encourages the preservation of gender roles. So the Islamic way is not necessary ‘liberalist’, but, in many ways – for example, in its unique take on female sexuality – it is not traditionally ‘traditionalist’. Islam is Islam. It is my Deen; it provides the necessary framework for objective morality. At my core, I am not a liberal (while the moral bases for ‘feminism’ are pretty much inextricably tied to the liberal ideology). I am Muslim.

Deep down, we know that many feminists will clap more for women who have sacrificed everything for top professional positions, while neglecting the mothers who choose to be housewives, and whose central concerns are to make their homes a good place for their families – to bring their children up in the best possible way. As usual, the liberal ideology in question is strongly tied to economic considerations. But we Muslims must favour the spiritual ones, before anything. Love of God, and tending to our God-given rights and responsibilities, and love as our central motivator…

Feminism also seems to argue that women should not do things to cater to the Male Gaze. But then the majority of feminists advocate for makeup usage, nudity, and sexual looseness. Because it’s “all about choice”. Do they not see that human ‘freedom’ is always contingent on being enslaved to something – whether to economic ideas of success and the Male Gaze, or… to God? No woman is an island; there are motivations behind our actions. There is no use in pretending that we can exist outside of all societal considerations and such. And for Muslims at least, it is far more meaningful to submit before God, in lieu of whatever else before the people…

As Muslim women, for instance, we really should stop responding to questions like those pertaining to our headscarves with, “Because it’s my choice”. No – we observe the Hijab because we are enslaved not to our own desires, nor to the eyes of men, but to Allah (SWT). All human beings are enslaved; to be enslaved to God is the most noble avenue for our human inclinations towards servitude. 

And, yes, ‘intersectional’ feminism does exist. But I would argue that this branch of feminism is the most deeply confused one. It started off by saying “Yes, ALL women!”. That is, Hijabi women, black women, white women, disabled women – and ‘yes’ to how they might each respectively choose to live their lives… But then it subsumed the efforts of LGBT movements, and those of race-based movements, sexual ‘liberation’, pro-abortion-no-matter-what, and even some movements that pertained to the liberation of men under certain circumstances. [So… why continue to label it ‘feminism’, which linguistically implies a focus on women]?

Anti-oppression. This is part of Islam. But anti-oppression… in line with God-given guidelines and commands. 

Gendered transgressions that are not in line with the Islamic way of life include domestic violence, certainly. But, for example, sexual irresponsibility is not to be promoted either, according to us; this, in its own way, is a transgression.

And on the topic of well-known statistics like how ‘women make seventy-six cents to every man’s dollar’: well, promulgating this statistic in isolation leads to the overlooking of much nuance. Take, for example, the fact that many women choose to only carry out part-time paid work, and many leave their jobs for extended periods of time in order to look after their growing families. What’s more, the Islamic view is, as aforesaid, that men and women are different. Men have varying attitudes, physiques, motivations, and responsibilities in comparison to women. Our goal here is not to be ‘equal’ in terms of the things we are and do, to them. Nor is our goal, here, to be ‘free’. Relatively free, sure, from oppression and such, but we also have religiously imposed limits that we must not (be arrogant and) rebel against.

“It is true that you [men] have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you.”

– Prophet Muhammad (SAW) [Hadith, Tirmidhi]

The goal is to allow men to nurture their masculinity, and to allow women to nurture – and not reject – our femininity, in a healthy manner, and in light of the Qur’an and Sunnah. And we must be committed to showing considerable amounts of concern for issues that may concern women (like the fact that most victims of domestic violence tend to be women), and those that concern men (like the fact that disproportionate numbers of men silently suffer from excruciating mental illnesses and suicidal urges), alike.

There is a concept that exists that is known as ‘equality’. There is also ‘justice’. Finally, there is ‘liberation’.

Screenshot 2020-04-16 at 10.23.09
Source: Unknown.

Now, if we imagine the concept of height used in these pictures to only be representative of gender-based differences and not necessarily of the superiority of one, we see that the people in question – in picture – are different. Different perspectives and builds. Now, ‘equality’ involves the same being given to everyone. No considerations of differences, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. It is harder for the person in the purple top to see. This is what happens when we only use masculine ideals as the template for everybody.

Next, equity. The same is being done here: we want the others to reach the height of the tallest one. Now, everyone can see. But it still asserts that the smallest one is, by nature, inferior. They cannot ‘see’ without aid. There is still a barrier. This approach does not want to acknowledge the different perspectives.

Finally, liberation. Everybody, from their own individual perspectives, can see the field. No barriers, no proposing that one or the other is centrally inferior. In my view, Islam is liberation. The ‘same field’ is the fact that the spiritual value of a woman is the same as that of a man. We are made differently, and we see things from different perspectives. But that is totally okay. We celebrate our differences, and we are enriched by one another; our value is dependent not on how similar to the man we can be. Rather, it is innate, and then it is dependent on our “piety and good actions” [Hadith].

