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Lecture: Muslim women’s contribution: some thoughts….

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This was a lecture I recently delivered at Logan Hall recently for Al Buruj:

I begin in the name of Allah, the most Merciful, the most Kind.

I was asked to talk to you today about the Contribution of Muslim Women in the 21st Century. In a way, there are many things to be optimistic about as we look around, off the top of my head, I can think of a number of Muslim women who’ve successfully drawn on their spirituality as a motor to engage positively with the world and that is certainly an encouraging sign. Our generation has a committed Muslim woman Nobel peace prize winner, Tawakul Karman, to look to as a recent precedent for the recognition of women’s contribution to the struggle for justice in their societies.

We have many an examples of successful models of piety balanced with an interaction with the world – from authors, to inventors, politicians, to athletes, intellectuals, scholars, singers and even members of the film industry, who have sought, despite the pitfalls of any public platform, to maintain a religious integrity alongside their public work. They are often worth citing by name – Hawa Abdi is one of Somalia’s first female gynaecologists and uses her own money to run a small hospital treating everything from war injuries to malnutrition; or Bahrain’s Ruqaya Al Ghasara, the first athlete to ever take part in the Olympics wearing a hijab back in 2004, hopefully inspiring many more young Muslim to get involved in sport. Or Eleanor Martin, a tremendously talented actress who runs the wonderful Khayyal theatre company in the UK, which brings Islamic storytelling to life and just recently produced a play for the Hajj exhibition at the British museum.

At the grassroots levels, a French friend of mine uses street art to challenge public perception of Muslims, using song, dance and drama. Just recently, in responses to the niqab ban, her group headed to the Eiffel tour where they performed the dance sequence to MJ’s Thriller dressed in black abayas and Niqabs, to much consternation from the tourists – the objective? To get people to react differently to an item they were so used to seeing in a negative light – whether people laughed or smiled, whether they appreciated the joke or were just perplexed, they created in that moment a different perception of a much maligned item of clothing. That sort of creative thinking put to the service of our principles is what it’s all about.

Despite undoubted difficulties faced by Muslims in the media, we have more and more inspiring women leading the way –Channel 4 news regularly features the ever perspicacious reporter, Fatima Manji – she is now a regular face on our screens. In the world of film, where Muslims have been slow to make their mark, Usma Hasan, producer of the hilarious comedy “The infidel” was recently nominated for Asian woman of the year award. For those who haven’t seen the film, it is about a Muslim man in Britain who discovers he was adopted as a child and is actually ancestrally Jewish – the film charts his journey as he rediscovers his ancestry and through comedy, highlights our many commonalities. a must watch!

I’ll end with one final example, which highlights the extent to which our contributions are vital and deserve recognition at whatever level they may be at. My good friend Sazan Meran runs “Rumi’s kitchen”, a project by Ulfa aid to provide support to the homeless and other vulnerable members of society by offering free food, company and entertainment to the most marginalised. And in a shameless plug, they are regularly seeking volunteers to help out, so get involved!

I wanted to list these examples from a range of fields, from the high profile to the grassroots, from politics, to sports, to highlight the innumerable ways in which Muslim women are already contributing to society. Our generation, Alhamdulillah, has a multitude of pioneers to look to for inspiration, to challenge us when we see limits and to make us strive to contribute, each in our own capacity.

But you may have noticed something about the examples I have given and they are that there is nothing distinctly gendered about them. When I’m asked about women’s contribution to society, I want to say, let’s talk about the human contribution to society. There is an unhealthy obsession with focusing in on gender as somehow marking us out as having distinctly different aptitudes and roles. Whilst this might be true if you’re talking about weight lifting or SAS training, broadly speaking, women’s contributions can and do look a lot like men’s contributions –  a positive involvement with the world around us, drawing on whatever God given talents have been bestowed upon us.

So the question then poses itself, why is it that women –  and not just Muslim women incidentally – struggle to make their mark.

