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What Have Muslim Brothers Taught Me About Feminism?

Klaudia Khan sorts through the dizzying disparities in opinions to discover what Islamic feminism is. Or isn’t.

Male Muslim Feminists, do they even exist? Or is it just an oxymoron – a self-contradictory term, a juxtaposition of opposite meaning? Male Muslim feminists may seem as likely to find as unicorns, but then I must be very lucky, because I found quite a few and even had some enlightening conversations with them.

 

Some Muslims say that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was a feminist. Some call themselves ’Salafi feminists’. Some claim that Islam and feminism are incompatible. Some regard the term ‘feminist’ as pejorative. Some agree that women’s rights are not being fulfilled, but are too confused to declare whether it is an issue for feminism or not. It seemed that every person I spoke to has held a different opinion on the issue. But let’s start from the beginning…

 

What is feminism about?
That seemed a simple enough question: feminism is about women’s rights, isn’t it? But what are women’s rights? And is there a universal formula for women’s rights? American writer Hope Wabuke in her article ‘How the Attachment-Parenting Debate Ignores Women of Colour’ claims that there is “the division and disconnect between white feminists (the voice of the movement) and feminists of colour, marginalised and silenced”. And if women cannot agree upon their common goals, can we expect men to understand and support feminism? “There is a huge movement of gender scholars that are redefining masculinity and femininity, part of which is greatly harming our young men” says Abdul-Aziz Syed, one of the brothers who helped me in my search for understanding. “Feminism first came up as a reaction to assist women in getting their rights in society which I am all for… However, modern day feminism is very different.” Aldin Hadzic, the founder of online Taqwa Magazine, says: “The way the modern day society has gone about promoting and fighting for women’s rights has left a bad taste in the mouths of many.  Women’s fighting for their rights has lead to the demise of ’family’. Women’s rights are not to be blamed for this, but the approach to getting women’s rights is to be blamed.”

 

Is there such a thing as Muslim feminism?
The amount of scholars, writers and activists calling themselves Muslim feminists should be enough to prove that there is. But is feminism an integral part of Islam or is it just a response to a Western-led movement – a Muslim version of something not inherently Muslim? Again, it depends on the definition of feminism we apply. Because if we presume that feminism is about gender equality, respect, freedom to choose, freedom from violence and oppression then these are the core rights guaranteed to women in the Qur’an. This is also the way many Muslim men perceive it. Sana Saeed, the senior editor of The Islamic Monthly, in her article “My Father the Liberal Salafi Feminist” described how her father presented her at the age of sixteen with handwritten quotes from the Qur’an on women’s rights and his advice: “These are your God-given rights that no man – be it me, your brother, your future husband, your grandfathers, your countrymen or anyone – can take away from you. You need to be aware of what rights you’ve been given in your religion. The Qur’an is the place to start. You have more power as a woman than anyone has probably ever led you to believe. Read this, read more, learn and practice what you find.” The article wasn’t about feminism, but about labels, and when it comes to feminism – the label is often a problem.

 

Can Muslim men be feminists?
“Islam is the answer any woman who wants her rights is looking for” says Hadzic echoing the opinion of many women that they don’t need feminism if they have Islam. Abdul-Aziz Syed also has some reservations when it comes to tagging. “I have some reservations in labelling myself as a feminist in modern times… I’m not sure if this could be labelled as a movement within Islam. I think it is more appropriate to say that we are fulfilling that which Islam requires of us,” says Syed.

 

Adeel Ahmed, American actor and writer, has no problem with calling himself a feminist. In fact, in his article “Muslim Men Can Be Feminists” published on the Goatmilk blog he argues that even the Prophet (SAW) himself would have been seen as a feminist by his contemporaries. When I asked him whether it takes courage for a Muslim man to call himself a feminist he said: “It’s not about courage… but more so the feeling of doing what is right. I’d say that what needs to be done on our part is to educate ourselves and the youth and gain knowledge. Once that is done, others may see themselves as ‘feminists’.”

 

Where can Muslim feminists be found?
If they like this word, that is. Because you don’t have to call yourself a feminist to be a feminist it turns out. Or rather, you don’t have to be a feminist to believe in the equality of men and women and to fight for the neglected rights of your sisters. We know that all the rights that women need are guaranteed by Islam, but not all of them are respected everywhere. Just as women of different colour and creed may campaign for different feminist goals, so in Islam there are different needs in different communities. In the US, where all of the brothers that helped me in this research reside, the number one on the Muslim feminist agenda seems to be women’s participation in mosques and leadership in religious communities.

 

The striking difference between the facilities available to brothers and sisters in many American mosques has in fact led many to read more on the subject and become involved in the women’s rights movement in the first place. Adeel Ahmed relates his experience as a trigger and on many blogs you can find self-proclaimed American Muslim male feminists (the labels!) calling for a proper space for their sisters’ prayer. Is it a coincidence that it is easiest to find our feminist brothers in America? “Perhaps in America, we are more exposed to the ’women’s rights’ idea because it seems like it originated from here… We’re overexposed to it…” ponders Aldin Hadzic. And the cultural surrounding might be a key to absence of male feminist voices in other countries.

 

Junaid Jamshed, famous Pakistani activist and an ex-cricket player, who is involved in charity work improving maternal health facilities in the rural areas of Pakistan admits that “It is sad how women are objectified. Rights to women have been given by the Creator… [But] For the sake of family honour, Pakistani women continue to suffer… In a society where male-child preference still exists and women are blamed for producing too many daughters, will men not stand up for them? I have always felt strongly about the rights of women.”

 

Will men stand up for us?
As Muslims we believe that men and women are equal, but not the same. Their role in the family and society is also different and it is men who were primarily granted leadership. They should lead in accordance with the Qur’an and Sunnah, but when cultures they grow up in tell them that they, men, are better than women and it is ok this way, they may not feel there is much need to discuss it. Or they may accept the principles, but find so many more important things to attend to first. After all, women’s rights are not such a well-liked topic. It is not likely to win any Muslim leader popularity, as even many women to some extent passively support the oppressive systems. But leadership is about responsibility and about acting on the principles. “Islam tells us that Paradise lies at the feet of your mother, raising three pious daughters is your doorway to Paradise and that the best of men is the one who is best to his wife” said brother Hadzic explaining his pro-women stance. Let us hope that our brothers will realise that it is not only their mothers, daughters and wives that need respect and protection, but all the women – all the sisters in Islam. And let us hope that Allah (SWT) will give them wisdom and strength to stand up for them – to stand up for us. Ameen.

 

Klaudia Khan is a Muslimah who believes that this one word is enough of a label for her.