Though I do subscribe to the ‘live and let live’ way of seeing things, I do think that liberalism has this innate tendency to trample all over the value of sacred things… humanity, true familial connections, the value of rest, the value of gender roles [for the liberal ideology, if you can convince a woman that her professional positions are superior to her role as a mother, you have won. More profits. Even if it means that the woman now has a dual burden – a ‘triple shift’ – to fulfil. See, everything that Islam maintains is sacred and of great value – like worship of God, even – liberalism and capitalism will find a way to distort and redefine, and to gear towards the generation of more profits. Nowadays, many people worship not their Creator, but their bosses at work…]

Generally, it is healthy and (to many) quite attractive for a man to be in touch with his ‘feminine’ side, and for a woman to be in touch with her ‘masculine’ side. But a man’s ‘feminine side’ is not the same as a woman’s expression of the Feminine. And a woman’s ‘masculine side’ is not the same as a man’s expression of the Masculine. And imbalances do, undoubtedly, evidently, lead to issues: issues within the household, issues within individuals, and to greater societal issues… There is Divine wisdom behind gendered roles and obligations! 

Moreover, on the question of whether or not ‘Toxic Masculinity’ exists [this is something that feminists quite often vocally disapprove of]… Imbalances in gender identities and subsequently, in gender-relations, do exist. But it can go both ways: a man may behave in, say, a hyper-aggressive manner towards a woman. A woman may become vain and prideful, and sincerely think that she is better than a man on account of her physical beauty. These things happen.

But the Islamic tradition states that a distinction is to be made between being ‘male’ and being a ‘man’, and mutatis mutandis for women. ‘Males’ may recklessly chase after multiple women; may display numerous angry outbursts; may walk pridefully upon the earth. ‘Females’ may see their source of value being solely dependent on their sexual appeal; may never be satisfied with what the male members of their families do for them; may allow hyper-emotionality to cloud their better judgements. But human ‘men’ and ‘women’ are more noble than those who are exclusively ‘male’ and ‘female’. Men and women, for starters, do not exclusively act upon their base instincts. The strongest of men, for instance, as the Prophet (SAW) told us, is not the one who can wrestle the best, but he is the one who best controls his anger when he becomes angry. And the best of women are those who can practise modesty, in person and in appearance. Gratitude, too, and other virtuous qualities…

From a Muslim perspective, women should not try to imitate men, nor should men try to imitate women. Read: the part about imbalances. And, for we women, our ultimate role models shouldn’t really be… the celebrities of today, nor those women who exhibit ‘ladette culture’. Not the ‘cool girls’, not the ‘badasses’. Our purpose here is different. Likewise, for the men: no rap artist, no footballer, no whatever should really take the place in our hearts that belongs to Muhammad (SAW). The greatest and most paradigmatic of human beings to have ever walked upon the Earth.

Islam recognises a constant loop of nature that is nurtured in a particular way. This breeds certain actions and outcomes, which in turn informs our ways of thinking. The phenomenon of gender follows this pattern: men have their hormones and intrinsic inclinations, and we women have ours. What we do as a result of them matters too. We should never be given to excess in anything, so the tendencies of any sort of ‘hyper-male or-female’ is to be frowned upon.

And, both the Masculine and the Feminine are meant to (be whole in and of themselves but also) deeply enrich one another. Allah (SWT), as the popular Qur’anic Ayah tells us, “created us in pairs”; we are meant to be sources of a unique sense of “tranquility” for one another.

We shouldn’t be given to criticising women wholesale, nor men wholesale. Individual men and women might display ‘trashy’ tendencies, but it is not a bad thing at all to be a man or a woman. It is not bad for a man to want to be shown a certain kind of respect; this is in his nature. Nor is it bad for a woman to crave a certain kind of love; this is in her nature. We must respect these differences; be extremely wary of detrimental imbalances; focus on ourselves and on our own behaviour.

There is undoubtedly much more to explore in terms of questions of gender identity from the Islamic perspective. And there are some Muslim men who are utter misogynists; they are transgressors. There are some women who transgress their Deen-related boundaries, too. And I believe in relative liberation for people in line with what Islam says, and not through things like the utter devaluing of gender, nor in the central attachment of a person’s worth to their career-based positions.

Muslim women can have careers; can be extremely successful within whichever fields they wish to enter. But these are not the defining points of our worth as human beings. We are also friends; nurturers; mothers; seekers of knowledge; teachers; vessels of mercy and of much beauty. In old age, we are de facto counsellors – wisened elders. God made us women, and in our womanhood we shall rejoice. We must try to disrupt not the balance, nor allow anyone (e.g. domestic abusers) to disrupt the balance, either.

We must oppose the traits of Jahiliyya (ignorance) which may reach us – irrespective of where they may come from. Some of these traits are, unfortunately, demonstrated by Muslims themselves, and others are hallmarks of certain branches of ‘feminism’.

To a person who does not believe in God, liberation may appear to lie in ‘choice’. And Muslims should subscribe to this principle, as we do believe that people are not to be compelled in matters of religion. But, once the choice to be Muslim is made, indubitably, liberation lies in Truth. And Truth encompasses the respective roles, expectations, and rights, both of the Man, and of the Woman.

Please share with others, if you found this post beneficial / think others might!

Sadia Ahmed J, 2020

“The best of you [men] are those who are best to their women”

– Prophet Muhammad (SAW) [Hadith, Tirmidhi]

One thought on “On Islam and Feminism

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