To some extent, it the narrowing of our identity to ‘women’, which is to blame – after all, Muslim women speakers are almost solely asked to speak on issues pertaining to women, as if somehow, men are the ‘neutral’ gender who can address all matter of worldly and other-worldly issues whereas women are only qualified to speak on women’s issues. I cannot recall the last time I attended an event in which the main speaker was a woman – and I’m not talking about a woman’s event either, I’m talking about viewing women as figures of authority and reference within our community. I’m talking about women addressing  and teaching men – as well women, in the way Aicha (rA) and many of the earliest generation of women taught and guided people, regardless of their gender.

Is there anything particular that women can bring that is unique to their perspective? To that I would answer yes. Women’s life experiences, our struggles as a minority – not in the numerical sense  -technically we outnumber men – but in terms of our power – are rarely heard or reflected. In many societies, including the UK, women still bear the bulk of responsibility for caring for elderly parents or relatives – we still do the bulk of child care and midwifery – where are OUR stories, our perspectives? Forget media depictions of yummy mummies, said to be slacking off work to have a frappucino while a perfect baby snoozes in a land-rover sized pram – what is the reality of women who take maternity leave, who often spend considerable hours of the day caring for individuals with, lets be honest, fairly limited capacities for interaction and mental stimulation?

When I see people depicting a mosque as a quiet, serene space for prayer and contemplation, I can’t help but laugh. That is definitely a male take on the mosque. Have you actually attended Jumu’aa prayer in the women’s section of a mosque lately? Have you tried traversing the obstacle course of handbags and nappy holders, dodging the screaming babies and overactive toddlers – have you tried praying lately with a three year using your back as a bouncy castle? And I don’t even mean YOUR three year old.

I know our mosques take a bit of a bashing, but there are some regards in which they are undoubtedly failing women. If mosques are meant to be the center, the heart, the hub of our community, where are our mother and toddler groups? Where are our crèches for prayer time so we can focus on our prayers just as men get to focus on theirs, uninterrupted? How many of us women see the mosque as OUR space as Muslims and not a male space in which we are offered a  – typically very small and stuffy – space. How many mosques are places where single mothers   – often through no fault of their own – can find non-judgemental support? Where foreign wives can find support on how to speak English, meet new people and find a support network in case things don’t work out, as sadly sometimes they don’t.

And what about converts – our community loves its converts and to some extent I understand why an outsider recognising the beauty of Islam, is inspiring. On the other hand, we don’t embrace all converts equally – as many a marriage proposal as white converts receive, as many black converts tell me they find absolutely no support in the mosque and struggle to be considered for marriage. Are devout, black converts not good enough for our sons and daughters?

A small side notes on converts if I may – it seems a sad truism that those we herald as role models within the Muslim community are all too often white western converts, as if the acceptance of Islam by white westerners were somehow a validation of its truth, as if somehow, their shahada were any more valid or worthy than that of any one else. To me, this has roots in a post-colonial complex concerning ‘whiteness’ as somehow a distinctive marker of superiority – where are the black converts, the Asian converts afforded the status given to the white convert? Are Muslim women of Muslim heritage not as valid in their perspective, contribution or knowledge? It isn’t that they don’t exist, they are simply not given the same platform.

It is all too easy to pay lip service to the fundamental equality which Islam establishes between all human beings, but when it comes down to it, actions speak much louder than words.

With all the ease with which one can grow a beard, I only wish compassion were so easy to cultivate.

There are very real barriers to the contribution of Muslim women. But they are not theological, they are not God given.  On the contrary the models we find in the texts and in the earliest period of Islam are diverse and multifaceted. They were not ALL mothers.

There may be cases in which women derive considerable satisfaction through making their contribution to society through their investment in the home. There are women for whom, their incredible commitment to home making and child rearing IS their contribution. And it is no minor one – they are forging their ideal and good for them.

This isn’t a Muslim woman’s issue – Jools Oliver, wife of the cook Jamie Oliver once remarked that she never wanted a career, but always wanted to have a large family. Raising four young children and running her home, I would say her contribution, like that of many women in her position, is immense in forging the next generation of well-rounded citizens. That said, there is a distinctly nefarious trend to limit the possible contribution of Muslim women to this, the mothering role, the usual suspects as I call them a woman as “a mother, a wife, a daughter”.

