At this point I don’t think there is a person on the planet that has not heard of the “Brexit” palava of June 2016 that got us Brits freaking out about our future. It left a lot of us scratching our heads in disbelief that more than half of our country voted against something that is beneficial for us in a lot of ways.
I sometimes think that if we Muslims held a similar referendum asking Muslim women to vote for something that would similarly benefit them, a lot of sisters would vote No. Yet again causing the rest of us to heave a collective sigh of exasperation knowing that a lot Muslim women believe that shooting ourselves in the foot is better than a progressive alternative.
But I digress.
The topic of this article is the use of the F word among polite Muslim society. It’s a word loaded with history and cultural baggage. A word that is commonly used as an insult on social media platforms especially in heated comment thread debates where people use it as a way of shutting a woman down.
I am, of course, referring to the word Feminist – and if you thought otherwise, I’m ashamed of you!
But, seriously, this is an issue we need to talk about. The use of labels to associate ourselves with a particular line of thought is commonplace: pacifist, Democrat, Corbynite, trade unionist, vegan, homeschooler etc. — but no label seems to get the Muslim world’s knickers in a twist quite like the word “feminist.”
And I am interested to know why this is.
Feminism has a long history throughout the world and, like most socio-political labels, is entirely contextual; the word’s meaning is always evolving alongside our culture and society.
To a suffragette living in Britain in the 1900’s, it meant you supported women’s right to vote and were willing to aid or carry out acts of aggression in order to obtain this right.
I watched the film Suffragette with my #squad and watching this film as a modern-day Muslimah, I could connect with the struggles and frustrations of the characters but found that my empathy waned slightly when they resorted to violence.
I can make no comment on the necessity for this at the time as I am, regrettably, quite ignorant about this part of history. But I did feel discomfort at the use of violence and felt particularly awkward when they decided to blow up a politician’s country house.
Hang on, a Muslim feeling uncomfortable about English white women blowing something up?!
I’ll leave you to pick apart the irony in that one. But in British history, at least, the first wave of feminism does have some taint of aggression attached.
As the movement and society evolved the aims and definitions of feminism splintered and has arguably lost focus. In more recent years, the word has come to be viewed through a more flippant yet damning lens.
Women who identify as feminist are usually considered man-hating, angry harpies. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a world-renowned Nigerian author, in her TED talk entitled ‘We should all be feminists,’ nods to this in a light-hearted anecdote from her childhood.
She said a male friend told her that “feminists are women who are unhappy because they cannot find a husband.” There has been a lot of progress to debunk this stereotype and yet it still remains. I can understand why people would be hesitant to identify with an image that has so much negativity attached but as I said the word can mean, and has always meant, so much more.
It has become a trend among Muslims to share stories of powerful women from our herstory that have been, up till now, fairly unknown. The stories of Khawla Bint al Azwar, essentially the Muslim version of Mulan, Um al Dardaa, a jurist from the 7th century, Noor Inayat Khan, the Indian ‘Spy Princess’ etc. are widely shared and promoted as examples of Muslim women’s empowerment.
Our love for these examples of such strong, independent, trailblazers is partly the reason why we are so in love with the Muslim world’s most recent Queen of Awesomeness, Ibtihaj Muhammad: the hijab-wearing, sword-wielding Olympian. Ibtihaj’s accomplishments, in many ways, represents the yearning Muslim women have to break out of the heavy burden of stereotype and restriction we face from both within and without the Muslim world.
To me, her success is what feminism is all about – she is breaking down barriers that set us apart and, more often than not, below men.
A lot of Muslim women cringe at the word in a way similar to how hardline feminists cringe at the sight of a hijab. Both make ignorant and mostly incorrect assumptions about the other without bothering to take the time to discuss or find a common ground.
Having said that, there have been sincere attempts to explore the use of this word from within Muslim scholarship. Fatima Baraktullah, a respected female speaker and teacher based in the U.K., gave a lecture on the subject earlier this year.
Fatima raises many noteworthy points including the fact that men and women compliment one another and need to work together. She also goes on to give many reasons why Islam is exemplary in highlighting the status of women as equal to men in the eyes of Allah, including the story of Khawla bint Tha’laba who was directly spoken to in the Holy Qur’an, as well as pointing out the holistic nature of the religion among other things.
The lecture gave me a lot to reflect on and highlighted, for me, how the concept of equality is so commonly mistaken for sameness. Men and women are not the same. We are physically different and, to some extent, process emotions differently.
I think the forced glazing over of our differences does nothing to help the struggle for gender equality. Our differences make us unique and complimentary to one another. Besides, as a woman that has undergone childbirth, I don’t particularly want that feat to go unrecognized!
It’s the attitude toward these differences that needs a shift: rather than seeing our differences as measures to highlight one gender’s superiority over the other, why can’t we just celebrate them?
We are equal but not the same. This is a truth Allah tells us about in His Holy Book.
However, with the greatest respect to Shaykha Fatima, I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing in her lecture. It was mentioned how Islam, quite rightly, is perfect and not in need of a woman-made concept like feminism because the religion was sent to right the wrongs of this world and the example of how Islam stopped the practice of female infanticide was given.
The ‘elephant-in-the-room’ for me, however, was that the many injustices happening within the Muslim world today such as female genital mutilation, forced marriage, sexual harassment, gender-based violence etc. were not addressed, nor was the blatant sexism in Islamic scholarship that is prevalent today.
As I said, I do not want to detract from her words too much. The female voice within Islamic scholarship of today is not heard enough and I don’t want to be a part of the problem either!
We Muslim women have so much work to do in order to rid our narrative of the baggage acquired from years of misogyny that has, unfortunately, crept into mainstream Muslim culture. To give an example of this: we have reached the point where a respected speaker like Yasir Qadhi, born and brought up in the West, thinks he is entitled to lecture on the subject of female sexual desire and gives advice that has not been considered scientifically accurate since Victorian times!
Casual sexism, within Muslim society, can be shockingly mainstream particularly on social media. One of the most widely-distributed images depicts women as lollipops, showing the one packaged as good and clean, and the unwrapped surrounded by flies, dirty.
When “The Force Awakens” was released, I watched a lecture in which the male speaker decried the film as the end of male masculinity because, wait for this, the lead was a woman and, this is even better, the male lead cries in the film!
I could relate countless examples of casual sexism from my own experience but, then again, nearly every women, Muslim or not, could do the same.
So whether you like the feminist label or not its clear a shake up is needed. The conversation as to why Muslim women have been left behind needs to continue whilst looking at solutions that can unify us rather than create more division in the fight to re-establish the level of equality Islam teaches.
It’s also important to remember that, just because it is clear in Islamic teaching, does not mean it is implemented. Although change is happening, the only way we can make real progress and improvement in the Muslim community is through respect and dialogue.
I don’t think the issue should really be about whether you use a word or not but whether you accept that things need to improve. Once we establish that level playing field we can start finding solutions. If we are still afraid of using a term that has the potential to unite us behind a simple Allah-given idea, we will never get there.
My suggestion is, if the definition is so fluid, why can’t we redefine it for our own agenda?
Feminists come in different shades just as Muslims do. It’s not a perfect movement because it is woman-made, whereas Islam has perfect solutions to feminist problems.
Why can we not marry the two to solve the glaringly unbalanced issues affecting women?