Every time I read a “religious” edict about the “devilish horrors” of Muslim women, my brain freezes, and my blood boils, while my heart shatters with grief and despair. It happened again today when I read the latest (sexist) statements from Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, as he was defending the fatwa (law) that bans women from driving.
According to The Independent, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti said that allowing Saudi women to drive is “a dangerous matter that exposes women to evil.” He also said that men with “weak spirits” and who are “obsessed with women” could cause female drivers harm, while adding that families “would not know where women were.”
It simultaneously angers and saddens me that he believes the only way to “protect” women is by oppressing them.
Testimonies that degrade and objectify women while at the same time symbolizing them as sinful, evil, and seductive are, unfortunately, not uncommon. These narratives become even more cringeworthy when the name of Allah and Islam are invoked as misguided justifications for the abuse, oppression, sexism, chauvinism, and humiliation of women.
Why are we held responsible for the inability of some men to control their lust, and their behaviors? Holding women responsible does two things–it absolves men from their bad behavior, and tells them it’s not their responsibility, when oh, yes it is, and it teaches women that something they did caused this. It amounts to gender apartheid, and that is not something that has ever been, nor ever will be, Islamic.
Allah didn’t command women to be responsible for the virtue or behaviors of men, nor vice versa.
“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things)…And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things).” — Qur’an 24:30-31
This is Allah’s command to both men and women in practicing virtue.
Why, then, are men’s weaknesses and obsessions excused, while women bear the brunt–and loss of privileges–because of the misconduct of men?
Today, I am a proud Muslim woman because my religion–Islam–has honored and empowered me.
Imposed cultural and social norms practiced in the name of religion are to blame for discriminatory ideologies that belittle Muslim women. Unless Muslims recognize this reality, we will continue to live in jahiliyyah (ignorance). Socio-economist Camillia El-Solh wrote, “The living reality of Islam is permeated by much ‘cultural baggage’ to the extent that the boundaries between religion and culture may often be blurred.”
From a young age, growing up in Saudi Arabia, my family, my teachers, and the larger society made sure I understood that Islam said I was created from a crooked rib. I was taught that it was a sin to raise my voice, and that it was my religious duty to unquestionably please and obey my husband, because his satisfaction was my gateway to Paradise.
I never believed that Allah created me to be a second-class citizen; a submissive human being, whose existence was mainly to fulfill my husband’s demands. After all, the fourth chapter of the Qur’an carries the name “Women,” yet there’s no chapter titled in honor of men.
Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, used to stand up whenever his daughter Fatima entered the room, and greet her with love. There is no mention in any book or biography of him once dehumanizing, disrespecting, or beating any woman–or any human being for that matter. “Women are the twin-halves of men,” he said, peace be upon him.
During the Islamic Society of North America convention in 2014, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf said, “Prophet Mohammad is the first human being to articulate the equality of men and women. I’ve never found anybody in the history of humanity before him to ever articulate that men and women are essentially the same: before their Lord they are both spiritual beings with the same rights”.
Given all of this, I can’t make sense of the Sheikh’s prejudices, especially when he is geographically located near some of the holiest of places, where some of the best Muslim female companions of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, stepped foot 1430 years ago.
Thinking of this reminded me of one of Islam’s fearless female warriors, Nusaybah bent Ka’b al-Ansariyya. During the battle of Uhud, when some of the archers disobeyed the Prophet, peace be upon him, and abandoned the posts they were given, Nusaybah grabbed a sword and rushed to the Prophet. She wouldn’t let anyone get near him. The Prophet said that no matter what direction he turned on the battlefield, he could see her defending and protecting him. Her skill with the sword astonished those who saw her. She boldly defied traditional gender roles, without a second thought. Why didn’t the Prophet scorn her actions to defend him? Why didn’t he tell her to stay home, and spare the weak and uncontrollable men who may desire her? Because Islam does not differentiate between sexes when it comes to actions that either please or displease Allah and His messenger.
In an open letter that Hiba Khan wrote to Muslim men, angrily voicing her concerns over the oppression of Muslim women she says:
“I recognize the irony of the fact that the first university in the world was established by a Muslim woman, yet today many are denied an education. That the Prophet Mohammed fought on horseback alongside a woman, and yet now, many are told to stay in their houses and denied the right to drive…Despite your fervent attempts to use mistranslations and misinterpretations of scripture and tradition to satisfy your desires, we don’t believe you. We do not need strengthening, we need recognition of the different forms our strength comes in”.
Her words resonated deeply with me as I recalled names of inspiring Muslim female leaders like Khadija bint Khuwaylid, Aisha bint Abi Bakr, Khalwa bint al-Azwar, Zaynab bint Ali, and Asiya, the wife of the Pharaoh. How would these noble women react to what the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia said?
Perhaps by driving off into the sunset.