When feminism is discussed within the context of Muslim women, it’s often done with gross inaccuracies and caricaturises the simple notion of being treated equally, where equality and sameness are not necessarily synonymous, with ‘Western feminism’ and women ‘feeling inferior’. A recent article written by Shaikh Haitham al-Haddad is one of many pieces that exemplifies how not to contribute to this discussion. As with any topic, we should start with an accurate representation of the thing under discussion and here, it is feminism. Yet the article ultimately fails in identifying what feminism is, or the central concerns it attempts to address. The article starts off with a relatively accurate statement that women have faced centuries of oppression; but then disingenuously presents this oppression as entirely euro-centric, or Western, whilst it is a fact that misogyny is a global problem that extends far beyond the Western world (and often far worse). However, a lack of criticism of the oppression that so-called ‘Islamic’ countries impose on women only strengthens the assumption that any female civil rights movement threatens Islam and Muslims, when in reality it threatens the cultural misogyny of those who happen to be Muslims wish to uphold. Furthermore, the generalisation that oppression is the sole trigger of feminism is deeply inaccurate; many factors have contributed to the various waves of feminism, and oppression is just one of those contributory factors. In fact, feminist theory, at least within western literature, is rather diverse, there is a multiplicity of focuses and suggested solutions, yet Shaikh Haitham seems to have completely disregarded this fact.
The kind of feminism intended in his article seems, from what I can glean, to be white, middle-class feminism; I presume that is what is meant by ‘Western feminism’. Consequently, it also implies that Muslim women have been corrupted by Western values. This kind of narrative is as damaging to Muslim women just as euro-centric discourse has been, since it assumes that all British Muslim women identify with the type of (Eastern) cultures that encourage docility, and (religiously) alienates those born into British culture who neither uphold nor associate with certain Eastern values. The constant reference to being part of capitalism by having a job also ignores those Muslim women who have to earn, or find value in their careers beyond the monetary benefits. By using a caricatured representation of mainstream feminism as the paradigm to rebuke Muslim women, the article ostracises what might be most of the website’s (and denomination’s) female readership.
I know many women who follow Shaikh Haitham and work in spite of their husbands being able to earn relatively high salaries. However, due to their personal circumstances and the rising cost of the bare necessities, it’s become essential for them to earn so that they can support their families adequately. In a society that has become increasingly hostile to Muslim women, it’s disturbing that they are rebuked for apparently ‘trying to be like men’ simply to survive and help their children achieve some semblance of social mobility. The traditional concept of women being homemakers and husbands being breadwinners can now only exist in a vacuum for those who are not affected by the global economy at all, and to encourage this model when many Muslim families are on the poverty line is highly imprudent.
The tragedy of the article is that in trying to tell women that they are being like men, it undermines the serious issues that Muslim women face: discrimination, sexual violence, and unwanted advances; abuse of all such kinds are things that men, including Muslim men, rarely have to experience. In doing so, women are gas-lighted; by merely voicing the desire to be treated like human beings they are shut down and told that they are Western feminists, instead of addressing the causes of increasingly dissenting voices. I don’t believe the corpus of the Sunnah reflects the method of the Prophet in treating the concerns of women as being such. The Prophet never told women to simply remain silent and stop seeking rights. In fact, when a female Companion, Umm Amarah, asked for the inclusion of women complaining that everything was about men and women were not mentioned, Allah revealed the verse:
For men and women who are devoted to God- believing men and women, obedient men and women, truthful men and women, steadfast men and women, humble men and women, charitable men and women, fasting men and women, chaste men and women, men and women who remember God often – God has prepared forgiveness and a rich reward (33:35)
The sentiment is gobsmacking; in silencing Muslim women, it’s encouraging dependency on a financial, emotional and religious level – a very dangerous concept – and overlooks that this rhetoric is one of the many causes of abuse towards women within the Muslim community.
There is no solution offered except that Muslim women negate their own experiences and fails to take into account that reinforcing such passivity means that Muslim women become easier targets in wider society. If you are unable to speak out against tyranny within a place meant to exemplify safety and security, how can you then speak out against external discrimination?
Of course, one cannot rationally disagree with everything in the article. Unfortunately, women have to work much harder than men to get to higher positions whilst still wrestling with unequal pay; the level of discrimination that women face due to pregnancy is well-documented and under constant debate in society. Their efforts remain underappreciated both at work and at home, and Shaykh Haitham is correct in using the term ‘medieval slaves’ in relation to being mothers and wives. However, this doesn’t mean that the situation is any better for Muslim women when they’re not employed. They still remain underappreciated, but rather than castigate Muslim men for their atrocious treatment of women, he chose to victim-blame by absurdly associating the notion of a woman at work and women who speak against oppression with feminism.
I remain somewhat confused at how the issue has been approached – did he intend to come from a religious or ethno-cultural perspective? The majority of Muslims in Britain come from ‘traditional’ cultures where women stay at home and men go out to work and there is no overlap between the two, nor is there any sharing of responsibilities, so it’s very common for these cultural practices to come across as Islamic advice. It’s more likely that a woman choosing to work usually has nothing to do with feminism and more to do with her personal circumstances. It seems that the assumption being made here is that Muslim women will always choose to work out of an ideological commitment to feminism rather than for normal everyday reasons and material needs.
In any case, those who agree with Shaikh Haitham’s article needn’t worry as the statistics show that 18% of Muslim women look after the home or family compared to 6% of non-Muslim women. But it does then beg the question as to the reason for writing this article in the first place, and why the employment of Muslim women is a) an issue and b) always and inaccurately linked to feminism. Perhaps it’s because it’s much easier to hide the racism, misogyny and xenophobia that exists within the Muslim community if the flaws of the ‘other’ are pointed out. Disappointingly, the article falls into the same traps of tabloid journalism by criticising Muslim women under the guise of protecting them, but what makes it lamentably worse is that in doing so, it brings religion once again into the firing line.
What this article highlights is that many Muslim opinion websites are sorely missing a proper and reasoned discourse on feminism in relation to Muslim women. So far, there has either been a lack of debate or much like the article, the discussion is rife with inaccuracies and offensive implications. As it stands, the situation of Muslim women is far more complex and critical than it has ever been and a badly reasoned opinion that degrades women by putting them at fault only degenerates the discussion and exposes the pitiful state we’re in as a religious community.