Interestingly these are all definitions of a woman in relation to a man. So much for sisters doing it for themselves.

Where are the definitions of Muslim women’s conception of themselves – not in relation to a man, but in relation to God. The 8th century mystic, Rabia Al Adawiyya offers us some insight into that might look like, she used to pray:
“O my Lord, the stars are shining and the eyes of men are closed, and kings have shut their doors, and every lover is alone with his beloved, and here I am alone with Thee.”

In reality, we find huge diversity among Muslim women historically and among the wives of the prophet (saw), in terms of their temperaments, their ambitions, their activities. Thus it is also the case with women more broadly.

Throughout the earliest periods of Islamic history, we find women in important positions within society, women as market inspectors, such as Samra bint Nuhayk al Asadiyyya who used to go around the market commanding good and forbidding evil. Or Ash-Shifa bint Abdullah, an early doctor or healer who was also involved in public administration and whose name is very present in early Muslim history. The Prophet (saw) used to visit her and Umar (rA) used to defer to her opinion so much that he appointed her as an officer/wali, in the administration of the marketplace, in what Aicha Bewley suggests might possibly be the first Muslim woman to hold an official position in public administration.

In the battle of Siffin, Hind, (the wife of Abu Sufyan and mother of Muawwiya) led the women in repelling the attacking Byzantines when the Muslims broke ranks –  and there are many other examples. It is this historical amnesia of the precedents of our women in all spheres of life which facilitates the exclusion of women. The extent to which these examples may seem radical to us today is a testament to just how far we’ve strayed for the earliest framework of equality established by the Prophet.

There is no single ideal or model of female contribution. To me, Jools Oliver’s dream sounds a lot like my nightmare. Many women will feel the desire to contribute beyond the private sphere, they may feel their skills, their intellect, their knowledge represent an important contribution to society. In these cases, the examples of our sisters who find contentment in domesticity cannot be used as a whip to flog us. It is not the only model of female emancipation. The Prophet (saw) daughter Fatima was more homeward inclined – but Khadija, his first wife was a powerful businesswoman who employed her husband before proposing to him. Umm Salama was a powerful figure whom the Prophet consulted in his decisions and who participated in a number of battles and of course, of Aisha we know that the greatest companions used to consult her about obligations.

Women are not the trampoline from which men get to launch into the world. There is saying that really grates on me, that “behind every great man is a great woman”. Why should she be behind him, in the shadows, easing his advances and successes – if love and partnership means anything, it means supporting one another in your objectives, it is cushioning each others’ falls, it is easing each others’ burdens. Of the many successful men I know, how many of them have dutiful, devout wives at home who keep the wheels turning in order for these men to go out and do their thing. You cannot simultaneously bemoan the lack of women’s contribution to society and expect them to achieve the same things as men, whilst bearing the additional burdens – or as I like to call, the second full time job – of running a home and caring for a family, on their own.

How can a woman possibly seek to contribute to society when in many cases, she is not only working a full time job, but in some cases, working a second full time job as a care giver and home maker. I’ll tell you what, we women would be sooo much more productive if we came home, dinner was made, the table was laid, the washing was done, the kids were washed and put to bed, and all we had to worry about was the tasks ahead. Now take a second and think how many of you men come home to exactly that scenario. You can talk about women’s contribution all day long, but as long as you’re not facilitating it through your own personal sacrifices, they are, as the Palestinians say “haki fadi”, empty words.

What do we teach women about themselves? We hide behind the notion of modesty to encourage our girls to be self conscious, shy and reticent to speak up, praising this as somehow virtuous when we know that that the women of the Ansar were praised for precisely not allowing their shyness to stop them from speaking up.

We teach women that the burden of responsibility for modesty lies with them, making them nervous about participating in sports, or public speaking. I attend a gym where I often seem Muslim men exercising but rarely ever see Muslim women. At the pool, do these men’s eyes not see things they shouldn’t? Is it just Muslim women who have to observe modesty? If you wouldn’t want your wife or sister to be somewhere, what are you doing there? And if you can justify it to yourself, then accept that those same allowances can apply to women. I can safely say that sports has played a tremendously important role in my life.

