Why are so many women apparently reluctant to voice their opinion to men in the masjid, even with respect to matters that specifically concern them? When I first converted, I thought that it was a cultural thing. But culture doesn’t explain those American women converts who are otherwise very vocal but somehow lose their voice when they step through the masjid doors.
My first insight into this phenomenon arose when I volunteered with the women’s committee at a local masjid. Our main task was to figure out a better way to serve community dinners. Alhamdulillah, the community had grown rapidly after the new masjid was built. Unfortunately, though, dinners had become inefficient and unruly. It was completely reasonable to task the women with finding a solution, as we had always been responsible for preparing and serving meals in the past. Our committee spent months discussing the various options and strategies. We finally agreed on an approach that we believed best served the interests of our community and could be implemented within the constraints of our facility. We informed the all-male shura (committee members) of our “decision” and waited for instructions on what to do next.
I don’t know what the other women expected as a response from the shura, but I was astounded. In what appeared to me to be a very flippant reply, one of the shura members sent us a short email that basically stated, “No, do it this way.” Where do I begin? First, it appeared that the author of the email was not speaking on behalf of the shura but voicing his own personal, and dare I say uninformed, opinion. Secondly, the strategy that he ordered was one that we had considered and specifically rejected. Thirdly, why delegate the task to us if a single shura member could completely dismiss a group’s hard work apparently on his whim? There was not even the request to discuss the matter with us. Disgusted with the whole process and result, I quit the committee. Being somewhat new to Islam and certainly unaware about how the shura worked, I did not feel that I had either the credibility or clout to express my frustration and disappointment over what had happened. In any other situation, new or not, I believe I would have said something. But because I was afraid to behave in an un-Islamic way, I remained silent and moved on, vowing not to volunteer for anything over which the shura had control.
Time passed and I continued to learn more about Islam. Motivated by this negative experience, I studied in particular about Islam and women. I began to realise that something was very wrong in the masjid dynamics. Muslim women have a rich history – we have been scholars, warriors, political leaders, successful business women, wives and mothers. ‘A’isha (RA), the beloved wife of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), was an extremely intelligent and gifted person, transmitting 2210 hadiths and teaching many future scholars. Nusaybah bint Ka’ab (RA), an Ansari who pledged her loyalty to the Prophet (SAW) at the Second Pledge of Aqabah, fought valiantly in the Battle of Uhud, sustaining at least 12 major wounds. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) commented that, in whichever direction he turned, he could see her defending and protecting him. In fact, Nusaybah (RA) was wounded numerous times in future battles, even having her arm cut off when she was 60 years old.
She also has the distinction of being the woman who commented to the Prophet r that men were mentioned in the Qur’an but women were not, upon which Ayah 33:35 was revealed. In general, Ansari women were known for their strength and willingness to speak up. ‘A’isha t commented, “How good are the women of Ansar that their shyness does not prevent them from learning religion.” (Muslim)
A further historical example concerns the treaty of Hudaibiyah. During a critical time, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) specifically sought and acted upon the advice of his wife Umm Salamah (RA). And when ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (RA) was Khalif, he made a ruling concerning dowry. A woman questioned his ruling, basing her opinion on the Qur’an. Umar (RA) agreed with her, reportedly stating, “The woman is right and the man (Umar) is wrong.”
Our legacy, dating back to the time of our beloved Messenger (SAW), is inspiring and instructive. We asked questions and voiced our opinions, and our questions were encouraged and our opinions respected. Somehow that simple, commonsense exchange among the servants of Allah (SWT) has been forgotten by many Muslims, both men and women alike. The question to ask ourselves is not “To speak or not to speak?”, but rather we should ask, “What does the sunnah teach us about conversing with others?” Although beyond the scope of this article, much has been written about this topic based on the Qur’an and hadith. For example, scholars often mention Allah’s instruction to Musa (AS) about approaching Fir’aun, “And speak to him mildly, perhaps he may accept admonition or fear Allah.” (Taha:44)
When I think back about my brief tenure on the women’s committee, I now blame myself for walking away with bitter feelings. Emails are not a good medium to converse. Often they are written hastily and the tone can come across much differently than what the author intended. Perhaps that brother on the shura had an exceptionally busy day or did not understand the effort that the committee had put into our decision. What I should have done is made a request to the committee that we ask to speak to the shura to discuss the matter further. Perhaps a meeting would not have achieved a different result and it may have resulted in more frustration and disappointment. Perhaps that brother did not know how the Prophet (SAW) and his companions respected women’s opinions or he did not understood the rich history of Muslim women participating in the social sphere. But I don’t know because I didn’t speak up.
J. Samia Mair is the author of two children’s books, Amira’s Totally Chocolate World, and The Perfect Gift published by The Islamic Foundation. She is a Staff Writer for SISTERS Magazine and has published in magazines, books, anthologies, scientific journals and elsewhere.