Trigger warning: heavy mentions of rape, as well as mentions of abuse and murder.
My first experience with feminism was when I was fifteen, and one of my teachers gave a brief outline of what it meant and what it stood for. I didn’t really care for it much back then – the fact that I went to an all girls’ school should have served as some kind of incentive, but I never once gave it a second thought. In my mind, feminists were women who hated having the door opened for them, didn’t shave their armpits, and burned bras. I had inadvertently reduced their efforts for equal rights to something trivial and petty-sounding.
It wasn’t until I came across Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s highly acclaimed essay, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ (adapted from her TEDx talk of the same name), that I actually began to read further into the movement. For her, a feminist is “a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.” What struck me in particular was her bold and confident demeanour: “I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness, because I deserve to be.”
In my mind, feminists were women who hated having the door opened for them, didn’t shave their armpits and burned bras.
After reading this text several times, I began to immerse myself in various articles, books, and videos in a bid to make myself more knowledgeable on the subject. The most important thing I learnt about was intersectionality, a concept which describes how various forms of oppression (such as racism, sexism, etc.) are all interconnected; furthermore, it explains that they cannot be separated from one another, drawing attention to the issues associated with long-standing, mainstream white feminism.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until someone actually asked me how I could be a feminist and a Muslim at the same time that I began to have any doubts on the topic. How is it possible that a religion, often considered oppressive towards women via social and economic marginalisation, could empower them in any way? Is there any way that these two concepts could ever be reunited and co-exist without contradiction?
There are countless examples of strong women throughout both Islamic and world history. One such example is Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, one of the wealthiest and most successful merchants in pre-Islamic Mecca (as well as Prophet Muhammad’s, PBUH, first wife). She was also the first person – irrespective of gender – to convert to Islam, continuously supporting the Prophet in his endeavours until her death. Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, regarded as the first female warrior in Islam who fought in the Battle of Uhud, and Fatima al-Fihri, founder of the world’s oldest university in Fez, Morocco, are also historically inspirational women.
How is it possible that a religion, often considered oppressive towards women via social and economic marginalisation, could empower them in any way?
That is not to say, however, that there aren’t plenty of modern examples, also. These include Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to lead a Muslim-majority country; Anousheh Ansari, the first Muslim woman in space; and Dr Amina Wadud, the first female Imam and the first to lead a mixed-congregation prayer. I have grown up surrounded by strong Muslim women myself too – namely my grandmother and my mother – who raised me to be independent, selfless, and confident in my abilities. I can’t see any reason as to why I shouldn’t be a feminist, considering the fact that I’ve had these strong values instilled within me from such a young age.
And yet, numerous injustices are still experienced by Muslim girls and women across the world daily, with many living under oppressive regimes that restrict their freedom and basic human rights. The case of Mukhtar Mai, a woman gang-raped and paraded around naked as a form of honour revenge, makes me sick to my stomach. The Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted five out of six of the men responsible in 2011, preventing Mukhtar from finding any justice whatsoever. Unfortunately, this is a sad reality for many of the women living within predominantly Muslim countries.
At first, hearing these stories made me angry at my faith. They made me question why women are made to suffer under Islam, a religion built upon a foundation of peace and unity. Why is their humanity being taken away like this? After further research and contemplation, I came to the eventual conclusion that blame for this cannot be placed upon Islam – instead, it is the result of a cruel and controlling patriarchy, which has misused religion to support their tyrannical rule.
I came to the eventual conclusion that blame for this cannot be placed upon Islam… it is the result of a cruel and controlling patriarchy, which has misused religion to support their tyrannical rule.
Returning to Mai’s case, I’d like to point out that the concept of honour revenge or killing does not exist within Islam, and as such cannot be justified. In Islam, a follower is absolutely forbidden to harm another person or an animal, unless it is to prevent a greater harm from happening. The Qu’ran also openly prohibits murder, as demonstrated by 4:93: ‘Whoever kills a believer intentionally, their reward will be Hell […] and the wrath and curse of Allah are upon them, and a dreadful penalty is prepared for them.’ Rape, too, is considered an abomination in Islam. There are numerous examples within the religion condemning this heinous act and the one who commits it. One hadith narrated by Wa’il ibn Hujr describes how the Prophet applied the maximum legal punishment (i.e. death) to a man who confessed to raping a woman.
This prohibition extends to all women, including those who are slaves and prisoners of war. Terrorist groups often refer to the following Qur’anic verse to justify their cruelty against hostage women: “And [also prohibited to you are all] married women except those your right hands (female slave/servant) possess.” Someone with little to no knowledge of Islam may think this allows the rape of captive women – however, the rest of this verse condemns ‘unlawful sexual intercourse,’ which, indeed, includes rape. Intercourse must be an event of mutual agreement between a lawfully wedded man and woman for it to be deemed halal.