Beyond keeping fit and healthy, team sports teach you about cooperation, about trust, about reliability and self discipline. Becoming good at a sport allows you to develop self-confidence and bodily awareness, assurance in one’s abilities. In a world where our self worth as women is so often premised on our looks, sports and extra-curricular activities are essential in developing real qualities – skills, confidence and internal strength beyond the superficiality of fashion.

Our girls are often restricted from participating in such activities, typically, they are more closely monitored, much more closely than our boys – but what exactly is the reasoning here? do we think teenage boys are immune from the sins we fear for your daughters? Or do we think Allah forgives men’s sins more readily – astaghfirullah.

Muslim women often lack confidence in in their status as Muslim women. We have plenty of sexy role models out there, pop stars and actresses who promote a model of female empowerment through playing up one’s sex appeal. I fail to see what exactly we teach women about how to affirm their identity as specifically ‘Muslim’ women. And I’m not talking about a dress code. How sad to see a generation of girls who think their identity as Muslim women is defined by the length of their jilbabs? That our identity as Muslim women is reduced to our dress code just shows the extent to which we’ve bought into the conception of women’s physicality as primordial. If we were serious about Muslim women’s contribution, we ‘d be promoting holistic models of piety, knowledge and success, a diverse range of women who draw on their spirituality in what they do. Such women would be models for our community, as a whole, not just for women and they would be references and teachers to all.

When we see successful Muslim women, they are often criticised for allegedly compromising their faith in order to succeed – in other words, what are we saying  is –  you can’t be fully Muslim and successful in the public sphere as a woman  – what this actually sends out in terms of a message to women, is that you have to choose between your Muslim identity and your public contribution.

The assumption being, the more orientated you are towards the private sphere, the more “Muslim” you are – the more out there you are, the more you are ‘compromising’ that identity. Until we start to herald women as leaders and inspiring figures not for women, but for Muslims more generally, we will continue to promote the idea that public sphere is a male sphere, in which women may make tokenistic contributions but ultimately, their places remains within the home.

I’m all for talking about Muslim women’s contributions, but as a community, we have to be honest with ourselves about how women in the public eye are perceived, about the models of female piety which are peddled and about the extent to which we disable young Muslim women when we teach them that in Islam, the models of piety, knowledge and success are masculine and that women are at best devout wombs fostering great men. Aside from anything else, this is wholly inaccurate.

As far removed as this is from the model taught by the Prophet (saw), it is a widely held perception. Lest we remember that when the prophet (saw) was away, he told people to refer to Aicha, that when companions differed on a hadith, she was the authority figure they consulted after the death his death. Lest we remember that Allah in the Quran praises strong models of female leadership, whether in the form of Mariam, a spiritual leader in her own right, or Bilqis, otherwise known as the Queen of Sheba, a female ruler!

I started out this talk on an optimistic note – there are, strong Muslim woman who ground themselves in their faith to make tremendous contributions to this world – their efforts are an inspiration for us all. Tenacity, courage, perseverance – they are qualities which we can all learn from. I have listed a number of concerns I have about the way we present women within the Muslim community, about the singular and restricted notion of Muslim female empowerment which limits an acceptable contribution to the private sphere – I have also mentioned the need for women to start defining their conception of what it means to be a Muslim woman.

What exactly does our femininity bring to the sphere of spirituality? In Taoism for example, pregnant women are revered as models of concentration and meditation, and men developed techniques based on this female model of pregnancy. What exactly do our female experiences bring to the table?

While I still get asked by young educated university students whether they can leave the home without their husband’s permission, or whether they can work after they marry, I will continue to struggle to bridge the gap between the ideals fostered by the Prophet and the earliest community, and the actualisation of those principles today.  Muslim women are contributing hugely already, but until that contribution is recognised by all, in its innumerable manifestations and until we can appreciate that that contribution is not a lesser version of what men bring to the table, but a specific Divinely forged avenue for the transmission wisdom, we’ll be letting women down. And we’re a lot poorer for it.

Many thanks.

Any good that came from this talk today is from Allah, all errors are my own.


Written by Myriam Francois

December 1, 2012 at 18:14