I must also point out that slavery was never encouraged by Islamic texts. It was inherited from a pre-Islamic society and there are quite a few examples in the Qu’ran that encourage the freeing of slaves to eradicate this practice from society. We only have to think about it to understand – if it is forbidden to even slap your servant within Islam, no matter how incompetent they are, how can it be permissible to rape them? How can terror groups claim that they can rape, beat, and claim women for themselves because “it is in Islam”? They are ignoring vital contextual information to justify their sexual violence. Not only are they committing a major sin by violating these women, their interpretation of the Qu’ran for their own personal gain is another sin.
Women also are granted an immense number of rights within Islam, on occasions going beyond what the Western world offers them. Marriage is highly encouraged within the religion, but there is also the importance of consent which some people ignore, leading to forced marriages. The woman possesses the right to choose her own husband, and if there is to be an arranged marriage, then both her and the groom’s consent must be sought. It is considered haram for her wali (guardian) to force her to marry someone. The Qu’ran also very clearly indicates that marriage is an equal partnership, so that one can ‘find tranquillity’ and love within their partner. After her marriage, a woman’s earnings are her own and if she also happens to own any property prior to this, it is also hers entirely. She does not have to give a single penny to her husband or spend it on her household.
…it is not the religion which oppresses women. It is the people who pick and choose stories, verses, and concepts from the religion to suit their rule
Moreover, both sexes have an equal right to education – in fact, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) explicitly stated that ‘Education is compulsory for every Muslim.’ There were also many great female scholars around his era, namely his youngest daughter, Fatimah. Recent names include Laleh Bakhtiar, the first woman ever to translate the Qu’ran into English. So, why is it that some Muslim countries have lower female literacy rates than their male counterparts? Why were 276 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram as a method to oppose ‘Western-style’ education in Nigeria? Why was Malala Yousafzai shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for being an advocate of female education?
It seems vastly unfair and unjust to me that a religion that is supposed to liberate women is being misused to justify their oppression across the world. Let’s talk about the hijab now, and how some women are being forced to cover up, mostly by men, for the sake of piety and chastity. I wonder if these men know that the word hijab does not simply mean to wear a headscarf or an abaya. It is an Arabic word which means ‘barrier,’ but it holds a broader meaning of observing modesty in your behaviour, as well as your clothes. Moreover, the Qu’ran tells men to observe hijab first, asking them to ‘reduce their vision’ and ‘guard their private parts,’ referring to women afterwards in Surah An-Nur.
Finally, I would like to refer to one of the most important notions in Islam, verse 256 of Surah Baqarah: there is no compulsion in religion. No one has the right to force Islam, or its rules, upon someone else. Men do not have the right to force any form of the veil upon women. They do not have the right to prevent them from receiving an education. They do not have a right to their body, mind, or possessions. The men that implement brutish authority and command over women are not following Islam – they are following their own twisted interpretation of a broken and incomplete knowledge.
Clothes do not make up a terrorist, radicalised ideas and distorted morals do.
At the same time, the West and its feminists also need to realise that not every single Muslim woman they come across is oppressed in some way. The burkini ban in Cannes last year, described as a way to ‘ensure security’ by the mayor David Lisnard, thoroughly angered me. Armed police in Nice even forced a woman to remove some of her burkini costume as they stood around her and watched, issuing her a fine for this insolence. Is this also not oppression? If a woman can walk around the beach in a 2-piece suit with her friends and family, why can a woman in a burkini not do the same? I also fail to see how this screams ‘RADICALISATION IN PROGRESS’ in any way. Clothes do not make up a terrorist, radicalised ideas and distorted morals do.
The argument does not end here. Women continue to suffer and to be misrepresented within their own Muslim communities and the West. They continue to struggle in order to break out of their prescribed gender roles, to speak out against injustices, to have a voice. There is still positivity around though, as young women like Malala continue to be spokespeople for us, breaking away from their predetermined fate and battling stereotypes. Furthermore, I’d like to place emphasis on this fact once again – it is not the religion which oppresses women. It is the people who pick and choose stories, verses, and concepts from the religion to suit their rule who do so. It is the people who do not separate culture from religion, two entirely different things. It is the people who choose to ruin the name of Islam by murdering, torturing, and spreading hate.
Over the course of researching this personal article, I have realised that women in Islam have the highest of places. Our purpose is not simply to be used, abused, and moulded into something we do not want to be. We have a right to an education; a right to choose our spouses; a right to have a professional career, and so much more. We are not only to be respected as wives, working women, and mothers, but also as human beings. When we were denied our rights and respect, we are being denied the true course of Islam – we are being denied our faith.
However, I am more than aware that as a young woman living in the West, I have more privilege than a 21-year-old girl living in a small village in Pakistan. It is easy for me to voice my opinions freely without fear of persecution or punishment. This is one of the reasons I feel feminism has a place in Islam, but holds different values to Western feminism. I want this feminism to free oppressed Muslim women from the clutches of misinterpretation and remind them of their true rights within Islam, instead of telling them the religion is to blame. But, most importantly, I want this feminism to remind them that they have a right to be loved, protected, and respected, not only within the religion but also in the world. When we finally realise the power we hold within our religion, that is when we feel truly achieve the empowerment we seek and deserve.